Hi, all. This week the Longbox of Darkness is announcing a new type of post that we’ll be featuring every so often on the blog, and it entails our forays into Dark Sci-fi! That’s right; we’ll be incorporating the interstitial space between horror and science fiction into LOD. The horrors of space need to be explored, and we’re the blog to do it.
Now let’s talk military science fiction, a genre that combines the high-stakes horrors of war with the limitless cosmic monstrosities of interstellar space. Whether it’s epic space fleets clashing across enemy territory or lone soldiers grappling with terrifying alien species, military science-fiction books offer a thrilling ride like no other, and is one of my favorite sci-fi sub-genres. I mean, c’mon, we’re talking alien invasions, intergalactic wars, and high-tension scenarios that make the “The Battle of Yavin” look like a minor bloodless scrimmage. Well, except for the Ewoks who clearly ate some of the stormtroopers… but hey, we’ll ignore that for now.
Ok, let’s get into the thick of it. For our first post venturing into Dark Sci-fi, here is our list of the top 25 military science fiction novels of all time. Prime those Pulse Rifles, grunts!
1. “Starship Troopers” by Robert A. Heinlein
First up is a cornerstone of the genre, “Starship Troopers“. Heinlein’s excellent story takes us into a future where Earth’s space fleet battles an alien race of bugs. Its philosophical underpinnings make it a foundational text for military SF enthusiasts, discussing the nature of duty, citizenship, and how to exterminate extraterrestrial arthropods efficiently. And the 1997 movie isn’t half bad either.
2. “The Forever War” by Joe Haldeman
Inspired by Haldeman’s own experiences in the Vietnam War, “The Forever War” deals with the relativistic impacts of space combat. We follow soldiers who age months while Earth ages centuries, creating a poignant look at the human element in a seemingly never-ending war. It’s no wonder it swept the Nebula Awards!
3. “Ender’s Game” by Orson Scott Card
From military training academies for super-smart kids to the ethics of war, “Ender’s Game” has it all. It focuses on young Ender Wiggin, trained from a young age to combat an impending alien invasion. The strategic genius of these pint-sized commanders entrances you!
4. “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi
Who said getting old was a bad thing? In Scalzi’s universe, older people are recruited into the Colonial Defense Force to fight off, you guessed it, more menacing alien species. In “Old Man’s War” Scalzi explores the age-old question with a dash of humor: If you could, would you relive your 20s but in outer space with laser guns? The novel’s main character can’t seem to make up his mind about this question, as he both relishes his unique new bio-engineered body while also losing his comrades in one deadly alien attack after another.
5. “Gridlinked” by Neal Asher
“Gridlinked” is an intense sci-fi action thriller set in the author’s intricate Polity universe. The story follows Earth Central Security agent Ian Cormac, who investigates the destruction of a Runcible on a remote colony. Having been directly “gridlinked” to the Polity A.I. network for too long, Cormac has been slowly losing his humanity. He disconnects from the network and attempts to solve the mystery the old-fashioned way (but with plenty of help from Earth Central A.I., an immortal Japanese Hiroshima survivor, Sparkind space-marines, and military androids in tow). The novel combines elements of military science-fiction and hard sci-fi with a contemporary political plotline. It’s an absolute must-read.
6. “Dune” by Frank Herbert
Okay, okay, I hear you. “Dune” might not be exclusively military sci-fi, but it’s got enough tactics, battles, and mind-bending politics to earn a spot. Plus, it’s “Dune.” Do you need an excuse to re-read it?
7. “Altered Carbon” by Richard K. Morgan
Future tech, war, and existential questions about identity? Yes, please! “Altered Carbon” gets extra points for the term “sleeve,” being creepy and fascinating. War brings a new dimension in a future where consciousness can be transferred between bodies.
