Military Sci-Fi & Fantasy – Who gets it right?

The Military SF panel I was on at DetCon1 did not get to a lot of the topics we had hoped to cover (partially due to a ‘hijacking’ panel member and partially due to the fact that we only had 50 minutes!) and several con attendees asked me follow-up questions in the days after. I love Military SF&F, and enjoy talking about it, so I’m glad so many others wanted to keep talking about it, too.

The most popular question is always: so who gets it right? Not every Military SF&F writer who has been in the military gets it right. Sometimes this is because the person is far removed from their time in the service, other times because they are writing what they don’t really know (a desk jockey writing about special forces missions, for example), it’s possible they aren’t that great at writing or storytelling, and sometimes they are just sensationalizing it or following a cheesy trope trend in order to supposedly give the audience what they want.

That last one disturbs me the most, because I like to think that SF&F readers are smarter than that, and because it is damaging to military members to continue to be stereotyped. There are especially quite a few military SF&F stories that get women in the military wrong (really badly wrong) and even take us a step – or many steps – backwards, despite supposedly taking place in a better future.

People are still writing books where the square-jawed, beefy, swashbuckling white male hero serves in an all-male unit while blowing many things up and saving the day. If there are women, they are often just there as a sex object, motivation tool for the main character, or a secretary.  One panel member last week rightly called some of the worst stories “war porn” – that is, nothing but loads of gore and things going boom, and glorifying war… with no real plot to speak of and very cliche’d one-dimensional characters.

But enough on all that depressing stuff. What I really like to talk about is the people who get it right. These include both people who have served and those who have simply done their homework very well. I’ll list them here in both categories, and the branch the author served in if applicable, if I can easily find it. This list is, of course, limited to what I have read and what I enjoyed. Please share your own recommendations in the comments!

Note that there can be some debate about how ‘military’ some of these are. I include anything involving professional military members, mercenaries, civil defense forces, rebel fighting groups, and fights big enough to be considered battles under the umbrella for my own personal definition. That can be debated in the comments as well!

Good Military SF&F written by authors who have served (in no particular order):
Paksennarion series (fantasy, Elizabeth Moon, US Marine Corps)
Familias series (sci-fi, Elizabeth Moon)
Valor series (sci-fi, Tanya Huff, Canadian Naval Reserve)
Forever War series (sci-fi, Joe Haldeman, US Army)
Starship Troopers (sci-fi, Robert Heinlein, US Navy)
Dune (sci-fi, Frank Herbert, US Navy)
Lost Fleet series (sci-fi, John Hemry writing as Jack Campbell, US Navy)
Stark’s War series (sci-fi, John Hemry)
Paul Sinclair series (sci-fi, John Hemry)
The Healer’s War (fantasy, Elizabeth Ann Scarborough, US Army)

Good Military SF&F written by civilian authors (also in no particular order):
Old Man’s War series (sci-fi, John Scalzi)
Vorkosigan series (sci-fi, Lois McMaster Bujold)
Ender’s Game series (sci-fi, Orson Scott Card)
Liaden series (sci-fi, Sharon Lee & Steve Miller)

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4 Comments

Filed under Book Reviews, Geeking out, Opinion pieces

4 responses to “Military Sci-Fi & Fantasy – Who gets it right?

  1. Civilian author M. C. A. Hogarth did extensive research (including a lot of online communication with current service members) to get it right in Spots the Space Marine (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/26359), a story about a reservist mother who gets called up to active duty in the midst of an interstellar war. This book also does a great job with many of the problems you’ve discussed about gender roles in science fiction. The format might be off-putting to some (it’s written like a script), but I loved this book.

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    • Cool, I’ll have to check that out. And I agree that BSG got shipboard life pretty spot-on – they clearly had some pretty good consultants (and ripped “DRADIS” directly off from AEGIS), and added nicely authentic touches like the damage control scenes and 1MC announcements. Still a little too officer/chief- heavy and the ground combat parts were iffy, but overall it was well done.

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      • The thing which struck me first (during the pilot mini-series), was that they had spot-on AIC comms. They must have also had good advisers for ground combat: at the end of season one, Crashdown delivers a battle-orders briefing in standard format, exactly the way a TBS student would (which is to say, rigidly by the book, and destined for catastrophic failure). They also realistically portrayed a lot of behaviors which shouldn’t take place on ships, but do (e.g. fraternization between Chief Tyrol and Boomer, and later between Chief Tyrol and Caly). I do feel like they went a little off the rails towards the end, which makes me wonder if they no longer had the same consultants, or if they deliberately departed from their previous verisimilitude in order to achieve their plot objectives.

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  2. Jerry Pournelle (U.S. Army, Korean War) wrote the Falkenberg’s Legion series, which gets it absolutely right. He also wrote some other books set much later in the same universe, including King David’s Spaceship and The Mote in God’s Eye.

    Civilian Aaron Allston wrote some of the books in the Star Wars: X-wing series, and hit the dynamics of squadron life (e.g. banter) spot-on. I won’t hold the rest of the military portrayal in those books against him, as he was working within the strictures of Star Wars.

    While it’s not a book, I also feel compelled to mention the Battlestar Galactica remake from a few years back. By far the best on-screen portrayal I’ve seen of military SF. At the opposite end of that spectrum would be any of the Stargate series, which are just awful at portraying the military.

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