One of the reasons I prefer reading SF in contemporary groupings is because comparison often yields a better understanding of (and possibly appreciation for) works within their respective eras, so I’m not just assessing them based on my own contemporary value vacuum. Things feel less dated this way, and I’m better able to construe time-relevant cringe from anachronistic Heinlein throat-clearing creeperdom. I also just like reading lists.
My latest experiment is to read in canonization groupings, this time the Military SF canon. Canon doesn’t always mean the best or most worthy, but it usually means The Most Famous, though we’ll leave the chicken/egg discussion for another day. However, because these books are The Most Famous, sometimes they talk to each other, sort of like the way pop stars subtweet bitchy comments and block each other, which adds another element of fun while trudging through books I wouldn’t normally choose to read.
So, Fall-In!, About-Face!, and snap those shiny heels together! Here are The Most Famous Military SF novels this side of nationalistic superiority! Ten-Hut!
Starship Troopers (1959) by Robert A. Heinlein
Perhaps the most famous of the most famous pew-pew-em-ups, Heinlein wrote this novel as a response to criticism of his military activism. In the novel, Juan Rico enters the idyllic world of the mobile infantry for the Terran Federation, where law and justice is swift, clear, and precise, thanks to a law that permits only military vets to vote or hold office. (Because, you know, the military isn’t at all associated with stifling red tape, inefficient bureaucracy, and unethical cronyism.) Juan gets a really neat armor suit, he shoots Bugs, and he has flashbacks to lectures by his militarist teacher of History and Moral Philosophy.
True to Heinlein form, Bob starts penising on page six (“Yes, yes, I know they make better pilots than men do…”), but unlike many of his later novels, he drops the “women are speshul snowflakes” preoccupation sooner than usual, in favor of lots of talk about Personal Responsibility and Bootstrap Pulling. His reluctance to address death (“bought it” being the preferred phrase), his inability to foster real interiority, and a general neglect of the lower classes typically recruited and abused by the service make this book similar in substance to earlier pulp heroics that employ similar devices like powered armor and militaristic societies (ahem, Lensman, ahem). And, yeah, the “bug” talk feels racist to me, but that’s a symptom of militarism and military SF in general, which is reliant on dismissive slurs used to dehumanize the enemy– highly realistic, but reminds me of every racist I’ve ever encountered.
My favorite gem: “Back to these young criminals– They probably were not spanked as babies; they certainly were not flogged for their crimes.” (121) Heinlein: always with his finger on the pulse of the lower classes. Because no one ever enters the penitentiary system with a history of abject childhood physical abuse. Never.
On the upside, it’s definitely engaging, regardless of political persuasion. Plot is overrated anyway.
The Forever War (1974) by Joe Haldeman
An allegory for the author’s own experiences as a soldier-turned-veteran of the Vietnam War, The Forever War sits in direct contrast to the military glorification of Starship Troopers. With superb pacing that touches nothing irrelevant, this tightly written piece of SF history is thematically dense, but easy to read. With military-approved, drug-induced soldiering; dangerous and uncomfortable hi-tech armor; time-dilation as metaphor for cultural shift during wartime; and prolonged war to power the economy, this novel is both timely and futuristic, even forty years later. The most dated elements (women recruited specifically for sexual compliancy, locker room homophobia that extends centuries beyond to a militantly homosexual galactic society) feel neither dated nor unrealistic given the premise (metaphorical in nature) and the setting (this is the military, after all).
Best quote: “‘It’s so dirty.’ I shrugged. ‘It’s so army’” (166). This should be required reading before anyone signs on.
The Worst Part: The Foreword in recent printings, written by another SF author on this list who states his work was not influenced by Haldeman, he had only recently read Haldeman, and comments little on the important nuances of Haldeman’s work while drawing parallels between The Forever War and his own work when there are none, and insists on quoting Jimi Hendrix while failing to recognize the irony of the subsequent lyrics. (“Hey, Joe” is followed by “where you goin’ with that gun in your hand?” which puts in mind the image of a very angry Joe Haldeman unappreciative of such a negligent Foreword.) It’s a bad case of Ellisonitis.
Ender’s Game (1985) by Orson Scott Card
A surprising turn of events: Having read this before I knew anything about the author and his disagreeable beliefs, I thought Ender’s Game was okay, but too depressing for my taste (I’ve grown, okay?), and found the uncertain audience focus distracting (is it for kids or adults?). Upon reread, now aware of Card’s unapologetic homophobia among other things, I expected to have a stronger dislike for this novel, vigilantly aware of narrative prejudices and the like. Not the case. As YA, it’s a pleasurable read, with challenging, surprising, and ambiguous concepts open to a variety of interpretations.
Characterizations of precocious children are often flawed, and Ender’s Game is nothing new in that regard. Card handles giftedness as a thematic polish, always in service to the plot, not reality, essentially putting adult people into little bodies in order to watch them squirm and adapt to their restricted freedoms. This hyperbole works, however, when Ender takes on the Ubermensch role, not to demonstrate Ender’s endless tolerance for sadism, but in order to demonstrate the threat of hegemonic power to “useful” citizens, its endless appetite for means to ends. On the other hand, it could be interpreted as a pity party for the exceptionals (aww, the dumb, impoverished normals have it so good), but overall, the most impressive quality of EG is its permeating moody tone and effortless ability to foster empathy for these little kid characters. In some ways, it feels like a childhood version of The Forever War, prompting comparison and speculation as to whether EG would have been as successful with adult characters. (Probably not; kid empathy comes preloaded, which is why so many readers and writers are drawn to children’s fiction in the first place, whether they are conscious of it or not.)
