Earlier this week, I attended a conference put on by the Army's Training and Doctrine Command's Mad Scientist Initiative, a program designed to explore "the future through collaborative partnerships and continuous dialogue with academia, industry and government." The conference was titled "Learning in 2050," and was designed to examine how the Army would train soldiers in the deep future (which they define as the future where you can't realistically predict politics / technology) I was invited in the capacity of a science fiction writer, to give my thoughts on how science fiction might fit into the equation. That's a difficult question, because science fiction really isn't good at answering that question, but it does allow people to think about the future. Here's the talk that I gave:
When I graduated from Norwich University with my Masters’ in Military History a couple of years ago, I began thinking a bit more deeply about how the real-world military intersected with another passion of mine, science fiction. The genre has a grand tradition of depicting the armed forces over the course of its history, something I’ve contributed to with stories of my own, as well as an anthology that I edited.
Stories about future wars are well-suited for science fiction: the confluence of major technological advancement and investment in the years that followed World War II brought about stories of atomic weapons, spaceborne warships, and soldiers kitted out in advanced suits of armor, predictions of what we might go to war with in future conflicts.
But science fiction isn’t about predicting the future in a meaningful way. It’s true: authors like Jules Verne, Arthur C. Clarke, Philip K. Dick, and others have anticipated or even inspired technological advances: we certainly have submarines, satellites and the internet, but the future is more than just the technology that we deploy into the real world. Rather, science fiction is a framework and mindset with which we engage the future, thinking about the present moment and how our actions today will play out tomorrow.
Science fiction’s efforts to try and imagine and interpret the military world stretch to the earlier days of the genre. In 1871, a novella called The Battle of Dorking appeared in Blackwoods Magazine, set fifty years from its publication — 1921 — of a soldier recounting a battle to his grandchildren. England is invaded by a technologically superior enemy, and falls. It was a warning written by British Army general George Chesney, who had fought in India and was sent home due to injuries, and worried deficiencies he saw in the country’s armed forces at the time. While it wasn’t the first such “future war” story published, it was enormously popular, and would help to prefigure other stories of warfare that would come.
One such follow up story is far more recognizable: H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a dazzling story of invasion as aliens from Mars land on Earth with the intent of occupation, only to fall prey to microbes that they don’t have immunity to. Note: when you decide invade a planet, make sure you invest in biological containment protocols.
War of the Worlds and The Battle of Dorking gave rise to numerous successors: Starship Troopers, The Forever War, Ender’s Game, Red Storm Rising, Ghost Fleet, and many others. But if there’s anything that links these stories together, it’s that they haven’t realistically predicted the types of wars that we’ll actually face on the battlefield. We haven’t established bases on the moon or Mars. While there are early efforts at creating them, soldiers don’t go into the field clad in powered armor, and predictions of imminent hot wars between major world powers haven’t come to pass, although some stories could come close. But as no plan survives first contact with the enemy, no science fiction story survives first contact with the future.
Military science fiction is frequently set in the future, and it’s exciting! You get laser guns, giant robots, epic space battles, power armor, and more when you visit your bookstore or movie theater. But it’s a poor predictive tool. Science fiction promised us flying cars and bases on the moon, but we got Facebook and Twitter instead. Given the behavior of people on Facebook and Twitter, I think it’s probably a good thing that we haven’t been handed the keys to those jetpacks and flying cars.
So, if science fiction isn’t a good or accurate predictor of the future, what good is it, and how can it be harnessed as a tool in the arsenal of teaching soldiers how to anticipate the future?
This is something that I think about quite a bit. I’ve written stories of my own, and I’ve read and edited military sf stories, with the aim of using the genre to explore the world around us. Science fiction, in many ways, is an exercise in examination of the present world around us and how we got here. I might write about armored mechs and power armor-clad soldiers, but these stories simply wouldn’t make sense if they aren’t firmly rooted in the concerns of today. A couple of years ago, I published a short story called Fragmented. Its origins stem from an NPR article that I heard on the radio about how the army decontaminated tanks coming back from Iraq. It was an involved process, and it got me thinking: what would happen to a soldier who lived in their armor on a battlefield? It stood to reason that it would be an integral part of their survival, and that having that armor stripped away when they were done with their tour could be a traumatic experience, or might force them to face existence without it, the one constant thing that kept them alive through their trials.
When it came to editing War Stories, my co-editor and I wanted to get away from what we saw as jingoistic stories of heroic soldiers killing bug-eyed aliens. Instead, we put out a call for stories where the impact of warfare was central to the characters, whether they were soldiers or civilians. These stories don’t exist in a vacuum, and I hope that they’ve helped people understand that as obsessed with technology as military science fiction is, it isn’t the most important part of the story: it’s the characters and how they cope with the changes around them.
This is where I feel science fiction can be an important resource for any effort that looks at what we face in the years ahead. We don’t know what the future will hold — after all, science fiction has a terrible track record when it comes to predicting the future. But what it does do is allow people to make a critical first step towards defining the question: “what’s next?” It allows us to interrogate the present and think and grapple with the world that we’ll soon find ourselves living in. At its worst, it can be escapist fantasy of the thrill of action that has no lasting impact aside from a nice mental detour. At its most durable, it’s a close examination of where we are today, how today will morph into tomorrow, and influences the works that come after it.
