On TV you can have entire shows about—as it were—the family lives of the Grand Moffs where you may or may not be aware of Alderaan exploding silently and invisibly in the background (of course it’s still happening, whether you’re aware of it or not) but where the focus of the story is on Tarkin’s difficult relationship with his children. Not that there’s anything wrong with that1. This show is on my mind ’cause one of my friends is always watching it. I don’t know why. Probably for the Téa Leoni of it all.
Consider milsf/f as a genre of ideology, cutting across/overlapping with genres of medium, form, style or theme. There is a particular form of it, what I’ve come to think of as the “stormtrooper soap”, that has a familiar forumula. It (a) propagandises state/imperial institutions and valorizes their agents who are authorized to use violence on its behalf, (b) focuses deeply on the emotional lives of those agents and (c) erases, tokenizes or downscales their damage on the world and on their victims. There’s rather a lot of milsf/f that are stormtrooper soaps. I find that recognizing that something like “Madam Secretary” as a ghoulish horror show adds a noirish poignancy, a gallows-comedy instagram filter. No, I’m kidding, it’s a terrible show, don’t watch it. Watch “The Americans” instead: it erases/downscales nothing and generally exists on a higher plane, so much so that you might say it “transcends genre boundaries”, which is one of those commonplace phrases for which we really ought to have a cynically shortened phrase like “sensawunda” for2.
(yes, I get that “Madam Secretary” is only vaguely and metaphorically milsf/f. but technically all genre identifications are a kind of metaphor, and the identification therefore depends on context? the American state/war machine is the Death Star in that both are techno-fascistically cool engines of destruction noted for blowing up things that begin with “A” and end with “-an”)
Milsf/f becomes non-tedious and non-trivial, in other words, precisely to the extent that it critiques the institutions, agents and actions they depict. It’s that critique that should lie at their core; this is how a military-speculative story avoids becoming a stormtrooper soap, or worse, mere propaganda.
(and yes, it does amuse me to make this point by referencing two TV shows that are not conventionally considered milsf/f. this is a point of failure to this (slightly argumentative) post that I’m building in as a convenient safety valve: if you find all this offensive to your sensibilities of what is or is not milsf/f, or what it means or what it’s for, feel free to kick it in this rhetorical vulnerability and move on.)
To clear out the fog of war and take a look at the map for a minute, consider Starship Troopers—I know, I know, I don’t mean to pick on Heinlein. More to pick at Heinlein, if you like, the loose tooth of the golden age. Moorcock’s famous “Starship Stormtroopers” essay is an old favourite of mine, agreements & disagreements and all, wherein he shits on Heinlein’s book from a great height. And yeah, I’m more or less with Moorcock on this. It seems that even the most sympathetic reading pretty much just means invoking Poe’s Law, which just moves the question of whether it is the thing itself or a parody-of-itself beyond an event horizon.
(it was definitely turned into self-critique, or perhaps self-mockery, in the 90s film, which seems appropriate. also noted for Evil Psychic Neil Patrick Harris)
But you can’t really talk about Starship Troopers as militarist propaganda (either the thing itself or a parody of the thing itself sufficiently advanced to be indistinguishable from the real thing) without talking about Forever War, which occupies a necessary opposite pole. War and all its institutions as farce and abomination, including the nation-state and degrading cults like patriotism. This is quite the traditional pairing, Heinlein with Haldeman, and I don’t mean to dwell on it. What interests me is that these two books, positioned as ideological opposites3, provide a plane in which we can place all the other milsf/f stories that are about reform shading into revolution.
The measurement of milsf/f, then, is in how much abomination the story finds in the machinery of war, by which I also mean the machinery of the state. Only one evil Wormtongue needs to be caught to unfuck the governance of the Riddermark, according to the text, which associates both evil and virtue with birth and breeding. Or maybe the story insists that an evil Empire needs to be overthrown to reinstate a “Republic” whose shadow rulers are an unelected theocratic council of power brokers who, again, derive their virtue, power and authority from their bloodlines.
Or a story might pre-emptively bombard us with cynicism, as in Linda Nagata’s The Red: First Light, which literally opens with the protagonist’s cynical assessment of the corruption of the military-industrial complex; the protagonist later is involved in bringing an out-of-control defense contractor to trial, which is a phrase as full of paradoxes as a time travel story–are defense contractors ever in control? Does the international criminal court have the teeth or the legitimacy, either morally or in “realpolitik”, to carry out such a trial? Don’t tell me, I need to read book two to find out.
(it’s like “war crime”, a phrase that accidentally implies that some things that happen in war are not crimes, or that war itself is not a crime. war is fine, it says, war itself is just all right as long as you can avoid these few named atrocities)
In Myke Cole’s military fantasy trilogy (Control Point. Fortress Frontier and Breach Zone), the state/war machine itself creates and motivates its own enemies (hey, just like in real life!), and must be edged to almost the point of cathartic overthrow before it, and the reader, can be frustrated back into the status quo, with negotiations.
(I’ve got another problem with Cole’s series which I can’t let go now that I’ve come to mention it. There’s a trope I particularly loathe, where it’s the Indian military and the Native American militants who are obtuse enough to mistake the aliens from the alternate dimension for gods or spirits from their cultures (to which they bear uncanny resemblances—zomg implications!!1), unlike the hard-headed rationalist American military who knows aliens when it seems them. This is the Wes Anderson of “representing” non-white people. This is The Darjeeling Limited. Which is a film I also particularly loathe so it’s not a great example because if I ignore all these cringeworthy parts I can still sort of enjoy these books—where did I learn this abhuman patience? Why, a lifetime of reading sf/f, that’s where—but there is no force on earth that can make me not hate Wes Anderson films4.)
