Do you like military science fiction? I like military science fiction. I grew up reading a lot of historical fiction about wars and soldiers, and in time it melded with my other favorite genre, and so my lifelong fondness for military scifi was born.
But at the same time, there are things that bother me about a lot of what the genre has to offer, especially as a grown up, trained sociologist.
The thing about futuristic militaries is that they’re often used as a plot device, rather than an end in themselves. Which makes a lot of sense: they create built-in obstacles, hierarchies, even plot structures, that writers can take advantage of that to tell their stories.
Where many of these futuristic science fiction stories go wrong, however, is in their representation of the military. You see, the military–any military–is also a system. And I’d enjoy futuristic militaries more if they made internal sense, instead of sometimes feeling like poorly thought-out stereotypes of whatever military culture looks like in the author’s home country.
(This is probably a good time to mention that although I grew up reading fiction in a bunch of languages, today we’ll be talking exclusively about works written in English.)
What is it about futuristic military fiction that doesn’t make sense to you, Marina?, I hear you say. Well, let’s get started.
1. Equality in the bedroom and the bathroom
Many futuristic militaries would like the audience to assume they’re egalitarian systems, gender-wise. That is, everybody can hold the same positions and carry out the same jobs (although this often still somehow results in there being way more men protagonists) and in theory gender identity is not a barrier to enlisting or serving, including non-binary or trans folks. At least nominally, no matter how harsh or violent the futuristic military is, it accepts everyone and treats everyone the same.
One of the most standard shorthands for this, especially in TV and movies such as Battlestar Galactica and Starship Troopers, is the idea that there is only one shower facility and only one dormitory and no gender-based divisions even when soldiers are at their most vulnerable (such as when bathing and sleeping). This system is pretty unheard of in modern militaries as well as pre-modern ones (where usually only men were officially allowed to serve).
Whenever I see a futuristic military portrayed this way, I always get excited by what it implies about the fictional world of the story. The primary official reason we have divisions between men and women (or, really, between men and everyone else) when it comes to bathing and sleep in modern militaries is to avoid sexual harassment and violence between soldiers. So, if those barriers are gone in the future, it must mean the risk of violence is non-existent, or at least protected against in some meaningful way.
This means either the society the military recruits from has managed to get rid of rape culture, misogyny, and transphobia, at the very least, or the military itself has found a way to rid its soldiers of these things, so they could be trusted not to hurt each other even when vulnerable and unsupervised.
Unfortunately, the implicit promise of the worldbuilding usually isn’t kept by the text. It becomes clear pretty quickly that the world in which the story is set is not perfectly egalitarian, and is in fact patriarchal to some degree, like ours (for example, consider that only women, in the civilian world of Battlestar Galactica, wear visible makeup or shoes with heels, even though the military on the show makes no gender-based distinctions regarding living quarters). Which then leaves me wondering, what code has the military cracked to re-educate its soldiers and neutralize the threat of sexual violence? Do they have special seminars? Is it brainwashing? Is everyone implanted with a special chip to make sure they can’t sexually assault someone? Are there strict regulations and cameras in the showers and people to monitor them?
2. Who gets to talk about sex?
Another way this problem is manifested is in who gets to talk about sex. The trope of soldiers being perpetually horny and sexually frustrated is a common one, which leads to a lot of military humor and chit-chat being sex-based. But who gets to talk about their conquests in detail? About their fantasies? About sexualizing their fellow soldiers or superior officers? About what they’d like to do to the sweethearts they left back home?
In a lot of futuristic militaries the answer to all those questions is: men. (Most often straight men.) This dynamic tends to happen even when stories are written by authors who are otherwise committed to and aresuccessful at interrogating toxic masculinity tropes, such as Karin Lowachee’s excellent Warchild series of novels. The first two books in particular feature male protagonists who are either lifelong soldiers or spend most of the book around military personnel. However, while the books do a brilliant job of interrogating the tropes of masculinity in military scifi (for example, protagonists who are survivors of various kinds of sexual violence, or who have anxiety, and who test the boundaries of what counts as a “successful” or “powerful” soldier) they also portray a world where in a military with no distinctions between people of different genders when it comes to living quarters or ability to perform different jobs, only the men really talk about their conquests and fantasies.
