And has bombs in it, of course. As well as guns, uniforms, buddy relationships and a whole plethora of faceless enemies to destroy. Sometimes it is mindless, sometimes thoughtful, but always entertaining. I’m talking, as you’ll know from the title, about military science fiction.
I love MSF (and I love acronyms, but that’s a whole different story...) and I’m a girl. I don’t claim to be unique in terms of being the only girl to enjoy this rather violent sub-genre of science fiction, but I would consider myself to be in the minority. So here, from the minority perspective, are my reasons for loving MSF and the authors I would consider essential reading.
Sometimes you will read MSF from the point of view of an officer, but regularly it is the grunts that get the most attention – those (usually) faceless individuals who head to war on the instructions of a remote power. I love this aspect of the stories – it usually means you will encounter bravery and noble self-sacrifice, two literary tropes that I simply cannot resist. You will see comrades putting themselves in mortal danger to rescue one of their mates; there will be instances of going behind enemy lines on suicidal missions; and generally there will be at least one berserk frenzy that helps save the day. I don’t think loving these types of characters is unique to being a girl, by any means, but identifying with the human factor of the story is something we do immensely well, hence my enjoyment of the everyman character.
Oftentimes incomprehensible, military science fiction terms for weaponry, squads, and transports are gloriously geeky! I most enjoy these for the ‘wtf?’ aspect, and the fact that they are such a *boy* thing. Let me explain... I firmly believe that most girls would come up with a satisfyingly normal name – like ‘big gun’ or ‘blue spaceship’ - but boys like more than this. It comes from the same urge that prompts a boy to list the full specifications of a car or an iMac when asked what vehicle or computer they’d just purchased. So we end up with Pulse-powered Laser guns, or Thunderfists or Proton Torpedoes. Vehicles become Starfighters and Interceptor Attack Drones. So I am mostly amused by the various terms used within MSF, as a girl, although sometimes find them irritating when they are over-used.
MSF is mostly set in space, or on other planets – and, in general (don’t you just love all these sweeping generalisations) the antagonists are of a weird alien race, so as you identify better with the protagonists of the piece. In fact, they are usually of a race that has endless, faceless hordes at its command – such as in the book Starship Troopers, or any piece of Warhammer 40K tie-in fiction that involves Tyranids or Orks. They don’t have motivations – except to destroy, kill, consume – and will be of strange and wonderful descriptions, with tentacles or chitin or feeder tendrils. It’s strange – I hate zombies, but I love alien life forms with an urge to make war (and they are essentially the same thing). I enjoy the vivid descriptions and the fear of such an utterly remote antagonist. This love affair started when I read/listened to War of the Worlds by H G Wells. In that case, the aliens came to us, but they still couldn’t be negotiated with. I guess it is not something most girls get a kick out of – in actual fact, I believe this is my love for the aliens in Warhammer 40K coming to the fore!
Visionary Tactical Nous
Alongside the tropes of courageous grunts, there will often be someone who has the vision necessary to come up with a daring and almost certainly suicidal mission (see again my words on going behind enemy lines). This person can be an officer – one of the few with integrity and humour (so easy to tell apart from the rest, who will therefore be arrogant and unable to see the consequences of any action) – or they might be another of the grunts who manages to present his plan to the one sympathetic officer able to make it happen, right in the nick of time!
The part of MSF I love the most is the message. MSF comes from a background of Vietnam, two World Wars, and modern warfare in Afghanistan and Iraq. The novels within this subgenre will often deal with the futility of war, the horror of committing genocide, and the capability of human beings for great evil. Coming from a military environment (my dad was a member of the UK Armed Forces), I also appreciate the attempt by MSF authors to convey the massive differences between military and civilian life. Despite my slightly glib look at aliens, the antagonists in MSF books can be other humans, and this can show the chilling nature of carnage committed against people of our own race and species.
MSF Essential Works
Now that you have read my reasons for loving military science fiction (I’m sure other people would come up with very different – and possibly more serious – reasons!), here are some of the authors and works you should be rushing out to buy immediately.
For MSF with more than a hint of humour, try the Phule novels by Robert Aspirin.
Although her later novels stray more into the space opera subgenre, Lois McMaster Bujold’s series about Miles Vorkosigian are some of the very best that MSF has to offer.
For a true classic, pick up Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War has garnered critical praise within this subgenre.
Takeshi Kovacs series by Richard Morgan.
And, of course, Dan Abnett is the king of military science fiction tie-in works - and is releasing Embedded very soon!
If you’re a newcomer to this subgenre, you can’t go far wrong with picking up any of these books. For any veterans of military science fiction, how about providing me with your recommendations and reasons for loving the subgenre in the comments section?