Did you know that the United States Marine Corps has a recommended reading list? It’s true, and while the core list is relatively short, the broader list of additional recommendations is long and quite varied. Most of the list is made up of nonfiction: biographies, strategic guides, books on military theory, philosophy. However, among all the thick analyses and meticulously researched histories, there are two science-fiction novels, most easily found when the list is broken down into recommended books by military rank.
The fact that there are only two, out of the many different novels that make up the sub-genre of military science fiction and which are often written by veterans, should tell you that these books are highly regarded. The first novel is, unsurprisingly, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein. Heinlein was a Naval Academy graduate and an active fleet officer, until tuberculosis cashiered him from the Navy and opened the way for a legendary literary career. Military philosophy and culture featured in many of his novels, so if any science-fiction author would make the USMC recommended reading list, you’d expect it to be him.
It’s the second novel, and its author, that I want to discuss in a little more detail. Its presence on the USMC list has amused me from the time I learned of it, because on the surface, it seems so incongruous, not because of the novel’s subject matter, but in many ways, because the author is one of the last guys you might think of as belonging on the list. The second novel on the USMC reading list is Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Card has never served in the military, and has a background that has no whiff of the military about it: missionary work, long-term involvement in theater, many years spent in teaching creative writing. At this point, I should make note that I am not trying to cast aspersions or make light of either man’s experiences; I just want to point out their differences. Yet, despite lacking the direct experience and understanding of military life and thought that Heinlein had, Card managed to write a thoughtful novel that examines many of the same qualities of military life and its attendant virtues and flaws.
This establishing of authority is a vital aspect of what makes the novel work, and it’s probably one of the qualities that I not only admire in Card’s novel, but that bring me back to the book again and again. I have read all the original Ender books at least twice, but I’ve probably read the first one more times than the rest combined, and even after learning of Card’s background, I never find myself going, “What a load of hooey.” To be fair, I myself have no military experience, so a veteran may have an entirely different opinion. What I do know is that I’ve read a number of books taking place in and around the military, written by civilians and military personnel alike, and Card’s feels right. It’s not in the broad strokes (which would be tough, since most of the book takes place on a big space station) but in the details of life in a regimented, disciplined environment that Card establishes his authority, his writerly eye as being valid and trustworthy for the purposes of the story.
If done correctly, establishing this authority is done invisibly. You never notice, because the author has played his or her cards right in giving the reader a consistent, believable, rational universe and allowing the characters to live and interact as they would if the universe were real. It’s more than just consistency, though. The authority comes from reporting the environment and events honestly, patiently filling in the quirks and details of a world just as plausible on its own terms as ours. Some authors are very good at this; James Tiptree, Jr., for example, wrote solidly for a decade before it came out that Tiptree’s real name was Alice Sheldon. While Tiptree’s feminist sympathies had been noted, general consensus (based on Tiptree’s subject matter and writing voice) held that Tiptree was a guy, to the point that Robert Silverberg once wrote an introduction to a book presenting arguments that Tiptree had to be male. Oops.
Once authority is established, the reader may pay you the compliment of assuming you directly experienced certain aspects of your fiction. I was fortunate enough to experience this myself once with a story I wrote about an anti-war march gone very bad. Most of the people who read the story assumed I had experience with a similar event, including the person who eventually published it, and I was delighted to inform them that the concurrent major historical event referenced in the story happened several years before I was born. That sense of success, of nailing a particular era or culture I had no experience with…it was a remarkable feeling, and it’s one I would hope every writer gets to experience at least once.