The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 3: The Myth of the Gung Ho Space Marine…

This imechnstuffssue we are returning to one of this blogs most popular series of articles: the examination of what Military Science fiction (Part 1, Part 2, and Pollyanna was a Space Marine).  As stated in the previous articles, Mil Fic has a bad reputation.  We’ve already examined criticism of the subgenre ranging from complaints that characters are not very well developed (Link to Pollyanna was a Space Marine), that the nature of conflict in the books is simplistic (link to part 1), and/or that as a whole subgenre is a bit schizophrenic, with pacing ranging from plodding to frenetic (link to part 2). Yet, while these issues are each important, so far we have ignored the one complaint that is most frequently aimed at the subgenre – the elephant in the room.

The single most common criticism leveled at Military Science fiction (and Military Speculative Fiction as a whole) is that it glorifies war and promotes a pro-military, often conservative political agenda.

foreverwarIndeed, in 2011 the Guardian Newspaper published an article by Damien G. Walter that said exactly that.  It critiqued the subgenre as a whole suggesting it encouraged men and women to “enter the meat grinder” of modern military life and as a whole glorified combat, and simplified the world into a militaristic the us versus them nature needed to engage in a war.  The article ended by summing up the world as a dichotomy:

On the one side, it seems, are the Guardian reading liberals, for whom war is good for nothing, and nothing more than a failure of understanding and communication between peoples. On the other are military SF loving conservatives, who believe that the enemy is out there, is evil, and can be defeated by heroes carrying very big, very expensive weapons.

A bit ironic for a person who criticizes the genre as dividing the world into Us and Enemy.

soldiersdutyOf course, as anyone who is familiar with MilFic as a whole, this particular article seems to have been poorly researched and based on the reading of one or perhaps two works (mostly Weber’s Honor Harrington series it would seem, and even that not very closely). Even so, it is an article that strikes resonance with many critics of the genre, espouses sentiments that are often felt by non-fans, and puts some potential reader off many excellent works.  It is also a viewpoint is fundamentally wrong.  This is not to say MilFic does not have its problems (as this whole series of articles explores), but in this case, such a reading is just plain wrong.

While there are certainly books out there that do glorify war, promote the military, and/or put forward a conservative agenda, to categorize the whole subgenre that way is like saying that all Christians are Creationists, or that all liberals are vegans. Yet, even if this claim was true, the putting forward of those agendas, should not, by itself, be a reason to dismiss the genre as good for nothing, no matter what your place on the political spectrum.


Stop challenging my world view!

Literature should not only be allowed to express myriad ideologies, it should strive to do so.  In a modern world of educated actors, one NEEDS read viewpoints different than ones own, one should try to understand them, not just as straw men arguments, but as the fully fledged concepts they represent.  If nothing else, it allows you to argue against them all the better.[1] Being made to feel challenged and/or uncomfortable is how we evolve our understanding no only of the world, but of the self and the other.[2]

This is not to say that every book you read should be an experiment in building your world view. It is more than just okay to just read light, comfortable books – it’s good! Fiction should be enjoyable.  Even so, I am grateful that not all books simply confirm my world view, and the best ones often make me challenge them.  I would hope that other readers feel the same.

Beyond such intellectual idealism, however, there is another problem with the argument that Military Science Fiction is gung-ho, pro-war, conservative propaganda. It is blatantly not true.  There are just as many works of MilFic that do quite the opposite.  Indeed, even some of those that have been critiqued as flaunting ultra-conservative agendas that promote military states are in fact quite the opposite (link to Starship Troopers article). Such misinterpretations are frequently the result of a failure to read more deeply into the text. This is something we will discuss in detail later in the article, but for now, let us just note that like any other form of literature, there are books that fall across the whole spectrum of political and ideological views.

StarshipTroopersProblemMilFicThe most classic examples of this range of attitudes can be seen, in fact, in many of the most famous books of the genre. Indeed, the “bookends” of Military Sci-Fi themselves, Robert Heinlien’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War can be seen as diametrically opposed views of the military and politics.  As discussed in my review,  many see Starship Troopers as a novel that promotes an extreme form of pro-military conservative politics, one that suggests only those who serve the government or military should have the right to vote.

forever-warModernCoverWhile this view is highly debatable (and not one I believe Heinlein actually supported – see the link to my review), it certainly is the kind of state outlined in the book.  In contrast, however, there is the Forever War, by Joe Haldeman which in no way can be interpreted as pro-war, pro-military, or conservative. Even the lightest of readers can see that it is a clear cut condemnation of the Military and the Military-Industrial complex. What is more, the Forever War is far from alone in the genre. Other giants in the field also show a range of views on both politics and the military.

