Science fiction, today’s reality and all the rest

(Morning all. I’m up to my eyes trying to finish up the final edits on Risen from Ashes, to be released Feb. 4th. I’ll be honest, I forgot today was Tuesday. So I went crawling through our archives and found the following. I’ve updated it some but the sentiment is still the same. The original post appeared Aug 5, 2014.)

Science fiction was the first “genre” fiction that I fell in love with. As a kid, I can remember reading everything the school and local library had with space ships and faraway planets as part of the plot. I dragged my parents to every SF movie to hit the local theater. Lost in Space and Star Trek were must sees on the TV. Why did these books, movies and TV shows call to me? Because they offered a look at a future that was exciting and a bit dangerous and they let my imagination run wild. Looking back, I can see just how true that was. When my friends and I played and decided we’d be the characters in our favorite shows or movies, it was almost always science fiction-related. And why not? We got to play with really cool laser guns and fight aliens and explore planets and fly in spaceships. What more could any kid with an overactive imagination want?

Of course, there came a time where, for a few years, science fiction wasn’t as much fun. Those were the middle grade years where the books we had to read were more focused on making sure we were getting the right vocabularies and focused more on non-fiction than fiction. Then, one day while digging through stuff at my grandmother’s house, I found some old copies of If Magazine and those flights of fancy started again and they have never stopped.

What has always called to me in science fiction has been the story. I’ve never paid attention to whether or not a man or a woman wrote it. Nor has it bothered me if the tech in a book written fifty years ago is outdated by today’s standards, much less what might exist in the far future. None of that matters, in my opinion, as long as the story is there.

However, I will admit that I’ve become more aware of how others look at science fiction once I began writing Vengeance from Ashes.  I am now putting the final touches on Risen from Ashes, the sixth book in the series and the next book, Victory from Ashes, is already plotted. I looked at issues ranging from how I wanted the military in my mil-sf novel to be set up and operate to what name I would use when I published the book to how detailed I’d be in the technical aspects and much more. What I have learned is that there is no absolutely right answer to those questions and more. No matter what I — or any other author — do, someone is not going to like or agree with what we write.

What brought this home to me was a thread I saw a week or so ago where someone asked if, in the not too distant future, the USAF or the USN would be in charge of the ships our military sends to space. My instant knee-jerk reaction was that it would be the Navy. After all, we were discussing “ships” and that’s what the Navy has. I’ll admit to a bit of pre-programming along that line by authors like David Weber and his Honor Harrington series. But then I sat back and watched as the others in the thread started hashing it out. As I thought more about it, I decided it would probably be the Air Force with some blending of Navy traditions, jobs and possibly even ranks. But that is just me. (And now we have our own “Space Force” and who knows where that will go. — ASG 2020)

Going hand in hand with that thought exercise is what roles the traditional Army and Marine Corps would play. I can see the Marines being the driving force, the “go in, find the target and get it done” prong of an invasion — remember, we’re talking space right now — and the army being the occupation force. Marines, since they would be assigned to our space fleets — a hold-over from the Navy and part of the mingling of traditional roles — would also be the ones who would be the initial boarding parties after space encounters. However, because square footage is at a premium on a spaceship, Marines would be cross-trained to handle jobs also held by the Air Force/Navy crew so they could step in in an emergency.

Of course, that is all in my head and, as a writer, it is up to me to make it believable for my readers. But, as I said earlier, I won’t be able to satisfy everyone, no matter how hard I try. In a way, I think that it is especially difficult to do so with military science fiction. Why? Because everyone has his or her own view of the military and how it operates and how its members act and react. Those views are colored by their own experience with the military — and by which military they might have served in. But that is also true no matter what sort of genre fiction you write. There will almost always be at least one character or character’s profession that will strike a chord — good or bad — with a reader that will color the way they view the entire book.

I’ll admit I’m guilty of that. If I read a police procedural or legal thriller, I will be very vocal — at least in my own room — about how the details are wrong. Why? Because I’ve had some experience in both the law enforcement and legal fields. But I also try to remember that my experience isn’t within the parameters of the story I’m reading and I can usually hold my frustration in check — unless we’re talking something like The Client which went sailing against the wall before I was halfway through the book.

Anyway, back to the considerations I kept in mind while writing VfA — and which I think many writers do when writing military science fiction, especially if their lead character is female.

My next concern was to make my main character, Ashlyn Shaw, something other than a “man with boobs” without making her a wimp. She’s a damaged character and in a situation many of us might react to with upraised middle fingers. Some folks have criticized the book because she didn’t do just that. To me, she couldn’t because honor is a very strong part of her as is her sense of duty. However, running almost as deep is her need to find answers and get justice — or revenge and she’d really prefer revenge when the book opens — for what happened to her and her people prior to the opening of the book. That makes her dedicated and could have made her hard. Maybe it did. I don’t see her that way. But she is also a mother and daughter, worried about her family and those she cares about. I hope I made her into a believable character.

