MisCon 28: Putting the Military in Fiction

by syaffolee

(To see all my posts on MisCon, go here.)

In the panel transcriptions, I’m mostly paraphrasing what the panelists said. If there are any errors, they’re mine and mine alone. For any corrections, just drop me a note.

Panel title: Putting the Military in Fiction
Panel members: Dave Bara, Steven Erikson, James Glass, John Goff (with guest insights from John Dalmas)
Panel description: What is military fiction and how do you write it convincingly? Is a military background necessary? Do the rules change when you’re writing space opera, military fantasy, or other sub-genres?

JGlass: I spent one year in ROTC and it was helpful in writing about a character who was trapped behind enemy lines.

DB: I have no background in the military, but apparently books sell better if they’re called military science fiction rather than space opera. In the future, technology can be so advanced that everything could be automated. So nobody has to go into war unless you’re on the receiving end. Or maybe no one will commit anyone to battle and just use drones and robots instead.

JGlass: But on the ground, there will always be casualties.

JGoff: It’s always necessary on the ground. An equivalent force might not be effective for a village in a third world country.

SE: It would have a canceling out effect if all the machines wipe out each other.

JGoff: Hacking may be less expensive than building new machines.

JGlass: There’s technology for foot soldiers like exoskeletons.

JGoff: The effectiveness of a gatling gun depends on whether it’s used for offensive or defensive sides.

JGlass: There’s a new gun with a packed barrel called a metal storm that’s fired electronically. Speeds are getting incredibly far.

DB: In my favorite movie, Patton, there’s a line: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country.”

JGoff: The other side wins by taking less casualties.

JD: The importance is in winning the peace afterwards. For example, after World War II, we treated the Japanese well and it paid off.

JGlass: I haven’t seen much in science fiction about the post war aftermath. How do you bring it to a good end? It’s not dealt with in science fiction. But it’s in real life.

JGoff: Historically, man has not been able to win the peace. World War II is an exception.

JGlass: Or Alexander the Great. He married the princess.

SE: Alexander the Great was the only successful foreigner in Afghanistan.

Q: With the recent events in Iraq and Afghanistan and the guys in vests willing to kill anyone, it’s become asymmetric.

JGoff: Thing is, we’re faced with individuals. We can’t attack everyone. We’re on the defensive. They have the initiative. It’s the same thing in Vietnam. We’re not willing to kill everyone in the room, but they are. That’s when warfare becomes terrorism.

Q: Does it become technology against will?

JGlass: Morality is an issue if you kill everyone. We can win if we throw out morality.

DB: If you have no military background, what’s the best way to learn?

JGlass: With experience, you learn a lot. Also read a lot to see how it’s handled. Use Google. Use lots of sources.

SE: Writers mine their own experience. Hope for some similitude to what you’re writing. For instance, I was once in Manitoba mapping boulder formations but we had problems with bears. We would often lose sight of co-workers so to stay in touch, we would often shout at each other. Once, I accidentally got in between a mother and her cubs. The bear charged and chased me into a lake. I mined that experience in my writing. Once I was drunk and had to piss in the bush. But it turned out it wasn’t a bush. It was a bear and it hit me down while my pants were around my ankles. The absurdity of warfare is implicit. Mine your experience and translate it. In 1983, I was in a helicopter in flames and got dropped in the middle of the jungle in Central America during a civil war. Use whatever you can, the rest is imagination.

JGoff: Don’t get into the minutiae of the background. Use what is needed for the story. In The Black Company, the reader doesn’t get into the minutiae in the background. Instead, you get a sense of what’s there. It’s more about the character.

JD: In conventions, fans want to know how something works, but I don’t know!

JGoff: Schwarzenegger doesn’t know how a machine gun works, but it’s still a good movie. You will always run across such fans.

DB: The brain collects all this data. I needed a name for an energy gun in my story so I just made it up and called it a coil gun. Later, I Googled it and saw that it really is a weapon.

JGlass: I usually look it up. But you can also make things up. If it sounds good, then it works for the story.

Q: What are you trying to show by using the military in your fiction?

JGoff: It makes something interesting to read.

JGlass: You can explore contemporary issues like the morality of war, etc.

SE: A kind of empathy is established if the point of view is the grunt on the ground. It shows them battling helplessness, despair, and fear. Many of us feel it with the surrounding geopolitical situation. It’s universal. It resonates with the reader because it’s about forces that we have no control over.

DB: I wanted to put a character on a military ship because it’s more interesting than tracking orcas. Use military in fiction if you want to give characters infrastructure. It forces them to make moral choices.

JGoff: You can’t tell a story with depth without narrative conflict. Military fiction often makes you question. Often characters go in believing in one side and later they begin to realize that the enemy isn’t faceless. It’s switching perspective in the struggle.

Q: Do military movies say the same thing?

JGlass: They say something about the human condition with all the conflict.

DB: I like bringing up internal conflict. In the Warhammer series, there are too many intense battle scenes. There should be more happening in their heads.

JGoff: If an author is influenced by Vietnam, military fiction gives you an insight of the cultural mindset in the time it’s written.

JD: In the Swedish invasion of Norway, many people died from the weather.

SE: In Cambodia, people marched into the jungle and were never seen again. In the book Blood and Bone, the jungle rots away the entire army. It’s interesting stuff. The King of Wulfar led an army. The king died but the army kept fighting. It became a headless army.

Q: What are your favorite non-fiction resources?

DB: Wikipedia, Tom Clancy.

JGoff: I like large overview books rather than detailed ones. Atlases of world history, depending on what time you’re writing about.

SE: Autobiographies by soldiers.

JGlass: Biographies about Patton, Alexander the Great, etc. Military fiction is tactical. Readers like that because it’s like a game.