War Stories: On Sale!


I don't know how long it'll be on sale, but Amazon has marked down War Stories: New Military Science Fiction, edited by myself and Jaym Gates to $3.82 for the Kindle edition! That's a bit off the regular listed price of $5, and quite a bit cheaper than the print edition. 

If you haven't read it yet, it's a good time to pick it up, and read stories from Linda Nagata, Karin Lowachee, Ken Liu, Yoon Ha Lee, James Sutter, Maurice Broadus, Jake Kerr, Janine Spendlove, TC McCarthy, and a bunch of others. 

I'm very proud of this little book, and of all the stories in it. Jaym and I wanted to push against the typical tropes of Military SF, and I think we succeeded. There's things like power armor, AI, and space battles, but all with the backdrop of how warfare affects people. 

So if you're looking for a good book, it's a good opportunity to check it out! 

Joe Haldeman's Forever War

When I was in High School, I devoured Ender's Game and Starship Troopers, but it wasn't until I'd left graduate school that someone forced me to read The Forever War. When I did, I sort of missed the point of the book, and going back to it recently with this research, I'm finding that it's a book that's growing for me each time I read it. It's certainly one of the best SF novels that I've ever read.

I've interviewed Joe several times already, and we included him in War Stories, with his story Graves leading off the TOC. Going back and looking at how his book was written has been something I've wanted to do for a while now, and after writing up this column, I have to say, I need to give the book another read to fully appreciate it, I think.

Go read Joe Haldeman's Forever War over on Kirkus Reviews.

  • Trillion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction, Brian Aldiss. Aldiss has some interesting points to make here about TFW and its placement in genre literature.
  • Gateways to Forever: The Story of the Science-Fiction Magazines from 1970 to 1980, Mike Ashley. Ashley notes where Haldeman began writing and where he was able to first publish his stories.
  • Science Fiction Writers Second Edition, Richard Bleiler. Blieler has a good biographical sketch of Haldeman in this edition.
  • The Forever War, Joe Haldeman. Haldeman himself has some things to say about his own book. My 1991 edition has a good author forward.
  • Sci-Fi Chronicles: A Visual History of the Galaxy's Greatest Science Fiction, Guy Haley. This recently released book isn't terribly academic, but it has a page devoted to Haldeman (written by Damien Walter). Overall, it's a really neat, (dense) book with a TON of material. Good for flipping through.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, vol 2, Frank Magill. Magill has a solid review of TFW in volume 2.
  • Robert A. Heinlein: In Dialogue with His Century, Vol. 2- The Man Who Learned Better, 1948-1988, William H. Patterson Jr. Patterson talks about Heinlein's interactions with Haldeman in 1975 here.
  • Fights of Fancy: Armed Conflict in Science Fiction and Fantasy, edited by George Slusser and Eric Rabkin. There's a fantastic essay from Haldeman called Vietnam and other Alien Worlds, which is well worth reading. (Here's a good source online.

Online Sources:

  • Interim Report: An Autobiographical Ramble by Joe Haldeman. This is a fantastic autobiography from Joe, which provides some extremely helpful details about his life.
  • Many, many thanks to Joe Haldeman himself, who agreed to be interviewed for this. I'll post up our conversation at some point in the near future.

War Stories: The Book!


So, UPS stopped by with five boxes loaded down with copies of War Stories. It's a real book! I can flip the pages, my name is on the cover, and holy crap, guys, it's a real book! Now begins the process of shipping them out to Kickstarter backers - I see many envelopes in my future.

Here's the final cover and description:

War is everywhere. Not only among the firefights, in the sweat dripping from heavy armor and the clenching grip on your weapon, but also wedging itself deep into families, infiltrating our love letters, hovering in the air above our heads. It's in our dreams and our text messages. At times it roars with adrenaline, while at others it slips in silently so it can sit beside you until you forget it's there.

Join Joe Haldeman, Linda Nagata, Karin Lowachee, Ken Liu, Jay Posey, and more as they take you on a tour of the battlefields, from those hurtling through space in spaceships and winding along trails deep in the jungle with bullets whizzing overhead, to the ones hiding behind calm smiles, waiting patiently to reveal itself in those quiet moments when we feel safest. War Storiesbrings us 23 stories of the impacts of war, showcasing the systems, combat, armor, and aftermath without condemnation or glorification.

Instead, War Stories reveals the truth.

War is what we are.


I'm biased, but there are some fantastic stories in here. Early indications from readers are really good, and I'm looking forward to seeing this out and about the reading public.

If you missed out on the Kickstarter and want a copy, you can now preorder the anthology and get the ebook for free! Our expected publication date is October.

You also have a day and a bit left (ends August 1st) to register to win one of two copies from GoodReads.

Short Story Publication: Fragmented


Galaxy's Edge Magazine #8 launches today, and with it, my short story 'Fragmented'! I'm excited: this is my first professional short story publication, and I'm pretty happy that this story found a home. Other authors this issue include Tina Gower, Robert Silverberg, Tom Gerencer, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, David Brin, Eric Leif Davin, Robin Reed, Nancy Kress and Alex Shvartsman. 'Fragmented' is military science fiction, dealing with power armor and wartime trauma.

This one came about in a curious way: I was driving somewhere in Burlington, when this came on the radio. I found myself thinking about how one would decontaminate a set of power armor, and out of that, came the question of what people carry out of combat with them.

This one's fairly personal in a couple of ways. I attended a military college (as a civilian), and a number of friends of mine found their way overseas to Afghanistan and Iraq. Some have come back with a range of post-tramatic issues, some haven't. But, warfare affects everyone it touches. It's good to see that it's an issue that's demanding attention - far more effort needs to be made for people to realize that the war doesn't end with the last shots.

'Fragmented' can be read online at Galaxy's Edge for the next couple of months. You can also purchase a very spiffy print edition ($6.99) from Barnes and Noble and Amazon.com. You can also buy a digital copy in a variety of formats, either as a single issue or as a subscription. Head to the magazine' website for all of the options.

Armored: Coming to a Combat Zone Near You

Armored Tomorrow, John Joseph Adam's latest original anthology, Armored, hits stores. I'm pretty excited for this one, because I've read most of it already. Last year, the book was announced, and I got to help out a bit with some of the behind the scenes work in getting the book up and running: slush reading, some recommendations, and thoughts that I had about the stories that I read.

This anthology really blew me away. There's a stunning cast of authors present here, each of them with some really great stories about characters in powered armor - or the powered armor itself. What I really liked above all else is that there's a real mix of unconventional takes on the power armor idea, and this anthology might surprise readers a bit: it's not all pure action (although there's plenty of that), and there's more than just straight up military sci fi here: there's a couple of genres mixed in here.

You can buy Armored here, take a look at some of the behind the scenes stuff over on John's website, and like the page over on Facebook. If you like power armor and some great military SF, this is the anthology to buy.

Ender's Game and Military Strategy

Sam Weber, Ender’s Game detail The point that comes the most readily to mind when thinking about Ender's Game is the way military strategy is conceived of and executed. Of all of the Military Science Fiction novels that I've read, there are very few that really capture one of the major elements of combat, the strategic and leadership components that make a battlefield commander effective against an enemy force.

Humanity, under attack from an insectoid race known as the Formics (Buggers), fight tooth and nail to survive: first against a probing force, exploring our solar system, and a second time when a queen is to be installed for a permanent settlement. Earth is razed at points, and the countries of the world band together to form a cohesive military force to confront the military threat. In a number of ways, this is reminiscent of the overall strategy that worked effectively to combat the Axis powers during the Second World War.

Ender's education is the major element of the book that bears examination. From the beginning of the story, he understands a key component of warfare: render your enemy completely unable to pose a threat against you and your interests. Early on, he strikes out at a bully who is attempting to hurt him, noting later on that he would utterly destroy anyone who tries to harm him. It's a theme that's passed along through several points while at Battle School.

The same techniques apply as he is assigned to an army and begins learning the ropes to command an army of students on his own. There are several subsets to this: understanding just how to lead and most effectively lead the soldiers under his command, and effectively using those soldiers to carry out the goal in front of him.

