The only more thrilling than a well-told story of tactics, weapons, and heroic soldiers is a well-told story of tactics, weapons, heroic soldiers, and space aliens. The best military science-fiction is just that—a combination of pulse-pounding war story adventure and widescreen intergalactic scope—and can often be a gateway for non-SF fans to get into the genre. Whether you’re a longtime fan or a new recruit, here are eight series that won’t steer you wrong.
Starship Troopers, by Robert Heinlein
No list of military SF is complete without Starship Troopers. As controversial today as it was in 1959, Heinlein’s tale of a 22nd century war with alien “bugs” is both a thrilling read, packed with detailed and exciting battle sequences, and a philosophically charged rumination on society, government, and personal responsibility. Though some consider it to have fascist overtones, this novel originated many of the staples of modern military SF, not the least of which are the powered, armor-plated exoskeletons that popped up earlier this year in the film Edge of Tomorrow.
The Lost Fleet Series, by Jack Campbell
Campbell’s popular series threads together ancient legends of kings returning to save their kingdom, ancestor worship, and a study of degenerating cultures and command structures into an utterly believable story of a future space naval officer who is recovered from suspended animation a century after a heroic “last stand” transformed him into a legendary figure. Subtle, complex, and rich with exciting battle sequences, these books do what military SF does best: thrill you while making you think.
Valor Confederation, by Tanya Huff
Tanya Huff has crafted a military SF series that concentrates on character interaction and development. Staff Sergeant (later Gunnery Sergeant) Torin Kerr and a motley crew of space marines aren’t embroiled in a single vicious war, but rather are sent on a variety of missions that risk their lives and limbs. Kerr is a fantastic character, and her steady voice and presence turn a bloody and violent universe into an incredibly entertaining place to visit.
The Vorkosigan Saga, by Lois McMaster Bujold
For military SF brimming with adventure, big ideas, black humor, and complicated plots, the Vorkosigan Saga is the way to go. Bujold has won three Hugo awards and a slew of nominations for this lengthy collection of novels and stories set in a common universe, but with occasional shifts in timeframe and point-of-view. This is the sort of series that will keep even the most voracious reader busy for a long time, and as a bonus, many of the earlier books are available in omnibus editions.
The Liaden Universe, by Sharon Lee & Steve Miller
One of the most complex and idea-packed settings is sci-fi, the Liaden Universe series spans thousands of years and hundreds of characters, with a timeline that would be complex on its face, but which becomes almost mind-boggling when you consider the fact that it encompasses multiple universes. The expanded scope allows these books to tread beyond the typical constraints of military SF, but the core of every story remains true to the breathless excitement, clever tactical plotting, and complex political maneuvering that make the genre what it is.
Old Man’s War, by John Scalzi
If you’ve never heard of outspoken sci-fi author John Scalzi, this may be your first visit to the Internet—he’s as well known for his commentary on the genre as for his wonderful books. His Hugo-nominated Old Man’s War takes a brilliant twist on the military SF theme: in an endless war for livable planets, the Colonial Defense Force doesn’t want strong, young, inexperienced kids. It wants old, experienced adults—you can only join the CDF after you’ve retired. From this one brilliant subversion of the expected, Scalzi has crafted a universe that has sustained five novels to date, with a sixth expected in 2015.
Fire With Fire, by Charles E. Gannon
Intelligence and spycraft are just as much a part of war as guns and tanks. Gannon’s engaging new series follows intelligence analyst Caine Riordan as he stumbles across a conspiracy involving an alien alliance, and spends twelve years in a “cryocell” for his troubles. Upon awakening, he finds humanity has taken a giant leap forward and is colonizing planets. Dragooned into service, he is sent to investigate a newly settled world—and what he discovers prompts him to urge his superiors to gear up and get ready to fight. No one who loves a good battle scene or a smart story will be disappointed is this Nebula Award-nominated novel or its recent sequel, Trial By Fire.
Honor Harrington, David Weber
If you’re going to write vessel-based military SF, you might as well model it on the best: Weber’s long-running Honor Harrington series is a space-based pastiche on the classic Napoleonic War stories of Horatio Hornblower. Weber does his inspiration proud, both in the character of Honor Harrington, and the plotting, which takes her from early failures through subsequent heroic triumphs. Harrington’s genius at tactical analysis and action allows the author to craft scene after scene of excruciating tension, resolved in stalwart fashion by a character you’ll come to know and love. This series is particularly ideal for fans of military history or adventure who have yet to dip into science-fiction.