Seven Crucial Elements of Military Science Fiction

Seven elements military Science Fiction should contain, from the perspective of a former servicewoman and lifelong SF reader.


I read Best Military SF of the 20th Century because I was curious whether military SF worked well in the short form. The preface, by Harry Turtledove, was a historical perspective of military SF. But as I read this collection of reprints I realized that by my definitions, many weren’t military SF.

From those I considered military or military-flavored SF, I answered my question. In my opinion, military SF doesn’t work well in the short form. In this “best of” collection, some selections felt like novellas and two were the beginnings of what would be best-selling genre novels (Enders Game, by Orson Scott Card, and Dragonrider, by Anne McCaffrey).

After that I read Brandon Sanderson’s short story (or novella) Firstborn, which was good—then went on a novel-length military SF reading binge. I find the novel-length military SF gives me my “fix” and the shorter forms aren’t as satisfying. BTW, I’d never read Jack Campbell’s The Lost Fleet series, but now I’m hooked with the first book (see sidebar).

Through this binging I began to wonder: Why does military SF usually need a longer form and, more importantly, what are the identifying elements of military SF? I came up with seven essential elements military SF should have. The first element covers extrinsic values, while the remaining are intrinsic:

1. The minimal extrinsic requirements, a.k.a. “the Editor’s laundry list for military SF”

These are the features an editor ticks off when reading a synopsis. As with all building blocks of fiction, they’re tools and they’re only as good as their wielder:

  • A background of conflict. Obviously all fiction that’s more than navel-gazing needs this. Editors usually like military SF characters portrayed against warfare, but if you don’t want to plan out extensive battles, take heart. Military SF only needs a background or history of physical conflict between states. The Military, as a tool of the State, can be used for more than physical conflict. Think of all the varied use of military forces from our own history. Consider the Berlin Airlift, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the US–USSR Cold War, peace-keeping U.N. missions, chemical-biological-nuclear weapon treaty support, or the many times military assets are used for rescue and disaster relief missions. These can all be templates for a background of conflict.
  • At least one point of view from a character who’s a “professional soldier.” By this, I mean someone who has to take orders from somebody else and work within a unit that has military operations and objectives. This could be a mercenary or any active-duty member of an established military force, reserve or regular. While you’re designing this POV character, consider how much experience he or she will have. As Sun Tzu writes in The Art of War:

    It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on.

  • A speculative story element that makes this Science Fiction. You can’t forget the SF aspect of military SF. For the Major Kedros novels, you might think the SF aspect was the use of a nova-causing Temporal Distortion weapon. Actually, it was the fact that “reconnaissance” of the weapon’s effects will take place more than fifteen years after its detonation (due to loss of faster-than-light data transmission). So what happens when the results of that detonation hit civilization after treaties have created a workable peacetime? And, speaking of sophisticated weapons and weapon systems—it’s best not to rely solely upon the “hardware” as your speculative element.
  • That’s the minimum requirements, as long as we get the next six elements…

2. Politics, strategies, and tactics, in appropriate doses.

We enjoy military SF for the politics between states that drives the military strategies. We like to see strategies with clever long-term planning, and tactics from prepared battle plans, as well as those thrown together by the savvy leader in the field. But they need to be doled out to the reader appropriately, during scenes when and where they’re needed. The grunt under fire doesn’t know about strategies used by his command headquarters, but the shortage of ammo is obviously the fault of bureaucratic politics and the tactics being used by his platoon leader may save his butt. You get the idea.

The many levels of control (political and military) and the multiple layers of planning (strategic and tactical) are reasons why most military SF has multiple POV characters and sub-plots. For an excellent example of POV characters who are directly affected by the politics, strategies, or tactics employed in various sub-plots, read Dietz’s When Duty Calls

3. Thoughtful characters who establish their moral positions prior to battle

It’s a rare thing for a trained soldier to be thrust into battle and fall apart, suddenly questioning their conscience. That’s because we humans have figured out how to train that issue away (read On Killing, by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman) or, in earlier times or when forces can’t get the necessary training, leaders figured out how to provide moral endorsement for what they’re doing via religion, culture, and drugs (for analyses of the “will to combat” on historical battlefields, read The Face of Battle, by John Keegan; for Taliban use of drugs in Fallujah, read American Sniper, by Navy Seal Chris Kyle).

Even officers are introduced to moral dilemmas before they’re presented with the issues in the field. For the past fifty years, professional officer education in the U.S. has involved analysis of questionable scenarios, such as facing the use of civilians to shield military assets. Additionally, modern sophisticated weapon systems are stand-off and designed, as much as possible, to distance the operator from the targets. Studies have shown that the more distance between operator and target, the less psychological cost to the operator (On Killing, Grossman).

Am I saying that characters shouldn’t do any soul searching? Absolutely not—throw all sorts of gut-wrenching scenarios at them. The author’s job is to provide the loophole by which the soldier’s training or background either can’t compensate for the moral decisions they face, or influences them in a way we don’t expect.

