Military Science Fiction: Part 1 Of A Personal Tour of SF’s Sub-Genres

armorWhen I first encountered Science Fiction, there were no sub-genres.  We had Science Fiction and its close cousin, Fantasy, and that was it.  There was something called “Space Opera”, but it wasn’t a sub-genre of high renown and import, it was the 99% of Sturgeon’s Law.  Bad SF usually created by people who either knew better but were lazy, or by those who just didn’t know.  There were also magazines that advertised “Science Fantasy” with their titles, but this was generally understood as a title meant to appeal to readers of both Science Fiction and Fantasy –  or received as Science Fiction that was a little light on the science (and usually heavy on the action).

There were pulp magazines that readers came to understand generally concentrated on particular kinds of stories:  science heavy works in Astounding/Analog, more adventure, less science and exotic locales in Planet Stories, interplanetary escapades in both Amazing Stories and Wonder Stories, more socially adept and potentially humorous fare in Galaxy and If…but these were generally “sub-genres” identified by the magazines that published them than they were true identifiers of theme and approach.

I think the first true sub-genre I encountered was for “Hard Science Fiction”.  This meant stories that strove to faithfully extrapolate known science of the day, worked hard not to violate any scientific principals (more often than not were written as deliberate “thought-experiments) and usually found both their conflicts and resolutions in the science that concerned the story.

My impression is that the use of that sub-genre name was employed more to distinguish associated works from the “New Wave” (the second sub-genre encountered) than it was to establish a group of works that could be separately identified by a set of defined elements.  In other words “this is Hard Science Fiction, not that wishy-washy, sociologically oriented, feelings kind of trash”.  Sub-genre by way of negativity, if you will.  (The “new wave” was not well-received initially, though it has apparently had a lasting effect on the genre and if I were to go out on a limb, I’d be tempted to say that much contemporary SF would have been classed as New Wave back in the day.)

This is all to say that prior to my three-decade gafiation from the genre that started in the early 80s, I always received these classifications of Science Fiction (new wave, a Galaxy type story…) as loose descriptors of the kind of story I’d be reading.  Not as a hard-and-fast classification.  And they really were nothing more than a minor estimate of the content of a story;  “a Galaxy type story” was nothing more than a statement that the work corresponded to the generally perceived average kind of story one would find in that magazine.  Likewise, the flavors of “Hard” SF one encountered under that moniker ran the gamut of sciences, ran the gamut of accuracy and ran the gamut of themes.  There was very often a good chance that the reader would not personally agree with the classification.

Upon my return to the fold, things had changed mightily.  Marketing had taken a firm hand in the publishing biz (by which I mean it was becoming both more influential and based more on hard numbers than guesswork) and folks in the industry had done a mighty job of not only putting everything into a sub-genre box, but of re-purposing some of the old ones:  Space Opera had gone from being used to identify bad science fiction to become one of the top, most lauded and popular forms of the genre.

I don’t view this all as necessarily being a good thing:  marketing often works like old Soviet Military Doctrine:  only reinforce where you are having success, in pursuit of greater success.  Never mind that you’re robbing other fronts of much needed support;  never mind that the “enemy” could break through where you’ve now voluntarily weakened yourself.

In terms of the publishing biz what that means is that greater obstacles are placed in the way of works that don’t fit the current model of “success”;  it also means that an environment is created in which “more of the same” is encouraged and, potentially, the bar is lowered in order to expand the market.  (More people read at a 2nd grade level than read at a college level.  Clearly we will sell more written for 2nd graders than for college grads.  I don’t think it is nearly as bad as all that, but you should catch the drift.)

hammersWhat I have observed as a consequence of this is a lot of narrowing of focus on the part of many readers.  They find the kind of story they really like and, since it is now very easy to identify similar works by sub-genre classification (and because most people want a guarantee of good entertainment and many people make their buying decisions based on that desire at least in part), the combination of marketing and sub-genre trends towards people finding a comfort zone and sticking with it.  I’m glad that people are reading SF of any kind.  However, I continue to believe that most such readers would be well-rewarded by abandoning their comfort zones.

When I first started reading SF, there were no comfort zones, or rather, those comfort zones were very wide indeed.  The only thing you had to go by were:  the reputation and past history of the magazine that had published the story, the blurb on the back cover and the occasional review (if you read the magazines).  Oh, and of course whatever prior experience you may have had with the author.  (Which itself was never any guarantee.  Try going from Starship Troopers to Stranger in a Strange Land to see what I mean.)

I very strongly believe that this was an asset, something beneficial to the reader because it encouraged me (and presumably others) to read widely, with few preconceived notions of what we’d be receiving.  Consequently, I’m pretty widely read (at least among works now considered classic), having cracked the covers on everyone from Abbott to Zelazny at least once.

boloToday we’re encouraged to identify the flavor of SF.  We’ve for Hard SF, Space Opera, Alternate History, Post Apocalyptic, Steampunk, Cyberpunk, Dieselpunk, Science Fantasy, Planetary Romance, Space Western, SF Romance, Slipstream, and more.

