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Military Science Fiction

Having just read John Scalzi’s military science fiction novel, The Ghost Brigades, I got to thinking about military sf and my experiences with it.

My introduction to novel-length military sf was Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. I loved it but didn’t really pursue other military sf titles.

Eventually I came to my senses and checked out the Sten series by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole. To repeat myself: I loved the first Sten adventure. But the successive installments seemed to lose more and more of their appeal. By The Return of the Emperor (fifth in the series), I went into speed-reading mode. I couldn’t muster up enough will to even finish Vortex. Most annoying: somehow, with the Alex character’s thick, tough-to-read, comma-riddled [Scottish] brogue, I kept imagining him sounding like Groundskeeper Willie.

I liked the sub-genre, though. So I picked up two of John Ringo’s Posleen books, A Hymn Before Battle and Gust Front (See Tim’s review). I liked them, the former more so than the latter. The battle scenes were long, but then that’s the point of military sf. The second book felt a bit drawn out.

In 2004, I read a handful of short stories in the Space Soldiers anthology edited by Jack Dann and Gardner Dozois. I like reading short stories not only for the varying author styles, but also (especially for themed anothologies like this one) for the landscape view it provides of, in this case, military sf. It surprised that military sf, already a sub-genre, has so many different aspects that made for many different flavors.

Last year I read Leo Frankowski’s A Boy and His Tank and The War with Earth (co-written with Dave Grossman). These were good and (mostly) fast reads, but suffered some from pacing issues.

More recently, I read Scalzi’s Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades, both immensely entertaining and fast-moving. These did not suffer from any pacing issues and stand out in my mind as the best of the military sf I’ve read. In considering my personal military sf experiences, I do wonder if hardcore military sf folks wouldn’t consider it “lite” military sf as the scenes are relatively quick and are not as detailed and drawn out as, say, the Ringo books.

David Drake is often considered the quintessential military sf author, something to which I cannot attest since I have not read anything by him. (Egads!) Not that my biblioholism hasn’t allowed me to buy some of his books, mind you, I just haven’t read any of his work. Maybe it’s time for that to change. I just found out (via Slush God John Joseph Adams who points to a half-price sale) that Night Shade Books has collected Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers series as The Complete Hammer’s Slammers. Volume 1, which includes an introduction by Gene Wolfe, is described as having “all of the Hammer’s Slammer short fiction, as well as all of the interstitial material from the original Slammers collection”. Sweet!

About John DeNardo (13013 Articles)
John DeNardo is the Managing Editor at SF Signal and a columnist at Kirkus Reviews. He also likes bagels. So there.

29 Comments on Military Science Fiction

  1. Greg Lindenberg // February 8, 2006 at 11:23 am //

    Greatest military (Civil War) sci-fi series ever: William Forstchen’s “The Lost Regiment” books (“Rally Cry” is first of nine).

  2. I know of the Lost Regiment series. I always wondered, is it more alternate history than military?

  3. The only experience I’ve had with Military SF was Ian Douglas’ “Semper Mars” of The Heritage Trilogy. It had some great action but I always felt there was something lacking, and since then (1998) I haven’t checked any other Military SF, although I believe I read some reference to Zahn’s Conqueror’s Trilogy as fitting into that sub genre. Earlier today, the reviews for Scalzi’s books got me thinking I should look it his books.

  4. You mean you never read “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman? For shame! For shame!

    The Drake’s are OK, but there’s much better military SF out there. On the light side, I’d recommend Lois McMaster Bujold. For good naval style, try Elizabeth Moon. For really gritty, try C.J. Cherryh.

  5. I might also suggest The Dark Wing by Walter Hunt. Its not hard military Sci Fi, but I felt it was pretty good. I have also read a Turtledove book that would be construed as fantasy called The Misplaced Legion which I found quite entertaining in that it moves a Roman Legion into a fantasy universe as a mercenary troop.

  6. What Fred said!

    He summed up my thoughts exactly.

  7. The greatest hand-to-hand combat scenes I’ve read have been from John Steakley’s “Armor” (the first half at least). It has such a cinematic ending; it would be a great film.

    Seconding “The Forever War”.