HH001David Weber’s Honor Harrington series certainly seems to fall under the more conservative scale of politics. Within the pages of most, if not all, of the Harrington books more conservative viewpoints are not only promoted, liberal positions are frequently used as straw men arguments, and even all but ridiculed.  There are some who even accuse Weber of promoting an Ayn Rand-ian world view where some people are just born to lead.  I would certainly not go that far, but clearly Weber’s Honorverse books promote a more conservative view point.

HammersSlammers.jpgIn direct contrast, however, are series like David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers.  While some of his tales may occasionally appear to promote a pro-militaristic viewpoint, one need only read his first short story “Under the Hammer”[3] to realize nothing could be further from the truth. Oh, it’s true that some of his stories, such as “Standing Down”[4] could be seen as promoting the virtues of military coup d’etates, I would argue that they are world building and thought experiments.  Most, if not all, of his other stories demonstrate that his tales are descriptive and/or cautionary more than they can be said to promote any sort of political agenda.  Indeed, they primarily describe the horrors of war far more than any form of glorification of it.

OldMansWar(1stEd)Other books give complex views as well. In Old Man’s War and its related series John Sclazi wavers back and forth between the two poles. At one point he seems to damn any military held political power, at other times he seems to justify dark secrets and military agendas.  There in lies Scalzi’s greatest strength, he does not simplify the situation or give right-and-wrong answers.  Instead, the right and wrong of it is seen through his character’s eyes, and as points-of-view change, so do the judgments that go with it.  To this end, he simply draws a picture in shades of greys and let’s the reader decide.[5]

The list goes on, and indeed, from my reading, most of the stories fall on the more progressive side of the political spectrum. Why then the concept that Military Science Fiction represents a pro-war, gung-ho and militaristically conservative point of view?

In part it is because some individuals, such as Damier Walter (above), seem to feel uneasy in the reading of any story about war that does not whole-heartedly condemn it and those who take part in it.  People like that seem to support the idea that all soldiers should be portrayed as baby-killing neo-Nazis.[6]

Yet, individuals such as that are few and far between.  Just as most authors and fans of MilFic hold a wide spectrum of views, most critics are not simplistic nor jingoistic card-carrying lefties. Indeed, I’ve got more than a few friends whose views are on the extreme left who LOVE MilFic. So why then are there so many people who seem to feel that Military Science Fiction is gung-ho, pro-war, propaganda?

Well, in one light it is easy to understand why even close reading, deep thinking person might misinterpret certain elements of MilFic with such a pro-military/ultra-conservative agenda.  Certainly I once did, for despite the wide range of political views within the subgenre, and indeed the wide range of story types told by the authors, there are some elements that all of these books hold in common – elements that could easily be misconstrued for a militaristic viewpoint despite the subtext of many of these books.

Techno-Weapons Porn – or a love and focus on the hardware of war

air-and-space-museum.jpgTrue to the traditions of Heinlein, most books in the genre spend a certain amount of time lovingly describing the hardware of death.  My books certainly do.  In part this is because MilFic generally has a certain element of hard-sci fi in them – it is part of the “trope”. Military Science fiction often describes and relishes the technical workings of the weapon systems they describe.  Be it StarFIST guns and drop ships, the altered bodies of the Old Man’s War, the warships of the Honorverse, the ultra-cool cyborgs of the Legions of the Damned, or the Spectre-Class stealth ships of my own novels, there is a certain pornographic glee in the description of the military hardware within the annals of Military Science Fiction. This is as much a part of the genre as ghosts, zombies, and vampires are part of Paranormal stories, or Magic is part of High Fantasy. Yet does a focus on the guns imply a love of war?

slammers.jpgOf course not. For one thing, the weapons are part of the setting and plot in the same way that murders are part of Crime Fiction, magic is part of Fantasy, or clothing and décor are part of the appeal of Regency Romances. The accoutrements of war are part of the mechanics and setting of a story about the military. Soldiers use guns.  Star pilots fly ships.  Knowing how they work and how they run are important to the characters. Soldiers know about their guns, pilots know about their ships. What is more, those are important aspects of their lives.  To that end, the gear helps set the tone, affects the plot, and fleshes out the lives of the characters in a manner that is key to the workings of most of the stories.

gun002.jpgAfter all, what is 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea but the loving exploration of a technology based idea – what would happen if we could build a ship that sailed under the water for extended periods? So too many if not most of the MilFic genre include plot elements tied upon the technical workings of their gear.

