Hoping that I’d learn something about the place of the future war story in the context of the First World War, I took I. F. Clarke’s book off the shelf.
It fulfilled my hope, and I’ll be discussing that subject at greater length in a future posting.
Review: Voices Prophesying War, Future Wars 1763-3749, 2nd Edition, I. F. Clarke, 1966, 1992.
Free from academic jargon, Clarke traces the development of the future war.
The main focus is on a period starting with 1871’s The Battle of Dorking by Sir George Tomkyns Chesney and going to 1978’s The Third World War: A Future History by General Sir John Hackett et. al.
There were future war stories before Chesney’s work. Clarke’s 38 page checklist of titles goes back to 1763’s The Reign of George VI. While predominantly a European phenomena, there were even a couple of American titles preceding Chesney, both predicting an American civil war: 1836’s The Partisan Leader: A Tale of the Future from Edward William Sydney (actually Nathaniel Tucker) and 1860’s Anticipations of the Future to serve as Lessons for the Present Time by Edmund Ruffin.
But Chesney’s work was the one that took off. Translated into several languages, Chesney’s skillfully told story of England being invaded by Germany spawned many, many imitators. He was a professional military man eager to influence public policy, and Hackett was the same. Clarke’s regards The Third World War as the technical and realistic apogee of the genre.
Not every documentarian of future conflict was a military professional or as skillful a writer as Cheney, but the genre flourished in the European democracies prior to World War One. Clarke primarily concentrates on English examples but also covers German and French ones. The shifting alliances prior to the Great War are reflected in the enemies of each country’s fiction.
Understandably, the bloom went off most European future war stories after World War One. The technology of mass murder and mayhem became part of a genuine anxiety over where science was taking humanity. American fiction, relatively unaffected by the war, reflected less anxiety.
After his “From the Somme to Hiroshima” chapter, Clarke’s book starts to lose focus when he talks about the nuclearized future war story. While he mentions some obvious titles like Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon and Whitley Strieber’s and James Kunetka’s Warday, the relevance of titles like Greg Bear’s The Forge of God and C. J. Cherryh’s Downbelow Station is less obvious given that they are not tales of exclusively human war or the immediate future that Chesney and Hackett wrote. Clarke himself later said he wished he hadn’t continued his history past 1939. [Update: Clarke was actually referring to an earlier work, The Tale of the Future.]
Still, this is still the definitive work on the future war sub-genre of science fiction and a rewarding book with those interested in the place where politics, culture, war, and fantasy come together.
Reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.
5 thoughts on “Voices Prophesying War”