TT: War in Space

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Just page back and consider how much back story is good and how much is too much…  Then come and march with me and Alan as we gird on our blasters, board our dreadnoughts, and sail into the reaches of interstellar war.

Military SF

Military SF

JANE: Last time we were talking about Space Opera.  Certainly, Space Opera cannot be fully discussed without looking at Military SF.

I don’t have a tidy definition from somewhere else to draw on.  How does this one work for you?

“Military SF is science fiction in which the role of the military – whether represented as a space navy or armored combat troops or some other inventive representation of the warfare of the future – is central to the action.”

ALAN:  I can’t argue with that.

JANE: Space Opera certainly has a long tradition of soldiers in space, but this time I’d like to start with some of the more current presentations rather than with older publications.

One of my favorite Military SF series in recent years was Walter Jon Williams’ “Dread Empire Falls” series, which starts with The Praxis.  I really liked his convoluted interplay of civilian and military demands on the navy.  My only regret was that he didn’t do more with the aliens.  I really liked them.

ALAN: I enjoyed the “Dread Empire Falls” series as well, though I would have preferred to have seen it written as two books rather than three. I thought the pacing dragged a bit towards the end. But it didn’t commit the sins that far too much military SF is guilty of and it had a pleasing depth and cleverness to it.

JANE:  What “sins” are those?

ALAN: There are two branches of the genre which I intensely dislike. One seems to regard military campaigning as somewhat akin to a chess game and it spends page after tedious page describing the minutiae of military maneuvering. S. M. Stirling is particularly guilty of this.  While I often find the early books in his various series interesting and fun (because he is setting up the initial scenario), I generally find the later books to be rather dull as they degenerate into long battle descriptions and speculations on strategy and tactics.

JANE: I share the same preference.  For example, I loved Island in the Sea of Time.  I didn’t hate any of the later books, but I do prefer the emphasis on characters to tactics.

By the way, did you know I wrote a story about Stirling’s ultimate warriors, the Draka?

ALAN: No – I didn’t know that. Tell me more!

JANE: Yep.  It’s called “The Big Lie” and appeared in the anthology Drakas!  It’s basically a retelling of Stirling’s novel Marching Through Georgia told from the point of view of a Draka hero who’s a secret coward.  I cheerfully acknowledged my debt to George MacDonald Fraser’s character Flashman.  Steve still talks to me, too…

ALAN: That’s nice. I’ve always enjoyed Flashman…

The other major branch of the genre is typified by Robert Buettner’s novels (particularly his “Orphans” series) which are so full of unthinking  gung-ho patriotism and the glory of war that I can really only describe them as military porn. Not only do I dislike these kinds of books, I find them positively offensive.

JANE: I haven’t read those books, so I can’t comment on them specifically.  However, I can comment on the “military porn” issue.  David Weber and I have talked about this topic a lot.   As I’m sure you know, he is best known for his space navy stories of Honor Harrington and, when you’re blowing up starships, the body count can get pretty high.

Weber said something that meant a lot to me.  This isn’t a direct quote, but I think it captures his philosophy: “It’s war porn when only the bad guys or anonymous troops die.  To understand the cost of war, ‘real’ people, people you care about, also need to die.”

ALAN: I’d never really put my dislike into words, but now that you’ve said it, I find that I strongly agree with Weber. And Buettner’s books, for example, match Weber’s definition of war porn perfectly.

I also find that military SF attracts an oddly pedantic and persnickety audience. For example, in a discussion of John Dalmas’ novel Bavarian Gate, which involves mystic warrior Curtis Macurdy fighting Adolf Hitler’s psychic shock troops in a mythical World War II, one reviewer complained that:

“There were some technical errors that bothered me in the extreme. First the German standard armoured half track did not have doors in the drivers compartment, entrance was through the troop compartment. The second error was that the standard German rifle and machine gun cartridge during WWII was 7.92mm not 7.62mm (modern NATO round) A little easy research would have fixed these mistakes.”

He went on to say that the entire story was ruined for him because of those fundamental  mistakes. I find this attitude hard to understand.

JANE: I guess inaccuracies might ruin a story  for an expert – and fans of military minutia would be drawn to Military SF.  I know I can get turned off  by stories where animal characters nod or shake their heads, as if they’re humans.  I mean, not even all human cultures use those gestures.  Still, I’ll admit, those particular military details would slide right over my head.

ALAN: Me too.

JANE: Moving along, there’s plenty of Military SF that isn’t Space Opera at all.  I’m thinking of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s (some say written in reaction) Forever War.

ALAN: Yes indeed – and I’d add John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War to that list. I think the books succeed because they are not really about military things except on the small scale of story details. Heinlein’s novel was a vehicle for exploring the implications of some rather odd, but nonetheless interesting, political ideas. And the Haldeman and Scalzi novels have a lot to say about the futility and wastage of war itself. I’d put Haldeman’s novel (and to a lesser extent Scalzi’s) well inside the same literary spectrum that is occupied by mainstream books such as Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead and Remarque’s All Quiet On The Western Front.

