The Critical Utility of Science Fiction in a Military Context

Cormorants Nest
Aug 1 · 9 min read

Lt Col David Calder has recently completed the UK’s Advanced and Command Staff Course and is a Chief of Defence Staff Scholar. He also undertook a Masters by Research in Defence Studies with King’s College London; exploring how science fiction can be used to change military perspectives. He is an armoured engineer and has deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and Estonia in recent years. (Twitter @drjcalder81)


“Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all” — Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

Science fiction is often painted as a prophetic form of literature which can offer us an insight into the challenges we might face in the years to come. Unfortunately, while it plays a significant role in inspiring the future, it is no better at providing accurate foresight than any other method of prediction. While many Western militaries use science fiction to understand the future better, this is done to the detriment, or indeed ignorance, of its social value. Science fiction is not about the future at all, but rather a reflection or extrapolation of our present and past. The social issues which dominate contemporary political debates are deeply encoded in our literature through both veiled and explicit allegory.

Defining science fiction is almost impossible, but seeking a functional understanding of it is essential to understand its critical utility. By drawing on formalist thinking and specifically Brechtian concepts of verfremdung (or estrangement) it is possible to draw directly on aspects of Critical Theory, and its Hegelian and Marxist roots, to make a case for its politico-military value. This creates a robust theoretical basis for moving science fiction from being a literature of pure escapism towards being a useful tool for analysing societal issues and how they may impact on our approach to conflict and warfare. The study of science fiction is one which is becoming highly regarded academically, albeit one which is sustained by popular culture. Science fiction’s qualities as an art-form are unique and firmly establish it as a means of political and social enquiry. The theoretical basis for science fiction is a radically critical one. Estrangement allows us to be more objective about how we see our society and our social interactions. Some more extreme interpretations see science fiction as a form of literature designed to foment protest or direct action. It, therefore, has significant utility in looking at our relationship with technology, the future, and how we frame aspects of international relations. All such issues have implications for how militaries operate and make strategic choices.

Science fiction is unique in its intersectionality being an art-form, scientifically speculative and inherently social. Such qualities allow us to tackle issues by drawing from multiple social, historical and technical perspectives. While it would be challenging to argue whether it is better than any, or all, of these perspectives, it certainly can complement them. The real-world reactions to science fiction also highlight how technologies are objects of political and social value and that they can be agents in shaping our future. In the future, the nature of this agency may change. Whereas objects, like nuclear weapons, have been characteristically passive in our political development, some of the discontinuities predicted by Global Strategic Trends, like artificial intelligence, have the potential to be more active. Science fiction starkly highlights the interdependencies between technology and society and its objectivity makes it unique in terms of exploring humanity’s scientific, philosophical and moral immaturity. Kim Stanley Robinson suggests science fiction is, at its heart, historical literature. Asimov, for example, drew heavily from his study of classical history to inform the societal dynamics in his writing. Through novels like Foundation, he highlights that civilisations exist in a constant state of evolution. Equally he has noted how power evolves in response to social, technological and political shifts. His science fiction forces us to reflect on how power does not rest on technologies per se, but rather the social and political reactions to them. When militaries talk about adaptation, they must, therefore, continue to try to anticipate the social and political interactions emerging technologies will create. This is not a novel observation; a failure to anticipate how network connectivity would transform how we communicate shop and entertain ourselves has caused enormous transformation in our social processes and structures. That said, science fiction offers utility in being able to imagine and scrutinise such dynamics. As socially relevant products, they can help us conclude how military organisations should transform to meet contemporary and future challenges.

Science fiction and prediction have a complex relationship. Clearly, in many cases, science fiction provides a range of cultural touchpoint which gives the impression of prescience. There are three significant issues which undermine its predictive value:

  • The first is factual: what science fiction imagines is rarely completely replicated in reality (the hover-boards bought on Amazon, for example, bare little relation to those envisioned in Robert Zemeckis’ Back to the Future).
  • Pedagogy conspires against it by using science fiction to over-simplify complex scientific concepts by using culturally resonant terms (use of quantum gates explained as ‘transporter’ tech from Star Trek — such a link is tenuous at best).
  • Intention. Writers mainly see the technology they imagine as narrative devices to help illustrate wider, social allegories and not as prediction of specific technologies and scientific advancements. When Douglas Adams was asked to respond to how he felt about being hailed as the person who had ‘invented’ the idea of the tablet computer (the eponymous Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), he dismissed the idea as ridiculous. His decision to incorporate ‘The Guide’ into his story was based solely on it being an appropriate plot device and not an attempt to foreshadow developments in personal computing.

