Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Military in Science Fiction

Science fiction and the military go together like ham and lima. Why is the military or military-style organizations used so frequently in this genre? I think there are two really good reasons for it. The first is that the military provides a structure to build stories around. Whether used as protagonist or antagonist, the military has rank, organization, and protocol that will add an element to the story.

The second is that the military has all the cool hardware. They get the guns, the armor, the fighter planes and the bombs. This is a little bit more primal, but if you want something blowed up real good, you know who to call.

For better or for worse, though, I often compare what I’m seeing in the movies and on TV with my own experiences in the military. I was in the US Army for three years from 1989 to 1992 and in the reserves for three more years after that. Not a long career, but a proud one nonetheless. My service gives me a little insight as well as the opportunity to joke that I was kicked out of the Army for the good of the country. Ah if only that weren’t true.

So I wanted to take this opportunity to share with you some of my views on different armed forces depicted in science fiction. This list is not complete, how could I possibly recall every single instance of a combat unit being utilized in the genre? As always, feel free to chime in with your comments.

Star Trek The Original Series
On one hand, Star Trek really blows it by having the Commanding Officer, the Executive Officer and the Chief Medical Officer always go down to the planet. Every single episode featured something very dangerous and deadly down there and every single episode featured the three most important guys on the ship going down and confronting it. On the other hand, this was the late Sixties and America was in the middle of the Vietnam War. Gene Roddenberry contended that ST TOS was a “Wagon train to the stars” and as such, being the strictest of militaries must not have been his intention. You have to give them a little leeway for having the Big Three go all the time, they were the stars and the show was built around them unlike ensemble casts in more modern shows.

Star Trek The Next Generation
The Next Generation doesn’t fare quite as well. The series creators made a point of letting us know that the Captain wasn’t allowed to go on the away missions, so what do they do? They send the second most important guy on the ship instead. You can follow the same premise as TOS where Starfleet is more of a science and exploration group than a strict military navy (Scientists with photon torpedoes!), but they still send the XO and senior officers for all of the missions. They really should have maybe one lieutenant and a squad of enlisted do this, which is something they did explore a bit and finally giving it more consideration in Enterprise with the addition of MACO’s.

Space Above and Beyond
I could not get into this show at all. I know it had its fans, but it just didn’t work for me on so many levels. This show premiered right when I was in the reserves, so the military was fresh in my mind and I thought that they really blew it from the get go. First, they brought in R. Lee Ermey to do a lamer, PG version of his drill sergeant character from The Boys of Company C and Full Metal Jacket and it was so watered down that it completely pulled me out of the story and forced me to feel bad for Ermey (which I shouldn’t have, he got his paycheck, right?). Then the main characters, who are all fighter pilots, are sent on a grunt mission to retrieve a drone and they misidentify the Ramones song being played by it as “The Pink Floyd.” That pulled me out of the story again and though I tried to watch a few more episodes, the damage was done. I’m not even going to comment on the characters’ non-regulation haircuts. In space, no one can send you to the barber, I guess.

Battlestar Galactica
The new BSG, on the other hand, really gets it. There is a huge distinction between what the characters’ roles are; there are people who man the stations, Viper pilots, Raptor pilots, and enlisted maintenance crew members. Adding the Raptors was a nice touch because with its electronic warfare, AWACS, and SAR capabilities, it gave the Galactica a unique ship to compliment the Vipers. We also get to see the maintenance crew fleshed out more than you see elsewhere. It takes a lot of manpower to keep one aircraft airworthy and these ships are no exception. Additionally, they liberally use military terms like CIC and CAG which they don’t even define. They just jump right in using them and if you don’t know what they mean, it’s up to you to figure it out. The only thing that gets me is that they’re not from Earth (bear with me) and yet they use these Earth terms an awful lot. But I say if you buy into the story and that adds a dimension of military realism, let it fly, right?

The Colonial Marines on Aliens are right up there, too. They look like a squad of tough as nails troops and they use weapons that you could imagine would be in the not-too-distant future. They interact with each other like Marines would and use phrases and terms that sound like what a Marine in space would use. Frosty, for example, is a phrase they use to mean “stay alert” or “keep it together” and though I am not sure if the USMC actually uses this, to me it definitely sounds like they would. The characters are all uniquely defined as well, you get the cherry lieutenant who flakes out when the stuff hits the fan, the crusty old sarge, the cool professional that takes over when he becomes the top of the chain of command, the tough guy who turns into a whiny bitch when he gets in over his head, and all the others. Sure, they’re pretty much stereotypes, but they’re well characterized and believable in their roles. Oh yeah, this movie also serves as an allegory for the Vietnam conflict where the superior weapon technology and all the best training available doesn’t mean squat against an overwhelming force fighting on its own terms.

