Women who write military science fiction books

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PFC Janelle Zalkovsky in Irag 2006

PFC Janelle Zalkovsky in Irag 2006

I’m a woman and a U. S. Army veteran. That puts me in a small class of authors who, like Elizabeth Moon and Sandra McDonald, have military experience and also write military science fiction.

I have long loved military science fiction. Even had I not been inclined to play soldier, volunteer for Civil Air Patrol, or long for an ROTC program that did not exist in my high school, I would still have gravitated towards this sub-genre. It distills so much that is heroic and gritty into inherently conflict-oriented stories where ethics and survival factors often play interesting roles. Naturally, I’m a big fan of Gordon Dickson (what a feast the Dorsai! series was when I discovered it as a teen); John Scalzi; David Drake, and others. But it is always wonderous to me to see a woman’s name on a book of military science fiction.

The evidence of our past and present wars notwithstanding, as a culture we don’t usually associate women with the military, or going to war, or being responsible leaders in potential combat environments. Even I, who have this personal experience behind me, always feel a bit of cognitive dissonance, a mental double-take moment, when I learn of a female author who writes military sf. I am doubly interested if I discover that she also has military experience, because then I am curious if and how that experience comes through in her writing.

I can’t help but wonder, with our increased number of women in the military these days, and the higher awareness they have in the public consciousness (think Lorie Piestewa for good reasons; Lynndie England for bad ones), if military science fiction by women, featuring women, is not finally coming into its own. We have our own real-life female heroes and occasional villains in the U.S. military; perhaps a genre resonant with that fact will find a larger marketplace in the book-buying public than in the past.

This marketplace is giving a warm reception to former Navy officer McDonald for her recent book  The Outback Stars.  It is receiving excellent reviews (see Danger Gal[2] and Spacefreighters’ Lounge[3]) for being a compelling love story intertwined with a mystery and military duty aboard ship. The detailed military environment, which lends so much depth to the setting and plot, is  frequently given kudos by reviewers.  Elizabeth Moon has been a force to be reckoned with since her Paksennarion cycle, infused as it was with military sensibilities.  Her more recent Serrano Legacy books which feature protagonist Esmay Suiza, such as Once a Hero, are a gripping exploration of a space-faring military career and adventures against the backdrop of dynastic family and planetary politics, which are of course further enriched by her experience as an officer in the Marine Corps.

(I suspect there are other female science fiction authors who also write in this sub-genre and who are military vets,  but I don’t know their names or works off-hand.  If you, Gentle Reader, know of some others of this sort, please do mention them in the comments. I’d like to know who to add to my reading list.)

I’m eager to read works by these women, but this puts me in a bind at the moment. I must be very careful what I absorb in this sub-genre, or if I even read it at all, when I am engrossed in my own science fiction writing projects.  I don’t want other writers’ stories to color mine, because I have a military science fiction book of my own on the back burner.  Like my other science fiction novels, it is set in the Sa’adani Empire, and centers on the mother of the protagonist of  Splintegrate.  She is a career officer in the Imperial Navy. Why she abandoned her daughter as an infant and what she is doing elsewhere is a story that wants to be told.[1]  However, I need to do explore that story without other authors’ visions vying for head-space in my imagination. This means I have a long list of McDonald’s and Moon’s books to catch up on after I’m done with my Sa’adani navy book.  Once I’ve established the tropes and the tone in that book, then I will be less concerned about the ability of other works to insidiously affect my own.

I know I’m not the only author who compartmentalizes reading in this manner, but I’ve become pretty aware of it since I write in multiple genres. When I write science fiction, for instance, I don’t read anyone else’s science fiction. And when I write fantasies, I can’t read any other fantasies. Instead, I look elsewhere for my reading fix. For instance, while working on Splintegrate, I’ve had a great time reading about the 18t0s and ’60s in London, for a cycle of historicals I am planning to start in a couple years. It’s entertaining, it’s grist for the mill, and it is safely distant from science fiction. And yet…

The fact is, I miss reading military science fiction. I’ve read everything I can get my mitts on on by most authors who write in this field. No wonder I must write more of my own: I’ve exhausted the ready reading supply that’s available publicly. Meanwhile, it’s great to know that new stuff continues to appear in this sub-genre. And you know what? You probably aren’t under the same reading constraints that I am right now. If you haven’t dipped into military science fiction, I encourge you to give it a try. McDonald will satisfy readers who like a tight story that includes a compelling love interest; Moon will appeal to readers who like complex, large-scale concerns along with up-close and personal adventure and memorable characters. Both will satisfy the yenning for high drama aboard space ships.