Despite this science fiction provides opportunity to inspire new thinking at societal and technological levels. For the latter, ‘picking a winner’ can be extremely challenging as it is difficult to predict where inspiration will strike and how it might emerge in wider society. The impact on social factors is, however, very different. Science fiction is a socially infused literature. This means it can experiment, shape and inspire our social development. HG Wells, while unique, is a precedent for how science fiction can be socially self-fulfilling and underlines the power of human agency in shaping political issues. Social activism will continue to shape societies, and some dynamics may result in radical change. Using science fiction to understand the social impact of these issues has clear Clausewitzian relevance. War is fundamentally political and is bound to societal transformation. That said, it is precisely science fiction’s social and political value which undermines it. Science fiction is highly political form of literature. While this bias does not tend towards any particular ideology, it is encoded with the political imprint of the society from which it emerges. Incidentally, this is an issue which undermines all forms of prediction. Even our Global Strategic Trends Programme is laced with political themes which arguably damage its objectivity and own predictive value. This political bias lies at the heart of why we often fail in our predictions and imagine ‘strategic shocks’. Maximising the objectivity of our assessments is therefore critical. All this aside, science fiction still has utility. Political action is profoundly imaginative and relies on the sort of futurist narratives provided by science fiction to enable political development. Whilst science fiction is not good at predicting the future, it can play a significant role in shaping and understanding it.

Where dystopian outcomes are predicted by other forecasting methodologies, science fiction plays an equally important role. Either to act as a warning (and inspire political action) or simply to better imagine the practical consequences. As new ‘means’ of waging war emerge, science fiction’s insight could increase the rapidity with which militaries adapt and contribute towards generating advantage. We also need to account for utopian thinking (which science fiction can inform and articulate). Our predictions rarely consider the effects of the achievement of our (and our allies) projected goals. This skews our predictions towards dystopian outcomes and fails to account for humanity’s collective potential. Nationally, agency and ambition must be two sides of the same coin if we are to avoid being passive agents in our future.

China’s science fiction tradition allows us to draw together many of science fiction’s critical attributes to understand contemporary security issues. It also exploits the assumption that science fiction’s critical utility is culturally universal. Science fiction occupies a unique place in Chinese society and has a surprisingly rich tradition dating back to the late Xing period (around the beginning of the 20th Century). In looking at its early science fiction tradition, studying the works of writers like Lu Xun illustrate how China’s behaviour today is extremely similar to what was perpetuated by the colonial powers who attempted to subjugate it in the early Twentieth Century. Where Western powers used the control of scientific knowledge as a means to exercise influence, the same dynamics are visible today — but with the roles reversed. The hoarding of intellectual property and attempts to dominate niche areas of military and commercial technology are a case in point. China’s New wave of science fiction arguably provides several social insights which might complement our assessments of China’s strategic culture. The dreams expressed in their literature are at odds with our own. Where themes of identity and individualism dominate Western contemporary narratives, China’s are truly epic, and in some cases, literally celestial in scale. Rather than being fantastic, such dreams are accompanied by a sense of manifest destiny. Returning to the theme of agency, China arguably has the political and economic capital to drive their role as agents in the future they imagine. Excluding the US, there are probably no other nations who enjoy this degree of autonomy and self-determinism. That said, science fiction’s subversive qualities remain. Criticism and social commentary about the degree to which the state can trade individual freedoms to realise their objectives also elicits social insights and issues which China must engage with if they are to meet its aspirations for sustained growth and self-determination.

Science fiction’s relationship with the State is fascinating. Rather than being banned for its political content, it is entirely appropriated as a means to use help address its technical creativity deficit and drive the economy from being one characterised by replication to one that innovates. For me, this trade-off demonstrates deep anxiety about its ability to sustain its growth. It also highlights the risks it is willing to accept by allowing (and sponsoring) the circulation of politically incendiary literature. Cultural mirroring can also be helpful. This is the process by which we look back on ourselves through the lens of Chinese science fiction. What the some texts seem to expose is that the West is seen to be morally intransient and desperate to preserve a global status quo. While authors make a strong case for commonality between our value systems at the fundamental level, there is a significant difference in how we frame our respective versions of utopia. For China, collective betterment is seen to be far more important than the individual gains we strive for in the West.

In conclusion, exploring its pedigree establishes science fiction as an academically rooted and potentially valuable tool for looking at how we see politico-military issues and challenge our current mind-sets. As it occupies the common ground between artistic, technical and social disciplines, it allows us to interrogate many of the major issues which are shaping our world now and in the future. In looking at our relationship with technology, in particular, it highlights to us the social and political reactions which accompany their development and integration. Science fiction’s power of estrangement also causes us to consider our scientific, philosophical and moral immaturities and realise humanity and how power is articulated remains in a constant state of change. Science fiction’s quality of foresight is questionable, but this belies the complexity of its relationship with the future. Science fiction can enable agency; it can shape our politics and inspire us in both social and technological terms. There is a precedent for this, but it remains to be seen where such agency will emerge: political and economic capital are key enablers, and so arguably this places constraints on where the ideas explored in science fiction will take root. In a more grounded sense, its social value can also help us understand cultural issues better and interrogate the dynamics present in our society and those of our competitors. This project explored China as a case study, and while several observations were made, they only give a partial picture and warrant deeper investigation and assessment. In illustrating how its critical aspects can be applied to other cultures, it might also offer utility in understanding other strategic competitors. Overall, science fiction’s value to military organisations is potentially far-reaching and worthy of further study.

The Cormorant’s Nest

Defence Academy of the United Kingdom — The Online Home of UK Professional Military Education and Research

Cormorants Nest

Written by

The Cormorant’s Nest

Defence Academy of the United Kingdom — The Online Home of UK Professional Military Education and Research

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