Genrely Speaking: Military SciFi

Welcome back to¬†Genrely¬†Speaking, the part of the blog where we sit down and look at modern genres and what we mean when we mention them on this blog. Classifying things is as much art as science, so having style guides is important for you if you want to be clearly understood. Thus we get a monthly segment. This week’s genre: Military Sci-Fi.

Military sci-fi is a subgenre of science fiction (surprise!) and, if you’ve read enough of the previous entries in this subsection you know that sci-fi is the genre that examines human ideas. Military sci-fi is most closely related to hard sci-fi in that it takes ideas of human development in general, and military development specifically, and applies them to craft a tale about human ingenuity and courage. You can usually spot it a mile away by the title of the story and what’s on the cover, but once you get inside you’ll also find the following hallmarks of the genre:

  1. An emphasis on the idea of necessity as the mother of invention. Many people will quote the idea that wars drive progress, and that’s true to an extent. Wars will cause a lot of resources to be focused on solving a very narrow slew of problems. While normally money and attention is spent on whatever problems people think need solving at the moment, during war (or at least total war such as we last witnessed a generation ago during World War Two) the needs of the military override the preferences of individuals or nonmilitary groups. A big focus of military sci-fi is how this unusual confluence of money, time and intellect comes together to produce results in ways that are sometimes quite surprising.
  2. An examination of the interface of technology and conflict. Whether the author is Taylor Anderson examining what would happen if you dropped WWII era technology into a war fought with sailing vessels and crossbows or Ian Douglas spinning tales of daring and bravery backed by the bleeding edge theories of reactionless propulsion and sentient computer technology, military sci-fi examines how warfare will change, how it will stay the same and how people will adapt to the situation.
  3. Sound military theory. The more things change the more they stay the same. There’s a reason Sun Tzu’s The Art of War is such an enduing treatise on conflict – much of what it says is valid in just about any kind of conflict, regardless of whether it’s armed or political, futuristic or primitive, if you apply it correctly. The military sci-fi author recognizes that and relies on this and many other examinations of military theory to create their scenarios. Of course, if you’re writing in this genre it’s also important to keep an eye on the less tangible aspects of war – endurance, determination, courage and principles.

What are the weaknesses of military sci-fi? It can be a very impersonal genre. Military histories, the style of nonfiction our genre most closely resembles, tends to focus on leaders and decision makers, and the facts and figures they use to reach their decisions. This is because warfare is a vast and chaotic undertaking and even decades after the fact it can be hard to find a clear picture of what took place. But fiction is ultimately a much more personal thing than nonfiction. We don’t want facts and figures, we want suspense, empathy with characters, memorable dialog and exciting plot twists. While military sci-fi can deliver on all of that, it can be hard to do and not every author does it well.

What are the strengths of military sci-fi? It’s big, bombastic and fun. If properly written it delivers rousing speeches, sudden reversals and snatches victory from the jaws of defeat. It can be like Lord of the Rings, Star Trek and Saving Private Ryan all rolled into one and there’s no doubting that, when it really works, it’s good stuff.

There’s a thin line between cool geek and irredeemable dweeb. With the mainstreaming of comics/graphic novels and other traditionally “geek” media over the past ten years that line keeps getting harder and harder to define. But military sci-fi remains so far into dweeb territory that you can’t even see geek from there. I like the genre, myself, but I don’t think anything I’ve ever read in it would make my top five books of a given year, much less all time. If you love geeky gizmos check it out. Otherwise, you might want to look elsewhere…