MilSFery

Frequent Whatever commenter Andrew Liptak writes today over at io9 on why “Your Military Science Fiction Isn’t Really Military Science Fiction,” and uses Old Man’s War as part of his sample set to make his argument. I’m not entirely sure I agree with his thought processes 100%, but it’s an interesting read, and there are some interesting points made in the comments there as well.

Yes, today really does seem like a day of pointing elsewhere, doesn’t it.

72 thoughts on “MilSFery

  1. Hi, Josh, it’s absolutely true that the A-10 hunting its chosen prey is an apocalyptic murder machine to any tank formation unfortunate enough to be caught in the open (or even dug in!). However, against an enemy air superiority fighter, The A-10 is in real trouble.

    A-10′s were facing relatively friendly skies, having spent weeks waiting for CF superiority fighters, strategic bombings, and lightning airborne strikes to clear the enemy lines of enemy planes, antiaircraft batteries, and detection posts. An armored advance that is properly covered by air, or at least advancing under contested airspace, is going to be very difficult for A-10′s to stop on their own. You really want your own tanks to blunt that kind of offensive.

    Regarding the linked article, I believe I see what he’s saying. Modern warfare *is* massively complicated, and most books under the Military SF label aren’t about war itself. They’re about soldiers, people, survivors *in* a war, where the war is a backdrop and a plot device. The trouble is that talking about just a war itself can be pretty dull.

    For anyone that doesn’t care to read Clausewitz, here’s a link to the breakdown: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principles_of_War The Principles are the distillation of all the great thinkers to-date. All modern operations, from small unit actions to entire campaigns, are planned with these principles in mind.

  2. Hi,

    As someone with a modest amount of military training and education, I recognize how little I really know about it. The more amusing side is recognizing that I know a lot more than most people – but all of that is sort of human nature on a multitude of topics. I liked the piece as it points out the complexity of military studies.

    Another side is that what we are really talking about is literature ie SF writing. Literature is an art, and as such is designed to encourage thought and reflection on specific subjects, perhaps in this case loosely defined as reflections on future human existence. SF is not really about quantum physics, although it may use that as a vehicle (or any other vehicle e.g. military studies).

    If you use poetry as an example it uses a deft combination of words that quickly draw out common experience, images and strong emotions (e.g. love or war). SF is in the same boat, albeit a large boat to include all of Literature.

    One wag of an historian I read once pointed out that civilization was created to provide a strategic advantage, not the other way around.

    Cheers
    Michael

    PS Joe Haldeman has war experience upon which to base his writings, whilst our John Scalzi does not. If memory serves me correctly neither did Robert A. Heinlein have war experience although plenty of military education(I am not slagging anyone here!).

  3. Hi,

    this post may get the fur flying, but…

    The US forces attacking Iraqi forces earlier in this century had overwhelming advantages, in terms of armour, air superiority, training and all other equipment. It was almost like the British colonial armies attacking with repeating rifles, artillery etc an army equipped with spears – the winner was predictable.

    In case any so wishes to know, I still think taking out Saddam Hussein was a good idea.

    Cheers

    Michael

  4. Peterp – on re-reading, I do see he meant airborne infantry. Still, on reflection, the Mobile Infantry in Starship Troopers was essentially a combination of infantry in terms of size, but armor (tanks) in terms of firepower, and something unique in terms of mobility – they could “jump” obstacles. He was still wrong.

    I don’t see that as “individual soldiers operating without support.” in the same way the parachutists in WWII were. Though resupply seems to be ignored in the books somewhat.

    I also note that he skipped the Miles Vorkosigan books, which certainly do deal with military strategy, though mostly in terms of space battles.

    One thing that’s annoyed me about Starship Troopers was the inability to converse with the bugs, and the fact that they didn’t surrender, or present any of the actual military problems (or even tactics) that we deal with today in modern warfare. They were never treacherous. There were no humanitarian concerns in dealing with them. They just wanted to kill us all.

    Booooring.

  5. Yeah, the post seems to complain a bit more about how authors come up with really cool new weapons and technology.

    And then have their characters act just as present day soldiers, armies do. In the case of the ‘airborne units’ he’stalking about’frop troops’from say, Starship Troopers’ not actual aircraft,(which I can’tactually remember seeing all that much of in military sci fi)

    In the end though,I think the linked post author,appears to be looking foraworkof fiction that’s equivalent to ‘Principlesof War’which assomeonepointed out over there, would be incredibly boring.(Unless you like that sort of thing)

    What I’d like to see is military sci
    fi where someone gives real thought to what the technology they’ve created, can do and how it might be used in the future, and not in the present day.

    Hope that made sense.

  6. It’s fair to remind people that we didn’t think that we had such an overwhelming advantage at the time. (Anybody remember “the crack Iraqi Republican Guard”? Heh heh.) Iraq wasn’t fielding first-line Soviet equipment, but the second-line stuff they had was thought to be pretty good and the Soviets were counting on it to perform well against US units in the event of a war. Its utter failure to stop the US or even inflict small numbers of casualties was noted and had at least a little effect on the fall of the Soviet government…

    That said, we’re talking about SF here. The author of the article names many of the weaknesses of airborne units without thinking about how advances in technology would affect those weaknesses. Airborne infantry drops tend to scatter? Sure, if you’re flying aircraft without any navigation aids whatsoever, jumping out of them in the middle of the night with only the Mark I eyeball to see, and floating to the ground underneath a circle of cloth. We do significantly better than that even now, with nightvision, inertial guidance, and parasails.

    It’s easy for SF writers to knock whole branches out of their militaries. Where’s the air force in Hammer’s Slammers? Non-existent, because the technology Drake wrote means that anything that can fly dies in short order. (Pournelle has something similar with Falkenberg’s Legion and small anti-aircraft rockets, though not to the same degree.)

    One of the reasons that you don’t see huge confrontations of fully-mobilized armies in SF is because, well… if everyone’s got nukes or better, those wars don’t last long and they don’t make for a good book, right? To say nothing of the practical considerations of not concentrating your forces sufficiently to draw a nuke from the other side…

  7. Some interesting points…

    But to me, he is basically complaining about all of the new technology being thrown out by the author without getting a full breakdown of how everything works and has since changed warfare as we currently understand it.

