Military Science Fiction as a genre hasn’t been treated well by the big screen. Robert A. Heinlein‘s Starship Troopers (1959,) and Gordon Dickson‘s Dorsai (1960,) were the seminal works that established the sub-genre, and the only real attempt to translate the style to the big screen, 1997’s adaptation of Heinlein; Starship Troopers (and its associated sequels,) largely failed to be any more than a cheesy guilty pleasure. It’s a tough genre to get right. David Weber, one of the modern masters, lays out his expectations thusly.
For me, military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context. It is not ‘bug shoots’. It is about human beings, and members of other species, caught up in warfare and carnage. It isn’t an excuse for simplistic solutions to problemsDavid Weber
Weber’s Honor Harrington stories and John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, are both excellent modern examples and both are listed as in some form of “in development” on IMDB, so keep an eye out. Aliens (1986,) is probably the pinnacle of military SF on the big screen so far.
Military Space Opera, a term coined to cover more traditional space Opera stories that have a more military focus, are more common. The Battlestar Galactica franchise, Syfy’s The Expanse, and the venerable epic Babylon 5 are all great examples on the small screen. And this sub-sub-genre is where today’s two “Instead of another Dune,” entries come from. Both stories feature unlikely (not straight able bodied square jawed white dude,) protagonists, frustrated ambitions and gobs of family drama. Both heroes are flawed, and over the course of their sagas they must accept and overcome their limitations, surprise both their enemies and their allies, and create their own place in the universe against all odds. They would both make great tv series, but they could easily shine as stand alone films.
Kylara (Ky) Vatta didn’t have to enter the Spaceforce Academy on her homeward of Slotter Key. As a scion of the Vatta family interstellar shipping empire she could want for nothing and have a place guaranteed in the family business. But the commercial life doesn’t spark her soul the way shipping out as an officer on an interstellar cruiser does.
While she is an excellent study, her habits of “taking in strays,” so to speak leads to a scandal that ends with her discharge in disgrace from the service. Returning home is torture for Ky, facing a family that never believed in her. But she gets a chance at redemption, captain of a ship… of sorts. The Glennys Jones is due at the scrapyards and someone has to captain it there. Supplied with a ragamuffin crew of outcasts and family loyalists, Ky manages to make a lot more than milk from this supposed milk run.
If that doesn’t sound like he cast of a SyFy channel series I’ll eat my boots.
Ky is a great heroine. She’s smart and resourceful, she’s aggravatingly confident, and she doesn’t know what “over your head” means. She turns her junker ship into the trading vessel it was meant to be, and when confronted with pirates she turns the tables on them with glee. She also continues her trend of taking in strays, shepherding refugees from the pirates clutches to safety.
Ky has a dark side as well. In combat she discovers a thrill she had never experienced before, a bloodlust that frightens and intrigues her. She quickly finds herself responsible for hundreds of lives and has to make hard decisions that both protect and endanger then ones she loves. And she is about to learn more about the family business than she ever expected.
Elizabeth Moon is an accomplished storyteller, a Nebula Award winner and a former Marine, which definitely shows in her appreciation of military life. But she’s also courted some controversy, in 2010 she was disinvited to the feminist science fiction convention WisCon for remarks she had made on her blog about Islam and assimilation. Looking over the controversy, I disagree with Ms. Moons’ position and was disappointed to learn of it, but I think she handled the fallout better than many might have and don’t think it reflects poorly on her work as an author, nor does it reveal a deep flaw in her character.
The Warriors Apprentice introduces us to the main character of Lois MacMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan saga. Miles Vorkosigan in contrast to Ky Vatta, is desperate to get into the family business of sorts. His father, Admiral Count Aral Vorkosigan, is Regent to the young Barrayaran Emperor Gregor Vorbarra. His grandfather General Pyotr Vorkosigan, was a legendary resistance fighter during the occupation of the planet by the Cetagandans. And to add spice to the mix his mother is the enigmatic Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, offworlder and veteran of the Betan Expeditionary Force.
But there is a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to Miles’ dream. While still carrying her first and only child, Cordelia and Aral survive an assasination attempt in the form of a deadly chemical attack. While the Count and Countess survived largely unscathed, the antidote did teratogenic damage to the fetus, resulting in an inability to form bones correctly.
Despite the chilling prognosis, Cordelia insists on attempting to bring Miles into the world and he is transferred to a “uterine replicator,” a common technology Ibn the wider galaxy but unheard of on backwards and isolated Barrayar. Miles is born a stunted and fragile child in a world that treats him as a despised mutant. The odds are stacked against our hero, but he will not be deterred.
He throws himself into his studies and makes it all the way to the brink of acceptance into the Imperial Military Academy. But while his academic marks are above and beyond the mark, tragedy strikes when he cannot complete the physical tests, left with both legs broken at the bottom of a climbing wall, his ambitions betrayed by his brittle bones, the last victim of the civil war.
But where one door closes another opens. While accompanying his childhood friend Elena and her father, his bodyguard and aide Bothari on a trip to visit his grandmother on Beta colony, Miles manic personality leads him into a series of shenanigans that leads to the creation of his alter ego, the Betan Admiral Miles Naismith. While the future Count Vorkosigan is barred from military service at home, Admiral Naismith is able to craft an entire mercenary organization with nothing but his wits and chutzpah.
Much like Ky Vatta, Miles will find himself in over his head, with responsibilities he never imagined and consequences to is actions he never anticipated. He’ll suffer heartbreak, endanger those close to him, and almost inadvertently destroy his father’s political career. But he’ll create something, the Dendarrii Free Mercenaries, that will go on long after his own career grows in directions he never dreamed of.
Both of these novels begin extended series that would provide cinematic fodder well into the future. They also offer some intriguing casting options. Miles Vorkosigan, stunted and twisted by his condition, would be an opportunity for a differently abled actor too shine. Kylara Vatta is a great “strong female character,” but she’s also not necessarily white, her family certainly isn’t depicted as Anglo at least. And both universes are populated with intriguing side characters and innovative technology to explore. I recommend both authors for further reading, and if you know anyone at the SyFy network, maybe slip them a copy?