Flickr_-_Israel_Defense_Forces_-_Female_Soldiers_Unload_their_Weapons.jpgYet there is more to it than simply setting and a love of techno.  While much of Military Science Fiction does focus on the cool nature of military hardware, it does not always do so favorably.  Indeed, the very first volume of the StarFIST series, Starfist: First to Fight (Starfist Book 1) by David Sherman and Dan Crag (Del Rey, 1997), is centered around the introduction of a piece of technology that does not work: the UPUD[7]. Indeed, in one sense the whole book is nothing more than an action packed adventure that criticizes the nature of military command structures and the way they introduce untested equipment risking the lives of good men and women.  The other way to view the book is as a tribute to the men and women who can overcome such obstacles, but we will get into that later.

LEgionOFDamned2An even more clear cut example can be seen in William C. Deitz’ Legion of the Damned – a series that introduces the very cool concept of brain-in-a-box cyborgs soldiers.  While it does spend a lot of time discussing the hardware of the different cybernetic bodies that such soldiers can be plugged into (everything from anthropoid to battle tanks and fliers), and while this description is very cool and definitely keeps the reader engaged, the book is far from a glorification of it.  Indeed, it is quite the opposite – it is a metaphor for how twisted a military can become when it is put in inappropriate hands. It is a metaphor for how a soldier can be viewed as little more than a weapon. What is more, it and the other books in the Legion of the Damned series show the conflicts soldier have when in this position, and how honorably they can behave despite being made killer slaves.

This then leads us to the second element that leads critics to misunderstand the genre…

Pro-Soldier is NOT Pro-Military

ladysoldier.jpgPerhaps the most common misunderstanding of the genre is the confusion between pro-military and pro-soldier.  To a degree this is very understandable error to make.  If one is creating a tale a heroic men, women and things who serve in the military, it is easy to understand how many of these tales could be see as promoting an agenda that suggests the military as an institution is somehow superior.  In fact, there could be nothing farther from the truth.

MilFic is, in fact, very rarely pro-military.  Indeed, the focus of most of the stories (even the Honor Harrington series) critiques the military in some form or another.  Be it a condemnation of how it can be misused and misguided (Dietz), the finding of faults in military command structure (Weber), the over reliance on technology (StarFIST), the application of jingoistic propaganda and how that can create a fundamentally flawed atmosphere (Jack Campbell’s Dauntless, The Lost Fleet Book 1 (aka John G. Hemry) (Ace Publishers, 2006)), the absolute horror and death that comes in battle (Drake) or some combination of all of these (Heinlein and Haldeman… ironically), MilFic focuses on the problems with the military, not its glory.

soldier.jpgYet, the misunderstanding of this is completely comprehensible – for the other element that all MilFic have in common is NOT that it is promilitary, but that it is Pro Soldier.  It focuses on the honor and dedication that men and women who serve in the military have.  It may point out how this can be misused, or it may focus on how it is the solution to greater problems but it is a constant across the subgenre.

MilFic is a genre that focuses on the men and women who serve and the lives they live while serving.  While some may interpret that as being gung-ho, it is not per se.  MilFic examines what life in the military is like.  Sometimes it focuses on those who serve a good cause, some on those trapped or fooled into serving a bad cause, some who shouldn’t be there in the first place.  Yet, no matter how you view it, the genre looks at the lives and mentality of those who lay down their lives for their nation – be it voluntarily or through a draft.

Here then, is where the worst elements of misunderstanding lie. For those who critique milfic as gung-ho propaganda have not really read it for what it is, but rather condemn it for what it isn’t – and it isn’t as a genre a way of promoting a political or military agenda.

None of which is to imply that a person who doesn’t enjoy reading military science fiction is in someway wrong (or in any sense unpatriotic) if they just don’t enjoy the subgenre.  That would be an even worse stereotyping than the one I suggest. Not every type of literature is every reader’s cup of tea: AND PEOPLE SHOULD READ WHAT THEY LIKE.

Some people don’t like MilFic because they don’t feel comfortable with the topic matter (which is not to say they don’t respect soldiers. Indeed, I have one friend who doesn’t like it because he saw too much while serving and really just doesn’t want to think about it). Others dislike it because they don’t like the plot structure or kinds of character arcs that are at the stories’ cores. Still others dislike it because they get bored with the description of hardware or of the violence or of any number of other elements inherent in the stories.  There are a thousand reasons why a smart reader might not choose to read such a tale, in the same way that one might dislike Fantasy, or Romance or any other genre.[8]  AND THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT!!!  One need not like every genre, or subgenre.  Good on you if that’s how you feel.

anna-popplewell-silva-forward-unto-dawn.jpgThe problem comes when readers, particularly professional critics (or worse yet University Professors), write off the whole subgenre as a single category: especially when it is just not true.  Military Science Fiction as a whole does not glorify war. Some of it does, sure, but most doesn’t.

