[Worldcon] Military SF – Reality vs. Writing 1

Friday (August 31) at 1500: Military SF – Reality vs. Writing
Panelists listed in program: Mike Shepherd Moscoe, John G. Hemry/Jack Campbell, Elizabeth Moon, Jim Fiscus; in Atlanta at Dragon*Con: Kacey Ezell, Louis Hibben, Mark Malcolm, Michael Z. Williamson

Disclaimer: These are my notes from the panel and my own, later thoughts. I often was unable to attend the entire panel, and also chronically missed panelist introductions. When possible I try to note who said something, but often was unable to. Also, unless something is in double quotes it should be considered a summary and not a direct quotation. 

This panel took place half in Chicago and half in Atlanta. Yay videoconferencing. Weird echo, though.

“In war everything is simple, and everything simple is hard.”
Most of the time everything works out too easily, equipment never breaks down, etc. There should be a lot of difficulties that much be conquered.

Hazing – the Mickey Mouse and the shit you have to put up with.

EM: battle scenes need plot relevance and shape. Real battles often do not have the kind of shape that a story requires. The stories of real battles often are not of the right kind of shape and have to be retransmitted
A lot of civilians don’t believe what happens in the military. – e.g. GI Jane the military liked the training sequences, civilians thought they looked ridiculously brutal.

Esprit de corps comes from the Mickey Mouse shit. In short fiction you don’t have the word space to build the spirit up. In longer works you can have the Mickey Mouse shit and actually build the reader into the cohesive unit, which means the reader feels part of it when you refer to it later.
“Things are funny to us aren’t necessarily funny to anyone else.” – e.g. “I need fifty yards of flight line.”
Military people know that stupid orders get given all the time (e.g. clean the deck with a rag) where civilians won’t believe it.

EM: There is stupid stuff… and there is also stupid stuff coming from editors. e.g. instead of “manning” the weapons on a spaceship, you should “staff” them. /facepalm There is a different between staffing and manning.
EM: Conversely some veterans are so enthralled with their experience that they tend to miss out on the issues inherent to fiction.

EM: Wants to hear about specific things that just make a vet’s toes curl up.

  • One I see repeatedly is the general that loves war and wants to fight! Someone like that wouldn’t last that long for a multitude of reasons. They’re answerable to the people both above (money holders) and below them. Someone would kill them eventually!
  • Writers cross-pollinating service terms. In the Navy you stand on a deck. If you’re anyone else, it’s the floor. 
  • “Tell the different services to secure a building…” the Navy would turn out the lights and lock the doors, the Army would occupy the building so no one else can get in, “the Air Force will get a six year lease with an option to buy,” “Marines will blow it up and call in from the smoking crater, ‘sir the building has been secured!'” The word means wildly different things across services!
  • Misrepresentations of the relationships between the officers and the enlisted. Officers often portrayed as autocratic jackasses and the enlisted don’t do anything about it and feel like they can’t. Now it varies, but from her personal experience the enlisted guys kept her alive and she appreciated that. The relationship can’t really be that adversarial. 
  • Discipline is what keeps people alive. It’s a survival tool. It doesn’t need to be dumbed down or dull. It’s not a weapon for officers to wield against the enlisted. 

EM: We think of discipline in the school sense but it’s not. It’s not punishment. It’s not discipline for someone to be disrespecting the person they’re giving orders to.

  • In Star Trek the officers know everything and the specialists always turn to the captains and they figure out how to fix it. The officer is usually the generalist and the enlisted are the specialists who know their subject much better than you do. That messes up the entire relationship. 

You can’t really put the boring mandatory trainings and stuff in works (even longer works) because they are boring and you’ll lose the reader. (and in short works there isn’t room)

You have to make a choice between details and action/adventure. EM gets a little too tangled in the details because she’d rather read the story than get distracted by math. This is more a writer question than a military experience question.

The relationship between officers and enlisted has changed over time – historical fiction means you need to research. In history it wasn’t the same as it is now. You need to put thought to why people were loyal as well. (Merc vs. personal loyalty, etc.) Also need to keep in mind the differences between the types of different units. e.g. it will be different between electricians and infantry. The electricians for example might be older and have spent more time in civilian life before enlisting. Everyone interacts with their superiors differently.

In the Army, under fire the instinct is to shelter in the vehicles. In the Air Force, the engineer gets the hell away from anything that could be a target.
“Marines return fire.”
EM: If you shoot at us, we will shoot back.

For historical battles, you can’t really recreate historical battles with different technology. You can’t recreate Agincourt with machine guns and tanks. Be very careful about trying to borrow. Space battles in particular can’t be recreations of terrestrial battles because there are three dimensions of complete movement instead of two.

(Now the people at DragonCon have been shut down)

If you want to change the commands (historically) you have to change the commander. Commanders have a command style.

EM: every war changes the ethics of war. Everyone goes in to the war thinking they won’t do X and then have to violate that thing to save themselves/their platoon. If enough people do X, that will change the moors. The problem is the people in charge haven’t been in the pit. They don’t know about fighting and are unrealistic.

The ethics of warfare are constantly changing. WWII we indiscriminately bombed cities… we don’t do that any more.

EM: There are things I was taught in the 60s/70s that were thrown completely out the window in Iraq. It made people very angry, and they complained, wrote letters in protest, and it made no difference. When you have people who think war is profitable and a good idea, and who will never fight it and their kids will never fight it, it’s out of control. Armies get out of control too. The worst things that happen are religious wars because every action is justified at that point. Any society saying god is on their side is bad. War is never good. War is hell. Fighting when you don’t have to fight is really stupid.


The entire last paragraph is in bold for a reason. I wish, oh how I wish, that my little fingers could have typed fast enough to get down what Elizabeth Moon said verbatim. Or even more, I wish that you all could have been there to hear it, because it was a thing of beauty. I could feel her frustration and anger in those words.

I checked youtube, but if someone recorded the panel, they haven’t put anything up yet. I live in hope.

Mike Shepherd Moscoe is listed in the program book as being the moderator for the panel.(Edit) He was there, but because he had been running late, Elizabeth Moon took over moderating the panel. And I will say, she was one of the best moderators I saw all weekend as well. The panel was fun, interesting, and she managed twice the normal number of panelists with efficiency.

Honestly, I have nothing else to add about this panel. It was fascinating and a good reminder of why, if you want to write military SF/F and have had no military experience yourself, it’s a good idea to do some research and talk to people who have actually done active duty.

One comment on “[Worldcon] Military SF – Reality vs. Writing

  1. Reply Janiece Sep 10,2012 21:23

    He was there – far left as you faced the panel. He was just late, so EM took over the moderation. She’s my favorite moderator EVAH.

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