18 February 2012

FWS Topics: the Broken Elements of Military Sci-Fi

The term "Military Science Fiction" can be a madding one, and we here at FWS are attempting to give this important subsection of science-fiction it's due, but we are also here to point the sub-genre's shortcomings. In this blogpost, FWS is going list the most common broken elements of military sci-fi. I will even put my own fails has a MSF author and creator for everyone to see, besides making my English Composition teachers cry then drink heavily. This post was inspirited by the io9.com article "Your Military Science Fiction isn't really Military Science Fiction by Andrew Liptak:

Lack of Combined Arms
There is no greater sin committed by the creators of MSF than the lack of Combined Arms. Often, most military sci-fi works project the evolution of warfare as something akin to the Airborne units of World War II! Much of this has to do with the tradition that Starship Troopers set for us in 1959 with the invention of Armored Power Suits and the Mobile Infantry. According to the vision of Robert Heinlein, interplanetary warfare would be waged by space-dropped heavily armed soldiers encased in robotic suits that use jump-jets and atomic grenade launchers to wage "shock-and-awe" campaigns on their enemies: the bugs and the Skinnies. The same is true of two other founding classics of MSF: The Forever War and Armor. 
Despite the nature of APS and far-future technology, troops dirtside still need heavy fire support when the shit hits the fan, just look at Starcraft or Warhammer 40K, or in Armor. Felix's warrior unit is partly wiped out by a lack of support,no resupply, and no recharges availble for the suits.
Even in America's more infantry-centered modern conflicts, like Vietnam and Afghanistan, soldiers on the ground were able order up close-air support or artillery bombardment from a fire-base. In addition, besides lack of artillery support, is the void of staples of modern warfare, like gunships, tanks, and light military utility vehicles (Jeeps and Hilux trucks). This lack of fire support in MSF even extends into the small infantry units, via a failure in portraying futuristic small units with any accuracy or plausibility due these units lacking in sort of light machine gun, marksman rifle, mortar. Such MSF works like Starship Troopers and Space: Above and Beyond clearly and painfully demonstrate this. It would be hard to imagine a real future small infantry unit without any CAS, space-based artillery, or even a proper machine gun!

War is hell, fought in bad locations, often poor logistic support, civilians mixed into the battlefield, bad food, and a simple lack of Starbuck's. Then, there is the stress and strain of combat, especially during conflicts that involve paramilitary and/or terrorist forces, these conflicts, like Vietnam wear on a soldiers' mental health. But most MSF works, war is much more sanitized vision of this man-made hell, and the tactical situations does mirror real-life situations. I would love to see a MSF film or book that mirrors the more real-life experience of soldiers, either on the frontline or back at the FOB. These more realistic military sci-fi works would be like Platoon, Saving of Private Ryan, Hamburger Hill, or Sea of Sand (1958).
The other element of realism is lack of hard science effects of weapons, does anyone actually research the damage that a plasma round or laser beam would have on a biological target? Some of the more realistic MSF visual works are ALIENS, the HALO short films (like Call to Arms or We are ODST), the webseries Trenches. There is a lack of the medical side of war, medics, and evacs, all critical elements in war. At times, the future battlefield is not three-dimensional enough, especially given the dynamic and fluid battle environment of current conflicts.  

Other POVs
Fictional works that contain futuristic warfare is often good at the point-of-view of the soldiers fighting, veterans, family members back home, serving members of combat warships (think Star Trek), and even space attack jet pilots ( think Star Wars),but then it drops off from there. Most video games, war films, even the sports of paintball and airsoft seemed narrow-focused on the actions of these limited combat ranks of the armed forces.
 This is also true of the common public's perspective of war and the soldiers that wage them. Not all members of the armed services are frontline combat, there is a vast network of support services that makes the infantryman or Special Forces Operator able to take the fight to the enemy. For every one soldier in the field there 5 to 20 members of the military in a long line of logistics and combat support roles. Where are their future war stories? These is a serious gap of not only the logistic officers and cooks, but also medics, mechanics, and the Navy's Seabees. These critical members of the war effort are seemingly ignored by sci-fi creators, which is similar to medical TV shows nurses and doctors getting all the air time on TV, but were is the unit clerks like me or even the respiratory therapists? One has to remember the longest running military TV show was all about combat support personnel: M*A*S*H 4077.