Objectionable details are present: locker room homophobia, Jewish slurs (amid Muslim tolerance, no less! The eighties are so far away from today…), and rampant social darwinism will grate modern progressive sensibilities, but a variety of nuanced political and social viewpoints present themselves, while the haunting conclusion makes Card’s personal designs less than clear… which is a good thing.
Old Man’s War (2005) by John Scalzi
Upon the death of his wife, an elderly man joins the Colonial Defense Forces in order to prolong his life. He gets the requisite Gen-Eng upgrade followed by a week of really great sex (off page) with fellow elderly, gen-eng’d recruits before going into battle. Then he kills, feels, gets promoted, kills, feels, gets promoted, finds a clone of his dead wife, magically survives things because special, gets promoted because special. Not quite in that order, but still.
Titular fail: It’s not “Old Man’s War.” The old man is genetically-engineered into a younger body within the first few chapters. It’s “Genetically-Engineered Old Man Who Moves, Talks, and Thinks No Differently Than a Thirty-Something’s War.”
Analysis: Empty fiction with dubious heroics, limited diversity, and no message. Sad and Vapid Dogs, y u no like this? This is your thing!
Quote: I don’t know. It’s just dialogue. Nonstop. There was nothing to highlight.
Personal admission: I did legitimately lol every time the main character called his BrainPal by its name: Asshole. I’m not made of stone.
For a novel about mature adults, this is the most immature of the bunch. Forgettable, corny, fluffy, dubious. Jesse at Speculiction calls this kind of stuff “popcorn sci-fi”, but even popcorn offers some whole grain sustenance that you won’t find here.
The Red: First Light (2013) by Linda Nagata
Possibly not part of The Most Famous Military SF canon just yet, but like any standard Military SF hero, this book just will not die. Self-pubbed in 2013 and picked up by Saga Press in 2015, it keeps popping up in my periphery, getting rave reviews from new and old SF fans alike, and is no stranger to the occasional SF shortlist. I was looking for an excuse to check it out, but it’s actually the only recent Military SF novel to stand out in my mind.
Nagata, clearly aware of the canon preceding her, includes her own extrapolative twists to signature tropes: the armor is psychologically addictive, inter-platoon sexual relations are prevented by chemically-induced sibling sentiment, military campaigns doubly serve as reality TV, and conflicts are Earth-based, because, hello, we’re well into the new millennium and we’re still not in space. Though most of the above novels include some surprising amount of ethnic diversity for their eras, The Red is the only novel of this group to cast a non-white protagonist and a sizable non-white supporting cast. Seat-gripping tension, compelling intrigue, and likeable characters not only drive the sinuous plot forward, but come alive in the mind like an explosive Hollywood blockbuster movie. Hollywood should be calling soon–Nagata deserves no less.
Not without its flaws, though that’s part of what lends that blockbuster flavor. Characters of all races tend to verge toward the stereotypical; the thin, sexy, computer-nerd, supportive Asian girlfriend being perhaps the most eyebrow-raising of the bunch. The hero of the tale, despite his non-white status, doesn’t divert much from other cocky SF heroes, coming from a background of wealth, privilege, and entitlement. And, like Ender’s Game, The Red constantly oscillates between criticism and respect for military service, aiming for balance, but becomes alarming when the lead characters form their own vigilante militarist group. This development should invite much good analysis.
As a sidenote, skepticism of Nagata’s portrayal of redneck Texans getting all secessionist and evil and trying to murder the world for profit will evaporate when you find yourself driving behind a truck with a huge “Don’t Tread On Me” flag flying off the tailgate. Twice. In one month. Different trucks.
Overall, I always feel a little bit manipulated and bothered after I finish reading blockbuster-feeling novels. Although I greatly enjoyed The Red in the moment, the tang of canned aftertaste arrived soon after, a mainstream symptom that’s usually a good sign that most people will adore this book and, given my track record on mainstream tang/film contract correlates, an indicator that Hollywood really will be calling soon. Sure to be a classic.
All very different stories, yet the tropes hold strong, with the evolution of powered body armor and sexual relationships being the most interesting developments to read about throughout the decades.
But the canon of Military SF does need a makeover. In reality, recruiters have always targeted the lower socioeconomic and ethnic minority classes, relying on lack of skills, family support, maturity, and career direction to entice the young and unknowing into contracted years of service with promises of flexibility, financial security, a six-figure retirement, and marketable job skills (ha!). I’ve seen plenty of those people go in, and none come out with all of those promises intact. Forever War is the closest in this regard, but if Military SF truly values precision, realism, heroics, and truth, SF publishers will need to encourage and pay attention to writing submitted by those marginalized veterans. Until then, it’s all just fantasy.
As you were.