Well, apparently inspiring some absolutely brilliant science fiction, that’s what. Unlike fantasy, SF lends itself to brutally realistic (with certain rather obvious exceptions like aliens and spaceships) allegorical stories on the horrors and hardships faced by soldiers on the frontlines of conflict. The true strength of the genre becomes obvious here as ideas, feelings, and philosophies are explored in attempts to understand the effects of war on the men and women who fight by giving physical form to the fears and threats they face.
All these novels are quite obviously ‘action-packed’ stories, full of heroism and sacrifice, nobility and esprit de corps, but underlying each are characters struggling to understand and process what it really means to go to war and how it changes you and the world you live in. By the end of each novel, the clichés glorifying war are revealed to be hollow and ultimately meaningless as they are stripped away. Brutal and bloody, these wars aren’t about saving the universe, but rather about men and women trying to hold onto themselves under horrific circumstances.
This is the story of William Mandella, physics student and conscript, as he is forced to fight in a war against an enemy no one understands and for reasons unclear. The Earth’s best and brightest are conscripted to fight and the training is brutal – deaths are common. To find and fight the Taurans (the ‘Enemy’) they travel through collapsars (black hole-esque space anomalies) thousands of light-years away from home.
This is where the real story begins. Each time after they’re sent on a tour of duty lasting two years they come back to find hundreds of years have passed on Earth due to the relativistic effects of near-lightspeed travel. And each time the Earth has changed drastically.
This is the story of William Mandella as he comes back each time to a world he no longer understands and which doesn’t understand him; a world where everything familiar, including his family, friends, and home, has become a piece of history. His romance with fellow soldier, Marygay Potter, feels doomed as they can never be sure if they will be sent on the same tour and either could easily return to find the other hundreds of years dead. The enemy’s weapons change as they encounter ships that are far more advanced than those they had just been fighting – again, due to time dilation.
The Forever War was born from the author’s time in Vietnam and how returning home to America felt alien and that the war ultimately proved futile.
This is the story of every soldier fighting far from home and their struggle to return both physically and psychologically.
The faceless enemy is the Ant – giant insectoid killing machines. Even with power armor that gives them great strength and speed, and armed with high-powered weapons, the soldiers fighting the Antwar feel helpless as they are confronted by an endless horde of creatures that can peel open their armour and kill them. No one survives on the planet Banshee for long. Except for Felix. Scout. 10% chance of survival and dropping.
Felix fights to die, but nothing manages to kill him while everything around him is destroyed slowly and violently. To avoid complete mental breakdown he creates an emotionless psychological construct called the ‘Engine’ that takes over allowing him to function in such a brutal environment without going completely insane. Despite endless missions and the incompetence of those in charge he manages to survive and continues to fight. And fighting is something this novel portrays brilliantly in close-quarters combat written with visceral intensity. Unlike the other books in this list, Armor doesn’t shy away from the violence and Felix’s experiences feel like your own.
The other story in Armor, told in parallel to Felix’s, is set on the planet of Sanction at a Fleet research facility. Jack Crow is a pirate sent to infiltrate the facility on behalf of a man named Borglyn. While on Sanction Jack uses an old suit of battle armour to ingratiate himself with the Director of the facility. Together, they use the suit’s memory to experience the Antwar first hand. Exposed to the reality of the war, their eyes are opened – akin to the experience of those watching frontline journalism for the first time.
Armor is about responsibility and dealing with a history of violence. Each of the characters is running away in a sense, but as the story progresses they are confronted with choices that force them to examine themselves and those around them and make decisions that have serious consequences. Each of the characters has a past that they can not get away from and which has to be dealt with before they can move on.
Life isn’t a game. Actions have consequences and sometimes the responsibility you’re given isn’t a burden you willingly bear, but do so despite of this as it is a part of growing up. Ender’s Game is a book that deals with this defining point in a person’s life. Written in order to set up the true story that takes place in the sequels it has come to be read as a standalone, but I would recommend reading the entire series, as well as the first of the companion series – Ender’s Shadow.
Fellow Jetpacker, Celeste, has written a great review that I’m not going to try to compete with, so check it out and read her thoughts on this amazing book.
Yes, another story about bugs, power armour, and war.
This is my least favourite of my selection, yet deserves its place for being something of a ‘first’ and not shying away from making a statement – whether you agree with it or not. Starship Troopers influenced the other books on this list and it is also the only one that could be said to glorify war. Yet, I would say it doesn’t glorify war itself, but rather the soldiers who fight in them and in the end any debate worth your time needs balance so count this one in the ‘pro’ side of this conversation about war.
For the most part, Starship Troopers is a ‘boot-camp’ story chronicling the training and first battles of Juan ‘Johnnie’ Rico and interspersed with flashbacks showing Rico in school. If you’ve seen the movie and heard people talk about this novel you may be surprised at how little action there is in it and how short the whole thing is. This makes it hard to refute the complaints that the novel is only there as a vehicle to serve for Heinlein’s political views puppeted through the characters of Dubois and Ho, yet I think it works as a perspective on what it’s like to be a soldier and how this colours the way you see the world – should putting your life on the line to protect your country/world give you more say in how it is run?
It doesn’t quite address the question of what it actually means to have a government run solely by veterans as it focuses on the day-to-day minutiae of life as a soldier. Long periods of waiting interspersed with intense action and danger. It would be easy to assume this ensures a militaristic-fascist state run by testosterone and gunpowder, but then that’s why you don’t assume anything (Ass-you-me anyone? Did I really just do that? Yes. Yes, I did). A common refrain is that the last person who wants to fight is a soldier as they know the true cost. So perhaps a government filled with ex-soldiers would ultimately be a peaceful one. However, this is about those soldiers fighting, not about them governing.
And the fifth and last choice is…
Ha! You were expecting a fifth? Well, screw that. Why is it always the top five? This is J for Jetpack and we do things differently here. Four is perfectly good and shoe-horning a fifth in for symmetry would make me emoticon sad face. I’m sure some of you are wondering where Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is, but if you read these four books you’ll know why I didn’t include it.
If you want a more expansive list (albeit one that’s rather David Drake heavy) then here you go.