    It sounds like he wants a giant manual about all of the ways new technology has changed warfare in the author’s fictitious world. Which wouldn’t leave a whole lot of room for what people buy the book for–which is a good story.

    Also, I think the whole ‘tactics used by air troops of the past’ comparison is kind of obvious. If you are attacking a planet, you come from the sky. The similarities are hard to miss, I don’t necessarily see that as a weakness.

  8. The problem is that it’s really hard to try and predict the military effects of new technology.

    Some people don’t try – it’s easy to see some speculative fiction writers re-writing known historical battles or tactics with completely inappropriate new (or, in some cases, old) technologies.

    Let’s look at some modern wars, and ‘strange’ real stuff in them…

    Panama – Single largest set of US casualties are a set of special forces soldiers wading ashore, whose tide tables were off (!) and were wading through a deep mud shelf rather than up a sandy beach. Exposed, out on the mud, were shot up very badly by normal soldiers on land. Among other things, notable for another US special forces soldier who overcame multiple communications problems by making a long distance cell phone call to the Pentagon ops center to call in airstrikes.

    Desert Storm – Blitzkrieg works, still, unsuprisingly. As do flanking maneuvers, and airmobile operations. Single largest set of US casualties are hundreds of miles back from the front, where a lucky Scud strike on an air base barracks kills 26 people. Among other things, notable for a single US Armored Cavalry troop (company) which overran and destroyed about five times its own strength in enemy forces in the course of about twenty very exciting minutes, without suffering any casualties of their own.

    Mogadishu – Urban airmobile special forces / small unit tactics work great, right up until unguided antiaircraft rockets and a huge popular militia show up. Lesson for many uber-small-unit-infantry writers – at 10:1 odds, it doesn’t matter if your guys at 10 times better, you’re still deep in it.

    Afghanistan 2001 – Large popular militia vs small popular militia, until small popular militia finds the worlds one remaining superpower on its side. Confusingly, what wins the day is not the application of huge amounts of conventional force, but instead small unit special forces on horseback and with limited air mobility, and precision guided air support, reinforcing the small militia. Apparently, one can successfully blitz from horseback against 2:1 odds if one has the right few guys with radios and circling bombers…

    Iraq 2003 – The worlds’ biggest superpower, long the worlds experts on logistics, blitz into Iraq (again), this time without adequate initial logistical support (!). We win anyways.

    Iraq 2004 and on – Apparently, tanks and air support are not effective at stifling an angry religious minority in popular revolt.

    Iraq 2006 and on – The major source of casualties rapidly shifts from direct combat to IED type boobytraps, turning the entire US armed forces into impromptu EOD techs / minesweepers.

    Iraq and Afghanistan 2006 and on – The most effective form of offensive strike against enemy combatants, both tactically and strategically, becomes a small unmanned drone powered by a souped up snowmobile motor, carrying antitank missiles. The US is now able to project power effectively into countries 24×7 without ever having soldiers within hundreds of miles.

    Of all these – only the drones was truly a significant technology advance during the war. All the rest were unexpected developments as existing technology met new conditions…

    Take technology a long ways out in any direction, and nobody is going to “get it right”… This is a special cast of the futurist problem. If they’re 1% right, they’re considered a success…

    Some people put more effort into it. See for example Charlie Stross’ Singularity Sky and Iron Sunrise, for some very much different military encounters.

  9. Not sure I agree with this either — the post isn’t at all about science fiction, military or otherwise. About “hard military fiction”, possibly.
    Which Old Man’s War definitely isn’t.

    But what strikes me most is how unfair an example Starship Troopers is here : the book is not about future wars. It’s all about Korea, and Vietnam, and sending conscripts in a faraway war most citizen don’t care about. Politics, not warfare !
    (well.. politics and spacesuits, one of Heinlein pet subjects from his Philadelphia years)

    This is not to say that, generally, Heinlein isn’t a good example of SF speculating about future warfare. But the conclusions would be quite different if, rather than ST, one considered his texts actually discussing warfare, from “If This Goes On” (tanks… and paperwork) to Friday (“corporate states” against traditionnal nations), through “Solution Unsatisfactory” or Space Cadet

  10. I thought the article was a bit absurd, because the books he chose to represent military sci-fi are all about the small unit “character driven” view of war and are not representative of what I would consider military sci-fi.

    I am surprised there was no mention of the self described military sci-fi authors such as David Weber, John Ringo and to some extent Neal Asher.

    Basically I felt the article was akin to beating a cow for not being horse without recognizing there are plenty of horses around.

    My $.02, keep the change:)

  11. Liptak:

    While these books all heavily involve warfare, none are about warfare. And although there are many works that depict futuristic battles, there’s virtually nothing about the actual evolution and usage of warfare.

    I can see his point here, I think. It sounds like what he wants is a book that recreates “Stormin’” Norman Schwarzkopf’s victory over Iraq in the first Gulf War: the strategies, tactics, and politics that direct how and why a war is conducted. I can’t think of any such books off the top of my head.

    I do disagee with his claim that the books he cited (at least the one’s I’ve read) aren’t military SF. I contend that they are; they’re just told from the standpoint of grunts on the ground. Grunts aren’t privy to their generals’ thoughts. The best example I can think of that rises above this is The Last Colony, which gives a glimpse of the Colonial Union’s machinations to counter the Conclave. Even so, John made it clear that the C.U. was accustomed to doing things without explaining itself, so it was appropriate that the characters couldn’t see the big picture.

    As for small unit tactics, they are still useful at times. While Liptak lumps Starship Troopers Mobile Infantry with airborne, they really more closely resembled Marines. Yes, sometimes they dropped in unannounced, wiped their feet on the good carpet, and left just as quickly. But they also landed, established a beachhead, and held it while more supplies and support arrived. But by the time a forward base was established they were needed elsewhere, so we didn’t see the buildup of additional forces.

