Future War

Why is the preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire the sword? It is to answer that question and perhaps one or two other questions of deeper import that this essay attempts.

Science fiction is now old enough that a perspective of its changes over time is possible, to contrast the dreams of past futures with the present futures.

A particularly telling survey should look at future war stories. Of all the institutions of man, war is the one that is the closest mortal men ever reach to hell. In war, good men do bad things, law and order breaks down, but also becomes tyrannical as military exigencies force civilian rights to one side, and continual fear, danger, desperation, and stench of death renders life brutal and miserable and hopeless. There is one small ray of heaven in this hell, tiny as a thread of sunlight that steals through the lock of a prison door, which is that the emergency can from time to time bring out acts of selfless and unselfregarding fortitude, patriotism, honor, sacrifice, and heroism.

War is fundamental. A man’s views on war tell you the basic axioms of his view on life. Because of this, a popular war story will tell you in an abbreviated form much about the storyteller’s most fundamental ideals and fears, and that of his audience.

I have long maintained that science fiction is the mythology of the scientific age.

A mythology is an exploration by means of concrete images of the abstraction and passions of the age; myth speaks in a vocabulary of anthropomorphized figures.

The scientific age was one in which the empirical method explained the natural world to man with shocking clarity, gave him an unprecedented degree of dominion over it, made technological change a part of human experience, and, for better or worse, banished belief in magic, in a world where woods were haunted by elves and villages by witches, to the remote fringes.

Hence while science fiction is often defined as stories about future technology or future attitudes toward technology, I submit that a more useful definition would look at the themes, not at the props, of the stories. These themes, namely, cluster around the factors crucial to the scientific revolution: the shock of clarity when the system of the world is revolutionized; the thrill or terror which accompanies dominion; the wonder of technological change and its social ramifications, or the horror; the grim romance of naturalism, when man finds himself alone in a universe of astronomical grandeur and appalling unending emptiness.

I made the bold statement above that a man’s views on war tell you his views on life. This is because his views on war should tell you what he thinks worth killing for and dying for, what he thinks death is, or virtue, and whether there is more to life than this world; and from this you can assess his character, distinguishing the shallow from the profound, the romantic from the realist, the craven from the noble.

In the ultimate analysis, there are only five basic attitudes toward life: the hopeful, the noble, the ruthless, the idealistic, and the despairing.

The hopeful believes in life after death and in supernatural justice in that next life, which will mete out the rewards and punishments men elude on earth; and therefore this ideal can encompass both the extravagant pacifism of a Saint Francis or the extravagant bravery of Saint George. They have no illusions about the horrors of war, but they fight with a joyful abandon and a scrupulous chivalry, because the war, to them, is both physical and spiritual, and a small part of a larger cosmic reality.

The noble are skeptical about such cosmic justice, but dedicate themselves with stoic melancholy honor to work such justice as their frail human hands can work; this view also has no illusions about the horrors of war, but also recognizes the glory of self-sacrifice in a noble cause.

The ruthless are skeptical about cosmic and human justice, and see the conflicts in life as inevitable and irreconcilable. They believe that the ends justify the means, and they believe in total war, fought to extermination. For the ruthless any trick, any lie, any act or torture or terror is permitted, so long as it is efficient in its service to the cause. Ironically and absurdly, they also believe human nature is malleable, and can evolve to a point when all war shall cease. Note that the utopia is envisioned to be without flaw, therefore to be so desirable that any ruthlessness is justified to achieve it. Gallons, nay, oceans of innocent blood are justified if this permits we can sail to paradise on the red flood.

The idealists believe the ends never justify the means, and that no evil is ever necessary, no violence ever practical. This is a utopian belief in pacifism, a notion we might call “total peace” as foolish as the theory of total war. It is a theory which blames the existence of the instruments of war for the existence of war. It is a belief that disarmament in the face of an enemy will enlighten him, soothe his fears and allay his ambitions, and render him a lover of peace. In other words, they believe that the utopia envisioned by the ruthless has already somehow been achieved, and human nature already been perfected. Idealism is the stark opposite of the ruthless belief in an endless Darwinian war between irreconcilable enemies: it is the idea that there are no real foes, merely unmet friends, no real conflicts, merely misunderstandings.

