Bennett R. Coles is a Canadian author who served 15 years as an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy, based primarily out of CFB Esquimalt, Canada’s main Pacific naval base. His deployments took him around most of the Pacific Rim and included such highlights as being in the first Canadian task force to visit Vladivostok since the fall of the Soviet Union, and being selected as the liaison officer to the Chinese Navy for its first ever visit to Canada. He was the first Canadian officer to set foot aboard a Chinese warship in Canadian waters, advising the Chinese captain and admiral for the day-long passage.
Throughout his career he undertook a variety of roles such as bridge officer, boarding party officer, warfare officer and navigator. He served several years in staff positions, including the start-up team for Operation APOLLO, which initiated Canada’s decade of support to the post-9/11 mission in Afghanistan. The highlight of his career was a pair of tours in the Middle East as a UN Military Observer, the first in Syria and the second in Lebanon.
He retired from active duty in 2005 and has since pursued a business career. He makes his home in Victoria, Canada, with his wife and two sons. Always wanting to give back to the publishing industry, he has found himself heading up the maverick publishing company Promontory Press, dedicated to giving talented new authors the shot at the traditional market they deserve.
I love sci-fi – always have. But as a veteran of 15 years in the Navy I can be a little picky about my military sci-fi. Not only does the story need to be excellent, but the author needs to capture an authenticity in their military world which won’t make me wince. (By the way, the captain never, ever leads the away team.) So here are my picks for the Top 5 Military Sci-Fi stories ever.
In this star-spanning, centuries-long conflict, humans fight aliens on distant worlds and in the cold reaches of interstellar space. But Einstein still rules, and ships are subjected to relativistic time dilation whenever they deploy. This makes for many fascinating results on the conduct of war, but the story itself is very much about two young soldiers who are just trying to survive, and who wind up losing everything they hold dear. The Forever War brilliantly and poetically illustrates the disconnect between soldiers who have been changed by combat and who can never “go home” to the life they knew beforehand. While fantastic in setting, this story is only too grounded in real life.
This is a collection of short stories following the adventures of a futuristic mercenary company, Hammer’s Slammers. The hard, gritty realism of the machines of war is complemented by the hard, gritty realism of the soldiers who drive them. The Slammers don’t fight for God, King or Country, and they don’t really mind if they wind up on the opposite side of the battlefield from former allies. At the same time, the Slammers aren’t beasts: they’re realistic folk just trying to earn a living and make their way through life doing something that pays well. The warfare in these stories isn’t romantic – it’s swift, brutal and unforgiving. Very much like the real thing.
Nobody said I had to limit myself to books, so I give you the reimagined TV series Battlestar Galactica. This show was many things (most good, some not) but one aspect which blew me away from the very first episode and which remained solid throughout the seasons was the incredible military realism. From the radio chatter to the rivalries between units to the relationships between the ranks, the Colonial Fleet was the most authentic portrayal of a real military organization I have ever seen in fiction. That, and the combination of battleship and aircraft carrier in a single, all-powerful vessel just makes an old Navy officer like me drool.
Unlike many military sci-fi authors, John Scalzi has never served in uniform. But this didn’t stop him from creating a wonderful military scenario with a truly unique flavour: humans from Earth volunteer to join the Colonial Defence Union – at age 75. What follows could be considered an homage to the saying “youth is wasted on the young” but it is far more than that. Mr. Scalzi’s military realism isn’t as in-depth as, say, David Drake, but he creates a unique military with strong consistency, backed by a couple of mind-bending ideas and a truly touching personal story. This is science fiction at its very best – the military aspect just makes it better.
Considered by most to be the grand-daddy of all military sci-fi, Starship Troopers has received more than its share of criticism over the years for possibly promoting a pro-fascist ideology. I wouldn’t go that far, but the action in the story often takes second seat to one of the characters offering a soliloquy on some aspect of right-wing politics. With a lesser writer this might bog the story down, but Mr. Heinlein delivers with such style that these political philosophy sessions blend seamlessly into the very down-to-earth account of young Juan Rico surviving basic training and then heading off to war. It’s very interesting that there is a 1997 movie of the same name – and truly, the name is about the only thing the book and movie have in common – in which the director recreates the original story as a scathing critique of fascism in a delightfully satirical form. I encourage fans to enjoy both book and movie for what they are, and I will state unashamedly that both have influenced my own military sci-fi writing.
While I realize it isn’t sci-fi and therefore not applicable to this list, I just want to give a shout-out to Steven Erikson’s Deadhouse Gates, Book 2 of the “Malazan Book of the Fallen” series, for being the best military fantasy book ever.