  8. Robert Frezza’s “A Small Colonial War” trilogy is excellent.

    And if you want military SF with ships, rather than hand-to-hand, David Weber’s “Honor Harrington” series is very good. Especially given he actually takes into account the fact that weapons and sensor systems are limited by light speed.

    Although like all long series, it does start to get a bit less good over time.

    I wholly second the Bujold recommendation, on the Vorkosigan series.

    William C. Dietz’s “Legion of the Damned” series is also good, in a very fast paced and active way.

    Tim, The Misplaced Legion is first of a series. All quite good, “The Videssos Cycle”. Which is a part of a larger series/universe of his, but I liked the rest less.

    There’s also the “Dorsai” series by Gordon R. Dickson. They’re nice, but the genius military tactics of his never seemed to me to really hold muster (disclaimer: been a long while since I read them, so no, I can’t give exact details if anyone wants to take exception. Just my recollection of my impression). Still, if you ignore the details, the military SF style and atmosphere is pretty good, at least until the end of the series when he starts to get too metaphysical.

    Fred, which of Cherryh’s series are you referring to? Most of them have fighting, even lots of it, involved, true, but I can’t recall any of them that can really be considered military, or give serious consideration to the fighting strategy and tactics. She’s more into the characters, culture conflict, and relationships… Or maybe I’m just picking at semantics?

  9. “Fred, which of Cherryh’s series are you referring to? Most of them have fighting, even lots of it, involved, true, but I can’t recall any of them that can really be considered military, or give serious consideration to the fighting strategy and tactics. She’s more into the characters, culture conflict, and relationships… Or maybe I’m just picking at semantics?”

    Specifically, I was thinking of the two Belter books (“Heavy Time” and “Hellburner”, now both in “Devil to the Belt”) as well as “Downbelow Station”.

    No, she doesn’t have much on strategy and tactics. However, in the “fuzzy end” of things, I think that she captures, for example, the utter chaos of war (Downbelow Station) or the way individuals behave/feel/act (various bits of the Chanur books), the long-term consequences of war (where is Mallory in the later Union/Alliance books–still out there, or just a thing to scare children), etc.

    Sure, there are a ton of “military SF” books that can drone on endlessly about tactics, weapons, etc. But that’s only half the story. The other half details the background, society, characters, their drives, etc. For me, that’s just as important in real military history as military SF. That is the difference between a book by Charles McDonald (“A Time for Trumpets”) and Charles Whiting (endless military histories that I’ve read and tossed).

  10. “He summed up my thoughts exactly.”

    A scary thing. I’ve obviously been spending too much time at this site!


  11. Greg Lindenberg // February 9, 2006 at 5:14 pm //

    Lost Regiment not alt history; it takes place on another planet (although it does feature civilizations descended from peoples from Earth history–Rome, Russia, Japan, China, etc.). No parallel universe or time travel involved (just space travel via “Tunnels of Light”). Emphasis is on military strategy, tactics, etc.

  12. Cool. I’ll have to check them out.

    (And by “check them out” I mean “pull them out of the box that they are inevitably in”.)

  13. This is a great list of books and I am sure we missed some in the process.

    Yaron, I did know that Misplaced Legion was the first of a series – I enjoyed it alot, but have not read through the other three.

    Fred, you know you can never spend enough time with us, because otherwise that mind control experiment we have been working out will never be finished 🙂

  14. I didn’t read Heavy Time and Hellburner, but I do see what you mean regarding Downbelow Station and the Chanur books.

    And you’re right, those things do matter a lot in military SF.

    The category is a bit fuzzy, so I guess I just focus on what’s closer to the ‘strict’ definition, if there is one.

    Taking the two extremes: A book focusing on a major battle, dealing with the military tactics and strategy, that doesn’t deal with the aftermath, and doesn’t really treat personal lives of the characters beyond the combat, would still be military SF.

    A book detailing society in the aftermath of a war, however, or just the personal lives of the combatants outside the battlefield, without dealing with the combat itself, would have a much harder time justifying being under the same category.

    As I said, mostly semantics. Most military-SF books certainly include both.

