Military action has provided fodder for science fiction since the birth of the genre. But just what is military science fiction?
Defining the Violence
Military science fiction is a term that applies to anything science fiction that depicts some element of the armed forces. The stories that involve futuristic (or early) militaries is varied, and encompass a number of styles of science fiction, from tales that features soldiers as characters, to stories that rely on physics, and everything in between.
This wide range brings together an extensive list of stories that might surprise you. When you think of military SF, the books that pop to mind are ones like Old Man's War, by John Scalzi, City of Pearl by Karen Traviss, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, A Hymn Before Battle by John Ringo or the Honor Harrington series by David Weber. But what about other books, such as Dune, by Frank Herbert, The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein or Red Mars, by Kim Stanley Robinson, which have the political elements that involve warfare, or stories like River of Gods by Ian McDonald or The Windup Girl by Paolo Bachigalupi that use the military to a limited extent? Where do those fall within the spectrum?
And how do the fictional stories that feature military forces mesh with their real-life counterparts?
Fighting vs. Warfare and Armies vs. Soldiers
Military organizations and forces are used for specific purposes in the real world: They fulfill a dedicated role of national defense, and are used to enforce national policy, expressed through political will. Armed forces act in the interest of a political element, at the orders of a government or a political faction. Soldiers, on the other hand, might work in their own interests. These interests might act as a microcosm for the political element, or might act counter to governmental interests.
There is a distinction between violence and acts of war or military force. Looking to military theorists for definitions, Carl von Clausewitz notes that a war is a duel on a greater scale, where one opponent works to bend the other to his will, while Antoine-Henri Jomini, a student of Clausewitz's, notes that assured victory relies on overwhelming military force at decisive points. Mao Tse-Tung noted that "The richest source of power to wage war lies in the masses of the people." To be sure, there is much debate over the definition of warfare, but in general, war tends to be a political act, one that the state (and by extension, the will of the people) uses to enforce its political goals.
War then, is not a chaotic mess of violence, but directed destruction in the hands of a force that is organized expressly for enforcing the will of the state.
When it comes to science fiction, this is an important idea for futuristic militaries. If military science fiction utilizes military force, there should be an understanding on the part of said fiction that militaries exist for a purpose; otherwise, they act as a mob, organized towards their own goals. Military force, in real life and in fiction, is more than the simple act of picking up a gun and firing at somebody; it is more than organized violence.
Does an author need to read classical theorists and have a PhD in Military History to set a futuristic military story to text? No, but an understanding of the roles militaries play in the real world is important for the proper use of such characters in fiction. While the implications of current foreign policies and theories doesn't (and probably shouldn't) be articulated, military SF novels should have at least a basic understanding of how militaries work and have that integrated into the plot. As William Gibson noted in a recent interview with Wired, "Every fictive, imagined future can only be understood historically within the moment it was written." As authors write to confront some element of the present, such as the military, it stands to reason that authors will depict a military whose goals and organizations reflect those readers are familiar with.
As there are distinctions between battles and warfare, there should be a distinction between an organized military force, and soldiers. In general, soldiers would act under a military organization, but there are certainly stories (and real life examples) of rogue elements that come from within military sources. You can see examples of these soldier-centric tales in books like Star Risk Ltd, by Chris Bunch, Thirteen by Richard K. Morgan or Conquistador by S.M. Stirling, that feature soldiers, out of the context of warfare, but still work with a military mindset?
What is Military Science Fiction about?
The stories military science fiction tends to tell are generally not about warfare: they're about the people caught up in the flow of wartime events, and the impact of warfare on society. In a way, the military setting of a story is the means to an end. It is the perfect avenue for an author to tell an engaging story, while also including social commentary as well. Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers addresses several elements of the responsibilities of citizens in the future of their nation. Joe Halderman's The Forever War was inspired by the experiences of returning home from Vietnam after serving in the U.S. Army. Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game examines the role of strategy and the toll that military actions can take on the individual. Warfare, in these books, becomes a large part of the background, allowing an author to tell a story that they might not otherwise be able to write.
But military science fiction stories cover a lot of ground. Some look directly at soldiers and their role within the military. Others, such as Adam Robert's latest book, New Model Army, look directly at how militaries are organized. Military science fiction, as an umbrella term for many subgenres, means the inclusion of armed forces within a story.
Other books, such as Dune, Red Mars and The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress are books that I've found are the best at looking at warfare and the context in which that is placed. Consider that in Dune, an oppressive government has been put into place after the ousting of another, and then is overthrown by military force. Herbert, intentionally or otherwise, presents a story that depicts the rise of a military, while also showing the motivations behind the leader and his force. The same goes for a limited number of other books. While military action is not at the forefront of the book, the military elements are indispensable, interesting, and realistic. In the end, it is difficult to pin military SF down using any one book or example: the variety belies classification, and forces us to look to larger elements addressed within the genre.
Technology and Details vs. Story
In some military SF, it seems as if the author is trying to validate their credentials within the genre by making sure that the tools of war are thoroughly described. In these books, you'll have no shortage of explanation of the weapons and how they're used, space tactics, acronyms and stereotypes. It's all about explaining the minutia of the combat.
An author that I spoke to about this subject was concerned that the weapons and details were in place for some of these stories, but one vital aspect was missing: The person behind them. Often in books like these, there's little thought devoted to the events that brought those weapons into place prior to their use.
Having studied military history, I share the same concerns. Military science fiction books rarely try to bridge the gap between the the ground view, and the 20,000 foot view. To somebody on the ground, the minutia of the weapons is often a vital point of interest, as it affects them directly. Old Man's War, The Forever War and Tom Kratman's A Desert Called Peace all seem to do this very well, while other novels, such as Dune, Ender's Game, and Charles Stross's Singularity Sky / Iron Sunrise, pull off the larger military perspective very well, looking intensely at the conflict from above, seeing most of the battlefield, but not getting too mired down in the ground level details.