8. “The Honor of the Queen” by David Weber
This is the second book in the Honor Harrington series of novels by David Weber. The story follows Captain Honor Harrington, who returns to the Star Kingdom after a long anti-piracy campaign. She is tasked to lead a diplomatic mission to the planet Grayson, a heavily sexist and patriarchal society. The mission is critical as war with Haven looms close, and Grayson would close a flank of advance for a possible Havenite invasion fleet. However, negotiations are soured by sexism in the Graysons, for whom the notion of a woman in uniform is intolerable. The novel is a terrific critical look at patriarchy and women’s rights, and also provides tons of action to go along with the social commentary.
9. “Armor” by John Steakley
Ever wondered what it would be like to be stuck in a nearly unbeatable war suit? In “Armor,” you’ll follow Felix as he battles an alien race of Ants, discovering the psychological toll it takes to be the hero.
10. “A Fire Upon the Deep” by Vernor Vinge
“A Fire Upon the Deep” is an array of high-concept sci-fi and military action. Imagine an alien race like a hive-mind version of the internet, then add a dash of space opera and intergalactic war. Delicious, right?
11. “The Warrior’s Apprentice” by Lois McMaster Bujold
This action-packed novel follows Miles Vorkosigan, who, after failing the physical entrance exams for the Barrayaran Imperial Service Academy, takes possession of a jumpship and becomes the leader of a mercenary force that expands to a fleet of treasonous proportions. And that’s when the story kicks into fifth gear. Ultimately, “The Warrior’s Apprentice” is a fun ride filled with hair-raising moments, compelling characters, and innovative action sequences.
12. “Second Variety” by Philip K. Dick
More a short novella than a novel, “it”Second Variety” is set on a post-apocalyptic Earth, and delves into the doppelganger concept. The enemy is not just out there; they could be us. It’s a mind-bender with typical existential dread. It also happens to be the very first PKD work that I ever read. For that reason, “Second Variety” will always hold a place in my heart.
13. “Star Wars: The Thrawn Trilogy” by Timothy Zahn
We can’t make a list like this without mentioning Star Wars, right? Face it, legions of sci-fi fans would never let us live it down. The movies are legendary, but these three novels set five years after the Fall of the Empire bring their own flair to our understanding of the galaxy far, far away. Is it Space Opera, or Military Science, or both? You decide!
14. “On Basilisk Station” by David Weber
This is the first book in the aforementioned Honor Harrington series. The novel follows Commander Honor Harrington and Her Majesty’s light cruiser Fearless during their assignment to the dreaded Basilisk system. It’s a fantastic introduction to a great character and a unique look at space battle tactics as well as mundane life aboard a starship.
15. “Prador Moon” by Neal Asher
“Prador Moon” is another vivid space opera set in Asher’s popular Polity universe. The novel recounts the first contact between the Polity Collective and the aggressive crab-like Prador aliens, who quickly come to see humans as a delicacy. As the Polity is forced to retool its society to a war footing to deal with the Prador’s sophisticated tech, several worlds and space stations are overrun by the overwhelming brute force of the Prador dreadnaughts. It is up to the Polity AIs and tough-as-nails space hero Jebel Krong to turn the Prador into crab paste.
16. “Terms of Enlistment” by Marko Kloos
In a future Earth bursting at the seams with overpopulation and civil unrest, young Andrew Grayson sees enlistment in the military as his ticket out. The novel delves into his experiences, which range from Earth’s slums to distant, war-torn planets. Kloos, a veteran himself, provides authenticity to the military aspects while keeping the pace brisk and the stakes high.
17. “Use of Weapons” by Iain M. Banks
Culture series fans, unite! This book has enough twists to make a wormhole jealous. Its nonlinear storytelling perfectly complements its hard-hitting questions about ethics in war and provides a chilling vision of the future that shouldn’t be ignored.
18. “The Ghost Brigades” by John Scalzi
This is the second book in the Old Man’s War series. In this sequel The Colonial Defense Forces (CDF) discover that one of their top consciousness transfer scientists, Charles Boutin, has turned traitor. The CDF’s Special Forces, nicknamed “The Ghost Brigades,” are sent in to deakl with the situation, but unfortunately the stakes are higher than anyone believes. As good as the first in the series, this novel explores the difficult choices required to stop an apocalyptic alliance between alien species that could spell doom for the human race.
