The most realistic military science fiction
Military science fiction has often explored the ethical and cultural effects of war in the future. Here is a guide to some notable entries in the field that best describe realistic warfare.
Starship Troopers, Robert Heinlein
When you think of military science fiction, Robert Heinlein’s classic novel, Starship Troopers, is often the first to come to mind. It paved the way for a lot of military science fiction, but it did so by going beyond the battlefield – this story extends the military culture of soldiers’ lives to the root causes of conflict in history. Heinlein even explores how culture became activist in the first place.
We follow Juan Rico, a member of the Mobile Infantry, an armored infantry unit that is deployed in the war against a species of insect known as Bugs, watching him come out of training to engage in a fight on the battlefield. The story alternates between Rico’s military life and flashbacks to his life before and the training he underwent, while serving to explore several political theories of civic responsibility and military ethics.
Cobra Trilogy, Timothy Zahn
Timothy Zahn is best known for his Star Wars novels, but he has written extensively in the sci-fi arena, particularly military sci-fi. Some of his best books have included The Conqueror Trilogy and Blackcollar, but what comes to mind first is his Cobra series. These books follow a group of soldiers known as Cobras, who have been augmented to pack more punch on the battlefield. Rather than exploring the abilities of these soldiers on the battlefield, Zahn takes a look at their postwar life and how they cope, as the changes they receive are permanent.
Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card
Ender’s Game is another major work in military science fiction. He follows Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggen as humanity battles a distant and seemingly unstoppable insectoid race. Andrew and other children are selected for an orbital school designed to make them the leaders who will lead Earth to victory. Unlike other books, which focus on combat, Ender’s Game largely focuses on the level of command and strategy of warfare, as Ender turns out to be a bright subject and ultimately takes command of the forces of war. Earth as they move closer to the enemy’s home planet.
Eternal War, Joe Haldeman
Joe Haldeman’s 1974 novel The Forever War explores both combat and culture. Earth is engaged in an interstellar war and the hero of the story, William Mandella, is recruited to fight far from home. After a period of training, they hit the battlefield at speeds faster than light. But this subjects the soldiers to relativity: they arrive to find themselves sub-armed on the battlefield, and return to find an Earth very different from the one they started with. Or Starship Troopers is considered quite pro-military, Eternal war was written in the aftermath of Vietnam (Haldeman was a veteran) and is widely regarded as an anti-war novel.
The Old Man’s War, John Scalzi
Published in 2005, John Scalzi’s novel Old Man’s War was nominated for a Hugo Award and Scalzi followed it up with two sequels. The story follows John Perry, a seventy-five-year-old man who enlists in the Colonial Defense Forces and begins a military career that makes him a seasoned soldier and leader. But during the carnage, he wonders if the bloodshed is really worth it. The book has been compared to both The Forever War and Starship Troopers.
Broken Angels, Richard K. Morgan
Broken Angels is the second book in the Takeshi Kovacs trio of novels written by British author Richard K. Morgan. Unlike the first book of the three, which had more of a dark detective feel, we are now immersed in the military background of Morgan’s main character, Takeshi Kovacs. Kovacs serves with a unit of mercenaries when enlisted to help protect an expedition that has discovered a Martian artifact located in the middle of a war zone. Morgan applies his own twists to the genre. Unlike other military science fiction books, Morgan does not delve into themes of war, but rather mercenary and corporate military units, as well as the individual conduct of soldiers.
Armor, John Steakley
Armor has been compared to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. The title refers to the motorized armor that soldiers in the story use (to fight insectoid aliens), but also refers to the psychological effects of warfare. The hero of the story, Felix, is brought into battle over and over again, surviving against all odds, but finds that these battles come at an incredible cost.
Wess’Har Wars, Karen Traviss
Karen Traviss’ Wess’Har series spans six books (City of Pearl, Crossing the Line, The World Before, Matriarch, Ally and Judge) and begins in the near future, before jumping several hundred years ahead. . The protagonist of Traviss, Shan Franklin, is a police officer who is sent to the world of Cavanagh’s Star, to recover a colony that had been sent there. There, accompanied by a unit of Royal Marines, they encounter several new alien races and find themselves embroiled in a massive conflict in which humanity is also drawn.
This series works well because of Traviss’s restraint. Although these books feature fighting, they are primarily political and ethical in nature, dealing with genocide and the limits of war. What is particularly interesting is that Traviss’s books do not necessarily take the side of humanity; she explores a number of other races and their motivations for going to war.