I’ve never liked the “man with boobs” critique when talking about science fiction. Part of it is because I’ve always thought that, by the time we reach that point in the future, a lot of the attitude some folks have about women not being fit to command will have disappeared. No, women and men aren’t the same. So they shouldn’t be written that way.  But there are a lot of similarities between a woman in command — whether of a boardroom or a spaceship — and a man in command. The differences shouldn’t come out in their command decisions but in their personal lives and thoughts. But then, you should see those same sorts of differences between different characters, no matter what their sex, color, creed or whatever.

Nor have I liked the critique you see from some folks about the female main character being a superwoman. Again, there are and always will be differences between men and women. But, in the future, there will be implants or genetic modifications or drugs or whatever to help with reaction time and stamina and who knows what else. So it is possible for a woman to do more physically then than we can now.

But my objection to the term comes from something more basic than a belief that there will be “enhancements” for both sexes in the military to make them into better soldiers or Marines or sailors. It is the fact that most of those complaining about the woman being a superwoman wouldn’t bat an eye if Captain Jane Smith had been written as Captain John Smith. It isn’t that those complaining are evil white men who think women should be kept barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen. Far from it. They are simply judging by what has come before and by what they know to be true — today.

And that is the biggest hurdle we have when we write science fiction of any sort. The readers’ perception of today will color what they read about the tomorrows to come.

The final “big” issue I considered before releasing Vengeance from Ashes was whether to put it out under my name or the pen name I was also using. I thought long and hard about it and I talked to folks I trust in the industry about it. Part of the consideration was did I want to publish under what is obviously a woman’s name in a field where the readers are predominantly male and so are the writers? There is a preconceived notion that the readers won’t give a woman writing military science fiction the same chance they would a male author. Then there are those who say that is exactly why you should publish under a female name. After all, how are you going to beat back all the evil white readers (and, yes, the snark is on with that, as in full sarcasm mode is on) if we don’t have more women writing in the field. Honestly, my only real concern was that my readers would pick up the book thinking it was something it wasn’t simply because of the name — or pen name — used. I hadn’t published any science fiction before. Everything up until now had been urban fantasy, romantic suspense and paranormal romance. That is a far cry from military science fiction. So I chose a new pen name, one that could be seen as being male or female. I didn’t try to hide that it is a pen name. I’ve been open about that from the beginning.

(Since this piece originally appeared, I have become even more open about the pen name, linking the novels to my own name on Amazon as well as to “Sam Schall”. Even so, there have been more than one review complaining about a man writing a female leading character.)

I guess the whole point is this — if you want to write something, write it. Think about what the concerns are and how you are going to handle them but don’t let worry about them keep you from doing it. It may take more research than some of your other work. It may mean taking some lumps. It also means you are stretching your abilities as a writer and that is a good thing. Just remember that you aren’t going to be able to make everyone happy.  But, as long as you are making more happy than not, you’ve done your job. At least that’s the way I look at it.

19 comments

  1. “What has always called to me in science fiction has been the story. I’ve never paid attention to whether or not a man or a woman wrote it. Nor has it bothered me if the tech in a book written fifty years ago is outdated by today’s standards, much less what might exist in the far future. None of that matters, in my opinion, as long as the story is there.”

    YES!!!

    Edgar Rice Burroughs is still fun, even though the science is very wrong. Personally I like to try to get mine right-ish, or at least logical, but I don’t insist others do.

    1. But grim navel gazing about social issues is the logical approach to the science! I like grim, I like navel gazing, and we lose so much information boiling down to tractable models of a society that we probably get some of the social science wrong no matter what we do.

      What do you mean we can write fiction that isn’t from the social or life sciences? Or that we can’t simply classify all historic and prehistoric societies as dystopian and super-dystopian, and proceed from there?

      1. “What do you mean we can write fiction that isn’t from the social or life sciences?”

        I’d be happy if these dorks would just admit that the Stanford Prison Experiment was a scam. That alone would improve the genre 100% IMHO.

        You know what’s fun is trying to come up with totally new weapons. It is surprisingly difficult.

    2. And even wrong can *sometimes* become right.

      As youngster, I watched some cartoon where the bad guys were being tracked, and it was terribly hoaky – just a map on a screen, with a moving blinking dot or such. A *single* receiver with a detailed display? No triangulation? Absurd! But that was back then. Now… Oh, it’s a GPS tracker, huh?

  2. Space Force has a lot of interesting room for speculation.

    One interesting question is systems where a knowledge of aeronautical systems and space systems would both be very important. Like perhaps aircraft that are designed to operate at the edge of the atmosphere, or if we can get scramjets sorted out, etc.

    A fun exercise is trying to justify as many distinct services as possible with rubber science fiction mechanics calling for system designs that require radically different doctrines and organizational cultures.

  3. I figure that it makes the most sense for the Air Force to have Overwatch. Or at least an Air Force model to have Overwatch. And it makes the most sense for the Navy or a Navy model to be Expeditionary.