19. “Footfall” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Alien invasion time! These aren’t your elegant, hyper-advanced extraterrestrials; they resemble baby elephants and are just as destructive. All of human civilization must band together to deal with these stampeding space jumbos. This mad premise certainly makes “Footfall” one of the most innovative sci-fi novels ever.
20. “The Sten Chronicles” by Larry Niven
“The Sten Chronicles” is a series of eight military science fiction novels by Chris Bunch and Allan Cole. The series follows Karl Sten, a young man born and raised on the dangerous factory world of Vulcan. Saved from life as an outlaw by the head of Imperial Intelligence, Ian Mahoney, Sten is enlisted in the military. Thrust into a world of espionage, covert military actions, and galactic politics, Sten rises swiftly in rank until he becomes a troubleshooter and friend to the Emperor himself. The series is set three thousand years in the future in a vast empire ruled by the Eternal Emperor. It is really best read as a whole, and that’s why I included it as a single entry on this list.
21. “The Light Brigade” by Kameron Hurley
Soldiers turned into light and transmitted into battle? Yep, it’s as cool as it sounds. The story follows Dietz, a fresh recruit in the infantry, who begins to experience combat drops to Mars that don’t sync up with the platoon’s. Dietz’s bad drops tell a story of the war that’s not at all what the corporate brass want the soldiers to think is going on. “The Light Brigade” explores themes of war, corporate greed, and the nature of time. It also offers a twisty, thought-provoking journey through a future war where nothing is what it seems. You’ll question reality along with the characters.
22. “The Lost Fleet: Dauntless” by Jack Campbell
Imagine waking up from a century-long hibernation to find you’re a hero of legend, and your once-powerful space fleet is now on the brink of extinction. That’s the predicament Captain John “Black Jack” Geary finds himself in. “Dauntless” is a riveting mix of space battles and complex battle strategies that’ll make you salivate for more.
23. “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
Another titan in the genre, “The Mote in God’s Eye,” while not pure military sci-fi, presents us with humanity’s first contact with an alien species and builds towards a terrifying stand-off. And guess what? It’s through a military expedition. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill, aliens-versus-humans confrontation. It’s a complex story involving different aspects of military diplomacy, strategy, and even quarantine measures, which feels eerily prescient. The human military personnel are not just there as muscle; they are diplomats, scientists, and investigators trying to understand a wholly new civilization. This book takes the ‘first contact’ premise and wraps it in layers of military strategy, making it a rich, multifaceted narrative that should be on every military sci-fi aficionado’s reading list.
24. “Hammer’s Slammers” by David Drake
Want accurate, gritty, ground-level military action with your science fiction? This one’s for you. Drake, a Vietnam vet, brings a raw, unfiltered view of combat to the far future. Though more of a collection of short stories, all feature the crew of the ‘Hammer’s Slammers‘ tank regiment, and each tale packs a nuclear-powered punch.
25. “Starfist: First to Fight” by David Sherman and Dan Cragg
This first entry in a stellar book series of sci-fi novels kicks off with a bang, as the 34th FIST gets called into action when a peaceful world turns hostile. It’s boots on the ground in a different galaxy, and fans of hard-hitting sci-fi action owe it to themselves to sample these great books.
So, did you enjoy that cosmic jaunt, dear readers? I think it’s safe to say that these 25 novels have set the standard for military science fiction, as it covers everything from alien invasions to intergalactic wars. Whether you’re a fan of the old guard like Robert A. Heinlein and Joe Haldeman or the newer wave with authors like John Scalzi, there’s something in this list for every stripe of sci-fi fan.
Lists like this are as much about sparking debate as they provide recommendations. So, now it’s your turn. Which of these novels have you already explored? Are there other gems in the vast interstellar void of military SF that you think deserve a shoutout? The comment section below is your battleground—the most convincing argument may win!
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We all know that in space, no one can hear you scream, but I’m still going to wish you sweet screams, fear fans, until next time.
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