The despairing hold with none of this. They are skeptical of the utopianism of the idealists as they are of the craven treasons of the ruthless; they regard nobility as a deception, and hope as a madness.  They believe in nothing, fight for nothing, value nothing aside from their own selfish appetites. They are willing that other men fight and die for them, that they might mock their benefactors, and sneer at heroes.

Now, these are not five pigeonholes with neatly limited edges where any one story or any one man can be neatly stowed. Think of them instead as five directions or dimensions toward which a man can move, closer to one and farther from another.

With this in mind, let us take a semi-random sample of some well-known science fiction books, and make a guess about the view of life betrayed.

I say ‘semi-random’ because for the purposes of this very unscientific and rough overview, I compared more than one list I found here and there online of the hundred greatest science fiction stories of all time.

These tales are all so famous that I include no spoiler warnings nor summations of them. I assume you’ve read them, dear reader. If not, why are you wasting time reading this?

The list is also heavily skewed toward older novels. No Military SF properly so called is included at all. This is because in order to get a hundred people at random to compile a list of a hundred favorite SF books, the older the book is, the more people have had the more chances to read and to recommend it.

Of these several lists of one hundred bests, most had no battles in them, and contained no speculation of about future combat, but of those that did, one immediate fact was obvious: the writers of scientific romances are lousy predictors of the real future. Which is as God and Nature intended, no doubt.

Writers are lousy predictors of the future because accurate prediction is not, despite what an occasional Jules Verne yarn or Analog story might predict, the point of telling a scientific romance. The point is to tell a myth using the setting and theme and moral concerns inherent in the scientific worldview. The science fiction writer is caught in a tension between two apparently opposite goals: the first goal is to use mythic archetypes and images that will appeal to the reader’s imagination, or more, which will come to life in the reader’s imagination and shed bright light on all his other ideas and ideals, as inspiration and insight. The second goal is to create an illusion of realism, a verisimilitude, by extrapolating from known technology to the tools and weapons of the unknown future or unknown other worlds, to make the unreal seem realistic.

Tales that seek the first more strongly than the second are called Soft Science Fiction, and they include Space Opera, which seeks to wow the audience with astronomical magnitudes and epic action, but also Sword-and-Planet stories as well as Sword-and-Spaceship stories, which seek to charm the audience with archaic-flavored adventures in a futuristic or extraterrestrial setting.

Tales that seek the second are called Hard Science Fiction, or Nuts-and-Bolts stories, and the less wild the extrapolation, the harder the science and the more persuasive the verisimilitude.

Of these two, only the second will make a serious attempt to think realistically about future war, but even they are obligated by the nature of their craft to emphasize those things that will be different, new, and strange about the way our children conduct war. Hence, even of the ‘Hard’ SF war stories culled from the list of hundred greatest, few or no soldier fired bullets from rifles that used gunpowder. That is too quotidian, too much like the current time of the reader, not exotic enough.

Some of the hardest science fiction is the earliest. While TWENTY THOUSAND LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA by Jules Verne was not a war story, the ironclad submersible vessel, the Nautilus, was a warship. Anachronistically, she was armed with the same arm as a Hellenic trireme: a ramming prow.   The military applications of the invention were clear: submersion was the same as invisibility, and gave Captain Nemo mastery of seven tenth of the world.

WAR OF THE WORLDS by HG Wells established the best known of science fiction tropes, namely, that of extraterrestrial invasion by a scientifically superior Martians. To this day, someone unfamiliar with science fiction regards it as a field filled with little green men shooting heat-rays. The war here is as shocking to the Englishmen as, in real life, the English invasion was to the aborigines of Australia or the Americas. The combatants are too unequal for it to be considered a war properly so called: it is merely slaughter and devastation, and the humans are gassed like rats.  The invaders are eventually destroyed without any human intervention by a remorseless Darwinian principle: they are not suited by natural selection for our germ-ridden planet, germs which, by killing our ancestors, created as if by process of elimination our various resistances and immunities. The high civilization of Mars millions of years ago eliminated from their world all microbes that cause illness and morbidity, which they would no more keep around than we would keep man-eating tigers in our city streets.

