How to Combine Real-World Military Action with Elves and Anti-Gravity: Three Military SF Authors Share Their Secrets

Three authors of military science fiction and fantasy — Jack Campbell (The Lost Fleet), Taylor Anderson (the Destroyermen series), and Myke Cole (Shadow Ops) — gathered in a packed house for the "Accelerate to Attack Speed" panel. In a conversation with their moderator, Ace/Roc editor Ginjer Buchanan, they discussed what inspired their work, how to keep technical jargon readable, and whether their work reflects any political biases.

Top image: via Myke Cole's website.

Myke Cole explained the idea for his new series Shadow Ops (debut novel Control Point is out February 2012) came to him while working in the Pentagon. He looked around at the rather rigid, internally suspicious culture of the organization and the hundreds of thousands of unique people caught up in it, and he wondered, "What if there was an elf?"

How to Combine Real-World Military Action with Elves and Anti-Gravity: Three Military SF Authors Share Their Secrets

I started thinking, "What would the Army do?" And the answer is they would mess it up. They'd make it boring. They'd wrap it in red tape and they'd destroy people's lives over it. And they'd also do amazing things with it and make people's lives better. Because any institution as big and as complex as the military does those kinds of things. And I began spinning it out from there.

Then there's the fact that, while there's plenty of hard-edged military SF and plenty of sword-and-sorcery fantasy, there's very little "gun and sorcery":

How does an Apache Longbow gunship stand up to a dragon? How do you action a target, how do you do dynamic direct entry, soft-style entry, where the bad guys are barricaded inside the house and we're going to take them down and oh, by the way, three of us can cast fireballs.

Taylor Anderson definitely sees his Destroyermen series as having its roots in the kind of adventure stories he enjoyed as a kid, like Treasure Island and the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs:

How to Combine Real-World Military Action with Elves and Anti-Gravity: Three Military SF Authors Share Their Secrets

Subconsciously or consciously to some degree, I was writing for people that like an old-fashioned adventure yarn with a twist. People that probably watched Gunsmoke when they were kids. There is evil in the world and it has to be confronted... Now, it's not quite that cut-and-dried in my stories, but ultimately, running along underneath everything else, the people that you identify with the most and root for the most are doing the right thing as they see it, even when nobody's looking.

Lost Fleet author Jack Campbell explained that he attempts to depict things as realistically as possible, in order to reach both those with a military background and those without:

How to Combine Real-World Military Action with Elves and Anti-Gravity: Three Military SF Authors Share Their Secrets

I try to present an image of it which is very realistic, so people who haven't been there will know what it's like, the little hardships and the big hardships and the irritations. I also do that for the people who have been there, so they can say, "Hey, somebody understands."

All three authors work very hard to keep their personal politics out of the work. Rather, they work to stay true to the world of their books. Taylor Anderson explained, "I try to introduce the characters in the historical perspective they might have had. There were different politics at the time, in 1940, 1941. Not everybody was a big supporter of Roosevelt."

Jack Campbell, on the other hand, focuses on principles and values that are universal as possible:

What I'd try to focus on is certain basic principles that I think everybody agrees with. Things like, the main character is rejoining a society that's been at war for a hundred years. They're doing a lot of things that were introduced because they were "necessary to win." They haven't won. So he's asking the question, if you are doing this terrible thing because it's necessary to win, and you haven't won, why are you still doing it?

Cole admits that someone who doesn't know him and his background might make the mistake of thinking he doesn't have a very positive view of the military. But his goal is to represent that world in a way that's accurate and realistic and appropriately complex:

I think it's an incredible force for good. But I'm not blind to the mistakes it makes and I'm not blind to, out of necessity, how it can steamroll people.... I love Jaime Lannister. I want Jaime Lannister to succeed. This dude pushed a kid out a window. And I want him to be doing well! The best writing does that. It deals with complexity.

Cole and Campbell, as the longest-serving military men on the panel, were also frank about how difficult it is for those without military experience to accurately represent that world. And it's often the cultural things people get wrong. For example, Cole applauded Campbell for one well-drawn detail in particular: The arguing.

There are some great scenes of officers bickering about a particular issue and personalities getting in the way of command structures. And I'm telling you, as a company grade officer who has had to sit at a table with field grades and shut his mouth, that is it. It is nailed. If officers were bickering on a ship in space, that is exactly what it would sound like.

They also addressed jargon and how to keep the descriptions accurate without turning into a technical manual — ie, military scifi's great, big elephant in the room. Cole confessed that he basically writes his book filled with true-to-life acronyms, then his agent makes him fix it so as to be intelligible to the average reader. (He also has a glossary in the back of the book.) For Anderson, it's all about using equipment in context:

After you read three of Patrick O'Brien's books you can sail a square-rig ship, and he does it without pounding it into your head. I took that as my inspiration for the Destroyermen series. You use the equipment in context and describe what the guy's doing. The reader almost absorbs it by osmosis.

At the same time, don't expect them to know their science fictional machines too well. As Campbell told us, "I establish parameters. But one person sent me an email and said, ‘How does your artificial gravity system work?' Well, if I knew that, I'd be a very wealthy person."