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Future War

Entry updated 15 March 2024. Tagged: Theme.


One of the principal imaginative stimuli to futuristic and scientific speculation has been the possibility of War (which see for an overview of this encyclopedia's coverage of the broader theme), and the possibility that new Technology might transform war. This stimulus was particularly important during the period 1870-1914 and in the years following the revelation of the atom bomb in 1945.

Antique futuristic fictions such as the anonymous Reign of George VI, 1900-25 (1763) anticipate little change in the business of war; here King George, sabre in hand, leads his cavalry in the charge. In the mid-nineteenth century, however, awareness of technological change spread rapidly. Herrmann Lang was able to envisage very different patterns of future combat in The Air Battle (1859), and many new technologies were displayed during the US Civil War (1861-1865) and observed by representatives of various European nations. When the German Empire was consolidated after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 the strength and firepower of the new German Army inspired an urgent campaign for the reform and rearmament of the British Army. The case was dramatized by Sir George Chesney in The Battle of Dorking (May 1871 Blackwood's Magazine; 1871 chap), a drama-documentary illustrating the ease with which an invading German army might reach London. It caused a sensation, and initiated a debate which continued until World War One itself broke out (see Battle of Dorking; Invasion). A new subgenre of fiction had been inaugurated, and future-war stories were established as a brand of popular romance; the development of the subgenre, well documented in I F Clarke's Voices Prophesying War, 1763-1984 (1966; rev 1992), featured such successful alarmist works as Erskine Childers's The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and William Le Queux's The Invasion of 1910 (1906), which made a great impact when it was serialized in the newborn Daily Mail. Many products of this glut of jingoistic fiction eagerly embraced the myth of a war to end war – as mapped out in Louis Tracy's The Final War (1896) – and the popularity of this kind of fiction helped to generate the great enthusiasm which Britons carried into the real war against Germany when it finally came. The great bulk of this fiction was relatively mundane, envisaging quite modest alterations in tactics as a result of new Technology. The Captain of the Mary Rose (1892) by W Laird Clowes (1856-1905), Blake of the Rattlesnake (1895) by Fred T Jane and "Danger!" (July 1914 Strand) by Arthur Conan Doyle are outstanding examples of the realistic school of speculation; and the most careful of them all, The Great War of 189-: A Forecast (1893) by P H Colomb (1831-1899) and other military experts, instituted a tradition of drama-documentaries subsequently carried forward by Hector C Bywater's The Great Pacific War (1925) and, much later, The Third World War (1979) by General Sir John Hackett and others.

Airships and submarines were by far the most popular innovations in early future-war fiction. They were displayed to lavish effect by George Griffith, the most extravagant of the subgenre's writers, in The Angel of the Revolution (21 January-14 October 1893 Pearson's Weekly; cut 1893) and Olga Romanoff (23 December 1893-4 August 1894 Pearson's Weekly as "The Syren of the Skies"; rev 1894). The discovery of X-rays in 1895 encouraged writers to dream up more fanciful new Weapons; in Griffith's posthumously published The Lord of Labour (1911), the future war is fought with atomic missiles and disintegrator Rays. The worst excesses of this subgenre are parodied in Michael Moorcock's The Warlord of the Air (1971) and The Land Leviathan (1974); Moorcock also edited a notable theme anthology of works from the period, published in two volumes as Before Armageddon (anth 1975) and England Invaded (anth 1977). An ambitious but reasonably disciplined imagination was brought to bear by H G Wells in "The Land Ironclads" (December 1903 Strand), The War in the Air (1908) and the atom-bomb story The World Set Free (1914). The British High Command, however, continued to the bitter end to show an extreme conservatism of imagination, refusing to believe in the potential of the submarine or the aeroplane until they were shown the way by the Germans.

Future-war stories enjoyed a second heyday in the UK between the Wars, when the actual example of World War One caused many writers to believe that a new war might mean the end of civilization – a conviction bleakly expressed by Edward Shanks in The People of the Ruins (1920) and Cicely Hamilton in Theodore Savage (1922). This kind of anxiety intensified in such novels as Neil Bell's The Gas War of 1940 (1931 as Miles; vt Valiant Clay 1934 as NB) and John Gloag's Tomorrow's Yesterday (1932), and became almost hysterical as Europe lurched towards a new war following Hitler's rise to power (see also Hitler Wins). Invasion from the Air: A Prophetic Novel (1934) by Frank McIlraith and Roy Connolly, Day of Wrath (1936) by Joseph O'Neill and Four Days War (1936) by S Fowler Wright all feature chilling accounts of cities devastated by aerial bombing with Poison gas.