JANE: You’ve made a very good point here.  Books about a future military don’t need to glorify war…  In fact, the best ones make the cost of continual war very clear.

Your comment about John Dalmas’s “mystic warrior” reminded me of one of my favorite Military SF series: Gordon R. Dickson’s books about the Dorsai.  I haven’t read one in years (and now I’m itching to do so), but I remember being impressed by Dickson’s examination of the mental aspect of war – that winning relies as much on the people as the technology.  Of course, some of the Dorsai characters were really remarkable, bred as they were to war, but to me, when I read the books, that only made the stories more fascinating.

ALAN: I found the Dorsai books to be very variable in quality. Some I enjoyed a lot, but others left me cold, I’m not really sure why. Nevertheless they have a good reputation and they probably do deserve a place on my shelves.

JANE: So, we’ve gone from Space Opera to Military SF…  What next?

ALAN: Actually, I have an idea for a tangent that takes off from a tangent.  How about we do that next time?

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4 Responses to “TT: War in Space”

  1. Ann M Nalley Says:

    First to comment today! Wow! We have a two hour school delay because of snow, so I have some unexpected free time. I agree with Jane and Alan on two counts. For war stories to be true and relevant, “good” people, our friends in these stories, also must be lost. Otherwise, there is no sense of the true cost of war ~ which, even when fought for a “just” cause (and how ambiguous THAT word is!) still has a horrible price attached to it. Secondly, I am lost in the minutia of technical battle strategy. Perhaps I am lost when it comes to any technical detail I don’t personally understand. I love Tom Clancy’s THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER, but I drifted through the explanation of how nuclear submarines work. On a much broader level, in the HARRY POTTER series, the books became so much more painful when Cedric Digory died. A good man, a good friend, lost to evil.

  2. Heteromeles Says:

    Gosh, it’s good to know that I’m not alone in getting thrown off by the details. In Weber’s work, the one that got me was when he switched out a wonderfully SF fusion reactor to put a “better” fission reactor in a new class of ships. My jaw dropped and I got booted out of the story. I still liked the story and reread it several times, but every time, I had to climb back into the narrative after that particular hooter. It’s weird, because when you think about it, there are all sorts of other nonsensical details in his universe that I accepted uncritically, but that one detail got me every time. It’s good to know I’m not alone.

    I’m actually working on a fantasy that includes a WWII component, and I’ll admit, getting the details right has been a huge concern. It’s not just the technology, it’s everything from slang to social relations. Creating the illusion of accuracy is a lot of work.

    One problem I’m surprised you didn’t cover is that SF writers so often fight a previous war in their books. John Carter’s Martians had hugely powerful guns, but used them with old-fashioned tactics. Burroughs wrote the first John Carter before WWI, before anyone realized how much high-powered fire arms would change war tactics. Still, a century later, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War makes exactly the same mistake, using modern military tactics with god-guns. To pick another example, Weber’s Honorverse certainly invited comparisons with Horatio Hornblower, with the starships carefully configured to handle like the tall ships of an earlier age.

    How often do we see a truly futuristic war in SFF? Last night I watched Nova’s Rise of the Drones, a show about how radically air warfare has changed in the last decade, and how radically its proponents say it will change in coming decades. We can even predict that World War 3 will take place in space, simply because all these superpowered drones depend on satellite links, and several countries now have missiles that can kill satellites. But, outside the Terminator franchise, how often do we see this kind of war in science fiction?

  3. Louis Robinson Says:

    May I suggest that you definition is a trifle broad? Intelligence is certainly part of the role of the military, but I don’t think many people count the adventures of Captain Sir Dominic Flandry as MilSF. Nor do I notice If This Goes On… [aka Revolt in 2100] on any lists of the genre, despite the centrality of a military person to the story. This is to say nothing of The Legion of Space or Bullard of the Space Patrol, to excavate a couple of examples from the deep dark mists of time simply because they popped into my head. Both books look at roles of the military. Mind you, the former shows something the brass would _much_ prefer be kept out of the public eye, but…

    I was going to say that warfare is the significant element, but when you consider someone like Flandry, who is fighting a long, slow war of shadows – and one he knows was already lost before he entered the lists, it’s not clear that that really defines the books usually classed as MilSF. What they do have in common is combat – the direct confrontation of armies and fleets, of soldiers & spacers.

    Military SF isn’t so much about the role of the military as it is about militaries playing their role.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    Thanks for the expansions… I firmly agree with the comments made.

    We can’t deal with every aspect in the thousand or so words we permit ourselves — which is why sometimes we have multi-part chats. Even so…

    Anyhow, it’s lots of fun when people suggest books or different approaches. My reading list has really expanded because of comments, not only by Alan, but by the rest of you!

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