Actually, I would note that the Vorkosigan series, specifically where Miles is the Little Admiral with his mercenary fleet, he generally wins by intellect, not by prodding buttock … In The Warrior Apprentice, he really only gets into 2 real military actions with lots of death and destruction. And in A Civil Campaign, it is actually a comedy of manners … though if you want warfare, get the first 2 books, that deal with his parents, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. They are available as a combined volume from Baen as tree or e books.
Thanks very much for all the suggestions, folks! Keep them coming!
I also enjoy the short story format for these types of tales as well. I remember one that I enjoyed, although I can’t for the life of me remember the author or the title at the moment:
- One was about alien abductions. Essentially, a very advanced race with aims toward galactic domination had a policy of abducting members of newly-encountered races. During the abduction, the captives would be put through a series of psychological tests in the form of games. The captor race had had enormous difficulty, and a protracted war, with another race of highly aggressive and adaptable aliens. They eventually defeated them, but at enormous cost, and their “pre-screening” policy was aimed at finding out what primitive races shared these characteristics, so they could be destroyed before becoming a problem. Apparently, the human race has these characteristics in spades. We love games. We love competition. We are tenacious, underhanded, and adaptable, and excel at nonlinear solutions to seemingly intractable strategic problems. In this story, these traits are not at all common in the universe, and usually are the product of extensive training and selective breeding programs. The fact that humans seem to all share these traits naturally incites panic among the captors. Worst of all, they find out, we are capable of intricate diplomacy, which makes us unbelievably dangerous.
As wonderful as the Vorkosigan books are - they don’t deal with humans vs. aliens.
As you noted, a lot of the time the “battles” are won by intellect vs. actual weapons, but the scenes involving weapons etc. are very, very believable.
Good sense of humor too. “You should see what I do to KITTENS!”
Alan Dean Foster had a trilogy that might fit: A Call To Arms, The False Mirror, and The Spoils of War.
Ranks of Bronze by David Drake and the followup Foreign Legions by Drake & others put a twist on this theme - a galactic civilization which has a strict rule that if you want to go to war with primitives (for mineral rights or the like), you have to use primitive technology to do so. Since most advanced races don’t really want to pick up a sword & shield, one clever trading guild buys a Roman legion to fight its battles. Which turns out to be a bad idea for the guild.
The previously mentioned Hammers Slammers is fantastic military sci-fi, but with two exceptions is strictly human vs. human.
The Far Crusade - Poul Anderson
I remember reading in some SF author’s memoirs that some influential SF editor of the 60’s (Campbell?) more-or-less insisted on the “humans always turn out to be better somehow” trope, that gave rise to a lot of stories like this. Asimov claimed he invented a SF universe without aliens specifically in order to avoid having to address this.
March Upcountry, March To the Sea, March To the Stars, We Few - David Weber
Probably the universe of the Foundation series.
Campbell wasn’t as influential in the '60s, nor were the bulk of Asimov’s short stories (which is what Campbell published) written in the '60s. The '30s and '40s would have been the period where Campbell published Asimov’s work (and Campbell worked hard to help Asimov develop as a young writer, and published a lot of his early work). That said, I remember the story the way you do- Campbell insisted on aliens who were inferior to humans, so Asimov refused to write about them.
I wonder if Campbell’s outlook was a reaction to the decades of stories written in which humans WERE, more or less, helpless waifs in a huge, lethal universe.
They are all very good, but the last one in the series, The Last Colony is the weakest of the bunch. Skalzi revisited this universe in Zoe’s Tale, a look at the last book through the eyes of one of the characters. It wa a YA book, and I’ve heard good things, but haven’t read it yet.
Also very very good is The Android’s Dream. A satire on a galctic stage that starts with a fart joke.
More David Weber:
The Excalibur Alternative
The Damned is the name of the trilogy. We humans are discovered, and recruited by the good guys in a war against the Amplitur who want to convert everyone to “The Purpose”. Humans as it turns out are the only species that wars against itself, and are the best soldiers in the galaxy. Once they get to know us the other species find us rather frightening; “She tried to ignore how his eyes burned. She knew he couldn’t help it.”
The Excalibur Alternative is in fact set in the same universe as Ranks of Bronze; the Romans are mentioned near the end of the book in fact. And Mutineer’s Moon is the start of a trilogy, collected in Empire From The Ashes. I’d also add The Apocalypse Troll from Weber, especially in it’s backstory. It involves a human woman from the future and one of humanity’s enemies cast back in time; the backstory is that humanity was attacked by genocidal aliens and has been fighting a centuries long war since then. Slowly winning, because we are better fighters and better in certain areas of technology.
Quite a few of these books are available free ( and yes legally ) at the Baen Free Library.
Starting, at the very latest, with H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (1898). (But Lovecraft did it better.)
I’ll second these. The Posleen Wars (Legacy of the Aldenata) is one of my favorite series, esp. Die Wacht am Rhein and Yellow Eyes.
I’d argue in the other direction- science fiction was such a tiny field before Campbell and his contemporaries, I just don’t think it’s fair to say that there were decades of stories written before Campbell. More likely any science fiction with humans as helpless in a huge, lethal universe was in reaction to Campbell’s pro-human views. I don’t mean to be snarky, but how much science fiction with humans as anything other than the dominant force in the universe (or at least a scrappy underdog who does well in the context of the story) can you think of from before Campbell took over Astounding Science Fiction in 1937? Some of H.G. Wells’ stories, I suppose, but that’s all I can come up with. Hugo Gernsback was editing Amazing Stories in 1926, but I think of choice of stories as closer to Campbell’s.
Asimov saw Campbell’s insistence as an expression of soft racism, with Campbell’s Northern European/Aryan humans always able to use their inherent superiority to defeat the alien outsider.
Jack Vance’s “Planet of Adventure” series is 4 books about a military scout who is stranded on a planet filled with a bunch of other intelligent species that subjugate humans who had been brought to the planet centuries ago.
He kicks they asses good on his adventure to find a ship, return to Earth and on the way instill some pride in the humans there.
these are the books with the famous Pnumes.
To me, no scifi writer’s words sing like Vance’s.
The Bolo books, about Keith Laumer’s AI driven tanks might qualify. They aren’t human themselves, but they do fight for and with them. And they dish out firepower measured in megatons per second, can take what they dish out, and are programmed as the perfect noble warriors. The later versions are more like battleships with tracks than tanks in the conventional sense, actually. Powerful enough that Bolo space transports have the Bolos attached on the outside, so they can attack any enemy starships that approach.