The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 2: or why archaeologists get so bent up about taxonomy…

15948_457344457636644_1093636815_nRecently I read two MilFic books back to back, Old Man’s War: Old Man’s War #1 by John Scalzi and Dauntless: The Lost Fleet #1 by Jack Campbell, and it dawned on me that despite being categorized as Military Science Fiction, these two books really had very little in common. Oh, they were both Science Fiction books about war and life in the military, but beyond that, they shared very little; at least, nothing to do with the structure and flow or type of narrative.

That got me thinking about MilFic bad rep, and one reason for that is that it’s not really just one thing. It can, in fact, be categorized as two very different animals: The Soldier’s Story and the Tale of Tactics,[1] and someone who picks up one expecting the other is bound to be disappointed.

MilFicMoreThe Soldier’s Story is a tale that focuses on the personal adventures of an individual and/or a small unit.  It usual involves events focusing on a single individual, fire team, squad or perhaps even a platoon.  Rarely, they go so far as to engage at battalion or regimental level,[2] but always focus on the personal story a small number of characters and the individual experiences of individual men, women or things as they make their way through a battle and/or a war. Some of the best known examples of this include Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Space Cadet, The Forever War by Joe Halderman and Old Man’s War by John Scalzi.

space_battleIn contrast, a Tale of Tactics is a story that focuses as much on military organization and protocol as they do on character arcs and personal growth.  Now this is not to say that Tales of Tactics do not have character arcs or personal stories told, but rather those stories are told really within the framework of military culture and can be argued to illustrate the nature of the military in the story as much as they do about the individuals who are the central characters of the tale.[3]  Examples of this include the Honor Harrington Series by David Weber[4] and Dauntless: The Lost Fleet #1 by Jack Campbell.

ForeverWarCoverIReadOf course most, if not all, MilFic books have elements of both within them.  Indeed, much like gender roles in the Upper Seine Basin between the Hallstatt Finale and the La Tène Moyenne,[5] most Military Science Fiction books fall along a spectrum that lies between these two extremes.

The Forever War goes into a great deal of detail about how the military changes over the life of William Mandella (the narrator and sole POV character), politics is central to the plot of Dietz’s new Legion of the Damned book, Andromeda Falls, and Starship Troopers goes into agonizing detail about the political and military structure of Heinlein’s intentionally dubious Federation. Similarly, Weber shows us many of Honor Harrington’s the personal conflicts and even bits of her love life, and personal relations and post-traumatic stress lies deep in The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell.  Even so, I suspect few would argue about which end of the spectrum each book falls.

medium_victoriousYet, despite the fact that they lie within a spectrum, and each end hold elements of the other, in most cases, the style of narrative for each category holds little in common with the other.  A Soldier’s Story[6] is usually an action tale where the central characters (or at least many of the POV characters) are engaged in combat.  In contrast, a Tale of Tactics focuses on command decisions and actions behind the scenes; as such, many Tales of Tactics involve “Talking Heads”[7] segments devoted to discussions of tactics, politics, strategies, if-then scenarios and similar complexities.  Indeed, many Tales of Tactics seem to consist of little more than discussions of meetings where decisions are made, followed by scenes where the repercussions of those decisions are discussed without us ever seeing the action.

181432_md-Federation Commander, Star Fleet Battles, Star TrekNot surprisingly, and as previously mentioned, this disparity within the subgenre often leads to disappointment in the reader.  Let’s face it, if one is expecting an action tale and what one get’s is 300 pages of people talking to one another and discussing how exciting scenes that happen off screen (as it were) turned out, one is likely to get irritated (even if the last 50 to 100 pages of the book are fantastic combat scenes). Similarly, if you are expecting an intellectual exercise that somewhat realistically describes the struggles of a commanding officer and you get a ridiculous action piece where the CO is shooting it up with bad guys at every turn,[8] one is also likely to be disappointed in the book.

halo_opchasityAdded to that, the entire narrative style of each form of book requires a totally different approach.  Thus the reading of a Soldier’s Story is really a very different experience than the reading of a Tale of Tactics.  To this end, one could question whether or not the two really belong in the same genre.

honorverseWhat is more, I suspect the uncertainty as to what end of the spectrum different books fall in that creates much of the criticism of the subgenre.  After all, Soldier’s Stories have wide appeal, while Tales of Tactics are truly intended for a niche audience. I look at it like this: reading a Soldier’s Story is a bit like listening in on war stories swapped by veterans, while reading a Tale of Tactics is a bit more like listening to a Military Historian describe the same battle.

