Rogue Squadrons: Six Crack Sci-Fi Commando Teams to Read After Rogue One
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Commandos have been a staple of war movies and books since World War Two, when the concept of a commando unit was first introduced. It’s hardly surprising, the commando concept seems purpose-built for high-energy drama. Narratively, the small squads give an excellent opportunity to boil the horrors of war down into a tense situation with a limited number of characters who all necessarily have very specific skillsets. Moreover, should anything happen to any one member of a team, the rest will suddenly have to improvise their way through the mission.
The Dirty Dozen remains the gold standard for World War Two commando novels, but with Rogue One bringing sci-fi commando units to the big screen, many people find themselves suddenly thirsting for books about sci-fi commandos.
The first stop will be the excellent Republic Commando series of Star Wars novels by Karen Traviss, which we just can't recommend highly enough. Starting with Hard Contact, the Republic Commando series follows the exploits of a team of clone commandos assembled from the survivors of otherwise wiped-out squads.
If you've already read the Republic Commando series or if you just want to take a step further away from Star Wars, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered.
Dan Abnett: First and Only
It can be tricky to recommend licensed fiction; often the need for some familiarity with the subject matter ahead of reading the book is too much of a barrier to entry. Too often, licensed fiction is looked on by genre-fiction fans in the same way as genre fiction is looked on by literary-fiction fans. That said, there are very few books that manage to combine a sense of in-the-trenches warfare and spacefaring strangeness quite as well as Dan Abnett’s First and Only.
Set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe, First and Only is the beginning of a series of novels following the exploits of the first and last regiment drafted from the forest planet of Tanith, serving under the man with perhaps the most genre-science-fiction name ever written, Ibram Gaunt. Given that Tanith is otherwise populated entirely by migratory “nalwood” trees that shift and rearrange themselves during the planet’s night cycle, the Tanith soldiers have an unusually well-developed sense of direction.
The first books of the series take place as a sequence of short vignettes highlighting the regiment’s activities over the course of sieges and infiltrations, seeing combat on a range of different worlds, each with their own environments, fauna, and idiosyncrasies. These stories are exemplary slices of fast-paced action. The Tanith First is dropped into dreadful situations and forced to improvise in bizarre conditions. The constant flitting from one setting to another keeps things from getting bogged down in any one strangeness.
By the time the troops spend a full novel on any one world, it’s a place so profoundly strange that the time taken to fully explore its non-Euclidean geometries is a real pleasure.
John Scalzi: Old Man’s War
John Scalzi might be better known for his Hugo Award-winning intertextual science-fiction novel, Redshirts, but for many it is his first novel, Old Man’s War, that still represents the peak of his work. Scalzi’s style is simple and uncomplicated, leaving you to focus as much as possible on the substance of the book itself.
Like First and Only, Old Man’s War is set in a universe in which humanity is faced with numerous alien threats. In a bid to defend its colonies, the Earth government offers the elderly an opportunity to join its spacefaring elite army, at which point it will clone them a new, genetically enhanced body. The only condition of service is that you may never return to earth, but by the qualifying age of 75 many find that they would have little to return to, as is the case with the book’s protagonist, John Perry.
For the most part, Old Man’s War, is a fairly bog standard military story, but it gravitates into the world of space-based commandos when Perry is introduced to the “ghost brigades” that make up the special forces squads. Obviously, with a name like "ghost brigades" there's more there than meets the eye, and a hefty portion of the book is spent investigating the elite teams.
As with First and Only, Old Man’s War is the first book of a series, so there’s always more for anyone who reads it. For what it’s worth, it’s also a relatively complete book in its own right, meaning you’ll not feel forced to read the next book to get the feel of a complete story.
Robert Heinlein: Starship Troopers
While it’s often considered among Heinlein’s best work, Starship Troopers seldom has the same straightforward sense of light-hearted adventure readers may be familiar with from some of his other work, like The Cat Who Walks Through Walls. Instead, the book focuses on the military life of Juan “Johnnie” Rico as he ascends through the ranks of humanity’s Mobile Infantry. Rico is dispatched to fight monstrous alien arachnids on their homeworld of Klendathu.
Originally released in 1959, there are some choice mid-20th century science fiction terms for readers to enjoy, including Rico’s rank at the outset of the book as a ‘cap[sule] trooper.’ While the loosely-adapted movie of Starship Troopers is memorable for its cybernetic limbs given to amputees, the book’s claim to fame is that it is among the first works of science fiction to incorporate the use of ‘powered armor’ exoskeletons (a mainstay of military and construction-industry science fiction ever since).
