The Future of Warfare through the Lens of Science Fiction

A while ago I mentioned I went to a seminar on the Future of Warfare through the Lens of Science Fiction. Well, I finally got around to posting it. Happy New Year to all, and if this somehow makes it in front of any volunteer firefighters – thank you. I don’t know what else to say, as nothing seems sufficient to recognise the sacrifices made and the risks taken. So again, thank you.

The Future of Warfare through the Lens of Science Fiction

John Scalzi, John Birmingham, and Dr Cat Sparks are not the people I expected to run into in my day job a Navy officer. Yet sitting in the lecture hall of the Australian Defence College (ADC), shortly after the Commandant, Major-General Mick Ryan, has made his entry (flanked by Stormtroopers of the local 501st of course), there I am hearing about warfare – my profession since I was a teenager – from my literary idols.

The ADC is not an isolated case. World War Z author Max Brooks has been assisting with US military strategy since 2013, France has recently advertised specifically for science fiction authors for their Defence Innovation Agency. and Penny Mordaunt used her brief time as the UK Defence Secretary to acknowledge that science fiction is fast becoming science fact, noting their Air Force has as much a view on space as the US or Australia. There is a trend here. Governments are starting to see that good science fiction goes beyond an exciting and entertaining story. It involves the ability to look beyond the surface of an idea, isolating and extrapolating a concept across time, technology and culture, and to give different point of view, informed but not restrained by annoyances such as possibility and reality. It gives Governments something they and their militaries are traditionally lacking; an alternate perspective. And they are starting to realise that is something they can use.

Not only does it give a perspective from outside governments and militaries, but inside as well. In his discussion with Ryan Evans of War on the Rocks, Brooks speaks about the popularity of his program. The interview focussed on seminars that invited Marines to use stories to convey strategic doctrine, with some flying in from overseas to attend. The idea that doctrine is more relatable when told as a narrative was certainly a part, but also the voice with which it is told – that of the soldier, rather than the Generals.

That said, plenty of those at higher ranks, including Major-General Ryan, are fully supportive of the concepts. Ryan has been encouraging military professionals to read science fiction since 2016, when he ‘outed himself’ at Grounded Curiosity. His argument is passionate and includes the benefits inherent in a diversity of intellectual opinion, the nature of science fiction to make us consider the wider consequences of conflict, and how it will impact on wider society. His articles have continued to be just as passionate and he remains consistent in pushing the necessity of science fiction. Even as head of the ADC, he has written in military forums such as The Forge, proposed, arranged, and executed the Profession of Warfare seminar dedicated to science fiction, and even now is running a military science fiction short story competition on the concept of future warfare. What he is doing, in a not-so-subtle way, is bringing science fiction from a background interest to becoming a necessary medium, for exploring innovations, consequences, and ethics of decision and actions. It might be a bit of a liberal interpretation, but it seems his argument is simple. Devouring and considering science fiction helps develop individuals, and within the difficulties and complexities of navigating a real-world conflict, developing and educating our people to ensure they make the best and most informed decisions they can is vital.

I’ve written my thoughts before on the value of speculative fiction – I am a firm believer that the best of the genres isolates a question or truth and examines it through the world, the characters and the plot, ideally with a subtilty that allows for entertainment as well of course. For me, the seminar, along with the Max Brooks episode of War on the Rocks and the wider calls for employing futurists and authors reinforces that view.

When I went to the seminar that had all the big names and plenty of experts from different fields I’m less familiar with, I expected to hear some interesting views but was concerned the conversation would be a tad restricted. What I got was a huge array of opinions and discussions on topics that would never even be approached in the day-to-day of my job. Even when the discussions threw up the possibility that the next war would render the Australian Defence Force irrelevant (this was a discussion on cyber warfare), no-one batted an eyelid and the discussions carried on to consider the implications and how it might impact the wider community.

It wasn’t how I expected to spend my work day, and even now I’m still unpacking much of my own understanding of what was discussed. I must have written four or five draft blogs to try and go through the event and share it with everyone. Much of what was discussed was on the edge of my understanding, even after nearly fifteen years of service and a lifetime consuming speculative fiction, including science fiction, so writing it never seemed to quite capture the vibe of the event. But really, what it comes down to is that first article from Major-General Ryan – reading makes us consider broader consequences, gives diversity of voice and perspective, and forces us to examine the core of who we are and what we do. Maybe that’s a little more true in the aligned lifestyle and genre of the military and military science fiction respectively, but there’s an element of it in less aligned roles and genres as well. I guess the message I really got, despite many detailed and specific discussions, was simple; keep reading, and keep writing. You’ll be better off for it.



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