Overall War Strategy
In the original io9.com article that spawned this blogpost, author Andrew Liptak discussing in great detail the lack of an overall war strategy and a 'Carl Von Calusewitz" of military sci-fi. ' In the March 4th, 2010 article, he states this: "A large gap in a lot of military science fiction stories that's never really been filled adequately is wartime strategy, or the connection between each tactical step in battle and an overarching plan that fulfills the political goal of bending an enemy to one's will. To my knowledge, there aren't any good military science fiction books out there that really cover this step, and it is a vital aspect of the nature of warfare."
When I thought about it, there are a few science fiction works where overall war strategy is discussed, not just limited to war simulation games, like Battlefield: 2142, DUNE,Command & Conquer: Tiberian Sun, and, of course, Starcraft.
I think that Andrew Liptak must have missed Star Trek: Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 portrayal of interstellar warfare, because both of these small screen series displayed a wide view of a massive space/planetary war. During the Federation/Dominion War and the Federation/Klingon war, we witnessed Starfleet planning sessions, going after resources, and attempting to sway non-allied governments to their cause. I may skewer the Star Trek universe on FWS, but I do have respect for the level of work they did on these wars  and other points-of-view they Incorporated into the overall story arch.
The same could be said of Babylon 5 which did a masterful job giving each of the FOUR separate wars (The Earth-Minbari War, Narn-Centauri Conflict, The Shadow War, and the War to Liberate Earth) a different favor and affect on the galaxy as a whole during the show's six seasons. Each of these wars, especially the Narn-Centauri Conflict of 2259, was told through multipule points-of-view, from the personal, the governmental, the soldier, the diplomatic, and the other races.
My main issue with that assessment, as a sci-fi writer, is that it would take one hell of a writer to pull off a strategy-based MSF story that would be interesting AND compelling. Ender's Game and maybe DUNE to some degree are some of the few I've read that contain these elements, but that wasn't their main point. I personally think that Andrew Liptak has a valid point, but it is not realistic for a marketable sci-fi story, plus it largely depends on the subject of the sci-fi story. Sometimes, a story needs a soldier with their ass-in-the-grass, with their view of the war being their weapon's iron sights.  
Battlefield Intelligence
One of the more ignored important elements of warfare is intelligence. The ebb and flow of warfare is based on intelligence of what and where the enemy is or isn't. When soldiers need to take a hill, it because some intel pints to that hill. I have yet to see much in the way of futuristic militaries using present or invented future tech to gather where the enemy is. This includes sniper-scouts, drones, satellites, hacking, and informants. Space: Above and Beyond, Battlestar Galactica, HALO, use these different elements of gathering intelligence on the movements of their enemy. In SAAB, the 58th were used in space operations for scouting-patrols, deploying micro-satellites, and planting false intelligence to the enemy. Then during dirtside operations, these same marines deployed in-cover, low-profile, eyes-on observation roles. In the 2003 E3  HALO 2 trailer, a group of incoming Pelicans are warned against their original LZ by a scout-sniper unit. In the two-part Star Trek: TNG  Chain of Command episodes, Picard, Wolf, and Dr. Crusher acted on intel presented to them and mounted a stealth demolition mission to Celtris III in Cardassian space. And let us not forgot those poor Brothans from Star Wars...

