Thursday, 31 July 2014

Military SF Relationship to SF Wargames


I like playing games for many reasons, like they are fun.  Also, play is the foundation of learning.  There's lots of research supporting play as being one of the ways people learn new things.  It keeps your brain active to learn new things, which will help you live longer with all your senses remaining intact.  I'm going to be on a panel at the this years Worldcon, which is being held in London,  called LonCon3.  You can read about the panel on military SF I'm on here.

I thought it was as good as time as any to now talk about a few of the military SF books I've read over the years here.

The genesis of the military SF as a sub-genre of SF can arguably be traced back to G. T. Chesney’s seminal novella The Battle of Dorking, which was published 1871.  This tells the story of the successful German invasion of Britain from the deployment of a wonder weapon called the fatal engines; a plot McGuffin that once mentioned is then passed on by.  This novella is seen as a precursor story that influenced H. G. Wells’, in both his well known novel The War of the Worlds that appeared in 1897, and the his later short story The Land Ironclads of 1903.  The latter story has a description of a vehicle called a Land Ironclad, which the modern reader will recognise as a tank, which were invented, and first deployed during the First World War.  Of interest to me is the fact that Wells also went on to write what is arguably the first set of rules to play wargames with toy soldiers, called Little Wars, which I have the pleasure of owning a first edition copy of.  

I am not going to make the argument that SF is in anyway predictive of the future, only that writers were thinking about the future, and the possible changes that might come from the introduction of technology.  The truth is that writers mostly get this wrong, and when they do get it right they often fail to imagine what are called the second order effect of technology.

For example, Isaac Asimov, had one of his characters using a mobile phone in his robot detective stories.  There is a description where a character answers a call, only to reply that he can’t talk right now, because he will causing a disturbance in a public place (oh how we laugh).  While the social change that leads to that may yet arise, the complete lack of ring tones was another thing that was missed.  This isn’t to rain on Dr. Asimov’s abilities as a writer, but merely serve to illustrate that no matter how carefully one thinks things through, one is highly unlikely to get all the details right.  

When authors do predict the future, with what appears to be uncanny accuracy, it is probably a serendipitous outcome, arising from the synergy from the process of research and speculative writing (that's fancy speak for making a good guess).

Probably the most influential military SF novel written in the history of the genre to date is Robert A. Heinlein’s seminal 1959 novel Starship Troopers.  The novel discusses military service and citizenship.  Heinlein sets the story in a future where soldiers don power armour to defend the Earth, from alien bugs.  I believe the story is inspired by the history of the birth of democracy in Greek City states, which were protected by citizen soldiers called Hoplites, who went to war with their panoply forming up in phalanxes to fight; the Sixth Century BC  equivalent of power armour.  

Arguably the biggest influence for the ideas that Heinlein espouses, come from the works of Rudyard Kipling.  In Starship Troopers Heinlein uses his story to have his characters discuss the morals and philosophy of waging war, capital punishment, civic virtue and juvenile delinquency.  When described like that the book doesn’t sound like an exciting read, which only goes to show how good a story teller he was.  

The weaknesses of the story is that while Heinlein introduces power armour for his soldiers he doesn’t foresee the second order implications of the technology.  Therefore he fails to account for the lack of combined arms; in particular the use of close support orbital artillery fire, which would be a no-brainer in the setting.  He also ignores the wider context of waging war by focusing on tactics, and ignoring strategy and operations; this is very much the purview of the amateur military enthusiast.

Finally, while Heinlein may not have written a set of wargame rules, like Wells before him, his story has inspired a board game from Avalon Hill, a tabletop miniatures wargame from Mongoose Games, and a first person shooter to play on the computer.  Not to mention several live action movies, and several animated series too. 