From Bonzo, Ender learns what not to do: personal issues and ego can be exceptional motivators for success, but in his first army, Salamander, it's just as much a detriment to his own unit's cohesion, as Ender himself proves, when he breaks orders at one point to win a game. From other, fellow soldiers, such as Bean, he learns how it's important to use people at their most effective: while some might not be effective as platoon leaders, tapping into the strengths of those soldiers, and allowing them some degree of mobility or latitude to undertake parts of the army's overall mission. This essentially only works when there is a good deal of confidence in the abilities of the people below the leader. As equally important as leadership is, it's an essential key to delegate to sub-leaders who understand the end objective. In Bonzo's case, any strategy undertaken as such would likely not be effective. Under Ender, it propels him to the front of the standings amongst the students. This strategy would also prove effective when Ender is unknowingly fighting against the Formics, all the way to the end.

Militarily, Ender does a couple of interesting things: ensuring that any enemy can't strike back, but also learning from enemy soldiers and innovating accordingly. He moves around his soldiers into a different layout, allows a greater amount of latitude amongst his toon leaders, and uses his soldiers in unorthodox methods, such as using human shields or extra tools. These are key elements that real militaries utilize to undertake their missions, orienting themselves against one another by training to overcome individual systems and strategies.

With Ender's education, this is a military science fiction novel that does dual work with military strategy and tactics, both addressed at the same time, something that often doesn't happen in a novel in the genre. Furthermore, it does so within the framework of addressing some of the deepest moral elements in the genre: how does one even prepare for the total destruction of a race, and what's the impact? The fact that these elements are not only addressed, but really reinforced throughout the plot, make Ender's Game out to be one of the strongest within the genre.

Technology and Ender's Game

A couple of weekends ago, I had a bit of time to revisit a book that I had last picked up while I was in High School: Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card. It's been one that I've long wanted to revisit, and since the time that I last cracked it open, I've graduated from college with two degrees in history: one specifically in military history, which has given me a unique view on the intersection between military science fiction and how militaries function in the real world.

There were three things that really jumped out at me while reading the novel: the use and conception of technology at the time, the degree to which bullying and power played into the plot, and the way in which military tactics and strategy was used.

Reading Ender's Game in 2011 was an experience that comes right out of the book, and from the perspective of a young high school kid back in 2001, the future has certainly crept up on us slowly, but certainly.

The obvious points is in the use of technology in everyday lives: the students learned and interacted with one another via desks. Reading the book just a couple of weeks ago on an iPad, I was struck at how dead on Card conceptualized the use of portable computers: students bring them with one another, send and receive messages, read, write and learn their lessons on something that could easily be an iPad or similar computer.

More than the physical objects that the characters interact with (after all, small, portable computers have been used in science fiction novels for ages), the way in which they interact with one another was also surprisingly familiar: the internet. Some of the details are slightly off, such as the degree to which people can be restricted from accessing certain contents, but what Card described in 1985 with Peter and Valentine's rise to power is identical to that of bloggers and the abilities to which they can voice opinions on their own, rather than voicing the opinions of a large organization.

What Card seems to have done was conceptualize not the technology, but how people do to interact with one another regardless of how they're hooked up. The introduction of the internet, social media and interactive media hasn't fundimentally changed how we do things, but represents a natural expression of technology and human interactions.

It's interesting to read the book after seeing the rise of such major changes from the ground level. In 2001, I saw the power of the news by watching the headlines change during September 11th, and again with the explosion in activity following the killing of Osama Bin Laden on Twitter. Reading Peter and Valentine's strategy to fulminate support during uncertain political times is strongly reminiscent of very notable people in the media today: political bloggers that capture a significant audience and have whom have the ability to push their own agenda towards solving problems that they see.

The use and conceptualization was one of the surprising highlights of Ender's Game that I'd not readily remembered or expected when returning to the story, but it was a welcome one. While science fiction has more misses when it comes to predicting the future than accurate predictions, Card certainly got a major part of our lives right.

Happy Birthday Halo!

Nine or so years ago, I worked as a counselor at a summer camp in northern Vermont, a job that involved long hours working with kids nearly twenty-four hours a day. Counselors worked under the supervision of village directors, who had their own cabins, and generally allowed use of the building as a break room for those couple of hours that we had off when we weren’t teaching classes or had some down time with no responsibilities. Where I had been introduced to Dungeons and Dragons while a counselor in training in 2000, I was introduced to Bungie’s Halo: Combat Evolved, something that suddenly appeared in each of the four villages, and something that everyone seemed to play.

Growing up, I had never really played video games at home – I’d played games on friend’s consoles at their homes. Halo was an eye-opening experience, one that appealed to me greatly after watching people play. I was drawn into the story, a tiny snapshot in a greater story that was both interactive and exciting at the same time. Where most of my friends had grown up on video games to various extents, I’ve never been all that great at them, and consequently, found myself playing the campaign over and over, playing the multiplayer sections when we organized major Halo tournaments late in the evenings. As a result, I’ve long enjoyed the first game, and when the black Xbox gave way to the white and error-prone Xbox 360, I found myself missing the game, but made the jump over to Halo 2 and 3 as they came out, as a whole variety of games exploded out of the gate.

Halo is a franchise that I suspect will continue to grow to the point where it rivals Star Wars or Star Trek, the standard bar for science fiction franchises and success. The first game, a decade old, has done some impressive things over its lifetime: each of its sequels have been pretty popular, to the point where midnight releases are the norm for new entries, and a growing body of fans have begun making their own Spartan armor costumes. 343 Industries have also continued to publish books that continue the series along in the moments that you're not behind the visor of Master Chief. Quality-wise, they run the gambit from pretty standard fare, to some pretty impressive stories by some very good authors. Then, there's the movie to consider, which has languished in development hell for the past couple of years. It's going to be made - the franchise has already proven itself with a vibrant fan base that it's grown - it's just a matter of Microsoft working with other companies over financial matters. I've also got few doubts that a Halo movie, if properly handled (or even improperly handled), will make whomever films it a lot of money that will further bring the series into the public's eye. If the live action commercials that they've released are any indication, it'll be something to see.

Halo, for me, stands out amongst a lot of other military science fiction stories. Like the Star Wars franchise, the first game doesn’t do anything other than drop you into the middle of a decades long conflict with little bits and pieces of a much larger story along the way, hands you a gun and has you play through the story. While the sequel games, novels and comics really flesh out the story, the first game was something special. I appreciated the somewhat realistic approach to the military that the game brought in, and the balancing between a contemporary story (that's really only gotten more relevant as the United States has been in a decade long war), and against some of the epic tropes of space opera. Like Star Wars, the Halo franchise seems to have pulled in influences from everything from Larry Niven's Ringworld or Iain M. Banks Culture series to Ridley Scott's Alien. The result is a product and story that checks all the boxes without feeling like there were boxes to be checked in the first place.

Yesterday, I picked up the Halo: Combat Evolved Anniversary edition, and for the first time in years, played the original Halo. It's a little clunky with the new graphics at points, but my memory of the game came flooding back as I blew through the first couple of levels: It's really stood up excellently, even after all these years. It's a good reminder of the start (and something I'd hoped would happen eventually - an HD reboot), as the franchise continues forward. Hopefully, in ten years, the series will still be going strong.

Germline, TC McCarthy

A common talking point that I’ve found when it comes to military science fiction is that it's not a game. War is more than a bunch of soldiers dressed up in powered armor, shooting at aliens or their enemies, and telling a good story set against a backdrop of an epic war that pits the good guys against the bad guys. More than its surrounding features, military science fiction is a way to look at the present day. Germline, by TC McCarthy is a book that really gets the complexity, danger and horrors of warfare. It's the shock to the system that the first World War was to the civilized world, where they saw, first-hand, that war is a cruel and unforgiving institution.

Set at some point in the reasonably near future, the United States is at war with Russia. The battlegrounds are the mountains of Kazakhstan, where the war has dragged on in brutal fashion. Oscar Wendell is a reporter for Stars and Stripes, dropped in on the front lines to report on the progress of the war, where he's caught up amongst the soldiers that he befriends, and alongside the genetically engineered soldiers designed to take on the hardest battles.

One of the first novels that I've picked up that really seems to be influenced by the past decade of war in the Middle East (the other being Dan Abnett's Embedded), and it's a pleasant surprise to see the book draw from ideas other than the American experience in the Second World War or abject American exceptionalism. This feels like a book with less a political or national agenda, and one aimed far closer to the idea that warfare is, at its core, a horrible experience that should be avoided on the policy level.

Germline hits some snags early on, and takes a little while for it catch it's breath. For most of the book, I was wavering between liking the book for its message, and frustrated at points for some of the execution. Oscar is bounced from place to place, seemingly without warning, cause or purpose, as the war just drifts along. Key characters and moments that feel like they're supposed to take on far more significance pass by quickly, and a couple of personal issues that Oscar has are focused on and then dropped. Looking back, the ground-view experience from Oscar feels authentic, from his interactions with the US Marines in the beginning of the story, to the simple chaotic nature of his movements: this isn't a book that really looks at the war sans blinders. It's a tiny piece of a greater conflict, and within that context, it does a remarkable job.