A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs is the first of the Sword-and-Planet stories. The science fiction is much softer than that seen in Wells or Verne, but some sober scientific speculation does underpin at least some of the concepts in this yarn, such as the effect on raising children communally on the family structure. Other parts are pure flights of fancy. Here is the best example of what we might call “the rule of no gunpowder”—the Martians fight with radium-powered atomic bullets loaded in rifles with a range of over a hundred miles, but also fight with longswords, and wear no armor.

Much as I love this tale, it is admittedly juvenile. The hero, under the lighter gravity of Mars, has superhuman strength, and he is also the best swordsman of the world, who fights his way from pole to pole of a world filled with barbarians and beasts to win the heart of the fairest of woman, and a princess. He saves the entire planet from asphyxiation at the end of the first volume, overthrows the gods in the second volume, and becomes the warlord and leader of the entire globe in the third.

This tale depicts battles in the most romanticized fashion imaginable: it is like the heroic combat of Homeric heroes, but without the unblinking honesty of Homer, who described death wounds with the precision of a battlefield surgeon. I do not recall hearing a single wound described, or a funeral, or an act of mourning, in all this Martian ILIAD. Even more romanticized is the universal eagerness of the Martians for war: there is not a single monk, or even an unarmed man, on the whole planet.

THE SKYLARK OF SPACE by E.E. Doc Smith is akin to PRINCESS OF MARS in more ways than one. The combat is again utterly romanticized without the slightest reference to the pain and horror of combat. When the interplanetary ship Skylark reaches the world of Osnome in the multiple star system at the core of our galaxy, we find the same social elements as were present on Burrough’s Mars, namely, a warrior race of nudists who have no concept of, nor appetite for, peace.

GALACTIC PATROL and its many sequels in the Lensman series by E.E. Doc Smith shares this attitude of romanticized heroism, albeit there enter for the first time some hints of the ruthlessness of an unromantic nature: the Patrolman and Boskonians kill each other without remorse and do not accept nor seek surrender, and the narrator emphasizes that in hand-to-hand combat the Gray Lensman fights with no holds barred, no ‘Marquis of Queensbury rules’ but instead it is as dirty a fight as any bar brawl.

In both SKYLARK and the Lensman series, the wars are genocidal wars of extermination, and whole worlds are snuffed out with (to a modern reader) an alarming insouciance. In the final Skylark book, SKYLARK DUQUESNE, and entire galaxy is destroyed as countless millions of sun are teleported through the fourth dimension to occupy the same three dimensional space as their target suns, igniting both into novae. The entire galaxy is a cloud of supernova energy from core to arms.  E.E. Smith books portray a war of superhumans and super-scientists with superpowers.

Books like BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley and NINETEEN EIGHTY FOUR by George Orwell do not have any battle scenes in them, but the attitude of the book toward war is nonetheless defined: the wars between Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia are utterly cynical, meant only to serve as an excuse to cow the subject population of the various tyrant states, and consume goods and people, because, or so it is asserted, each of the three tyrannies is so powerful that the other two allied against cannot possibly destroy or uproot it.

Likewise, the World State in the year After Ford 632 has no rebellions, no civil disturbances, no migrations, and nothing that would cause or permit any acts of violence.

Both these philosophies are in the ‘ruthless’ category: the only difference being that Big Brother is from a time of perfect control of man before the Utopian perfection of man through science, and the world-state of Ford is from a time after. Both philosophies of war are war are naive to the point of nonsense.  Any speculative fiction writer who does not predict wars and rumors of war to continue to Doomsday is writing very speculative fiction indeed.

STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein is as original a way to tell a war story as was GONE WITH THE WIND, which told the story from the point of view of the Southern women left behind during the fighting. In this case, TROOPERS is told from the point of view not of a superhuman hero but of the infantryman, who neither knows the causes nor the outcome of the war. It is eerie that the cause or matter of the war is simply never mentioned, and there no hint in the book of the ultimate outcome. It is a book about patriotism, romantic only in the limited sense of praising the virtue and valor of the enlisted man, the grunt, the able seaman, the footslogger.