At the same time as Starship Troopers came out, Gordon R. Dickson’s Dorsai! series was first serialised in Astounding Science Fiction magazine, which told the story of a genetic super soldier whose story is about what it takes to command troops in war.  The genetics under pinning the novel are simplistic, which is not Dickson’s fault, as our understanding of how genotypes are the expressed in a person’s phenotype is far greater now than it was then.  The only reason I mention Dickson’s novels is because they were eligible for the Hugo award for best novel in 1960, which was the year that Starship Troopers won it.

From a military perspective there are many things that Dickson omits that would be present in his future, and the genetic stuff is outdated, though at the time I imagine it was thought provoking.  This series had a role-playing game supplement in the Combat Command series of rulebooks.  However, it lacks power armour, or any other mecha; as the Japanese refer to machines like the ones that Gerry Anderson put in his TV shows.

Also, for some reason, Dickson has his troops wearing synthetic leather uniforms, in field grey.  I wonder where he got the colour from?  If you have ever done any physically grueling exercises you will appreciate how inappropriate leather would be for doing said activity.  Unless stinking all the time is good for morale (this is a real problem when wearing NBC uniforms called Noddy suits in the British Army).

Keith Laumer was also writing military SF, and showed that he was capable of extrapolating technology, with stories about cyber-tanks called Bolos.  These first appeared in the 1961 short story, originally titled Frozen Planet, but later changed to Courier.

Laumer’s stories centre on huge sentient tanks that are portrayed as valiant heroes who will sacrifice themselves to protect their creators.  My only comment here is that he didn’t write enough, as I would have like to have read more stories set in the Bolo universe.  The stories are what I would describe as deeply rooted in the high concept of artificial intelligent tanks, but Laumer doesn’t go beyond the basic idea and tell stories about how the institution of war were changed from the introduction of the Bolos.

These stories, along with Colin Kapp’s Gottlos short story, inspired a board game called Ogre and a sequel called GEV from Steve Jackson Games, which feature combat between conventional forces having to face giant cyber-tanks.

I will mention in passing Bill the Galactic Hero by Harry Harrison, published in 1965, because it was written as a direct response to Heinlein’s novel.  It is the antithesis of Heinlein’s work, as Harrison despised the ideal presented in Starship Troopers, and deliberately set out to write a satire of Heinlein’s novel.  Harrison wrote from an unapologetic anti-military perspective from his experience of military service that made him anti-violence and distrustful of authority.

It’s a funny book, and a good read, because Harrison shared with Heinlein the ability to tell stories, but it only exists to counter-point Heinlein.  It describes military life from Harrison’s own perspective of experience of being drafted.  However, the novel fails to address any real implications of the military technology portrayed.  This is to be expected given that it was a subversion of Heinlein’s discourse, rather than a military novel per se, which is probably a reason why it has no board game or tabletop wargame.

The first novel to directly challenge Starship Troopers dominance in the military SF genre is arguably Joe Haldeman’s 1974 The Forever War story, which has two thematic sequels.  The Forever War tells of a war between us and the alien others, using the author’s experience of the Vietnam War for its themes.  Some reviewers like to set this book up in opposition to Heinlein’s, but I think this is a false dichotomy for what can be better explained by the differences in social reactions to the respective wars that the novels draw upon.  

Heinlein is talking after the Second World War, where the struggle was seen as necessary, and broadly a right thing to do.  Whereas Haldeman is writing after Vietnam war, where the struggle was seen as not only unnecessary, but also as wrong.  The Vietnam War was also the first war in history to have real time news footage aired on television, which in and of itself has coloured the public’s perception of war, and resulted in the military’s response to manage information where public opinion can directly effect political opinion.  Something that neither Haldeman nor Heinlein foresaw.

The Forever War book has also inspired a board game.  Given the limitations Haldeman creates in his future setting, from a military perspective The Forever War is also notable as it does introduce the problems of logistics on waging an interstellar war.

Then in 1979 David Drake’s short story collection Hammer’s Slammers was published, which became the first book in a series of short story collections, novellas, and novels that share with Haldeman the post-Vietnam sensibilities of The Forever War.  Drake uses the Hammer’s Slammers series to tell stories showing the effects upon his characters, as they become tools of war.

