Science Fiction Studies

#120 = Volume 40, Part 2 = July 2013


John Huntington

Future Wars

Frederick Krome, ed. Fighting the Future War: An Anthology of Science Fiction War Stories, 1914-1945. New York: Routledge, 2012. xii + 417 pp. $125 hc; $64.95 pbk.

David Seed, ed. Future Wars: The Anticipations and the Fears. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2012. ix + 302 pp. £65 hc. Dist. in the US by U of Chicago P. $95 hc.

Both books under review here acknowledge a major debt to I.F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War (1966; rev. 1993), a work that has long stood as a model for how brilliant scholarship can open up a field and articulate the tropes of the critical discipline. Clarke posed what now is taken as an incontrovertible thesis: that the literature of a period, especially the popular literature, is functionally connected to the assumptions and events in the world, so that the depiction of a fictional war of the future can alert us to attitudes in the real world of the present. As David Seed puts it, “The history of future-war fiction thus becomes an account of the fears and expectations of a given historical moment” (2).

Let us acknowledge that “the fears and expectations” roused by future-war fiction are not reactions to actual foresight. In War and the Future (1917), a description of the European situation in the middle of the First World War, H.G. Wells calls into question the ability of even the most invested and experienced military men to anticipate what the coming war would be like. After touring the battlefields Wells concluded that “The whole method of war has been so altered in the past five and twenty years as to make it a new and different process altogether” (134). It is in the very nature of real war always to be testing and disrupting even the most sophisticated expectations. No one foresaw the trenches, the importance of photography for artillery, the dangers risked by women making cannon shells, the new potency given the individual soldier by the lightweight machine gun. Just as we cannot predict the directions natural selection will take, how chance mutations will alter relations of fitness, we cannot usefully anticipate the whole complexly interconnected phenomenon of war. It is modern war itself that constantly overturns previous truths and strategies.

Clarke’s paradigm essentially links popular fiction to propaganda. The two collections reviewed here agree that the wars depicted in sf are finally something like a video game in which realistic visual detail hides a conventional plot. Such war fiction often in the final analysis turns on an ethical issue—which side is the invader, which side is the justified defender?—an argument that is shaped as much by personal and national political perspectives as by objective insight. Imagined future wars, perhaps unconsciously, influence the populace to accept as reasonable and right political postures that a more disinterested perspective would reveal as serving nationalist political ends.

Frederick Krome’s Fighting the Future War is a remarkable and useful anthology of American sf stories selected to support Clarke’s thesis. Unlike most anthologies, whose selection is intended as a showcase for the aesthetic values of the works or for their generic characteristics, this anthology makes no such claims. Most of these tales are embarrassingly awkward and unsophisticated. In the spirit of Clarke, Krome has gathered clusters of stories as evidence for a thesis about changes in general attitudes in the US between, roughly, 1910 and 1945. One finds assertions such as: “During World War I a number of Future War stories argued that technology was the key to breaking the deadlock of trench warfare. After 1918, the focus of the Future War story was more likely to project a nightmare scenario in which industrial and technological warfare led to the destruction of civilization” (6). This may be true, though the lack of specifics (how many stories? how “likely”?) leaves the anthology itself as an assertion with no clear proof. We have Krome’s word that these selected stories are representative of their historical moment, but the stories themselves do not make that point. They are simply “examples” of the kind of story Krome claims is common during the particular periods.

The era the anthology covers is, of course, a significant time for sf itself, starting with Hugo Gernsback’s early half-fictional, half-instructional pieces for The Electrical Experimenter, moving to Amazing Stories where the genre was articulated, and culminating in Cleve Cartmill’s seemingly prescient “Deadline” (1944) in Astounding. For literary study, the real value of the anthology is not its purported mapping of American interests but its almost unconscious gathering of a large number of pulp sf stories about war with little attention to their quality. Here is an sf anthology that achieves something one could never construct on purpose: it richly renders that early pulp era without forced enthusiasms and without condescension or irony. I should think this would make a terrific teaching anthology.

