The Editor of the War Stories From The Future anthology talks research, writing and the future of science fiction.
Over the holiday break I was fortunate enough to stumble across War Stories From the Future, a short-story collection put together under the Art of Future War project that is sponsored by the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. The collection features some of the top names in science fiction, including David Brin, Linda Nagata and Ken Liu. Overall, the stories perfectly align with the Adjacent Possible concept, so I was thrilled when I reached out to the collection’s editor, August Cole, an author and analyst specializing in national security issues, and he agreed to a Q&A.
Cole is a nonresident senior fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council and the director of the Art of Future War project, which explores narrative fiction and visual media for insight into the future of conflict. He is also writer-in-residence at Avascent, an independent strategy and management consulting firm focused on the defense and aerospace sectors.
Our Q&A covered a lot of ground as August was incredibly generous with his time. His answers provided great insights into the current state of science fiction, storytelling, and how as a society we need to think differently about the future. His answers also revealed terrific insights for anyone who has literary ambitions.
Before we jump in, a quick pitch for The Adjacent Possible. The weekly newsletter provides thought-provoking inspiration that’s ideal for writers, would-be writers and readers who lean toward the first part of the term “science fiction.” You can sign up here.
First, tell us a little about the Art of Future Warfare initiative from the Atlantic Council and the War Stories from the Future project?
Just over a year ago, the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security’s Art of Future Warfare project started out trying to answer the question:
“Can artists play a meaningful role in the national security community for not only their visions of the future but in how they work?”
The inspiration came to Steve Grundman, a fellow at the Council, from the way Call of Duty: Black Ops II explored the future of conflict. As we want to reach writers, producers, illustrators and designers, and more from well beyond the Beltway, crowd sourcing plays a major part in the project. The scope of challenges for today’s defense and security community is so broad, and the tempo of changes so fast, that status quo approaches aren’t working. We’ve held five short-story contests exploring the arc of future conflicts, from how wars start to what happens to people, particularly veterans, when they end. To explore craft, we interview writers and artists, too, and also get to feature fiction from first-time fiction writers, including those currently serving.
The capstone for the first year was our anthology published in November, War Stories From the Future, which features our contest-winning stories and art as well as superb new commissioned fiction from Ken Liu, Madeline Ashby, Jamie Metzl and more. The stories look at the most important trends and themes in international security taking shape, such as cyber privateers, connected cities and societies, foresight, swarm warfare and crowd sourcing, bio-targeting, but from a people-first point of view. This is usually the most memorable way to go exploring the future and is certainly the case with the collection, which features a foreword from former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey. And we’re offering it for free at artoffuturewarfare.org as an e-book.
As a writer trying to create stories in a realistic future, what is the relationship between research and imagination?
Research is about trust and confidence in yourself — and with the reader. It can be a lot of fun (it is for me) particularly when you are exploring technologies and trends through interviews or first person reporting. You’re trying to get somebody to trust your vision of a made-up world, to meet you at that point where your research and imagination intersect. As a matter of process, I think having a defined research and writing phase is important because all of us are susceptible to the infinite loop of more knowledge. You can always pack in more data, facts and informed nuance — but only once you’ve gotten your words down. Until then you’re just a notetaker. Short stories are a nice way to take a concept on a test flight before you commit to going off-planet, so to speak. Do your research; just know when to say when.
As a matter of process, I think having a defined research and writing phase is important because all of us are susceptible to the infinite loop of more knowledge.
What exactly you research matters, too. With Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, P.W. Singer and I wanted to share our notes with our readers so we packed nearly 400 endnotes into this thriller story about a future war with China and Russia where technology is as much a liability as an asset for the United States. We conducted extensive research, not just into technology but into the characters and cultural forces that would create authenticity for our readers and give us confidence we were “getting it right” in a world that does not yet exist (and hopefully never comes true). That helped our imagination run a bit more wild because we knew better where we could really push reality, and where we had to tread carefully. In the end, Ghost Fleet is a useful book too for official and unofficial conversations about the future of war — a goal from the start — and the endnotes support that because it reflects the research that went into this imagined world.
The military is certainly a place where high tech is at the bleeding edge. That’s also a space that writer’s of science fiction like to explore. What’s the dividing line between techno-thriller set in the near future, and military sci-fi?
