why you should read military SF

A discussion of a Worldcon panel ‘Military SF revisited’ with panel members Toni Weisskopf (Baen’s editor of military SF), Howard Tayler (Hugo nominee and cartoonist of military SF) and Jean Johnson (novelist)

What is it with the military in Science Fiction?

I’m not talking solely of the subgenre military SF, a market well and truly cornered by Baen’s, but the fact that the military has a place in a lot of SF. In fact, point me to an SF novel that doesn’t involve military, militia or police.

I think the reason may be this:

In order to mount large operations, and space flight and space colonisation are prime examples of large operations, you need to have an organisation with tight discipline and fairly authoritarian decision-making processes. A military-style organisation is supremely suited to fill that spot.
They could be mercenary armies or merchant forces, but it is likely they will all function to a fairly rigid command structure. The military provides logistics, rescue and defense and simply people to do things.

Hence, military SF.

This was a very well-attended and emotional panel. It was the last panel of the day. The room was packed. I mean emotional in that it engaged a wide range of emotions. There were many panels I enjoyed and found useful, but this was the one where I felt most ‘right’.

Toni started by asking the audience who had served in the military (many hands went up), or who had a family member who had. I fall in the latter category. My father was an air traffic controller in the air force for seven years. He’d taken a civilian job by the time I was old enough to remember, but military life was still fresh for him. If I remember anything about my youth, it’s his stories of life in the barracks. Mostly, they’re stories of discipline, of consequences. This is precisely what I like about the military. The discipline is harsh, but the consequences of not following protocol and orders are clear and straightforward. In fact, I believe that every parent-to-be should hear or read these stories so they can understand the sequence order, disobedience, consequence.

Today, perhaps thankfully, the military is a long way from the lives of a lot of people. Most countries have abolished compulsory conscription. On the other hand, governments make decisions that require military involvement. In other words: someone’s got to do the dirty work. People go out and serve in whatever locality the government decrees, most often in third world countries these days, and find themselves in hostile territory once they return home. Their former civilian friends have seen the brutal images on tv; they never agreed with the government sending troops anyway, and why can’t we all get along and be happy. Who needs the military anyway?

One of the functions military SF can fulfil is to bridge that gap, by making soldiers’ lives real through fiction.

And ‘real’ is neither good nor bad.

Military SF as subgenre is about the military, with military applications and problems, but not the glorifying of killing (Toni called this military porn). Military SF can involve an army representing a government, a private force or mercenaries. Characters often face crises of command. The military doesn’t have to be portrayed as either good or bad (there are examples of both within military SF). Most often, the military just is, a part of life, necessary. Sadly, perhaps, but necessary.

It is important that the writer knows the military, and has access to readers in the military. The everyday situation of soldiers is important, a life which is often monotonous and involves a lot of waiting.

For me personally, this panel put a lot of pieces into place. I had previously been hesitant to call my upcoming novella Charlotte’s Army military SF. It does involve a character in the military, but being a doctor, she’s on the outside. The story neither glorifies nor vilifies the armed forces, and involves a serious breach of command.

Military SF further allows us to look at the military aside from the political baggage that it comes with in the real world. Whereas a novel about a present-day military situation always draws questions about whether or not the conflict is justified, stupid, racist, or whatever, in SF, the adversaries aren’t real, and military processes and attitudes take centre-stage. Hidden in the pages of military SF are gems about human behaviour, about social structure, and about human reactions in extreme situations.

For all the reasons above, you could do worse than pick up a military SF novel.

P.S. Howard Tayler is an incredibly fun person, aside from his amazing boots (does anyone have a picture of his boots?). While most nominations for graphic novel involved an entire team of writers and artists, Howard does Schlock Mercenary all by himself. I haven’t read graphic novels, but meeting him makes me think I should check them out.

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