Vatta’s War Cycle, Elizabeth Moon
The War of Vatta is a five-book series by Elizabeth Moon that follows Kylara Vatta after she was graduated from a military academy and pushed into the family freight forwarding business. But there is combat: she fights battles with pirates and mercenaries, while working to defend her family and her livelihood. As the series progresses, threats mount and Ky is forced to take command of a task force to defend against a massive armada of pirates.
Probability Moon, Nancy Kress
Probability Moon is the first book in a trilogy where Earth fights (surprise!) Against an alien race that has outdone them. This book is about the discovery of an alien artifact that can help turn the tide of war in favor of humanity. What’s interesting about these books is that they follow a number of characters outside of the military who must interact with a society increasingly under the control of military forces. Kress also deals with physics-compliant military tactics, which is a nice change overall.
X-Wing Series, Michael A. Stackpole / Aaron Allston
I wasn’t going to touch on any element of the Star Wars franchise, but I couldn’t really justify leaving out Michael A. Stackpole and Aaron Allston’s X-Wing series, which is largely about space battles. This series stands out because it gives us a strong sense of military culture, jargon, and the environment as we get to know Rogue and Wraith Squadrons.
My earliest memory of Battlestar Galactica is an image of Adama in uniform in a copy of SciFi Magazine. I remember thinking it was interesting that a sci-fi show had such a realistic uniform, and it only got better from there. It also doesn’t hurt that the show’s CGI is run by Zoic, which makes space battles a thing to die for.
Battlestar Galactica is known for pushing back trends in sci-fi television, and it has done so in spectacular fashion for four seasons. The soldiers looked like soldiers, with their simple helmets, knee pads and rifles. But beyond the appearance of the military, Galactica has given us an astonishing array of realistic military tactics.
Stargate SG-1 makes extensive use of the modern US military, and has done so with increasing understanding over the series’ ten years. The first two seasons took a number of liberties throughout the series, but over the course of the series its fictional army evolved as the actual US military evolved (like new weapons and uniforms). We also had quite a few space battles between SG Human Forces and Goa’Uld Forces.
Babylon 5 introduces a sort of UN political level to combat-oriented science fiction. The show follows a five-year arc that includes massive conflict between the races, culminating in rebellion and a confrontation of good and evil. This show certainly wanders the morally gray area and, as such, shows the complexity and manifold nature of war. The overall look of the show changes over time, and the military element certainly improves as well.
The popular sequel to the movie Alien, this film features a unit of Colonial Marines who accompany Ripley on his return to planet LV-426. It was a big change from the original movie, which was more of a horror movie. After losing contact with a colony on the planet, the Marines are deployed to investigate. Although the Marines do battle aliens, the interaction between the soldiers is incredibly realistic – this is essentially a contemporary war movie with monsters.
Children of men
Children of Men isn’t much of a military sci-fi movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it does include several scenes where we see a futuristic army, much closer to our present than any of the other entries in this movie. listing. In a battle that culminates towards the end of the film, there is a long, one-take shootout as British forces enter an immigrant holding area to hunt down a terrorist cell, the Fishes. Here we see that these soldiers are using a kit quite similar to what is used today, but there are also small communication devices and heads-up displays, items that will likely enter the battlefield in our lifetime.
Halo games owe a lot to many entries on this list, from Starship Troopers and Aliens to other works, such as Ringworld. Humanity has come under attack by a coalition known as the Covenant, a group of religious alien species, which sees humanity as being against their religion and seeks to wipe them out. War breaks out, and the games follow Master Chief, a “Spartan warrior” – an enhanced soldier in a power suit. All three games follow Master Chief to the first Halo Ring discovered, where they also encounter a run of zombie-like biological experiments known as Flood, and then back to Earth, as she is under attack. An ordinary shooting game, this game is always fun to play. We’re all waiting for Peter Jackson to jump into his film adaptation.
StarCraft is a real-time strategy franchise that started over ten years ago. Players can choose from three species, Terrans (humans), Zerg (insects), and Protoss (humanoids). The game takes place in the future, where the Earth is overcrowded and therefore expanded, and as it happens, contact with the alien races inevitably goes wrong and war breaks out. The game was hailed as one of the most influential and important games in the genre, and has remained popular ever since.