Early military science fiction was close to the equivalent of watching The Green Berets staring John Wayne or some such equally jingoistic piece of patriotic propaganda. The stories weren't bad and the action was good, but everything was my country right or wrong and you just knew that even the aliens on "our" side were good Christians.
But as the times changed and the Viet Nam war was coming to it's ignoble end the military science fiction novel changed. The books were still filled with good characters, and action packed battle scenes, but the attitudes had changed towards war and blinkered patriotism. The soldiers were more cynical about the reason for fighting and their attitudes to their superior officers.
The prevailing motivation of all the troops when they enter a battle situation now is to win through to the other side in order to survive. Nobody has any visions of glory or desire to be a hero, which doesn't prevent acts of individual heroism or courage from occurring, because individual glory and sought after heroism usually ends up with people dead
Tanya Huff is one of today's most diversified Science Fiction writers. She has written everything from Epic Fantasy, (The Quarter Series), Contemporary Fantasy (The Keeper Series) and Horror (The Blood Debt Series). So it wasn't too much of a surprise when she embarked upon her own version of the Military Science Fiction series with the The Confederation Series
The first two books, Valor's Choice and The Better Part of Valor introduced us to Marine Corp Staff Sergeant Torin Kerr, a typically omniscient Non Commissioned Officer (NCO.), with a wonderful disdain for those she considers inferior species –anybody who is not an NCO, specifically 2nd lieutenants and officers who think they know better than her.
Thankfully for her in Heart Of Valour, the latest instalment of the series, there is only one officer and she's broken him in long ago. In fact her assignment, escorting him to the Marine training planet to test out his new body parts, should be a piece of cake. Her, the officer, (a major), twenty recruits of the three warrior species of the Confederation, the three NCOs assigned to train the platoon of recruits, and the major's civilian doctor will spend the next two weeks going through basic training.
The Marine training planet is designed to test the skills of the recruits without actually putting their lives at risk. So even the recruits know something's wrong when during the first "attack" the drones start firing rounds that can actually kill. Things get especially interesting at that point because the Sergeant in charge of the training picks that moment to go through his species change of life – which immediately sends him into a state of shock.
One of the amazing things about Tanya Huff's writing is her ability to integrate into her books social commentary without it being preachy. First off is the fact that men and women are treated equally without anything being made of it. In fact given the names used by individuals in the two other species in the Armed Forces, it is impossible to tell one gender from the other unless specified.
Huff also makes it quite clear that sexual preferences being a problem is a thing of the past as she never gives any indication as to the gender of the person's partner. In fact, a common joke told about one of the species is that they are considered unique among sentient beings due to having invented massage oil before the wheel such is their love for sex with any other sentient being of any gender.
But I think the way she handles the issue of xenophobia, and here it is much more pertinent then on earth as they are dealing with real alien beings is the best. She doesn't paint a false picture of universal harmony between all species. There are Elder races, non-combatants, who look like they could be giant teddy bears, spiders, or parakeets. While most humans don't have a problem with the giant teddy bears or the parakeets, none of them, no matter how much conditioning they undergo, can look at the spider–like species without getting the willies.
These military action type stories only really work if you can care or like the characters involved. By creating such a realistic atmosphere for her characters to interact in and establishing exactly what is and isn't socially accepted without making a big deal of it, she is able to generate characters who are easy to like and care for.
Even though the opposing forces are referred to only as the "Others" there is no irrational hatred or branding them as evil like is the norm in other books or our world. In fact the only real enemy seems to be the hierarchy of the Marine Corp who tend to make decisions that put lives in danger without considering the consequences or ever having to leave their desks.
I remember once reading somewhere that among professional soldiers there is little real liking for war. It is what they do, and what they do well, but they don't enjoy killing anymore then you or I do. Gunnery Sergeant Torin Kerr's job is to keep her people alive no matter what it takes. If that involves killing other people before they kill her people than that's what she'll do but if it means doing something else she'll do that too.
In The Heart Of Valour it becomes a matter of trying to figure out how they can regain control of the training planet before it can kill them. Someone or something has tampered with it, and they have to survive eight days of what it can throw at them until their troop carrier comes back to pick them up.
I guess in this day and age military science fiction is probably frowned upon by people who can't separate war from soldiers. They don't seem to have problems with people lopping somebody's head off with a sword, but put them in an army with military style weapons and they get strange. Tanya Huffs books are better written, and have better characters then most of the Sword and Sorcery "acceptable" violence books out there, and are far more socially enlightened then most of what you're going to read on the mass market.
Maybe if you have a problem with military science fiction the problem is yours. There is no crime in being a soldier, and Tanya Huff argues that point very successfully with the books that make up her Confederation Series. For those who still view soldiers as enemies, maybe they should read these books and get over themselves a little.
(Originally posted June 2007)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.