US future-war fiction was not so prolific, nor – understandably, in view of the USA's very different experience of World War One – did it ever become so pessimistic. Frank R Stockton's The Great War Syndicate (1889) and Stanley Waterloo's Armageddon (1898) are mild by comparison with contemporary UK works, and the invasion of the USA by Asiatics, although a staple of pulp melodrama, never really seemed likely enough to inspire genuine alarmist fantasy. The bleakest visions of future war written in the USA before 1945 – Herbert Best's The Twenty-Fifth Hour (1940) and L Ron Hubbard's Final Blackout (April-June 1940 Astounding; 1948) – both describe the devastation of Europe. This situation changed dramatically, however, with the advent of the atom bomb, which bred an alarmism all of its own and inspired a new subgenre of stories concerning the Holocaust.

Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) was a logical extension of the more conventional nineteenth-century future-war story, as was Robert William Cole's story of colonial war against Sirian aliens in The Struggle for Empire (1900), but the other-worldly wars fought in most pulp interplanetary romance of the Edgar Rice Burroughs school were mostly fought with swords. The specialist sf pulps, however, embraced a more conscientiously futuristic outlook whereby interplanetary wars were to be fought by fleets of Spaceships armed with marvellous ray-guns and the like. Space Opera thrived on wars between races, worlds and Galactic Empires. Wherever its Heroes went they found cosmic conflicts in progress, and they never felt inhibited about joining in. Such was the moral insight of pulp fantasists that these heroes hardly ever had the slightest difficulty in selecting the "right" side: it was handsome and honourable vs ugly and treacherous.

The quest to discover bigger and more powerful Weapons was driven to its limits in a few short years. Spectacular genocide became commonplace, as in Edmond Hamilton's "The Other Side of the Moon" (Fall 1929 Amazing Stories Quarterly), and Stars were blown up in prolific quantity. War waged across time between Alternate Histories was invented by Jack Williamson in The Legion of Time (May-July 1938 Astounding; rev 1952). Anti-war stories like Miles J Breuer's "The Gostak and the Doshes" (March 1930 Amazing) and Nat Schachner's "World Gone Mad" (October 1935 Amazing) were in a tiny minority until the outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 helped encourage a new seriousness, most conscientiously displayed in John W Campbell Jr's Astounding Science-Fiction, where A E van Vogt began chronicling The War Against the Rull (stories April 1940-February 1950 Astounding; fixup 1959). Ross Rocklynne's "Quietus" (September 1940 Astounding) made an issue of the dilemma which had been so easily sidestepped in the past: when visitors from elsewhere find two creatures locked in conflict, how do they choose which to help? After World War Two, anti-war stories appeared far more frequently in the sf magazines; notable are several stories by Eric Frank Russell, including "Late Night Final" (December 1948 Astounding) and "I Am Nothing" (July 1952 Astounding), and several by Fritz Leiber, including "The Foxholes of Mars" (June 1952 Thrilling Wonder) and "A Bad Day for Sales" (July 1953 Galaxy). More ironic approaches to the question include several stories in which war has become institutionalized as a spectator sport (see Games and Sports), such as Gunner Cade (March-May 1952 Astounding; 1952) by Cyril Judd (C M Kornbluth and Judith Merril) and Mack Reynolds's Mercenary from Tomorrow (April 1962 Analog as "Mercenary"; exp 1968). Sf writers' reflections on World War Two itself are assembled in The Fantastic World War II (anth 1990) edited by Martin H Greenberg, Frank McSherry Jr and Charles Waugh (Greenberg and Waugh anonymous), while notable stories of nuclear war are collected in Countdown to Midnight (anth 1984) edited by H Bruce Franklin.

Although the possibility of future wars on Earth and images of nuclear holocaust dominated the imagination of sf writers from 1945 through the 1950s, more exotic wars continued to be fought, and stories of interplanetary or interstellar war became a safer haven for militaristic adventures. For further discussion of this subtheme, see Military SF. [BS]

see also: Battletech; Changewar; History of SF; Imperial Gothic.

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