Science Fiction: Visioning the Future of Warfare 2030-2050

This week we are looking at several different short stories from the US Army Mad Scientist initiative (wonderful title!), and their approach to envisioning the future of warfare between 2030 and 2050. We’ve all picked different short stories from their compendium and review them. The stories are available from this website.


The Weapons of World War Four by Oren Hammerquist (pp. 89–99) 

In this short story, a group of ‘chrome caps’ (tech soldiers) enter a village and engage with a group of enemies, using futuristic tech to engage their foes. This tech includes Skipper and Gnat drones, as well as augmented reality (AR) helmets and form-fitting body armour designed to stop bullets. 

One of the strengths of this story is the way that it doesn’t describe tech as an all-conquering panacea, and attempts to demonstrate some of the weaknesses of the military tech compared to low-tech knives and rocks. There is also then the question of power, and what soldiers might do if caught with ‘low battery’ in the field.  

While there are certainly some interesting ideas presented in this piece, there are a few areas that remain unexplored. For example, there is the nature of the relationship between the tech troopers and the military leadership. Given the nature of their armour tech and augmented reality, it is surprising that the troopers aren’t subservient to any higher power or even military computer watching as the battle unfolds. Similarly, there is no mention of camera equipment, or the use of such cameras to monitor and track soldier behaviour. 

Though the author may not perhaps intend it, the piece also contains a few telling moments of US military doctrine worthy of further exploration. At first, there is the implied racism that requests for assistance from natives must by definition be a trap (90–91)*, and the arrogance (I assume intentional) of belittling Europeans in their approach to war (91). There is also then the very interesting, if unexplored, line where the soldiers are ordered: “If you see anyone with a slingshot, shoot to kill!” (98). This has unerring similarities with US doctrine in Vietnam, and even the modern-day approach to targeted killing and signature strikes. In the world of high-tech vs low-tech warfare, can all civilians be deemed legitimate targets? 

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University 

NB: I am prepared to give the author the benefit of the doubt and suggest this may be down to word count restrictions 

The science fiction short I have chosen to focus on from the Mad Scientist Sci-Fi Writing Competition is The Army’s Guardian Angels by Matthew Diehl (pp. 178-187). Diehl’s story is centered around a Lieutenant and his platoon who are sent on a rescue mission to save an NGO aid worker and a diplomat who are being held prisoner in an old mining facility by a local militia. The platoon is transported into the area (cue radar-absorbing wingsuits) to establish a clearer picture of the site and to determine the best way forward. Aided by an array of drones, the platoon begins the mission… 

When thinking about what we can learn from science fiction, particularly regarding the future of warfare, I think it can be tempting to focus our attention mainly on ideas within the narrative that are wildly divergent to how things are around us today. Whilst it may be true that it is often these divergent ideas that most vividly seize our imagination and excite fevered analyses, instances that maintain linear similarities to the present day can be equally fascinating and useful to consider. These moments hold a quiet significance that I think can become obscured by the very nature of their familiarity. An interesting example of one of these moments stood out when I read Diehl’s sci-fi piece. It got me thinking about the nexus that exists between divergent and familiar ideas and how exploring this might inform our thinking about the future. 

Halfway through Diehl’s story, the reader is introduced to a unified pair of combat robots that are (somewhat menacingly) named The Twins. The Twins are designed to fight as a pair and are drafted in to assist the rescue effort by clearing a network of tunnels filled with enemy fighters. The robots are described as each having ‘…one arm equipped with a machine pistol, with the other arm free to manipulate doors, climb obstacles, plant explosive charges or throw grenades’ (p. 184). The fictitious systems are also capable of autonomously picking and eliminating their own targets. Soldiers in the unit are depicted as notably cautious of the robotic duo, with one emphasising that he is “…perfectly happy to stay out of [the Twins’] way” after seeing the pair “rip through a bunker back home”. Although this incident is not elaborated upon, the notion that the robots went awry and destroyed something they shouldn’t is insinuated. Whilst the autonomous, highly mobile and weaponised robotic twins are certainly a divergence from today’s robotic systems in use on the battlefield, the sense of volatility over the robots’ capabilities and functions feels very familiar. This is analogous to the unease and concern widely felt today regarding the potential development of Lethal Autonomous Weapon Systems (LAWS) and the unpredictability that may come along with them. Accordingly, these worries may not jump out as particularly striking or notable within the storyline as they are a continuation of a line of thinking that we are very familiar with. However, by projecting today’s less-than-positive sentiments surrounding LAWS firmly into the future – specifically into a narrative in which LAWS are an accepted and active part of the fighting force – the significance of this linearity starts to emerge. It denotes a sense of normalisation of this unease/distrust towards a potentially unpredictable robotic system and comes across (through its casual delivery) as just an accepted and normal element of the human-machine dynamic within the unit. Was adapting to/accepting this unease the trade-off for the overall advantages that these robots deliver? Whether intentionally or not, Diehl’s depiction nods to the lingering anxiety (or inevitability?) that LAWS may end up being deployed (out of wartime necessity) before such systems are deemed dependable or fully trusted by the military establishment employing them. This concern is raised again when soldiers are warned not to “get ahead” of the Twins’ while they carry out their job – a measure seemingly to ensure that they and the rescued civilians in tow are not accidentally targeted by the robots. 