For all of my misgivings, several of the complaints that I had about the story evaporated when I read a review that spoke a bit about the First World War experience, when everything began to fall into place. For all that warfare can be explained through charts, power point slides, rank structures, and the combat readiness statistics that are out there to explain why going to war is sometimes needed, it simply cannot explain away the experiences of a person on the front lines, no matter what the objectives are.

Reaching the last couple of chapters of Germline, it's clear that McCarthy gets warfare: his short bio includes a coy reference to his experiences as an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency during the opening days of the 'War on Terror'. The final, key part of the book shows us everything about how warfare is all but unknowable to the people who haven't experienced it. (I'd like to think that studying it provides some level of insight)

When it comes to much of the military science fiction that's out there - and there's a wide variety of what's available - this book stands apart because it so intensely focuses on the people caught up in the middle of the war. They don't care about the larger parts of the strategy that's required, nor the theory behind it, but at the people at the other end of their rifles. There's other books that have focused on the characters, but there's none that I've really come across that drives the point home so effectively.

War, at the end of the day, is complicated. It's rarely as clear cut a story of overwhelming good verses overwhelming evil. It's far more than strategy, while it's also far more than just the soldier's perspective. While I found parts of Germline underwhelming in some of its details, I found that it was more than a match for my expectations in other arenas: a good lesson to internalize. Moreover, the book outlines some outstanding points about how we as a society deal (or fail to deal) with the institution of warfare: the people who experience warfare firsthand deserve a major amount of respect for what they've experienced and survived, and in some cases, are still dealing with.

Warfare for the Crowdsourcing Age: Adam Robert’s New Model Army

New Model Army, by Adam Roberts, takes an interesting look at the function of warfare and society with the question: What if a hierarchical military, such as ones set up along the lines of the British or U.S. Armies, and pitted it against an army that was fully democratic in its organization?

The concept is an interesting one, and the book as a whole is a perfect example of something that I've wanted to see in the subgenre: a world in which the military itself is examined, not only in the tactical side of things, but also in its ideology. Roberts puts forth an interesting idea that blends together the changing states of technology and warfare: militaries have adopted a new organizational structure: rather than the strict chain of command that defines the military lifestyle, they have brought together a large group of people, connected them through secure wikis and use the power of the crowd to fight. Tactical decisions are voted upon, and each soldier updates the battlefield map with the needed information: where they are, where the enemy is, and so forth.

The concept is one that is already in the earliest stages of implementation in the real-world battlefield, on a couple of levels. With the advances in technology, military leaders have been able to reduce the 'fog of war', the so-called elements of the battlefield, where commanders can't see what's happening, and are forced to rely on planning extensively. As the abilities of the military to watch the battlefield increases, from cameras mounted on soldiers to drones flying overhead, major changes have been seen, both in the leadership and organizational structure of the military, but also in how tactics are put forth.

Indeed, the connection between the ability to wage war and the relative ease to which technology is available has already begun some major changes. In 2008, insurgents entered the city of Mumbai, armed with cell phones and the internet, and were able to coordinate their attacks, using Google Earth to help plan the attack. Other examples of similar uses have been used across the various conflicts around the world. As the world becomes more connected, it's far easier to coordinate attacks with individuals across country borders and continents.

New Model Army, while it puts forward an interesting story on the military, there's a number of things that make the story a bit more implausible, technology advances aside. Currently, the United States and her allies are into their ninth year of waging a counter-insurgency battle in the Middle East, one that will likely leave lasting impressions on the organizations of all involved, and are lessons that would not be easily forgotten. As such, the New Model Armies (NMAs) are essentially a form of insurgency warfare that seem to plague the regular British military wherever they confront them, inflicting heavy losses and forcing surrenders at several battles. For a nation that's largely been involved with counterinsurgency warfare for longer than the US (if one can consider the problems in Ireland), it seems strange that they would be unable to counter said forces, not to mention not adopting some of the methods in and of themselves. The successes of the NMAs seem to come from the ineptitude of the British military. Political motivations or opinions notwithstanding, it are a situation that annoyed me as I read the book.

The British NMA, soldiers were instilled with a sense that a pure form of democracy, and carried such an air of superiority amongst them that I can't help but thing that their role was satirical, at least at points. It's not until into around two thirds of the book that the main character is confronted with any sort of counter-point to his philosophy that democracies are inherently better than any other form of self governance.

When it comes to military powers, democracy is something that really doesn't exist, and for good reason: the style of warfare that has evolved over the course of human history ultimately relies on a large presence of soldiers, acting in concert, to achieve a goal that's determined by someone higher up in the chain of command. The ability to work together as a unit is a key element for the battlefield, and discipline is drilled into soldiers early on. The evolution of uniforms and mass-produced weapons helped to support this. The outsider viewpoint of a the military as a close-knit group of people follow orders, are yelled at and depersonalized (The term G.I. means General Infantry), is somewhat accurate, but the full meaning and reasons behind this type of training needs to be taken into consideration. The role of the soldier is to fulfill national priorities: in this case, by force, and essentially, they are willing tools of what is determined needed to be done.

Looking at a group such as a New Model Army, it's hard to imagine that a force composed of individuals, with a bottom-up organizational method would be as successful in the real world: individuals might be disciplined, but military actions require the coordinated efforts of a group to accomplish their goals: hence the depersonalizing training to get people to not run away from being shot at. Similarly, in the NMA, people hold no rank, nor do they carry any sort of specialization, which in and of itself causes issues. Militaries are groups of specialists, whether it be in a certain weapons system, as medics or as leaders, and I don't believe that the simple availability of information through the cloud can replace an individual trained and specializing in something as important as lifesaving. (I know I wouldn't want a surgeon trained from Wikipedia in heart surgery). Militaries are likewise structured (when they work properly) with individuals skilled in leadership and planning are promoted, and are able to recognize, carry out and accomplish their goals.

Furthermore, military actions recruit more than just tactical (on the battlefield) planning to accomplish their goals: there is far more long term planning when it comes to carrying out national goals, which in turn, inform the tactical requirements of a battlefield. Once again, in a crowd sourcing environment, I don't see that this would be an effective style of fighting. People in a large group might have their own goals, methods of fighting that run counter to national goals. In the book, the NMA uses a nuclear 'bullet', a sized down nuclear warhead that surprises everyone. Similar actions exist in real life: groups such as Freedom Watch or the Minuteman Project, which advocates or utilize force outside of national interests and policy. Undoubtedly, said crowd groups would utilize similar behavior in their actions, especially in a war zone. A U.S. Officer who captures the story's main character makes such a point, noting that while his British NMA is a good example of where this sort of thing works, there's other groups that are essentially mobs.

Insurgencies around the world utilize social networking and crowd sourcing elements right now, and in all likelihood, there will be moves towards this future that Roberts has predicted. However, as they do so, their opponents will do what the militaries in this book haven't done: adapt to the new styles of fighting, and find ways to counter them, but also understand how and why such measures are being put into place.

While there are real issues with the style of fighting in the book, Roberts has done what I've really yet to see another Military Science Fiction writer do with the genre: look at how people fight, and how things might work. This is a military science fiction book that goes beyond the action; it goes straight to the heart of how militaries function, speculative in and of itself. I see the fighting that occurs in the book as an afterthought, used to support the real character elements that go into the story, and as such, New Model Army is an interesting, fascinating book that annoyed me thought out, but it frequently made me stop and think about how such a thing might actually work in reality. Because of this, this book stands out from a lot of other miltiary science fiction stories.

One thing is for sure though, if there is a rise in this sort of style of fighting, it will be a very bad thing for all of us.

MilSF & Society

Earlier today, I had a post go up onto io9 titled 'What Is Military Science Fiction?', with the intent of looking at what defines books that are generally classified as such. The end result? While there's a lot of books that look towards the military for their stories exclusively (Think Baen Books), there's a second grouping of books that utilizes the military to an extent, some of which are somewhat surprising, like Dune and The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, which generally aren't thought of as such.

The general problem that I see with military science fiction is that they're not about the military: it's about the people in the military, and their (or society's) experiences with warfare. This seems to be a large gap in understanding, given how much warfare generally impacts fighting in American lives: if you go back through U.S. history over the past century, you would have to go to the 1980s before you found a year that the country wasn't engaged in military operations, publicly. Including classified and forgotten operations, you'd be hard pressed to find a time when we haven't been shooting at someone. Thus, it's essential for an understanding of why people go to war, especially in the speculative fields, because it's such a major impact.