    Now, whether using a couple of platoons of walking tanks throwing tactical nukes around is the most effective tactic is certainly open to discussion, but having troops thus equipped did tend to offset the downsides of dropping them airborne-style into enemy territory.

  12. There’s no mention of Weber et al because they take his point and kick it in the balls. Hard.

  13. Avatar in #9 said: “We do significantly better than that even now, with nightvision, inertial guidance, and parasails.”

    All true, but you’re still looking at a dispersal of between a (best case) quarter mile to (worst case) two miles depending on weather, terrain, objective, etc… Then you’ve got to find your buddies, advance on the objective, and maintain security, all in the dark and without necessarily being able to use radios, lights, or even Mk1 Squak Box. ;-)

    Andrew Liptak’s specific point there seemed to be that the small ‘airborne style’ unit is commonly the focus of many Military SF stories, when in fact it’s an uncommon tactic. But the reason it’s used so much in SF is obvious: it’s dramatic.

    Alone, behind the lines, with minimal support, airborne troops are made of good story, so they get used often. Thing is, good story is not good war. Properly executed, a good war is a cakewalk, with the enemy floundering around, confused, demoralized, and surrendering.

    I really don’t see that the linked article missed much in its assessment, except maybe just how crazy difficult a thing he’s proposing: make a very realistic future engagement into the basis for a good story without resorting to tropes and without said war being a simple backdrop. That, my friends, is hard.

  14. Apropros airborne soldiers far behind enemy lines, and cautionary tales thereof …

    “A Bridge Too Far” – Cornelius Ryan’s history book, and to a lesser degree the not horribly inaccurate movie made of it. The story of Operation Market-Garden, the attempt to end WW II early in Germany by using paratroopers to seize German-held bridges in Belgium.

  15. Thinking about stories versus histories…

    A story – the sort of thing one writes as a novel or short story – usually thematically has to appeal to people by making individual characters that one follows and feels connected to. One can do plot based, wide ranging stories in which individual characters are less important, but as a rule they’re far less engaging than character and character interaction based stories.

    Small unit actions are one of the easier military environments to set up character based stories. There are exceptions – Weber’s Honorverse, where the characters are by and large starship commanders or senior staff, fleet officers, national leaders etc. But that’s the exception.

    If you look at military histories, there’s very little focus on individual people. Most people in war have a very boring story – except for brief moments of terror and violence, and increasingly with long very stressful but fundamentally low violence periods in between.

    Fiction stories aren’t telling history (by and large); they’re telling character stories. They adapt military and historical reality to match focusing on small groups of characters…

  16. Liptak’s definition of “military SF” is self serving and w/o merit in a literary sense. As noted what he is really talking about is future military history books. As for his complaints , sorry to narrow a reading list to take seriously. And no credit to those ex military writers who have written, edited and published military SF.

    Furthermore, complaints about airborne versus “real armies” are entirely dependent about the nature of the war, the level of effort to move troops across star systems, and the time scale of the operations. At present US airborne insertion, resupply, air-strike, and evac are all possible for small units. And all done by various UAVs (A160 Mule is now operational in SOCOM).
    In the future it may be a AI starship that wakes a small A-Team from cryo “to go in and send the enemy a message”

    Besides people don’t want to read a whole book about logistics, and every militarist will tell you that is what large scale actions (ie Wars) are really decided by ;)

  17. Note that Heinlein’s not really talking about airborne units in _Starship Troopers_, he’s talking about amphibious landings against defended positions, ala Iwo Jima, Okinawa, etc.

    Obviously, they’re amphibious landings FROM SPACE!, but that’s the inspiration.

  18. If you look at military histories, there’s very little focus on individual people

    I’m reminded of the work of Ernie Pyle in WWII- he focused on individuals and small groups, and was occasionally faulted for this. However, his idea was that there was plenty of news about the war as a whole, so his work could concentrate on Willie and Joe, et al.

  19. Hmmm “While powered armor and space cruisers potentially might become standard doctrine in the future, they will be the product of warfare, with specific uses and a body of tactics all to their own.”

    Well, yeah, that’s the problem isn’t it? It’s a bit much to expect an SF author to fully understand how military tech might evolve, make that believable and then to create an entire body of strategic and tactical thought to go with those advances.

  20. I find the author’s definitions amusing. By his definition, _The Things They Carried_ is not military fiction. Neither is _The Thin Red Line_, or _All Quiet on the Western Front_, or _The Red Badge of Courage_. All they have to offer are all-too-human men, dealing with a terrifying situation and its aftermath in gripping, believable ways.

    He wants field manuals. I, and many other readers, would prefer stories.

  21. Well, the whole concept of a BOLO from Keith Laumer isn’t considered and the Battlestar Galactica along with the Terminator series don’t pop up in any discussions. Could it be said that the last two were simple plot techniques to limit the story and focus on the ‘drama’ of individuals and the “local” conflict?

    I would be interested in hearing what the BOLO type of warfare would be considered… The human is often a key part of a BOLO story but the ‘weapon’ is a character too so, maybe that is the glimpse into the future that the article is talking about. Comments?

  22. Oops… didn’t notice there is already a Paul… so I, in comment #24 will be “Paul Too” in the future.

  23. Paul@24: Interesting point on the BOLOs. They struck me as supersoldiers, not just because of their massive firepower and armor, but because of their, well, ethics: honor, courage, dedication. Okay, so it’s programming. They still outsoldiered the human soldiers.

  24. If you look at military histories, there’s very little focus on individual people

    Uh, huh? Enormous swathes of military history focus on individual people, from nearly the entire output of Stephen Ambrose to more historians than I can mention.

  25. If you want a realistic look at far future war, Ian Banks is your man

    AI’s at the intelligence level of minor deities operating at a degree of strategic sophistication where even augmented humans cannot have the strategy so much as explained to them. Humans basically play the role of cheerleaders and/or collateral damage.

    The other angle, as Banks brings up, is the odds of two space fairing civilizations mixing it up and happening to be at a relatively equal level of technology is pretty slim. And when they do it’s mostly at the “blowing up stars” kind of level.

