So much of science fiction's core topics intersect with war, one way or the other. Rapid social change and technological innovation both get supercharged during wartime, and some of our greatest explorers are also warriors. So it's not surprising that many of science fiction's most well-known authors served in the military at some point — especially during the era when we had a compulsory draft.
But how did serving in the military shape these writers' books? Here's a look at 15 of the authors who served in the armed forces, and how their work reflects that experience.
Top image: The Forever War, art by Steve Simmons
Did we miss your favorite author who served in the military? Please pitch in with your own suggestions, especially including details about how the experience shaped your favorite author's work!
Tolkien was a survivor of the trenches of World War I, who wrote that "a real taste for fairy-stories was wakened by philology on the threshold of manhood, and quickened to full life by war." As Jeet Heer writes:
Because they inherited this old-fashioned literature of chivalry, the writers who fought in the First World War had a great difficulty in finding an appropriate language to describe their experiences. They had been taught to write about war with words like vanquish, gallant, plucky, manly and ardent. Yet such words seemed unbearably false when compared to the reality of mass slaughter. How could you speak of chivalry in a world where both sides used poison gas? It was the special achievement of Tolkien to take the older language of medieval romance and revitalized it for a modern world. Rather than celebrate the gallant knights of old, Tolkien imagined a quieter type of heroism very distinct from the glory-lust of traditional military culture.
Heer also points out that Tolkien's mostly all-male world reflects the male cameraderie he experienced in wartime, and his love for the peaceful Hobbits reflects his experience of the horrors of war — which he still considered necessary, in some circumstances. See more about Tolkien's war experiences here.
Clarke served the Royal Air Force during World War II — and instead of the Church of England on his dog tags, he wanted them to say "Pantheist." During that time, according to Neil McAleer's authorized biography, Clarke was billeted in London right after the last big air raid, and witnessed the massive, widespread destruction. And he was the officer in charge of the Ground Controlled Approach, the first "radar talk-down" system designed to guide airplanes down to the ground in stormy weather using radar images, in its first trials. His only non-science fiction novel, Glide Path, was based on these experiences. Here's "Superiority," Clarke's fascinating tale of a technologically advanced force that's defeated because of their enemy's massively inferior equipment.
He received the Bronze Star for his service during the Battle of the Bulge, where he was part of a heavy machine crew. That was when he received the injury that weakened his heart, causing him to die of a heart attack at age 35 after shoveling snow and running to catch a train. Kornbluth's friend and collaborator, Frederik Pohl, also served in World War II, along with Hal Clement. Kornbluth's work has an amazingly sardonic, wry tone — and here's the sarcastic archivist talking about the endless churn of war, in "The Only Thing We Learn":
You see, commander, there is always somewhere a wealthy, powerful city, or nation, or world. In it are those whose blood is not right for a wealthy, powerful place. They must seek danger and overcome it. So they go out-on the marshes, in the desert, on the tundra, the planets, or the stars. Being strong, they grow stronger by fighting the tundra, the planets, or the stars. They-they change. They sing new songs. They know new heroes. And then, one day, they return to their old home.
They return to the wealthy, powerful city, or nation or world. They fight its guardians as they fought the tundra, the planets, or the stars-a way that strikes terror to the heart. Then they sack the city, nation, or world and sing great, ringing sagas of their deeds. They always have. Doubtless they always will.
Paul Linebarger (who wrote under the name Cordwainer Smith) was an expert in propaganda and psychological warfare, who spent a big chunk of World War II in China waging psychological war. After that, he wrote the classic text on the subject, aptly called Psychological Warfare. Writes Conceptual Fiction:
In his book, Linebarger suggested that a country's superiority versus hostile parties could be based on an ability to "out-trick them, out-talk them, and out-maneuver them." Can we be surprised, then, that Smith's scifi work espouses a similar belief that the most significant battlefront is often one drawn inside our psyches?
Linebarger's fiction, including his Instrumentality novels, frequently deals with the question of what it means to be human, and to be an individual, and who/what we consider "people."
Heinlein served in the Navy in the 1930s, and wrote the classic military SF novel Starship Troopers, which makes you feel as though you're there watching Juan Rico's progress up close. As Jo Walton writes at Tor.com:
The book begins with a battle sequence in which troopers are bouncing around the landscape exploding atomics and destroying everything in sight, and with the sergeant, Jelly, not taking the place of the dead lieutenant even though he's doing his job. Then it backs up to go through Juan's recruitment, boot-camp, and early war-experiences and acquaintance with these people, with frequent flashbacks to History and Moral Philosophy highschool classes. Then when it's caught up to the beginning, it goes on to do Juan's officer training.
