Military Science Fiction: A Brief History

Mike Resnick
Mike Resnick

It’s perfectly natural to wonder what the future of warfare will be. We already have the capacity to destroy almost all life on Earth; what weaponry will we use a millennium from now (if we’re still here, that is)? How can we negotiate ceasefire with an enemy that inhales ammonia, excretes bricks, and smells colors? What kind of collateral damage are you looking at when you can obliterate entire planets in seconds? What does a war do to your economy when it’s being waged 5,000 light years away?

That’s where science fiction comes in.

Stories of interstellar warfare go back to 1859, and of course everyone’s read or at least heard of H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds, but for all practical purposes, military science fiction as a viable and popular category began with the works of E. E. “Doc” Smith.

Doc, who was a superstar back in the 1930s and early 1940s, was sought after by editors and beloved by fans. His first series was the Skylark series, in which two young men go off to see the galaxy and get into more trouble than anyone could anticipate. (Years later Harry Harrison did an hilarious and loving parody of the series with his Star Smashers of the Galaxy Rangers.) The Skylark books – there were three in the early and mid-1930s, and a fourth three decades later – established Doc’s reputation, but it was the Lensman series that put him in orbit.

This series, consisting originally of Galactic Patrol, The Gray Lensman, Second Stage Lensman, and Children of the Lens (the two prequels – Triplanetary and First Lensman – were written after the main story, contained in these four, was completed). Kimball Kinnison and his fellow Lensman, a trio of very different, distinct, and memorable aliens, think they are battling against the empire of Boskone – but after a couple of books it is revealed that this is nothing less than the ultimate battle of Good versus Evil for control of the galaxy – kind of a high-tech Lord of the Rings on an infinitely greater scale. Sure it was space opera, but it was military space opera. There are space battles, and englobements, and ships are always “matching intrinsics” (whatever that means), and when Kinneson isn’t leading vast numbers of ships into battle he’s a covert agent operating alone on alien worlds, and it’s a lot of rip-roaring fun.

Doc Smith reigned supreme in the 1930s, but he had a lot of competitors. It was said that Jack Williamson and Edmond Hamilton worked in tandem, one destroying the solar system on odd-numbered months, the other doing it on even-numbered months (and each defending it just as vigorously on months they weren’t destroying it.) Williamson produced a series that was every bit as popular as the Skylark series; the books include The Legion of Time, One Against the Legion, and The Legion of Space. Hamilton wrote the Interstellar Patrol series, and then, in a relatively brief time, churned out more than twenty Captain Future novels for the magazine of the same name.

These all appeared in the days of the beloved old half-cent-a-word (or sometimes less) pulp magazines. The covers usually featured gorgeous maidens in varying states of undress (nothing you can’t see on a beach today, but wildly erotic for teen-aged readers of 60 and 70 years ago), and these ladies were invariably being accosted by B.E.M.s (Bug-Eyed Monsters, for the uninitiated), who seemed more intent on eating their clothes than eating them.

Well, everything matures, even science fiction. Which is not to say that it outgrew military science fiction any more than the governments of Earth have outgrown military adventurism – but the stories became a bit more mature. A. E. van Vogt took a run at the category with The War Against the Rull, and others also tried their hands at it – most notably the team of Cyril M. Kornbluth and Judy Merril, who as “Cyril Judd” wrote Gunner Cade – but the world was just recovering from its second “war to end all wars” in two decades, and while military science fiction still appeared in the 1940s and early 1950s, it wasn’t quite as popular as Doc and the boys had made it a decade earlier. (Though the Lensman series itself lasted through 1948 – but then, it was the Lensman series, long-running and much cherished.)

As we got a little farther from World War II, and the Korean War proved to be less cataclysmic and of shorter duration, military science fiction came back with a vengeance – and with considerably more sophistication. Gordon R. Dickson created the Dorsai, and got three decades of outstanding stories from those interstellar mercenaries. There were other fine military science fiction novels in the 1950s – H. Beam Piper’s Uller Uprising comes to mind – but it was at the end of the decade that science fiction finally produced a true military classic: Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, which to this day remains his most discussed novel. (Pay no attention to the big-budget film, which should have been titled “Ken and Barbie Go To War”.) Heinlein not only gave us a war, but also a lot to think about, including the suggestion that only those who have served in the military should have the right to vote. A lot of the book concerned the schooling of young troopers, and the philosophy conveyed in those classroom lectures remains controversial half a century later.

