23 April 2013

FWS Topics: The 10 Most Common Themes in Military Sci-Fi

No matter how you try to reinvent the genre that you write in, you cannot escape certain themes that are the bedrock of the genre. Throughout the majority of military science fiction, there exists ten key themes that most or all MSF writers and creators fall into. That is not always a bad thing. for example, Bungie entered into the super-soldier genre in 2001 with the Master Chief in the original HALO game, and set a new and better standard for MSF super-soldiers. Since 2008, I've written books with every one of these themes, even devoting entire novels to one specific type, attempting to explore and redefine. The vast majority of these themes have been covered in-depth on the FWS blog since our founding in 2010, but there are few still still waiting their turn.

1. Super-Soldiers
Without a doubt, the oldest theme in fictional thought or writing is the concept of the super-soldier. Early man depicted and celebrated the concept of the ultimate hunter, and slew mythical beasts, and monsters of the darkness. Within the fables of mythology, the theme of the great hunter and bold warrior are common, and speak to an intrinsic need in mankind for these types of warfighters. Super-soldiers allow the author/creator to explore the length that humanity will go to win wars. While the circumstance of what fuels the need for super-soldiers varies, along with the methods used to achieve their 'super' status, and who is among ranks of these elite warfighters, they all communicate that long held desire for the ultimate warrior. FWS discusses this topic in-depth back on September 07, 2012

2. Armored Power Suits/Mecha
It seems that mecha and powered armor is at the core of most of the foundation works of MSF, and during my childhood, there didn't seem to be an anime without some form of APS or Mecha. These types of futuristic military technology allows for an instant communication to the audience that this is the future. While big-robot mecha MSF anime and mecha is less popular than in the 1980's, powered armor is still going strong. Mecha was covered in-depth by FWS, on August 08, 2012, but the iconic powered armor has not been. That will be corrected for the 3rd anniversary of FWS. Expect a massive blogpost on that one.

3. Powered Armor vs. Insect Aliens
In the founding classic of MSF literature, Starship Troopers, the theme of powered armor infantry verse insect-like hostile aliens was firmly established, and created a theme that will repeated often in future FWS works...including my first novel. This theme really works well within MSF stories. First off, powered armor sets the human soldiers apart from today's military, and makes these soldiers' abilities more superhuman, allowing them to tangle with these bug bastards. Insects creep people out, all human beings have experiences with them, and given that there are more insects than humans, it is easy to imagine them has an aggressive alien foe. Not only were insects popular in 1950's B-movie drive-ins monster fare, but also with the release of ALIEN and ALIENS, there was frightening dark vision of what could be waiting out there for us. It seems that this theme in MSF works is not yet played out, and will continue for years to come. FWS discusses this topic in-depth back on March 17, 2012

4. Female Soldiers
At the moment, the US military is opening more combat roles to female soldiers, and with the irregular wars in Iraq and A-Stan, there have been more female soldiers involved in direct combat than ever before. While this struggle for opening combat roles to women continues, MSF is already cast their vote in favor of a fully integrated military, where future female soldiers serve right along side males while battling seven foot bugs on other planets. This trend of female soldiers in futuristic off-world conflicts only seems increases as the years go by. Why do some many writers/creators feature female soldiers when our military still is not completely open to women warfighters?
Part of is that female soldiers allow for more character development with romance, emotions, and sex angles, also it sets their fictional military immediately apart for contemporaneity society. Another part could be related to the progress of society as a whole. It is no longer the 1950's, and society is more open to females in all types of roles. I, too, am insanely guilty of using women has main characters in my own MSF writings...hell, I play as the female Shepard on Mass Effect! For me, military female characters offer more room to write and explore the character. FWS will be covering the female soldiers and science fiction sometime in 2013.

