Military Science Fiction Authors Discuss Their Work

Friday afternoon in Westin Chastain DE, four military science fiction (MSF) authors discussed their work and took questions from the audience. The panel opened with moderator Karen Henson asking the authors, Amy J. Murphy, David Weber, Chris Kennedy, and Van Allen Plexico, to define MSF and explain how they came to write it.

Weber quoted Baen editor Toni Weiskopf as saying MSF is written by people who have a clue about how the military actually works while militaristic science fiction is written by Gene Roddenberry. Kennedy grew up reading military science fiction and loving it. At the end of his service in the US Navy, he had a story he wanted to tell but wasn’t sure he could do it. He started with a military story, Occupied Seattle, and after that went well, moved his story into space and MSF. Plexico said the military lends itself to space stories. Humanity needs protection, and the military trains them to come together as a team. He writes MSF because he likes telling stories about great danger.

Weber added that the heart of any story is conflict, and military settings externalize conflict very well. He grew up reading military history and planned to teach history until writing got in the way. Murphy writes stories she wants to read, which she described as more militaristic though she researches military practices and credits the military branches she uses out of respect for them.

Weber qualified his definition by saying writing in the military, versus militaristic, style doesn’t require knowing everything but trying to get it right. In contrast, many authors use the military and don’t bother to get things right. Many writers use the military as a foil for political incompetence. He quoted Clausewitz as saying politics is the womb where war is generated, but that’s not necessarily true in MSF.

Kennedy added that without a political component, the book isn’t military but a band of armed people. Using the military gives the battle legitimacy. Good fiction has situations readers can empathize with and “good guys” on both sides of any conflict. Weber agreed that the reader has to empathize with people on both sides, adding that the experience of combat has to change the lead character in order to be realistic. Plexico noted that MSF frequently has villains and heroes in conflict within the same military.

Asked what makes a good MSF story feel right, Murphy agreed that there must be shades of gray on both sides. Kennedy cited the willingness to sacrifice for comrades because that’s what the military does, with Band of Brothers as an example. Even people who may not like each other much will sacrifice themselves for each other. Plexico noted that the British and American schools of MSF take different slants. American stories draw on the American experience. They’re often written by military veterans who bring their experience to the table. The British school, on the other hand, emphasizes the role of class and often uses Gothic horror elements such as zombies, demons, and werewolves.

Weber commented that military science fiction should include the actual costs to the unit and the country. He cited a study showing that about ten percent of a unit kills the majority of the enemy, referring to that group as “the tip of the spear.” When people criticize Britain and France for not acting against Hitler sooner, they forget those countries lost twenty percent of a generation in World War I. They lost that tip of the spear. Soldiers in the 19th century were driven to act together by their superiors. Today, they are drawn together as motivation. Kennedy added that training tactics have changed because society has.

The panel ended with the authors telling the audience how to find them during the weekend.

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.