Musings on Military SF

There are authors who chest thump about military experience (the same way guys buff their muscle-cars) and then claim this experience is why their military science fiction is better than the other guy’s (or girl’s). Me? I drive an old Toyota pickup, which hasn’t been washed in donkey’s years, that’s missing one hubcap, and which shimmies at sixty because one rim is bad. It’s a great car, though. Much more useful than a Camaro, that truck carried me across the country twice, hauled just about everything in the world, and is so beaten up that people just laugh when they open the door and look inside – if they don’t throw up.

Germline is my debut novel and it’s military science fiction. But it’s also my response to what I see as a subgenre that’s losing its way, a middle finger to books in which the importance of military jargon overshadows that of sympathetic characters, believable tactics, at least some glimpse of strategy, and a decent ending. Don’t get me wrong: the books I’m flipping-off have a place. They entertain, and a large segment of science fiction readership buys and enjoys them. It’s just that the last time I picked up a military science fiction book and then dropped my jaw at its awesomeness was when I finished The Forever War (in 1983) so when 2008 rolled around it became put-up-or-shut-up time – time to write the book I’d want to read.

What is Germline? Let’s start with what it isn’t. IO9 did a great article some time ago, a real four-star job that was well researched and damn well written: “Your Military Science Fiction Isn’t Really Military Science Fiction.” I almost gave it five stars because I agree with all of its arguments, except one: its author argues that military science fiction “should examine warfare on a theoretical level,” and he is still waiting for a “Clausewitz of the genre.” CLAUSEWITZ??? Have you read Vom Kriege? I have. It sits on my bookshelf along with The Art of War, Counterinsurgency Warfare, Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife, The Balkans, and The Real War.  Sure, Clausewitz is required reading for military strategists and theoreticians, and it, like The Art of War, concerns itself with the philosophy of conflict and so remains relevant even as weapons technologies – and their associated tactics or strategies – shift.  But let me reiterate: have you read Vom Kriege? It makes An Introduction to Java Programming, Edition Four read like Carrie. I want to sell books, in addition to writing them, so making sure my novels include Carl von Clausewitz-esque insights and/or observations is at the bottom of my list.

I would argue that in addition to studying what military science fiction lacks, we learn a lot by taking a look at what award-winning non-fiction about real war includes. What in God’s name do I mean?  Look at just a few of my favorite non-fiction books on war, which have been critically acclaimed and well received over decades:

Dispatches by Michael Herr

The Forgotten Soldier by Guy Sajer (perhaps fictional, but arguably drawn from the author’s own experiences)

A Rumor of War by Philip Caputo

Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis

The Coldest War by James Brady

These books cover World War II, The Korean War, and the Vietnam War, and have one thing in common: they are all written in first person by people who were there. First person does – admittedly – give only a limited view of the sand table (sorry Clausewitz), but it enables a writer to drill down into the thoughts and emotions of his or her characters, and immediately brings the reader close-in on the action and terror. Yet by taking the first person, these authors can only write about strategies, tactics, and combined arms usage to which they were privy; a reader therefore gets only a narrow view of combat. Is that a fair trade? I think so, and next time I see Haldeman I’ll ask him why he chose first person. Not having a clear view of all the elements of warfare isn’t proof that a book is not military science fiction, but instead often means that all elements weren’t relevant to the author’s story. To put it another way: I’d hate to tell Caputo that his isn’t military non-fiction.

So that was the approach I took with Germline – to construct it the same way as a war memoir.  Does Germline use first person and incorporate personal experience? Yes. Does it include at least some nod to tactics, strategy, and combined arms? Yes. Does it rock on the same level as The Forever War? You tell me. Like I said, it was time to put-up or shut-up, and at least I was willing to risk getting my ego bruised if readers and reviewers say “no.”

Oh, and if you run into me at a convention, please don’t ask about my personal experiences with war; I’ll simply describe my Toyota again. It’s a far more interesting story.

T.C. McCarthy’s debut novel, Germline (UK / US / ANZ), is out now worldwide.