The art of future war

The evolution of military science fiction

On the random occasion that I'm asked what video games I play, I often lead with something along the lines of "I'm not really a gamer."

That's not entirely true. I have extremely fond memories of sinking hundreds of hours into Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening on my Nintendo Gameboy when I was a kid, and more recently, I'll go through phases where I'll restart Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild just to explore that particular world one more time. Then there's the handful of games that I'll casually play on our home Xbox: Titanfall 2, Jedi: Fallen Order, or Star Wars Squadrons.

But if there's one video game that I return to over and over again, it's Bungie's Halo. One of the lead games that accompanied the original Xbox, it's one of those stories that has shaped how I approach science fiction, almost from the very beginning, 20 years ago.

In the summer of 2002, I went to work at YMCA Camp Abnaki, and it's there that I discovered Halo, through countless gaming sessions in village director cabins on the periods of down-time. At night, we'd scrounge up four consoles and TVs from around campus, lug them to the conference room, where we'd spent the next couple of hours in brutal, profanity-filled, four-on-four co-op matches while our campers slept. Playing the original game feels like an extension of those nostalgic summers, where we'd blow off steam and bond over our collective adventure running across the Halo ring as Master Chief, blasting our way through scores of digital aliens. I'm as familiar with those levels as I am with the back of my hands.

Halo: Combat Evolved hit stores on November 15th, 2001, just months after the September 11th attacks against New York and Washington, and in those two decades, it's become one of the stories that's come to define the military science fiction genre.


Image: Andrew Liptak

Science fiction and warfare are inseparable. War has always acted as a sort of research and development pressure cooker, prompting one side or another to try and develop new and innovative ways to batter their adversary with casualties until they concede the fight. Its propensity towards imagining new technologies makes the genre a comfortable ally, for within the framework of the future, writers and creators can imagine no end to the types of weapons that can be pressed into service, on any number of battlefields on Earth or beyond.

War has a constant presence in the background of science fiction; Jules Verne's From the Earth to the Moon imagines veterans of the American Civil War repurposing wartime technology to blast a group of explorers to the Moon, while H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds captivated readers as he imagined aliens from Mars invading Earth in a perverse commentary on the state of the United Kingdom's Empire.

Those works weren't alone: writers throughout England used fantastic literature to imagine alternate wars as a way to highlight their arguments that the country was ill-prepared for war, using the framework of speculation to demonstrate what they imagined would happen if they were to be tested. Books like George Tomkyns Chesney's The Battle of Dorking were part of a greater movement of invasion stories, capitalizing on the state of anxiety that existed around the country's ability to put violence behind its foreign policy.

The early wars of the 20th century proved to be an acute source of inspiration for authors as science fiction came into its own. Authors writing for the early pulp magazines paid close attention to the advances that came out of the First World War, such as the potential that air power, armored vehicles, and chemical weapons might play in the wars to come—sometimes with a decent amount of accuracy. David H. Keller imagined the utility of drones in warfare in his July 1929 story "The Bloodless War" in Air Wonder Stories, and famously, Astounding Science Fiction editor John W. Campbell Jr. earned a visit from the FBI after he directed author Cleve Cartmill to write out a story about an atomic bomb in 1944, "Deadline."

The bombing and destruction of Nagasaki and Hiroshima would have a profound impact on the direction of science fiction as a genre: the horrific act demonstrated the utility of science in warfare, and validated the future histories imagined by countless authors who waged war with typewriter paper and ink.

Indeed, the catalysts for many of these armchair warriors was the anxieties that permeated American culture: the looming threat of war from some faraway place provided the perfect inspiration for any number of potential battlefields. Robert A. Heinlein, living in Colorado, was angered by calls to suspend the testing of nuclear weapons (and the realization that he was in the blast radius of a potential target) and wrote Starship Troopers, a juvenile novel that mused on the value and responsibilities of citizenship, all while his protagonists bounce around the galaxy protecting Earth clad in advanced, power armored suits.


If the lead-up to, and actions of, the First and Second World Wars prompted the beginnings of a future war genre, it was the events of the Cold War that blasted military science fiction into existence, starting with Heinlein's polemic novel. Critics didn't like Starship Troopers: author Brian Aldiss, who served in the British military in World War II, didn't hold back words in his history of the genre, Trillion Year Spree: Heinlein is a pulp writer made good, sometimes with his strong power-drives half-rationalized into a right wing political philosophy," and noting that the book is a "a sentimental view of what it is like to train and fight as an infantrymen in a future war. Anyone who is trained or and fought in a past war will recognize the ways Heinlein prettifies his picture."

