I just had the opportunity to read Old Man’s War by John Scalzi, The Forever War by Joe Haldeman, and Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein all in fairly quick succession. I’d recommend the same to any aspiring SF writer, and not just because they’re all good books in their own right. The three books are a triptych that illustrates how broadly a single subject can be approached, and shows how an author’s politics (or more broadly, an author’s beliefs about how the universe works) inform a narrative.
This trio, when viewed from a distance, show a very similar story. A future cadet from planet earth joins a unified human military force as an infantryman. The military is embroiled in an interstellar war against alien forces and uses its starship-based high-tech infantry in a role roughly equivalent to armored cavalry units. The cadet starts in basic training/boot camp and sees fellow cadets screw up (sometimes fatally) but manages to squeak by training, entering the infantry as a private. The new private sees action, more people die in action, and he sees at least one major battle screwed up royally. He rises into the officer ranks and sees his last action (in the book at least) in a battle that ends as a qualified success (at least the important characters survived.)
Of course, at ground level where the narrative meets the road, you’d be hard pressed to find three more divergent treatments of the same subject. Some examples that more than likely grow out of each author’s point of view:
- In ST, the government and the military are both benign and competent, whereas in FW they are neither. In OMW the government and military are competent but morally ambiguous and often out-gunned.
- In ST, military service is a respected duty performed by willing volunteers, in FW it is a burden imposed on draftees, in OMW it is a crapshoot taken by people who really don’t have any idea what they’re volunteering for.
- In ST, basic training is relevant to the soldier’s tasks and justified at length, in FW the training is pretty damn pointless, in OMW the training has a justifiable point, but an actively hostile universe is still handing you your ass.