Betsy Mitchell, Del Rey’s editor-in-chief, points to the current popularity of a subgenre that few outside the SF and fantasy genres know much about: “Whether or not the U.S. itself is involved in conflict at any given time, a solid core of readers continues to demand authentic stories of SF/military action.” Del Rey has a long-running series, David Sherman and Dan Cragg’s Starfist, about a futuristic marine expeditionary force, that will hit 16 titles this year, and has launched two other military SF series in the past year. “They’ve taken off well,” reports Mitchell. But some interested parties divine within certain military SF an advocacy of war and aggression.

While H.G. Wells described the effects of strategic bombing and tanks in his prophetic fiction, and armed conflict figures prominently in the novels of pioneering “space opera” novelist E.E. “Doc” Smith, stories that extrapolated the effects of future technological and social developments on the battlefield, and which focused on the individual soldier, were quite uncommon until Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (Putnam, 1959). The focus soon began to shift from the galaxy-spanning “space operas” exemplified by George Lucas’s Star Wars films to realistic depictions of combat and military life.

David Weber, one of the leading authors of the subgenre, explains military SF in an interview at “Military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is about human beings, and members of other species, caught up in warfare and carnage. It isn’t an excuse for simplistic solutions to problems.” The distinction is subtle: David Drake’s Lieutenant Leary series, starting with With the Lightnings (Baen, 1998), and Lois McMaster Bujold’s Diplomatic Immunity, (Baen, 2002) and other volumes in her Miles Vorkosigan series are space opera—with the emphasis on adventure—while Weber’s bestselling Honor Harrington series is military SF, with a great focus on military verisimilitude.

Unfortunately, there are many, according to Drake’s Web site, who don’t understand “the difference between description and advocacy, or who deny that there is a difference.” Starship Troopers has been called “militaristic” and “fascistic.” A writer on SFReviews.Net described Baen Books as “SF’s home for jingoistic, hyper-violent right-wing power fantasies.”

Cyberpunk co-founder Bruce Sterling, in his fanzine Cheap Truth13, wrote that military SF is distinguished not by “literary innovation but by its radical ideology.” According to Sterling, its practitioners possess an “ideological solidarity, which gives them the sort of shock-troop discipline that Lenin installed in the Bolsheviks.” He points to the role of Jerry Pournelle, author of Falkenberg’s Legion (Baen, 1989), in promoting President Reagan’s Strategic Defense initiative, while Thomas Disch condemned Drake in the Nation (Feb. 27, 1995) for collaborating with Newt Gingrich on a nonfiction book, Window of Opportunity (Tor, 1984).

This is not to say that the subgenre is the sole domain of conservatives. Eric Flint is a former labor organizer who once worked for the Socialist Worker’s Party. Joe Haldeman wrote The Forever War (St. Martin’s, 1974) as much as a rebuttal to Heinlein as an account of his own experiences in Vietnam. John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (Tor, 2005) likewise deals with the dehumanizing effects of combat upon his protagonist. However, writers such as Tom Kratman in Caliphate (Baen, 2008) take as their starting point certain moral, political or philosophical points that tend to drive some readers to apoplexy.

Military science fiction was thriving by the early 1990s. Then the shelves were flooded with books produced by those whose lack of writing skills was matched only by their ignorance of real military service. Much of this could be described as “war porn” in the “tradition” of Sven Hassel that only served to desensitize the reader, who was unlikely to have had any real exposure to violence and its aftermath.

This trend reversed after 9/11. Fans began to gravitate to writers who had actually “seen the Elephant,” such as Pournelle (Korean War); Vietnam vets Drake, Dan Cragg and Dan Sherman, co-creators of the Starfist series (most recently Firestorm, Del Rey, 2007) ; John Ringo, whose novels like Gust Front (Baen, 2002), about the repelling of invading space aliens, accurately depict what Clausewitz calls “the fog of War”; and Kratman (Operations Just Cause and Desert Storm). Kratman also once taught the Law of Land Warfare at the Army War College.

Both Harry Turtledove’s Guns of the South (Del Rey, 1992), which posits Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia being supplied with AK-47 rifles by Afrikaner separatists eager to create a future ally, and John Birmingham’s Axis of Time series, which began with Weapons of Choice (Ballantine, 2005), wherein a 21st-century naval task force ends up in the middle of the Battle of Midway as a result of a bungled physics experiment, are more concerned with the socioeconomic ripples emanating from the change. Indeed, much of the conflict in Birmingham’s books—which features a warship named the U.S.S. Hillary Clinton after “the most uncompromising wartime president in the history of the United States”—centers on contemporary American politicians who happily accept future technology from the future warriors, but can’t deal with their ideas of racial and gender equality, and are shocked by the ruthlessness they display after several decades of the War on Terror.

It may be surprising to some, but for a genre supposedly the domain of right-wingers, military SF has long been a bastion of gender equality. As far back as Starship Troopers, women could serve in combat roles (pilots were almost exclusively female, including starship commanders), though not as infantry. However, in Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War, Stirling’s The Domination (Baen, 1999) and Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers (Night Shade, 2007), women serve alongside men in both infantry and tank units.

Weber’s Honor Harrington is probably the most prominent example. Inspired by C.S. Forrester’s Horatio Hornblower novels—as are McMaster’s Miles Vorkosigan novels (both series are published by Baen)—Weber chronicles her career beginning with 1993’s On Basilisk Station, and has expanded the series into an entire “Honorverse” to which other writers have contributed their own stories about other characters. Weber told Hartwell and Kathryn Kramer, in the anthology The Space Opera Renaissance (Orb, 2007), that “it seems evident that if we’re on the right track in terms of not simply gender equality, but human equality, then by the time we get five hundred years, or a thousand years, in the future, it’s going to be a done deal.” He notes that even in Western societies, such equality is sometimes paid only lip service, and adds his belief that “far-future science fiction... serves best by presenting the struggle for equality as one which has been won as it manifestly and obviously deserves to be won.”

In Ringo’s Vorpal Blade (Baen, 2007), a marine arrives at his new unit and is asked whether he reads SF. He replies in the affirmative, knowing that he risks being labeled a “geek.” In real life, the military is not only receptive to military SF (indeed, both Starship Troopers and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game are required reading in many service schools) but actively looks to SF for new ideas. A 1985 conference at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base brought together military officers and SF writers, leading author James Gunn to remark with surprise at how alike the two groups were. Many SF writers also attended an army conference on future small arms development.

In his 2005 book Rumors of War and Infernal Machines: Technomilitary Agenda-setting in American and British Speculative Fiction (Rowman & Littlefield), Charles E. Gannon remarks on how closely the army’s Land Warrior Program follows Starship Troopers. He also credits Heinlein with “foreseeing not only specific combat technologies but... envisioning how they would combine to create a radically new battlefield: one that was fluid, electronic, and largely automated... Heinlein’s descriptions, both of training and combat, primarily emphasize that war and warriors will—indeed, must—be forever changed as a result of these innovations.” Just as the best military science fiction serves as a caution to those who believe that war can somehow be tidy, it also is proving to be prophetic. Whether or not the prophet is Cassandra is yet to be determined.

Author Information
Scott Connors is a veteran of the U.S. Army and an independent scholar currently working on a new edition of the stories of California fantasist Clark Ashton Smith.