Ever since I started using the Amazon Kindle late last year (as an app for my Android devices), I have found myself suddenly reading fiction again after a decade mostly spent on factual books. Recently, I have read through quite a few books that are in the category of self-published military science fiction. All good reads, but the books have started to blur together when I look back at them. There are some interesting common themes and plots that almost make them hard to keep apart, especially those written in recent years.
First, let’s present the books.
The Gibraltar Series by Michael McCollum, three books written from 1999 to 2009 from what I can tell. Self-published, but also available on Amazon Kindle (like all the books). This series is not really military science fiction, but just general humans-discover-aliens SciFi. I read the entire series in really quick succession, and I loved some of the ideas and the universe that the author built up. It was exciting and I sure wanted to know how it would end. But it all ended in a fairly disappointing way. Humanity just won, with no real details given. The characters and the story telling technique were also pretty bad in hindsight. In particular, the book series suffered from Hollywood syndrome and a pasted-on love story that really did not help the books. It just felt like it could have been that much more if given some care and pushback to the author to work through and balance the story a bit more.
Terms of Enlistment, by Marko Kloos, came out in 2013 first as a self-published book and then it moved to 47north (which is a brand of Amazon Publishing). This book starts with an underclass man from Earth who lives in hellish social housing, but who manages to pass the bar to join the military and then gets into a much better life (as well as a lot of fighting). After bootcamp, he ends up in the Earth-bound army, but after some truly unbelievable plot twists he manages to transfer to the Navy and get on the same ship as his girlfriend from basic training. The book ends with a very clear direction pointing to further books, as humanity just discovers the first interesting aliens. There is also a big unresolved mystery from the army part of the book, which is just totally left hanging. I might read part two once it comes out, but I will check the reviews first. The universe in this book is a fairly small one, where humanity has still to make a large impression in the universe.
Poor Man’s Fight by Elliot Kay, published in 2013. This was a recommendation from Amazon’s recommendation engine that sems to be doing a reasonably good job of finding other SciFi books similar to what I have read before. The story is set in a galactic human future with lots of planets, and the main character is a middle-class youngster who suddenly has to join the military in order to handle his debts. Bootcamp follows, and then a series of fights involving pirates. Overall, a very good military science fiction book where the military part seems believable and thought-out, and the main character faces quite a lot of hardship before finally coming out in reasonably good shape. In the background there is a political story about big corporations and governments trying to break free that makes sense and is quite believable. Rather free from gratuitous love stories.
The Empire’s Corp by Christopher Nuttall, the first in a series of four books published from mid-2012 to mid-2013. In this series, we follow a larger set of characters than in the other books. The main actors are a company of experience marines, exiled from Earth due to politics. These Marines have to fight pirates, bandits, and rebels as well as trying to stabilize their sector of the galaxy by politics and policy. The world-building is quite convincing, and the characters believable. The Marines are certainly superhuman in fights – but not so much that they do not suffer losses. The main weakness is that the author seems to be quite keen to keep all the main characters alive. I think a bit of George R R Martin-style “kill the darlings” could help create more suspense. At the end of book 2, there is a very revealing afterword where the author complains about the current state of government in “the west”. The author clearly has a political agenda with his writings, where he juxtaposes the sclerotic “big government” of the dying Empire with the “free enterprise” of the worlds from where the Empire has withdrawn. The reasoning is a bit too simplistic for my taste, even though I have large sympathy for the idea of free enterprise. But I am no big fan of gun-toting second-amendment militia and the ideas of the noble wild west. At least the author has the good taste to point out just how dangerous a situation is when there is no government doing its job. This is not Ayn Rand, not by a long shot.
Having read quite a few books like this in close succession, I feel a number of patterns starting to emerge which are quite interesting. Not all the ingredients below are found in all the books, but every book has quite a few of them.
- Boot camp – most of the books take us through some kind of boot camp experience. To me, this seems modeled after the US military and its Marines in particular – in particular, the details on the first day of the new recruits is incredibly similar. I guess with all the authors living in the US, this is kind of expected. I wonder though if this would not be described quite differently by someone with experience from the 20th century conscription citizens’s armies of Europe — where it is not about building an elite force from a few good men, but about training most young men to fight. Still, the idea of boot camp varies widely, from a place where there is room for a bit of romance, to the strictest discipline and isolation from society.
- Debt – I found it very interesting to see several of the books bring up crippling personal debt as a major factor in the future societies they describe. It is clearly something that reflects on how society works today in the West, extrapolated towards the absurd. I do not see an author from the 1960s or 1970s bringing this up the same way at all. Just shows how SciFi is a reflection of the society in which it is written. Along with the debt discussions we have big bad companies. The authors describe how large evil corporations only care for their profits and keep governments and individuals under control and feeding their profits by leveraging their indebtedness.
- Pirates – space pirates also show up repeatedly, and are remarkably similar. Bad body odors, bad attitudes, lax discipline, and poorly maintained ships. Armed to the teeth, violent, and individually free, they form a contrast to the disciplined forces of the regular military that they meet. It almost looks like the authors went to the same writer’s workshop and came out with the same cookie cutter for their pirates. The concept works well, but once again it is so similar it is hard to keep the books apart.
- Social housing – several of the books assume a future (for the US) where vast amounts of people live in decrepit social housing, sustained by very basic government support and with no opportunities and violence lurking around every corner. It seems rather pessimistic, but at least it is used to create a reasonable backdrop for failing governments and empires. It could also be a reflection of our times, as it accompanies the debt aspect.
- Hollywood people -this is the part that annoys me the most, when I think about it. For some reason, most of the main characters in these books are young and attractive. It reminds of the Schwarzenegger movie “Last Action Hero“, where the women are so uniformly attractive that it warrants a line from one of the characters… it just does not feel very real. Maybe the authors are so used to Hollywood-style movies that they do this automatically? Or maybe some kind of writer’s workshop has told them they need this for a book to be attractive? This is not as bad in the Empire’s Corp, nota bene. But it is horrifyingly bad in some of the cybercrime books of the last few years – in particular, Zero Day and Daemon suffer badly from this phenomenon.
- Gratuitous love stories. This is the part that I have the hardest time forgiving, as it adds nothing to the stories and reduce believability quite badly. For some reason, every book contains one or a few love stories involving the main characters. In Terms of Enlistment is a central and really bad part of the story, just as in Gibraltar (and Zero Day and Daemon). It feels as if the authors have watched too many movies and just feel they have to have a love story in their stories to fit in with how things are done. Especially if they hope to get their books turned into movies. I just think that it fits quite badly with truly military SciFi. None of the military biographies I have read from real history care much about this aspect, the focus is always on the fighting and the people at the front. It is just unnecessary to the main story, but seems to be a mandatory complement to Hollywood people. It is sometimes so formulaic that I wonder if this is also something that is taught in writer’s workshops, rather than something the authors put in spontaneously because it fits the overall story.
I guess all these common themes prove that books are indeed a mirror of the time in which they are written – except Gibraltar, all of those have been published within the last 12 months, so maybe similarities should not be too surprising. They are simply written at the same time, in the same country, in the same culture.