As mentioned in an earlier post I recently attended Octocon 2015 and during the course of the Military Science Fiction the question was asked ‘do you think military sf is a genre that is look down upon?’
My answer was weak and forgettable, which has been bugging me.
So what is Military SF? According to Wikipedia it is:
a subgenre of science fiction in literature, comics, film and video games that features the use of science fiction technology, mainly weapons, for military purposes and usually principal characters that are members of a military organization involved in military activity; occurring sometimes in outer space or on a different planet or planets.
Which is a pretty loose definition, within which some very well known works can be grouped. One of the best known of examples of the genre is The War of the Worlds, a book which can be described as a classic by simple virtue of the fact that more than a century after its original publication, it remains well known and read. With such a wide definition we can find such varying works as the Forever War (Haldeman) to Hammer’s Slammers (Drake) to the Honorverse series (Weber), beyond literature we have cinema’s Aliens, Star Wars and Star Trek – which despite Roddenberry’s vision does have some very military features – through to tabletop gaming like Warhammer 40K. All which can be grouped under the Big Tent of Military Science Fiction.
War is probably humanities most destructive urge, one that out in the real world we have refined to the point that we could probably sterilise this planet. One of the strongest arguments I’ve heard is that Military SF glorifies war – a criticism that is also leveled at military stories set in the real world. There is no doubt that some works that fall into the genre do glorify violence but equally there are works, the Forever War being a good example, that highlight both the personal and social cost of conflict. Much of Military SF that I’ve come across even when extremely gun-ho, has at least brushed across the fact that the passage of war tends to leave devastation in its wake. Not to mention with few exceptions, stories regardless of genre are about human drama, for example Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes was a memoir of the writer’s impoverished upbringing. Would you argue that it shouldn’t read because to do so means the reader is using grinding poverty as a form of entertainment? If we’re going to say that certain parts of the human experience are off limits for fiction because they aren’t nice, well pretty soon we aren’t going to have much to write about.
It was mentioned at Octocon that the recent Hugos/Sad Puppies fuss did see a number of Military SF writers comes down on the Puppies side. I didn’t pay much attention to the Hugos fuss as what little I did hear convinced me early on that the whole thing wasn’t worthy of my time/interest/respect but did seem at the most basic level to be a bit of a political left/right thing. Military SF has a bit of a rep for the writers coming down on the right of the politician spectrum and certainly I know my own politics lean in that direction but Hugos/Sad Puppies is a recent affair while the dismissive attitude to Military SF is much older.
I’ve certainly had it said to my face that Science Fiction in general must my easy because I can make stuff up, I could go into a rant at this point but I think it would probably easier to ask you to imagine a scenario. Imagine saying to someone who’s writing setting is in the contemporary world ‘It must be easy, no imagination or creativity is needed because you can just look stuff up.’ Added to that is the popular conception that action equals dumb. Sure some action can be deeply dumb but is say Saving Private Ryan a big dumb action movie?
So given that every for every weak example of the genre there is a stronger counterpart why does Military SF have such a poor rep? Well lets look at another long disparaged genre – romance. It is huge area with all kinds of sub sections none of which are regarded with much respect. While I don’t write or read in the field, I did hear another writer say at a convention that while Mills and Boon novels are extremely formulaic, if you could write to that formula there was quite a good living to be made*. Like romance, Military SF is very mainstream, so mainstream that it could be described as one of the entry ways into science fiction in general and perhaps it is here we find the answer.
Military SF with its rayguns, space battleships and alien invasions represents the public face of science fiction, the popular perception of what science fiction is. Those of us in the genre are aware that it is much broader with ideas a good deal more subtle than does applying laser cannon A to alien forehead B solve the problem. Those who produce SF without military elements attempts to distance themselves but that I think is counter productive. As public face of science fiction Military SF is a potential entry way, a way to discover the wider world of Science Fiction. For other other branches of SF to try to distance themselves is futile, while rubbishing it becomes a case of stone throwing in glasses houses.
So I think to sum up we shouldn’t be trying to sweep Military SF under carpet, we should be saying yes there is Military SF and so much more as well…
* I remember being in Chapters a new and second hand bookshop here in Dublin and watching a lady trade in an entire suitcase of romance novel and what was even more amazing was the shop worker, she didn’t even blink, it was not a noteworthy event!