This highlights the potential that science fiction offers for learning valuable lessons pre-emptively. The conflicting issue of a useful combat robot versus a lack of human trust in that robot, for instance, may present significant challenges to a combat unit if such a circumstance ever came to pass. How would unit/team functionality be affected if soldiers were distrustful or concerned of their robotic teammates malfunctioning? How might this compromise the unit’s ability to successfully coordinate effect in a hostile, confined and chaotic situation? And what kind of innovative safeguards would need to be incorporated beyond software and IFF systems (Friend/Foe Identification) to maintain trust at a high enough level to ensure human-machine teaming of this sort could deliver on the battlefield with optimal efficiency? Perhaps first and foremost we should be asking – what contingency plan is in place (or, indeed not) for such an unpalatable eventuality? How would the immediate advantage of speed gained by a rival employing LAWS be assuaged effectively without resorting to a knee-jerk like-for-like deployment? These are difficult questions about a situation that many of us hope will not come to pass, but the importance of asking and answering such questions should not be swept aside by that hope. By peering into possible futures, science fiction allows us – whether directly through the narrative or through our own inferences and interpretations – to gain an insight into potential problems on the horizon. In so doing, fiction can offer us a unique window of opportunity: to take account of and move towards remedying possible lapses in our present day thinking/approach/planning that might otherwise lead us to problematic scenarios tomorrow. 

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University 


The story I read was ‘Memories of Cordite, Sinew, and Steel in a Non-Binary Future’ By Lieutenant Colonel Yukio Kuniyuki (p.100-108). At its heart is a tale that despite advances of the future, in society, tech, and in adventure, some parts of war remain the same. Although this story includes ideas of individuals of non-binary genders, increasing  numbers of women in militaries, transhuman modifications, railguns, advanced fuels, space exploration, holo-casting, and missions on Mars, the point seems to be that the nature of war remains constant. Whatever happens in the future, and whatever alliances are created, war will always be about dominating the enemy and taking their treasures. 

It would do us good to remember these facts. Intellectual thought is not immune from fashion, and it is not uncommon to hear people who think a new idea is revolutionary and going to change the world – only for it to be much the same as before. Hybrid, drone, counterinsurgency, and counterterror have all be talked of in recent years as though they are new forms of warfare, or as though they alter the character of war. They don’t, they are just different forms of irregular warfare. Which is still all about dominating the enemy. Nothing much has changed about actual warfare, it would seem. People, mostly men, are still killed and maimed by it, and the families left behind are still hollowed out. 

Our interface with war has changed, however. Since the Gulf War we’ve been able to see updates on how wars progress daily, now of course we can go onto YouTube and Instagram and watch as much video as we can manage of drone strikes, soldier’s body cam footage, and the mangled bodies following an apache helicopter attack. I’m not sure if this is paradigmatically different from the Gulf War on TV, it may just be faster. Regardless, it does seem to have altered our thinking about war, reflecting the trends of combat in research and discussion. This could be a good thing to see the worth of fighting almost contemporaneously, or it could ignore the more meaningful long-term issues such as the increase from the Napoleonic wars of civilians constituting about 90% of casualties. 

Whilst science fiction can enable us to look into interesting and useful issues in contemporary trends, it struggles to delve into the long-term problems. Perhaps wider issues may be worth considering in our research, I know I certainly am. 

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University. 

Using science fiction as a tool for understanding bigger issues… 

This week we are using the blog ‘Political Science Fiction’ by Chris Borgen as a springboard to discuss how science fiction in particular can be used as a method for understanding bigger issues. In his blog, Borgen discusses a number of fiction works and how they have brought on thinking about larger issues. Hopefully you will have had a similar experience that you can tell us about in the comments.

Here’s what we thought:

In this blog entry, Borgen sets out to highlight that science fiction can be a useful tool for international lawyers and foreign policy professionals. He notes that certain works provide a useful optic through which law and international policy can be considered and gives the example of Iain Banks’ ‘Culture’ series, which challenged prevailing notions of good and evil, moral relativism and ends-based justification. The ability for fiction to convey ideas that contest mainstream thought or challenge dominant narratives is certainly one of the key components that makes fiction such a useful tool for learning. Fiction can evoke alternative visions of the world (and its possible futures), or as Borgen puts it, fiction can be a way of seeing the present from a new angle. However, despite brief declarations of science fiction’s usefulness (and a great list of recommended sci-fi reads) Borgen does not reflect further on why fiction is such a useful tool or how we might get the most out of it, which I think could have been useful for gaining a greater understanding of fiction’s deeper potential. This got me thinking about what it is about fiction that makes it a particularly good tool for learning and about the process of this learning itself.