The ‘hard’ science fiction comes in such elements as extrapolating that technology will give a single soldier the firepower of a modern platoon, or even a regiment; the use of armored exoskeletons to make each man a walking tank; or extrapolating how to perform a paratrooper drop from orbit.

Sociologically, the book postulates a social system something like that of ancient Rome, where men earned their citizenship by military service, which is perhaps the least wild of the speculations in the book, but is the one which engenders the most criticism.

And by ‘criticism’, I mean slander and hatred from the various craven and weak-minded critiques who are stung too deeply by the book’s unapologetic message about civic responsibility. I do not think it necessary either to repeat nor to answer their unserious criticisms. The selfish brats do not like being told they are selfish. It wounds their precious self-esteem.

The war, once again, is portrayed as somewhat sanitary, albeit, unlike the purely romantic books, there is death and self-sacrifice throughout, indeed, it is the main point of the book. This book is the best SF example of what I called the noble and melancholy attitude.

THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert A Heinlein retains much of the same atmosphere, but in this case it is retelling of the American Revolution in Space. The attitude is inching, however, toward the ruthlessness with find the ends justifying the means. The hardest SF speculation in the book is the use of nonexplosive payloads, that is, merely rocks, dropped from orbit onto targets, landing with the force of meteors.

THE FOREVER WAR by Joe Haldeman is more clearly in the ruthless territory, since the main point of the book is that relativistic effects will act like the sleep of Rip Van Winkle whenever the soldiers return from cruise to and increasingly older and stranger Earth. The sacrifice of the men is something imposed by the exigencies of war, which ultimately turns out to be a pointless war. Mr Haldeman displays something of the anti-war attitude that was fashionable during the Vietnam war, where, for some reason never clear to me, the American string of uninterrupted victories convinced the American public that the weak, cruel and vile communist enemy was undefeatable, or, at least, undefeatable at a reasonable loss of blood and treasure. So, depending on how much of that spirit the reader sees in FOREVER WAR, one might arguable put this in the idealist territory.

More clearly in the idealist territory is Mr Haldeman’s FOREVER PEACE, which contained perhaps the least believable resolution to a war tale I have ever read. The book itself is very well crafted—I mean no disrespect—but the philosophical speculation on which the final plot resolution hangs was poorly conceived. The speculative idea is that in the future soldiers will be linked nerve-to-wire into fighting groups that operate war machines by remote control, and that a side effect on the psychology of the soldiers is that, if exposed to this nerve-link for too long, they will develop so much empathy that war and violence will be impossible. As if all violence were merely caused by mere misunderstanding, and none by fear, greed, ambition, or honor.  Obviously no one has performed the experiment and discovered this, but, seriously, most hatred between peoples in this world is between neighbors who understand each other very well indeed.

LORD OF LIGHT by Roger Zelazny and DUNE by Frank Herbert occupy the same territory as PRINCESS OF MARS, except these authors come up with a reason why the soldiers of the future on far worlds do not use pistols and rifles, but instead have psychic powers, swords and knives, tridents, spears, lasguns and lightningbolts. The warfare here, despite the archaic or mythic flavor of the weapons, are occasions of death and sorrow.

In case it is not clear, the reason why the sword is the preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire, is that the easiest way for an author to summon up images of grandeur, either godlike or Oriental or barbaric, or images of chivalry, is to hearken to the past, and a sense of things both half-familiar and hauntingly romantic is most easily achieved by such archaisms.

That Paul Atreides is a prince as well as a Messiah, and that Sam is a god, give them a mythic stature that Juan Rico, Manuel Garcia O’Kelly-Davis, and William Mandella, do not achieve. But the trade-off is that Rico and Mannie and Mandella are more human, more solid, and they bleed when you cut them.

ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card is a tale which is only about the sorrows of war, where even the victors suffer from the sacrifices they make. It has spawned as many sequels as PRINCESS OF MARS and GALACTIC PATROL, but in theme is the opposite. The original short story retains a considerable power to move the heart. It is the only book on the list I can put in the ‘hopeful’ category, because its realism about the horror of war is absolute, but also its hope in salvation even of souls bent, broken, and ruined by war is absolute. It is not a pessimistic nor despairing book. The only other book I can think of which has this attitude toward war is not a science fiction book at all, but a fantasy, indeed, the fantasy: I see the same attitude in J.R.R. Tolkien’s trilogy.

As for books in the despairing category, stories that say that there nothing is worth fighting for, I tend not to read such things, but authors such as Kurt Vonnegut come to mind, and this categories is more popular these days that it had been in times past.


  1. Comment by Tim Ohmes:

    Mr. Wright,

    I could never come to terms with why some SF books generated a mild discomfort either while reading or following their completion, while others caused feelings bordering on depression.

    I also found Kurt Vonnegut to be unbearable; his novels seemed so pointless I found no point in continuing to read them.

    Only one author and one novel in the past generated the same “wow” feeling on completion as LOTR and that was Ender’s Game. You have explained to me why and I sincerely thank you.

    Very nice insights.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Since I wrote the article at four o’clock in the morning, I assure you I can take credit only for passing along an insight which came to me from the Great Unknown.

      Kurt Vonnegut was a thoroughgoing nihilist. His philosophy was that one should take joy in the fact that every thought in your head was a lie, every idea was false, every event meaningless. So it goes.

      I say nothing against the man personally, but that philosophy is the PR of Hell.

      • Comment by Jordan179:

        I personally believe that World War II — and specifically his experiences at the Battle of the Bulge, as a POW and at the bombing of Dresden — shattered his sanity. I feel sorry for him in that respect, but I see no reason to join in his nihilism.

    • Comment by Mary:

      Oddly enough, though the Warhammer 40K universe is unrelentingly bleak, a number of the fluff novels also take the hopeful approach. And a fair number are honorable. (Others are nihilistic, to be sure. Lots of fluff, lots of authors.)

      • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

        Dan Abnett’s writing is what makes that universe happen. The man is a craftsman and a poet, and he makes what should be pointless tie-in-novel drivel instead become a moving and epic story about hopeless (yet somehow noble and hopeful) war in the 41st Millenium.

        “Sabbat Martyr” in particular. I went into that one already with very high expectations, and yet I was still taken aback by the awesomeness of it. I did not expect… well, I won’t post spoilers. Let’s just say, there’s a scene in that book that’s kind of like the scene in “Everness” where Apollo/St. Michael *actually shows up when summoned*.

        Yeah. :)

        • Comment by Mary:

          Sandy Mitchell’s Ciaphas Cain books are quite as good. (And if not all his Warhammer 40K stuff is up to that level, not all of Abnett’s is up to his Gaunt’s Ghosts level.)

          and other authors certainly put out some good stuff.

          • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

            I actually own both the Ciaphas Cain omnibus editions, I just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. I hear wonderful stuff.

            Almost all of Dan’s works have been brilliant. Certainly the Eisenhorn and Ravenor trilogy were. The man just poops out top notch epic high-space-opera military SF. Even the Horus Heresy books that he’s written have been tremendously compelling.

            • Comment by Mary:

              Then, for a tangent that goes back — “brilliant” does not entail “hopeful.” Deus Encarmine and Deus Sanguinius are not up to the speed of Abnett’s best, you can tell they are a first novel in two volumes, but it has the clearest signs of Hope.

  2. Comment by robertjwizard:

    I think the ruthlessness of the Doc Smith stories are tempered by the fact that the author made it clear in each case that the bad side would never stop. The Eddorians I specifically remember being mentioned as unalterable in their quest for ultimate domination.

    Burroughs struck me as one who took war as metaphysical. If he were the creator of Star Trek, they would all be Klingons in essence; some would be given good characteristics for us to champion them by, and others bad ones to hoot them by. But war and fighting would be their first and last resort.

    The bad side in these stories are thoroughly black. They are given no redeeming qualities, nor even a single redeeming member of their species. There was not a single Eddorian that was not consumed with the lust of galactic conquest. They therefore do not really resemble rational creatures, but bugs in men’s clothing. A war of extermination is the only possible presentation since there is no explanation given for why they are the way they are. They just are.