One of the more enlightening quotes that I pulled comes from William Gibson: "Every fictive, imagined future can only be understood historically within the moment it was written." This is huge, and it explains everything that art tries to do in every field: it explains the present by looking at how we comprehend our surroundings. Looking at a lot of the military SF field, it's no wonder that the Second World War plays such an impact in the speculative military fields; it plays a huge role in our lives now.

Beyond that, however, it's no wonder that we look to futuristic warfare to understand the present. Science Fiction helps to take the present out of context, so the reader understands things from another perspective. Joe Halderman's The Forever War looks at experiences that are closely linked to coming home from Vietnam, with a sort of culture shock from returning soldiers.

Other authors have realized, through other works, the roles that politics and radicalism play in the greater picture, and this is why, I think, some books aren't thought of as being military-centric: the actions that surround warfare, such as the political motivations and societal issues, aren't directly linked to war and fighting, but help to give it some context, something that is badly needed in a lot of stories.

The ongoing war in Afghanistan and Iraq are two wars that require a lot of context. In Iraq's case, one has to look closely to American foreign policy and political circles to best understand the motivations for going to war (agree with them or not, there are some deep seeded reasons, not all of them bad, for going in). There is likewise a necessary examination required to look at Osama Bin Laden's motivations for forming Al Qaeda, which in turn links to other things. War is not a clear-cut and dried action or series of actions, and unfortunately, it is often presented as such.

This is why, I think, Military Science Fiction isn't all that great at being able to predict where warfare will go: there is already a lot of disagreement amongst historians and theorists as it is, over elements that lie in the background of the fighting, while speculative elements look towards the technology for inspiration, while they should instead be looking more at how people think about, and actually conduct warfare.

The ongoing battles going on right now across the world are way more science fictional than any sort of story that we've been able to come up with. Insurgents operate in ways that are vastly different than anticipated. A terrorist armed with a mobile phone, the internet and all the resources of the planet, guided by radical ideas fed to him by someone he's never met can go and become part of a fight and push forth a political message. If there's ever a scary, speculative story that keeps someone up at night, that should be it.

David J. Williams' Burning Skies

A couple of weeks ago, I finished David J. Williams' second book, The Burning Skies, and came away with about the same reaction that I had with his first novel, The Mirrored Heavens: I liked it, but at points, I completely lost sight of the overall picture of what was happening in the novel. The second book of his sleek Autumn Rain trilogy, The Burning Skies is a thrill ride right to the end, and for anyone who's into cyber-punk and military science fiction, this is probably the trilogy for you.

Coming hot off the heels of The Mirrored Heavens, The Burning Skies picks up a number of the storylines that were left hanging. Where the first book could have easily been a standalone novel, this one isn't, picking up and leaving off with loose ends that need to be tied up. The Autumn Rain had been though to have been destroyed in the first book, but it comes back with a vengeance, going for a power grab that sees a massive gunfight in an orbital facility where the Hand (The President) has holed up. The aims of the Rain isn't wanton destruction: they represent a whole host of post-humanity interests with the idea of bringing mankind into some sort of evolutionary advance by taking control of planetary networks.

The breakneck speed of this book is complimented by Williams' writing style, which takes a little getting used to. I found myself reading through the book very quickly once I got the hang of the tense and what was going on, and writing in the present tense, as he does, allows for an unprecedented view of the action that is going on in the book. With much of the book action, it makes for an interesting read. Williams' has noted that part of his background is in video games, and for gamers, this book will most likely feel very familiar: it's quite the adrenaline rush.

At other points, however, the breakneck speed hampers the storytelling: there's a lot of points where I found myself having to re-read a chapter or two to bring myself up to speed with why the action was happening, as I'd lose sight of the goals of the characters and the story as a whole.

What I really appreciate about this trilogy as a whole is Williams' attention to detail when it comes to geopolitical elements, which should be a proper backbone in any military science fiction novel. In a lot of ways, he's done his homework conceiving of the future that he wants his story set up in, and worked on a lot of background material that helps to establish a baseline, telling a story within that context, something that not every military science fiction novel does. The result is an interesting one: the theme here is the complexity of political power, even in the future.

This sort of background is essential, especially for a book that is as fast-paced and complicated as William's trilogy. Fortunately, between the books and his website, there is quite a bit of background reference material that's been put into place, with diagrams, explanations, character lists, and so forth. The first two books have set up a fun ride. Soon, it'll be onto the last novel, The Machinery of Heaven, which promises to be a read that's just as exciting as the first two.

Military Science Fiction is Soldier Science Fiction

Author Michael Williamson recently came across my article on io9, and posted up his own response. He makes some good points, but I wanted to address some of the areas where I disagree.

I have a couple of counterpoints to this that I'd like to address. I haven't had a change to read through all of the comments and address them individually, but I'll try and point out a couple of things that I think need corrected from the article above and my own on io9.

The first, major point is that no, I don't want Clausewitz to write science fiction. After reading his works for my Military Thought and Theory course (I've received an M.A. in Military History from Norwich University. For my own disclosure, I work for the school and that specific program as an administrator for the students, but the Masters degree really pushed me in terms of what I knew and how I understood the military), I think he's one of the more dry reads that I've yet to come across, and that while there is a lot of outdated information in the book, given the advances and changes in how militaries operate, there are some elements that I feel work well, conceptually.

The main point in the article wasn't written to say that military science fiction had to be more like a Warfare 101 course in how future wars should be fought - far from it - but that military science fiction could certainly benefit from a larger understanding of warfare. As you note, there's a lot of military themed SF stories about the people caught up in warfare, ones that examine how they perceive warfare, and how warfare impacts the individual in any number of ways. This comes in a couple of ways, one story related, the other more superficial.

There are very few  (I can't recall any that specifically look to this) military SF novels that look at warfare in the same context. While I agree that stories are about characters, it's also the challenges and the subsequent themes that embody their struggle that makes a story relevant and interesting to the reader. This, to me, as a reviewer and reader, is the element that will set up a book for success or for failure. Characters, the story/themes/plot, and the challenges that face him all work together to form the narrative. What the characters often learn from their challenges is what the reader should also be learning, and this, to me, is a missed opportunity for some elements of military science fiction. A majority of the Military SF/F stories out there have the characters impacted, but warfare is generally painted as a element of the narrative, not something in and of itself that can be learned from.

Superficially, wars are incredibly complicated events, and often, I don't feel that they're really given their due in fiction. There are a couple of points that I want to make in advance of this – this doesn’t mean that I want or require more detail on every element of warfare, from how the logistical setup for an interstellar war might be put into place, or how the X-35 Pulse rifle is put together to best minimize weight requirements in order to be effectively shipped through lightspeed. Those sorts of details aren’t important to the character’s journey in this, and they add up to extra fluff, in my opinion. Weapons and systems put into place for warfare are great, they sound great, and the same arguments are put into place in politics today. What makes the better story, in my opinion, is a better understanding of the mind behind the sights, from that individual soldier’s motivations to his commanding officer’s orders and training, and how war is understood on their terms. In a way, world-building for any story should firmly understand just what warfare is, or at least come to a consensus within the author’s mind as to how it will be approached.

Oftentimes, generals are accused of fighting the wars gone by. That’s certainly true in the ongoing conflict in Iraq/Afghanistan, and why there was quite a bit of resistance in shifting the military’s focus over to a counter-insurgency war, rather than one of armored columns and maneuvers: generals fight with what they have, and what they’ve trained for, and changes come afterwards. Starship Troopers, The Forever War and Old Man’s War all do the same thing, and that’s not really what I’m arguing against – the authors wrote what they knew – Heinlein, undoubtedly from his experience with the Second World War, Halderman from his own experiences in Vietnam, and Scalzi from observation and research. Science fiction looks to the future, but unless you’re a dedicated expert in a think tank, there’s really no expectation that these books will be predictors of the future, but also aren’t necessarily going to be good at the military thought and theory behind the battles on the pages. Will the individual soldier know anything about logistics and engineering solutions? Probably not, but those things certainly will influence how that soldier is operational on the battlefield, which will undoubtedly affect his view and outcome on the battlefield. While these elements might not surface in the text, they should be understood.