Few books that I've read really bridge the two worlds well: it's a difficult element to look at, especially in the confines of a novel that will be sold to a mass audience. Do the smaller details matter in a story? It depends upon the story. If an author is trying to look at the soldier's perspective? Certainly, but a command-level story requires an attention to other details that might not register as important to the average grunt. While this doesn't necessarily affect how a book is ‘military science fiction' when speaking about soldiers, it can muddy the waters for the upper tier stories – I don't generally think of Dune as a military science fiction story, although it certainly can fit the criteria. But, it also helps to separate out good and bad stories, based on their understanding and execution of the idea.
Literature vs. Other Mediums
Military SF is a subgenre that reaches beyond literature, but the same rules apply. One of the most successful science fiction film franchises, Star Wars, uses details from numerous military encounters throughout recent history, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Second World War and Vietnam. Aliens features a team of space marines, while Avatar, District 9, Dune, Star Trek and The Fifth Element are a couple additional examples of militaries in war, with more on the way. Battle: Los Angeles has billed itself as Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day. (I'm really looking forward to seeing that one) Even Iron Man meets the criteria.
Television has some of the best examples, with Battlestar Galactica, Firefly, Gundam, Space: Above and Beyond, the numerous Star Trek series, Babylon 5, and Stargate series, amongst others, presenting stories that rely heavily on military action to keep audiences tuned in.
Beyond films, the field is even riper for the genre in video games, with the Halo series about to release its sixth game, Halo: Reach, later this month. Alongside the games is a growing collection of novels set in the game worlds. Franchises such as Star Wars, Halo and Gears of War all have book series that are directly based off of the combat and military elements in the games.
Star Wars and other franchised science fiction series are good examples of military science fiction branching over several mediums to take part in the same universe: George Lucas' creation, for better or for worse, has numerous examples of space and ground combat that extends over films, comic books, novels and video games. Star Trek, Halo, Farscape, Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica are likewise a couple of examples of these mediums taking part in the genre: it's not limited only to literature or standalone novels, and as such, the story's physics remain the same: militaries are a body that are answerable to a governing body. Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 remain very good examples of this in action.
Looking Backwards vs. Looking Forwards
The nature of science fiction makes looking at how militaries will operate in the future an interesting experience. Looking at the news and current events of the ongoing operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, it's clear that there are some very real science fictional elements involved with the fight against insurgency forces. A recommended book is P.W. Singer's Wired For War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, which examines the increasing role of robotics in military operations.
The news covers Drone attacks, while soldiers employ advanced technology in their own jobs, from smart bombs to night vision, anti-IED jammers and satellites to fulfill numerous tasks. Only this morning, I listened to a radio program on the heat rays used in a California prison to break up riots. This is technology that has been developed for military purposes. Throughout its history, warfare has continually pushed the edges of technology, from advanced engineering in battlements during the evolution of artillery and the use of chemicals during the First World War, to the role that air power played during the Spanish Civil War and the Second World War. There is no doubt that this will happen in the future, and the advances in technology will affect warfare.
At the same time, military SF is typically not at the forefront of wartime strategy. While often predicting the weapons of war, SF looks back to prior wars for inspiration and context. Starship Troopers looks towards World War II and Korea at points, and David Weber's Honor Harrington series looks to Napoleonic naval history for inspiration throughout the series. David J. Williams' book The Burning Skies looks to the Battle of Kadesh between Egyptian and Hittite forces in ancient times for inspiration. Human history is filled with consistent fights, battles, wars and world wars, which in turn are inspiration for numerous authors, in and out of the science fiction realm.
Going back to William Gibson's statement, it's helpful to know that these sorts of stories are grounded in reality, to any number of degrees. Looking at Starship Troopers and The Forever War¸ you'll find a lot of pointed commentary that was relevant at the time the stories were written. Undoubtedly, other books carry with them much of the same significance around the same times. During most of the time that SF has been around, there have been significant military events; the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis, The September 11th attacks on New York and the Pentagon, and numerous others. These actions have translated, either by direct allegory or by filtering down to the authors through the changed state of society, into the stories that they create.
Can a science fiction author look to the future for their stories? Thinking over a number of different stories, you are likely to see robotic soldiers, powered armor, space combat, and laser guns. There are some modern-day counterparts of these on the battlefield today, but these advances represent very early uses of such technologies. Indeed, military SF boasts technologies of war that may never be deployed, or if deployed, might be used very differently than authors predict.
Undoubtedly, warfare in the next ten and twenty years will look very different than warfare will a hundred years from now, as warfare right now looks incredibly different from warfare a hundred years ago. Consider that in 1910, the United States was a rising power. World War I was the first real technological, industrial war. Since then, the world has seen the rise of aerial warfare, the atomic bomb, intercontinental ballistic missiles and network-centric warfare – a far cry from the style of fighting at that point in time. Academics are currently debating how technological, economic, ecological and political developments over the same period of time going forward will impact the development of warfare to come, and beyond.
At the end of the day, there are some obvious criteria for a military science fiction story. There must be some element of speculative prose that involves the military to a large degree. And militaries have some clear definitions. They are agents and organizations that are working on the part of some governing body, whether it's a large government, or the political interests of a smaller group. These interests in turn manifest themselves in various ways, through peacekeeping operations, the defense of a nation or in other unseen methods and motivations. The separation between the truly stellar and inferior works of science fiction is in the details. Does the author understand the larger picture that helps to inform the rest of the narrative, whether that's the influences of politics or historical events?
But of course good military SF also needs the shooting and explosions. You can't go wrong with those.