June 12th, 2010


A Response to Andrew Liptak


“Futuristic militaries are a staple in science fiction. With their powered armor and laser guns, military science fiction novels are among the most exciting reads out there. Except for one problem. Most are not really about warfare.”

Most stories about space travel aren't really about spaceships, either.

Why is that a problem? Stories are about people. SF went through its infancy of dwelling on gadgets. It matured past that. Didactic, loving descriptions of every nut and bolt appeal to very few readers, and don’t serve any artistic or literary purpose. I could easily write several stories on the difficulties of acquiring tools and parts at the far end of a modern military supply chain, with various political, technical and bureaucratic hoops to jump through. No one would read it. Such analyses are done for professional development, not entertainment.

Liptak picks three novels as examples—Starship Troopers, The Forever War and Old Man’s War. I won’t comment on Old Man’s War—I haven’t read it. Scalzi is a friend of mine, but he’s not a veteran. By definition, he was writing in a different cultural universe. However, he was, as noted above, writing about people.

Starship Troopers has one technical advance not done before in SF—powered armor. It was written in 1959. For a variety of reasons, I don’t expect to ever see powered armor. However, for its time, it was revolutionary. The tactics RAH assigns to the Mobile Infantry are naval tactics. He wrote what he knew, and what seemed reasonable to him for the power and mobility involved. It works in context. To dismiss it as “airborne ops” indicates Liptak didn’t really grasp that. The criticism that logistical support isn’t covered in loving detail is irrelevant. It’s the story of a soldier coming to terms with why he’s chosen his profession. As a private, the logistical end isn’t his concern. It is addressed, though, in that there are limits of batteries, ammo and extraction times. Ship support is mentioned. Mines and artillery are mentioned. Does an 0311 Marine in Iraq grasp the intricacies of USAF close air support and logistical payload? Does he discuss the inadequacies of Kuwaiti runways, being asphalt and incapable of supporting 585,000 lb C17s without major Engineer workarounds?

The Forever War (1974) is in part counterpoint to Starship Troopers, from an era where the military was far less respected, many of its members unwilling draftees in a war with little strategic relevance. The cultural presentation is clearly different, and supports that. The opening tactics are eerily representative of both Long Range Reconnaissance, and of the rice paddies of Southeast Asia. The two combatants develop various countermeasures, which combined with relativistic time dilation create an environment where one may be utterly outclassed upon reaching the field, have an overwhelming advantage, or be matched. The weapons available might be nothing but sticks. It’s eminently believable—Haldeman was a scientist and a demolition engineer. It covers the fear, frustration and fatalism troops felt, and still feel in close combat. Also, the book was heavily edited from the original MS for its first publication. The unedited version is grittier, with more discussion of the loss of home and background that all troops experience to some degree.

All three books, besides being military themed SF literature (meaning stories about people in war, not war itself) also fit the genre of “bestseller.” That means they appeal to a broad variety of readers. As I’ve commented before, the best message in the world does no good shouted from the top of Mount Everest. It has to be read and appreciated to reach anyone. To reach more people is a task itself, and means being less technically obsessed.

Liptak pretty much states he wants a Clausewitz to write milSF. This will never happen. First, no one would read it. Second, such people are more valuable writing analyses and professional texts for warriors, not entertainment about them.

He says he wants to see stories covering long term insurgencies and their logistical needs. I’ve written those stories. I was not first. Gordon Dickson, Jerry Pournelle and others wrote them first.

He says he wants to see how a commander handles the emotional effects of destroying entire planets. I’ve written that story, too. So has Orson Scott Card. Heinlein wrote about how it feels to have your planet tagged for such destruction, in a juvenile, non-military story.

All this has been covered in milSF. These books are less read than the bestsellers because of their closer, more technical focus. To give three very popular examples that were never intended to be technical reviews and condemn the rest of the genre based on them is disingenuous.

To object to the more detailed stories not being as popular is not a criticism of authors, but of readers. As I noted, readers cannot, and should not, be expected to obsess over every detail of such matters. Readers want a story.

Stories are about people.