    Not the kind of story everyone wants to tell of course…

  26. Silbey -

    Lots of historical works focus on individual military leaders. Rather less on individual normal people.

    Honorverse (among others) can be seen as a fictionalized version of the military leaders focused historical stuff.

    There are clearly exceptions – Ambrose’s group histories are one class of them, and another is more individual focused ones, things like “The Bridge at Dong Ha” by Miller (Ripley at the Bridge, one of the really outstanding action-adventure true history stories ever told…). But there are problems turning both of those into fiction stories.

    The first class – too many characters to do good fiction (in my opinion – someone probably has a few counterexamples).

    The second class – there’s a problem in fiction, where some of the true stories stuff just sounds ludicrous if you try and write it as fiction. The Bridge at Dong Ha is a good example. If you didn’t know it was historical fact, it’s too unbelievable that someone could have done that.

  27. I think it is interesting that said article thinks mil SF is still in WWII while citing “The Forever War.”

    If mil SF is stuck in any real war, (which I don’t actually believe it is) its Korea/Vietnam and not WWII.

    I also think its interesting that the article leaves out most of the “hard” SF authors who are interested as much or more in the mechanics of war than they are the human effects of war. Granted, Pournelle is hard to find these days, but authors like Drake, Ringo, and Weber dominate multiple shelves in the Barnes and Noble.

  28. I don’t understand the argument that if a writer uses war as anything more than a backdrop in the story, the book has to be a dull military treatise. Of course it’s possible to write fiction that’s thinly-disguised lecturing (why, no, did I say Neal Stephenson?), but it doesn’t have to follow that it is.

    His point, I think, is that there’s a difference between SF that uses war as a backdrop, and SF that is about war. OMW really isn’t ‘military SF’ by that definition, since the book isn’t so much about John Perry kicking alien butt as it is about his second life, and coming to terms with who he is and what’s really going on in the universe.

    Cf. to a Bernard Cornwell novel. I know it’s not SF; bear with me. A Richard Sharpe book isn’t a dull military treatise, but it’s certainly about war; the whole point of each book is to advance the story of Sharpe’s life slightly while having him fight a historical battle, set in the context of the larger war. They have global military strategy aplenty.

    As for the tactics argument, sure, you could argue that SF Future Tech #1923 would be successfully implemented in a way similar to modern warfer; his point appears to be that it’s not as though the author carefully considered the panoply of battle and it just so happened to mimic Operation Torch, or whatever. It’s copying actions from previous wars and using the template on guys with Future Tech.

  29. From things not said in the article & said in the comments, the author didn’t seem to be particularly well-read in the (sub-)genre – hasn’t read David Drake or Gordon Dickson, at least.

    (Actually, that seems to happen a lot at IO9 – several times, article authors seem to either not know much about what they are writing about, or [in reviews of movies or TV shows] apparently weren’t paying very close attention because they missed things that weren’t super-subtle. I used to read IO9 regularly, but I don’t know a lot about much at all, so when I find myself knowing more about a subject than an article’s author — especially when the author’s presumably getting paid, I get an eyerolling, why-am-I-wasting-my-time feeling.)

  30. Lots of historical works focus on individual military leaders. Rather less on individual normal people.

    Uh, again huh? There’s an entire stream of military history that focuses on nothing but individual normal people.

  31. Silbey – I have somewhere between a couple of hundred and a wall full of military history books.

    I am of course generalizing, but if you could be more precise and explain what authors and books you are speaking of, it would be helpful.

  32. Silbey – I have somewhere between a couple of hundred and a wall full of military history books.

    And I am a military historian, so I’ll raise your wall with an entire library, thanks.

    Where do you want me to start? The Civil War?

    Bellah, James Warner. Soldier’s Battle: Gettysburg. New York: David McKay Company, 1962.

    Catton, Bruce. Mr. Lincoln’s Army, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1951.

    Catton, Bruce. The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company Inc., 1952.

    Catton, Bruce. The Army of the Potomac: A Stillness at Appomattox, Garden City, New York: Doubleday and Company, Inc., 1953.

    Glatthaar, Joseph T. Forged in Battle: The Civil War Alliance of Black Soldiers and White Officers. New York: The Free Press (A Division of MacMillan), 1998.

    Hess, Earl J. The Union Soldier in Battle: Enduring the Ordeal of Combat. Lawrence, Kansas: University Press of Kansas, 1997.

    McPherson, James M. For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

    Mitchell, Reid. Civil War Soldiers: Their Expectations and Experiences. New York: Penguin Inc. 1988.

    Nolan, Alan T. The Iron Brigade: A Military History. New York: MacMillan and Company, 1961.

    Pullen, John J. The Twentieth Maine. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Company, 1952.

    Robertson, James I. Soldiers Blue and Gray. Colombia: The University of South Carolina Press, 1988.

    Wert, Jeffry D. A Brotherhood of Valor: The Common Soldiers of the Stonewall Brigade and the Iron Brigade. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1999.

    Wiley, Bell Irvin. The Common Soldier in the Civil War. New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1951.

    And that’s really just a start. World War I and II are even more chock-a-block with books on the experiences of ordinary soldiers.

  33. Have to throw in a slag about John Ringo: he doesn’t write military s.f., he writes pornography that uses a lot of guns. His tactics and weapons are abysmal because mostly he seems to be setting up scenes that will look real purty in the movies that will never be made.

  34. Silbey – At least you have references, that brings the level of conversation up a few notches. Thanks.

    I’m not intimately familiar with those sources, though one or two of them look familiar from somewhere. My now late grandfather’s bookshelf perhaps; it didn’t end up in my collection.

    if I may back off and re-precisely target my original point, I was intending to speak of and focus in on “general, popular military history” and not specialist, low publication volume histories.

    I am not a professional in the field; I am a somewhat educated amateur. In some few subspecialties I probably have as good or better coverage than your library, but I certainly wouldn’t assert that in general.

    What I do have is a reasonably but not entirely complete collection of those contemporary works which reach general popularity.

