Happy Veteran’s Day to all of our readers who have served in the United States Armed Forces. I’ve never served, myself, but some of the biggest science-fiction and fantasy fans that I’ve ever know have been veterans. I’m not entirely sure why that is, but at one time or another I’ve played Dungeons & Dragons and Traveller with retired special forces personnel, gamed online with Marines, geeked out over fantasy miniatures with former tankers, and traded science-fiction paperbacks with Navy veterans. I’ve been proud to call them my friends. The military has also produced its share of fantasy and science-fiction writers, some of whom have been extremely prolific during or after their service. Here are ten contemporary veteran authors and the books that made them famous.
1) J.L. Bourne
J.L. Bourne is a career Naval officer whose speciality is military intelligence. It’s a background that he pulled from extensively during the creation of his dystopian zombie series Day by Day Armageddon, and his apocalyptic military thriller Tomorrow War. During a recent interview Bourne told me, “I made sure that everything I was writing about in Tomorrow War aligned with my personal experience serving in OIF/OEF and with my experience serving within the U.S. Intelligence Community. I took some deviations to protect the integrity of some programs but by and large, the discerning reader will know and understand how real Tomorrow War was written to be.”
2) Myke Cole
Myke Cole is a Coast Guard veteran, military contractor, and intelligence analyst. When I interviewed Cole he told me that he had worked for several “three-letter agencies in Washington.” His military background clearly comes to play in his Shadow Ops books, a series about a group of Army sorcerers.
3) Glen Cook
Navy veteran Glen Cook has written several fantastic series, but his Black Company books are my personal favorites. The men of the Black Company aren’t knights in shining armor and kindly mages: They’re grunts in scarred leathers and hex-throwing sorcerers. Glory doesn’t pay the bills, coin does, and if there’s a war to be fought, the Black Company will fight it for the right price. This is fantasy warfare as seen from the perspectives of regular guys—you know, the ones you always see dying in the background of epic fantasy films like those based on The Lord of the Rings trilogy. While I’ve never interviewed Cook (I did get to meet him, though.) he told Strange Horizons magazine that “Most of the [Black Company’s] early characters were based on guys I was in the service with. The behavior patterns are pretty much what you’d expect if you were an enlisted man in a small unit.”
4) David Drake
David Drake served in the Army during the Vietnam War, and wrote two of military science-fiction’s greatest series: Hammer’s Slammers, and the RCN books. The first is the futuristic story of a mechanized mercenary company. The second focuses on adventures of Daniel O’Leary, an officer serving in a powerful star-faring Navy. Drake has written many, many other books, among them The Books of the Elements, a fantasy series inspired by the Roman Empire. Drake is a history and languages buff, and during a recent interview he told me that he carried the writings of Horace during the invasion of Cambodia.
5) Joe Haldeman
Like David Drake, Joe Haldeman served in the Army during the Vietnam War. His novel The Forever War is considered by many to be a, if not the, definitive example of the military science-fiction genre. It is the story of a young man drafted into an interstellar conflict that he is incapable of understanding. In a relatively recent interview with Andrew Liptak, Haldeman said that The Forever War was autobiographical, and that it had trouble getting to print because at the time no one wanted to publish books about the Vietnam War.
6) Elizabeth Moon
Retired Marine Elizabeth Moon has written works of military science-fiction and epic fantasy, most notably the Paksenarrion novels: a groundbreaking series about a young woman who becomes the chosen warrior of a deity. Moon discussed her famous character Pak in this interview.
7) Jerry Pournelle
Army veteran Jerry Pournelle is another powerhouse of military science-fiction, and has written or co-written a ton of stand-alone novels (Lucifer’s Hammer, Earthfall) and several stone-cold classic series. I’m particularly fond of the CoDominium series, but I’ve heard a lot of great stuff about Janissaries, as well. You can find many, many interviews with Pournelle in which he discusses his military service, but perhaps more interesting is this piece about his post-military defense work with the government.
8) John Ringo
Occasional political pundit and Army veteran John Ringo is a writing force of nature, churning out popular works of military science-fiction and adventure by the dozens. His Empire of Man books have no shortage of fans, as does his Paladin of Shadows series. Ringo spoke about the influence of another military science-fiction author, Robert Heinlein, during an interview with sfrevu.com: “I went Airborne because of Starship Troopers. The line when Sgt. Ho says (paraphrase): ‘There’s nothing better than the infantry. Everybody else just exists to support you. That is where the rubber meets the road.’ As a matter of fact, I used the last line on my recruiter when he was offering me everything and a cherry if I’d take electronics. Heinlein was a very bad influence on an impressionable kid. He ought to be a controlled substance.”
9) Elizabeth Ann Scarborough
Elizabeth Ann Scarborough was an Army nurse during the Vietnam war, an experience she has drawn upon in her fiction on occasion. She is the author of several series, including Acorna and Petaybee, but her modern fantasy novel The Healer’s War is perhaps the most autobiographical. Interviews with Scarborough aren’t easy to find online, but here’s one in which she mentions her nursing experience.
10) Gene Wolfe
After serving in the Army during the Korean war, Gene Wolfe returned home and became an engineer. Writing was a hobby that he pursued in his off-hours, but his talent was apparent from the very beginning. He is the author of numerous books, but his The Books of the New Sun series revolutionized fantasy and is a classic of the Dying Earth genre. If you have a literary bucket list then this series belongs at the top. Wolfe spoke about the effect the war had on his fiction during an interview with MIT’s 12 Tomorrows: “It’s a real wake-up call. What military service does is rub off a lot of the pretense and self-deception from a person. You have to keep going, knowing that there are people over there who are trying to kill you. You’re right: they are.”