Universe at War: Space Marines in Science Fiction

Starship Troopers

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by Kyt Dotson

It’s a dangerous galaxy out there. The bright lines of justice and order become blurry at the edges; for those ever-shifting borders between star kingdoms and empires strategy means holding planets; for vast space fleets, turning the tide may mean invading an enemy capital vessel in a boarding action and taking it over. With the universe set deep in the fever of warfare and hostility, this is the job for a favorite science fiction trope.

This is a job for the proud, the power armor, the well armed, the space marines.

The titular, classic space marines arise out of the expectation that war never changes—even across the vast expanse of space.

One of the best approaches to warfare-across-the-divide and the gritty world of space marines is within the pages of Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (1976). Without the aid of FTL travel that accounts for relativistic effects and time dilation, warriors discover themselves experiencing a short time while the rest of the universe leaps past them. As the war progresses, the main character finds himself flung into cultures further and further divorced from his own intuition of humanity.

The next incarnation of the space marines, well known to many due to movies, are those portrayed in Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959). Enlisted folk who plate themselves into powered armor, pick up their pulse rifle, and stand against alien enemies on strange worlds. These soldiers form the backbone of Earth’s ability to assault and suppress the enemy. They form extremely tight, familial groups who see the horrors of war together, lose friends together, and find themselves shaped from naïve civilians into war-hardened veterans in the face of horrible odds.

A much more modern examination of the space marine in literature comes from John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (2005) that displays Earth’s population as largely ignorant of the rest of the universe (and humanity’s role in it.) Soldiers are recruited not from the young and virile, but the old and infirm—the experienced, the wise, and well-rounded who lived to old age—who are given cloned, heavily gene-engineered bodies designed for space warfare. They find themselves in a totally different world, one where humanity is piercing the darkness and alien politics and securing their role in the emerging galaxy.

The space marine goes on from literature as the meanest vertebrate amid the science fiction archetypes and a favorite of readers become movie watchers and video game players.

Video game companies have capitalized on this deep seated desire to be the warrior amid the war, a tiny god of violence on the battlefield, nigh untouchable, filled with adrenaline and potence. The space marine in video games comes from two strong traditions, each of which address their own facet of the nature of warfare and alien environments. First are the warrior-monks from the Warhammer 40K universe who take power armor and excessive force to a pummeling contest. The second is the maverick marine from the Doom and Quake franchises.

Both of these archetypical space marines bring to the front the concept that in science fiction (or at least in space) a marine is just as much machine as human. She is an extension of her technology and her prowess at its use. First and foremost, a marine is never far from her gun (or guns) and that primary weapon features a multitude of fire modes—most of which have to do with dispatching enemies at various ranges and diverse configurations. And, while the best defense may be a good offense, she also outfits herself with armor and shielding (electromagnetic and kinetic barriers)—for the really fortunate, a space marine might even have a suit or powered armor that takes care of most of this.

Armor, suits, and cybernetics do a lot more than just provide extra protection through sheer weight, but it also forms the foundation of a platform for enhancing the human condition. Space marines are more than just warriors: they’re the Olympians of the battlefield who augment their fragile human frames with a framework of technology and machine. Power armor also makes marines faster, stronger, and harder to hit. It enhances reflexes, creates options where there were none before, provides protection in toxic and airless environments, and puts a person where people shouldn’t be able to go.

In science fiction video games like Halo and Mass Effect the concept of the space marine provides a template for an infinitely upgradeable warrior who changes more than just their weapons—they are the weapon. Between gear and human, space marines use their powered armor and technology to reach beyond the limits of human endurance and even cognition. We’ve seen this in games like Crysis where a technological suit turns a normal marine into an unstoppable battle-platform (although not a space marine.)

Dominance on the battlefield means more than just having the best equipment: it also means the best information. Space marines are also often portrayed as having highly adaptive in-suit information systems and HUDs that deliver them real-time data on their environment, enemy disposition, targeting, and more. The machine may provide the vehicle of destruction, but the human at the core rules the day on the battlefield. Provided enough information, the player can choose how to approach a set of opponents, set strike points, decide weapons load out, and engage before anyone even notices they’re under attack.

Space marines represent the culmination of the technology-cum-human fusion at its pinnacle of advancement; using the best science to create not just the perfect, surgical killing-machine or a devastating monster of destruction, but instead an agile human-machine capable of carrying the warrior spirit into places that heavy vehicles and orbital bombardment cannot.


  1. Pingback: Universe at War: Space Marines in Science Fiction | Digital Science Fiction via @oxidizingangel | kristennicole.com

  2. Nice, I’d love another go at being a space marine! *suits up*

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