    Those are the works which would seem relevant for the conversation and the issues of character and story for new fiction, either fictionalized or alternate histories, or futuristic settings. What’s interesting in fiction is character and plot, and individual focused specialist publications don’t particularly help with that, because what’s interesting in fiction and what’s as a rule true in reality and history are two different things.

    The exceptions to that rule generally are things that pop up in more popular writings than the detailed histories. Because, as a rule, reality is too boring to make good fiction, and the exceptions are often too exciting to make plausible fiction. I did an exercise of writing the core of “The Bridge at Dong Ha” as a piece of fiction in a different contemporary setting, and bouncing it off people. The reaction was that the plot was too fantastic.

    Bigger, wider scope histories that don’t focus on individual characters can provide a level of action and tension that is good for fiction and credibly accurate, but by sacrificing focus on individual characters. Individual characters who aren’t leaders often, in reality, are too boring for the most part except for the brief sections of action which are traumatically exciting. If you try to “sex it up” with an individual low level character to make the fiction better it tends to depart from historical accuracy and reality.

    Again – there are exceptions here and there, but as a rule it’s really hard to find a balance point in all this.

  35. Since Coolstar brought up Ringo and we started with RAH’s Starship troopers.

    The evolution of the SF armored suit stories

    Heinlein- Starship Troopers
    Haldeman- Forever War
    Steakley- Armor
    Ringo- Gust Front (and good chunk of the Posleen series for that matter)

    One can note that while each has a powered suit as the military hardware, the wars they are based on evolve from Korea to Gulf War I.

  36. “That’s why large-scale airborne drops on the scale of Operation Overlord in 1944 simply aren’t done any more. Soldiers tend to scatter; soldiers find themselves in enemy territory by themselves; and airborne units are generally unable to operate effectively against an enemy’s heavy units, such as armor.”

    It seems to me that first saying you can’t refer to something like WWII, to past military tactics, and then using the problems with those tactics to say why they can’t or wouldn’t be used rather ignores future technology. Looking at the one above: would future soldiers, descending on say, grav-harnesses, scatter? Of course not, because the technology has rather advanced beyond the parachute.

  37. Two commenters in the original article mentioned Gordie Dickson but I thought I would throw a mention of his Tactics of Mistake and, really, the whole (unfinished dammit!) Childe Cycle series as a counterpoint to the op/ed piece.

    I admit not every aspect of his future warfare was given the same level of treatment, but to me the melding of strategy, tactics, and individual action found in ToM have really never been equalled since.

  38. re:# coolstaron

    “Have to throw in a slag about John Ringo: he doesn’t write military s.f., he writes pornography that uses a lot of guns.”

    That explains why I like him.

  39. A reviewer who is apparently entirely ignorant of CJ Cherryh’s vast array of military SF probably needs to retrench and do some serious reading…

  40. if I may back off and re-precisely target my original point, I was intending to speak of and focus in on “general, popular military history” and not specialist, low publication volume histories.

    I’m afraid your reformulation doesn’t really work, as popular military history is, if anything, even more focused on the low-level individual than is specialist history.

    A quick list of popular military history books focused on ordinary folks:

    Ambrose, Stephen E. Band of Brothers : E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

    Ambrose, Stephen E. Citizen Soldiers : The U.S. Army From the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany, June 7, 1944-May 7, 1945. 1st Touchstone ed. ed. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

    Ambrose, Stephen E. Comrades : Brothers, Fathers, Heroes, Sons, Pals. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999.

    Ambrose, Stephen E. Crazy Horse and Custer : The Parallel Lives of Two American Warriors. 1st ed. ed. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1975.

    Ambrose, Stephen E. D-Day, June 6, 1944 : The Climactic Battle of World War Ii. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.

    Ambrose, Stephen E. Pegasus Bridge : June 6, 1944. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1985.

    Ambrose, Stephen E. The Wild Blue : The Men and Boys Who Flew the B-24s Over Germany. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2001.

    Bando, Mark. The 101st Airborne : From Holland to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. Osceola, WI, USA: Motorbooks International, 1995.

    Bando, Mark, and Mark Bando. 101st Airborne : Screaming Eagles At Normandy. Osceola, WI: MBI Pub, 2001.

    Bando, Mark. 101st Airborne : The Screaming Eagles in World War Ii. St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2007.

    Bando, Mark. Avenging Eagles : Forbidden Tales of the 101st Airborne Division in Ww2. Detroit, Mich.: M. Bando Pub, 2006.

    Bando, Mark. Breakout At Normandy. Osceola, WI: MBI Pub, 1999.

    Bando, Mark. The 101st Airborne At Normandy. Osceola, WI: Motorbooks International, 1994.

    Bowden, Mark. Black Hawk Down : A Story of Modern War. 1st ed. ed. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1999.

    Bradley, James. Flyboys : A True Story of Courage. 1st Back Bay paperback ed. ed. New York: Back Bay Books, 2004.

    Bradley, James, and Ron. Powers. Flags of Our Fathers. Bantam movie tie-in trade pbk. ed. ed. New York: Bantam Books, 2006.

    Cooper, Belton. Death Traps: The Survival of an American Armored Division in World War Ii. Edited by 1998-08-041998-08-04. Presidio Press, 1998.

    Gardner, Ian., and Roger Day. Tonight We Die as Men : The Untold Story of Third Battalion 506 Parachute Infantry Regiment From Toccoa to D-Day. Oxford ; New York: Osprey, 2009.

    Humphrey, Robert E. Once Upon a Time in War : The 99th Division in World War Ii. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2008.

    Sides, Hampton. Ghost Soldiers : The Epic Account of World War Ii’s Greatest Rescue Mission. 1st Anchor Books ed. ed. New York: Anchor Books, 2002.

  41. I get frustrated with science fiction and fantasy books that screw alot of realism elements up. It would be nice to see more research go into warfare and combat in these books.

    That being said, I don’t know if that would actually increase sales. So the author is doing alot more work without more profit. I don’t think most science fiction and fantasy fans care how realistic a book is, they just want a book to make them think it is realistic.