That’s five of the many, many different depictions of the military in science fiction and it only scratches the surface. I haven’t even mentioned Earth Defense Directorate, the Mobile Infantry, the Peacekeepers, or the Empire, let alone countless cartoons including everything from G.I.Joe to Robotech.


Stewart Sternberg said...

Great posting Jon. I loved it. I think you're right, the military or the government is a great force in science fiction, whether they are fighting Godzilla, Kong, or fighting the threats of flying saucers, or walking plants.

During the fifties, sixties, seventies, and eighties, the presence of the military in science fiction was a manifestation of the insecurity of the Cold War.

Interesting too the films that have a negative view of the military and the government, that provide a flip side. Look at "28 Days Later" or "Minority Report" or "V for Vandetta"

SQT said...

Wow, I really like this post.

Aren't the colonies in BSG supposed to have been originally from Earth? If so, that would give them some extra leeway in the use of our military language.

I always wondered about the plausibility of the military unit portrayed in "The Abyss." The commander of the unit goes nuts after suffering from High Pressure Nervous Syndrome. I was always struck by how long and how far his unit followed his commands. I've had people tell me, that's the way the military is-- follow orders without question. But I have extended family in the military and they've never indicated it's that bad. Realistically, wouldn't there be a contingency plan if the commanding officer was determined to be incapacitated?

Crunchy Carpets said...

I loved the Mega Force pic..we were just talking about that the other day..hee...

And they need to do a movie about the Colonial Marines...they kick ass.

And BSG..Earth is yet another colony I think......or a legendary colony anyway...the farthest one.

Jon the Intergalactic Gladiator said...

Thanks, folks.

I was going to include a bit about the troops from 28 Days Later, but it would have made the post that much longer and I didn't think it fit so much because the ones that I highlighted here all seem to fit together very well.

Maybe a future post would include modern military forces facing an alien/monster from the deep/evil virus threat. That includes 28 Days Later, ID4, and all those 50's movies that have the cranky sarge chomping on a cigar and barking orders through the giant handheld radio.

SQT said...

You did mention the mobile infantry already. But boy, you could easily do a whole post on just "Starship Troopers." Talk about a military machine.

The Curmudgeon said...

Actually, another reason why the military is used so much in sci-fi is that the military is one of the few plausible institutions that could unify disparate populations... colonies alpha, beta and gamma may spring from a common mother planet... but would surely drift apart in a generation, maybe less, as fewer and fewer among the population had memory of a common home....

Without a military picking up the best and brightest from all the available planets and mixing them up, by having them serve together and then, when their tour ends, returning home... what unifying force do you have?

There are examples in history... American history. The 13 Colonies banded together against the common threat of England... but it was the people who served together in the Continental Army that developed the strongest national sense.

Jefferson served in the Continental Congress... but never in the Continental Army. He argued or negotiated with, but never fought alongside, men of different states. Little surprise, really, that he was much more a "state's rights" man than, say, Hamilton, who served on Washington's army staff.

Within the lifetime of a long-lived man -- in only four score and seven years after Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence -- those that adopted the State's Rights line had so far grown apart from their Northern cousins that they tried to set up their own country....

So, in sci-fi, with all sorts of planets united in "Federation," you need a unifying institution... such as a "Star Fleet" or the union makes no sense. I suppose you could substitute a shared religious faith as a unifying institution... but sci-fi writers tend to shy away from this, don't you think?

Wilson said...

Great post :) After watching Transformers, i can see how the military really do go hand in hand with sic-fi :D I mean the army and giant f#$kin robots? What more could a guy ask for? ^_^

Captain Kosmos said...

I think another important aspect of military forces is the travel: the unusual, wierd, and dangerous places that soldiers, airmen, sailors, (and spacemen) get to visit. Who's crusing the deep seas, flying above the arctic circle, and responding to distress signals from unexplored planets? Men and women in uniform. And wonderful stories can happen in such exotic locales.

Ack! Gack! Not MEGAFORCE. Please. SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND was the first movie to make me walk out of a theater. MEGAFORCE was the second.

Captain Kosmos said...
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Walter Knight said...

For new military science fiction consider my 13 book series "America's Galactic Foreign Legion" about a compulsive gambler who joins future America's foreign legion to fight aliens on a distant planet colony.