08 June 2016

FWS Top 10: The Critical Elements of Good Military Sci-Fi

FWS spends time research what the other media outlets are saying about military sci-fi, and at times, FWS response with our own blogpost about the same subject raised. That is the origin of this blogpost. A few weeks ago, a Facebook page I follow, posted an link to an author, Laura E. Reeve, who explained the seven crucial elements of military science fiction. While I agreed with some of her points, but I also disagreed. So, here is FWS Top 10 list of the critical elements of "good" military science fiction. Enjoy!

1. An Convincing Enemy
In the real-world, wars and conflicts are fought between groups that have their own philosophies, society, culture, strategies, and point-of-view on the conflict. Rarely, are the parties involved in armed conflict irregular and loosely aligned..even street gangs, Al-Qaeda, and ISIS have their own interior culture and strategies. However, the same cannot be said of the "enemies" seen in science fiction. At times, they are paper-thin antagonists and merely targets for our heroes to shoot at. Creators will forge their protagonist and their side of the conflict in lavish loving detail, but nearly ignore the antagonist side of the conflict. In works like Enemy Mind, Footfall, ROBOTECH, HALO, Killzone, and even Star Trek we see well-developed antagonist to an conflict with the audience seeing more as a fully formed part of the work's interior universe. This only adds layers to your military sci-fi, making it more memorable and enduring.
However, we have works like Destiny, GI Joe, Armor, Starship Troopers, Edge of Tomorrow, and Oblivion; where we see that the story is mostly centered around the protagonist(s) and their side of the conflict. While Destiny answered some of the questions over the Darkness, the Fallen, the Vex, the Hive, and the space turtle Cabal via Gilmore Cards, they lack any real substance in the actual game besides being targets. And this lack of development leads to a less convincing setting for our military sci-fi universe and for the audience.
There are times, when the story is more about the "good" guys of the story than the enemy, like my book Endangered Species, but I still developed the enemy enough via my characters experiences with them, like the crew of the Nostromo in ALIEN. There has to be a careful balancing act in those kinds of stories. This can also be applied to stories and settings where the enemy is largely unknown for plot and dramatic purposes, like Space: Above and Beyond, ALIENS, and Predator. These types of stories allow the audience a sense of good mystery and wonder about the antagonists, allowing for the work to endure in the minds of the audience. This is the way I felt about the Xenomorphs, the Yautja (Predators), the Skinnies from SST, and the Chigs; I wanted to know more about them and that was compelling, making these enemies more convincing to the fictional universe. Also, an convincing enemy can say more about your protagonist and our fictional universe than you original thought.

2. "We Band of Brothers"
Since the dawn of the human race on this planet, we have worked together in nearly all affairs of human endeavors, and no more is that true than in war. Military organizations are completely dependent and constructed around teamwork to accomplish goals, operate machines, and complete missions. This means that soldiers fight together as a band of brothers and sisters, no one fights alone. Even Master Chief had Cortana and Jack Bauer had Chloe O'Brian. Good military sci-fi should incorporate this "band of warfighters" mentality and tactic into the DNA of the military units seen. Only during times of extreme combat or accident should soldiers be depicted alone in sci-fi, as we saw with the Master Chief on Installation 04 in HALO: Combat Evolved....but even then, he had Cortana in his local network. In some sci-fi works, the unit mentality is a key element in the story.
As we saw in Space: Above and Beyond with the USMC 58th squad, HALO: Reach had Noble Team, Commander Shepard had her band of badass fighters from around the galaxy, and even Juan Rico was part of "Rassczak's Roughnecks" and "Willie's Wildcats" in the SST novel. These military units allow the audience to attach to various characters and allow the creator(s) to have a wider net to cast stories and POVs with. This applies more in films, books, and TV series than in military sci-fi video games. Given the conditions and settings of video games, you can wage an entire war by yourself as I am doing with Destiny and most of the HALO games. This can even apply if we are talking about more cryborgs and military robots. We have seen Terminators, Cybermen, Daleks, the Borg, and Cylons work together to accomplish their goals and exterminate the meatbags. Even when these warmachines are seemingly operating on their own, they are depend on other machines and networks to help them in the fight.

3. The Iconic Piece of Military Technology
Technology is such a critical element of war, and every war has iconic pieces of technology that represent it like the Mark IV tank of World War One, the Atomic Bombs from World War II, the Huey helicopter of Vietnam, and the Colt M4a1 carbine of the War on Terror....and military science fiction is no different. Every good and even bad military science fiction work has them: the iconic pieces of military technology that becomes a karger symbol of the work to the general public. Take the powered armor from Starship Troopers, the Valkyrie transformable airplane mecha from Macross and ROBOTECH, the mecha from Battletech, the M41a1 Pulse Rifle from ALIENS, the Yamato from Space Cruiser Yamato, the phasers from Star Trek, the X-Wing/TIE Fighters from Star Wars, and the cybernetic bodies of Ghost in the Shell. All of these are iconic technological elements to the story and serve as a centerpiece of the fictional universe and their level of technology. This allows for an easily accessible element of an military sci-fi work that could attract people to seek it out. After all, what would Battletech or ROBOTECH be without their mecha?