    People who want more realistic books are generally drawn to the thriller dramas. Or the historical fiction novels that take place in the middle ages as opposed to a fantasy novel that adds magic to the middle ages.

    It would be interesting to see retired military officers write military science fiction. That could lead to a really fun book.

  42. Considering the list of previously mentioned works and universes, his point falls very flat.

    The Honorverse–where the ships and tactics have evolved hugely over the course of the books.

    Laumer’s Bolos, the Ringo’s ACS (from the Polseen verse), David Drake, and the list goes on. And a scary number of them can be found at Baen books. Some for free even.

  43. Yeah, I came to late to this so the list of authors that destroy the article’s premises and assumptions has mostly been stated already. John Ringo, David Weber, etc. Jerry Pournelle leapt to mind, though. He dealt with tactical to strategic issues, while focusing on individuals throughout his novels. The whole concept of the CoDominium and its elaborate history would seem to have made the article’s author all squishy, warm and fuzzy.

    The shots at Heinlein regarding using what were then cutting edge military tactics in his books seems to make a common amateur mistake. He looks at the book like, ya know, right now, dude, and not looking at a book realizing when it was written.

    The guy annoyed me, frankly. But, to take this down to a level where it’s totally personal, I have to say this: How can you respect the opinion of *anyone* with JediTrilobite as his email handle?

  44. I think Liptak may be looking at the wrong format. If I wanted to write a brilliant treatise on exactly how warfare works in a future context, I’d do it in a video game. I don’t have the gaming expertise to know whether the modern Clausewitz is out yet for the PS3, but that’s where I’d look.

  45. So now I’m dying to ask Silbey: (taking for granted that we’ve already read our host’s work) are there any bits of military SF that you’d particularly recommend?

  46. “Military SF novels aren’t about the institution of warfare; they focus on the effects of war, on the soldiers, on the morality of an organization, and on what humanity will do to survive.”

    Meh. That’s what makes the military NOVELS and not military essays.

  47. A reviewer who is apparently entirely ignorant of CJ Cherryh’s vast array of military SF probably needs to retrench and do some serious reading…

    One of the reasons I really enjoy Cherryh is that a lot of her work is in fact about people and stories, but because it’s set in space and has war and spaceships and stuff, the kind of person who breaks out into a profuse sweat at girly stories about feelings doesn’t notice it.

    silbey, thanks for the list! I’d be interested to see if you’d include Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege by Beevor in that; as I remember it wasn’t just about the military strategy, but focused quite a bit on the soldiers involved and how different their perceptions were of the battles.

  48. Good gravy. Between the article, its comments, and the comments here, that’s a WHOLE LOT of military theory porn. I’m gonna be washing my hair for a week.

  49. This has all been a wonderful discussion and has expanded my reading list. Here is a “spin off” on the whole thread – I went to a conference that had a speaker, Dave Grossman who was covering Asymmetric warfare and the current concept of terrorism as conflict. Look him up as an author (‘On Killing’ is a major work of his) and you will see he has background and has been thinking about war/personal combat for sometime.

    Here is the kicker… he co-authored a science fiction book called ‘The Two-Space War’ with Leo Frankowski. It has some interesting concepts that are influenced by his real world thinking. It sure isn’t BOLOS or high tech which is what made it interesting to me.

  50. One has to wonder if the writer of the article actually read the books he’s talking about.

    Starship Troopers is not about war as much as a philisophical treatise on “why men fight.” It’s about why one puts his soft squishy and verry fragile body between ones home and the ravages of war.

    And has been corectly pointed out above, the MI are far more akin to marines than the 101st airborn. Sometimes the job is to land, burn down some buildings and leave “on the bounce” othertimes it’s to establish a beachhead. Either way, it’s power projecton – marines not army.

    The Forever War can be boild down to: Vietnam really, really, really SUCKED. Comming home wasn’t that great either. (and if you somehow missed this subtle point, go read Haldeman’s 1968)

    Mandella does not have the big picture. he’s not suposes to. He doesn’t know any more about the grand strategy or what’s really going on in his war than the average conscript in “The ‘Nam”. He just knows that his end of the stick is the stinky, pestulent one, and sometimes survival is just as much about dumb luck as it is about skill.

  51. Sibley -

    I’m going to take one example from your list, which conveniently made it all the way to the screen (in different forms) to illustrate some of my points. That would be Black Hawk Down ( I’ll throw in Michael Durant’s “The Company of Heroes” for emphasis ).

    Bowden in BHD(book) attempted to capture the whole scope of a highly complex, two-company-ish-sized, highly fluid multiple engagement operation. He did so to some degree through the viewpoints of the people he got to interview in the most detail, but also consciously took a step back and tried to include as much other perspective as he could. Without re-counting, I think there were something around 100 perspective characters at different points in BHD(book).

    Compare with BHD(PBS documentary TV special) which had to visually and audibly retell that story – lacking footage from the battle, it focused down on those soldiers willing and able to be interviewed for the special, with some documentary contextual filler, as they had to describe events for which none of the participants ended up on camera for the documentary.

    It did a good job at portraying the scope – and in some cases individual very personal level character insight – but because of that personal insight with the interviewees was inconsistent across the big scope of the total battle. The level of personal insight into individuals was higher for some individuals – more of those interviewees’ personal story and motivations and feelings ended up on film than could be edited into the book, I feel, though that varied across the individuals.

    Compare with BHD(film), a lightly fictionalized retelling with actors. As it’s a film it gets to recreate the whole action, to the extent they wanted to and could film – which was, reasonably but not totally complete across the scope of it, from the US perspective at least. It attempted to take us through the film equivalent of characterbuilding – but in doing so, suffered horribly from having 10 major and 25 minor named characters with lines. There was simply not enough screen time. They showed what they could and had time for – and then moved on.

    Compare with The Company of Heroes(book) – Durant’s own story told by him and journalist Steven Hartov. Excellent single character insights and story through the events – and yet, filtered through that lens, almost completely misses the point of the wider context of the battle.