    And yes, no doubt we missed quite a few in the process. Thanks for the pointers. Though, unfortunately the ones I didn’t recognize I’ll have to look for in bookstores instead of simply pulling out of a magic box.

  15. Simon Sade // May 15, 2007 at 11:00 am //

    I have read Drake,Ringo and a few other distilled military science fiction books but they tended to be dare i say academic describing weapons explosions well but not the soldiers thoughts and personality on off and training for regular and irregular war as primary flow the but Michael Z. Williamson was exceptional in weapon and freehold(free in this.

  16. Military SF is one of my favorite genres. I just started a series called Starfist. The United Confederation Marine Corps takes on, and destroys, all comers. Authors are Cragg and Sherman. Lots of great action, weapons and tactics. The characters are not what you would call developed but this is just escapist fiction, not interpretive literature. This story just makes you feel food when a bad guy eats a plasma round.

    Forever War was one of the best reads ever. Likewise for Armor. I’ve also enjoyed most of Drake’s and Weber’s work, too. I liked the several Turtledove series. They were well written and you got to know the characters as well. The problem is that he has so many series that seem to be written about the same thing, I cannot keep them straight.

    Can someone help me to remember a really great story that i recently read? I cannot remember the name of it or the author. It involves a time travel experiment gone wrong and a future-modern fleet being moved back in time to the beginning of WWII. The flagship was an aircraft carrier called the Hilary Clinton. The Allies got most of the ships but some of them ended up with the Axis. Anyone know the title?

  17. Googling on some key words…Is it The Axis of Time: Weapons of Choice by John Birmingham?

  18. Roland Green’s Starcruiser Shenandoah and Peace Company series are some of the best military science-fiction novels I’ve read. Up-and-coming author James Daniel Ross’s Radiation Angels: The Chimerium Gambit is next on my got-to-read list.

  19. I too am looking for a series I cannot remember the title/author. One book of the series had a title similar to “Ceasar’s bicycles”………….a time corp with handguns that would shoot around corners, make their own ammo from raw stock, etc.

    Any suggestions?

  20. You’re thinking of John Barnes’s Timeline Wars series comprised of Patton’s Spaceship, Washington’s Dirigible, and Caesar’s Bicycle.


    Somewhere I have a science fiction book club omnibus of all three, so…neener, neener, neener.  🙂



  21. John, you’re the man!!

    I wll humbly accept your neeeners in appreciation for your speedy (and accurate) response.

    I am off to order the trilogy……..BTW, how’d you like them?

    Thanks again


  22. OK, done……………omnibus $14.99 w/ shipping. Now the wait; thanks again!!

  23. >>BTW, how’d you like them?

    Oh I see the confusion.  You assume that because I own it that I’ve read it.  Sadly, such is often not the case in the life of a biblioholic.  I buy much faster than I read.  🙂


  24. Some of the best military sf comming out now is from the Black Library in great britton!Dan Abnett’s stories about Gaunts ghosts is outstanding.If your into seige warfare like I am you’ll be blown away by his book necroplis.

  25. toddkrein // May 3, 2009 at 10:01 am //

    OK, since this is where the smart folks hang out — I need help finding an old two-book military SF series. The author died a few years back. I wanted to re-read them, but lost the name.

    Plot summary: A platoon in vietnam is about to be over-run when they are abducted, and brought to a world that is growing some galactic narcotic. They end up “recreating” math and science, and become warlords of a sort.

    Any help would be appreciated!

  26. Smart folks? You must have us confused with someone else. 🙂

    The only things I can think of that sound close are The Lost Regiment series by William R. Forstchen and Ranks of Bronze/The Excalibur Alternative by David Drake.

  27. toddkrein // May 4, 2009 at 1:56 am //

    Wow, both sound like good books (I’ll have to pick up Ranks of Bronze), but not the ones I’m trying to find… Thanks for that tip, though!

  28. Military fiction is one of the beste genres in sf. But military fiction isn’t all about big wars. I’ve ready an article somewhere where it was said: “War is not only about bombs and killing but about the people who are unwilled to live in peace”


    don’t as me where I read it….

  29. The new “America’s Galactic Foreign Legion” 13 book military science fiction series is out now, and rocks.

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