4. Setting the Table with Proper World Building
As a social studies teacher, I teach the next generation about war, armies, governments, and the events that lead to the crash of arms and the spilling of blood. I have to set the stage for them, and any creator has to set the stage for their audience. As with any sci-fi work, one of the most critical elements is setting the stage via proper and thoughtful world building. Constructing that fictional universe for all of the characters, places, and events, to work within is one of the most critical jobs of the creator. What makes military science fiction unique (and complex) in that world building task is also designing a futuristic military organization and astro-political situation (that includes all of the elements listed here in this blogpost) for the space marines, space fleets, enemies, and the empires to occupy and fight in. This is largest and most critical element of good military sci-fi on this list, and as my grandmother told me: "if you set a proper table, the evening can go forth properly".

5. Life in the (Future) Military
Life in any military organization is very different than civilian life, and this will always be. Good military science fiction will show the hallmarks of military service: jargon, acronyms, training, the endless chains of command, talking shit about civilians, other military branches, and the government, cleaning your weapon, boredom, and the brotherhood/sisterhood bonds of soldiers. Of course, future technology, service on other worlds, future culture, and faster-than-travel will all impact the military culture you create and depict, but some elements of an soldier's' life have and always will exist...it is up to the creator to balance this equation.

6. The Careful Evolution of the Soldier: Balancing the Future and the Past
The life of a soldier is ever evolving via the influences of war, society, technology, and environment. The duty of the military sci-fi creator is to carefully evolve their warfighter of the future, balancing that future with the past to form something realistic and compelling. Military science fiction creators must, of course, evolve the battlefield and the technology, but keep the long-held universal traditions of all soldiers throughout time in mind. Move too far, and your soldiers and space marines are almost too aliens compared to the soldiers of today, and that can completely break any sense of realism for the audience. Move too little, and it looks like you lack any imagination or guts. The key word is balance to make your future soldiers have one boot in the traditions and mud of infantrymen that came before them and one boot in the stars.

7. Tactics and Strategy
Definition time: Military tactics is the art and science of organizing the elements involved in combat operations and non-combat operations on a macro level. The term can also be applied to the micro level of techniques used by soldiers in combat operations like shooting, moving, and positioning. Military strategy is the central ideas, philosophy, and concepts of any military organization applied to the overall war effort and goals. Or as Carl Von Clausewitz defined it "the employment of battles to gain the end of war". In any military sci-fi worth its salt, there needs to be tactics and strategy at least mentioned, if not mapped out. I enjoy writing briefing scenes and mapping out the tactics and strategies of my fictional warfighters quite a bit and I include them whenever proper to the text. This not only gives your audience a mental map to follow prior to the combat scenes, but a chance to flex your military creativity...even if the plan goes to shit the moment the shooting starts. It is also important to factor in how your future technology will affect the tactics and strategy of these future conflicts.

8. Realism
When we discuss the term "realism" in science fiction, we have to talk about realism in context. The vast majority of science fiction has elements of realism coupled with healthy doses of pure scientific fantasy. When it comes to realism in good military sci-fi, it is often expressed in certain ways, mostly dealing with the consequences of combat, loss, and emotions, despite the FTL drives, laser guns, and powered armor being alongside these realistic elements of war and combat.
Realism must be balanced, but without the element of realism, your military sci-fi can be too cartoony and too much like playing DOOM or Call of Duty. This is not just applied to your space marines, but also to the world they live in and the people they interact with; especially their families back home. Also, it is important to remember that if a character is too "god mode" for their own good, the lack of realism will lead to audience boredom and disconnection. This is why Spock dying in Star Trek II: TWOK was such a shocker and Game of Thrones really rejects the idea that core characters cannot die...all adding nice element of realism and the cost of war. There was even that scene in Star Wars: ROTJ during the battle of the shield generator when the one Ewok turns to wake up the other Ewok...touching. Remember, everyone is a Red Shirt in war. On of the best quotes I've ever read about war and its effect on soldiers was from Jose Narosky: "In war, there are no unwounded soldiers".

