It happened while we slept. We woke one morning, and the military had taken over - not with guns, but with books. Science fiction, once the preserve of the college professor and the geek, was suddenly the plaything of soldiers.
The recent rise in military science fiction is remarkable in and of itself, but what is even more fascinating is the large number of ex-soldiers, military men and women schooled in conflict and combat, who have put down the gun, picked up the pen, and helped to revolutionised modern science-fiction in the process.
US publisher Jim Baen had a lot to do with this trend. An ex-soldier, he recruited a batch of younger, like-minded authors from similar backgrounds - David Drake, a Vietnam veteran who famously combined the doctrines of modern tank warfare with futuristic robotics to produce his 'Hammers Slammers' series; John Ringo, the decorated 81st Airborne parachutist who saw action in Grenada before pouring his practical experience into his 'Polseen War' novels, and his 'Empire of Man' tetralogy; Michael Williamson, the US Air Force veteran whose 'Freehold' series has gone from strength to strength; or Tom Kratman, the retired special forces colonel whose 'Desert Called Peace' series, and stand alone novel 'Caliphate', have as much to say about current international politics as they do about any future utopia circling a distant sun.
Perhaps that touches upon what has made each of these authors, and many others like them, so popular of late - they are not fixated upon some idealistic vision of a perfect future. Instead, they see humanity as inherently flawed, struggling against its own base instincts, and doomed to repeat its errors over and over again, on every planet it infests. In the sub-genre these soldiers have created, civilisation is almost always in decline, and heroes battle against the received wisdom of the day to save people in spite of themselves. These worlds are every bit as sad, and a good deal darker than anything the recognised fathers of science fiction - Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, or Isaac Asimov - wrote. Not for the modern author-soldier a tale of escapism. Instead they present an all-too-recognisable modernity, viewed through the prism of future collapse. Their work has all the action you would expect from a soldier, and all the grit you could ask for, but it is built around a key premiss - that war, now or in the future, is not about hardware or tactics, but about people, about commitment, and, where necessary, individual sacrifice.
That isn’t to suggest that Baen has cornered the market when it comes to military sci-fi written by time-served experts. He led the way by establishing a strong cadre of ex-military authors, but his company has nothing like a monopoly. The fast-paced fleet actions of Mike Shepherd’s ('Jump Universe', 'Longknife'), or the battle against aliens abroad and bureaucracy at home in Jack Campbell’s 'Lost Fleet' series, stand as ready proof of that. Both authors have navy backgrounds, and are published by Random House. And while this particular trend owes much to the United States, and its military interventions over the last fifty years, it is by no means isolated to its shores. Royal Navy and Territorial Army veteran Karen Traviss ('Gears of War', 'Going Grey') does much the same thing from a British perspective, pitting her Royal Marines against a variety of aliens, while Marko Kloos puts his experience as a soldier in the German army to great use when writing his 'Frontlines' series of novels, in which conscription is turned upon on its head, and the only way to escape the squallor of an overcrowded earth is to volunteer and join the corp.
Here in Australia we have seen fewer examples, but that isn’t to say we’ve been immune. The work of Hal Colebatch ('The Man-Kzin Wars', 'Recruit a Cold Batch of Science Fiction') are not only among some of this countries most literary science fiction releases of recent years, but owe a good deal to Colebatch’s navy training. David Freer, now based in Tasmania, relies heavily on his South African Defence Force experiences when writing the likes of 'Stardog' and 'Morningstar'. And we have provided a popular backdrop for the musings of others - Sandra McDonald, a retired US Navy submarine officer, has incorporated both the Australian landscape and a swath of Aboriginal myths and legends into her 'Outback Stars' and 'Stars Down Under' novels, while Ringo’s latest series of books, set in the aftermath of a zombie plague, centre around two Australian brothers with commando backgrounds. The local reader and digger alike would find much to appeal in either author’s work.
Drawing from lessons learned both in the field and at some of the best military training colleges, this new squad of authors has already revolutionised the way we look at military science fiction, and they show no signs of retreat. With veterans of the Gulf and Afghanistan swelling the ranks, and the inevitable returnees from current conflicts bolstering them further in the future, one thing looks certain - this coup is far from over, and military science fiction written by trained professionals will continue to enlighten and entertain both here and abroad.
(A version of this article appeared in The Big Issue (Australia) #481, 3 - 16 April 2015)