falcon-star-destroyerOf course, just like some of the most popular military history,[9] there are those Military Science Fiction books that sit squarely in the middle of the two.[10]  Indeed, I would argue that the very best of the subgenre do exactly that.  To that end, let us examine some of the most iconic episodes of Star Trek (The Original Series and subsequent movies).[11]

blanceofTerrorTacticsThe episode Balance of Terror  is the most Military Science Fiction episode of the Original Series.  It is, for those who don’t know, the episode where we are first introduced to the Romulans.[12] As a bit of Science Fiction it falls solidly into the Tales of Tactics category.  In contrast, the episode Amok Time falls even more securely into the Soldier’s Story side of the spectrum because the episode if focuses entirely upon the personal life of Spock.[13]

Kal-if-feeOf course, what makes both episodes memorable are how each example shows elements of the other side of the MilFic Spectrum within them. In the case of Balance of Terror, there is a very strong element of the personal history (and indeed mild bigotry) of Lt. Stiles that plays throughout the whole tale, not to mention the subplot of the impending nuptials of crew members Angela Martine and Robert Tomlinson.  In contrast, Amok Time is played against the background of Kirk ignoring orders (and thus risking a court martial) to take Spock back to Vulcan and the ramifications of the kal-if-fee when played about between two Federation Officers.[14]

star_trek_wrath_of_khanTo that end, the reason why Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan  is so frequently cited as Star Trek fans’ favorite Star Trek movie is because it blends both ends of the spectrum so well.

Thus, as with any genre, it is the blend of narrative that makes the best read.  Oh, there is a market for all extremes within the spectrum, and I happily belong to both ends and the middle.  Yet perhaps, if we are to lift our literary ghetto, we need to better identify the elements that each story focuses on and help educate new readers to the range in which our stories fall.


[1] I’m just making up these names guys, and while the Soldier’s Story is a good descriptor, the Tale of Tactics is a bit of a misnomer… since it often is also a tale of logistics, strategy, and/or politics.  If anyone can come up with a different name that also scans, I’m MORE than happy to take it.

[2] Though this normally only happens in a series, and then usually only after at least two books in that series have been published.

[3] Or indeed, more so. One reason why some people complain about the Polyanna nature of MilFic characters is sometimes more about life in the military than about individuals in the military (see http://wp.me/pWa2h-63).

[4] Perhaps most notably Field of Dishonor: Honor Harrington Series Book 4 which focuses on the politics behind going to war.  Indeed, for those who complain that Military Science Fiction ignores elements of War outside the combat arena need only look to this book to see they haven’t really done their homework.

[5] Ooooh!  Obscure and controversial archaeology reference that states one of the author’s theories as if it were fact! If you are soooo bored as to want to actually understand this, take a look at Evans 2004, Quantified Identities: A Statistical Summary and Analysis of Iron Age Cemeteries in North-Eastern France 600-130 BC, BAR International Series 1226. Archaeopress. Oxford.  If, however, you are less specifically interested in wading through hundreds of pages of boring archaeological texts that blab on and on about statistics, I could just sum it up for you by saying that there are some indications in the grave goods from the early Iron Age that the population of that area (that can likely be associated with the peoples the Greeks called the Keltoi, and the Romans called the Gauls (sic Celts)) might have had a flexible or at least scaled concept of gender roles rather than the bipolar version that is most commonly associated with modern day Western European society.  That is to say, women might have been able to be warriors and men might have been able to fill female roles (what ever those might have been).  Alternately, there might have been multiple categories of gender roles that men and women could have fell into, including but not limited to women warriors and/or men who wore ‘feminine’ decorations.  ALL of which is highly hypothetical, by the way, but generally suggested by the lack of clearly defined grave goods and… oh you get the point.  Read the book if you want to know more.

[6] Yeah… enough of the bold lettering… it’s getting distracting and you get my point.

[7] In this case, the term “Talking Heads” does not refer to the music group, but rather to scenes in novels where ‘experts’ sit around a table (or whatever) and talk about ideas, tactics, politics, etc.

[8]  or say, commanding a starship filled with 300 people but always beaming down for a landing party with the other most senior officers of the ship.  For those of you who have read my book, yes I know, you don’t have to tell me.

[9] And here I am thinking about books like Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege: 1942-1943  by Antony Beevor and programs like The Civil War: A Film by Ken Burns.

[10] And unlike popular history, science fiction need not worry about the accuracy, over simplification and/or academic value of the work.

[11] Yes… yes, I know.  Star Trek is not Military Science Fiction, and has RIDICULOUS elements of command decisions and structure within in it.  It does, however, use a military style of command structure (at least, it did up until the recent movies, but don’t get me started on that), everyone who is even aware of the concept of Science Fiction is familiar with the series, and more importantly there are some episodes that fall well within the MilFic subgenre.  Besides, it serves as a good illustration and I’m not writing a Master’s thesis here.

