By Kyt Dotson
It’s probably one of the more romantic notions for science fiction to become an escape hatch for daily stresses, giving readers and watchers alike a portal through which they can see themselves literally in the pilot’s seat. When it comes to adventure and epic science fiction, military tropes abound—after all, aside from being the final frontier, space is also a very dangerous place. It’s hard to bottle up all that excitement in one place without violence being on the menu and military action lends itself an excellent satisfaction for that need.
As a result, a great deal of science fiction involves a universe at war—or at least perhaps in a little skirmish.
The one-man (or two-man) space fighter is an extremely common trope seen in science fiction concepts. It’s more or less the naval equivalent of space marines and puts a lot of science, technology, and personal danger at the hands of the author to titillate her audience with. They’ve come in a multitude of shapes and sizes and more often than not appear in the cinema, television, and video games. All three media which have to handle a particular attention span from viewers.
In the literature, the space fighter does make appearances from time to time but more often than not print seems to favor fleets and battleships. While it would be fun to see David Weber’s Honor Harrington Universe in TV script, military action is generally about politics, logistics, and fleet maneuvers that leave behind the single-man element that adventure and excitement fans crave. We’ve seen a similar away-from-the-scenes approach in Ender’s Game where tactics and politics took the paramount position. Star Trek managed to skirt this issue by creating something of a space soap-opera out of following around what is essentially a capital ship—although they also make homage to space fighters with the Deviant in later series.
The place where space fighters really shine in science fiction happens to be across series such as Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Space Above and Beyond, and Babylon 5. Certainly there are more examples out there, but these four series have really managed to capture the imagination of how space fighters can be used.
It goes without saying that the moment someone mentions Star Wars that the first two space fighters that come to mind are X-Wings and TIE Fighters. These vehicles are so distinctive that they’ve seared themselves into the brains of fans everywhere and its sets them in a league of their own. Right down to the unique, spine-tingling engine noise of the Imperial TIE Fighters. Like all space operas, it’s good to know immediately who the good guy is versus the bad guy. What makes the portrayal of these fighters even more visceral for audiences of the generation who made the first Star Wars movie is that filmmakers intended battles to be reminiscent of World War II dogfight footage.
Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5 present another angle on the space fighter concept—that of keeping them as essentially the standing army of a space station or capital ship.
The Galactica’s Viper squadron and the Babylon 5’s Starfuries essentially serve as the ever ready minutemen prepared to screen battlestar or station against assault. In the first Battlestar Galactica scenes that deployed them often saw Vipers and Cylon Raiders launching from two battleships and duking it out in the space between. Babylon 5 sees them chasing down other fighters, running escort missions to fight pirates, and other duties that we might see for a military base. Just in space.
Space Above and Beyond took to space fighters a lot better than the failure of the Wing Commander movie with the Hammerhead—which has a name that reveals a lot about its structure. In this, the military portrayal took the forefront in a similar fashion to how military life for marines might have been seen for Starship Troopers. Wars set upon wars sending out squadrons on raiding missions, escorts, and other dangerous operations sure to lessen the lifespan of the characters. Their harrowing experiences both in and out of the cockpit led to storylines that helped engross the audience and give them an idea of what they were like.
Space fighters give a sense of man-with-machine against the universe. Unlike soldiers, pilots have a lot to lose if they don’t fully understand their equipment and what it can tolerate and the technology becomes first and foremost an extension of their character. They put the audience right in the then-and-now of the life of the pilots and how they interact with their machines. In some sense, the science fiction writer needs to spend time thinking about the technology they’re deploying as well as the culture of the pilots. As seen with the dichotomies between Rebel X-Wings and TIE Fighters, or the sleek aircraft designs of Vipers, and compared with the broad-winged Hammerheads.
As further science fiction series and novels appear on the radar, it’s likely that we won’t see the end of the space fighter trope. Not just because it’s a practical method of welding together the human military with science and technology; but because it’s a captivating tool for portraying the future of space and war in a human light.