Also in the 1950s, C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower resurfaced in science fiction guise, in the works of A. Bertram Chandler’s Admiral John Grimes. Chandler himself had spent most of his adult life aboard ships, had been master of an aircraft carrier, and spent many years as captain of a merchant ship, so his works had a great sense of verisimilitude to them. He got a good quarter of a century’s worth of tales from his Hornblower updates, and he wasn’t the only one.

David Feintuch, who died only ten years after winning the John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best New Science Fiction Writer in 1996, created his own military series science-fictionalizing the Hornblower stories, writing seven books about the adventures of Nicholas Seafort.

But it remained for David Weber, creator of Honor Harrington, who is kind of a female science fiction analog to Hornblower, to put a military series on the New York Times bestseller list – and do it again and again.

Now, while all this was going on, we were fighting a very long, very brutal, and very unpopular war in Vietnam – and suddenly some military science fiction began taking on a new shape and philosophy. The first to make a major impact was David Drake, with his Hammer’s Slammers series. It was military, it was science fiction, it was exciting, but it also showed some of the less glorious consequences of war.

Another Vietnam vet with a new take on military science fiction was Joe Haldeman, whose novel, The Forever War, which won the Hugo and Nebula in 1976, was viewed by many as a rebuttal to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (the only previous military novel to win the Hugo.)

And for the past three decades, just about every type of military fiction has made its way into print, as the sub-genre has increased in popularity. Jerry Pournelle gave us The Mercenary and A Spaceship for the King; Elizabeth Ann Scarborough won a Nebula for The Healer’s War; Fred Saberhagen produced his popular Berserker series; John Steakley’s Armor was clearly inspired by Starship Troopers; Piers Anthony came up with his Bio of a Space Tyrant series; Keith Laumer wrote the Bolo series; Walter Jon Williams gave us Dread Empire’s Fall; Barry Malzberg first made a name for himself with Final War; Orson Scott Card copped every award the field had to offer with Ender’s Game, in which a brilliant young boy is basically fooled into winning a war; Larry Niven gave us his Man-Kzin War series; David Drake added the Northworld series to his already impressive military credentials; Bob Asprin wrote the Phule’s Company series; Elizabeth Moon produced the Sarrano Legacy and Vatta’s War series; C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station was a Hugo winner; Harry Turtledove and Eric Flint are both masters of alternate history, and especially alternate military history; G. Harry Stine came up with his Warbots series; John Ringo has recently been reaping huge sales with his military fiction, most notably Council Wars and his Legacy of the Aldenata series; John Scalzi had a unique take on the military in Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades. And, some 50 novels into my science fiction career, I added the Starship series to the canon.

Military science fiction, by the way, doesn’t exist only in novels. Jerry Pournelle edited a series of nine anthologies under the title of There Will Be War; there was an anthology of Bolo stories created after Keith Laumer’s death; and David Drake’s and Bill Fawcett’s The Fleet anthologies ran for six volumes.

This survey, I should note, barely scratches the surface. Just about every publisher has military science fiction out there on the racks, which they wouldn’t continue to do if there wasn’t a ready audience for it, and Baen Books in particular has come to be identified with some of the most popular titles and authors in the sub-genre.

I suspect one reason for military science fiction’s enduring popularity is that science fiction has traditionally appealed to young readers -- and where do we get our youthful readers these days? They watch Star Wars, which abounds in space battles, or Star Trek, which concerns the voyages of a military ship, and when they decide it’s time to read some science fiction, they want to read the type of story they’re used to.

Does military science fiction glorify war?

Well, some of it does.

Does it show you the horrors of war?

Some of it does that, too.

The tactics?

Yeah, some.

The nobility, the bravery, even the cowardice?

Yes, a lot of it does, or tries to.

The burdens of leadership?

Sure, some of it.

Which is just as it should be. From Here to Eternity and The Naked and the Dead and Battle Cry and The Caine Mutiny and Catch-22 aren’t interchangeable. They’re all about aspects of one country’s military during a particular war that lasted four years, but each had a totally different take on it and a completely different purpose.

And it’s the same with military science fiction, a subgenre that can encompass Starship Troopers, Hammer’s Slammers, The Forever War, the Honor Harrington stories, A Spaceship for the King, Old Man’s War, and the adventures of the Theodore Roosevelt and its crew.


This article first appeared in the Appendix for Starship: Rebel. It is re-printed here with permission from the author.

Copyright © 2008 by Mike Resnick