Military History Military Science Fiction
John Douglas Forrest, Karrie Elise Barfield, Mary Kathryn Barbier
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0091


Science fiction writers, from the genre’s inception in the mid-19th century, have often framed their tales of fantasy or distant worlds in the social or technological area of warfare or military hierarchies. In most cases, the hyperfictional worlds, wars, and characters in military science fiction had real-world analogs as allegorical inspiration. The pioneers in the field, H. G. Wells and Jules Verne, drew on their beliefs in a utopian end-state as a result of a global war or knowledge of emerging technologies to illustrate their fictional worlds. Their successors in the 20th century used the arms races between the multiple poles of Europe and the great leaps in weapons technologies as their inspiration for “wonder weapons” and great global conflicts. The aftermath of World War II was also fertile ground for science fiction writers, as the global population grappled with the potential consequences of the atomic bomb, a global conflict, and the possible decimation of civilization. Although some military science fiction projected a future of a united humanity exploring and fighting alien cultures in the cosmos, other texts were firmly ensconced in the grim potential for the hypothetical aftermath of an atomic exchange and a post-nuclear landscape. As the Cold War progressed and proxy wars took the place of a global war between superpowers, the science fiction of the 1960s and 1970s reflected the social aftermath of the Vietnam War and Watergate. The declining trust in institutions and a postmodernist approach to national identity intersected with a renewed arms race in the 1980s and technological frameworks that conceived of the soldier as a mechanism or platform for proposed or future technologies. This trend continued until the end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet bloc, in which the lack of a mortal enemy for a Western population led to a neap tide of fresh fiction. The aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks led to a reintroduction of allegorical storylines that examined the nature of terrorism and warfare on a national or global level.

Late 19th Century

The earliest texts in the genre of military science fiction focused on the concepts of new weapons systems and the common social themes of the late 19th century. For example, Franklin 1989 and Martin 1990 indicate that H. G. Wells (Wells 1914) and Jules Verne were among a handful of writers who conceived of new methods of warfare and notions of society that were to be increasingly popular during the 20th century. In addition, Mollman 2010 highlights the appropriation of Wells’s concepts by newspapers for an American audience during the Spanish-American War.

  • Franklin, H. Bruce. “Fatal Fiction: A Weapon to End All Wars.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 45.9 (1989): 18–24.

    Franklin looks at depictions of nuclear weapons in late-19th-century/early-20th-century works of science fiction, depictions that influenced how Americans thought of nuclear weapons before they became a reality. The effects of these fantasy weapons permeated American culture through novels, newspapers, and magazines with varying results, including American hegemony and perpetual peace.

  • Martin, Andrew. The Mask of the Prophet: The Extraordinary Fictions of Jules Verne. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198157984.001.0001

    Martin highlights Verne’s role in the late 19th century as a progenitor of 20th-century weapons systems such as the submarine and the strategic bomber. The conceptualization of advanced weaponry was quickly outstripped by actual advances in technology, but the basic notions in Verne’s work provided the framework of such developments, according to Martin.

  • Mollman, Steven. “The War of the Worlds in the Boston Post and the Rise of American Imperialism: ‘Let Mars Fire.’” English Literature in Transition, 1880–1920 53.4 (2010): 387–412.

    Wells’s Martian invasion of Imperial London was published in Britain in April 1897, with a heavily altered and Americanized version appearing in newspapers in the United States shortly before the Spanish-American War. The allegorical Martian attack of Boston appeared in newspapers alongside accounts of the Spanish-American War.

  • Wells, H. G. The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind. London: Macmillan, 1914.

    Wells’s varied and detailed approaches to potential future weapons and warfare methods included a pre-World War I reference to “radio-active” and “atom” weapons. Wells states that the only possible use of these new devices was to decimate an enemy population using barbaric means.

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