Military science fiction has been a mainstay of the genre for decades. Grafting the tropes of military service—training, camaraderie, combat—offers endless opportunities for invention. Zachary Brown’s The Darkside War, released last month from Saga Press, falls squarely into the classic confines of the category: it’s a lightning-fast adventure, filled with aliens, conquests, and all the technology you could ask for.
This “first” novel from Brown (a pseudonym for a World Fantasy and Nebula award-nominated author) follows Devlin Hart, a young activist whose parents were major figures in a resistance movement on a future Earth living under the boot-heel of alien overlords. When Devlin was a child, the planet was invaded by an extraterrestrial force called the Accordance. Beyond being your typical alien invaders, the Accordance has bigger problems: they’re locked into a war with another alien government, the Conglomeration. Humanity has been conquered, but they are forced to fight for their oppressors when the Conglomeration begins its own invasion of our solar system. Devlin and his fellow conscripts are sent to the moon, where he’s trained and tested for the coming battle.
The training novel is military sci-fi in its purest form. These books start with main characters who are green recruits, introduce them to their respective chains of command, the nifty weapons they’ll be using, the power armor they’ll be strapping themselves into, and the techniques they’ll need to master if they want to survive against deadly, inhuman foes. This structure provides excellent mechanisms for the author to outline not only how the characters fit into their worlds, but what motivates them, and what’s at stake.
Usually, it’s the threat of annihilation at the hands of an alien invader—outstanding examples include Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein, Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, and The Forever War by Joe Haldeman. Each of them spends a significant chunk of its page count (or in the case of Ender’s Game, most of the novel) detailing the lead character’s indoctrination and training.
The Darkside War certainly qualifies, but also gives the tropes a few twists. Devlin actively resists the idea of working for the alien race which invaded his home, but is forced into action when Earth is threatened once again. His motivations are a bit more complicated than most other books, and it makes for an unexpectedly interesting read.
It also sets the stage for a larger conflict, which will unfold in the sequel, Titan’s Fall, out in November.
Military SF tends to mirror contemporary political concerns: “invasion” novels written during the Victorian era (think The Battle of Dorking and War of the Worlds) mirrored fears of foreign invasion. Starship Troopers is riddled with fallout from Cold War tensions, and The Forever War echoed Haldeman’s own experiences in warfare and the difficult reintegration into civilian life that plagued many Vietnam veterans. In the modern era of near-constant global warfare, The Darkside War questions the pressures needed to send a reluctant soldier into battle, and what lengths they’ll go to to resist.