- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.
By Michael Clauser
Best Defense guest literary critic
Want to think about the future? Try science fiction. The scientists, engineers, and mathematicians only come after to solve the inevitable technological challenges posed first by the writers.
After all, it was Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea (1870) that envisioned the submarine and his From the Earth to the Moon (1865) that articulated a coherent vision for space travel. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818) suggested the interoperability and regeneration of body parts (BTW: Are you an organ donor?). What are the iPhone or Android smartphones other than early attempts at the “tricorder” from Gene Rodenberry’s Star Trek (1966)? Speaking of androids, Karel Capuk’s R.U.R. (1920) introduced the very word “robot” into the English lexicon — though today we call the type that flies over certain countries “drones” and the type that sweeps your floors Roombas. H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897) featured a “heat ray” weapon, well before Boeing’s YAL-1 Airborne Laser or Raytheon’s Active Denial System. The recent controversy over the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata has engendered comparisons to George Orwell’s dystopian 1984 (1949). Big data makes the Nest thermostat self-learning, though not self-aware — yet — but when the glowing red circle does, it might rename itself “HAL” from Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).
If science fiction literature is so vital to pushing the envelope on “what could be” in future technological advances, why does the genre feature so dismally in the myriad military reading lists published by Pentagon brass? In fact, the number of science-fiction books — if they appear — barely number more than the number of Harlequin romances. Look for yourself:
When science fiction does appear on service chiefs’ reading lists, it’s usually Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959) or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (1985), two volumes that present stark, stylized, and idealized notions of leadership, statesmanship, strategy, or virtue useful for leadership development. Both are stellar works — as are Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) and Isaac Asimov’s Foundation (1942) — two of my favorites. But the technological speculation in these books, like their futuristic settings, is secondary to their narratives on leadership and strategy.
This leaves the question: Which works of contemporary science fiction should young military officers read for a glimpse into the future of military technology? If drones, cyber, biotech, nukes, lasers, subs, and commercial space travel are all now — then what’s next? Invisibility? Nanite warfare? Cyborgs? Teleportation? Telekinetics? Time travel? Cryogenics? What science-fiction predictions of today would make even DARPA giggle?
One colleague suggested titles like Jon Scalzi’s Old Man’s War (2007), Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War (2012), Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005), Ian MacDonald’s The Dervish House (2010), and Mark Jacobsen’s Lords of Harambee (2012). Another suggested Alas, Babylon (2013) by Pat Frank, Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (2010), A Canticle for Liebowitz (1984) by Walter M. Miller, and The Sten Series (2010) by Allan Cole and Chris Bunch.
Unable to vouch for many of these myself, I leave it up to readers of the Best Defense to suggest today’s science fiction titles for tomorrow’s military technology. What do you think?
Michael Clauser works in tech, but sure didn’t major in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics at Penn State. He served in the administration of George W. Bush in the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill, and is an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve. He thanks his Dad for introducing him to science fiction at a young age. The views and opinions of the author expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of the U.S. Navy, the U.S. Government, or Starfleet Command.