Art is formed within the context of its formation.  I don’t believe that a book written in the Post-WWII world should be really in depth on theoretical warfare on the character level, nor should it look beyond what the audience and writer really understands. However, as times change, context changes, and books are understood differently. There is no doubt in my mind that we will see science and speculative fiction stories in the next decade that are directly impacted by our understanding of the world since 9-11 and the warfare that has come as a result, because the current and budding writers are also changing their views on the world.

I see most military science fiction like I see some types of military non-fiction. Stories like Starship Troopers are like Band of Brothers. They’re fun and good character stories, but anything by Stephen Ambrose is certainly not serious military nonfiction, and isn’t something that I would use to better understand the nature of the Second World War. Looking at a similar book, The First Men In, by Ed Ruggereo, is a better example, (one that I recommend highly, as a counterpoint), but that tells a good character story AND looks at the strategic nature of Airborne operations during Operation Overlord.

Military Science Fiction can best be summed up as soldier science fiction, with the characters learning much about themselves and society – that’s never been in dispute from me. What I would like to see someday added to a field is a novel that better understands the nature of warfare, and extrapolates some of the lessons that can be learned from it.

Review: The Mirrored Heavens

David J. Williams' debut novel came out back in 2008, but it came to my attention after I wrote up piece on military science fiction for io9. In it, I looked to an argument that military science fiction generally avoided some of the root lessons and causes of warfare, which helps to dictate how the actions and world around the characters would play out. Williams’ books were recommended by a couple of readers as a good example of this sort of storytelling and world, and I was eager to see how his books lined up with what I had been hoping to see in a military science fiction book.

The Mirrored Heavens is a fun, action packed read. Taking place in 2110, a terrorist act, perpetrated by an unknown group, the Autumn Rain, destroys major construct in space: the Phoenix Space Elevator, shortly before it is activated. Constructed following a Cold War between the United States and a Eurasian Coalition, the destruction of the space elevator throws the main actions of the story together. U.S. counterintelligence agents Claire Haskell and Jason Marlowe, move to seek out the origins of the attack, while several other characters move through the story to their own agendas, culminating in a fairly exciting conclusion.

What works exceptionally well is Williams’ approach to the story is the surrounding back story and world building that helps put warfare into context. Throughout my studies, I’ve found that warfare is not an isolated event, even it is generally treated as such in fiction and in film; it is a complicated and convoluted process of politics, public figures, implementation of policy and foreign relations, before any of the bullets begin to fly. Williams, with a degree in history from Yale, seems to understand this, and has begun his trilogy (followed by The Burning Skies and The Machinery of Light, which is coming out soon) with a strong start.

The Mirrored Heavens is a thriller from start to finish. Williams adds on the action from the get-go, and rarely lets up from there, blending in military science fiction and cyberpunk together to form a pretty unique, high-octane vision of the future. There were points where I just blew through the book. Williams' short, to the point writing style really suits this sort of story, and it really moved things along. Throughout, the actions in the story are well articulated and clear, something that I've seen some writers stumble with. Moreover, the action in the book ultimately does help to support the story, pushing each storyline along bit by bit.

The action is both a good thing and a bad thing, however. While it does serve the story well, The Mirrored Heavens is the literary equivalent of a video game (and it comes as no surprise that Williams worked in the video game industry before turning to writing). At points, it overwhelms the story, and looking back, I have a hard time pulling out a detailed summary of what happened over the course of the book, simply because there is so many lasers, guns and missiles that there were points where I had to put the book down to find something else to do, to clear my head and try and make sense of what was going on. Taken as a whole, the story becomes very clear at the end, but that is of little help prior to that point. Ultimately, the book simply feels unbalanced, with more towards world building and action, and less on the story at hand and character building to fill in, and I'm hoping with the sequel, The Burning Skies, that there'll be a bit more in the way of that. That being said, the book has a significant leg up once you reach the end, and find that everything that has been read through really comes to a fine point, one that really leaves the reader looking for more, and fortunately, there are two further books in the trilogy to read through to get into Williams’ universe. What I really liked the most about this book, however, was the attention to the world building. At the back of my copy is a chronology of events that lead up to the book, reminding me much of George Friedman’s book: The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century. There are similar approaches to how geopolitics will shift over the next century, and where Friedman’s book takes the somewhat academic route, Williams takes the far more entertaining one, set in a futuristic world with spaceflight and cybernetics, and ultimately does what Friedman’s book should have: entertain, and present a somewhat plausible view of the future.

What also really helped was some of the background information present in the book’s appendix, such as the sequence of events, glossary and character list, but in addition to the information in the book, Williams has put together a fantastic website, which functions not only as a promotional item for the book, but also a reference one as well. Both books share a similar message: the future will hold a number of changes, mostly unexpected, and that nations will act in their own interests, even if that means causing a certain amount of chaos in the world to achieve their goals. William’s future is much the same: rogue interests in a government act in their perceived best interests, seeking to take charge where others have failed, leading to what is set up to be a fantastic storyline overall.

At the end of the day, Williams has created a fun book, and a promising start in the genre. While there are certainly a couple of issues that I took from the writing and storytelling, they are more than made up with in the end result: an entertaining, well thought out science fiction/cyberpunk/military SF thriller that really grabs the reader and doesn’t let go until the last page. The Mirrored Heavens is certainly a book that will appeal to the Military SF crowd, but also the video game one, and met with most of my arguments in my article from a couple of months ago with a punch to the head from one of the Razor/Mech teams from the start.

Fighting in the Future

Earlier this week, the Russian metro system was hit with two suicide bombers, who detonated their explosives in the midst of rush hour, killing 39 people. It is a tragedy, and a reminder that it is not just the United States that is under threat from fundamental forces, but any large organization that has displeased factions around them. It also helps to underscore the ridiculous nature of any sort of 'War on Terror', the American brand or otherwise, because this is a type of warfare that will remain with people for a long time to come. In the future, there will be war, conflict and any number of atrocities committed against people.

Terrorism is an act of warfare, and as such, is a calculated political statement that is designed to attract the maximum amount of attention as a way to promote their cause, and to show that they feel that they have had no other way to legitimately protest their actions against whomever they are fighting against. I was surprised when the Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov took over a day to announce his participation in the bombings, to either preempt any sort of group attempting to take advantage of the atrocity, and to establish their anger against the Russian government.

The science fiction world pushes into the future, often using warfare as a backdrop for a number of different stories. Very rarely, however, is the nature of warfare really discussed within these definitions, where war is a political entity. Terrorist-centric warfare, with attacks against civilians (who in turn, represent a larger organization or government), is something that has not really taken to the speculative fiction genre, but it will undoubtedly influence future works, as World War II influenced classic books during the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The major battles fought in the Pacific Ocean, mainland Europe or in the sands of the Sahara Desert provided fantastical and dramatic backdrops in which larger stories could be told or adapted for what might come for the future. Certainly the Second World War provided a number of elements that were almost unthought-of of by the average person on the streets. Massive bombing forces to lay waste to a country, soldiers dropped in by aircraft, submarines that could paralyze an entire navy, unstoppable bombs that could reach countries in a very short amount of time and the splitting of the atom. Still, with all technology aside, World War II proved to be an advanced war in how these technologies were implemented into the major strategy and tactics of the day, a departure from the prior major war.

Reading over the first couple of chapters in Kim Stanley Robinson's Red Mars recently, I was struck at how similar the opening was to some elements of real life, where one of the main characters, astronaut and colonist John Boone was assassinated by fundamentalist agents under another character, Frank Chalmers. In a way, this is an exceptionally similar event, with a number of parallels to the modern day: a political entity, frustrated by the actions of a legitimate government, acted out using violence as a way to demonstrate a political point. The innocence of those targeted does not matter, in events like this: they become an object, and that's what has happened in this regard.

Frank Herbert's Dune is another book in which militant fighting is demonstrated as a way for groups to illustrate their issues with a larger established authority. Following the Arakis takeover by House Harkonnen, the survivors of the family ally themselves with the Fremen, a nomadic group in the desert. As they regard him as a prophesied messiah, he uses their power as a fighting force to take on the Harkonnens. This aspect of the Dune story has a number of other connections to modern day events, where religious extremism and political philosophy blend together to the point where they are inseparable. In this modern day, the global Jihadist movement isn't so much of a religious statement; it's a political statement on the part of a radical/religious government, which uses the beliefs of its followers to enact terrible acts. The suicide bombings in Moscow or Iraq aren't religiously motivated: they are conducted on the behalf of people seeking to institute some sort of political change, using religious rhetoric to get their base fired up. In a way, these are the tactics of any major political party, even here in the United States, especially during campaign season, when there is a lot of misinformation and statements. Fortunately, people don't go and blow themselves up in support of any candidates.