These are all coordinates on the plane of reform-shading-into-revolution, but since they all fall short of that old Haldemanian limit, they all represent some level of support for the malign idea that violence, organized and applied on a societal scale, is (at least) a necessity and (maybe) a good.
(perhaps it’s too much to expect that this poisonous notion ought to be questioned more frequently in fantastical literature)
So you could say that the reach of milsf/f as a genre is bounded by two clichés, a greater and a lesser. The lesser cliché is, of course, simple variations on the theme of the stormtrooper soap, the war hero, the hagiographic, romanticized reading of the soldier as sin-eater, as the eater of necessary sins, the famous “rough men”. This is itself a military fantasy that has been all too successful in transcending genre boundaries and infecting the world at large; while it enjoys great currency in everyday discourse, in fiction at least we must consider it a cliché that must be demystified to be broken. You don’t demystify the stormtrooper/war hero by “humanizing” them via adding puppies, but by at least trying to talk about what’s really happening: asking whose interests are served by putting other people in harm’s way and why, asking how (mostly working-class) people are led into choices against their own interest through economic pressure and relentless propaganda, how power and violence are romanticized, and so on, and so on. The text has the choice whether to question the tedious propaganda of war or to uphold it, and far too much of this genre chooses to uphold it.
(it may be too generous to call that a “choice”: most of the time, such things are clearly just unthinking defaults. I read a Karen Traviss milsf/f technothriller recently, for example, and clearly I made the choice to do so, and in so doing deserved it.)
But even when it successfully breaks the bounds of this lesser cliché, milsf/f is much more frequently defeated by the greater, which is empire. You see it wherever milsf/f throws up battle scenes with swarming enemy aliens, whether Heinlein’s bugs or Card’s buggers or Cole’s goblins, or in a million other books, films and TV shows, in which we are reminded that fictional enemy space aliens are all too frequently a metaphor for the colonized, as expressions of white anxiety about colonialism, imperialism, slavery and exploitation, as triumphalism, as guilt, as shame, as fear of reprisal. You know that generic scene where the brave colonial space marines fire their plasma-cannons into the onrushing alien hive-swarm? You’ve probably seen it a thousand times. That image goes back to this utterly science-fictional image: the British using the Maxim gun5 in the First Matabele War in 1893, four years before The War of the Worlds. The sfnal image of the alien other as the massed-stupid-evil-dangerous-swarm to be defeated by superior virtue or technology or know-how or fighting spirit, is very old-fashioned imperial propaganda from when our grandparents were young. The secret metaphrand of milsf/f, the thing-being-referenced that makes sense of the imagery and tools it uses, is almost always empire. Empire is the gigantic, unmissable, all-encompassing historical referent of the last five centuries, with 20th-century pulp sff hatching into being, aliens and all, to work out the nightmares of empire’s fall.
(of course, The War of the Worlds is the wrong kind of alien invasion, but still an excellent example of fear-of-reprisal invasion lit. I’m just using it to calibrate the timelines here. there are so many different kinds of invasion lit in sf/f; even exploration literatures are just invasion literatures written backwards.)
One sometimes hears it expressed (e.g. in that article on Starship Troopers that I linked earlier) that the device of the-war-against-the-aliens is fun because the aliens aren’t human; that they can be unambiguously, definitively deserving of death without ethical considerations. That’s what they said when the empires went out to conquer the real world, too.
Today’s sort-of related reading recommendation & palate cleanser: “Excerpt from a Letter by a Social-realist Aswang” by Kristin Mandigma in Clarkesworld: “When it comes down to it, how is this novel you sent along with your letter, this novel about an interstellar war between monster cockroaches and alienated capitalist soldiers, supposed to be a valid form of social commentary?”
- Sometimes you just want to watch TV, and insofar as anything is all right in this loathsome hellworld, this is all right. Sometimes books are TV for all practical purposes. The book-as-television is such a different thing from the book-as-novel that I consider them formally distinct kinds of object despite their superficial similarities. Most series-oriented urban fantasy (e.g. the Dresden Files books, which is why it’s a pity the TV show tanked, moving Paul Blackthorne from The Hero roles to The Dad roles before his time) are good examples of the book-as-television. Less like literary objects working in the tradition(s) of the novel and more like visual entertainment objects expressed in prose. Which I don’t mean in an insulting way. TV and comics have had their effect on the book, and camera-oriented prose, or blatantly Whedonesque snappy-patter narrative, are now commonplace idioms of fast-paced narrative fiction. Probably at least three-quarters of my reading is books-that-are-TV, as a kind of comfort food. On the other hand, it’s been like a year since I quit smoking so I’m owed a vice. ↩
- I propose “tranjenbo” as a verb, as in “The Americans tranjenbos both its genre-of-medium (i.e., mere television) and its genre-of-ideology (spy/pol/thriller slash alt-historical milsf/f) into a blistering critique of the propaganda of valour”. I’m kidding, you don’t have to look at me like that. ↩
- Haldeman has said in interviews and such, iirc, that he wasn’t responding directly to Starship Troopers, but there is clearly a generational shift of perceptions captured in these two books, in how America thought of war—at the point Forever War came out, the USA had just about finished dropping a world war’s-worth of bombs on Laos in the so-called Secret War, a term hastily reclaimed and sanitized by the American pop-culture industry. I’m not sure what the shift in perceptions was, actually, but I assume it had to do with this newfound need for secrecy, which (like charity) covers a multitude of sins. ↩
- Rushmore was okay. ↩
- “Whatever happens, we have got / The Maxim Gun, and they have not.” — Hilaire Belloc, “The Modern Traveler”, 1898. Ostensibly this is satire, given that Belloc was in some sense opposed to British imperialism, but then again he was also a racist proto-fascist so I feel like Poe’s Law continues to apply. ↩