[12] and we first see that brilliant actor Mark Lenard (best known for playing Spock’s father Sarak), who plays the Romulan Commander and does so absolutely brilliantly.

[13] Yet does so within the framework of a Military organization and what happens when the personal needs of crew members conflict with operational orders and/or interstellar politics.

[14] Look Ma!  No spoilers!

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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18 Responses to The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 2: or why archaeologists get so bent up about taxonomy…

  1. Charlee says:

    Awesome post. Especially like the end notes!

    Your point that most Military Science Fiction books fall along a spectrum that lies between two extremes of the genre is true of many genre/subgenres. SciFi romance, for example. And now you’ve given me something new to think about that might be behind the genre’s struggle to gain a broader following.

    Do you suppose the data/tagging that can now be used when searching in online retailers helps lessen this problem? I’m thinking it should, but probably doesn’t. Why? Because 1) most readers probably don’t think that hard about what they like, 2) the inclusion of this data is currently inconsistent, 3) publishers tend toward using the broadest descriptors possible for fear of shrinking the customer pool for any particular work.

    Now that I think about it 2 is probably a consequence of 3.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Good question! I think we are in a period of transition, one that matches the changing way in which we buy books. When one is placing a volume within the shelves of a book store, one needs categories upon which to locate it. When physical space is a matter of consideration, one can’t just put a book on every shelf that might be applicable.

      However, with data tags you can be more general, since the search engine can pick up whatever tags are correct. So, do a broad search and you come up with a large number of answers, do a narrow search and it reduces, but you really don’t have to worry about shelf space. The digital book takes up the same amount of space regardless of the categories it falls into.

      To that end, my novel (Strings on a Shadow Puppet), could readily be tagged as Science Fiction, Space Opera, Military Science Fiction, Espionage, Thriller and (arguably) thriller. Unfortunately, Amazon only allows three tags to be used, so Science Fiction, Space Opera and Military Science Fiction are chosen, despite fact that it really is an espionage tale as much as it’s a MilFic tale.

      Now, the reason for a three category limit are many, but really focus on unscrupulous publishers putting down every category so that the book pops up on every search. Short term win, long term fail, but that’s aside the point. The point is, you can’t trust some publishers (including many indie authors) who only care about single unit sales, so, you’ve got to limit all publishers.

      Of course, the solution is a cascading category search – that is to say, allow three categories that allow general searches to pick up on higher level categories, but allow specific searches to find specific results.

      So, let’s look at my book and categories that would apply: 1) Science Fiction/Space Opera; 2) Science Fiction/Military Science Fiction, 3) Mystery/Espionage/Thriller.

      A search engine that focusses on such a cascading taxonomy would turn it up for anyone who does a general search for Science Fiction or Mysteries, OR someone who looks more specifically for Space Operas, MilFic, or Espionage. Someone who wants a MilFic Espionage Space Opera would be brought right to it.

      Of course, that involves customizing one’s search engines, and that’s not something people necessarily want to do, but it would allow both broad searches and narrow ones to apply. Alternately, you could customize the submission interface and have the database enter all the appropriate tags for each choice… thus, enter Space Opera, MilFic and Espionage and you automatically get the higher tags (Sci Fi, Mystery, etc.) filled in.

      oooh… can you tell I’ve spent too much time in the archives?

  2. When it comes to defining when something moves from one sub genre to another, I’m reminded of something Admiral Fisher of the Royal Navy said about deciding when one type of warship becomes another. ‘It’s like trying to decide when a kitten becomes a cat’

    • Thomas Evans says:

      That is a very good point. Indeed, it is one element I noticed about the La Tene Ancienne II, whose artifactual taxonomy could really be viewed as a transitional phase. Does the Period really exist or is it an artifact (ha ha) of our knowledge of history (aka the Celtic Invasion) and the process by which we create chronologies?

      This is one reason why adding tags to a book might be useful… of course, the process I just noted with Charlee could be a wee bit problematic too.

  3. diannread says:

    Excellent post, Thomas. Much to take into consideration as I write my military science fiction!

  4. Soulnova says:

    Very interesting! I didn’t have a clue there were two categories to these type of stories. I’m glad you posted a picture of Halo too… I had just finished again The Fall of Reach two days ago and I can’t help but wonder if it’s a Soldier Story or a Tale of Tactics. I’m leaning to Tale of Tactics as you have described.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      Well, the two categories are my own division, though they do make a bit of sense.

      As for Halo, I haven’t read any of the stories, but most first person shooter tie in games are soldiers stories, almost by definition. I’ll have to read some Halo books, but haven’t had a chance yet

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