    Likewise for the good side. There are no sides switched, no character arcs. The good are solidly good and bad solidly bad. There is no redemption, no fall, no rise.

    The Nazis arose in the land of the philosophers and poets – not so the Eddorians.

    The ruthless view, at least in fiction, I believe to be the result of an artificial metaphysic, and has little application to man.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Notice this difference between Barsoom and Eddore: when there is an evil race upon Barsoom, let us say, for example, among the barbaric Green Martians or the decadent First Born, John Carter immediately finds a good and honorable member of that race, Tars Tarkas or Xodar, and because he is from Earth, a world not dying, which still retains the luxuries of pity and mercy, Carter wins over the hearts of these good men from bad races. There is no good Eddorian, Ploor, Eeich, or Kalonian in EE Doc Smith, but there are some respectable and even honorable bad guys among other races–Nerado of Nevia comes to mind, and the example of Blackie DuQuense that you mention.

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      Smith even says it in his basic description of the Eddorians: They have only one goal:

      “Power. Power! POWER!”

      They’re one of the most horrifying creations in the history of science fiction: super-intelligent, psychic, technologically-advanced and evil shoggoths. And if they were real, I don’t see how we could co-exist with them: any tendency towards mercy or goodness that might ever have been in them was both bred and acculturated out of the species long before Mankind evolved.

  3. Comment by Paul Weimer:

    In case it is not clear, the reason why the sword is the preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire, is that the easiest way for an author to summon up images of grandeur, either godlike or Oriental or barbaric, or images of chivalry, is to hearken to the past, and a sense of things both half-familiar and hauntingly romantic is most easily achieved by such archaisms.

    Oh, absolutely. One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic.

    A Galactic Empire where all the deaths are push button affairs where a million people die, off screen from the page (or the movie) doesn’t have the same feel as one where the corrupt vizier’s right hand man fights the hero one on one. Even if you call them “force swords” or whatever, that makes the stakes *personal*.

    I have long maintained that science fiction is the mythology of the scientific age.

    There is a story “”The World Science Fiction Convention of 2080” by Ian Watson. Nuclear war knocked civilization back to 19th century technology about a hundred years ago, but science fiction and its fandom continues. The point is explicitly made that science fiction has become the new mythology of the world in the wake of the disaster.

  4. Comment by Jordan179:

    Three points:

    Chemically-propelled massthrowers (aka “gunpowder weapons”): While today these are the most practical battlefield weapons, I don’t think that this condition will be eternal. The reason why is that the trend to miniaturization in guidance systems will eventually dictate that the best indirectly-firing weapons will be self-guided missiles of various types; while for direct fire first magnetic and then laser systems will replace chemical propulsion for launching material projectiles, and as energy storage capabilities improve, various lasers and particle beam weapons will offer alternatives to matter-throwing weapons. As I’m sure you know, we’ve long since moved past black-powder to smokeless powder and are probably about to move to binary liquid propellants in the real world.

    Darwinian evolution does not actually require a ruthless eternal war of all against all: it encompasses not just “nature red in tooth and claw” but also sexual competition (and its broader analogue social competition), and even symbiosis, which is why the Earth had become a richer environment than ever seen before by the time of Pleistocene (the possible Sixth Mass Extinction, in part anthropogenic, is knocking diversity down again but not so far enough to push us below, say, Permian levels). When the ruthless use evolution as an excuse, they are using it without understanding the implications: symbiosis is perhaps the greatest creative force in Nature. We (personally, as eukaryotes) are only able to gain energy from oxygen and glucose because of the ancient symbiosis of mitochondrial cells with our own. On the largest scale, what we’re doing here, by having this conversation, is essentially symbiotic.

    Skylark: Just re-read A Skylark of Space and its immediate sequel Skylark Three for what must have been the dozenth time — that tetraology may be counted among my favorite books ever. It struck me very much that the series is in part a meditiation upon ruthlessness — namely, it poses and tries to answer the question “When is ruthlessness necessary, and when is mercy better?” This seems to have been a lifelong fascination of Smith’s, because the Lensman series is also very much about the same issue.

