I can dimly remember a sunnier yesteryear after ET first appeared on screen. The 1984 film Starman featured an alien who comes to Earth to teach and befriend humanity (after we inadvertently invited him by sending the Voyager 2 space probe with a phonographic disk advertising our location). Benevolent aliens in the public hive mind included the lovable furry ALF and Superman (Kal-El of Krypton). Mork & Mindy was before my time, but still remained a part of the cultural zeitgeist. One of my first comic books featured an alien hero – Zen the Intergalactic Ninja. The aliens of Sagan’s Contact left behind communications beacons with the hopes of aiding developing races. And my beloved Star Trek had a number of alien species of all variety, often with obvious allegorical overtones. Among them were Spock, a half-Vulcan devoted to logic and science but also with a tendency to let his half-human emotions slip.
We have not always been welcoming of the others among us. This nation has a sordid history of fearing, demonizing, and also persecuting the “other.” We sometimes projected our fears of the unknown to the stars, but there was also a natural curiosity and willingness to explore. At some point, we culturally stopped being curious about aliens and started to normalize fearing them. The 1996 Roland Emmerich movie Independence Day isn’t the first film to portray hostile aliens invading Earth (War of the Worlds was a forerunner in this regard), but it was a pivotal popcorn blockbuster that both galvanized the contemporary popularity and marketability of the trope and also led to a general stupidification of alien encounter narratives.
One of my literary idols, Clifford D. Simak, wrote in the foreword to his collection of short stories titled Skirmish:
“My reluctance to use alien invasion is due to the feeling that we are not likely to be invaded… It would seem to me that by the time a race has achieved deep space capability it would have matured to a point where it would have no thought of dominating another intelligent species…it must have arrived at an energy source which would not be based on planetary natural resources. It should also, by that time, have come to a management of population so that expanded living space would furnish no motive for the domination of other planets. By the same reasoning, it would not need the muscle power of enslaved planetary populations, but would have evolved machines that could perform all necessary work. Because of this thinking it seems to me that the whole idea of alien invasion is unrealistic.”
Oftentimes, authors can’t or don’t bother to think of reasons for alien aggression. It’s assumed to be innate, perhaps because it’s innate among us. They then resort to lazy contrivances (IE in the Troy Rising series by John Ringo, maple syrup is like “crack” for the plot’s invading aliens). Military SF novels, being an extension of the authors and the world that they live in, express contemporary anxieties. There was an explosion of hostile alien narratives following 9/11. It’s not only fiction that expresses certain sentiments about the others. Elizabeth Moon and Dan Simmons, both well-known SF authors, penned blog posts concern trolling about Muslims post-9/11 (which critics correctly identified as thinly-veiled islamophobic rants). Moon’s post, while displaying some shocking ignorance, was rather tame compared to Simmons’s meandering story-like narrative wherein a time traveler from the future tells a naïve man in the present about how badly things have gotten in Europe. The “Eurabia” that Simmons describes is a land where waves of immigrants from the Middle East have implemented sharia law and non-Muslims are lesser-thans always at risk of mistreatment from the authority of a Europe-based caliphate.
“You peace-loving Europeans. You civil-liberties loving Americans? You Athenian invertebrates with your love of your own exalted sensibilities and your willingness to enter into a global war for civilizational survival even while you are too timid, too fearful . . . too decent . . . to match the ruthlessness of your enemies.”
The blog post, which reads like bizarre revenge porn, reminded me of fictionalized propaganda used to dehumanize Jews and non-whites/non-Europeans (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The Camp of the Saints, The Turner Diaries, etc.). Films like the Birth of a Nation were successful in inciting violence against Black Americans. Simmons in one post paints a religion of over a billion people with a broad stroke and clarifies who the thems are and why we must fear them. He instinctively associates civilization with the “West” and assumes barbarity for the rest. President George W. Bush himself used the polarizing rhetoric of two camps when promoting his global war on terror, invoking the language of a renewed “crusade,” and also of a clash between inherently adversarial civilizations. Hitler’s minister of propaganda, Goebbels, understood the power of narrative and for this reason used mass entertainment (in his case radio and film) as a tool of persuasion. As anyone who has ever heard a fable knows, stories can have immense utility. The Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand in 2019 was perpetrated by a shooter who not only subscribed to the “great replacement” theory but also penned a 74-page manifesto titled “The Great Replacement.” He expressed strong anti-immigrant sentiment, used explicit white supremacist language, and also called on European whites to remove migrants from their lands. The incident inspired a number of additional attacks, including a mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas by a shooter who deliberately targeted Hispanics. A sense of aggrievement and loss is dangerous, particularly when coupled with a sense of entitlement and obsolescence. This notion of “white genocide” is becoming increasingly popular, and is combined with a growing hostility towards refugees, migrants, and some of the least-fortunate people among us. Their visible otherness signals to xenophobes that they are a threat. When dehumanizing language and propaganda run their course, it becomes easy to inflict violence against the “others.” If you can direct someone’s anger, hate, and frustrations – not only at an immigrant but at a third-wave feminist, liberal, etc. – it may only be a matter of time before they act. This might be an extreme example, but it is far from unthinkable. This form of violence is all but inevitable once you have the correct combination of ingredients, and it’s something that we’re unfortunately only likely to see more of.