And that’s just quintessential science fiction in my book.


1. If you want to keep posted on my military science fiction work-in-progress, the working title is Task Force 104 , and I’ll be giving exclusive updates on it now and then in my newsletter, Warped Space. New subscribers get a free short story as a welcome for joining. Check it out.

2.  Danger Gal is aka Lisa Paitz Spindler. She is the proverbial voracious reader who spits out entertaining and insightful reviews with scarey regularity, and is also doing reviews now for SF Signal (a great fan-based review source on the web).  You can catch Lisa’s blog here.

3.  Spacefreighters’ Lounge is hosted by Laurie Green, who has a particular interest in science fiction romance. The site is an eclectic retreat featuring book reviews and various oddments both informational and entertaining to the science fiction afficiando.  It’s a nice place to chill and browse around for a while.


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Thanks for the tip about Grant. I'm not familiar with her work, but definitely need to check her out. Elizabeth Moon also mentioned to me that Tanya Huff writes in this military vein with really great characters. So, another one for the list. I'd like to read 'em both and write another post about their work.

If other folks reading this know of other women writing in the military sf vein (or close to it), please do mention their names here.

As to Reva: yeah. Definitely a Danger Gal kinda gal. And maybe one you want to keep outside the clubhouse, at that.

Let me know whatcha think when you've given MAINLINE a read. 🙂

Thanks for the link and the kudos. I’m glad you’re finding my reviews to be useful and fun.

Author Susan Grant is a vet and, while her books don’t share quite the military tone as McDonald’s book, her experience does obviously inform her writing. Specifically Grant’s flying background has made its way into several of her books.

FYI, I just added MAINLINE to my Amazon Wish List. I’m intrigued by Reva — sounds like she might make a great Danger Gal profile.

I’d recommend Grant’s CONTACT or THE LEGEND OF BANZAI MAGUIRE. In the former the heroine is a commercial airline pilot and in the latter the heroine is a fighter pilot on a future Earth. “Banzai” is her call-sign. Both would be classified as Science Fiction Romance and I think she did a good job of balancing the SF/R elements in these two books.

[…] –Yes, Sir! Right away, Sir! Tor Author Deborah Teramis Christian blogs about military Science Fiction. […]

Thanks for the shout out 🙂 Like you, I am always interested whenever a woman’s name shows up on a book about the military. This includes fiction and non-fiction, sf or other. I think women’s experiences of the military are vastly different than men’s, whether in combat or not, and in my novels I try to approach the military from the social and bureaucratic angles, the sexual tensions, the Catch 22 aspects. My first novel (The Outback Stars) is set up to mimic, in as many ways as I could, life on a carrier during peacetime; the second novel (The Stars Down Under) takes on a more intergalactic aspect, though there’s definitely shipboard service and sacrifice; book three (The Stars Down Under) is set up more as life after the military, and being caught up in machinery of war as a civilian.

Anyway, thanks again, and it’s great meeting another vet and sharing ideas 🙂

Surfing in from Lisa Paitz Spindler’s site…

Very insightful piece. I adored THE OUTBACK STARS and the next two books in the trilogy are on my TBR list. I’m also looking forward to digging into Elizabeth Moon’s work at some point.

Looking foward to your work as well, Deborah–sounds intriguing!

Thanks, Heather.

I’ve seen some of your posts at Tor.com, by the way. You have a fresh take on things. Nice to see you surfing through here.

When I have more content up regarding Splintegrate (after its delivered), I hope you’ll visit and check things out again.

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