Realism in Military Science Fiction

The title of this post sounds like a contradiction in terms, and on the surface perhaps the idea of a genetically altered human warrior wielding a heavy plasma cannon against unimaginable horrors from deep space sounds a bit… sci-fi, but come on, plasma cannons!

Well… plasma cannons, awesome though they may be, only get us so far.

Just in case I get too preachy later on, the point I’m attempting to make is that a story has to ring true, even if its about space elves fighting jelly monsters.

The truth of the matter, in my opinion, is that the story is going to be more impactful to the audience if there is a degree of realism, with a specific contemporary sensibility. I’m not talking about making the ‘hard science’ of the afore mentioned plasma cannon sound convincing. I’m not talking about creating an alien/cyborg/mutant/etc enemy that makes sense in light of our current understanding of physiology and biology. All such things are just plot devices and set dressing directly informed by our current scientific knowledge and awareness. Realism when it comes to the technology and biology of a story, explicitly a military science fiction story, is of less consequence than realism relative to the characters themselves.

Perhaps I’m beating a drum that has been well-worn by writers before me, but this it my time, and I’ll take my moment thank you very much.

If a story’s core appeal (or message as it were) is “look at how cool their tech is!” or “gosh this hero is an unstoppable badass!” then once our world develops a similar technology or gets bored with flawless heroes, as an audience, we will not be engaged and that story will likely recede to join the miasma of other genre titles. Not that this is a bad thing, because the world needs pulp, and I’ve certainly contributed my fair share of such (and will be contributing a great deal more), but I’d argue that tech-based-pulp is ultimately destined to be surpassed by our own real-life advances.

The books that really stick with us, in specific regards to military science fiction, are stories like “Forever War” and “Starship Troopers” precisely because they focus on the men and women who live through those stories. Sure the cool ships and equipment those characters interact with are exciting, but what hits you is the characters themselves. This may be an old argument, but it is the human experience, or better yet Personal experience of the story, by the characters, that has the real staying power that transcends the ever-advancing technology of our rapidly evolving modern civilization.

To write military fiction, whether it is historical, contemporary, or science fiction, that ‘rings true’ takes something of an effort on the part of the author, in my opinion. If the author is like myself, and not a legitimate combat veteran, then I think it is important to talk to such people. Even in the most far-fetched science fiction setting, I think that a convincing and accurate portrayal of military personnel is important. Not actually the specific nationality, creed, or equipment, but more the intimate experience of war and the physical and psychological consequences of those experiences.

Truth be told that is an easy gauntlet for me to throw down to my peers, given that I am a military contractor by trade, and so while I am not a combat veteran I spend countless days and weeks in their esteemed company. In fact you could say that much of my work in NECROSPACE is a direct result from transitioning from being an independent filmmaker to being a military contractor. The notions of patriotism and the realities of economics are two powerful forces at work in all such men and women, in my experience, and working alongside them has affected both my writing and my tastes in military science fiction.

I find there to be little value, beyond momentary pulp entertainment (which is still awesome), in bigger-than-life protagonists. There isn’t much to glean from the shallow character arc of “Master Sergeant John Mack” who is the Marty Stu or Mary Stu of the usual genre fare, beyond the mindless fun of reading about a peerless badass of a character overcoming all obstacles against ridiculous odds. I am less interested in the story of a superman in power armor than I am an average soldier with an M4 (or the scifi pulse rifle equivalent). The reason is that I’ve never met super-soldier John Mack in real life, but I’ve meet hundreds of regular people who draw a modest paycheck and carry a rifle.

Realism in our portrayal of the future soldiers in military scifi is about creating protagonist characters who are not perfect warriors. Soldiers who make mistakes, who question their own loyalties and motivations, who can’t help but to bring the horror home with them, are the kinds of characters that I want to read about, and the kinds of character I do my level best to create. Whether they are a ragtag militia of scrappy folk heroes fending off an alien invasion or an elite team of space marines about to drop into hostile cyborg territory, and no matter how far-fetched or fantastical their technology happens to be it is the realism of their humanity that will ultimately engage me as a reader.

