Future Wars and Other Calamities

A couple of years ago I covered a conference of military officers and academics who gathered together to speculate on what America’s next large-scale war—as in, a war on the order of World War II—might look like and how it might be fought. In the paper I was commissioned to write, I was encouraged to poke at the meta-question of why we conceive of war the way we do, which led pretty naturally to science fiction.1 One book I came across that proved really useful for getting my bearings was Future War Novels: An Annotated Bibliography of Works in English Published Since 1946. Published by Oryx Press in 1984, this book must have been a labor of love for its authors, John Newman and Michael Unsworth, who read and wrote up paragraph-long synopses of 191 novels from the famous to the obscure (at least to me), editorializing when they were so moved.2

Clearly avid science fiction readers, Newman and Unsworth also explicitly connected their efforts to their contemporaneous geopolitical situation: the Cold War, and more to the point, the chances of it becoming hot. As the authors put it,

nuclear war is not unthinkable, as persons outraged at the idea sometimes say. Indeed, we think and write about nuclear war, and future war in general, all of the time…. The fiction since 1945, even that dealing with small or undeclared wars, reflects a political and military situation in which weapons are never far over the horizon.

It’s not even remotely news that science fiction offers a running commentary on current events. For me at least (I was born in 1975), science fiction defined the Cold War more than what I learned in school did; to this day, whenever I think about the Cold War, the sound of a theremin is not far behind.

But the obvious connection between science fiction and current events brings us to an interesting point: What is science fiction commenting on now? It’s a slippery question, as since the end of the Cold War, the way that the world appears in the popular imagination has been in a bit of flux.

“Economics is the new politics,” I remember a classmate in graduate school saying during either a caffeine- or alcohol-fueled argument—I can’t recall which—and science fiction has been dealing with economics for a long time. A discussion Paul Krugman3 started on his New York Times blog about economics in science fiction back in May yielded an impressive list of SF novels and short stories that have taken on economic issues.4 Since the end of the Cold War, the paradigm of globalization—of increased interconnectedness, economic and otherwise—has become a decent candidate for being the overarching logic of how the world works today. Though people are still arguing over what the word globalization means—and sadly, of course, it has been complicated by terrorism.

In 2044, when a future Newman and Unsworth set out to write a companion volume to Future War Novels to show how science fiction has reflected and commented on world affairs from the end of the Cold War to the present day, what will the title of the book be? What classics will jump out at us from its pages, the way that A Canticle for Leibowitz, Greybeard, On the Beach, and many of Robert A. Heinlein’s and Philip K. Dick’s books do now?

Or perhaps it’s better to ask a broader question: Could a book like Future War Novels be compiled about today’s science fiction? Would we need several such books to capture what science fiction is up to these days? Or are there topics that you wish science fiction would grapple with more?

1 In between conference sessions, as the participants were talking among themselves, it came up that several of them were science fiction readers, and fans of John Scalzi in particular. This gave me a wonderful opening to interview Scalzi and quote him at length for the paper, which I still haven’t properly thanked him for.

2 Page 41 of Future War Novels covers three books from 1965. One is Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney (“Despite its utter strangeness and outwardly depressing subject, this is a credible literary effort that is interesting to read.”) The other two are Zero Plus Ten by Florence E. Ball (“Unrealistic dialog and an impossible plot are not helped by simple line drawings of such subjects as a hut in the forest. In all, the book seems to have no point.”) and The Year of the Angry Rabbit by Russell Braddon (“Despite all human efforts, the rabbits take over Australia, driving out the white inhabitants. After all the humans have gone, the rabbits accidentally trigger the mechanism that will release the fatal poison worldwide”).

3 I know, I know—another post that name-checks Paul Krugman. I promise to abstain from Krugman-related comments for at least another two posts.

4 Tomorrow we’ll be able to add to that list Metatropolis, a collection of novellas about “the dawn of uncivilization” by Elizabeth Bear, Tobias Buckell, Jay Lake, John Scalzi, and Karl Schroeder. The authors have been tantalizingly mum about the full contents of the volume, but the stories do appear to be about economic as well as environmental calamity, at least to some extent. As Real Clear Politics’ recent average of a couple dozen polls suggests that 87.3 percent of Americans think the country is headed in the wrong direction, clearly the authors have their collective finger on the pulse of current fears about the state of the United States—and for that matter, the world. It is, after all, a global financial crisis—and global climate change—we’re facing.


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