One of the virtues of the collection is that the stories that Krome has gathered to promote his thesis may be read in ways that go well beyond his organizing thesis. The broad positions Krome ascribes to the stories to justify their inclusion in the anthology entail simplifications of the narrative complexity inherent in even the most naïve and clumsy stories. “Deadline,” for instance, is famous nowadays for its remarkable details about aspects of the atomic bomb that were little known in 1944. Yet it also reveals and clumsily camouflages its precise historical application by being set on some other planet where people have tails, are given sf-sounding names that are common English names spelled backwards (Ybor and Ylas), and participate in a war of the “Seilla” against the “Sixa.” In the midst of tremendously important issues of who will first perfect the bomb or how catastrophic the bomb will be, the story spends much of its time on the logical puzzle of how you can convince someone you are who you claim to be. In the context of future wars, “Deadline” is interesting for its very refusal to motivate its plot by invoking the moral and political differences that most concern the Allied cause of 1944. It may be its strangely muted relation to the world crisis that led one fan to complain that this story, so celebrated as an example of sf anticipation, was just “mediocre fantasy” (Carter 24).

It is appropriate that most of the essays in David Seed’s anthology Future Wars: The Anticipations and the Fears should develop the political consequences of Clarke’s linking of narratives of fictional war to contemporary national moods. Only one story in Krome’s anthology, Nat Schachner’s “World Gone Mad” (Amazing Stories 1935), explicitly challenges the truth of war propaganda and concludes in despair of our ever understanding the actual war situation. Seed’s collection begins with a Clarke essay, “Future War Fiction: 1871-1900,” and it includes a complete bibliography of Clarke’s writings as part of its back matter. The dozen essays that follow Clarke’s develop variations on Clarke’s central thesis that the proto-sf war stories of this period were, as Clarke puts it, “admonitory essays in preparedness” (16).

This pattern is most clearly and explicitly developed by the second essay in the book: H. Bruce Franklin’s “How America’s Fictions of Future War Have Changed the World.” Franklin gives the idea an especially dark slant, tracing a recurrent self-serving conviction that by arming itself the nation will discourage others from making war. According to Franklin, a vision of “weapons as the path to peace” (37) permeates the US imagination so much that he can assert that sf shapes foreign policy. He suggests that the bombing of Hiroshima is the outcome of Truman’s having read Fred Allhoff’s serialization Lightning in the Night in 1940. We are told that the men in George W. Bush’s cabinet had imbibed this sf trope to such an extent that Paul Wolfowitz’s short treatise “Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces, and Resources for a New Century” (2000) “can be read instructively as a form of twenty-first-century science fiction” (43-44). For Franklin, the motive behind the logic of war to prevent war is a drive to “empire.” “What they call ‘the American peace’ will inevitably require a kind of permanent war” (46).

John Rieder’s “John Henry Palmer’s The Invasion of New York, or, How Hawaii Was Annexed: Political Discourse and Emergent Mass Culture in 1897” is essentially a case history of Clarke’s thesis. Rieder raises questions about how mass culture relates to historical events by moving back and forth between Palmer’s novel and the movement to annex the islands, showing how impossible it is, finally, to articulate a boundary between popular culture and history. David Seed’s own essay, “The Strategic Defense Initiative: A Utopian Fantasy,” works out a special version of this pattern by showing how President Reagan’s “Star Wars” laser defense flourished in a culture deeply influenced by the sf of the Golden Age and brought up to date by writers such as Jerry Pournelle, Larry Niven, Gregory Benford, and Ben Bova (though it was resisted by the likes of Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Frederik Pohl, Kim Stanley Robinson, and Thomas M. Disch). If the logic of “Mutually Assured Destruction” (MAD) sought to frighten people so that they would disarm, it was comparatively easy to play on a similar set of facts and technologies to preach “Mutually Assured Survival” (MAS). But it all comes back to the earlier delusion that if the US had superior military technology, “We [would] have the means almost within our grasp to put an end to war” (188).

Michael Matin also analyzes the scenario in an attempt to find a way out in “‘The Benefit and the Handicap of Hindsight’: Modeling Risk and Reassessing Future-War Fiction after the 9/11-Induced Shift to a US National Security Strategy of Pre-emptive Attack.” This thoughtful essay surveys the way sf has at times collaborated with political attitudes. The essay arrives at the wisdom that neither sf writers nor policy wonks may be able to imagine a method that can invariably prevent disasters, but they could learn how to prepare for such shocks and, importantly, how to understand the causes after the event.

Two other essays concerned with nuclear disaster in particular invert the paradigm by treating specific works of sf as taking stands against the military fantasy. Brian Baker’s “On the Beach: British Nuclear Fiction and the Spaces of Empire’s End” places Neville Shute’s 1957 novel in the genre of “cosy catastrophe.” Such a “terminal vision” is certainly linked to the agitator policies of the sf that Franklin studies, and is thus trapped in the colonialist’s sense that Western humanity must be protected, no matter where on the globe it is found. Nevertheless, Shute’s fantasy “escapes a foreclosing negativity in its impetus towards the future, a future which must be forestalled by political action” (159). Nicholas Ruddick’s “Adapting the Absurd Apocalypse: Eugene Burdick’s and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail-Safe and its Cinematic Progeny” meditates on the paradox that a good story tricks its readers into taking it seriously, even if it is irrevocably only pulp fiction. Here is the central puzzle raised by the low generic value of sf: Ruddick analyses two film-video remakes of Fail-Safe (1962) with this difficulty in mind.

