Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Military Science Fiction is 'da bomb'!

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.

The Everyman

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.

Foreign Terminology

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.

Far-flung Cultures

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 Message

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?

Happy reading!


  1. You need to include Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers in your list of essential MSF. Quite a remarkable (and important) book.

  2. I don't read enough of it, to be a savvy commentator - but in general, I find too much among it that's futuristic war-porn or game tie fiction in all but name.

    Even if there is a message that "war is bad" too often the actual battles are made overly Kwel!, the weapon-porn overly shiny, the aliens not alien enough, and it all a bit too much 1950s style storming of the beaches only with bigger, badder guns and cyborg ladies in nano-tights, for *my* tastes.

    Cisco's The Narrator was the last "sf" war novel that I enjoyed. A very good and original book.


  3. Ah, also add James Lovegrove whose military sci fi I love! He writes in a very accessible way, fooling me into thinking I have a remote clue as to what is going on.

  4. Avoid Heinlein's Starship Troopers. It's a thinly-disguised crypto-fascist screed, with very little in the way of plot. The film is much, much better.

    Read the first two or three Honor Harrington books, but avoid the rest. I've always had a soft spot for Richard Fawkes' two novels - it's a shame they're not better known. Likewise SN Lewitt and Michelle Shirey Crean.

  5. I think Starship Troopers is a little more complex than that, but I'm not disagreeing that it is a strange and disturbing book. But it's also fascinating example of how an author can project their views into prose, and should be a "set text" for fans of MSF. If you are interested in the genre, Starship Troopers is an important early work.

  6. I disagree. Starship Troopers is not a complex novel. Rico joins Mobile Infantry. Rico gets lectured at. Rico fights. Rico gets lectured at some more. Rico fights some more. Repeat.

  7. I'm a recent newcomer to MSF after reading Alex's CassaStar, and with the exception of 40k tie in novels (you're very right, those books kick ass) it's made MSF/space opera the only type of sci-fi I'll read. Sci-fi that's too techy tends to bore me very quickly, so MSF is fast paced and has the right amount of science for my magic addled brain to handle. I've not read any non-40k stuff from Abnett, so I may give that a shot. Thanks! :D

  8. Glen Cook's "Passage at Arms" is a must read. Submarine warfare in space.

  9. John Ringo/ David Weber.

    Ringo's politics are strong, though, especially in some series over others. I like his ones with Travis Taylor, and the series that started out with There Will Be Dragons. Centurion, on the other hand, was way too much politics and negativity to the other point of view, and honestly made me switch from buying his books in hardback to only checking them out from the library...with that going away if he doesn't tone it down somewhat.

    Weber's Honor Harrington series is another good one.

    Robert Buettner's Orphans series is lot like Starship Troopers, until it isn't anymore-great fun :)

  10. Just finished a re-read of Ender's Game today. It holds up well...

  11. Almost forgot-David Feintuch's Hope series-Military style (nautical) spacefaring, that is heavy on character.

  12. I love military science fiction!

    I recommend:
    David Weber- Honor Harrington series for sure, but he has other series that are just as good
    Mike Shepherd's Kris Longknife Series
    John Scalzi's Old Man's War Series
    Elizabeth Moon's Serrano Legacy Series

    Supercroc Warriors the science fiction graphic novel by Craig Frank Crowley has abnormal crocodiles wearing a burqa while roaming around Bangkok stalking their next victim.
    Fighting for animal species survival, the Supercroc Warriors use their own advanced weaponry of robotic croc droids, flying drones and explosive spear tipped mini-copters to advance their cause against human domination over animal species.
    Supercroc Warriors the book trailer video has now been released on Youtube and bit torrent sites globally, , and many others.

  14. I'm not terribly well read in MSF, as I'm not super well-read in SF period. Allisyn pointed out the two series I really, really liked and which convinced me that maybe I wasn't too stupid for SF: the Kris Longknife books and Moon's Serrano Legacy :) One of these days I want to explore more (M)SF and I'm definitely taking the recommendations here aboard!

  15. Awesome article Magemanda. I actually copied this and may use it for my thesis, with correct citation of course! I am a big fan of MF (military fiction) and MNF (military non-fiction) but I am doing my thesis on SF. Thanks for sharing the thoughts, books and ideas! The woman's perspective is truly the important part!

  16. As a pretty big fan of MilSF, I recommend the following.
    Heinlein's Starship Troopers is the seminal work for the genre and should be read for it has influenced everything that follows.
    Joe Haldeman The Forever War
    John Scalzi Old Man's War
    David Drake Hammer's Slammers series
    David Drake and Eric Flint Belisarius series
    John Ringo The Legacy of the Aldenata series, Council War series, Through the Looking Glass series
    Tom Kratman Desert Called Peace series
    David Weber Honor Harrington series, Safehold series, In Fury Born
    David Weber and Steve White Starfire Series
    David Feintuch Hope series
    Jack Campbell The Lost Fleet series

    As far as publishers in the genre go, I feel that you can't go wrong with most of the books published by Baen. Baen has become the premier publisher of milsf, though some may take exception with the conservative nature of many of its authors.