Editor’s note: Welcome to another installment of our weekly War Books series! The premise is simple and straightforward. We ask an expert on a particular subject to recommend five books on that topic and tell us what sets each one apart. War Books is a resource for MWI readers who want to learn more about important subjects related to modern war and are looking for books to add to their reading lists.
This week, we’re switching things up and looking exclusively at works of science fiction. As longtime MWI contributor and former adjunct scholar Mick Ryan reminds us, there are many good reasons for military and defense professionals to read science fiction. Doing so encourages diversity in professional development, nurtures innovative thinking, and, perhaps most fundamentally, reminds readers of the enduring nature of war. We asked our staff to share their top five recommendations and the results are below.
We can learn a lot about the future of conflict and society from science fiction. From The War of the Worlds to The Sirens of Titan to Dune to Star Wars, science fiction has served as an allegory, a guiding narrative, and a mirror of society and war itself. Science fiction has this power not because of anything the story says, per se. Rather, it is because the environment an author creates forces readers to confront an uncertain future, born from the major issues that we see today, and ask: But what if?
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
From Scalzi’s perspective, there is an easy solution for the recruiting issues confronting today’s all-volunteer force: alter the standards. In his future, scientific advancement has made certain demographics, like people over the age of seventy-five, eligible for service. Buried in a compelling plot line of humanity’s race to colonize the galaxy while fending off every other species by using sophisticated weapons, artificial intelligence, and biotechnological augmentation is an ordinary pensioner grappling with the epitome of a warrior’s identity crisis. What are we doing here? How did we get to this point? Are we even human anymore?
On Basilisk Station, by David Weber
Meet Honor Harrington. She’s a Royal Manticoran Navy officer who finds herself relegated to command a poorly armed light cruiser patrolling a remote backwater. Paired with a potentially disloyal executive officer and a disgruntled crew whose members blame her for their assignment, Harrington’s struggles in command while addressing a potential astropolitical crisis will resonate with leaders and those aspiring to be leaders.
The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman
Critically acclaimed after its 1974 debut. Haldeman’s novel narrates an unending, unjustified war against an alien race. However, the substance of the book is an exploration of the internal relationships of fellow military service members. The book follows the life of a soldier which spans eons due to time dilation from redeployment travel across the galaxy. Each time the protagonist returns, reintegrating into both the military and society is a major struggle as identity and values change with the decades and centuries between campaigns. It gives a new perspective to not just the civil-military relationship, but the friction intrinsic to the generational gaps between service members in the military itself.
Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein
The quintessential sci-fi classic, Heinlein explores a future where there was a novel solution to society’s civil-military tensions. While enlistment is voluntary for all adults, an initial term of service is a requirement for full citizenship. This ensures a certain minimum of empathy and harmony among politicians and military leadership but raises deeper questions about motivations for military service and the relationship between society, veterans, and the military.
Burn-In: A Novel of the Real Robotic Revolution, by P.W. Singer and August Cole
Written by the same authors behind Ghost Fleet, what really distinguishes Burn-In from other near-future dystopian pieces is its thorough grounding in research of ongoing artificial intelligence and technological innovations in the real world. The secondary effects on society are evident throughout the story as the protagonist, an FBI agent, investigates a conspiracy with the help of her prototype android partner. The book’s focuses on the emerging implications that these innovations will have upon society as a whole.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Richard Akerman (adapted by MWI)