A contemporary, Joe Haldeman, likewise noted that Starship Troopers leaned more towards political fantasy than any sort of realistic depiction of actual warfare: "A lot of the behavior and attitudes of the Mechanized Infantry (MI) ring false to me, and I an claim to be in a position to have an opinion, since I was in the airmobile infantry in Vietnam, and our overall military function was as close to the MI's as you could get with our primitive twentieth century technology," he wrote in the Folio Society's recent edition of the novel, "most of the guys I fought with were absolutely cynical about the army, and had no illusions about our 'right' to be in Vietnam (if indeed they cared one way or another about politics)."

The battlegrounds of the Cold War ensured that science fiction would have a seat at the table in the imaginations of readers. The conflict brought about the development of crewed spaceflight as the US and USSR fought for supremacy over the orbital high ground, all while ratcheting up tensions on the ground as school children hid under desks to prepare for the possibility of nuclear annihilation, while also deeply dividing the American public.

Those anxieties and stresses prompted plenty of authors to reflect on the purpose of American's foreign policy, firepower, and national identity, and plenty of authors, especially those who were coming off of tours in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. Authors like David Drake, Harry Harrison, Jerry Pournelle, Gordon R. Dickson, Haldeman, Kurt Vonnegut, and others examined warfare through the lens of their own experiences in combat through books like The Forever War, Hammer's Slammers, and The Mercenary, while other, non-serving authors like Orson Scott Card, John Steakley and Timothy Zahn brought their own perspectives to the genre.

Writing in The Cambridge Companion to American Science Fiction, David M. Higgins notes that throughout the Cold War, American artists frequently envisioned future wars in which their heroes are working to fend off external threats to their home (essentially, the United States). We see this in Starship Troopers: while the book flashes back and forth, the war between humanity and the Arachnid kicks off shortly after Johnny Rico completes his training when Buenos Aires is attacked and destroyed, prompting a major offensive. Haldeman's conflict kicks off when a colonial ship is destroyed by unknown aliens, while Card's Ender's Game sees a humanity grappling with the Formics after they tried to invade Earth fifty years prior. It's impossible to proscribe a one-size-fits-all theme to link the entirety of military science fiction together, but predominantly, the idea of soldiers defending their [American] home from invaders—or at least fighting on behalf of one's home—is a widely-used, shared point.

For all the jingoism that's attached to the genre, they come to no single consensus about the nature of war. Some, like Haldeman, Harrison, and Drake came away from their experiences with anti-war sentiments, while others like Pournelle were fervent hawks for the extension of American power throughout the world. Indeed, the wars in Haldeman and Card's novels stem out of misinterpretations on both humanity and their adversaries, a colossal mistake that shows the ridiculousness lengths to which we'll go to war.  

By the end of the Vietnam War, reinforced by plenty of  with plenty of recent veterans, the genre found a firm footing with audiences, with everyone eager to not only rehash the value of citizenship and warfare, but also to explore the possibilities that the 1980s and a hawkish Reagan Administration brought with it. A group of authors, led by Pournelle, eagerly embraced the Administration's plans to militarize space, and bring some element of their stories to life via a global defense program nicknamed "Star Wars."

With the end of the Cold War and the dissolution of the Soviet Union, it feels as though military SF sputtered a bit: the possibility of US supremacy and a downsized US military under the Clinton Administration didn't generate the same sort of anxious response from the American public. We no longer feared the possibility of death from the skies.


Image: Andrew Liptak

The attacks on September 11th brought with it its own share of new cultural anxieties. Rather than the idea of destruction from above, from a faceless Soviet Union, the new threat came from non-state actors, using America's immense bulk against it. If small teams of Al Qaeda operatives could bring the country to a standstill, what would the future of war look like?

In one sense, a science-fictional one. As the US lumbered into dual conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military, for all of its technological prowess and resources, rediscovered lessons that had been left behind in Vietnam: technological supremacy doesn't equate to a battlefield victory. And like Vietnam, the wars in the Middle East were controversial, leading to a greater split in how it would be interpreted. Authors like Marko Kloos and John Scalzi found ready material by updating the format that Heinlein had laid down decades earlier—looking at the world through the lens of a soldier as they fight in an interstellar war.