9. Humor
For those of us that work in stressful jobs and situations, humor is a key element to surviving and returning to work another day. For the last 14 years, I have worked in an Level-II Trauma ICU, and I have seen all manner of human suffering and injury. Humor (and coffee) is an important part of making it through the day and dealing with the horrors we see everyday on the floor. The same is very true of the military. Many of the people I've met the in military are funny fucking people with a great sense of dark twisted humor that often only other military members can fully appreciate. Take the guys at Article 15 clothing, Black Rifle Coffee, and Ranger Up! clothing; their Youtube videos are some of the funniest shit I've ever seen and their new movie: Range 15, is more of same: dark twisted military humor at its best. Even M*A*S*H (movie and TV series) are laced with humor in the middle of a shitty mess of a war. The only war movie my World War II/Korean War veteran Grandfather, Colonel Bregnard, saw and laughed through was the original M*A*S*H film. As Maximus said in The Gladiator: "Death smiles at at us all. All that man can do is smile back", If you are writing military sci-fi, don't make your badass space marines neanderthal barbarians with no sense of humor...it simply is not the truth...hell, even the Master Chief had a sense of humor.

10. Combat
I hate to say this because it is not an informed opinion, but an honest one: Human beings like to see combat in our movies, video games, and books that deal with military matters and topics. This even applies with war stories set in outer space. Nothing is worse than when you crack open an MSF novel and it lacks combat of any kind. Once again, I've never been into combat (besides teaching in an public high school and paintball), and some combat veterans have discussed how combat in media is only really enjoyed by those that have never been in the shit.
War is hell, and the actual specter of combat is a terrifying experience that can alter the mind and soul of the soldier forever. But, we humans seem to crave the opportunity of combat, and this has fueled thousands of years of war stories across all media forms and likely always will. From Homer to Blackhawk Down, this is one of those enduring elements of human storytelling. This tradition has shaped the need for any "good" military sci-fi to have some sort of combat scene within in it to be fully embraced by the audience and become an memorable work.
Next Time on FWS...
For over an hundred years, there has been the idea that one day, robots will be used in war. These computerized metal warriors with either fully replace flesh-and-blood soldiers or augment them on and off the battlefield. In the next blogpost for FWS, we will be diving into the massive topic of robotic soldiers. It is likely that this one will take some time, so there could be a delay. Until next time...


  1. Great post. After reading this, I feel as if when someone writes a piece of military science fiction, despite being however far in the future, it needs to be believable in a lot of areas. If it isn't believable in some way it will be harder to enjoy and/or understand. I personally really enjoy researching the future of military technology and weapons and when a certain technology or weapon is displayed/explained in media poorly (or in a way I don't understand), I have a harder time connecting to that piece of media as I don't understand the technology/weapon. Knowing how a certain gun works to a certain degree helps me connect to it better as I know that it is possible to some extent. Now I don't always do this, because if so, I might not like a lot of MSF media, because not every MSF media explains everything, but for me it is nice to understand. Sometimes if something isn't explained and if I think I can, I try to look up technology or whatever that most closely fits the thing I don't understand so I can tell myself that it maybe possible. Also some MSF media is so far-future or whatever it's not worth trying to understand everything if it isn't explained. If it is explained, then that's a win win for me! That's all for now, and once again, great post and I can't wait for the net blogpost.

    P.S. Also anyone reads this and opposes something I said, this is just my opinion. If not, great!

  2. An excellent, excellent list. I agree with everything you said completely and would say that this is a must read for sci-fi authors.

  3. As a wargamer and an author, first novel out there sitting in a slush pile as we speak, for me plausible enemies are a thing: they should be the heroes of their own story – even if it's the wrong story, as in not the hero of this story. Also, military culture and humour is important: the former is much more hierarchical, ridiculously so by most civilian standards, and the latter is darker than a very dark thing indeed.

  4. Thank you for the kind words everyone, I rewrote portions of this a few times, and even took one part out for the world-building element. The one I am not happy with is the careful evolving of the soldier. Never could nail down what I was trying to communicate.

  5. Thanks. My slush-pile novel isn't aimed at being military sci-fi, but it will feature a lot of it. One thing to remember is that there have been different approaches to military culture throughout the centuries and across the planet. Japanese foot soldiers had a great sense of humour but the samurai were a lot more serious as bushido became an ideal. This was more about showing mental self-control than being grimdark.

  6. An interesting blog entry, though I should put a disclaimer in that I had not read the Laura E. Reeve interpretation beforehand.

    1. That must be, like, rule number one in creating any form of a story no matter the genre. That one must give a plausible depth to the methods and reasonings of the antagonist, or in the case of the Xenomorphs and Yautja, an air of a possible intelligence and purpose behind the seemingly mindless violence and bloodshed. Granted, one should also avoid the naive sand trap of "if we can understand each other, we can live peacefully and end conflict". Though a nice idea, sometimes understanding doesn't neccessarily lead to a peaceful resolution, especially if ones goals are counter with the other party.