  4. A fundamental difference in the Air Force and the Navy that is often overlooked is who is exposed to combat.

    In the Air Force today it is mostly pilots or pilots and a small flight crew at risk, most of the folks remain on a base somewhere behind the front lines. There is some component of base security but, if there at all, it is usually a minor component. Ignoring of course massive foul-ups like Pearl Harbor.

    In the Navy the ship’s commander and a fairly large crew are at combat risk. Many positions that have a shore component with folks rotating sea/shore assignments minimizing the safely behind the lines group. Carriers of course complicate this.

    Now the Space Force is going to have to be a lot closer to the Navy in who is at risk as commanders and crews. At the same time there is likely to be an Air Force like split in base support versus combat facing folks. Complicating that even further you have to toss in fighters (Naval Aviation) and assault troops (Marines) making for a very hard to sort out mix.

    Given all that, I really think the independent Space Force concept is probably the best bet, one that can draw on tradition when it serves well and innovation where it doesn’t.

    Some really good stories lurk in sorting this out.

      1. All of which can be served by adopting the “carrier” model under US Navy culture. Again, the Navy’s several hundred years of sending large numbers of people into a hostile and potentially fatal at any given moment environment, and maintaining good order and discipline while out of communication with higher authority is a model we shouldn’t discard.

        The only question at this point is how high a body count we’ll tolerate before it prevails.

  5. And, now, from a marketing perspective, your pen name makes even more sense. MilSF and your other genres are quite distinct, and although some readers will read everything, a lot read only one or the other. This bifurcation makes Amazon more aware of what other readers might like a particular book, and will market to the right readers, namely, those who’ve also bought MilSF or one of the other genres.

    1. Exactly. It is also why I am considering yet another open pen name for the next UF series I have in the planning stage. Why? Because even though my UF is UF and not PNR, a lot of readers expect the latter because it is published under my name or under the Ellie Ferguson pen name. I could write the next Dresden Files but, as long as I published under Amanda or Ellie, there would be those who wouldn’t read it because they automatically expected Laurel K. Hamilton.

  6. In my opinion, a much greater factor in Mil/SF is not whether the author is a man or woman, but whether that author has served in the military. I think a work in that genre is much better written by a woman who served than a man that didn’t. I don’t care how much research you do, you’re not gonna nail how a sergeant talks to his troops in the field unless you’ve heard a few dozen do it.

    1. Agreed, to a point. The problem with that as an absolute is how that sergeant talks and acts is going to depend on which military he or she is in and which branch. For example, an American Marine sergeant is going to be different from his USAF equivalent who will be different from the Spanish equivalent who is different from the Finnish equivalent. Add in different branches, and, well you get what I’m going for.

      the real key isn’t if you served but if you are consistent within the world you’ve built. Yes, you need some references back to what your readers know because that is where their point of reference is. However, just as you will have some readers saying a woman can’t serve in combat positions because they didn’t when they were in the military, you will have others who have served with women in combat who will have no problem with it.

      1. Amanda, I was trying to keep the post short, and evidently did not type enough to fulfill all the whatifs and such. I was a USMC infantryman. I am comfortable writing such. One of the characters in my WIP is a retired grunt. When I write him, I don’t have to think; I know what he’ll say to other Marines. Around his family, he is kinder and less stern, and about ten light-years less profane . I could no more write an Air Force enlisted than you could, much less a Spanish grunt. I kinda assumed that the writers here took the hoary maxim to heart – “Write what you know.” I don’t know jack about Army combat engineers,but I might could take a stab at it with a buncha homework. Fighter pilots? Only because I had occasion to talk to a few on the radio and had a few beers with some after I got out. I think few civilians realize how ridiculous some dialog & plots sound to vets when they read it.

      2. “…you will have others who have served with women in combat who will have no problem with it.”

        After all, some folks voted for Hillary, and even Bernie’s got rabid supporters. Women do have a place in the modern military. Running a Reaper or babysitting a silo’d nuke? Sure, I don’t care if they’re all women.

        It might be my experience is weird, or that I served in a less enlightened time, But I’ve never met a grunt that thinks women have a place on the modern battlefield. Perhaps such grunts exist. I am willing to postulate that; I’ve never met one. Maybe some WRITERS think so, but I’ll give you five dollars for every one that served in an infantry platoon, if you’ll give me one dollar for every one that hasn’t.

  7. “No matter what I — or any other author — do, someone is not going to like or agree with what we write.”

    Which is surely why we write what we write. At least it was for me.

  8. Asimov, EE ‘Doc’ Smith, Heinlein, ER Burroughs, Zane Grey, and Louis L’Amour were what I read growing up. We always played cowboys and indians, since that was easier and we already had all the guns… LOL Re writing, no you can never please all the readers… EVER…

  9. In various John Ringo books he’s discussed why it would be Navy and not Air Force as the model… there’s bits on it in both Life Free or Die and the second Looking Glass book

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