Other authors, opted to put a science fictional spin on the then-ongoing wars in the Middle East, exploring topics of patriotism and the new, external threat of religious extremism, while others, like Dan Abnett's Embedded explored a more complicated battlefield, one in which military actions might not be quite so morally clear-cut. Still others took a more deconstructive approach, like in Adam Roberts' New Model Army, in which he looked at how decentralized communications and technologies could undermine the very foundation of military science. Technology thrillers by the likes of Tom Clancy looked to the modern state of military technology to spin out their narratives. Arkady Martine's A Desolation Called Peace reimagines the state of war in a distant galactic empire by pointedly not looking at tropes of service or patriotism, but on the impact of colonialism and what happens when such a body comes into contact with something that's wholly different.  

Moreover, the waves of privatizations and downsizing that had occurred throughout the 1980s and 1990s led to more unfettered private, commercial activity moving into the battlefield—real and imagined. Stories like Linda Nagata's The Red trilogy and The Last Good Man looked at a modern state of warfare overrun by private contractors, while Kameron Hurley's The Light Brigade imagined a time-bending corporate war, all while in the real world, private defense contractors played an ever-increasing role on the battlefield.

And while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have drawn to a close, there's a new state of growing anxiety as tensions simmer between the US and China, with new potential for conflicts arising on land, sea, and space between the two countries as they confront one another over a variety of issues. There's fiction exploring that dynamic too, such as August Cole / P.W. Singer's Ghost Fleet or Elliot Ackerman / Admiral James Stravridis's 2034.

The result is a rapidly-changing field, one in which there's little consensus as to what exactly war is intended to accomplish, fueled by decades of protest movements and cynicism towards the governmental structures that wage it. War is no longer the straight-forward, cut-and-dry affair that it had at one point been portrayed, and for better or worse, it's a genre that's adapting to an ever-changing state of anxieties about the future of conflict.


It's in this environment that Halo: Combat Evolved arrived, and from those merits, it's game that likely benefited from that post-Cold War environment. That first game is very much a nostalgic story, one that draws in references to everything from Larry Niven's Ringworld and Iain M. Banks' Culture series, to James Cameron's Aliens and, of course, Heinlein's Starship Troopers.

Set in hundreds of years in the future, Halo follows a power armor-clad supersoldier who's fighting in a massive war against an alien coalition known as the Covenant, whose goal to wipe out humanity pulls him into an epic war to protect humanity and the rest of sentient life in the galaxy from destruction. The aliens are bad, actually, and it's up to Earth and the United Nations Space Command to hold back the attacks to save humanity and allow it to prosper throughout its colonial worlds.

It isn't until further installments and an expansion of its lore that we really get a sense of how much more complicated the world is. Halo 2 introduces the Arbiter, a sympathetic Sangheili elite who learns the devastating truth behind the Covenant's desire to activate the Halo rings (a spiritual uplifting of all Covenant followers, but really death to sentient life in the galaxy), while Halo: Reach reveals some glimpses into the true purposes of the supersoldier program: weapons to keep the colonial worlds in line by ruthlessly putting down any sign of resistance. Halo changed and evolved with the times as it continued through new games, novels, and comics, eventually showing some more complexity beyond the adventure story that spawned the franchise.


War stories are interesting things to behold. They lend themselves well to narratives that prize adventure, courage and overcoming adversity, but also deal explore the complications that come with it: the pain, tragedy, and memories that conflict leaves behind. Strip away the romantic layers, and we're left with interesting cultural artifacts, stories that tell us more than they think they tell us: examinations of the attitudes that we hold towards those we fight against, about our rationale for violence, and the value we place on human lives.

Halo, I think, has endured for two decades for not just its simplicity, but because it's the tip of an iceberg, part of a larger genre, and a larger world that peaks a bit above the surface to beckon us in for a closer look.

Looking at the past, it's easy to assume that military science fiction is a body of work that will continue to entice and entertain readers for decades to come: after all, we've been telling war stories ever since we've waged war against one another. Halo and the story of Master Chief and his allies will likely also continue in some form: stories of new battlefields and enemies, which, if you look between the lines, will tell us just a little more about the anxieties we hold about the world. Maybe, if we choose to listen and understand them, we'll find a way to ensure that those imagined battles will never come to pass.


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