“What is Military Science Fiction, Anyway?” – Guest Post…

When you think of the words “military science fiction,” what comes to mind?

Is it spaceships, maybe? Or at least space suits…or perhaps far-future events, on a space station, or on another planet entirely, but with future warriors?

There are so many different things that the words “military science fiction” (henceforth shortened to milSF) bring to mind, aren’t there? So my thought was, what usual conventions do writers use when they’re dealing with milSF?

Perhaps looking at the works of a few current writers will give an idea of what is meant, here.

For example, David Weber has a far-flung interstellar empire in his many-book saga about Honor Harrington (also called the “Honorverse”). In addition to war, the Honorverse includes political drama, various different styles of government and ways of living—but without the backbone of Honor Harrington’s military service (not to mention the war and its aftermath, and the war again resuming, etc.), the stories just would not work. And as we see her grow, change, take on additional responsibilities, and have to send out newer, younger, and fresher faces, we see all phases of just how a reliable commander is built, shaped, and then shapes others in turn.

Another writer with many milSF novels to his credit is my friend Christopher Nuttall. Chris has a number of series dealing with the complexities of interstellar war, but the one I’d prefer to talk about is his series for Twilight Times Books starting with BARBARIANS AT THE GATES. Here, Chris draws on knowledge of Ancient Rome and sets up a type of government that is both feudal and fiendishly complex; the only things modern about it are the computer systems, and the fact that humanity has indeed made it to space. And while there is a Senate, there’s also an Emperor, a landed aristocracy that definitely seems to believe it’s better than everyone else…and the only thing the regular souls who live in that universe have to potentially defend them is the military.

But even there, the military is dependent on the aristos, far more than it should be. And what’s truly sad, and maybe even shocking, is that the only reason Earth seems to have spread out into space at all is because of vicious and unrelenting overpopulation.

So, you have the military, again, as being vitally important. Without them, nothing would function in the Empire; nothing would move, nothing would happen, and the Empire would die out under its own weight. The main conflict for Chris’s three novels (starting with the aforementioned BARBARIANS AT THE GATES) is this: How do you preserve something good when your world (or, in this case, your interstellar empire) is crashing around your head? Chris makes it happen by having one man, Admiral Marius Drake, take control at a pivotal point, but in order to make the Empire function, he may have to become someone else—someone his present self despises…and thus lies the conflict, both internal and external.

The main difference between David Weber’s Honorverse and Chris Nuttall’s Empire is that the Honorverse has many different worlds and customs that all interlock, with the military perhaps being best served as building a bridge between those various places…whereas Chris has an Empire in disarray, where almost nothing can save it and almost nothing can make it any better except, perhaps, for direct transformation that’s led by honorable military officers.

But both need the military, that whole setup and framework, for their stories to work. There is a need for the chain of command—who violates it, and why? Who pays strict attention to orders and thus fails, and who doesn’t, and why? There is a need for people who serve, even unto their last breath, because they want to keep their families, their neighbors, their friends, and their world(s) safe.

Personally, I don’t think you need have a war in every piece of milSF out there. And I’m not the only author who thinks this, either. Witness Ann Leckie’s recent work, for example—there, the war is more implied than stated, especially in her ANCILLARY SWORD, the second book of her acclaimed Radch trilogy. Or my friend Loren K. Jones, who’s written a milSF novel, INADVERTENT ADVENTURES, and a short-story collection, STORIES OF THE CONFEDERATED STAR SYSTEMS…his crews have adventures, and are certainly either military or ex-military, but there isn’t a literal war going on for the most part. (And there’s no need for it, either.) But you do have to have some sort of military structure, where some command, some obey, and adventures must take place for milSF to work—and preferably, you should show a strange place or two, to make it very clear that you’re not on Earth any more…

And you don’t need bombastic heroes shooting ray guns (does anyone do that anymore? But I digress…) and going for a gory-yet-heroic death all the time to have good milSF. In my stories, based upon the work of my late husband Michael B. Caffrey, I try to show quieter heroes—men and women of strength, courage, dignity, and compassion…but men and women who probably won’t gather accolades, or need them.

For example, my husband Michael’s hero, Joey Maverick, gets a high commendation for saving civilian lives during a regatta reminiscent of 21st Century sea sailing in the novella “A Dark and Stormy Night”. But that actually bothers Joey, to the point that he would rather not wear the award, much less talk about it. He’s a quiet hero, but he still goes out there, does his job, does it well, and just wants to serve the Atlantean Union with pride, dignity and maybe a bit of distinction…but without fame, thanks.

And my own hero, Peter Welmsley, must face a major trial as he first helps to save lives during the disaster at Hunin, then must deal with the aftermath in “To Survive the Maelstrom.” That he has PTSD does not matter, you see…he’s upset that his fiancée, his best friend, his captain, and most of the people he served with have died, and he could not save them. That he saved some of them doesn’t seem to help, nor does the fact that he’s been given a promotion and been told to go to officer training school due to his “conspicuous heroism.” Peter’s story is about how a quiet hero regains his emotional equilibrium, and partly about how this quiet hero meets an empathetic weremouse (alien and sentient).

So, in Michael’s stories, and in mine, you have military men and women in space. You have alien creatures in the weremice, you have the far future, and you have drama and interesting situations with military men and women I hope you’ll cheer for—and maybe, just maybe, a bit of humor and a whole lot of heart.

To my mind, that is what military science fiction is. And that, my friends, is why I’ve vowed to continue my husband’s work as best I can, even though I write fantasy far more easily than I do milSF.

Before I go, though, I want to point out that “To Survive the Maelstrom” is free right now, from July 14, 2016, to July 18, 2016, at Amazon as an e-book.


My hope is that you’ll read it, enjoy it, and then come back to let me know.

Barb Caffrey





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10 thoughts on ““What is Military Science Fiction, Anyway?” – Guest Post…

  1. Hi Barb,

    An enjoyable analysis.

    For what it’s worth, it seems to me that most sci fi falls into “military”, regardless of whether the writer intends it – if we discount ‘traveler’ type scenarios, such as “The Time Machine”, and even then our protagonist ultimately encounters a military force of sorts. 2001 is set against a cold war backdrop with our intrepid explorers being sent out to seek an advantage, and the survivor finding it – or metamorphosing into it – “it” being the Star Child who at least restores the status quo.

    That seems to be where we are invariably led: the use of force, with some modern day readers demanding a quick hit of violence quite early on in the book, before their attention wanders. How is that most easily exploited? In a military scenario. Of course, for balance, there needs to be political intrigue, and character development within the military arc: the hardening of some characters and the softening of others; the blurring of lines demarcating good and evil; above all humour.




  2. Reblogged this on Barb Caffrey's Blog and commented:
    Folks, rather than talk too much about why I wrote this, head on over to Chris the Story-Telling Ape’s busy blog, and dive in. I think if you like milSF, or if you like Chris Nuttall’s work — even if for some reason you don’t like mine too much and read my blog ’cause you enjoy me or my fantasy or whatever — you will like this post.

    So, here is “What is Military Science Fiction, Anyway?” Enjoy it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • There are different types, to be sure. I like to think that what Michael did, and what I tend to do as well, spends much more time with the characters than not. I know without a good character, there is no point to it…I don’t know how close what I do is to my friend Chris Nuttall, for example, but he and I both recognize it as military SF. And I recognize what Ann Leckie does as military SF as well, because without that background, I don’t think her stories of the Radch would work as well. (She’d probably have found a way without it, but why do it if you can use something that you already know works? That’s where I am as well, though as of yet I haven’t pulled a full novel together. But it is definitely on the way…)

      Liked by 1 person


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