    (I could throw in the Army AAR and various critical reviews and other coverage, but they’re not relevant to fiction here)

    If you try and write a fictional story in this, where do you start? One could write a plot based story which tries to encompass the scope – and ends up with a novelized version of the movie. If the writer tries to focus down more into the characters, there’s no way a reader will comfortably be able to follow 10 major and 25 minor viewpoint characters (much less the other 100+ US soldiers there).

    One could write a novelized version of the PBS documentary, with a handful of viewpoint characters, enough to convey the scope of things, but not so many that readers have a hard time following it – this might work.

    Durant’s story? Doesn’t work as fiction. No offense to Durant, who I respect immensely, but he had too small a part in the overall event to be fictionally interesting. His personal story is courageous – but not novel material.

    Looking out to other individuals, one might conceivably try doing it with the Delta operators present… But, as I said earlier, some true stories are bad fiction, because they’re too incredible – if you don’t know that it actually happened, nobody will believe it as fiction.

    I have a hankering to do this treatment to Band of Brothers – as, conveniently, it also made it to the screen. But this is already a very very big post.

  52. Wow, this is a lot of responses. I’ve read through a lot of them (and the 200 + ones on io9), and I’ve got a couple of points to make about the article.

    The central point that I was trying to make (which some of you did identify) was that warfare is large, complex and oftentimes, simplified to a great extent within literature – not just scifi. The books that I cited are just a couple, and I’ve recieved a bunch of e-mails and suggestions for things to check out. There’s certainly books out there that go against my point, but I’m speaking in fairly broad generalities here. @efkelley got a number of my points right off the bat, which was good to see. (And yes, Airborne Infantry was the example that I was using, not air power in general)

    Another element is that there is a huge tendency on the part of authors and generals, to look to the prior wars that have gone past. In our case, World War II is a big example, but Vietnam and Korea have the same impact. The same thing happened when the US invaded Iraq for the second time – the planners and generals looked to the Gulf War, and because of that, they missed the influence of the mistakes based on that and got us into a royal mess. As a result, there’s more of a push to look at what worked in the past, but also how things are changing in the future to better approach combat. Most of the time, it’s making sure to know to ask the right questions and know ahead of time what to expect, rather than having to adapt on the go.

    However, I don’t mean to suggest that I want a science fiction book that’s all charts and strategy and the boring elements of war. Have you read On War? I’d rather eat sand. What someone suggested was worldbuilding, and that’s exactly it, there’s a lot of books that use the military as an element, but there’s few books that really utilize good character stories with a lot of well thought-out military background in which the story is set. For me, it jars a little when there are things that don’t make sense in today’s military, and are also unrealistic for the future, to some degrees. Someone suggested Dune as an example of this, and while I hadn’t thought of that earlier, I think it’s right on.

    I really like all of the books that I used, and there’s a lot of different ways to look at them, and it really depends on who you talk to for some sort of meaning. One of my points is that a lot of these books aren’t about the military – they’re Soldier Science Fiction, rather than Military Science Fiction. Which is fine by me, because they’re exciting, interesting and spark up online debates that get everyone annoyed. At the very least, I hope to have gotten people thinking a little, and it’s certainly given me a lot to write about.

  53. Darn it.

    Apparently, while I was busy with other stuff, Eversmann and Schilling wrote a book in 2004 on their perspectives (along with a bunch of the other soldiers) of the Battle of Mogadishu (1993) – which I don’t have.

    This potentially could be an excellent novel source material – however, not having it, I don’t know. As opposed to Durant’s story, these other ones could have more of the scope etc.

  54. It seems to me the Posleen are an attempt to have an enemy suitable for just standing there and shooting them with the biggest guns you can find.

  55. So now I’m dying to ask Silbey: (taking for granted that we’ve already read our host’s work) are there any bits of military SF that you’d particularly recommend?

    The funny thing is that I don’t read an enormous amount of Mil-SF at the moment, as it’s too much like work. But nothing I’m going to recommend should surprise anyone: Heinlein, Laumer, David Drake, early David Weber. I get less bothered by improbable technological setups (you can handwave anything into existence if you want: see _Dune_ for an example), than by improbably glorified militaries or military characters (“chickenshit” isn’t Joseph Heller’s invention), and by plots that are thinly veiled shots at current politics.

    silbey, thanks for the list! I’d be interested to see if you’d include Stalingrad: The Fateful Siege by Beevor in that; as I remember it wasn’t just about the military strategy, but focused quite a bit on the soldiers involved and how different their perceptions were of the battles.

    Yeah, Beevor’s good; in fact, he just got a million pound advance for a book on WWII(!) I can only dream.

    Bowden in BHD(book) attempted to capture the whole scope of a highly complex, two-company-ish-sized, highly fluid multiple engagement operation. He did so to some degree through the viewpoints of the people he got to interview in the most detail, but also consciously took a step back and tried to include as much other perspective as he could. Without re-counting, I think there were something around 100 perspective characters at different points in BHD(book).

    Bowden’s a piker compared to George RR Martin. I think the larger problem with your point (besides making some strange assertions about military history: what is Dick Winters in “Band of Brothers” but a major character?), is that it underestimates how often fictional works do the same thing you criticize histories, and how often histories (popular and otherwise) do what you laud fiction for doing. There are lots of biographies about ordinary, if heroic, folks, just as there are plenty of kaleidoscopic fictional works (how many perspective characters does _Lord of the Rings_ have?)

  56. mythago:@52

    On the other hand, Annalee Newitz, editor-in-chief of io9, does seem to want to expand CJ’s readership; thus in ‘Science Fiction Teaches You How To Create A Male Sex Slave’:

    ‘In C.J. Cherryh’s classic Downbelow Station, warship captain Signy Mallory keeps a mindwiped spy as her torture pet, which also seems to give her a sexual charge.’

