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Old 20th March 2012, 05:58 AM   #1 (permalink)
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Fictional Military Ranks

In my book series, I'm hoping to somewhat plausibly portray the operations and structure of a space-based military force. One of my big pet peeves with much contemporary space opera is the automatic transplantation of naval ranks and terminology to an outer space setting. To me this represents a massive failure of imagination on the part of the authors in question, and it makes the entire setting and narrative seem just plain silly. A few authors, such as Frank Herbert, have tried to break from this trend by coming up with entirely new ranks, but even here one can usually see that they're simply cannibalizing terminology from history books. I'm hoping that I can create a believable rank structure used in military space forces several centuries in the future and also work out the back-story of their evolution over time. This is a significant challenge, because my military knowledge is minimal, and I'm having a hard time finding literature that deals in any meaningful way with the evolution of military organizations. All I've been able to come up with so far is replacing the term "Private" with the term "Ordinate" (derived from "subordinate"). Does anyone have any reading material on this subject they'd recommend?
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Old 20th March 2012, 08:25 AM   #2 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

To give you a very basic knowledge, you could look at Comparative Military Ranks on wilipedia. I would also recommend (of all things) a good dictionary, which will give you the origins of the titles - for instance, sergeant comes from Old French sergent, a servant; and private is from Latin privus, an individual. I would be careful with the word Ordinate by the way, as it's a mathematics term.

You might also look at other languages for idea, hence the wiki page suggestion. In Russian and Bulgarian, the word for regiment is Polk, whilst the word for a colonel, the rank that commands a regiment is Polkovnik. So the relationship between the rank and the assigned responsibility might be worth considering.

I wonder if it might be an idea to keep some of the ranks, though, even if you wish to change some things. Many of the ranks have been around for some time, so they might feasibly last, in some form, for a while to come yet. However, an alternative might be to create a completely different command structure, thus you wouldn't be simply using X for private, Y for corporal, Z for sergeant and so on - in which case there would be no reason to have different names. Anyway, good luck.
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Old 20th March 2012, 08:36 AM   #3 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

I've spent the last year or so building a fictional space army, and played around with its my army and I can have whatever structure I like. I did, as it happens, keep with familiar terms simply because it makes it easy for the reader to figure out who's in charge, but when I was considering using my own terms, the one thing I found hard to change and keep it plausible, was the structure within the army itself. So, I guess if you can get the structure in place, you can really do what you like with names, but if the structure isn't there, or right, then plausibility goes out the window.
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Old 20th March 2012, 09:13 AM   #4 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

The reason most writers transfer existing actual ranks into space is because

A) Reader's are familiar with them, so it makes it easier to read
B) This is almost certainly what would/will actually happen, and indeed is precisely what IS happening (most astronauts are military personnel).

While naval rank is typically the one most commonly used in science fiction, most astronauts actually come from the Air Force, so you might want to explore that avenue.

If you consider that most modern army ranks have existed unchanged for many, many centuries, and if you consider how important tradition is to the military, it is highly improbable that an earth-originated space-based military would have totally new rank structures.

If of course, the military force is not earth-originated, all bets are off, and you can do whatever you want.
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Old 20th March 2012, 09:18 AM   #5 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

IIRC, Starship Troopers (the original book, not the film), included the rank of Sky Marshal as a space-updated version of Field Marshal.

Beyond that, I don't think Heinlein changed any ranks. But it has been a few years since I read the book.
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Old 20th March 2012, 10:37 AM   #6 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

The use of Roman ranks would be a slight change to the norm.

Whatever you do don't lose the reader, I perfer to stick with the normal army ranks as they don't have to be explained.
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Old 20th March 2012, 10:46 AM   #7 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

There is no reason you can't make up your own rank titles, but there is a certain accessibility factor to consider when doing so. It's much easier for people to relate to existing ranks, then have to figure out exactly where your made up ranks are placed in the hierarchy.

I think Bowler is on the right track, I'd just use a more obscure ranking system - or look into the same titles in other languages, like latin.
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Old 20th March 2012, 10:49 AM   #8 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

They had something like Bowler suggests in the Kryomek table-top wargame. I got a little lost after centurions, because they moved on to bicenturions*, and a unit called a "myriad" which my mind translated as "a great big bunch o' troops".

Adding colour is good. Confusing the reader is not.

In charge of two "centuries" (200 troops)?

Last edited by David Evil Overlord; 20th March 2012 at 10:50 AM. Reason: Warren poked his rank and obscure Latin in before I could post.
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Old 20th March 2012, 03:23 PM   #9 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

Just thinking Germanic, the Teutonic knight structre is nicely complicated with loads of ranks: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Knights_Teutonic Perhaps borrow that and change the spellings and words or translate them. Although I'd be incredibly surprised if it hasn't been used in SF before...but you never know...

Personally if I wanted to re-invent the wheel with this one, I would focus entirely on how you've organised your men and assets and what roles they actually do - then name them for that, but I agree with what most people have said so far and be a bit wary - as a whole bunch of made-up ranks could easily end up confusing readers.

