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Defining Military Science Fiction

What is military science fiction?

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.

About Andrew Liptak (180 Articles)
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He is a 2014 graduate of the Launch Pad Astronomy Workshop, and has written for such places as Armchair General, io9, Kirkus Reviews, Lightspeed Magazine, and others. His first book, War Stories: New Military Science Fiction is now out from Apex Publications, and his next, The Future Machine: The Writers, Editors and Readers who Build Science Fiction is forthcoming from Jurassic London in 2015. He can be found over at www.andrewliptak.com and at @AndrewLiptak on Twitter.

14 Comments on Defining Military Science Fiction

  1. The most memorable military SF novel I have ever read(and I’ve read a lot) is John Steakley’s Armor. If I had  a child who was  asking my advice about joining the military I would hand them this novel. Ask them to read it and then have a talk with them after they finished reading it.

  2. Way way too broad of a brush.  I would not classify Ender’s Game as military science fiction, but that’s just me.  However, anyone who classifies Star Wars as military science fiction is an idiot.

    The Forever War and Starship Troopers are good examples of military science fiction.

  3. I once listened to a guy argue that Slaughterhouse Five was certainly military sci-fi since it involved a soldier and aliens. 

    I think The Forever War and Starship Troopers are great examples of the genre. They’re not using the military setting in order to provide a cheap thrill, they’re using it to examine the relationship between military and society in a way that, for good or for bad, attempts to divorce it from reader bias.

  4. We discussed this by email some time back.  I think MSF has three essential major features, armed combat, individuals forming a military unit (including navy, airforce, spaceforce, coast guard, etc.), futuristic weapons, preferably in a futuristic setting.

  5. Nice article, what about Hammers Slammers?

  6. Chad, I’d be interested in hearing how the use of military within SF is idiotic. 

  7. I always think of Military scifi as being more than just the use of weapons/ fighting in scifi. To me its about looking at the effect that ‘future’ military service has on both societies (something touched upon in Starship Troopers, Forever War) and the individual (Enders Game and Forever War).

    This is something I tend to attribute more to individual books rather than series or shared worlds per-say. For example the Games Workshop shared world of 40k has some military scifi novels where they look at how the universe at war shapes its soldiers and societies, but in others the setting and ‘military’ aspect is just used as a back drop to tell a story which in and of itself isn’t military scifi.

  8. When I think military science fiction I immediately think of all the World War 2 in space stories that focus on the POV of characters serving in the military. Usually glorifying war, the military or conversely criticizing it (although that’s a very fuzzy line, just look at Apocalypse Now).

    However there are a lot of SF stories that involve the military ( Mote in Gods Eye, Ender’s Game) that people wouldn’t think of as Military SF. And you wouldn’t necessarily think of The Hunt for Red October as military SF either although it does involve the military and has a science fiction element at the heart of its plot.

    I think the question speaks to the limitations and pitfalls of what trying to categorize genre. They’re slippery things and it’s often a nailing jello to the wall excersize trying to pin them down.

  9. @Andy – that’s a very good way to put it – I would say that military must absolutely be a requirement, and with that understanding: militaries are agents of states, used to enforce political will from said state. Random people with guns? That’s a mob. When they’re operating on the part of a government, that’s when the switch gets flipped. 

    @Jose – That’s my problem with a lot of military SF. I don’t have any issue with the glorification of war in some aspects – it’s certainly an important thing to study, think about and understand. The problem is when it’s glorified without the understanding behind it, or from a limited understanding of it.

  10. @Andrew

    “Chad, I’d be interested in hearing how the use of military within SF is idiotic.”

    I would also be interested in hearing how the use of the military in SF is idiotic.  I would also be amazed if I had sad that.  Dude, I think you need to re-read my first comment.

  11. You’re alluding to it. Ender’s Game is set entirely within a military station and involves strategic military elements to boot. There’s absolutely no question at all that it’s a MilSF story. 

     

    Same goes with Star Wars. I’m not going to argue that it’s *good* military science fiction, but it likewise involves large, overarching militaries, soldiers, in addition to everything that it does have. Good mil SF? Not really, but it fits. 

  12. I’m not alluding to it.  I’m rather specific with Star Wars, The Forever War and Starship Troopers.  I do allude to the fact that I can see how people think Ender’s Game is military SF, but I don’t.  Though, based on some of the definitions I might have to rethink Ender’s Game’s classification.

    Just because something has the military and soldiers in it does not mean it’s military science fiction.  This is the same argument the romance fans tried to make a few months ago on here.  Just because a novel has a romance in it does not make it a romance book/movie/story.  You wouldn’t classify Star Wars as romance, but it has a small love triangle.  Just because the overarching theme of Star Wars (good vs. evil) has some soldiers attached to it, a romance or some sorcery (the force) does not make it a military SF, romance, or fantasy story.  It is space opera. 

    “They’re not using the military setting in order to provide a cheap thrill, they’re using it to examine the relationship between military and society in a way that, for good or for bad, attempts to divorce it from reader bias.”

    This is a quote from Justin’s comment.  It explains military SF well.  Star Wars uses the military for a cheap thrill, as the military just happens to be attached to the big bads.

     

  13. On the whole Starwars issue it depends how much you go into the extended universe, that features some straight up msf, looking at the affects of war on societies, some of it defintely msf. The movie itself is not in my opinion, its an adventure story told in space with laser guns and space ships, and the odd sword thrown in.

    To me Enders Game is pure msf, yes it features kids and that is different (although it could just be seen as a twist on Haldeman’s brightest in forever war) but it looks at the type of world and training that might go on in a military and the effects it has on the trainies. We also get to learn a little about the society that behaved in this way (more so in later novels, not all of which I would class as msf).

     

  14. Me too 🙂 I’d be interested in hearing how the use of military within SF is idiotic. It seems that we share the same idea 😀 Btw, what about Hammers Slammers? Anyone know anything about this?

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