“Future Wars, 1890-1950”

The review series on Brian Stableford’s Opening Minds concludes.

Review: “Future Wars, 1890-1950”, Brian Stableford, 1983.Opening Minds

Interesting look, inspired by I. F. Clarke’s Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984 (I reviewed its second edition), at the history of British future war stories from “The Battle of Dorking” (1871) on with particular emphasis on the influence of World War One on inter-war science fiction. By doing this, he is addressing a weakness he perceives in Clarke’s survey.

The “jingoism” of the British stories was unique, but American future war stories shared “the myth of a war to end war”. It shows up in works like Frank R. Stockton’s The Great War Syndicate (1899) and Stanley Waterloo’s Armageddon (1898).

World War One, of course, turned out to be nothing like anything imagined.

As it did with so much, the war changed British science fiction and imbued it with a pessimism unfelt in the American science fiction pulps that started in the inter-war period.

American science fiction would catch that pessimism after the flashes in the sky over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins (1920) threw its contemporary Englishman into the future, courtesy of a chemical weapon which puts him in a preservative coma and used in a new war in 1924. He has a lot of knowledge that would be helpful to the denizens of a dark age 150 years in the future. But all they care about is whether he can get the old weapons up and running for final victory in a war. Despairing, the hero puts a period to his existence at novel’s end.

The eponymous hero of Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage (1922) survives the destruction of a new war to become, at the end of his life, sort of a cultural hero trying to rebuild civilization, a “Merlin, Frankenstein and Adam”. But he realizes history is cyclical, that he will become a symbol of a dead civilization to his grandchildren,

a civilization that had passed so completely from the ken of living man that its lost achievements … could only be expressed in symbol.

The heroine of J. Leslie Mitchell’s Gay Hunter (1934) decides that civilization shouldn’t be saved, so, when she is propelled into a stone-age future, she resists two British fascists who want to civilize its inhabitants.

In many of these stories, including ones I haven’t mentioned, chemical weapons bring about the destruction of civilization.

Stableford mentions a non-fiction book by sometime science fiction writer J. B. S. Haldane, who worked on the development of gas weapons in World War One: Callinicus: A Defence of Chemical Warfare (1925). It describes the effects of the weapons actually used and argues that gas could be a more humane way to wage war. It could be used to debilitate and not kill. And, if it did kill, why was a bullet more humane than a gas?

Stableford, continuing the argument of his “Marxism, Science Fiction, and the Power of Prophecy: Some Comparisons and Contrasts”, argues that these stories may have helped bolster the reluctance to use chemical weapons in World War Two, and, possibly, influenced the policy of when to use nuclear weapon afterwards.

In Britain’s inter-war years, the horrors of a future war were on the minds of many, high and low. Stableford quotes from Winston Churchill’s “Shall We Commit Suicide?” (1924). Churchill thought civilization may have ended if World War One would have lasted much longer. And he did not see future weapons of horror going unused:

It is established that nations who believe that their life is at stake will not be restrained from using any means to secure their existence. It is probable – nay, certain – that among the means which will next time be at their disposal will be agencies and processes of destruction wholesale, unlimited, and, perhaps, once launched, uncontrollable.

Of course, this essay does not have the advantage of Stableford’s recent work in translating French science fiction and how it reacted to the war. I reviewed two such titles, The Engineer von Satanas, and The Ark.

In his The Plurality of Worlds, a history of French science fiction and a book I haven’t read, Stableford talks about the effects of the Great War on the French sector of the genre.

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