While I don’t enjoy Drake’s stories as much as I do Haldeman’s and Heinlein’s, what I do think he does through his work is illustrates the effects that the institution of war has on people.  He also shows how technology changes how wars are fought; in this case the deployment of blowers, which are effectively flying tanks.

Besides that, there is a rather excellent tabletop miniatures wargame called The Crucible, written I will add by two friends of mine: John Lambswood and John Treadaway

I have a particular interest in what happens to people when one puts them into armour that enhances their abilities, so John Steakley’s 1984 novel Armor, is important to the military SF genre for its depiction of the psychological effects that comes from doing so.  The extrapolation of the technology takes second place to inner turmoil of the main character.  The latter half of the novel takes place after the war, which serves as background for the events that happen on another planet.  So, Armor, as a story doesn’t fully explore the implications on the way wars are fought, or their impact on society.  However, it still remains one of the seminal power armour stories in the genre.

Robert Buettner’s 2004 novel Orphanage was the start of what is now called the Jason Wander Series.  The books explore the war against the alien others, with troops encased in power armour in a setting that features space and brown water naval action.  The follow-on sequel series features tanks, so Buettner is trying to write stories that cover the whole spectrum of war, and reasons why wars are fought.  The logistics and operational aspects arising when one wants to compel an opponent to stop doing what you don’t want them do is very much at the heart of the Orphanage setting.  All it needs now is a games company to produce a game for people to play in the rather unique setting that Buettner has created.


  1. I'm glad you mentioned Bill, even if in counterpoise to Heinlein. I think my favourite character in those books was Deathwish Drang.

    I noticed an omission - Jon Scalzi's Old Man's War series.

    1. It's good, but lacks power armour, or giant cyber-tanks, or GEVs. Has spaceships though, which are cool, but it doesn't directly address my central obsession. Did I mention power armour and tanks, especially cyber-tanks?

  2. Nice write up! I admit to having missed several of the classics you list.

    1. Glad you enjoyed reading this. It's a very brief skim over the genre, mostly what I think are must reads if you're a wargamer looking to play SF games.

  3. Marcus Rowland has republished George Griffith's 1890s novels in Forgotten Futures 7; he assumes that aerial weapons will be basically like ships, but in the air. So you get aerial ironclads and such like. It's not even faintly hard SF, much more in the spirit of Wells and Verne, and of course was rapidly made obsolete by events. But it's probably the ultimate inspiration, even if they don't know it, for something like FanPro's Leviathans game.

    I think that a lot of writers want to concentrate on a single military technology (the powered suit, the hovertank) and so deliberately set up worlds in which that technology becomes dominant. (The classic example of this is the battlemech, of course; I'm sure I don't need to rehash the arguments there.) I tend these days to look for the ability to do combined arms, to make (say) tanks or infantry on their own more vulnerable than a composite force.

    1. Well my attempt to do this with a set of rules didn't go as planned, but that is water under the bridge. In terms of my writing I've gone the other way of implementing what I want, by limiting the ability of the military to have everything they want. So yes I focus on power armour, but it's part of the plot, rather than a lack of combined arms. It does allow me to have my characters bemoan the fact in the stories (that's the sequels to what you read BTW).

    2. Yeah, I think it's reasonable enough to say "the other stuff may be out there, and it's fine on the battlefields it's designed for, but it can't easily be got to where this story is happening".

  4. While it's from Japan, I was curious if you'd heard of "Fang of the Sun: Dougram", which featured a rebellion on ananother word that was fought with rank and file mass-produced powered armor mecha?
    It was popular enough that it ran longer than originally expected, and led Takara to produce an actual tabletop wargame for it.

    1. One of my favourite anime shows. I have it downloaded with subtitles, and I have The Battle of Stanrey board game too.

    2. I must do a Fang of the Sun Dougram post at some point. So I've updated my tags with same.