  • For instance, in When Duty Calls, Dietz presents Colonel Six, whose highly effective human guerrilla resistance forces have thwarted the alien Ramanthian take-over of Six’s planet. The Ramanthians start using human civilian shields to keep their convoys from coming under attack, but that makes no difference to Colonel Six, who cooly blows up a bridge with many elderly men, women, and children on it. Why no soul-searching? Because Six is part of a Clone society, which has a caste system enforced by which “fore-settler” one is cloned from. The lowest of the low are the “breeders,” which the Ramanthians mistakenly thought would prevent their convoys from being destroyed. Six doesn’t have moral qualms about “breeders” being collateral damage because of his societal upbringing.
  • In Jack Campbell’s first Lost Fleet novel, Dauntless, the main character is woken from a century-long cryo-sleep to find his space navy has changed. Discipline has faded away, but so has adhering to the rules of war. When he finds his officers plan to destroy an enemy ship as an efficient means of executing their prisoners of war, he puts a stop to it. Campbell uses these differing moral codes to contrast and distance the main character from his staff.

4. Echos of training, training, and more training in character discipline

I always hate to read a Hollywood-like lollapalooza of a battle carried out by characters who may or may not have any training on their weapons systems, and who may or may not have ever trained with each other! Discipline, accuracy, and team coordination only come with practice and team training. Since a novel usually gets more than an hour and a half of a reader’s time, an author has no excuse for not establishing a background of training. In most cases, hardly more than an echo is needed, a nod to the fact the characters know each other’s moves, they’ve spend hours training, etc.

A reason for overtly covering training is seen in The Ramal Extraction, by Perry. The subtitle is Cutter’s Wars, because this novel is about a mercenary force run by ex-Colonel “Rags” Cutter. The problem Perry has with this group of humans and aliens, none of whom are formal when they address their leader, is establishing their discipline in tactics, strategy, and intelligence, as well as their effectiveness with their weapons and weapon systems. The author establishes this through scenes where the team members practice hand-to-hand combat or firing on the weapons range, as well as scenes that show how long they’ve worked with each other.

5. A chain of command, as well as a regulatory structure, within the military organization.

This is part and parcel to a professional military. The Hollywood-ism of the 4-star general calling the ICBM silo directly always has me rolling on the floor. It’s even worse when that’s played out against a NORAD-ish tracking and situation room. Initiatives with multiple units take a long time to plan and coordinate, plus they have to practice. Targets have to have been analyzed in advance and often pre-programmed into weapon systems. Generals don’t push buttons or yell, “Launch the buffs!” into a phone. I suggest that if you want to write military SF and you don’t have the benefit of military operational experience, you select one mission of a weapon system (in the time period you’re trying to template), and study the chain of command necessary to launch and complete that mission. Figure out what authority and autonomy each level has within that chain of command, then build your own military structure for similar missions. Make sure you build in checks and balances—for instance, all U.S. services have their version of an Inspector General, or IG, an office employing inspectors who check to see if major commands are doing their jobs and following regulations.


6. A military environment, meaning the expected camaraderie and discipline between characters, as well as judicious use of nicknames, short-hand, jargon, and acronyms.

Here’s where military SF gets the double whammy: the introduction of names that represent fictional organizations, governments, equipment, technologies, even fictional concepts. From the SF perspective, you’ve got to explain fictional faster-than-light travel as well as why your characters don’t end up as jelly on the bulkheads when they travel at high sub-light-speeds. That’s the mechanics side; then you’ve got to explain social/ethical mores on community, planetary, and cultural levels. Those difficulties are explained in any craft book on writing SF. On the reading side: science fiction (and fantasy) requires a special sort of reader, one who’s willing to accept the naming of a concept early in a novel, who knows that part of the magic (fantasy pun intended) is the slow unfolding and revelation of that concept.

Then you’ve got the military jargon. I’ve been accused of using it, as has probably every author who’s portrayed the military or para-military in their fiction. It doesn’t have to be SF; I just read a book about a modern assassin which had some jargon that I had to define, mentally, by its context. When I was in the military, I figured I was seeing the pinnacle of acronym use. After getting out and working for the telecommunications industry, I realized I was wrong, particularly when a GTE employee loaned me an acronym dictionary which only covered the government-mandated billing/service/switching systems that changed customer long distance providers (boy—that was hard to write out w/o acronyms). The telecommunications industry beats the military, hands-down, in acronym use. Face it, there exists a body of jargon for every type of industry or career path. Contrary to what Ariane says in the image to the left, even going into the fast food industry will require picking up specialized jargon.

7. Finally, and most important, there has to be a theme beyond “war is hell and then you die.”

Everyone knows that “war is hell.” As prior-military, I certainly don’t need to be convinced of it, so don’t beat that dead horse without having something more to offer. Personally, I prefer an upbeat theme. If a theme only shows how warfare crushes the human spirit and mind, I’ll probably read that book once and cross the author off my list. Why? Because the backdrop of war can do so much more for fiction. Warfare provides the SF author a chance to show how the human spirit (or alien spirit, since we see all entities through our own prism) can change, survive, even rise above that hellish crucible. We readers want to see characters pushed into acts of honor, courage, selflessness, and sacrifice. Because, in the end, it’s still all about the human spirit.

Any opinions?

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