Been quite a while since we did a "top five" list. This is Godfrey's list of the best/his favourite military science fiction novels. Readers are, as always not just free but invited to disagree and discuss his choices in the comments box or make recommendations for works we have probably missed.
Storm of Iron by Graham McNeil - A Black Library publication set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, which narrowly edges out His Last Command by Dan Abnett and Dead Men Walking by Steve Lyons (both same publisher and setting). A lot of Black Library stuff is maligned as barely more than fan fiction or “war porn”, however, I found these three works are the cream of the crop and I found them to be excellent on the whole, each capturing aspects of military life and combat in their own way. But Storm of Iron gets the nod for the intermingling of great heroism and futility, and its scope and variety, featuring an entire campaign that involves everything from grunts, to tanks, to towering titans. It gets fifth place because it is set in a setting that is perhaps not as “serious” as others, and is much further removed from our own time (set in the 41st millennium) than others.
Star Wars Heir to the Empire Trilogy by Timothy Zahn - Many would say this is not truly military sic fi, but more Star Wars space fantasy, but Timothy Zahn treats this continuation of the Star Wars story after Return of the Jedi as military fiction and does a fantastic job of following Grand Admiral Thrawn’s campaign to defeat the New Republic and reinstitute the Empire. It is full of strategy and military actions all done in a realistic way taking into account the setting and with very well executed characters. This is what they should have based Episode VII-IX off of in my opinion.
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman - Much deserving of the appellation “classic” this is a fantastic portrayal of the life of a soldier who must deal not only with the wiles of drill sergeants and the army being the army, but with the added element of time dilation making it impossible to return home. My one complaint is that while army life was very realistically portrayed based on my own limited experience, the way that Haldeman thinks female soldiers could be integrated into the army is not credible to the point of seeming like pornographic fantasy in parts. This isn’t a minor quibble because this element features heavily into the narrative, but is greatly compensated for by the very realistic portrayal of warfare (actually making realistic, slower-than-light star ship combat occurring at millions of kilometres not mind-numbingly boring).
The Mote in God’s Eye by Larry Niven, Jerry Pournelle, and Steve Barnes - I’ve sung this work’s praises in the past, but it warrants mention again and listing in second place on my list. It’s portrayal of military life is admittedly much more in keeping with my own prejudices I’ll admit, and I don’t pretend to be unbiased in this list. But military life aboard a star ship is well portrayed here and although the “campaign” featured is more of exploration and first contact, it still fits in the list and is very well done.
Starship Troopers by Robert A. Heinlein - The novel of Mobile Infantry in their armoured combat suits that carry tactical nukes and can leap over buildings gets my vote for best military science fiction. Heinlein, another war veteran, totally “nailed” military life in my view, and combined it with innovating and interesting technology and a compelling military campaign against bug aliens. Lots of great political commentary as well, and lessons on being a good soldier and leader.