5. Laser Blaster Everywhere!
For nearly a thousand years, humans have used chemical (hence the name 'firearms') explosions to propel metal projectiles into the flesh of their enemies. About a hundred years ago, the use of light and heat was seen has a replacement for the old bullet, and back 1898, science fiction and directed energy weapons entered into a long partnership with the heat-rays from War of the Worlds. From the era of pulp-sci-fi, to the post-Star War/Star Trek handheld laser blasters. the laser gun has been a hallmark of military science fiction soldiers. While it seemed that this theme would continue forever, especially with the US Navy about to deploy lasers on their surface warships, the bullet has coming back. Since the 1980's, the new MSF theme of 'kinetic weapons are just better' has risen in  popularity, while the laser blaster is seeing a decreased. However, just wait unlit the new Star Wars movies come out. FWS will be covering laser DEW in an upcoming blogpost before the end of 2013 and will be called: Laser-the Killer Light.

6. Mildly Military
Every single MSF story I've read, watched, or personally written, has this theme embedded into the core of its structure...even in my own stories or MSF stories by military veterans. Mildly military is not always a bad theme in MSF as a whole, because it is necessary evil to move the story along with getting bogged down in the complex nature that is a military organization. Some authors/creators use special forces, or elite military units, or super-soldiers to dislodge their characters from the military bureaucracy. Then there are the works that portrayal the military more like high school and offers characters that would have been drummed out of the service long ago...Anime is especially guilty of that....the Bridge Bunnies from Macross/ROBOTECH anyone? FWS will be covering the Mildly Military theme in MSF at a later humorous blogpost.

7. Aliens Want Earth
The single longest-running cause of wars in science fiction is alien invasion for domination and possession over Terra. From the 4th century Mahabharata, to the Western literature founding classic of science fiction, H.G. Well's War of the Worlds, all the way today, it seems that all the grey beings from the Zeta Reticuli want our little green-and-blue marble. While the reason vary greatly, from they want our women, to our water, to Strawberry Ice Cream, but primarily, it is because of the rarity of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way. FWS covers this theme in a blogpost on July 13, 2012.

8. Unified Earth

Since the heady days of the League of Nations in 1920, all the way though the United Nations of today, there has been an attempt by Terrans to unite the 100+ nations of the global under a single flag and government (One World Order, anyone?). Yeah..that hasn't happened...but in military science fiction, our brave space marines normally serve some type of unified Terran government. At times, the unification of Earth occurred due an alien threat, nuclear war, or colonizing of the stars. Much like directed energy weaponry, the concept of future soldiers serving an united Terra has lost some popularity...one could blame it on ALIENS.

9. Robotic Soldiers
Since the first days of robots in science fiction in 1920 with R.U.R, all the way through today with Black Ops: II, one of their projected roles has been for use as soldiers. Used in fictional works to be either the aggressors (Terminator) or even the hero (ABC Warriors), robotic soldiers often demonstrate the horrors of future wars. At the moment, we are beginning to see the use of robotic warriors in the battlespace with UAVs and UGVs, and there more plans for an expansion of these robotic soldiers.It may be logical for the future of warfighting to be conducted by toasters, especially when considering the question of war among the stars, however, there is the Burnside's Zeroth Law of Space Combat. This important law of sci-fi writing that dictates correctly that an audience connects more to flesh-and-blood warfighters than toasters,  and allows the author/creator to explore the human-side of future conflict. FWS will be devoting a future blogpost on this law of fictional space wars and robot-soldiers later on.

10. Ground Troops Only
In the era of modern warfare, where tactical air support, armored vehicles, and artillery are critical tools of the warfighter under the umbra of combined arms, the majority of MSF projects that future soldiers will go into battle alone. At times, this is rightly justified by the author/creator outfitting their elite future warriors in powered armor and envisioning them as futuristic world-crushing stormtroopers. Some justify the 'ground troops only rule' due to transporting tanks, planes, and heavy equipment being a bitch to haul across light-years. Most of the time, it seems that the 'ground troops only' rule is because the author/creator didn't bother to think hard enough on the topic of future war...or bothered to read my blog. FWS will be covering the 'ground troops only' rule in a later blogpost.