In some respects, Starship Troopers is about the opposite of a science fiction commando team; the overwhelming majority of the book follows the on-the-ground soldiers of the Terran Federation’s Mobile Infantry. It’s made abundantly clear that these soldiers are not special, they don’t even seem to be worth an awful lot, but as the novel progresses that sense begins to shift.
Starship Troopers is a book as divisive as its film adaptation. While the movie tends to polarise people into those who loved it and those who hated it (in both cases because it is often a goofball mess), the book tends to get fans arguing about whether or not its extreme, militaristic views (and possible fascism) are intended to be taken at face value or an example of sublime satire.
Iain M. Banks: Consider Phlebas
Iain M. Banks has become something of a household name, but no list of essential science fiction commandos could possibly be considered complete without including the first book of his Culture series. While the Culture series as a whole deals with larger and more complicated themes, the core of Consider Phlebas traces a man named Bora Horza Gobuchul (or simply Horza) and his unlikely crew of mercenaries.
Contracted to visit a cursed planet, descend into its network of subterranean tunnels, and retrieve a fugitive Mind (a sentient artificial intelligence), Horza and his band of misfits must first go on a series of totally necessary adventures across space. Horza himself is a “changer,” capable of mimicking another human being almost entirely, though the process is involved and time consuming. Indeed, for much of the book he is aboard a ship called the Clear Air Turbulence with a team of mercenaries who believe him to be someone else. It’s an unusual choice, a crack squad effectively being led by a lone infiltrator, but one that works remarkably well.
Where Consider Phlebas really shines is in its descriptions; Banks shows the extent to which well-written prose can outshine cinema when it comes to communicating an impression of truly vast scale. One of Consider Phlebas’ best chapters takes place almost entirely in an ocean on an artificial orbital ring around a planet. It’s an unusual situation, and tricky to describe (thanks in no small part to the strangeness of having a horizon that appears to arc upward and away from the viewer).
Since we aren’t yet living in a post-scarcity utopian civilization, you can…
Pierce Brown: Red Rising
Pierce Brown exploded onto the sci-fi scene with Red Rising in 2014 and has since completed the trilogy with Golden Son and Morning Star. The book follows the exploits of a group of rebels acting against the deeply stratified class system of humanity seven centuries after man first began colonising other planets.
Red Rising begins deep below the surface of Mars, where its protagonist, Darrow, is introduced as an unusually capable miner, one of few with the reflexes and dexterity to run the complex drills. Genetically engineered to better suit their subsurface lives, the “Reds” work Mars’ mines, while society’s elites reap the benefits. Those elites are the “Golds.” As in Old Man's War, they've been genetically enhanced for size and strength. Now superhuman, they reign over the other castes. Through a series of lengthy surgical processes, Darrow is slowly rebuilt as a counterfeit Gold, to better infiltrate the upper echelons of society.
Where Red Rising injects something a little more fun is in a sense of borrowed Roman culture that’s applied like a thick layer of paint to the proceedings. The names of characters and important houses get the Roman treatment, while much of the society’s culture echoes ancient Roman practice. It’s not exactly uncharted territory for science fiction, but the execution here is just enough to paint characters in a particular light quickly.
Red Rising probably won’t suit the hard-sci-fi fanatics out there, but for those of you who like your science fiction light on engineering and with some classical overtones, you could do a lot worse.
Glynn Stewart: Starship’s Mage
Obviously, no Star Wars-related reading list could ever be complete without at least one book that makes an honest attempt to mix fantasy and science fiction. With that in mind, we recommend the Starship’s Mage Omnibus, which combines the five parts originally released into one novel.
Set in a galaxy in which transit between worlds is controlled by an order of “Jump Magi,” Starship’s Mage tells the story of Damien Montgomery, a newly qualified Jump Mage without a berth to call his own. Unfortunately, he also lacks the average Jump Mage's family connections to help him secure one, and is forced to take on some questionable work. Saying that he's like a space Harry Potter would be a profound oversimplification... but it will have to suffice.
There’s enough physics there to ensure that Starship's Mage never gives the impression that it’s a fantasy novel that just happens to take place in space. The upshot is that, by the time any actual real magic starts happening, you already feel as though the book takes place in a world that has some grounding and weight to it.
Part of the appeal of Starship’s Mage is that it wears its thaumaturgy on its sleeve. Star Wars has always seemed at least a little uncomfortable with the fact that the Force is essentially magic; in 30 years we went from, “Don't try to frighten us with your sorcerer's ways, Lord Vader” to “His cells have the highest concentration of midi-chlorians I have seen in a life-form.”
By contrast, the fact that Starship’s Mage opens with a frank discussion of the monetary value of space-magic is a cool relief.