Contributor Fleetwood Robbins is an editor, writer, and speculative fiction enthusiast.
If you are of a certain age, you will certainly remember the failed launch of the 1986 Challenger mission carrying civilian schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe. The live broadcast of the disaster to so many schoolrooms across the nation had a huge effect on the children who witnessed it. For me, the Challenger disaster symbolizes the death of innocence in space exploration.
This is the first time I really came to grips with the danger of space travel. Before that moment it had been all Battlestar Galactica (the original series) or Space 1999. There was certainly danger in those shows, but being in space was a given. The idea that humans might occupy space was presented casually. It was an inevitability. Challenger changed that for me and for many others, I imagine.
Space exploration took on a new flavor for me in the intervening years. Once the purview of adventurers—whether rogues, heroes, or villains—space became the milieu of military and corporate interests with successive communications satellite launches and the Strategic Defense Initiative.
The idea of the militarization of space was nothing new for me as a kid. Long a trope of science fiction, the idea that space (or any frontier) was there to be conquered has roots as deep, perhaps, as the Age of Discovery. Space offers new avenues for the creation of wealth, strategic advantage, and the vainglorious expansion of human agency. This dominates our fictional representations of galactic exploration, with a few exceptions.
The motion picture Ender’s Game is a prime example: We Earthlings are in competition with the Formics for the galaxy’s resources. It’s kill or be killed. I realize this is reductive—there is some subtlety of character motivation and plot, especially in the book, that isn’t represented in this statement—but consider the movie Gravity as a counterpoint. Very simply, Gravity presents space as an avenue for human growth. It provides an arena to test the limits of human emotion and physicality, and achieve new spiritual heights as a result. Sandra Bullock is literally and figuratively reborn through her ordeal. Space is transformative. But it is also extreme and deadly. Humans are meant for deep space.
But there is the truth of our ability to go beyond our solar system, and there is the fancy. Mostly, I prefer the fancy.
One of the most fun books I’ve read in the past 10 years has to be Death’s Head by David Gunn, a military science fiction book so slick with sex and violence that it made me blush like a Victorian dandy. Narrated in the first person by a disgraced ex-military man, Sven Tveskoeg, the book follows his path into an eponymous elite military fighting force of the nefarious OctoV empire. There isn’t a ton of substance in the book, but it is very fun, as I said.
Substance is for space opera, the refined cousin of military SF, and Iain M. Banks, an accomplished writer of multiple genres, is largely considered a master of the genre. His famed Culture novels were among the many series readers found to be the most rereadable novels in our discussions last week. While I have not read all of the books, my limited experience with the Culture—an advanced interstellar humanoid civilization—has been time well spent.
Completists may want to start at the beginning with Consider Phlebas, which is the first of the 10 novels in the Culture series. Anyone who enjoys the genre will not be disappointed. But I would universally recommend Use of Weapons, which is technically the third book in the series. Use of Weapons does not rely on the storylines of previous books. It is a stand-alone of considerable structural ingenuity, plotting two narratives—one forward-moving, the other descending back through time—to relate the life of a special agent in the Culture empire. It’s an excellent book, maybe the best of the series.
Sure, Use of Weapons has all the trappings of military SF. Chief among them, there is plenty of action to keep things moving, but it’s also about the truth of the individual, and in that sense it exists in a space between the interstellar manifestations of Vin Diesel and Sandra Bullock. It presents the universe as a planetary romance, one in which exploration and human(oid) development exist simultaneously with the expansion of capital conquest.