    2. Yeah, that seems like rule number two, if not one, of any military story either fictional or non-fictional, science fiction or otherwise. As for Video Games executing such a concept, well besides Republic Commando AFAIK, the best way to emulate this commaderie is through online co-op as a single clan/party/whatever. Or at least until AI becomes advanced enough that NPCs on your "squad" becomes unique to you and your playthrough and one could relate, even emphasize with them.

    3. It is rather hard to find an example without a "flagship" piece of technology that exemplifies the work by a glance, so it's probably an unwritten rule. Though I wouldn't even know what iconic tech vanguard would be for my own setting even if I tried.

    4. It's certainly true that such stories, when within their own universe, cannot exist from a vaccum. Or rather, there has to be a reason for the story to plausibly exist in the first place and what challenges and limitations the characters would have to either navigate around or overcome in order to achieve their goals. With that said, shortcuts via cultural expectations and presumptions could be utilized to decrease the amount of such worldbulding. James Cameron's Colonial Marines being an example of such. Still, one would probably have to walk a fine line between using such cultural and presumption zeitgeist to help ease the process of worldbuilding and laking any substance that would have otherwise make the work of fiction not stand out. I'd make a link to one of my own blogposts, but that might be a bit rude personally.

    5. Yeah, that's gonna be the most difficult for an author to accomplish if one does not have direct personal experience or a second hand source on the matter. Those of us who have any interest in military fiction of any kind would know the rudimentary differences as you have mentioned, but as they say "the devil's in the details" so even if some of the future tech featured in the story would make for some leeway in what those of the uniformed services would do during downtime, it's still going to be an issue to make it relatable and plausible for the reader/viewer to understand and emphasize.

    1. Part two, since the comment system thought my original was just TOO long.....

      6. Paradoxically, the easiest and hardest to perfect for any story. Easy because it doesn't take up too much imagination on the creator's part and certainly hingess on point made in Element 4, thus help focus on the more futuristic aspects of it. Hard because it would seem unimaginative and innovative as you have already mentioned in that section of the blogpost.

      7. It seems that the "briefing room" scene is getting a bit popular as of late, though I can only assume that the average reader/viewer nowadays is a bit more savy in the subject area that the average 80s and 90s action movie could only give momentary satisfaction before such suspension of disbelief is snapped when they begin to question the logic behind the action hero's own tactics. Still, the subject is rather difficult to master for one with limited understanding of the military doctrine even with internet searches and youtube videos. Though I have the feeling that there isn't an audience that would appreciate the old addage of "amatures study strategy, experts study logistics" when it becomes the primary focus. Then again, I have been wrong before.

      8. Not the most ideal of words to title the concept of the story element, but still a useful to keep in mind. Granted, too much death and grim-dark can just be off-putting as any "god mod" marine would be in any story. There'll have to be a blance between the glory of victory and the horrors of war if only to make the characters that much more relatable to the reader/viewer while still being an enjoyable enough of a yarn to keep them enthralled until the last page/scene.

      9. An interesting idea that help a character in a MSF story to keep their sanity, perhaps even enjoy their highly-probable brief lives while they can. Sadly, dark humor isn't one of my strongest suits. Humor, I can fake it but acutal dark humor is not exactly something I have experience with on at least ink to page.

      10. I think this would coencide with Element 8 in that there needs to be a balance between the horrors of war and the glory of fighting. It shouldn't be too glorified or else it'll be considered a warmongerer's fantasy, nor should it be too grim-dark to make readers/viewers feel uncomfortable enough to just not continue the read.

      Anyway, such points does help a creater think about their own story and setting even more, to arguably give it more depth and believability to be an enjoyable read.

  7. Good comments and some good points. Dark humor is something I have a great deal of experience in...sadly. You touched on something in the section about life in the military. It is hard to fake this if you have no direct experience...nor do I. To remedy this situation, I endeavor on the path of which I am formal: research. Watching videos, films, read books all helps in this department. The section on Realism I wasn't sure about at first, but I believed it warranted discussion: war alters you permanently, and just because the war is lightyears away and the enemy are giant bugs, it matters not.
    Thanks for the comments!

    1. Yeah, my only first-hand experience with military life outside of combat is my late dad and, considering that when he retired he was a USAF secretary at the local base even though was trained to be a doctor, it doesn't help much. Everything else is second hand and the reading and viewing of military and SF military media like Aliens, Avatar, Black Hawk Down, the Starship Troopers novel, Jarhead, stuff like that.

      And though I don't have first hand experience in how war can alter a person psychologically, I do know of one who has in my family. The issue is that he's too "macho" to admit that he has PTSD, let alone get treatment for it after six tours in Iraq.