And Troopers is full of those famous Heinlein aphorisms as they relate to war, including: "Violence, naked force, has settled more issues in history than has any other factor." And: "War is not violence and killing, pure and simple; war is controlled violence, for a purpose. The purpose of war is to support your government's decisions by force. The purpose is never to kill the enemy just to be killing him . . . but to make him do what you want him to do."
Vonnegut used his experiences as a prisoner of war in Dresden in World War II as the basis for his novel Slaughterhouse-Five. And he said in a 2002 interview with Fox News, "One of the great American tragedies is to have participated in a just war. It's been possible for politicians and movie-makers to encourage us we're always good guys. The Second World War absolutely had to be fought. I wouldn't have missed it for the world. But we never talk about the people we kill. This is never spoken of." As Vonnegut said in a speech:
The firebombing of Dresden was an emotional event without a trace of military importance... I will say again what I have often said in print and in speeches, that not one Allied soldier was able to advance as much as an inch because of the firebombing of Dresden. Not one prisoner of the Nazis got out of prison a microsecond earlier. Only one person on earth clearly benefited, and I am that person. I got about five dollars for each corpse, not counting my fee tonight.
Dahl was a fighter pilot in World War II, and in his book Going Solo he describes taking part in some insane dogfights over Libya, Greece and Syria — as many as five or six sorties per day — until he got shot down in the Libyan desert, which eventually caused him to have terrible headaches and even blacking out while flying his plane. And the Tales of the Unexpected writer may have worked as a spy as well, seducing a swathe of women in his "rake's progress" One of Dahl's first published works was a piece for the Saturday Evening Post called "Shot Down Over Libya," which became a popular article and helped encourage him to try his hand at writing.
A veteran of the Korean war, Pournelle made waves with The Mercenary, a novel about soldiers for hire who wind up fighting for honor. Writes Pournelle:
We can piously hope that there will be no armies in the future. It is an unlikely hope; at least history is against it. On the evidence, peace is a purely theoretical state of affairs whose existence we deduce because there have been intervals between wars.
His military science fiction in such books as Prince of Mercenaries and Prince of Sparta has been praised for its accurate depiction of military tactics and the realities of combat.
Like Pournelle, Wolfe fought in the Korean War, and war plays a major role in his work, including Severian's commonwealth's war against the Ascians. Asked in one interview how his wartime experiences influenced his work, Wolfe responded:
My whole life experience feeds into my writing. I think that must be true for every writer. Clearly the Army and combat were major influences; just the same, you need to understand that many of the writers we have now couldn't load a revolver. I've crossed the Atlantic and the Pacific on ships. I've crewed on a sailboat. I've ridden a lot of horses and one camel — his name was Tank, and we loped across the Australian desert. I've flown in a light plane and a helicopter. (As a passenger. I'm not a pilot.)
And his recent novel Home Fires, is about a woman who returns from war a changed person, whose husband barely knows her any more. As Strange Horizons explains:
Chelle leaves Earth a confident young woman but returns from war shattered and uncertain. She is still beautiful, but now she suffers from constant anxiety about her body, which has been rebuilt after suffering grievous injuries. Even worse, she occasionally adopts the personality, memories, and identity of a different woman, leaving her to conclude that the war has destroyed her sanity.
Haldeman was the most famous of the Vietnam war veterans who broke the longstanding unofficial taboo on writing about your own military experiences in science fiction, with the justly famous Forever War. It's the story of William Mandella, who gets drafted to fight in our war against the Taurans. And as we wrote a few years ago:
The Forever War highlights the sense of alienation that goes with being a soldier by separating Mandella, piece by piece, from everything he cares about... at least in real life, one can still assume some common ground between a war veteran and the civilians back home. In The Forever War, so much time passes that even the most fundamental of shared experiences is taken away from Mandella.
And Haldeman is a master of depicting how messy and unpleasant war is — as his MIT bio explains: "His writing is blunt, earthy, and anti-heroic. His battle sequences are as technically detailed and vivid as any in science fiction. But, his war is anything but a glorious adventure. Haldeman depicts war as the pathetic slaughter of an enemy incapable of defending itself. More of his characters die in accidents training for battle (or of shock when they must confront the horror of their own actions) than in their initial military action against the Taurans. Much of their time is spent waiting and only a fraction is spent ducking and covering, trying to stay alive in the face of enemy attack."