The horizon line for organized militaries and technology is more like a hazy dawn than a clear sky-earth delineation when it comes to the future of armed and social conflict. The commercial sector develops and harnesses technology faster than most armed forces can bring onboard, and that is only going to get more challenging in the next few decades. Will it be any better at the end of the 21st Century than at the start? That depends on how open we are to new narratives around technology, and how we understand what is really game-changing or useful. It’s easy to get distracted and miss a big shift. When it comes to techno-thrillers and military sci-fi I think there can and should be a lot of overlap. A sci-fi novel like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is of immense value to military leaders, for example, because of its exploration of acute crisis and how mankind might respond in the near-and very long-term.
The US military is used to leading technologically, and that is today a very difficult and costly position to try to maintain given the proliferation of civilian and military technologies, from additive manufacturing and bio- printing to networked air-defense systems kludged together from different nations. Science fiction writers have a lot to offer here in putting today’s (and tomorrow’s) tech wizardry in context, and seeing which historic truisms will trump technology, as Steven Pressfield’s The Profession shows. It leads to a larger question of the role of technology in national strength, and in shaping the international security environment. This is an area that we at the Atlantic Council are going to explore deeply with the Art of Future Warfare project methodology this year as we tackle “Art of the Future” themes beyond armed conflict.
A sci-fi novel like Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves is of immense value to military leaders, for example, because of its exploration of acute crisis and how mankind might respond in the near-and very long-term.
Is “hard sci-fi” a term you accept or even embrace for your writing?
In fiction, it’s really important to get the facts right — so when you want to break with reality you are doing so in a way that keeps the reader turning pages. That’s how I see the “hard sci-fi” concept as being important because it represents a commitment on the part of the writer. It should not stunt imaginations, but unleash them. It also goes to one of the potential roadblocks that can be put up when officials are presented with the inputs of creative types, that they don’t need to get it right. The best writers and directors like Atlantic Council fellows Dave Anthony (who directed Call of Duty: Black Ops II) and Max Brooks (author of World War Z) care deeply about this, and their work shows it.
When I wrote ANTFARM for the Art of Future Warfare project War Stories From the Future anthology I spent a lot of time revising the story to get as much technical accuracy into the 4,000 words as I could because I was taking the reader on a few major leaps. So I had to get the kind of gunship airplane right for the mission (I used a Boeing 767, which was not the plane I started out with, after talking with a military pilot about the story) and how a long-endurance pilot might feel operating the aircraft on such a long mission, because I needed to get the reader to take a major leap with me on why crowd-sourced intelligence/oversight would be used instead of AI for weapons-release authority in combat. Borrowing from the world we are in (the jetliner) in order to better understand the world that could be (where Cloud Nine is on the battlefield).
The flip side to this question ties to the importance of research: researching people as much or more than things is what really matters. All with the caveat that if you make a technical mistake then you can lose a knowledgeable reader, and maybe even faster if you botch the anthropological.
…researching people as much or more than things is what really matters.
The Atlantic Council seems to be saying with the Art of Future Warfare, ‘modern warfare is changing, so we must learn what the future may look like.’ Is military sci-fi also at a point where it needs to adapt and make changes? Is that already happening?
Storytelling and conflict are interwoven and always will be. So it makes sense that as many aspects of warfare evolve so does the ways we share our stories about it. GoPro cameras and mobile phones give the basic tools to any fighter or civilian to shape a visual narrative in a synchronous or asynchronous way. Short-form writing like Twitter too or text messages can also define narratives in the real world so the challenge is how to integrate that into military science fiction so it feels seamless, not something that was an afterthought. Imagine you’re reading a scene in a book and when you get to a certain page your phone buzzes with the same text that a character just received or you get a personal Tweet or Vine video along the same lines. There’s a character in the opening of Ghost Fleet whose experience, and demise, would be a perfect fit for this kind of innovation.
Short-form writing like Twitter or text messages can also define narratives in the real world so the challenge is how to integrate that into military science fiction so it feels seamless, not something that was an afterthought.
A book is not a video game, however, nor should it be. (I really enjoy video games, to be clear). The challenge then for military science fiction writers is to stay connected with characters whose struggle would be familiar to Thucydides while still being bold in their exploration of tales of tomorrow’s wars, that we are privileged enough to read today in the hopes that we can avoid those futures ever coming true.
More on August Cole:
His fiction writing tackles themes at the core of American foreign policy and national security in the 21st Century. His first book Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War, is a collaborative novel written with Peter W. Singer. This near-future thriller about the next world war was published in June 2015 by Eamon Dolan Books, a Houghton Mifflin Harcourt imprint. See more at www.ghostfleetbook.com