Our national and global anxieties go much deeper than paranoia over replacement and obsolescence. I’m noticing also a trend in military SF stories where the protagonists are forced to join the military; either because of debts or some form of compulsive service. The agency demanding that the heroes fight aren’t always governments. Sometimes they’re powerful private institutions fighting ever-going and unwinnable wars outside of Earth for some such McGuffin. A reality which is all-too familiar for an ever-increasing number of Americans drowning in unpayable debts. Everyone is conscious on some level of the power that corporations seem to have, as well as their involvement in endless wars which are fueled by profit incentives. A large percentage of American troops operating in overseas theaters are private military contractors. Many of the advisors working in our nation’s capital are part of a professional paid consultant class. They’re often paid – directly or indirectly – by some of the same corporations that directly profit from war. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, not a lefty by any means, gave this nation a grave warning in his farewell address:
“In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
I can only add to his prescient advice that we must always be wary of people who tell us who to fear. We must be doubly vigilant against those who tell us who we must fear when they have a profit motive attached.
Why do I bother writing military science fiction if I’m so critical of it? That’s like asking how I can be so critical of America’s domestic and foreign policy if I’m an American. I don’t equate patriotism with complacency and I have heterodox stances on a number of issues. I have conflicting feelings about my own experience in the military and identity as a veteran. In some ways I miss the sense of fraternity. That no matter what, I had earned a title and was worth something in the eyes of peers and strangers alike. That if I was ever in trouble, a fellow service member was willing to die for me. The American public, at the height of our operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaped praises on people like me – an experience that I was utterly unfamiliar with as an unremarkable kid from a modest working class background. When people thank me for my service, I don’t know how to answer them. I wonder what they’re really thanking me for. I don’t think that we even know any more. Like so many people who sign up, I did so to seek steady employment and avoid poverty, not to bleed on the flag and prove to everyone what a good American I was. I think that it’s okay to admit that my contribution to the nation is debatable, and that our ceaseless lionizing of our “heroes” has become a banal formality. Our veterans come home broken and horrified by the things that they did and witnessed. And for what? To move pieces on the geopolitical chess board? Major General Smedley Butler, a legendary commander in Marine Corps history, wrote in his now-famous speech War Is a Racket:
“Beautiful ideals were painted for our boys who were sent out to die. This was the "war to end all wars." This was the "war to make the world safe for democracy." No one mentioned to them, as they marched away, that their going and their dying would mean huge war profits. No one told these American soldiers that they might be shot down by bullets made by their own brothers here. No one told them that the ships on which they were going to cross might be torpedoed by submarines built with United States patents. They were just told it was to be a "glorious adventure.”
I will never denigrate anyone for writing or reading military science fiction, and I’ll continue to write in the genre. My stories are a way for me to explore, remember, and make sense of a tumultuous time in my life. Military SF was all that I could write after I got out of the military as if it was all that I had on the brain. It was part of a personal journey to rehabilitate myself and transition back to civilian life – something that I frankly still struggle with. Some of my writing is inspired by my own experiences in the military, and writing these stories can be therapeutic – helping me articulate my contradictory feelings. A time filled with colorful characters from diverse backgrounds against the backdrop of immense looming specters. I still haven’t quite nailed the tenor that I’m after. I still have something in me that I need to have out, and I’m not the only one. A number of military SF writers are also veterans, who I will always feel a sense of familiarity with. I feel certain that they’re also, in their own ways, trying to have out what they can’t otherwise.
