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Military SF

Entry updated 20 June 2022. Tagged: Theme.

War and especially Future War are enduring sf themes. The melodramatic excesses of Space-Opera warfare faded with the pulps, although they were never to die out entirely. Complementing such extravagance, there grew up a more disciplined and more realistic notion of the kind of armies which might fight interplanetary and interstellar wars, and the kinds of Weapons they might use.

In this context a new tradition of militaristic sf grew up in the 1950s and 1960s. Precursors of this subgenre include Space Cadet (1948) by Robert A Heinlein and Star Guard (1955) by Andre Norton. Notable early examples are Robert A Heinlein's Starship Troopers (October-November 1959 F&SF as "Starship Soldier"; 1959) and Gordon R Dickson's The Genetic General (1960; exp vt Dorsai! 1976). The latter began the long-running Dorsai series, which aspires to offer a serious commentary on the evolution and ethics of militarism and was still being extended through the final main-sequence Dorsai novel completed in Dickson's lifetime, The Chantry Guild (1988). The foregrounding in Starship Troopers of military service (though not necessarily in combat) as a qualification for full citizenship and voting rights is interestingly anticipated in another precursor: Rudyard Kipling's didactic Utopia of a militarized England, "The Army of a Dream" (15-18 June 1904 Morning Post; in Traffics and Discoveries, coll 1904), which also denies social security ("poor-relief") to non-volunteers. Other important early contributors to this tradition include Poul Anderson, as in The Star Fox (fixup 1965). It was most aggressively carried forward through the 1970s by Jerry Pournelle in such novels as A Spaceship for the King (1973), The Mercenary (1977) and Janissaries (1979); the latter led to 1980s sequels in collaboration with Roland J Green.

The initial historical context of such sf was provided by the Korean War, where the intervention of UN troops embodied a new philosophy of military action and responsibility; but doubts about the role played by US forces were subsequently amplified in no uncertain terms by the progress of the Vietnam War. Ideas about the moral justifiability of war and the Politics of militarism became matters of fierce debate, exemplified in sf by such novels as Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (June 1972-January 1975 Analog; fixup 1974), clearly a partial homage to Starship Troopers but overturning many of the assumptions the earlier novel had taken for granted, and Norman Spinrad's vivid and vitriolic The Men in the Jungle (1967). Spinrad went on to write The Iron Dream (1972), in which the fascist fantasies of one Adolf Hitler, who emigrated to the USA in the early 1930s and became a minor sf writer, superimpose all the Clichés of pulp Future War fantasies on the rise of the Third Reich, the fighting of World War Two and the "final solution" to the problem of the insidious "Dominators". The most successful mainstream anti-war novel of the 1960s, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 (1961), influenced sf stories like Barry N Malzberg's "Final War" (April 1968 F&SF) as by K M O'Donnell, which represents war as a surreal and purposeless nightmare.

Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero (December 1964 Galaxy as "The Starsloggers"; exp August-October 1965 New Worlds; 1965) – notably its first section – is a direct anti-war response to Starship Troopers in the form of broad Parody. Later, more sympathetic homages include Robert Buettner's Orphanage sequence opening with Orphanage (2004), and John Scalzi's Old Man's War (2005) plus its sequels.

The polarization of the sf community by the political conflict over the Vietnam War was vividly illustrated by a pair of advertisements which appeared in Galaxy Science Fiction (June 1968), listing on facing pages those sf writers for and against the War. Memories of that war have continued to haunt sf, directly reflected in such anthologies as In the Field of Fire (anth 1987) edited by Jeanne Van Buren Dann and Jack Dann and such novels as The Healer's War (1988) by Elizabeth Ann Scarborough and Dream Baby (1989) by Bruce McAllister, and indirectly in such novels as Joe Haldeman's The Forever War (June 1972-January 1975 Analog; fixup 1974) and Lucius Shepard's Life during Wartime (fixup 1987). Alongside these works, however, the tradition of militaristic sf has not only flourished since the Vietnam War's end but has become extraordinarily strident. David A Drake, author of several horror stories reflecting his own experiences in Vietnam, has written numerous books about the heroic exploits of future mercenaries, including the Hammer's Slammers sequence that began with Hammer's Slammers (coll of linked stories 1979) and continued through many follow-up volumes. These books helped initiate a fashion for sf about mercenaries that has been extrapolated in various anthologies and Shared-World series and in lighter novels such The Warrior's Apprentice (1986) and its sequels (all far from strident) by Lois McMaster Bujold. Further Women SF Writers who have contributed significantly to military sf include Elizabeth Moon with her Familias Regnant sequence, beginning with Hunting Party (1993), and Karen Traviss.