What it does do, universally, is explore, examine and in most cases try to honor the lives of men and women who serve. That is the common thread across the genre.  It is what binds it together, and that is blatantly obvious anyone who gives serious thought to what is on the page, rather than what is already in their minds.

Go to :

The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 1

The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 2: Taxonomies

Pollyanna Was a Space Marine



[1] This is, by the way, the same argument I use to Creationist fundamentalists when they object to evolution being taught in my class.  I don’t ask you believe it, I ask that you understand it. Why would a god give you a brain if he did not want you to use it?

[2] Thus speaks the academic… you could never tell I teach at University could you?

[3] Hammers Slammers

[4] ibid

[5] Indeed, anyone who might suggest Scalzi has a conservative agenda need merely read a few pages of his blog and you might find a very different answer.

[6] Indeed, one cannot help but wonder how he feels about books such as All’s Quiet on the Western Front, or movies like Platoon.

[7] Yes, I still giggle every time I read that…

[8] Heck, I went through about a ten year period where I couldn’t stand mysteries.  ME!  I now write them, but I got bored.  I’d read too many in a row and the mechanics of the genre were just too blatant to me.  Thank goodness I got over that, but it was a thing and not reading mysteries because I didn’t enjoy them was a good thing.

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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6 Responses to The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 3: The Myth of the Gung Ho Space Marine…

  1. Norman says:

    Wasn’t the Sargent Major in your novel (I cannot remember her name) a Gung Ho Space Marine? That is how I remember it, even if that is not how you intended.

    • Thomas Evans says:

      First of all, thank you for noting it and for reading my book.

      As you suggest, Chrom is a bit of a gung ho. She believes in serving the Empire, is dedicated to the good of her cause, and to the welfare of her people and his mission.

      I wonder though, do you feel my book, as a whole is a gung ho book that promotes a military agenda?

      That is really the point of the article, that there is a myth that military sci fi promotes a militaristic mind set, and yet while some do, many of those that I read are quite the opposite. I’m curious as to where mine seems to fall in that spectrum.

      • Norman says:

        Promote a military agenda? Hmmm. That really depends upon many things.

        First off, I though that the military aspect of your novel was its weakest aspect. A “ship” with three officers, two very senior NCO’s, and only peons (one being a marine “jar head” and the other being a space navy “squid”). I kept reading the book trying to glean if these characters were merely representatives from a larger crew or the entire crew. I finally came to the conclusion that this was it — the whole crew. That made the military structure of the ship very hard to accept. It was just too many chiefs not enough indians. So, from that perspective, because your novel does not do a very good job of depicting a realistic military structure (in my opinion) it cannot do a good job of glorifying the military.

        Second, much of the action (almost all) in the story takes place within it a military (space navy) arena. On board ship, on a base, during a espionage type activity. Yet, the military itself was never the “bad guy.” Inter-empire and intra-empire politics seemed to fill that role. So, inasmuch as you would hope that your reader would enjoy the novel they would have to enjoy it from the perspective of its military (space navy) protagonists. And, inasmuch as the author tends to want the reader to root for the protagonists, that makes your book one that glorifies the military experience.

        Now does glorifying a military experience promote a military agenda? That really depends on who you are. The book certainly does not criticize a military agenda. Some would say that is the same as promoting one.

        Again, it has been a while since I read the novel. So, my memories of themes and events may not be fair to the book or its author. I am writing now based upon impressions that remain.

      • Thomas Evans says:

        Your points about the military structure of the ship are, of course, 100% on. There were two reasons I did this. The first being this is a special intelligence unit, where command structures are occasionally unusual in their lopsided nature, here in part because the unit as a whole – the ARAG – is much larger and this is a mission specific unit assigned to a ship.

        Regardless, this still leads to a poor command structure, and that, I suppose, was supposed to be a critique of the political agenda being played out in the military arena.

        As for whether it is pro or anti military… well, in truth I intend to leave that up to the reader. Still, I am delighted that it succeeded in making you question the very nature of how the unit is set up, and what it says about the society it is reflecting.

  2. Pingback: The Problem with Military Science Fiction Part 2: or why archaeologists get so bent up about taxonomy… | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

  3. Pingback: The Problem with Military Science Fiction: Part 1 | The Archaeologist's Guide to the Galaxy.. by Thomas Evans

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