Like Haldeman, Drake wrote with stark honesty about his experiences in the Vietnam War — we talked to him about it back in February 2008. As Drake has written, a lot of people were not ready for his more honest take on what it's like to be in combat:
What was the problem with [selling] the military SF? I think it was the fact the Vietnam War was still going on....The outlets that did pub- lish military SF couldn't use my brand of it, stories which indicated very graphically that war was a messy and utterly futile business.
Elsewhere, Drake recalls being described as "a pornographer of violence" because "I was trying to describe war as I'd seen it from the loader's hatch of a tank in Cambodia." Prior to writers like Drake, Pournelle and Haldeman, SF writers who had served in combat shied away from writing military SF, while most military SF authors had not seen much action. Tim Blackmore narrates one especially significant exchange in Drake's Hammer's Slammers:
A civilian leader hysterically attacks Hammer, "Curse it, man!...haven't you taken a look around you recently? Lives are cheap, Colonel, lives are very cheap! You've got to have loyalty to something more than just men," to which the Colonel responds, "'No,'...with quiet certainty".
Scarborough wrote her Nebula Award-winning novel The Healer's War loosely based on her experiences as a combat nurse in Vietnam. As Nicholas Whyte writes:
The Healer's War is a somewhat autobiographical account of the Vietnam war as seen by an American military nurse, with precisely one sfnal element: a magic amulet, with slightly healing powers, which gives the narrator the power of empathy with the Vietnamese of all sides and of none (and indeed with her fellow Americans as well). ... The Healer's War concentrates on the non-soldiers involved in war, and indeed its military characters tend to be pretty unpleasant, whether Americans or Vietnamese of either side. But I felt that none of them slipped into caricature; the narrator's commitment to empathy helped to avoid that trap. It was a gripping and moving read.
Moon served in the U.S. Marines, and her Vatta's War series deals with a woman struggling with the killer instincts she gained as part of her military training. In an interview, Moon talked about how her Marine experiences shaped her writing:
Most of my books draw on that experience, and undoubtedly I'd have used military settings (for either fantasy or science fiction) a lot less without it. So in that sense, yes - as part of a continuing interest in the interaction between character and overt, violent conflict. But the specific inspiration for that group of books went beyond my personal military experience. In the Serrano/Suiza books I'd written about families with a tradition (military in the case of those two, and civilian public service in the case of other main characters.) In military families, children learn the rules of their parents' service by osmosis…which can make the choice of career inevitable whether or not the child is suited to it, and whether or not that family's version of the cultural ethos suits the new war. In political families, much the same.
What about characters who are not bolstered by such traditions? How do they discover their talent for the military? What pressures shift them that way? How is their experience different from those whose family expectations reinforce a military career? How do the family reactions to having a family member join the military affect that person's commitment to service and performance? Are the mistakes they make any different from the mistakes made by those from a traditional military family? Are their applicable talents more or less likely to be recognized and used? I drew heavily on Dave Grossman's book On Killing, which examined the effect of killing on military personnel through interviews with veterans of several wars for Ky's struggle with her own nature and her gradual understanding of Aunt Grace. For the family-related issues, I drew on memoirs by veterans from both military and nonmilitary families.
The author or co-author of Posleen's War, The Hero, A Hymn Before Battle, Von Neumann's War and the Looking Glass series is a U.S. Army veteran. Asked about his military experiences and how they shaped his writing in this interview, Ringo responds:
The US military is not competent. It is simply less incompetent than any other on earth and possibly any other in history. Every military organization, from the inside, appears to be chaos. That is, in a way, a good thing. War and any other ‘emergency' is chaos. The US military's ability to float upon chaos can thus be seen as a strength, not a weakness. For personal stories, Gods. Which? I was in the airborne. You don't get much more chaotic than jumping out of airplanes, at night, the whole operation actually managed by a bunch of people who barely passed high school.
McDonald served in the U.S. Navy, and she told one interviewer:
While I was serving in the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer, many of my friends were Star Trek fans. And many were officers in the Supply Corps. And some were both! When I sat down to write my tales of adventure in deep space, I knew I wanted military characters — but I wanted the men and women who did the behind-the-scene jobs that no one ever noticed until things went wrong. I wanted to tell the story of people doing the tedious, unrecognized work that keeps the military going day to day.