  1. Christopher PhoenixApril 23, 2013 at 4:40 PM

    Ha ha, yeah, every genera tends to get a bunch of key themes, especially since later writers are influenced by the work they have already read. And some, like super soldiers fighting giant monster aliens, go back further and echo mythology.

    By the way, the first person to use powered armor in SF is- *surprise surprise* EE "Doc" Smith in Children of the Lens (1947). Smith had armored space suits earlier in Triplanetary and Galactic Patrol, but these space armor suits were not power driven. So powered armor goes back pretty far, Smith's used power driven armor a decade before Heinlein in Starship Troopers- and both examples predate the first Iron Man movie, lol. XD

    Mecha, surprisingly, seem to find their roots in Victorian SF works like the Jules Verne novel La Maison à vapeur (The Steam House), which featured a steam powered piloted mechanical elephant, and HG Well's The War of the Worlds, with the Martian's famous Fighting-Machines. BTW, Wells stated that the Fighting-Machines moved like living creatures, and was angry when illustrations showed what looked like a steam boiler wobbling on three stilts... in the book, the Martian technology is described as using electrically activated "muscles" consisting of discs of metal within a flexible tube that can contract or expand.

    I'm glad to see more female characters in strong roles, a lot of SF writing has focused on male heroes while women only got to be passive love interests, wives, mothers, or secretaries. D: Fortunately we don't live in the 1950s anymore, and I cast my vote in support of having all manner of roles available to women in real life...

    Speaking of aliens, and continuing with the Fermi Paradox, I found an interesting post at Centauri Dreams discussing a paper on the spread of civilizations across time and space- not just in terms of how far apart they are in space, but also how far apart they are in time. The paper concludes that the lack of contact with aliens suggests that alien civilizations occur infrequently, and that they probably last for a very long time and become very powerful. It only takes a very short period of time, geologically speaking, for a civilization to develop into a Kardashev Type-2 civilization- and if one was nearby, we would probably see signs of it, or be visited. This has impact on SETI- if extraterrestrial civilizations are very distant and have very high power output, the best way to find them is to look for the waste heat signature of their technology by scanning our galaxy and other galaxies for anomalous infrared signatures. Interesting speculations, though I am not sure we would know for certain whether or not Earth was ever visited in the past- as the guy who wrote the paper seems to assume.


    Ah, ground troops- well, if you find it a bitch to drag a bunch of tanks and ground vehicles, what of dragging thousands of humans who need a pressurized environment; oxygen, water, and food; get bored; and need bathroom breaks? Unless you have cryosleep. The simplest method for dealing with bug planets is simply hitting the planet with something massive that goes fast, like redirecting an asteroid or crashing a starship into the alien base... or you could enlist the help of hostile Von Neumann machines. Or their was the technique used by the people from Orion's Belt in Cities in Flight, their spaceships were giant particle accelerators that spewed a stream of antimatter into the upper atmosphere of enemy planets, frying the inhabitants with gamma radiation!!

  2. Very interesting article, the mech and it's relation to armors and knights it's a concept that fascinates me.
    But I think you should avoid using so many abbreviations, some times I had trouble understanding your meaning.
    Also, after writing such a long article try searching for mistypings because i think you missed a few.

  3. I was recently at a small independent used book store in Dallas, and in the sci-fi section was an entire book case devoted to EE "Doc" Smith, and I snapped a pic of it, and made me think of how much sci-fi would be different if EE "Doc" Smith wasn't published. After the incident with the Dreadnought blogpost, I've made his work a priority for sci-fi history entries, and it seems no end on his genius.
    The female soldier blogpost is going to be interesting...I have my views on the benefits of adding female soldiers into combat, and one of the RNs I work with is a former Army scout-sniper and I interviewed him for the entry...very different opinion.
    I guess we'll know if we have ever been visited by ET if we dig up a stargate, or visit the ruins on Mars, or a UFO in New Mexico, or even travel to LV-223. That article is very interesting, and I completely forgot about that blog! Ugh! I've added to my favorites list to avoid that issue...thanks for the link...still reading it.
    Oh, the space food/ration blogpost is being worked on now, and I'm gearing up for the Laser: the Killer Light blogpost...I haven't forgot about either one...I've been working on a new super-secret project for this blog and a few other sites...more on that later.
    When it comes to planetary combat, sometimes the best method is nuking the site from orbit...it's the only way to be sure.