In “Dirge Without Music,” Edna St. Vincent Millay writes “I know, but I do not approve. And I am not resigned.” Let’s not restrict ourselves to what’s common out of habit or convenience. Innovation is not some relic or novelty. Let’s not conflate what’s common with what is manifest. Military SF appears to be a popular genre, but at the risk of using anecdotal evidence, I’ve encountered testimonies from readers who specifically will not read it because of its perceived subject matter. For better or worse, military SF has a reputation and a stigma. We may never know how many potential readers we are negating. We should be allowed to criticize our own, whether it be our own subculture as well as our own country. It’s patriotic to remind people of the USA’s violent past. To point out that we’re perpetually engaged in an unwinnable war against faceless enemies around the globe. That we’re ignoring so many more pressing domestic matters. That while many of us are drowning in poverty and debt and our nation’s infrastructure and institutions crumble around us, our elected leaders seem so eager to engorge an already-bloated military-industrial complex. The American dream and our unique conception of meritocracy have been exposed as national myths. And as fertility rates plummet in the developed world, my generation will be the first to see a lowering of life expectancy despite all of our technological advancements. The bright future that we were promised was a lie. It’s perhaps no wonder that military SF expresses so much cynicism. We can no longer imagine what peace looks like any more than our military leaders have a conception of what victory looks like. It seems like the only thing that Americans can do besides consume products is make war, even if we can’t hope to actually win them. We have as a nation given up on the pretense of fighting for self-protection. During the Cold War, the enemy was the red scare. We ironically supported groups like the Mujahideen of Afghanistan when they were fighting our old adversary, the Russians. We watched the Soviet Union break its own back in the mountains of Central Asia to then foolishly invade and occupy a nation fortuitously dubbed the “graveyard of empires.” It’s so remarkably poignant that it’s absurd. The British Empire, once the largest and most powerful in the world, carelessly engaged in wars around the world and suffered a number of embarrassing defeats. Its casual willingness to fight wars around the world was like a desperate impulse that overcomes empires in their latter days. To hold onto or rediscover a waning sense of greatness. The charge of the light brigade, now immortalized by the Tennyson poem, was an unmitigated military disaster in the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War wherein a light cavalry brigade attacked the wrong target and suffered high casualties due to an error in communication.
A free society should be shielded from the horrors of war. War should only be undertaken as a last resort, not as a tool of coercion. It should not be glamorized or mystified, and especially not engaged in for profit. The public should not be acquainted with it or de-sensitized. Confederate general Robert E. Lee himself said “It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it.” The press should be adversarial to institutions of power. It needs to question official narratives and not do cheer-leading for whoever’s in power. It should not help administrations “sell” war or manufacture consent. It needs to show the public where our bombs land and not just our sleek jets as they take off. Maybe we should see the mangled bodies of the innocent people that we kill with our weapons, and the weeping widows and parents. We need to thank the whistleblowers, not throw them in jail for exposing our war crimes. And every politicians that gets a paycheck from weapons manufacturers should have to display a price tag when they address congress so that the entire world can see how much it cost to buy them.
The trends that I’m seeing are part of a cultural trajectory. A taint has worked its way into the mold which so much military SF is cast from. A toxic alloy of hypermasculinity, American exceptionalism, jingoism, nativism, and xenophobia. The rise in far-right ideology and nationalism around the globe is tied in with a renewed interest in fascism. Perhaps in the same way that martial lore holds a certain allure to predominantly young men, the idea of strong-armed totalitarian rule might appeal to people living in such a dystopian time. Some folks will gravitate towards strength and choose to eschew the liberal democratic principles that they’ve lost faith in. This is partially why contemporary SF expresses a deep pessimism about the social and political climate as well as the literal global climate. They correctly identify the compounding problems of late stage capitalism and the gutting of our civil institutions without offering remedies. The military SF market feels intellectually, spiritually, and creatively bankrupt with a shellac of derivative tropes constantly being re-skinned and recycled at a time when we need to be inspired and uplifted the most. Stories, however fictional or speculative, express sentiments which are dangerous because of the very real attitudes that they reveal. Waking up to our personal biases and national chauvinisms requires time and introspection.
The situation is far from hopeless. I’m given hope by the younger people as well as the majority of SF fandom by extension. The public attitude towards war changes from generation to generation and from conflict to conflict, but war is generally not viewed favorably. And even though my cynical take on our global aspirations are strident, I know I’m not alone. Many of us are waking up to the scam, and are getting sick and tired of it. The landscape of military SF will always have examples of work expressing progressive explorations of the tropes and themes that have become so pervasive as well as readers willing to read them. Stories where characters are capable of or willing to challenge the official narrative. In The Light Brigade by Kameron Hurley, the main character, Dietz, is a fresh recruit in the “corporate corps.” After a few combat drops, she ‘wakes up’ and doesn’t see the missions the same way that the rest of her unit does. She begins to question the official story that her corporate superiors are selling her. The public at large and the vast majority of military SF readers do not hold or express extremist views. Extremist views by the nature of statistics tend to be marginal and, because of the stigma that they rightfully attract, are generally not granted public forums. But we cannot rest on our laurels and think that intolerance will die on its own. The internet especially has allowed communities of hate to thrive and find one another, growing more organized all the time. Out of all the genres, science fiction is one of the most adept at making social commentary. We must dare to dream large and hold ourselves and each other accountable. And yes, our words as well. Words are tools, and powerful ones. We must always push back against the dark and demand more from ourselves and each other, because the cost of failure is too damn high.
Jonathan E. Hernandez is a science fiction writer and visual artist who decided to pursue a career better suited to his muses after an honorable discharge from the military. His first novel, ONE DAY AS A LION, debuts March 2, 2021 with Aethon Books. A Nuyorican originally from the Bronx, he now lives in Astoria, New York with his partner Anita and a cat named Jonesy.