    Probably just as well she omitted the bit about it winning the Hugo; the hordes of Gor enthusiasts might have smelled a rat…

  57. Silbey writes:

    Bowden’s a piker compared to George RR Martin. I think the larger problem with your point (besides making some strange assertions about military history: what is Dick Winters in “Band of Brothers” but a major character?), is that it underestimates how often fictional works do the same thing you criticize histories, and how often histories (popular and otherwise) do what you laud fiction for doing. There are lots of biographies about ordinary, if heroic, folks, just as there are plenty of kaleidoscopic fictional works (how many perspective characters does _Lord of the Rings_ have?)

    I can’t read some of George R. R. Martin’s works. Some are great – some, just don’t work for me as fiction.

    I’m not going to assert fiction doesn’t do the “bad things” I am asserting. But, by and large, I think it does them poorly – the stories suffer from doing it.

    In a sense, the speculative fiction exceptions prove my point. It’s not that it’s never done. Lesser authors often outright fail when they attempt works like that, and even the masters-for-the-decades works show rough edges.

    To a point, it works – Cherryh makes baroque, detailed, deep, multi character deep insight stories work, but even she has her moments where it all falls apart, trying to track it all. Frank Herbert was riding the edge with elements of Dune. The stories become less accessible and less enjoyable.

    You mention Tolkein; The Hobbit is the least complex and most readable of his works; LOTR has complexity of on the order of Dune, and many perspective characters, and rides the outside edge of “what works”; The Silmarillion was uncomfortably difficult or unreadable as fiction, to many people.

  58. Also – in Band of Brothers, I think Dick Winters is *the* major character, though there are obviously a wide spectrum of other strong characters that come in and out.

    See previous comments about military fiction about the leaders being a format that works and is fairly common.

  59. In a sense, the speculative fiction exceptions prove my point

    But they’re not exceptions, on either side of the fence. Military history does what you claimed it doesn’t, and it does it frequently. Speculative fiction does what you claimed it didn’t, and does it frequently.

    And, really, you’re not going to convince me with an argument that tries to downgrade both Lord of the Rings and Dune in the same post.

  60. After several reads through it, I’ve come to the conclusion that Liptak isn’t making a compelling case here.

    He takes several titles that are generally proffered as defining the genre of military sci-fi – Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, Forever War, Old Man’s War – and proclaims them to not be military sci-fi. His reasoning is nonsensical: since these books are about effects of war on those who fight it (in other words, soldiering) and not on the over-arching planning and logistical concerns of those wars, they aren’t military sci-fi. That’s kind of like claiming that Gone with the Wind is not a Civil War story, or that Jurassic Park isn’t about dinosaurs. He further denigrates these books by orphaning them. He summarily displaces them from their traditional genre, but can’t be bothered to give them even a made-up genre to be in instead.

    He then expends a significant amount of his word count flexing his military history and theory epeen/net-cred. (“Operation Overlord… Operation Market-Garden”, “counter-infantry measures”, and so forth.) As I mentioned above, it’s all just so much military theory porn.

    He’s got a lot of examples of what not to do. Mostly this has to do with a focus on tactics (where even Liptak admits the compelling personal stories are) and the choice of small group tactics (also used to help focus the story). He seems to want to have it both ways as far as not using the recent past as a guide, and on taking recent changes in military thinking as sacrosanct. I wonder, if not the past, where would he have authors look for ideas about fighting wars?

    But the worst offense is the dearth of examples of what authors should do. He mentions only two positive examples by name: the first he immediately dismisses, and the second is freaking Clausewitz! It’s well into the comment threads before Liptak finally realizes that On War is a treatise, not a novel. Even if he truly believes that no military sci-fi exists that meets his standards – which ought to tell him something about the breadth of interest in that type of story, or in the difficulties in composing one – could he not at least come up with non-sci-fi examples?

  61. I think Liptak’s complaint is simply that what is generally thought of as military SF isn’t an answer to the question “what will the warfare of the near or far future be like, and how will it affect the people/societies of the time?” rather than using SFnal tropes to explore the effect of war on people in general (or simply to tell Action Stories with a militaristic theme).

    Speculating on hypothetical future technologies and their effects is central in the writing of a fair chunk of non-military science fiction but military SF writers seem mostly to be interested in transplanting the wars of the past into the future.

  62. We ought to at least mention ‘Altered Carbon’ in any round up of how war might be fought in the far future…

  63. Somebody above mentioned Stross, but I would like to elaborate on that. The armada sequence in Singularity Sky is a perfect example of what Liptak says military SF does not do. It shows a group of dedicated, intelligent highly trained traditional military men attacking a target. The book has mapped a lot of the reasons for why they do this and how they do this, from both a command and tactical standpoint in the context of their planet’s social and technological status, internally and related to their neighbors. Even though they were sort of the bad guys, I felt a lot of admiration for how they worked together, their spirit, grit, know-how, etc. Their current target is a posthuman or near posthuman “civilization.” All of their Heinlein capable-man-ness is not so much out-gunned as completely irrelevant to what they are facing and their attack fizzles out like those Douglas Adams’ aliens who were swallowed by a small dog because their ships were scaled so tiny.

    It is my favorite scene of any Stross novel, both thematically and for character development. He does not always succeed, particularly in the later category, but here he stuck his landing perfectly and it is all accomplished in a stand alone, moderate length novel, not a treatis or a series of epic door-stoppers.

  64. Stevie, I would say the second book is where he really tackles futuristic war. Altered Carbon is more of a Raymond Chadler noir and Woken Furies almost seems to backslide into more traditional military SF, but Broken Angels is pretty mind-blowing on the overall combat thing.

  65. Besides all the fun action and giant crabs, Neal Asher does address some of the issues of when technology starts to shape its users rather than the other way around. Spatterjay’s parasitic ecology might also be read one ultimate end of the literal evolution of conflict. Asher’s books often read to me as a sort of prequel to The Culture.

    Sorry for the multiple posts, it is way too early on a Saturday morning for me to organize properly.

  66. privateiron @69

    Yes, I had been thinking of ‘Altered Carbon’ as the substance, rather than ‘Altered Carbon’ as the book.

    And also yes, ‘Broken Angels’ seriously prods buttock.

    In a good way…

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