(Although looking into this gave me loads of ideas and great names, thinking of space-to-planet assault, gave me the imagery of a large 'foot' stamping on the planet, so the craft could be 'Alipeds' - from the Latin for wing-footed)
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Old 20th March 2012, 04:15 PM   #10 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

In my fictional universe, I'm thinking that real world military ranks would tend to last for a significant amount of time just as present-day nations would last for a significant amount of time (a unified government does not arise on Earth until the late twenty-third century). At the same time, however, I'm wanting to explore the rise of military establishments in off-world colonies around the solar system. These forces would be largely built from scratch and have a completely different command structure from Earth-based military forces. I'm thinking they would be organized more along functional than hierarchical lines, which has basically been the case with the crews of real world manned space missions (the shuttle missions, for example, incorporated a "commander", "pilot", "payload commander", "mission specialist", "flight engineer", etc). Another factor would be that military forces are established relatively late in the colonies' development due the relative absence of external enemies, and first arise as "external operations" departments of internal peacekeeping forces.
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Old 20th March 2012, 07:23 PM   #11 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

Quote:
Originally Posted by Omnis View Post
In my fictional universe, I'm thinking that real world military ranks would tend to last for a significant amount of time just as present-day nations would last for a significant amount of time (a unified government does not arise on Earth until the late twenty-third century). At the same time, however, I'm wanting to explore the rise of military establishments in off-world colonies around the solar system. These forces would be largely built from scratch and have a completely different command structure from Earth-based military forces. I'm thinking they would be organized more along functional than hierarchical lines, which has basically been the case with the crews of real world manned space missions (the shuttle missions, for example, incorporated a "commander", "pilot", "payload commander", "mission specialist", "flight engineer", etc). Another factor would be that military forces are established relatively late in the colonies' development due the relative absence of external enemies, and first arise as "external operations" departments of internal peacekeeping forces.

Maybe you could give them ranks akin to municipal police, then? Or it might be interesting to have a colonial militia organized along the lines of county enforcement. Sheriffs, Marshals, etc. I'm American and I don't really know what you Brits have in terms of local law enforcement, so your mileage may vary.
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Old 20th March 2012, 10:34 PM   #12 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

Quote:
Originally Posted by David Evil Overlord View Post
They had something like Bowler suggests in the Kryomek table-top wargame. I got a little lost after centurions, because they moved on to bicenturions*, and a unit called a "myriad" which my mind translated as "a great big bunch o' troops".

Adding colour is good. Confusing the reader is not.

In charge of two "centuries" (200 troops)?

I would imagine a bicenturion would command half a century. Two centuries would be a dicenturion or something like that.

There's a common misconception that a century was 100 men. It was actually typically 80 men at full strength (10 contubernia of 8 men each), except for the centuriae of the First Cohort which would be 160 men each. In fact it's now disputed whether "century" (or centuria in latin) actually had anything to do with "100" (centum). Rather it means "tribe" or "company" and is thought to have derived from the original tribal system of the Roman Tribal and Century Assemblies.
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Old 20th March 2012, 10:39 PM   #13 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

Ah, thanks for that, Gumboot.
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Old 20th March 2012, 10:40 PM   #14 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

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Originally Posted by Omnis View Post
I'm thinking they would be organized more along functional than hierarchical lines, which has basically been the case with the crews of real world manned space missions (the shuttle missions, for example, incorporated a "commander", "pilot", "payload commander", "mission specialist", "flight engineer", etc).

Those aren't ranks, they're job descriptions. You'll find that most of the crew on a shuttle mission are military personnel, and retain their military ranks.

In the same way a tank has a commander, driver, loader, gunner... and an old WW2 era bomber would have pilot, co-pilot, bombardier, navigator, wireless operator, gunners... but each of those crew also has a military rank.
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Old 20th March 2012, 11:06 PM   #15 (permalink)
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Re: Fictional Military Ranks

For what it's worth, if you are going to create your own rank structure I agree with others that you need to work out the structure of your military first. Ranks generally derive from function. For example, if we look at the core army officer ranks;

Captain derives from "head, chief" and is pretty self-explanatory; modern military ranks originate in the free companies of medieval warfare (which were called companies because they were literally a financial collective where each member owned "shares" in the company's spoils). These lacked formal structure, and tended to be a collective of soldiers led by a single "chief". A company could be any size. To this day, officers of Captain rank generally command a Company.

Lieutenant is derived from French and means "occupying the place of" (lieu + tenant). A Lieutenant was literally a member of the company who would fulfill the Captain's duties when the Captain wasn't available. Often if the force was split in two the Captain would command the right wing and a "lieutenant" would command the left, which is incidentally the origin of the erroneous English pronunciation "left-tenant".

Thus, when companies became more structured and/or too large for one person to command, you ended up with multiple lieutenants commanding sub-divisions of the company on the Captain's behalf; hence today the subdivision of the Company - the platoon - is commanded by a Lieutenant.

Where a group of companies were collected together, the most senior Captain would be designated the overall commander, given authority to rule (regiment) the collective force. Thus the collective force became known as his "regiment". "Colonel" derives from "leader of the column". Thus today a Colonel typically commands a regiment. (The rank of "Major" came later once military forces became more structured).

Meanwhile the "General" ranks are so-called because the field ranks (up to Colonel, although in some modern armies up to Brigadier) typically denoted command of a single branch of forces (infantry, artillery or cavalry). An officer who commanded a force of multiple types was known as a "general officer" because they weren't specialised in leading specific troop types.
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