Last summer, I met up with one of my readers (I still can’t use the word ‘fan’ yet) and they told me that one of the things they loved about my novels was the depth of military realism I brought into the stories. I can honestly say that I never really planned that but after more than two decades of service in the Army I’m not surprised that the “realism” is there. Frankly, it’s never far from my mind and I’ve been retired for a little more than a year. Writing military science fiction is a perfect genre for me because I still think in military terms and I probably will until my dying day. To me, writing things like proper military radio conversations are easy. I understand rank structures and organizational hierarchies that leave most non-military folks dumbfounded. So, I wanted to share a couple of tips on writing military science fiction for this month’s “special sauce” theme.
Understanding rank and structure in a military organization is a critical point of military science fiction. Readers expect to see that you, as an author, have at least a basic understanding. Rank is fairly simple on its own. A private reports to a sergeant who reports to a lieutenant and so on and so on. That “reporting to” piece is where structure comes into play and things get more complicated. Describing that relationship would take much longer than 500 words, so I’ll simply tell you that the first key to realism in science fiction is research. There are a myriad of sources that you can tap to get the information you want. Simply searching military rank or organizational structure will get you started on that path. Remember that armies are different than navies. You can even go so far as to create your own military structure – that’s fine – but you have to make sure it passes this simple sanity check: roles and responsibilities.
Let me give you two classic examples. First, Star Trek. The captain of a ship is never going to be on an “away team” and take his officers, engineers, pilots, etc. with him. I’m not saying that the captain of a ship wouldn’t get down to the surface at some point, but he’s not going down immediately. No way. For Star Trek, though, this works because the ship’s captain (Janeway, Picard, Kirk) are the central character and it would be a boring universe if the captain did what captains do.
The second example is the movie Independence Day. Even at the end of the world scenario, the President of the United States and the “leader of the Free World” is not going to strap on a fighter jet. Maybe if he were the absolute last person on Earth, yes, but in that scenario there’s no way a President does that. For the movie, though, it works because we’re suspending disbelief all over the place.
My point is this – understand where your character sits in the grand scheme of things. At the start of your story, a private is not going to be a vehicle commander or a sergeant isn’t going to be in command of a ship. You can certainly take them to that point, if that’s your character’s arc, but negotiating them to that point means that you have to have an inherent understanding of those relationships. It’s an essential part of world building in military science fiction. As for the nuances of writing more realistic military scenes? There are a number of movies and books that do it well. The internet can be a great resources, too. However, I’m going to steer you in a different direction.
Chances are that you know someone who has served in the military. Ask for help. A simple conversation could give you more ideas and information than you could ever use. That conversation might also help that veteran in more ways than you can imagine. So, simply ask. Whatever you choose, take the time to get the details right. In military science fiction, that attention to detail sets you apart from other authors.
Great post, Kevin. Thanks. As a non-military person, I’ve done quite a bit of that type of research, but I’m now kicking myself for not better reaching out to military folks I know – like you – to ask more questions.
(you may be getting a call).