One of the greatest powers fiction both wields and enables is that of vision. By capturing a certain vision and anchoring it in place – be it through ink on a page or images on a screen – fiction both offers a vision (that denoted by the author) and demands a vision (an interpretation from the reader). As these two distinct visions collide, an ether bursting with overlapping and opposing ideas/thoughts, points of familiarity and drastic divergence is created. In order to glean the most useful insights from fiction, I think we as readers must seek to continually inhabit that chaotic space of conflictual ideas, endeavouring to tease out the unapparent by seeing beyond the surface narrative. A quote I am particularly fond of articulates one aspect of this learning opportunity nicely: ‘Vision is the art of seeing things invisible’ .1 By seeking out the invisible within fictional narratives – the unaddressed and the unarticulated by an author for example – readers can awaken useful lines of inquiry that may inform our understanding of today’s reality or tomorrow’s future. It is not only what is said or depicted within a fictional narrative that should capture our attention, but also what is left unspoken. What might such instances (whether purposeful omissions or simple oversights) reveal about the limits or flaws in our current thinking and exploration of certain issues?

Fiction is a multifaceted and ongoing process, one that begins with the author, but then wholly surpasses the author to evolve and take on a new form in the hands of the reader. With each reader’s interpretation comes a unique vision of that narrative itself, one that is imbued with countless connotations specific to that individual’s own lived experience. If fiction is a multi-layered process, then the way in which we learn from it can be too. Whilst thinking about this, I was reminded of an observation made by literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes on the difference between authors and writers. He notes that whilst writers consider their work an attempt to resolve an ambiguity of some sort, authors know that their work ‘inaugurates an ambiguity’ and offers itself to the reader as ‘…a monumental silence to be deciphered’.2 For me, this absolutely sums up the power of fiction as a medium: fiction is always a starting point and never a final destination, it is a literary spark that ignites a much vaster constellation. A constellation of thought just as much as of vision. Coming back to fiction as a tool for learning, particularly the idea of addressing the unarticulated within narratives, it is by deciphering these silences that we begin to see beyond the narrative itself and expand this constellation further. By doing so we can arrive at a deeper understanding of the limitations in the ways that we think, observe and approach certain issues; lessons vital for improving our present reality and impending future.

Anna Dyson, Lancaster University 

1) Jonathan Swift. (1745). Thoughts on Various Subjects (Further Thoughts on Various Subjects).

2) Roland Barthes. (1972). Critical Essays, Evanston: Northwestern University Press, p.190


This week’s topic is one that is very close to my heart. I am currently reading for a PhD on essentially, just this point – using science fiction to reconceptualise our understanding of modern-day biopolitics alongside the emergence of the computerised state. As such, I am more than interested in the link the author describes between SF and statecraft, plus issues relating to citizenship, surveillance, technology, autonomy and military ethics.

We should not forget here that SF is absolutely fundamental in helping normalise new technologies, or even inspiring new uses to which technology could be put. Star Trek for example, helped normalise the concept of computers in the home, while the likes of Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein all helped stoke the public imaginary for humankind’s first forays into space.

One caveat I would raise here however is that while we can certainly use SF (and other fiction) to help us understand ‘bigger issues’, we do need to be careful how we analyse them. Many texts can be misrepresented or misunderstood based on a cursory, simplistic analysis, and this can only harm our understanding as a result. After all, often there is much more meaning to be found between the lines in what’s not said, rather than what is.

Mike Ryder, Lancaster University

In general, I think that fiction can be an excellent tool for enabling understanding and discussion of greater issues. Primarily I would put this down to the emotional connection that skilful writers can create between readers and characters, and the sympathies that one can develop with someone completely different. Afterall, there’s nothing quite like developing understanding of another’s perspective when it is too emotionally difficult to think any other way – I doubt anyone could walk away from To Kill a Mockingbird without a greater understanding of race relations. Nor could anybody walk away from James Ellroy’s works without an appreciation that all people have deep faults.

Secondarily, the artificial nature of fiction allows for situations to be created which force difficult decisions that may never happen in real life. The upshot of this is that major issues we may have been ignoring are suddenly very much in the frame. For instance, John le Carre’s A Delicate Truth shows us how even in times of human rights, some degree of social mobility, and being shielded by middle class sensibilities, we never consider the truth that everyone without power can be done over purely so that those with power can retain and expand their power.

Of course, political science fiction isn’t all good. Because stories are open to interpretation, people remember them differently. This causes some annoyance in my own work on autonomous weapon systems. I’ve lost count of the number of articles (both periodical and peer-reviewed) which suggest Asimov’s rules of robotics as the basis for governing killer robots. This is despite the entire point of his books being that his rules sound good but don’t work in practice. Perhaps this is also symptomatic of modern academic life, that there are such great pressures on people that most people don’t have the time to do their own work the justice it requires.

Joshua Hughes, Lancaster University