  4. I will freely admit that I am sloppy at times about editing the blogposts. After a week of working on the same post, I just cannot read anymore, and just post it. That is something I need to stop doing, it is unfair to my readers. My use of abbreviations is a bad habit of mine, especially after reading some many military books who seems to deal in nothing but abbreviations. Thanks for reading and commenting!

  5. Christopher PhoenixApril 24, 2013 at 6:34 PM

    An entire bookcase devoted to EE "Doc" Smith- that would be interesting to see, wish I could find a bookstore with something like that around here. Sounds like that bookstore takes its pulp SF very seriously!! You can find Smith's books on Amazon, too, though. Smith is justly famous for helping invent the sort of story we now call "space opera" and for being one of the very first to expand his stories into a galactic setting, starting with The Skylark of Space. If he hadn't been, SF would definitely have not been the same.

    What's funny, is that just last year I realized that beamed energy propulsion made its first fictional appearance in EE "Doc" Smith's novel Spacehounds of IPC and wrote in regarding that to Centauri Dreams... Smith was truly ahead of his time in portraying a propulsion system that left the heavy generators back on the inner system planets, and instead beamed energy and momentum to interplanetary vessels via powerful electromagnetic rays. This presaged later beamed-energy propulsion schemes like interstellar pioneer Robert Forward's idea to propel light-sails with extremely powerful laser cannons, Starwisp, Singer's particle-stream system, laser rockets, etc.


    It may be harder to find evidence of extraterrestrial contact than the movies portray- imagine trying to locate a probe the size of a Toyota car in all the vastness of the solar system. I agree we should look for such artifacts, especially at the Lagrange points where a satellite can remain in a stable orbit indefinitely, we can't know for sure if we haven't been visited if we don't look hard first!! There is a "giggle factor" involved in the search of alien artifacts and SETI schemes in general, though. These subjects aren't good for a scientist's career, and this is an obstacle for a systematic search for extraterrestrial civilizations.

    It is bigger issue than just rations. So far, all our space missions have carried all the consumables they need with them for the duration of the (short) flight. Even our space station requires periodic resupply. Carrying tons of food and air scrubbers is not an elegant solution for something like a multigenerational colony starship. Thus, researchers have investigated ways of creating a closed regenerating biosphere that maintains itself agriculturally. We have not demonstrated this technology yet, nor do we know of any way to put astronauts into a state of induced hibernation to avoid carrying consumables for the trip. At this point, all our crewed spaceflights are the equivalent of launching paper boats in a bird fountain... we have not yet set sail in that silent sea.

    Granted, if you have FTL warp drives in a SF setting that will allow you to reach the next civilized destination or habitable planet in a few weeks or months, life support isn't quite as strenuous as for a multigenerational starship. But superluminal flight remains more or less magic, with no basis in understood physics, at least for the time being...

  6. You left out an important one. As the war progresses, Humanity and the Aliens become more similar. Humans start adapting alien technology, and in the process louse there humanity. Aliens also start attapting to human tactics, and start acting more human.

    Usually this is noticed by one of the characters as a throwaway line, but sometimes the war only ends when both sides become similar enough to understand each other and resolve the conflict diplomatically.

  7. I believe that example of two races realizing their sameness is ENEMY MINE...good point, and I should have put that one up there on the list. Good catch!

  8. Well, fact is the MI in the Starship Troopers movie were there to chew up ambitious youths and make the rest see the need for the war to carry on, fighting effectively is a bad idea when the Federation wants to continue the war indefinitely to justify its zero-transparency government back home. That's why almost all their training is pointless and only designed to look good in propaganda (it's not like Ace is *wrong* about knife training being totally useless).

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