The depiction of Female Characters

Most military science fiction is set with a limited number of characters, whether they're behind the trigger or on a bridge of a combat starship and these future military organization have all manner servicemen, including frontline combat female soldiers. Such works like Old Man's War, Battletech, HALO, Space: Above and Beyond, Battlestar Galactica, and Firefly, show women fighting alongside men in equal roles and amount of danger, which is opposite to current reality. However, some works do not show women fighting in combat units (Star Wars), which is a current reflection, (and not the broken element), because it may never happen, that a future government allows for women to serve in direct combat roles, like armored, infantry, or Special Forces.
The real broken element is the all-or-nothing perspectives on female soldiers, they're Xena Warrior Princess, Max from Dark Angel or Dale Arden from Flash Gordon. I am so tired of seeing the Jedi-ninja-MMA expert female warrior archetype that all over MSF and SF in genres, where are the real women soldiers, like Shane Vansen from SAAB or Ripely from three of the ALIEN saga films? And if you're going to have a super female soldier, I would ask creators look at Kat-B320 from HALO: Reach and Sarah Kerrigan of Starcraft: II. FWS will explore more about women in military sci-fi in a future blogpost.

Lack of Far-Future Military Sci-Fi
Future war is often confined to a narrow window of one thousand year, depicting the period of the 21st century to roughly around the 30th century. Then there is the favored tactic of rooting these future military organizations with elements heavily borrowed from contemporary military life, culture, and behavior. The Colonial Marines from ALIENS to Shepard from Mass Effect are all byproducts of this. I do think that basing most futuristic military organizations on today's armed forces is a good thing, but we need to extend the idea of MSF beyond these concepts, without having it look like Star Trek, into the centuries beyond this narrow window of time. There are a few that exist, like Renegade Legions (taking place in the 69th century), and of course, Warhammer 40K.

Too many Supersoldiers
One of the most common futuristic elements within military science fiction that it projections on the advent of Supersoldiers.With this topic we get such great and well developed ubermench characters like Todd from Soldier (1998), The SPARTAN: II/III programs form the HALO Saga, Johnny from Tinmothy Zahn's Cobra Trilogy, the Jem'Hadar from Star Trek: DS9,  and the Ghosts from The Ghost Brigades.
MSF whips out these engineered badasses when they want to amp up the action, but lacks the ideas to fill them out, like the Clonetroopers, most are just simple empty jackets with big guns, big muscles, and kewl armor. These are more throw-away characters like the Clonetroopers from Star Wars, Universal Soldiers, the Kull Warrior from Stargate SG1, and Max from Dark Angel.  I have designed our own Super-soldier and hope to bring those realistic vision to an e-book reader or publishing company near you soon. 

My own "Broken Elements"of MSF
Because I never serviced in the military, there are things that I simply cannot research, read, google, or even interview people about: it's that military culture. This military culture is difficult for me to reproduce, along with honest radio chatter dialog, and how it feels to be shot at, (my only experience with that is paintball). Adding to the difficult, this "culture" differs from nation to nation, service branch, unit, and even platoon, or even where and when you serviced. But it is a key element in any realistic portrayal of a future war story, and some creators have done a properly good job of it (ALIENS), then other's fail (Babylon 5). Another element that I'm sure that I am doing wrong in my stories, is the chain-of-command, and how plans are transformed to orders. The chain-of-command in most MSF is simply and to the point, and often lacks the confused, and murkiness that real orders possess. At times, I think that the people in command would be "see the hill, take the hill" kind of commanders, but that's not the reality.


  1. You've covered quite a few of the broken elements of MSF, but I have a question. Why does it have to be "military" Science Fiction?

    Don't take my question wrong- some of my favorite SF stories include wars- but isn't it a bit limiting to confine oneself only to stories that are about war in the future? The stories set in a speculative setting can be about anything and anyone. A SF writer can write about a group of Shakespearean actors who travel between space stations and colonies just as easily as a futuristic military unit.

    As far as I can tell, a lot of military SF is heavily steeped in military culture and tends to be based on modern war veterans experiences- "Hammers Slammers" comes to mind. If you are not a veteran, than it is hard to understand and replicate military culture- and soldiers in the future may not even talk the way modern ones do anyhow.