Fundamentalist warfare is not at the heart of military thought and theory, but the tactics and motivations are generally the same as any larger authority going to war with another nation, and in rare occasions, this sort of mentality and plotting is really looked at and used by a speculative fiction novel or other project. Red Mars and Dune exemplify the issues surrounding war-like conflicts and actions, where a number of other books really look at other, elements of warfare - the effects of combat on soldiers, morals, and so on, as well as the technology that is used as the main point of these sorts of novels.

The clear lesson of military science fiction of this sort shouldn't be what types of technology we should be looking for. There are no good inherent lessons in that realm of thinking. Technology and tactics are dependent upon the environment in which they are created and subsequently used against an enemy. The tactics of airborne soldiers during the Second World War would have been elements of science fiction to ancient Roman generals, but it represents not only the technology but the tactical and strategic thinking behind it. No, the lessons that should be learned (if one is looking for lessons) are the fundamental underpinnings of what brings two political entities against one another in violence. It's not the technology; it's the people behind it.

The Reading List

Over the past couple of weeks, I've received some new books. Here's what I've got coming up next:
Spellwright, Blake Charleton. I came upon Blake's book through an interview that he participated in with Geek's Guide to the Galaxy, where he talked a bit about his life, namely the problems that he faced with severe dyslexia, his education and becoming a full time writer and medical student. Since his book has been released, it's been getting a number of really, really good reviews, and I'm very excited to get through this one.
This book looks to be fascinating in how Charleton is using his own experiences and the value of the written word in with the magic that the characters wield. I believe in the power of words and prose, and for that reason alone, I'm really looking forward to this one.
The Gaslight Dogs, Karin Lowachee. Karin Lowachee wrote a trilogy of novels back in 2002-2005 (I think), Warchild, Burndive and Cagebird, then vanished for a couple of years. I almost wrote her off as having abandoned the writing profession, when I came across a posting that she had a new book coming out: The Gaslight Dogs. This time, she's going to fantasy/steampunk with a novel that looks really interesting. I've really liked her prose in the earlier books, so there are high hopes for this one.
The Mirrored Heavens, David J. Williams. A little while ago, I wrote an article for io9 called Your Military Science Fiction Isn't Military Science Fiction. I got a number of e-mails, good and bad, from people who read it, and one of them brought my attention to David William's book The Mirrored Heavens. This is gritty military science fiction, and I like how the book has started off, and it has a promising storyline, especially when you look into the Military SciFi field.
Whirlwind: The Air War Against Japan, 1942-1945, Barrett Tillman. This book is part of a research project that I'm embarking on, looking at Air Power theory following the Second World War. Based on the review in the Wall Street Journal, and it's kickass cover, I picked it up to read up on something that I don't know enough about: how the US bombed Japan and its major cities during WWII. It's a horrifying and terrible subject, but one that's incredible influential in American and international history. This book is already very interesting to read.
Ambassadors from Earth: Pioneering Explorations with Unmanned Spacecraft, Jay Gallentine. I've written extensively about the University of Nebraska Press's series The Outward Odyssey, and the latest installment, Ambassadors from Earth has just arrived. Where the prior books discuss the human element of space travel, this one is about the unmanned systems that have gone into space. Presumably, this will talk a lot about the planetary and solar system probes that have gone out, but I wouldn't be surprised to see something about satellites as well. The prior four books have been excellent, and I have high expectations for this one.

Military Science Fiction Isn't Military Science Fiction

On Thursday, io9 published a piece by me entitled Your Military Science Fiction Isn't Military Science Fiction, which garnered a number of e-mails, praise, rejection and a lot of conversation about the thesis that I posed: Military Science Fiction is essentially Soldier Science Fiction, in a way that a Stephen Ambrose book isn't really Military History. The elements are there, but when it comes down to it, there's a lot of military science fiction out there that really looks to things other than warfare. Starship Troopers is about politics, the Forever War is about how societies change with time, and so forth.

While the premise sounds ridiculous on the first glance (It's got soldiers, of course it's about the military), the intentions behind this idea go a bit further. While stories incorporate the military within their plots and environments, there's very few military science fiction (or speculative fiction or space opera, if you wish) stories that really makes sense within their finer details, such as tactical and technological ones, to larger elements of the worlds, such as the military thought and theory that goes behind the stories. In a number of cases, the stories look back on wars previously fought, such as the Second World War, Korea, Vietnam and so forth.

My argument stems from both issues. Military experiences are largely evolutionary, and the experiences that are borne out of one war are often applied to another, but not universally. Not only does theory change with the new information, the situation on the ground also changes. From my own readings of the straight-up military science fiction genre, there's very few books that get this right - more often than not, these books take the visible aspects of recent wars or notable ones, and applies them to space. While the translation isn't exact when it moves to science fiction novels, it's a fairly close approximation, with smaller changes cropping up where needed.

One major tendency is that technology itself isn't a silver bullet when it comes to military theory and practical combat operations. Amongst military historians, there is a 'Western' style of warfare, of which, there is a technological element, but one that contributes. Technology alone is rarely an element that dictates the successes of a mission, but its usage and integration into regular military formations, is. The lines here blur when it comes to far more modern technology, and it can be argued that the Cold War was entirely dictated by technological advances, and that major elements of the Gulf and Iraq Wars were likewise won because of superior technology - this is not the case. Within military science fiction, the technological aspect often takes precedent, whether it's superior bombs, combat suits, guns or ships, but oftentimes, the surrounding culture and background history isn't as well thought-out as to the implementation of such advances, which then pairs superior technology, but in situations and tactics that are largely borne out of older wars.

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This line of thinking isn't necessarily a condemnation of these older books, and they're certainly not held to any sort of predictive level - their view and existence is about other issues, decidedly not about where the future of the military will lie. However, they do act as a good sort of test case and examples of what can be done to do such a novel: the worlds behind these conflicts needs to be sought out and thought out. Readings of military theorists, such as Clausewitz and others make for good starting points, and within that context, an author can put together a background history that provides an environment for military operations that makes far more sense. There's no need for a futuristic treatise on military thought and theory (On War was exceedingly dull - a sci-fi version of it would be only just a little less so), but within the proper context, there could be some fantastic books out there.

To be fair, there are a number of books out there that do have a number of elements that work extremely well - Dune, by Frank Herbert, provides such a look, but others, such as Nancy Kress's Probability Trilogy, Charles Stross's Singularity Sky/Iron Sunrise duo, Karen Traviss's Wess'Har Wars, as well as a couple of others, which represent a certain amount of good thinking and conceptualization behind the worlds in which they exist, and tend to fall in more of the military science fiction realm, rather than the soldier science fiction side of the house.

This isn't to say that the works out there are bad. I greatly enjoyed John Scalzi's Old Man's War, Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers and Joe Halderman's The Forever War. They're enjoyable, entertaining, and provide a good line of thinking behind their respective stories, but in a lot of ways, they represent a very different line of thinking than the military side of the house.

The Forever War and Military Science Fiction

Amongst one of the many books that has come highly recommended to me, especially from my fellow graduate students, was Joe Haldeman's The Forever War. Published in 1974, Haldeman's book is an interesting one, tying together a stiff criticism for the Vietnam War, in which he was a participant and recipient of the Army's Purple Heart, a look at the future of humanity and a romp through futuristic military battlefields. The book is scattered, to say the least, through these three larger themes, and while the book as a whole is a pretty strong one, reading it brought up some larger issues that I have with the whole of the military science fiction subgenre.

Branching off from the 1980s, humanity has taken to the stars fairly early in its history, travelling the galaxy via collapstars, which fires off a ship around the galaxy. During the course of humanity's exploration, they come into contact with a race of aliens known as the Taurans, and inevitably, war breaks out. The story's protagonist, William Mandella, is conscripted into the military, where he's trained and sent off to the distant front lines to fight, eventually becoming part of the first engagement against the Taurans. With that battle completed, he is shipped home, along with his lover, Marygay Potter, to an Earth that they hardly recognize. After a short period of time, they leave again, rejoin the military and rejoin the fight. Over the next several hundred years (only a couple for them, subjectively), they are retrained, and eventually separated, before one last battle brings Mandella back home, where he is eventually reunited with Marygay.