Tentacle monsters and plasma cannons are the flashy packaging that will bring me to the table, but the authenticity of the characters is what will make me a fan for life.

5 comments on “Realism in Military Science Fiction

  1. Well, at the risk of sounding like somebody who’s just grasping at an opportunity for self-promotion, I think you might appreciate my current work in progress. I agree with everything you say here and focus specifically to achieve a sense of realism in my story. I am a military veteran, ardent student of military history and tactics and did consult a Marine to help ensure my battles come off as authentic – from the perspective of those fighting it. Yes, I have “plasma’ – but it’s “thermite plasma” and is really just an advanced form of napalm. I also have good old-fashioned brass, lead and gunpowder weapons. Yes, I have mechs, but they use technology available today: MFDs, turbines, HUDs and hydraulics. The cockipit is a cross between an F-16 and a 747. Yes, my aliens have antennae and they are empathic, but they are very human in their character – i.e. we can relate to them. My hero is very much just a man struggling in a world that has lost its way. My one “because science fiction” element is reconstructing people in medical recovery bays, but it is used as a plot device not just to dress the set. If you have a moment, I have the first draft of all my chapters so far posted on my blog and would be curious to know how well it measures up on the “let’s get real” index.

    • I certainly have a handful of “because science fiction” elements in my work, and I like that you are presenting such things more like set pieces. I hope that I’m doing the same most of the time!

  2. Received your ‘flyer’, email today and took some time reading a few articles, blogs. The main comment I would like to make is for you to continue your approach, philosophy. It’s dead right and all mil SciFi should be somewhat credible, real and relatable. I’ve enjoyed your Necrospace series but gotta say book 3 took a leap. Strike? Then flash to happy ever after — not. Just IMO, 3 seemed hurried and plot took a little dump with the last third.

    However, my main point was to encourage and support most of your points regarding mil SciFi . Plasma, particle, laser …. ? Not sure what it is, don’t care how it works and is that really credible within xxx yrs. Railguns — they’re working on them as we speak.. Truth be told, laser also and expect deployment 20-30 yrs? And mostly as anti-something w power and size a huge issue and ‘beam’ tends to spread over distance. Extensive use of drones — def n off — realistic armor, solid tactics for ground and space, some ‘cool’ crew served and finally, somebody who can write up a solid infantry TO using whatever path writer is on. And a Reg TO, not a specops type where they make one up for each different mission. I’m old school n got taught and led by people who were there when they raised the flag and froze their butts off in Korea. Rifle, Team, Fire, AA — don’t care where, how it started but that’s the way you’ll fight. Could write book on it as well as ‘wedge not’, ‘stagger not’ stagger by unit, 2 up n 1 back will get you killed, breach, breach, breach assault. Booby trap your pos, dig don’t build, hide your weapons, …… Done. Really got going n just frustrating that today’s super soldiers dis all we learned from Nam. But 1 more rant — I’ll take a 100 cons and let everyone else take the 100 A students. And to think that someone who can run 3 miles faster is a better leader…..

    I don’t read mil SciFi for a hundred pages of tech debriefing . Character, character, character. Credible, relatable , realistic — keep going. Ohhh, just want to mention conscription is cool, proven historically. No one wants to do the leadership for it to work and more — earn respect , lead by example and in front. Just want their toy soldiers to act on their bidding. You got too many females in grunts in your stories — proportions aren’t right. Look at Vietnam studies, that were scientifically done. USMC has tried to have all female do 3 pull ups. Have spent tons of money n still not implemented after 4-5 yrs. Of 4% that can pass SOI, lethality , sustainability drops after 6 hrs by 50% using Afghanistan as base. Mil doesn’t believe in bayonet, CQB anymore .

    • I do certainly take a number of creative liberties, but yes I am sticking with the tone and themes as the novel series continues, it’s not over till it’s over. I am definitely striving for a blend of Vietnam era and the current military, all wrapped in scifi, and I am happy that at least some of it connected with you sir.

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