    MSF also seems to be mostly about individual soldier's experiences in the battlefield. This gives a limited scope on exploring the scope and effects of the total war- a poorly educated volunteer may have no idea what is going on, especially if it involves other planets and aliens. A book with an alien invasion wouldn't even need to show it from a soldier's POV- it could be from a civilian's POV or even an intelligence agent's POV, like Sam from Robert Heinlien's "The Puppet Masters".

    Since you are a history teacher, I think you would do a good job showing the overall effects of wars and the rise and fall of civilizations rather than military techno-jargon. Some of the best SF novels use rich background histories as their background.

    If someone told me that I had to write "military" SF only, military SF defined as war stories set in a future setting that focus mainly on the life and times of future infantry units, I would feel much the same as if someone told me I could only write about baby albino rabbits. Its just too specific!!! What if I want to explore a war from a different perspective than a soldier on the ground? What if I don't want to write about a war today at all, but instead a mysterious first contact with a bizarre alien organism?

    Christopher Phoenix

    1. Honestly, I doubt you really even know the person for sure to say whether they've been in the military or not. That's the thing about the internet.

    2. A quick comment to Mr. Phoenix before I make my own observations. The authors at no time note that they write only Military Science Fiction, just that this is one element they write, and asking why they write MilFic is like asking why Dune is set on a desert world. That is the setting of the particular piece they are writing.

      Why do they choose such a setting? Well, it could be for lots of reasons, but when I write MilFic (which I do), I choose that setting because it matches the kind of tale I'm telling. I do it because I am writing a story in which the characters, plot, theme (to use terms that are sometimes sneered at) or what have you is best suited by the existence of a military power structure. As you point out, there are lots of war stories that are not placed in a Military Science Fiction setting (e.g. Battlefield Earth, Puppet Masters, much of Ursula K. LeGuin's Hainish cycle). For me, however, there are elements of social dynamic and character growth, not to mention social commentary) that are best suited by placing the story in a MilFic setting. When I want to write a different kind of story, I write in that setting as well, be it Science Fiction, Fantasy, Espionage or yes indeed, Literary Fiction about everyday people doing everyday things.

      To that end, I suspect the authors chose their setting and are writing about MilFic because it tells a certain kind of a tale.

  2. I took some notes on what you said in this article, I think a lot of it will be useful. I think the cultural aspect can be solved just by being romantically involved with someone in the military.

    Ok sure you can't have them tell you classified stuff, but it is called military science Fiction.

    One of my issues with writing military sci fi in the very far future is, anything further than say 1000 years in the future is largely speculative.

  3. This is a great article that points out a number of the classic problems of MilFic, some of which I am guilty of performing myself. Indeed, I look forward to reading your stories and seeing how you address these issues. Please let me know when they are released.

    If you are interested in a few novels that look a bit more at the strategic, or at least Grand Tactical side of things, you may find the Honor Harrington series, and particularly the Lost Fleet Series interesting. Each is rife with their own problems, including super-Polyannaism and he ever present "Good-and-Right vs. Evil-and-Incompetent" problem, but at least they address such issues.

    My own forthcoming series follows a Military Intelligence unit, but even there I fear I may fall victim to some of the issues you note. Mind you, I did try to show a very realistic intelligence gathering section where the key intelligence came out of archival research. I was told, in no uncertain terms, by my rather superb and experienced test readers to cut it down. No matter how realistic library research is made, it is still boring.

    I look forward to reading this blog as time moves forward

  4. I would be interested in your future war tale of military intelligence. That is one missing elements of MSF. Let FWS about it more when it comes to print or e-book!
    My book, Endangered Species, was submitted to Harper-Collins yesterday...we shall see.
    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Good luck! I hope you don't mind, but I put a link in to this site on my own. I think a number of my followers would like it.

    I should note that the first of the StarFist Recon Novels has a bit of intelligence work going on in it. Again, no work with the files...

    Of course in all the Espionage novels I've read, only one ever does deal with the files. That one, of course, is Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which is in my view the best spy novel ever made. Handled badly, of course, it is just tedious. then again, so is file research... but it is where the answers lie.

    I digress... I'll be happy to send you a copy for review when it comes out.