The book is ultimately lackluster as a military science fiction novel: the action scenes are nothing new, and anyone reading Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers or John Scalzi's Old Man's War will recognize the basics when it comes to this sort of novel - there are powered suits, the requisite training portion and rise of the protagonist, not to mention the action. Taken at face value, it's a bit of a miss for me. The biggest saving grace is Haldeman's conceptualization of space warfare, where tactics take days, weeks, even months to carry out, over hundreds of millions of kilometers. This gives the book a bit of a realistic edge that does make it stand apart from other military Science Fiction novels, something that I greatly appreciated.

However, where the book succeeds the most is in Haldeman's look to the future. As Mandela lives out his life through the military actions that he takes, long stretches of his life are relatively slowed down while travelling through space, allowing for jumps in time as he comes back into contact with Earth and sees just how society has changed over time. Upon his first return, humanity has united on Earth, under a largely repressive, Children of Men style world where human civilization has faced enormous hardship under the interstellar war. Leaving the world as it has changed too much for his liking, William and Marygay return to space, to find several major changes as they continue to jump around space. Eventually, the world as they know it has changed completely - humanity has gone from a recognizable society to one where homosexuality is the norm (as a form of population control) to a world where humanity has essentially merged into one asexual entity, with each generation cloned from the last. Elements of this remind me heavily of another book that I've been recently reading, Olaf Stapledon's The First and Last Men, published in the 1930s, and dealing with much the same thing: looking at how humanity as a species and culture will change in the future. Mandela's vantage point in the military is an interesting story element that allows Haldeman to not only tell an interesting story, but present a compelling future for humanity. Another book that I read last year, George Friedman's The Next 100 Years, noted that society and cultural norms can change vastly over even the period of just one hundred years, and to an extent, that lends Haldeman's and Stapleton's ideas some reality: what will happen to humanity over the next thousand years, with technological and societal advances altering what is normal? It is here that The Forever War is especially interesting.

Another major element of The Forever War is Haldeman's pointed look at the Vietnam War, no doubt inspired by his own experiences with the US Army. The book is considered a reaction to Starship Troopers, in that it takes a largely anti-military stance throughout most of the book. Mandella is a reluctant soldier, at best, often delegating his responsibilities away to subordinates and avoiding killing when he can help it. But throughout the book, there are examples of Vietnam, as humanity faces an enemy that is largely unknown, never knowing exactly what they are fighting for. More so, it is alluded to in the book that the war was fought simply because it was desired, something that was the main focus of a documentary, Why We Fight, that looked to that central theme in regards to American foreign policy. However, the core focus of this book isn't the Vietnam War itself, but the soldiers who fight there. Soldiers returning from Vietnam found themselves back home in a strange place, not as heroes of the war, but as murderers and criminals, something horribly unjust, considering that many were conscripted. This is a prime example of how science fiction should function: acting as allegory for current events, pulled out of context. Mandella returns home after hundreds and hundreds of years away from Earth; vast changes occurred while he was away.

The Vietnam comparison, however, is something that bothers me, and helps to underscore a larger issue that I have with military science fiction as a whole, something that I brought up with my review for Old Man's War: while there is a lot of discussion about the nature of war, there's very little discussion towards the institution of warfare. Tactics are almost always something out of the Second World War, with plenty of hand to hand combat scenes and all that, but there is very little on the overall impact of warfare. Sometimes, it's on the soldiers, other times, on society, but there's very little to bridge the gap. The Forever War does this in part.

Part of my issue comes from my training as a historian, and particularly, in military history. Amongst all of the theorists out there, a number of historians have come up with a number of theories on how warfare works - Clausewitz, Jomini, among others, who have both conflicting and interesting views on the nature of war. I particularly like Clausewitz's analogy that warfare is simply a duel on a larger scale, and that war is an extension of foreign policy. It makes little sense to me that humanity would simply go to war against an alien race, something fairly common in science fiction. Humanity seems to drop everything and take to the stars with lasers and rockets, but the goals of warfare are never clearly stated? Is it, as Clausewitz suggests, an effort to completely bend an enemy to one's will, something incredibly difficult when attacking someone profoundly alien and unknown to humanity, or is it something deeper, such as perceived competition for living space, ensuring that humanity will have space to grow? To date, I've never found a good military science fiction book that's really covered that territory, and at times, the genre makes me want to throw things, simply because warfare doesn't work like that.

Similarly, while powered robotic suits are very cool, the other problem that I have is tactical. Robotic powered armor laden down with guns simply doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me, especially when the authors talk much about dropping soldiers onto the planet from orbit in a glorified Omaha Beach scenario, where these soldiers are not only placed into hostile territory, but usually without support: it reminds me very much of airborne doctrine during the Second World War, where highly mobile forces were used to secure areas and wait for heavier things, such as artillery and armor to arrive. It's a good concept, to be sure, but it's deeply flawed in that these soldiers are usually out matched by the occupying force. Science Fiction takes many similar themes, but fails to follow up these sort of tactical options in any way that makes sense. Thus far, the best thing that I've seen was here, The Physics of Space Battles, which talks much about orbits and how that aspect would work, on a tactical level. Haldeman gets some points for interesting scenes and more science to the battles than most, but still misses part of the mark.

Part of that reason might be that The Forever War isn't really a military science fiction book, despite some of the content. In that instance, the book works wonderfully, hitting all of the marks of a fantastic science fiction novel. Still, I enjoy a good romp with powered armor and shooting, so it works fairly well when it comes to that, but not as much as I'd like.

Veteran's Day

Today is a day to remember the sacrifices of those who had died for one's country. In the United States, November 11th has been designated as a day to reflect and celebrate the sacrifices of American Servicemen, while in the Commonwealth, Remembrance Day likewise commemorates the those who made the ultimate sacrifice. November 11th was selected because of a worthy anniversary: the end of the First World War, on November 11th, 1918, the conflict that had shocked the world so much, that many hoped that it would be the last.

Sadly, this never came to fruition, as humanity has continued their destructive streak across the century, and will likely to far into the future. In many ways, the trials of soldiers in the far future have provided some of the more interesting science fiction tales.

When thinking to military science fiction, the first book that often comes to my mind is Starship Troopers. Robert Heinlein's masterpiece has the right tone and the right messages throughout about not only the plight of the soldier, but the responsibility and honor that veterans upheld because of their service. In one particularly early scene in the book, when Johnnie and Carl go to join the service, they are bluntly told that military service isn't the romantic adventure that seemed to have been the perception. This doesn't come too much as a surprise, as Heinlein himself was a Veteran, having graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1929, and served as an officer until 1934, when he was discharged. As the Second World War roared into the lives of Americans, Heinlein worked once again for the military as an aeronautical engineer, alongside two other notable science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Starship Troopers realistically and in a relatable fashion, sums up the soldier's experience in wartime, and demonstrates that Science Fiction can be used as allegory in a number of instances.

Another remarkable example of military science fiction is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game and related books that take place during and after. Card's character, Andrew 'Ender' Wiggen, a tactical prodigy and statistician, is a prime example of a soldier who has a varied experience with warfare - and a mixed legacy in the years following his and humanity's successes over the Buggers at the end of the book - a nearly complete and utter destruction of the alien homeworld. Ender's Game is brilliant in its use of characters - Ender proves himself in Battle School, where he uses unconventional tactics to ultimately succeed and demonstrate that he has a superior mind for this style of warfare. A second series of supposed tests are designed to prepare Ender for the invasion of the Bugger's homeworld, only to find that there was no tests - his battles were real, and he was ultimately responsible for the destruction of an entire race. Ender's story is an interesting one, compared to other soldiers, in that he never hit the front lines - rather, he was orchestrating the war from light-years away. Despite this, the war had a profound impact on Ender for his actions - a similarity that is shared with American soldiers who pilot UVAs, according to P.W. Singer in his book Wired for War.

The franchise that embodies warfare in space is Star Wars. Love it or hate various elements of it, I've been greatly impressed with the stories that have been told about the Grand Army of the Republic, through a couple of different sources. The first is the Clone Wars television series, for really emphasizing on the troopers who fought on the part of the Republic. However, the real person who deserves attention for the portrayal of the troopers is Karen Traviss, with her fantastic Republic Commando series. Traviss had quite a lot of experience with the military to draw upon. As a result, Traviss goes far more into the mentality and motives of the soldiers, bringing them far more into view as people, not merely clones. Even better, the events of Order 66 seem very relevant throughout, and Traviss works hard to not only ensure that their motives for following those orders are explained in a logical fashion, but as to the intentions of the soldiers entire existence. The Clones are in a unique position here - bred only for the purpose of war fighting. For them, they're not volunteers, and they aren't expected to live beyond the war - something that the TV series touches on a little bit as well.