But this phenomenon brings out another problem of supposedly egalitarian militaries – either everyone gets to talk about sex-related stuff, or no one does. When you limit the conversation about sexual conquests, fantasies, and desires to men only, the effect is pretty dystopian. This implies a work environment full of sexual innuendo and advances in which only men get to shape the narrative.
I have to assume everyone who isn’t a man has to overcome challenges in order to be part of the military in these science fictional societies. That they’re put at a disadvantage and made vulnerable by this system. Which brings us back to the question: how does this military protect its structurally vulnerable (meaning, unprotected by institutional structures of privilege) soldiers from their peers?
(Since most military SFF deals with militaries in a state of war, not the kind of forces that are recruited and trained just for show, it’s a reasonable assumption that these militaries are actively interested in retaining personnel and limiting incidences of violence between their soldiers.)
3. Soldiers sleep with each other
“Marina, you’ve convinced me,” I hear you saying. “This is all too complicated. I wanted to write an adventure story with guns and uniforms in it! I don’t care about all this other stuff.” Maybe you’ve arrived at the conclusion that it’s better to make your military men- or women-only. You’ll definitely have a rich history to draw on (though of course, like in every historical military, not all of your soldiers will conform to the gender identity for which the military is selecting).
Here’s the thing I’d like futuristic militaries of this kind to remember: historically, some percentage of soldiers have always had sex with each other. In a lot of pre-industrial militaries, especially in societies where the military was central to public life, it was actually assumed sex with a comrade, at some point, was a standard aspect of military life.
So if you’ve decided that the majority of your soldiers are men, for example, you have to assume some of those men are sleeping together at any given time. And then the question becomes: is the military OK with this? Does it encourage it? Does it criminalize it? How are any of those regulations enforced?
For example: Are soldiers encouraged to sleep with each other for unit cohesion, to enhance the bonds and loyalty soldiers feel to their commanders, their peers, their unit? Or is it that your futuristic military is extremely homophobic, to the point where two comrades blowing off steam is considered unacceptable? Is it because the society the military recruits from is homophobic or does the military take special steps to indoctrinate its soldiers to be more homophobic (for example by using same-gender relationships as slurs and examples of bad behavior during training)? And which military authority enforces the rules about sex and relationships anyway?
(A generally accepted rule of any kind of military life is that unless a military has a specific mechanism to enforce a particular rule, that rule might as well not exist.)
Whenever I see a futuristic military primarily made up of men (or any other gender) I have to assume at least 10% of the characters are or have at some point slept with each other. (Historically, those percentages were much higher.) And then I’m left with a sense of dissonance, because the system on the screen, or on the page, doesn’t seem to realize this or account for it at all. It’s extremely rare to find works of military scifi that address the fact that even in a single-gender military quite a few people will be sleeping with each other, and that the military system has to account for that one way or another.
4. But what about the children?
Speaking of sex, here’s another thing that rarely adds up. If we go back to our mixed-gender militaries and assume people who are capable of impregnating someone and people capable of getting pregnant are spending a lot of time together in close quarters, especially if they’re encouraged to be naked and unsupervised together in bathing areas and living quarters, I have to assume some percentage of those people are tempted to have sex.
(As we’ve covered before, assume a percentage of your soldiers are having sex with each other regardless, but if they’re capable of impregnating each other that introduces a specific set of considerations.)
So, what’s the futuristic military’s policy on this? Is it actively interested in preventing people from becoming pregnant? Apathetic to that possibility? Welcoming to it? Are all the soldiers injected with something to make them sterile? (Or just the people with uteruses? In which case, goodbye egalitarianism, see points #1 and #2.) Is there contraception always provided, on bases and in the field? Are there strict rules that govern sexual activity between soldiers, to prevent pregnancy? Who’s in charge of enforcing those rules and what happens to anyone who breaks them? (Is one party or both considered at fault?)
Or maybe your military is fine with babies because it offers generous parental leave, comprehensive childcare and flexible working environments for parents?
