Science fiction has a long relationship with books about war, with some novels glorifying its heroics and other lamenting its futility. With that in mind, we’ve put together a list of our top ten military science fiction novels, with some that do the former and some the latter.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The defining book of the military science fiction genre. The Forever War takes the author’s experiences of Vietnam and examines them through the prism of an interstellar war.
Like many great anti-war works, it is more about the bits in between the battles than the battles themselves. While some of the attitudes in the novel have dated, The Forever War is still rightly considered a classic science fiction novel. You can read or full review and analysis of The Forever War here.
It’s also on our list of top ten hard science fiction books due to its emphasis on time dilation.
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
The Leviathan Wakes is a military fiction intertwined with a noir detective tale and a political drama. Because of this, the novel is a genuine page turner as well as being a cool work of science fiction.
The plot is intricate and the characters compelling. This multilayered novel has now been made into an excellent TV show that we’d recommend to anyone.
Old Man’s War by John Scalzi
A military science fiction novel with a twist. The super tough space army in this book is made up of geriatrics. Geriatrics who have been given new super-advanced bodies, but geriatrics none-the-less.
This dad’s army is then sent out to fight some of the more vicious aliens in science fiction. Although the novel is clearly inspired by The Forever War and Starship Troopers, it is more than a simple homage to these two classic science fiction novels.
Scalzi’s humour and deft characterisation elevates what could have been a basic alien shoot-em-up into a more nuanced and intelligent novel.
Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
A satire and a scream of rage. Slaughterhouse-Five was written in response to Vonnegut’s experience of the bombing of Dresden by British forces in World War 2.
By turns surreal and heartbreaking. Slaughterhouse-Five covers the tragedy, futility and inevitability of war. The novel moves between the grit and reality of the Great War to alien zoos and humans unstuck in time.
The novel follows Second World War veteran Billy Pilgrim as he becomes unstuck in time and is periodically abducted by the alien Tralfamadorians. A species that sees all of time at once. Through this we get a glimpse of the devastation the war wrought on Billy Pilgrim.
There is no real plot in Slaughterhouse-Five, and very little characterisation. What there is, is a lot of genius.
The Mote in God’s Eye by Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven
It’s the the thirtieth century and the human race has spread out across the stars, powered by faster-than-light Alderson Drive. Deep in space the first evidence of another intelligent space is found. A probe journeys into human space, the corpse of an alien interred within, leading to an expedition being dispatched to its origin.
Robert A. Heinlein, who advised on the novel, described it as, “possibly the finest science fiction novel I have ever read” and ” “a very important novel, possibly the best contact-with-aliens story ever written”.
The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells
The grandfather of interstellar war fiction.
Although the novel is perhaps considered somewhat cliche at this point in time, it actually contains commentaries on themes ranging from imperialism to evolutionary theory.
It was also an extremely prescient novel, predicting the concept of total war that would blight the first half of the twenty-first century. An idea that was not taken seriously on the novels release.
The novel relates the invasion of Earth in a rather bored factual manner, which can give it a slightly dated feel. Yet, if you can look past that, it is still an exciting and interesting read.
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card
Humanity is locked in an interstellar war with a mysterious race of aliens called the Formics or, more colloquially, Buggers. To win this war they are training up the world’s brightest children in an intense battle school.
Much of the novel focuses on the titular Ender’s time in the school, where he is put through a gruelling, cruel and unusual training regime by his teachers. Like many other great military science fiction novels, the novel is more concerned with the training for war rather than the war itself.
This is a common theme in military science fiction because it shows how people need to have their souls and minds twisted to be ready for war. That it is a prepubescent boy that is being moulded into a killer makes it even more powerful.
A key aspect of Ender’s Game is the role of understanding and empathy in war. Sadly this message has been somewhat overshadowed by Scott Card’s one problematic politics, but you shouldn’t let that detract from what is an excellent novel.
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein
Bug like aliens are also the enemy in one of the most controversial Hugo Award winning novels.
Johnie Rico is a simple infantryman in high-powered suit desperately trying to survive the onslaught of the bugs. Through Rico’s coming of age story Heinlein glorifies the ‘poor bloody infantry’ and the heroes in it.
Starship Troopers is unabashedly in favour of the role of militarism. This is quite a rare viewpoint in classic science-fiction novels, and that alone almost makes Starship Troopers a must read.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein’s second entry on this list details a moon colony’s rebellion against its rulers from Earth.
The novel is famous for it’s detailed depiction of a futuristic lunar colony and its expression of Heinlein’s ideas on Libertarianism.
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress was met with critical acclaim when it was first released, and won both the the Hugo and Nebula awards.
Dune By Frank Herbert
Considered by some to be greatest science fiction novel ever written, Dune details a future where humanity is spread across the stars but whose society has apparently devolved into an extremely ruthless feudal system. With great houses squabbling over resources and power, and their squabbles leading to war and death.
Dune is set largely on the planet Arrakis, as it follows Paul Atreides’ Messiah like rise to power. Through his journery the reader is asked to consider themes like predestination, corruption, religion, politics and war. It also introduced Sand Worms to the the world. Which, by itself, is reason enough to read Dune.
These are our top ten Military Science fiction novels. Each awesome in their own unique ways. If you’re still looking for a sci-fi novel, why not take a look at our top ten cyberpunk and top ten hard sci-fi novel lists.
Or, why not take a look at our ultimate science fiction reading list.