While thinking of Traviss's Star Wars books, another good look at war comes with her book City of Pearl and the follow-up novels in the Wess'Har Wars, which examines interstellar conflict over several systems and many thousands of years. Two of her races, the Wess'Har and the Isenj, have been at war over conflicting lifestyles - the Isenj are rapid colonizers, due to a high birthrate, and did so at the cost of their environment, while the Wess'Har believe heavily in the natural world and literally applied a scorched earth policy to planets that they felt were out of line - there's a heavy environmental message here, but it does help to reinforce a point that theorist Carl von Clausewitz made, that Warfare is an extension of policy, and thus, fought on the terms of one's society. The soldiers here are deeply affected by the conflict, as several are essentially immortal, because of a parasite that they had picked up, one that ensures their survival. The long term toll of warfare on these soldiers is an interesting one, and several are noted to have killed themselves (prior to the events in the books) because of the stresses associated with their condition.

When it comes to interstellar warfare, as well as the potential for long term and dedicated purpose, John Scalzi's Old Man's War is another prime example of this sort of Science Fiction. This book, the first in a series (I have the follow up book, but haven't gotten around to reading it yet), sees a world where old men and women are taken, because of their life's experiences thus far, and had their minds transferred to a new, enhanced body. There are many similarities to Starship Troopers and The Forever War (another one that I have, but have yet to read), and Scalzi has an interesting take on the enhanced soldiers and their purpose. One argument in the novel is that these soldiers have been given an artificial lease on life - the best that they can do is to continue to fight. However, in this instance, they aren't necessarily fighting for any particular cause, just the broad, overarching idea of 'humanity', as their citizenship on earth has been terminated by joining the fight in space. This somewhat bothered me, and a couple of the main characters, but highlights another, important aspect in warfare - soldiers, foot soldiers, are trained to fight for one another, to preserve their squad and fellow soldiers, and that message rings heavily through Old Man's War.

Timothy Zahn has also addressed the idea of enhanced soldiers, through his books Cobra and Cobra Two, where a group of soldiers have been enhanced with a number of internal improvements - better skeletons, weapons, a sort of commando unit that are nearly unstoppable in urban combat on alien worlds. However, what really struck me with these books is that the focus is not necessarily on the fighting, but the lives of the soldiers afterwards - these soldiers, with permanent enhancements, had to adapt to civilian life where they were mistrusted and abused because of their abilities, enough to cause conflict in their homes and enough to force the entire Cobra population off world to better offerings.

Military Science Fiction has its share of veterans, and examines, as a whole, not just the cool elements of science fiction, such as powered armor, lasers, epic ship to ship combat and the like, but also the impact, and continued impact that warfare will have on those that are asked to do the fighting, for whatever reason. The concept is such a large one that it is interesting to find a number of different themes - all of which might be found with any given soldier in a real military - have essentially been separated out amongst a number of novels, and examined in depth. The overall message that can be taken from this is that the hopes following World War I were unrealistic, and that humanity will continue to fight - wars large and small will continue, and no doubt, that will continue when we reach the starts. However, it is important to remember the human cost of warfare, not just on society, but upon those who ask to serve their countries, or even worlds.

Review: Old Man's War

Now that I'm done with my Master's, I've been finding myself with lots of free time. Fortunately, I've amassed a small pile (okay, quite large) of books that I'm starting to tackle. Right close to the top was Old Man's War, by John Scalzi, which was recommended to me by a number of io9 readers after releasing a list of top military SF books and films. I hadn't included this book because I was unfamiliar with it, but after reading it, it certainly deserves a place on the list.

Old Man's War was Scalzi's first science fiction novel, and for it, he won the John Campbell Award for best new writer. The story follows John Perry, a seventy-five year old man on Earth who has joined the Colonial Defense Force (CDF). People of his advanced age are specifically recruited because of their lifetime of experiences. He receives a new body, bonds with new fellow recruits and goes into training to become an advanced soldier. Humanity has spread to the stars, and its numerous colonies are largely under constant threat from other alien races throughout the galaxy. Perry goes into action with his unit against numerous races in a number of various battles, before a fateful final battle that leaves him the only survivor.

This is a fun read. Scalzi does a good job conceptualizing a futuristic warrior, the training and captures the battlefield and training bond between soldiers. A constant theme that is explored throughout the book is the idea of fighting for humanity, as a race, despite being a radical variation of said race, while not fighting specifically for a unified government or planet. The soldiers go from fighting for a grand concept such as the survival and foothold of the human race to something much smaller and more concrete, fighting for the survival of their unit.

Fans of military science fiction will really enjoy this book for the tech and action. Scalzi sets some fantastic battles throughout the story, and does a good job linking some of them together along with John Perry's reaction to warfare and his role that he's playing. A particular draw of military science fiction is the advanced super soldier, and Scalzi's green, cat-eyed, rapidly healing and computer interfaced soldiers are nothing new to the genre, but they are fun to read about, and provides just enough new twists to the concept to make it modern and interesting.

On the whole of it, the book is a very standard military science fiction novel. It is a fun read, but it has a number of flaws throughout that substantially weakened the novel. The first of these is the title of the novel, and the gimmick that is relied on - the use of old men and women as soldiers, because supposedly their lifetime of experiences will help with their combat experience. This is only touched upon in the book - it's noted that soldiers have a lifetime of experiences to undo, and throughout the novel, Perry only references his old life back on Earth a handful of times. There's very little practical help that a long life really provides for a soldier, save for one, and that's the link to humanity and earth, but even then, that is not utilized in a way that it really could have been, and all in all, older soldiers are really no different than younger ones, given the tech and upgrades that they receive. Furthermore, the end of the book sees the introduction of the Ghost Brigades, experimental soldiers who have grown up fighting, who seem to be generally more effective than the regular soldiers. This entire aspect of the book left me wanting for more.

The last quarter of the book felt incredibly rushed to me. An alien race has utilized a new technology that proves to be devastating to the human ships during one of the final conflicts in the novel, and Perry is assigned to help the Ghost Brigades capture the devices on the planet. This to me seemed to have very little relation to the experiences that Perry had accumulated throughout the book, breaking an overall good story and character arc, and it misses the vital arguments above that would have helped link Perry's motives in the military with the rest of the human race. Instead, it was a final bang and exposition to which the book ends and it left me both disappointed that there wasn't some revelations to be found from the characters, and that it seemed to just exist for the sole purpose of the next book, titled The Ghost Brigades.

Scalzi falls into a trap that a lot of military science fiction writers seem to fall into: take soldiers, enhance them, and then turn them loose against alien foes. Essentially, most military science fiction novels utilize military doctrine and tactics that seem to be right out of the Second World War 2 or Vietnam, with little exploration to how the military actually works, and how military tactics change to reflect new technology. Infantry warfare is one of the earliest types of warfare, and I honestly find it difficult to believe that it will exist in the future as it is portrayed. There is no mention of other styles of fighting, such as maneuver warfare that pairs up infantry with armored forces, or the capabilities of air power against infantry forces. A quick survey of warfare in the past couple of decades will show that both are as equally important as infantry forces. Indeed, this is the future, with far advanced technology - what advances might there be in the next hundred years, and how will that inevitably impact warfare as we know it? People with guns in hand fighting as they do in this book is a fairly unrealistic method that places characters in an extreme situation to extract some sort of revelation - that never really comes - from the protagonist.

Furthermore, while Scalzi has put forth a fairly well worn and conceptualized universe, the entire system of the CDF and colonies isn't fully explained or realized in the book. There doesn't seem to be any unified system of government between the colonies, and the CDF is deployed at a moment's notice to wherever there are problems with one of the colonies. For a massive government waging constant war against aggressors, it seems illogical that there doesn't appear to be any sort of overall plan or guiding strategy that both utilizes diplomacy to secure its borders and military force as a way of enforcing those borders, if you're a student of Clausewitz. Military forces are not deployed willy-nilly in the real world, without extensive benefits to that government. Here, the colonies seem to be fighting holding actions, with some allies, to hold onto their planets. The absence and outright rejection of diplomacy in this world seems even more illogical.

That all being said, this is an interesting, fun and light read for anybody who is inclined to read military science fiction. While the book doesn't really add anything significant to the subgenre, that's not necessarily the requirement for a good read in the genre. I am interested to see where Scalzi will take this world and characters, and as such, I've already picked up The Ghost Brigades. Hopefully some of the issues will be corrected at some point in the upcoming novels in his series, and if not, it's not detrimental to the world that has been set up.