Most military science fiction doesn’t address these questions. Take Battlestar Galactica, which takes care to address the issue of relationships between soldiers (especially soldiers in the same chain of command) but doesn’t go into almost any detail when it comes to military policies about pregnancy or children, even when some of its soldier characters have children during the course of the show. Even after the fall of humanity, when all normal military protocols are under strain or no longer relevant, we get the details of where and how soldiers spend their downtime, the politics between officers and NCOs, rivalries between pilots, extra projects the specialists take on, the standards of grooming and discipline that are still enforced, but we know nothing about what the Colonial Fleet’s policies were, before or after the Cylons, about pregnancy and childcare.
The military of Battlestar Galactica is supposedly egalitarian, with all types of soldiers filling all types of roles, and without divisions in bathing and sleeping areas. And yet, the women who have children on the show are never shown to have a systemic, military framework to fall back on when it comes to parental leave or childcare. It’s not that Sharon or Cally would be able to rely on the same system the military had in place before everything exploded, of course, but some traces of that system, some expectations, some details, had to have remained. Just like there are echoes of every other part of a particular military system on the show, even if parts of it have disappeared. Instead, for both women, it seems like they are the first soldiers in history to give birth, and the solutions they have to find for childcare, for being soldiers and mothers simultaneously, are personal and anecdotal.
Examples of stories that show a military like this, where everyone serves together and sleeps together and bathes together and yet pregnancy is not addressed one way or the other are endless in military science fiction. From old classics like Ender’s Game (where the kids in Battle School with Ender were in their mid to late teens by the end of the first book) to newly released books, like Yoon Ha Lee’s excellent Ninefox Gambit.
A silence on the topic of pregnancy when it comes to worldbuilding always implies to me that the internal lives and calculations of soldiers are based on what internal organs they have. I have to assume the camaraderie between people who have a uterus and people who don’t is very different, because one group is vulnerable to getting pregnant as the result of blowing off steam with a coworker, and the other isn’t.
5. Yes, Ma’am.
For my final point I’d like to address the way futuristic militaries tend to handle forms of address between soldiers. Or rather, between superiors and underlings, since that’s when military forms of address carry the most weight.
In English, a lot of modern militaries use “sir” or “ma’am” as a sign of deference. But a lot of creators shy away from these distinctions as, I often assume, yet again an attempt to use a kind of blanket egalitarianism. I often assume this has to do with the story not wanting to concern itself with gender, If we have to assume a soldier has to determine whether someone is a “sir” or a “ma’am” before addressing them, it means putting gender front and center and that doesn’t go well with a military where everyone is supposed to be treated the same. Which is a very solid line of thinking! Unfortunately, the solution creators often choose is to refer to everyone using a single, standard form of address, and having that form of address be “sir”. The aforementioned examples of Battlestar Galactica and Ninefox Gambit do this, but they are by far not the only ones. Perhaps the most recent example of this is Star Trek: Discovery.
Instead of broadcasting equality of treatment, however, it mostly broadcasts “we wish everyone who enlisted was a man, so we’ll just pretend that they are”. (Unless you’re writing a world in which “sir” has a completely different genesis, not tied to patriarchal norms like it is in our world, but that has to be stated explicitly.)
Instead, if you’d like a standard form of address, why not choose “ma’am”? It’s equally modern and recognizable, and won’t imply that you’ve tried to paper over the patriarchy in your worldbuilding. Or why not use an even more neutral word, like “commander”?
In general, from a social standpoint, egalitarianism means more than removing the outward signs of inequality and pretending that makes everyone the same. It requires rethinking every familiar element and redesigning it so it goes from serving the dominant group to serving everyone.
Applying the same logic to futuristic militaries – it would be nice if more creators either put in the work of redesigning our modern militaries to be truly inclusive, or incorporated built-in inequality more believably into their stories. Although of course, some writers are already doing that work. Whether it’s Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice series that describes all of its soldiers using female pronouns, Kameron Hurley who creates single-gender militaries and shows off all their messiness and complications, or Yoon Ha Lee, whose soldiers habitually choose a gender based on their identities rather than their bodies.
The things military SFF is known for – action-adventure, moral philosophy, lessons on the futility of war – will only be enhanced by military systems that feel lived-in, logical, built around the actual soldiers they supposedly comprise.
And they’ll be more fun to read, too.