I’ve been tracking the science fiction bestseller charts on amazon.com since the start of 2011, with particular attention to space opera and military SF. Yes, it is partially professional intelligence gathering to see what is and is not selling, and to get ideas for my next reads, but it’s much more than that. Science fiction publishing is going through its greatest transformation since at least the widespread introduction of the paperback, and as a huge fan I am simply fascinated to watch these changes as they sweep through publishing at internet speeds.
For example, I can take the numbers given by Locus Magazine each year for the number of new science fiction titles published each year, extrapolate backward to the days of HG Wells and Jules Verne with a touch of anecdotal evidence and a large cup of coffee, then factor in the number of titles in Amazon’s science fiction book category and watch how that number has soared since early 2011… My conclusion is that in the entire history of English language science fiction, most titles have been published since 2011. In fact, I calculate the halfway point of science fiction book publishing from the year dot to 2016 is some point in late 2012. Probably a rainy Thursday afternoon in October.
Of course, these numbers turn to smoke when you examine them too closely. For example, what about all the science fiction books that are not categorized as such by their publisher? The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale are two examples. Nonetheless, what I can say with cast iron certainty is that science fiction publishing is changing at a ferocious pace.
One area of particular interest to me is the realism and credibility of the military side of military science fiction and space opera. It’s certainly true that there have been many authors over the years who have deployed their real-life military experience to give credibility to their novels: David Drake, Joe Haldeman, Elizabeth Moon, John Ringo, Jerry Pournelle, David Sherman, Tom Kratman, and Jack Campbell spring to mind. Authors with other backgrounds can write great military SF too, such as David Weber and Peter F Hamilton.
But there has been an awful lot of silly military SF in recent years from traditional publishing. Remember the mobile infantry tactics in the movie, Starship Troopers? That’s right: grab your helmet and rifle and run at the enemy in a large unruly mob while your orbiting fleet bunches itself up to give maximum target opportunities for the enemy. One interpretation I’ve read of the movie (very different from Heinlein’s book, which the director despised) is that the mobile infantry is designed on purpose to be a disorganized rabble that struggles to win battles, because their fascist political masters want to subject the populace to a state of perpetual war, as was the case in George Orwell’s 1984.
Whatever the reason, I’ve read a lot of ‘grab your rifle and charge’ military SF in the early 2000s (possibly because Baen Books were very difficult to get hold of in the UK).
Then self-publishing exploded.
To begin with there were a host of popular books that weren’t much different, just written with better pace and excitement. You could see a heavy gaming influence. Gamers who played Gears of War, Warhammer 40,000, Halo or a host of other shoot ‘em up and space fighter games would try their hand at writing and generate a whole load of fun, but not so much of the realistic grounding that the generation of Vietnam vets had brought to the field in the 70s.
The world of science fiction self-publishing is brutally Darwinian. If you don’t deliver the books your readers want, they go elsewhere. Earlier I suggested that most science fiction books ever published have been published since 2012. In the history of publishing, there has never been anything like this level of competition before. If, like me, you love your space opera and military SF, then you already know that there is a huge number of excellent authors shouting for our attention. That’s a lot of choice. And a heap of competition.
I’ve been tracking the charts on Amazon since 2011. Some of the authors who were big names then are now… not so much. Like I said, it’s Darwinian. The same is true of the style and subject matter of books being written. I see a lot less of the fun, but not to be taken seriously shoot-em-up romps where a team of superhero-inspired Rambos in space save Earth from the bad guy invaders. Also, a lot less of the Star Trek and Star Trek: Voyager inspired books. They’re still around, and a good thing too, but there is a lot more variety these days.
One of the trends I’m seeing is an increased emphasis on engineering and hard sciences. The desire to get technical details right is becoming more commonplace. Hugh Howey’s Wool described a highly engineered environment and an engineered future, and the main character in the first book is herself an engineer. Andy Weir’s The Martian grew out of a blog playing around with challenges that a colony on Mars might face and imagining solutions. The science of genetics is at the heart of AG Riddle’s The Atlantis Gene. There, right there, are probably the three most popular science fiction books of this century and all have engineering and science at their heart. (And all these million-sellers were originally self-published, by the way, which I mention because one of self-publishing’s greatest strengths is its superior ability to tap into the cultural zeitgeist). I don’t believe the emphasis on technical accuracy is a coincidence because I see it too among lesser novels that sell in the mere tens and hundreds of thousands.
Such as mine.
Although I employ some handwavium in my Human Legion books, in my own small way I’m a part of this trend. My spaceships do not employ convenient artificial gravity, and when the ship accelerates the crew know about it! When my Marines fire their SA-71 railguns, where do the recoil forces go? When a warship fires a laser powerful enough to slice through hull armor, where does the heat generated by the weapon go? I think about these things. I cheat the laws of Conservation of Energy and Conservation of Momentum at times, but I never break them. No doubt I have gotten some details wrong, but I do try.
And so it is with military SF.
There’s been a rapid increase in realistic use of tactics and weaponry. I’m not an expert (I just write the stuff) but it’s less common for me to suspend my disbelief while I read tactics straight out of the Starship Troopers movie. Partially this is explained by an influx of authors with military experience. For example, earlier in the year, I was part of a box set of military science fiction novels, and half the authors were or are serving in the British Army.
And although I joked that I don’t know what I’m talking about, I have surrounded myself with a Human Legion Publications team who do. In addition to the many fine people who give advice and suggestions in the recon teams, we have JR Handley who was in the US Airborne Infantry, Corey Truax who was in the US Navy, and Donna Scott who is an initiate of the Black Library, which means she uses a mixture of prayer and editorial skill to expunge heresy from stories foretelling the grim darkness of the far future in which there is only war. (Or, if you prefer the mundane explanation: Donna edits books for the Warhammer 40,000 line).
I’ve been aware of this increased emphasis on technical realism for some years now, but I was thinking of them last night because I realized I was working on what could be the pinnacle of this trend to date.
Sometimes I wake up in the night and I realize I’ve been dreaming in prose and I’ve just written a scene in my sleep. Years ago I used to code in my sleep. So it is with JR Handley. I’m working on him to dream in prose, but I’m not sure we’re there just yet, and I think that’s because he dreams in small unit tactics. He showed me once the endless binders filled with training material he needed to learn as part of his qualification to become an NCO.
Naturally that attention to tactical detail reflects in his writing. I was building the recon edition of his prequel novella to The Sleeping Legion series (The Demons of Kor-Lir – which is available to Legionaries now. See the link at the bottom of this article.) At the back of the book we have portions of the digital manual used by the Human Marine Corps soldiers. We have diagrams and explanatory text explaining a variety of zero-g fire team tactics. The circle you see in the diagram below is a transit tube commonplace in spaceships and space stations. How do you maximize the firepower in your team? What is the best way to turn a corner? It’s not just a pretty diagram at the back of the book; these are tactics drilled into the soldiers and we see them in action during the story.
Zero-g fire team tactics. Yup, I think it’s fair to say that we’re a part of the trend to more technical realism in science fiction, and I’m damned proud to be a part of that.
Legionaries can now join the recon team for this book. Follow the instructions in Legion Bulletin#4. If you haven’t signed up you will need to go here and JOIN THE LEGION