Military science-fiction is a relatively old genre. Authors have been tackling the question of what war in the future will look like since the golden age of science-fiction, and it doesn’t appear that they’ll be slowing down any time soon. If anything, with our country being at war for almost 17 years, military science-fiction is more relevant than ever.
Despite what you might think, not all military science-fiction glorifies or celebrates war. Some of the best works in the genre are those that question the absurdity and horror of military conflict, or at least leaven the action with introspection.
Perhaps you’ve been looking for an entry point to military science-fiction but haven’t known where to start. If so, this list is for you. This isn’t an exhaustive overview, though: It’s just a short sampling of a few of the genre’s most notable works. That said, check the comments section for recommendations from our very active readership. I’m sure they’ll offer a few!
The Forever War
by Joe Haldeman
The Forever War is probably one of the most powerful works of science-fiction I’ve ever read, military or not. Written by Vietnam vet Joe Haldeman, The Forever War is the story of a bright young man drafted into an absurd war of attrition between Earth and an alien species with which humanity can’t even communicate. The conflict is being waged light years away from our solar system, and traveling there invokes a time dilation effect. Decades pass on Earth while Haldeman’s young recruit is only away a few months — relatively speaking. Earth’s civilians seem more like aliens every time The Forever War‘s protagonist returns home, and while military life is grim and unforgiving, he keeps re-enlisting because it’s all he knows. You’ll love this one for what it is: a reflection on war and what it does to the people who fight it.
by David Drake
Not a novel but a series of connected stories, David Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers books follow the members of a mercenary tank regiment as they fight an endless series of wars across the universe. Drake, a Vietnam veteran who served in the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment, wrote the Hammer’s Slammers books to educate civilians about the nature of war and the military’s role in society. Full of unique characters and tinged with dark humor, Hammer’s Slammers is a series that combines a futuristic setting with the grim realities of modern warfare.
Old Man’s War
by John Scalzi
It’s a truism that old people start wars that young people have to fight, and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War turns that on its head. Sometime in the far future, the government has the power to make elderly men and women young once more. However, youth comes at a price: Anyone who takes the offer has to agree to fight in a vicious interstellar war, and once they serve their term, they can never return to Earth. Sick with grief after the death of his wife, Scalzi’s hero gladly enlists. What he finds is danger, but also a renewed sense of purpose and will to live. Old Man’s War is a clever and even sometimes funny novel, and a perfect military science-fiction book for the reader looking for less existential musing and more action and camaraderie. It spawned a series, too, so there’s plenty more to read after this one.
On Basilisk Station
by David Weber
How about a change of pace from all of the ground-pounding? David Weber’s On Basilisk Station is the first volume in a long-running series featuring Honor Harrington: a space navy captain, master tactician, and diplomat plying her way through a galaxy of war and intrigue. As a woman, Honor is a rarity in the male-focused world of military science-fiction, and she is a compelling, well-developed character, to boot. The Honor Harrington books will really click with readers who prefer ship-to-ship combat to boots-on-the-ground infantry action.
by Robert A. Heinlein
In the far future, Earth is engaged in a struggle for life and death with a species of insectoid aliens: They’re smart, ruthless, and utterly dedicated to the destruction of the human race. Standing in their way are the men and women of the Mobile Infantry: an expeditionary force that brings the fight to the bugs wherever they are. Armed with powerful weapons and armored in high-tech battle suits, the Mobile Infantry represents the best humanity has to offer. Heinlein’s tale follows a new Mobile Infantry recruit through the training process and his deployment to the front lines. Starship Troopers may be almost 60 years old, but it remains an exciting and thought-provoking novel. An interesting bit of trivia: Starship Troopers is on the reading lists of the United States Marine Corps and United States Navy. (Oh! I almost forgot: Don’t bother with the movies. They’re nothing like the novel.)
We asked and you answered! Check out “So You Want to Read Military Fiction, Part 2: Reader Suggestions” here.