How do we use the genre to prepare soldiers for the conflicts of that they’ll face in the decades ahead? If we think about the world that we’ll inhabit by 2050, think about the gulf in time between 2018 and 1986: 32 years ago. Cell phones were in their infancy. With those primitive phones in mind, think about how much more computing power we now carry with us, and the types of things that we can do. Just in the last couple of days, I navigated over 500 miles, using real-time directions and incident reports, I hailed a stranger in a car, caught some creatures with a geolocation-based game, and looked up a restaurant on a map all from my phone. The best science fiction stories don’t just imagine how technology functions, but how it’s used. Look at how people have abused app-based technologies or platforms like YouTube, Twitter or Facebook, either through routine mass-harassment from afar to soliciting like-minded friends for terrorist activities. Look at how the proliferation of cameras on these devices and how that correlates with the rise in coverage of police brutality, how these networks can bring marginalized communities together, or how the crowd can amass incredible amounts of data — all from their phones. This was the stuff of science fiction just decades ago.
We are living in a science fictional age. Think about some piece of technology that you might use in the field, and try to imagine how that technology might change in the same amount of time. When the cell phone was invented in 1973, I don’t think its inventors could have fathomed the 2008 Mumbai attacks, which were coordinated through the use of mobile phones, VOIP calling, and Google Earth. I recently wrote about a fitness app’s heat map that accidentally revealed the locations of military bases in the Middle East, data that foreign intelligence agents would have died to get their hands on. I think we’re all in agreement that technology will continue to advance at a rapid pace, and that it will continue to evolve, and will be used in any number of incredible ways. The future will be weirder than we can imagine.
Think about the technologies that are coming down the pipeline: autonomous vehicles, exoskeletons, new types of information at our fingertips. Science fiction has put these types of technology to use already, and it’s useful to play with the possibilities. In Linda Nagata’s The Red, soldiers use exoskeletons and brain interfaces to enhance their abilities on the battlefield. In Adam Robert’s New Model Army, he imagines crowdsourced warfare, where armies spring up instantly. We can write about these coming changes in clear, analytical reports or white papers. But as Peter Singer told me these are like paper Ambien. It’s stories about characters that excite us, and pull us into the world to imagine how we’ll react and what happens next. Stories are good at figuring out where technology breaks down because of how it’s used by people. I can easily imagine a story in which the first casualty of a future war isn’t from enemy combatants, but a bored soldier goofing off with a set of powered armor. I can imagine an enemy combatant stymying a new weapons system with a can of spray paint. There will be battlefields in new environments: dense urban combat in super cities, in regions wrecked by climate change, or in low earth orbit. Science fiction can allow us to understand problems — big and small —in ways we can easily grasp and comprehend, how to overcome them and fully understand the ramifications of introducing a new piece of expensive tech into the field.
But these stories are only as good as the problems and worlds that authors can imagine, and it’s important to remember not only that the futures imagined by science fiction authors aren’t always great predictors of the future, but that they can carry our own biases and weak points. When developing a body of work, it’s important to bring in a wide spectrum of viewpoints, to seek out and invite authors and thinkers who look and think differently from yourself. The best stories draw on all of the real world’s complexities and nuances to present a story and world that draws out those complex and nuanced problems and solutions.
We learn from these challenges, and with each new story, we practice how to approach those roadblocks and how to get comfortable with a rapidly changing environment.
Changes in technology, climate, and politics are the building blocks, but it’s how people and future soldiers inhabit those worlds that makes for good stories. How will soldiers of the future deal with the presence of robots on the battlefield? What decisions will they make to survive? What motivates them — and their adversaries to act? This is where science fiction storytelling has an added advantage: the emphasis on realism begets a fictional construct much like our own, where its characters are constrained by their surroundings. By framing these imaginary futures in a realistic framework for which we can create moral dilemma that force characters to act, we can use fiction to put ourselves in the place of the characters, ask how we would make the decisions that they need to make, and learn from their mistakes. Stories aren’t about an advanced piece of technology; they’re about how the characters exist in whatever futures we’ve imagined for them.
This is where storytelling can be a powerful tool. Storytelling sparks curiosity, and gets us interested defining an unknown future. I’m very fond of a quote from Secretary of Defense James Mattis, that he’s “never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before,” because of the books and stories he’s read. When done right, fiction goes beyond mere entertainment: it’s a way to generate discussion about those conflicts that drive good stories. Ideally, your future soldiers won’t be involved in something that makes for a good science fiction story (just remember, biological containment protocols in first contact scenarios).
Ultimately, the future is uncertain, and uncertainty is scary. Engaging with the future through fiction, where the stakes are low, allows us to learn and practice those first steps that we take into tomorrow and prepare us for the world that we’ll soon inhabit.
Alongside any plans for the future, there should be a strong body of artistic work to complement it, to educate and inspire the people who will fight for us. We’ve discussed many plans and theories for what to do next at this conference, and I’d like to challenge you to help take this first step: pick up a new book and carve out time to read it. Do it over and over. Pick up a pen or open a word document, and imagine a future you want to see. Then do it again. And again.