Other more or less fiercely militaristic sf novels of the 1980s include Karl Hansen's War Games (as "Sergeant Pepper" in The Berkley Showcase: New Writings in Science Fiction and Fantasy, Vol. 1, anth 1980, ed Victoria Schochet and John Silbersack; exp 1981); Chris Bunch's and Allan Cole's Sten sequence beginning Sten (1982) – Bunch also wrote other military-sf series; Christopher Anvil's The Steel, the Mist and the Blazing Sun (1983); Timothy Zahn's Blackcollar books, opening with The Blackcollar (1983); and Joel Rosenberg's Zionist Not for Glory (1988). The 1990s saw several more, including William C Dietz's Legion of the Damned sequence, beginning with Legion of the Damned (1993) and Brian Daley's GammaLAW, beginning with GammaLAW: Smoke on the Water (1998). In the new century, authors strongly identified with this subgenre include John Ringo with his Posleen sequence opening with A Hymn Before Battle (2000).

The annual series of anthologies begun with There Will Be War (anth 1983) edited by Jerry Pournelle and John F Carr, following Reginald Bretnor's earlier anthology series The Future at War (3vols 1979-1980), continued to 1990 and generated some controversy; Harry Harrison and Bruce McAllister responded with There Won't Be War (anth 1991), which failed to continue as a series. Further relevant anthologies include many war-themed examples edited by Martin H Greenberg with various associates, notably the Ace/Tor Military Science Fiction and 3000 Military Science Fiction sequences, and The Best Military Science Fiction of the 20th Century (anth 2001) with Harry Turtledove. Combat (anth 2001; in three cut parts, all three together making up the whole, vt Combat #1 2001, cut vt Combat #2 2002 and cut vt Combat #3 2002) is edited by Stephen Coonts.

The military-sf subgenre has merged with and absorbed various older materials, including Fred Saberhagen's Berserker series begun in 1963 (see Berserkers), and the space war referenced in Larry Niven's Known Space future history – which Niven himself did not care to develop but was franchised as a Shared-World series, The Man-Kzin Wars (1988-current). Though the Berserkers are inimical to life, many stories feature sentient hardware fighting on humanity's side – most famously, Keith Laumer's Bolo stories of massively armed AI tanks. In similar vein are Leo A Frankowski's Boy and His Tank tales, beginning with A Boy and His Tank (1999). The initial Korea/Vietnam impetus of military sf meant that grunt soldiers were long considered central to the subgenre; shifting the focus to the space navy has produced many quasi-nautical adventures discussed under Hornblower in Space.

One thematic subdivision sees ex-military protagonists drawing on their battle experience for tough and violent operations in (more or less) civilian life, often in a context of Crime and Punishment. Examples include Richard Morgan's Takashi Kovacs sequence beginning with Altered Carbon (2002) and Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey sequence beginning with Hammered (2004).

Although the popularity of this kind of fiction in the USA can be largely accounted for simply as a love of melodrama, it can be read as reflecting an innate aggression in US culture – a concept discussed at some length by H Bruce Franklin in his excellent study of war as a theme in US imaginative fiction, War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination (1988). A similar generalization might be drawn from Russian and Russian/Ukrainian authors' and readers' more recent fondness for Alternate History military sf rewriting – often triumphally – the timeline of the Soviet era, including World War Two: see for example German Romanov and Gleb Bobrov.

Since 2015 David Afsharirad has edited the Anthology series Year's Best Military SF for Baen Books. [BS/DRL]

see also: Gears of War; Bob Ham; John G Hemry; Tom Willard; Wing Commander.

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