Patrick Parrinder’s “War is Peace: Conscription and Mobilization in the Modern Utopia” reorients the central theme of the pervasive link between sf and the wars of history. Parrinder argues that much of the utopian thought of the past century, starting with Bellamy, in seeking what William James termed “the moral equivalent of war,” found itself imagining the solution in terms of regimentation and order. The standing army, which can be so much a sign of global ambitions, becomes in this reading not so much an instrument of a global empire as a means of maintaining domestic order.

In this grim rendering of sf as a party to the debate about national defense policies, a couple of essays offer some relief. Though the title of Rob Latham’s short essay, “Prophesying Neocolonial Wars in 1950s American Science Fiction,” makes it sound like the next installment in the unhappy theme of the American Empire, Latham’s discussion focuses on Robert Sheckley and William Tenn as comic utopianists resisting the nationalist party line. This is a refreshing take. It treats sf not as the secret ally of war but as the voice of ironic resistance, speaking to the moral and intellectual absurdity of the goals of power. It also frees us from the all-too-common picture of the 1950s as a universally pale, flat world of unquestioning, robotic conformity.

Robert Crossley’s “From Invasion to Liberation: Alternative Visions of Mars” cites instances of Mars as a site of revolutionary liberation in Russia, of a right-wing dream of Libertarian resistance to corporate and governmental control in midcentury US sf, and finally, in Kevin Anderson’s Climbing Olympus (1994) and Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy (1993-96), of a revolution in the name of cooperation. Anyone who has read Crossley’s Imagining Mars: A Literary History (2011) will recognize the material he covers here, but this essay is not simply a short version of the book. The war theme has allowed Crossley to rethink his material. Protazanov’s film Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924), which Crossley earlier in the Mars book dismissed for its cheap ending, here receives a new reading that respects it as skillful and coherent populist propaganda for the consolidation of the revolution. Lester del Rey’s Police Your Planet (1956) he now sees as “by far the most intriguing of the mid-century liberationist Mars novels” (78), and he expands his analysis accordingly.

Two essays on specific authors touch on the topic of war in sf yet seem remote from the main line of the anthology. In “When All Wars Are Done: The Transcendent Humanity of Iain M. Banks,” Patricia Kerslake keeps coming back to the sources of war, but in a broad, abstract way, framing the situation in terms of an “urge to conflict” that is “second nature to the human race” (203). In “John Wyndham’s World War III and his Abandoned Fury of Creation Trilogy,” David Ketterer offers a very intricate untangling of the holograph materials that went into the writing of Day of the Triffids (1951), arguing that in Wyndham’s original plan the novel was to be the second volume of a trilogy culminating in a nuclear war between the US and Russia, the Third World War.

In “The War after Next: Anticipating Future Conflict in the New Millennium,” the final essay in the collection, Antulio J. Echevarria II, identified as the Director of Research at the US Army War College, brings us back to a familiar kind of informed prediction of what is in the offing. After covering some of the basic structures by which modern forecasters frame their analyses (“estimates,” “forecasts,” and “scenarios”), he surveys the areas in which weaponry will advance: high-tech Info-war, Bio-war, and Nano-war (248).

Except in the Echevarria essay, there is little discussion of the icons (to use Gary K. Wolfe’s term) of sf: invention, discovery, technology, weaponry, or transportation. Though Wells’s War of the Worlds (1898) with its Martians gets frequent citation, the alien invader is scarce. Darko Suvin’s “cognitive estrangement” is never mentioned. There is something defining in these absences. Clarke’s paradigm of sf’s involvement with contemporary history entails a severe restriction of the utopian element of sf. Perhaps it is the subject of war that causes this limitation; war is too intricate, too possible, and too horrible to be treated with the imaginative freedom we expect from sf. So except in the cases of comic sf or of stories with other-world situations, stories about war get sucked into the service of nationalist propaganda.

Carter, Paul A. The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction. New York: Columbia UP, 1977.
Crossley, Robert. Imagining Mars: A Literary History. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2011.
Wells, H.G. War and the Future. London: Cassell, 1917.
Wolfe, Gary K. The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction. Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1979.


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