[SF Signal welcomes the return of guest author Jason Sanford!]
In American science fiction circles, one of the easiest ways to start an argument is to mention military SF. On the one hand, military SF is a popular subgenre, represented by many classic and best-selling works and well loved by loyal fans. Opposing that, however, are many other fans who see military SF as glorifying war and violence. Mix in these group’s differing political views and name-calling and fistfights aren’t far behind.
So what is it about military science fiction which creates such political controversy?
To understand this, we should first define the military SF subgenre. David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington series of futuristic space navy novels, describes military SF as “science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context.”
If defined this way, then military SF has existed from the very start of science fiction, with stories such as E.E. Smith’s Lensmen series and Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space containing elements of the emerging subgenre, along with such pulp favorites as Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. However, these early works also fail to capture the complete spirit of modern military SF, and none of these examples give any indication of how controversial the subgenre would eventually become.
So in my view, military SF is more than simply the military in a SF context. Military SF also has a strong political component to its stories, and it is this political aspect which has proven so controversial over the years even as it also provided the subgenre’s life blood.
The first inkling of this controversy emerged not in military science fiction itself but in SF fandom. Toward the end of World War II, Robert Heinlein wrote a letter to well-known SF fan Forrest Ackerman, whose brother had recently been killed in battle. In the letter Heinlein, who had served in the U.S. Navy, explicitly condemned the many SF fans who considered themselves superior to ordinary people yet hadn’t lifted a finger to help win the war. In Heinlein’s words, these fans were “neurotic, selfish, (and) childish” individuals who needed to tackle “the problems of the real world.”
However, if these fans had written their own letter to Ackerman I have no doubt they would have defended their lives and choices in equally blunt terms (after all, there are very few SF fans who aren’t opinionated about life and politics). While Heinlein wrote from a military point of view about his desire for self-sacrifice and a sense of duty, these fans would probably have replied that they supported their country by making their own individual choices. The best way to defend freedom, in this opposing view, was to embrace freedom by living your life the way you choose.
In short, the difference between Heinlein’s viewpoint and that of the SF fans he attacked was in how one’s life should be lived. In the United States, these contrasting military-civilian viewpoints are well established, with members of the U.S. military often viewing themselves as being dedicated to, and sacrificing for, a larger goal while civilians believe in a more self-centered right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” While these differing worldviews are not incompatible—after all, they exist within the same country and culture, with many people believing in both viewpoints—they can and do result in strong political differences among people.
Obviously these political differences resonated with Heinlein because, in 1959, he jumpstarted the military SF subgenre with the publication of his classic novel Starship Troopers. With the novel’s mix of an extremely pro-military viewpoint, strong philosophical underpinnings, and vivid battlefield action, Starship Troopers not only won the Hugo Award but set the standard for all military SF which followed.
Starship Troopers also became the subgenre’s first political lightning rod. Being published at the start of the social protests and cultural changes of the 1960s—which included world-wide protests against the Vietnam War—Heinlein’s novel struck many people not only as a science fiction story but a militaristic manifesto, provoking immediate charges that Heinlein was promoting fascism and glorifying war.
Among the authors making these charges was Harry Harrison, who wrote the satirical Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965) as a direct rebuttal to Heinlein. In Harrison’s novel, military life is shown to be extremely sadistic and unfair. The fact that both Heinlein’s novel and Harrison’s rebuttal found receptive audiences is evidence that these competing viewpoints were alive and well at the time, with each side believing they alone had the correct worldview.
Of course, life is never a simple case of dueling dualities, and this is also the case with military SF. Because issues of war and killing invoke such passion among humans, in the decades after Starship Troopers a number of authors took up Heinlein’s mantel. However, just as people were divided over Heinlein’s novel, so too did these authors express differing views on the military and the nature of war.
For example, in the 1970s Joe Haldeman created one of the first anti-war military SF novels with his Hugo and Nebula Award winning The Forever War, written in direct response to his experiences during the Vietnam War. Likewise, during the same time period David Drake wrote his Hammer’s Slammers series of stories as a SF exploration of his own experiences in that war. Despite the similarity of both authors fighting in the Vietnam War, in no way do their stories support similar political and thematic visions. Instead, these authors approach war and the military in almost completely opposite directions.
A similar thing happened with the other well-known military SF novel of this time period, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. In this novel Card posits the morality of a future kill-or-be-killed war between humanity and an alien race—a war where genocide appears to be the only solution. Just like The Forever War, Card’s novel won the Hugo and Nebula Award; otherwise, though, the novels are extremely different in both their themes, politics, and worldview.
So while military SF must by its nature focus to some degree on politics—tying in with, perhaps, the famous quote that war is the continuation of politics by other means—that doesn’t mean the politics and themes of military SF authors will necessarily agree.
But perhaps the biggest reason military SF remains so controversial is that, just as happened with Heinlein, the subgenre attracts authors who wish to engage on the weighty political issues surrounding war. For example, John Ringo’s Posleen War series (which began in 2000 with the novel A Hymn Before Battle) deals with the total militarization of humanity when faced with genocide by a bloodthirsty alien species. However, Ringo is also an avid political commentator who, like Orson Scott Card, has attracted attention for his outspoken political views. The same with other authors known for their military SF, including Jerry Pournelle and Elizabeth Moon.
There is a tendency to describe military SF as the bastion of politically conservative authors, especially since the authors mentioned in the previous paragraph would fall into that category. However, this isn’t a fair judgment since the politics of those writing military SF spans the political spectrum, as exemplified by authors like Joe Haldeman, Sandra McDonald (who wrote an excellent feminist-oriented series of military SF novels, starting with The Outback Star in 2007), or John Scalzi (whose Old Man’s War was specifically crafted around the same story structure as Starship Troopers even though Scalzi’s politics could not be more different than Heinlein’s).
So will military SF ever escape from this ongoing political controversy?
Personally, I doubt it, although I wouldn’t be surprised if the passions first evoked by Heinlein’s Starship Troopers eventually lessen. For evidence for this trend, look at the reaction to The Lost Fleet series by Jack Campbell (the pen name of John Hemry, with the first novel in the series, Dauntless, appearing in 2006).
The Lost Fleet is military SF in the purest sense, with Campbell using his background as a U.S. Navy officer to create vivid and realistic warfare between space-based battleships. However, Campbell’s best-selling series has found fans from diverse political viewpoints because he focuses not only on the military and war but also dissect such issues as hero-worship, and how the military culture can become both corrupted and brought back to its founding ideals.
Friends from across the political spectrum recommended The Lost Fleet to me, and after reading the series I see why it struck a cord with readers. It is a fun, quick read, full of action, compelling characters, and deeper issues. Exactly the type of story which attracts readers to military SF in the first place.
Not, of course, that this means the battle over military SF is anywhere near an end. Science fiction fans will continue to argue over this subgenre just as we argue over everything we love or hate. But maybe the vitriol we use to debate military SF will mellow out with time.
Or maybe not. In which case it’s “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”
Note: This essay was originally published in the Czech SF magazine XB-1.