Among the most popular (at least judging by titles published and advertised) is Military Science Fiction.  A sub-genre I read and enjoyed before it was named.  (I’m still waiting for a Star Trek movie featuring the Federation – Klingon war that concentrates on space fleet action…)  But what is MilSF?

Are MilSF works those that focus solely on military things – uniforms, ranks, weapons, organizational charts, TOEs, acronyms, battles and explosions – or do they include works that have war as a backdrop, or causal effect, or perhaps only a character or two with a military background?

If we restrict ourselves to the former, well, that’s pretty confining.  If we take the latter on the other hand, there’s an awful lot of MilSF out there!

Despite the fact that one of the grandfathers of SF introduced interplanetary warfare (H.G. Wells) and his partner in crime introduced technologically based terrorism (Verne), and despite the presence of numerous pre (The Battle of Dorking for example) and pulp-age fare that involved (usually) spaceships blowing things up (The Skylark of Space), it’s pretty safe to say that Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Haldeman’s The Forever War, published a decade apart, are the pillars upon which this sub-genre rests.  (If you want to survey the field quickly, one could do worse than reading the aforementioned and following that up with Scalzi’s Old Man’s War.)

Interesting, especially when one considers that Haldeman has been endlessly queried about whether or not TFW is an “answer” to ST, to which he has always responded:  “No”.

Why is that interesting?  Because there are at least three ways to look at those pillars and what they’ve wrought over the past three plus decades since.

swIf you look at both novels as being science fictional war stories, (which of course they are on a basic level), there is much to find in common, and much that one will find reflected in many of the follow-on works that are nothing more than science fictional war stories:  you’ve got the single (usually male) hero who through pluck, luck, native skill and intelligence and a profound willingness to retain an open mind, manages to win through to the end.  You’ve got an inscrutable alien nemesis that has powers beyond those of mere humans; you’ve got a front row seat to burning lasers, nuclear explosions and gore;  you’ve got FTL travel, “real” military trappings (TO&Es in both), ranks, uniforms and salutes (“Fuck you, Sir!”) and stakes that involve the potential annihilation of the entire human species.

If you look at both novels as being Science Fiction novels that use as their foil the trappings of an interstellar war, what you have are two very different works that focus on two entirely different themes:  the Heinlein’s focus is the consequences of personal responsibility (taking it on, seeing it through and why one would want to do so);  the Haldeman’s is largely on the consequences of alienation caused by war.

But their also both works about the impact of various technologies on society:  Heinlein’s Powered Armor places the destructive power of an entire contemporary (1960s) army division into the hands of a single individual; Haldeman’s Tachyon FTL drive introduces the effects of time dilation at a very human level.

Both works are also sociological in nature;  Haldeman presents several different cultures markedly divergent from our own – societies that are extrapolated from observation of the 1970s world; Heinlein upends everything by altering the adult franchise.

And of course there’s the explosions.  In terms of jumping into the action, there are few better examples than the opening “drop” in Starship Troopers (a small scale punitive action against potential allies of the primary arachnid foes);  Haldeman neatly captures the anxiety of “sitting in a foxhole” during space battle scenes when the infantry are nothing more than spam-in-a-can.  (He also presents space battles in what is perhaps the most ‘accurate’ description written down so far:  battling unseen foes, a fight of numbers, trajectories, maneuvering reserves, silent-service type guesswork and psychology, death at a remote distance.)

Many such “MilSF” stories I’ve read over the years are similar in the respect that while they have military elements, they also include examinations of culture, technology, psychology and more.

bezerkerOne can find MilSF in the works of H. Beam Piper (Space Viking, Uller Uprising), Eric Frank Russel (Wasp in particular); Alan Dean Foster (A Call to Arms); Jerry Pournelle (well, most of his stuff including the Janissaries series); Poul Anderson (The High Crusade); Harry Turtledove (the Down to Earth series for a particularly SF kind of “mil”); David Drake of course; Judith Merril’s first sale – That Only A Mother – has a disturbing consequence-of-war background; Cordwainer Smith created an entirely new kind of space war in his story Mother Hitton’s Liulle Kittons; Fred Saberhagen’s Bezerker stories are legendary, as are Laumer’s Bolo tales.  A. Bertram Chandler presents space privateering (not piracy) in his novel Star Loot; Harlan Ellison writes some nasty close-quarters fighting in A Boy and His Dog.

The list goes on and on;  Anderson’s Flandry tales; Heinlein’s Earth invasion story The Puppet Masters; Niven’s The Soft Weapon; Honor Harrington; even all the way back to Campbell and Hamilton’s world & galaxy busting pulp tales.

With rare exception, not a single one of those stories (and the thousands that they are representative of) is labeled as a “MilSF” story.  Want to find some good MilSF?  Ditch the comfort zone.

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