Down to Basics in Military Science Fiction

At 8:30PM on Sunday, the Sci-Fi Lit track presented “Basic Military Science Fiction.”  The panel consisted of Kacey Ezell, Marc Alan Edelheit, Evan Currie, Jack Campbell, J.A. Sutherland, Doug Dandridge, and Mike Massa.

The panel started with Dandridge, the moderator, asking the panel to define military science fiction and explain how their work fit into the category. Ezell cited setting as a major part, with stories set in a wartime environment and speculative elements involved, possibly including nonexistent technology or magic. Edelheit added that the human factor was critical because soldiers fight for their buddies and the people they care about, not for abstract ideals. In his view, the writer should always capture feelings and thoughts.

Curie suggested that what the technology and tactics specifically are is less important than having them make sense. He also cited the human factor and noted that readers like to explore the military cultures—which the panelists agreed varied among the different branches of the service—even though the views presented to them are often idealized. Campbell agreed that the genre is very much about the people, with the ways they organize, lead, and develop relationships universal despite the different environments in fiction.

Sutherland added that people find the themes of military fiction, honor, duty, and camaraderie, compelling. Massa said that placing those themes in the context of a military unit and the polity it serves allows examination of the relationship of the military to society.

Ezell, a serving Air Force officer, noted that military basic training is designed to mold the individual to fit within the unit. Edelheit observed that there is a rich history of military training as indoctrination dating back to the Romans. There are odd events in history that can make a story more interesting.

Spurred by Campbell, the panel also discussed the fact that a large percentage of the American population has no direct experience with the military. For these people, he said, military science fiction offers a view of the realities, limitations, and interactions, among the military. Ezell added that the military veterans she knows who are also writers are conscious of the stereotype of the damaged veteran. “Combat changes you,” she said, but doesn’t make a veteran unable to be a functioning member of society.

Massa said that much of the population not only has not served in the military but has no close relatives who did. The European perspective, however, is different because they live with the effects of World War II bomb damage and still have surviving veterans of World War I.

Campbell added that there are cycles in military science fiction, and writers from different eras write about the wars they experienced. Edelheit agreed, noting that historians are often the same way, writing from the perspectives of the eras they know.

Campbell quoted a saying that everything in war is really simple, but the simple things are very difficult. Massa noted that action and conflict can make a bad guy. Sutherland added that action and conflict are the easiest vehicles for showing that the bad guy is never the bad guy in his own head.

Campbell started his Lost Fleet series when the country was looking at a long war on terrorism. The ramifications of a long war are generally not good, he said, but science fiction can address those issues in a way divorced from immediate political context.

Currie noted that he writes military science fiction because he has always read a lot of it. Dandridge agreed, adding that he also reads a lot of history and finds tactics fascinating.

Campbell noted that military science fiction can show that high-tech equipment won’t necessarily solve a problem. Edelheit seconded that, observing that the Romans often faced armies with much better equipment, only to triumph because of their training, discipline, and experience, as well as “core institutional knowledge.” Dandridge added that the Germans initially drove the Russians back during World War II, despite having inferior equipment, because they had superior training, discipline, and morale.

Edelheit mentioned interviewing a Luftwaffe pilot for the Battle of Britain episode of his history podcast. The Luftwaffe pilot acknowledged that the Allies had superior planes by the end of the war, but the Luftwaffe kept going because of experience and discipline. Ezell observed that military science fiction can showcase the way the usage, tactics, and strategies for new technology are often behind the actual development of the technology.

Campbell agreed, adding that spare parts and logistics rarely come up but should.

The panel concluded with a question-and-answer session and general discussion.

Author of the article

Nancy Northcott is the Comics Track Director for ConTinual. She's also a lifelong fan of comics, science fiction, fantasy, and history. Her published works include the Boar King's Honor historical fantasy trilogy and the Arachnid Files romantic suspense series. Collaborating with Jeanne Adams, she also writes the Outcast Station science fiction mystery series.

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