The Rise And Fall — And Rise — Of Military SF

David Drake hit a career snag in the late 1990s. Drake, who had helped to create the military science fiction genre with his Hammer's Slammers books, saw a shrinking market for novels about interstellar warfare. So Drake switched to fantasy, and then space-opera. Now, Drake is back writing more Hammer's Slammers stories, and military SF seems to be having a comeback. What happened?

There was a boom in military SF in the early 90s, which ended up harming the genre, Drake writes on his website. Military SF

had been so hot a genre that quite a number of opportunists had gotten into it despite their lack of knowledge of the military and/or skill at writing. I'd seen this coming (the downsizing of the US military had by itself removed millions of potential readers from barracks where they had a great deal of time on their hands), but I couldn't get anybody to listen to me.
So Drake (whose first novel was fantasy) moved back into epic fantasy with 1997's Lord of the Isles, and space opera with the Lt. Leary series. His career has stayed diversified since then, but he's returned to the Hammer's Slammers stories. And Nightshade Press has put out the Complete Hammer's Slammers.

Meanwhile, the military SF genre seems to have gained a new lease on life with John Scalzi's Old Man's War series, John Birmingham's Axis of Time trilogy, and Richard Morgan's Broken Angels, a sequel to Altered Carbon about a space war. The Military SciFi site lists a bunch of new and forthcoming military SF books, including John C. Wright's Null-A Continuum, the anthology Warfear, Jack Campbell's The Lost Fleet: Courageous and Starfist by David Sherman and the awesomely named Dan Cragg.

The Rise And Fall — And Rise — Of Military SF

I wrote to David Drake to ask him if he thought military SF had bounced back, and here's what he said:

Yes, Military SF has rebounded, though it's also being confused with the rebound in space opera. Quite a lot of what's being called Military SF today—including my RCN (Leary/Mundy) series—is really space opera, in my opinion.

There was always a lot of space opera around, but media tie-ins filled that niche until the collapse of the Star Trek franchise. There's now room for Honor Harrington, Miles Vorkosigan, et al; and these series tend to be lumped in with Military SF.

But the US is also at war, and it's not politically correct nowadays to hate soldiers the way it was in the '70s when I started writing the Hammer series.

Some of what's appearing is patriotic and indeed triumphalist, the sort of thing that was a staple of Astounding under John W Campbell. That doesn't happen to be what I write (or ever wrote); but there's room for me too.

Mostly now I'm writing space opera and fantasy, though. That's not due to a change in the market so much as me having gotten my head a little straighter since I wrote Redliners. I'm now able to write what I want to write rather than feeling a compulsion to do harsher work.

The bad places are still there in my head — The Darkness is one of my most recent stories and one of my bleakest — but I'm not forced to look at them all the time.

So I had to ask Drake what the difference was between space opera and military science fiction, in his view. He responded:
The difference is intent: a focus on adventure rather than a focus on the military. There's an enormous amount of warfare in both the Skylark series (by Smith) and the Cities in Flight series (by Blish), but those are space operas. Whereas Starship Troopers (Heinlein) and Dorsai! (Dickson) are military SF. In my parlance.
It definitely makes sense that military SF would have more popularity during a war. Military SF helps people process the realities of war, either by critiquing or by idealizing (and sometimes both in the same book.) Also, many of the most successful video games of recent years, like the Halo series, have been military SF. Most of all, as our own natural resources get scarcer, it's harder and harder to imagine encounters with extraterrestrial sentients that don't involve fighting over land, or water, or power sources. Call it the new Hobbesian cosmos.