There were a number of original SF anthologies this year that presented themselves as offering a mix of space opera and military SF, among them the two anthologies under consideration here, Infinity Wars, edited by Jonathan Strahan, and Infinite Stars: The Definitive Anthology of Space Opera and Military SF, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Cosmic Powers: The Saga Anthology of Far-Away Galaxies, edited by John Joseph Adams, reviewed here a couple of months back, would fit nicely into this category, and even an anthology of galactic exploration such as Nick Gevers’s Extrasolar, also reviewed here awhile back, contains a few stories, such as Alastair Reynold’s “Holdfast” and Aliette de Bodard’s “A Game of Three Generals”, that could easily be considered to be military SF.
I’ll leave it to critics more astute than I am to try to rigorously parse and define the differences between space opera and military SF. For myself, I’ll say that I can sort of instinctively and arbitrarily tell the difference, out on the edges of either subgenre, although things get a lot cloudier and more uncertain on the borderline where the two meet. It may be an oversimplification to say that just as all space opera is science fiction, all military SF is space opera, but not all space opera is military SF. I think the difference between the two forms depends on how strong the military aspect is to a story, and how central the actual combat itself is to the story, since many space operas have ongoing interstellar wars as part of their background and the infrastructure of their settings without actually depicting the combat itself, whereas core military SF usually plunges you into the fighting on an individual level, sometimes in space battles, more often as we follow “boots on the ground” grunts through military engagements on alien planets. Each of the anthologies in question mix the proportions of those two elements somewhat differently.
In terms of literary quality, although both the Strahan and the Schmidt are good, Infinity Wars is the stronger of the two anthologies, containing several of the year’s best stories; in fact, barring the sudden last minute appearance of another SF anthology that’s better between now and the end of the year (something I find unlikely), I’d have to say at this point that Jonathan Strahan has once again managed to edit the best original SF anthology of the year, as he has done for a number of years in a row now. However, it may not appeal to hardcore fans of military SF as much as the Schmidt. Although there are a few stories here which plunge you right into battle, such as David D. Levine‘s “Command and Control“, Rich Larson‘s “Heavies“, and Peter Watts‘s “ZeroS“, many others instead skirt the periphery of the typical military SF story, telling their tales from perspectives not often explored. In Carrie Vaughn‘s “Evening of the Span of Their Days“, a maintenance supervisor in charge of a repair dock for spaceships scurries desperately about, trying to gather enough supplies to repair the flood of ships likely to come out of battle damaged in the war that everyone knows is coming but nobody likes to talk about. In Eleanor Arnason‘s “Mines“, settlers on a colony planet deal with the aftermath of war, with their daily lives threatened by the thousands of mines scattered across the landscape by the enemy. In An Owomoyola‘s “The Last Broadcasts“, a computer technician charged to conceal all knowledge from the public of an ongoing war that humans are losing wrestles with her conscience over the morality of what she’s been told to do. The two best stories here are Indrapramit Das‘s “The Moon Is Not a Battlefield” and Nancy Kress‘s “Dear Sarah“. The Das deals with an injured soldier, hurt in combat on the Moon, who lives in poverty in a cardboard slum, his service seemingly forgotten by just about everybody, including the force he served, while the Kress depicts a woman who faces lifelong ostracism and even possible deadly retribution from her survivalist family for daring to join the Army. In some ways, Infinity Wars is a kind of stealth anti-war anthology, with character after character wrestling with doubts about the morality of the war, and the orders they’ve been given, and whether or not they should comply with them, sickening of the slaughter involved, particularly of civilians. Even the high-tech “zombie,” raised from the dead to fight again, in Peter Watts’s ultraviolent “ZeroS”, eventually begins to question the morality of the missions he’s sent on, and in Elizabeth Bear‘s “Perfect Gun“, even a sentient spaceship grows sick of the killing and decides that it’s not going to co-operate in dealing it out anymore.
Infinite Stars is much more centrally a military SF anthology, although even here there are stories that deal with the periphery and preparation for war rather than with combat itself, such as Jack Campbell‘s “Shore Patrol“, David Drake‘s “Cadet Cruise“, and Dave Bara‘s “Last Day of Training“. The best stories here are Alastair Reynolds‘s “Night Passage“, in which the crew of a ship who blunder into a strange cosmic phenomenon in deep space are faced with mutiny, betrayal, and double-cross piled upon double-cross, and Linda Nagata‘s “Region Five“, in which a squad of high-tech-equipped foot soldiers trapped in a high-rise building must fight their way to escape through mobs of fanatical rebels during a civil war. There’s also good work here by Charles E. Gannon, David Weber, Jody Lynn Nye, and Elizabeth Moon. Adding substantially to the value of Infinite Stars is a strong list of reprint stories by Lois McMaster Bujold, Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, Nnedi Okorafor, A.C. Crispin, and Anne McCaffery, including harder-to-find stories such as “Stark and the Star Kings” by Leigh Brackett & Edmond Hamilton, “Duel on Syris” by Poul Anderson, “The Iron Star” by Robert Silverberg, and “The Game of Rat and Dragon” by Cordwainer Smith.
Gardner Dozois was the editor of Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine for almost twenty years, and also edits the annual anthology series The Year’s Best Science Fiction, which has won the Locus Award for Best Anthology more than any other anthology series in history, and which is now up to its Thirty-Fourth Annual Collection. He’s won the Hugo Award fifteen times as the year’s Best Editor, won the Locus Award thirty-one times, including an unprecedented sixteen times in a row as Best Editor, and has won the Nebula Award twice, as well as a Sidewise Award, for his own short fiction, which has been most recently collected in When the Great Days Come. He is the author or editor of more than a hundred books, including a novel written in collaboration with George R.R. Martin and Daniel Abraham, Hunter’s Run, and, in addition to many solo anthologies, the anthologies, Songs of the Dying Earth, Warriors, Dangerous Women, and Rogues, all co-edited with George R.R. Martin, the last two of which were New York Times bestsellers. Coming up is a major solo fantasy anthology, The Book of Swords. He has been inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, and won the Skylark Award for Lifetime Achievement in Science Fiction. Born in Salem, Massachusetts, he now lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
This review and more like it in the January 2018 issue of Locus.