When talking to some people, it’s a type of novel that involves men, poorly thought out story lines and lots of violence. Talk to another, and it’s a form of fiction that examines deeper political thought and society. Another might describe it as a grouping that works well across mediums. Some will even insist that a film like Star Wars could never be called military science fiction.
The answer, I think, lies in all of those responses, all taken from various people to whom I’ve spoken. Military science fiction is both an obvious and difficult genre to pin down completely, depending on whose definition that you are using: it can be highly restrictive, or all encompassing.
The most obvious definition of Military Science Fiction is that it includes military institutions within the storyline. However, if this is the only criteria for entry into the genre, one has to assume that even books that tangentially include military elements would be included. This is an assumption that’s not only inaccurate, but a bit foolish. It’s akin to calling my laptop kitchenware, because it’s a black, metal computer and that matches the appearance of my cast iron frying pan. The same goes for fiction, and while there are some books out there that utilize military forces, such as Ian McDonald’s fantastic River of Gods, that doesn’t necessarily qualify them for Military Science Fiction status.
The core of the military science fiction stories is the use of the military as a core element of the story, which in turn, can take a couple of different forms depending on what story the author is attempting to tell.
Despite the name, military stories aren’t necessarily about the military and their direct actions or lifestyle: rather, they can focus on much larger stories that are easier for an audience to relate to. Two of my favorite examples of this are Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, each of which address a number of social issues within the context of warfare. Heinlein’s book, one of the classics of the genre pulls from Heinlein’s own experiences with the Second World War and Korea when looking to the responsibilities of its citizens towards their nation. A letter by Heinlein to Forrest Ackerman, written during the Second World War, clearly outlines Heinlein’s feelings on the subject of patriotism:
“I have read the fan publications you have sent me and, with rare exceptions, I find myself utterly disgusted with the way the active fans have met the trial of this war. By the fan mags I learn that many of these persons, who are readily self-congratulatory on their superiority to ordinary people—so many, many of these “fans” have done nothing whatsoever to help out. Many of them are neither in the army nor in war work. Many have found this a golden opportunity to make money during a war boom—by writing, by commercial photography, through the movies, or by other worthless activities—worthless when compared with what your brother Alden was doing…Forry, I want you to dedicate yourself to Alden’s memory. To be faithful to him we now have two jobs to do. The first is to win this war as quickly as possible. You can do that by volunteering for something more useful than you are now doing. General Lear has said that he needs thousands of limited-duty clerks and such behind the lines in Europe to release able-bodied men for action. Or, perhaps, a re-examination will find you no longer limited in duty. In either case a Wac can edit your camp paper. The second job is, now and after the war, to see to it that it shall not happen again.”
Joe Haldeman’s book takes on a very different tone and focus: a soldier who’s become disconnected from his society as a war rages on for thousands of years. The Forever War‘s protagonist, William Mandella, is one of the first soldiers to fight against an alien enemy, while subsequent trips to and from Earth and various battlefields (battlespaces?) allows him to see the entirety of the war, as he fights for a world that changes dramatically. Like Heinlein, there’s real world influences behind the text, where soldiers during the Vietnam War were increasingly isolated from the country that they were to protect.
In a larger picture, both books deal with issues that expand far beyond the battlefield: their stories aren’t really about shooting; it’s about the society behind the battles, looking at the real core of warfare.
However, not all military science fiction books look to society and some of the larger causes of warfare: Ender’s Game comes to mind as a story that bridges the gap between understanding how militaries function in theory, but also looking at some of the extreme moral issues that come up as a result of warfare. Andrew Wiggin’s abilities to understand how to change how people fight are fascinating, and Card’s understanding of how militaries adapt to changing conditions is spot on when one considers how the military has evolved over the last several centuries.
Other books immerse themselves completely within the military lifestyle: any number of books from David Weber, Timothy Zahn, John Scalzi and numerous others look to the individual in some of the most compelling challenges that a person can find themselves in: under fire. Warfare is a constant element in human history. Looking back, it’s hard to find a year when the United States was not engaged in some form of combat against someone. (You have to go back a couple of decades, and that’s not taking into account conflicts that could remain classified.) Apply that to a wide range of countries, and I would imagine that there’s rarely a year that we as a species have waged ware against someone.
This leads me to find the core of military fiction in general: at its best, it can be far more than escapist fantasy that packs a lot of action. Even at its worst, there is a reason why it has remained popular: warfare is a relatable subject, either from its association with our everyday lives, or with the greater issues that it can present to an audience. At its core, military science fiction is the style of fiction that looks at what warfare can be, and realizes a fundamental, cynical point: we will never fully escape from combat.