    Richard Seaton is moderately ruthless: even though he annihilates whole interstellar civilization, he does so only when the alternative would be running a very strong risk of the annihilation of his own civilization. He is personally merciful to DuQuesne — whom logic dictated he shouldn’t have shown mercy to — at least once, and by the end of the series this actually works out to Seaton’s own advantage, and to the advantage of all our galaxy.

    The inhabitants of the Green System, especially the Osnomians and Urvanians, are exceedingly ruthless, though the Kondalians in particular combine this ruthlessness with honor (which is the only reason why Seaton can deal with them). The Kondalians are interesting because they could have served as the model for your argument that “Darwinism = ruthlessness” — their whole religion is based on an explicitly evolutionary model. Seaton likes the Kondalians, but thinks they go a bit far (which they do).

    The Fenachrone are aggressive, ruthless, xenophobic, dishonorable — and seriously overestimate themselves, which last-named factor dooms them when they foolishly attack the whole galaxy from a single planet without first building an interstellar empire. (This strategic flaw seemed less obvious in 1928, since Smith was writing the very first story ever about interstellar empire-building). Seaton has taken a lot of criticism from fans, especially in the 1960’s and beyond, for wiping them out, but the Fenachrone could be used as the models for my concept of “justifiable genocide in self-defense” — given their combined malignity and intelligence, living with the Fenachrone would mean living with a constant threat of genocidal war being directed against oneself.

    The situation with the nasty and insanely-xenophobic Chlorans and the ruthless but rational Llurd is played for contrast in Skylark DuQuesne. The Chlorans have to be exterminated as were the Fenachrone because there was simply no living with entities that insisted on one’s own destruction; by contrast the Llurd were reasonable enough for a peaceful solution. (Smith explicitly compares the Llurd to DuQuesne himself: DuQuesne is in modern terms a high-functioning sociopath who can be trusted to follow his own self-interest rather than a psychopath who would sacrifice his own self-interest to bloodlust).

    As for Lensman, that would be a whole post of its own, but suffice it to say that Civilization (and Kinnison) is ruthless but at times merciful to beings of B0skone, and the occasional acts of mercy turn out to be very much to Civilization’s advantage: Kinnison’s peronsal mercy to Ilona helps win an important campaign, and Civilization’s mercy to the Second Galaxy allows Civilization to almost double its strength, as the Second Galactics are mostly converted to the Civilized cause.

    I have my some of my own strategically-and technologically-centered meditations on future warfare elsewhere on Fantastic Worlds, most notably

    “Weapons Technology of the Future”

    “Natural Boundaries for Spacefaring Civilizations”

    and, in direct relevance to the slugthrower issue

    “Slugthrowers as Space Artillery in the American Mandate”

    Hope you find these interesting.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      While today these are the most practical battlefield weapons, I don’t think that this condition will be eternal. The reason why is that the trend to miniaturization in guidance systems will eventually dictate that the best indirectly-firing weapons will be self-guided missiles of various types;

      If you get the chance to read my COUNT TO A TRILLION, you will see that I anticipate the development of firearms going this exact same way.

      Darwinian evolution does not actually require a ruthless eternal war of all against all…

      That is your opinion and my opinion, but not the opinion of the group I call ‘the ruthless’. The whole point of Marxism and of Political Correctness, its modern variation, is that the oppressed group cannot negotiate nor concede nor cooperate with the oppressor group. Since this stupid analysis is used even for such groups as have an obvious and overwhelming reason for mutual cooperation, such as married couples or multiracial polities or private industries, one assumes the use of the Darwinian metaphor is because the Ruthless want to make an emotional appeal, something that sounds like a justification for their ruthlessness.

      One also assumes these ruthless people have never actually read Darwin, because they don’t seem to know or care what he actually said.

      Forgive me if the point was not clear that ‘Darwinism’ in this essay refers to people who worship but do not read Darwin, that is, ‘Darwinism’ here refers to the people who use a metaphor of Darwinian or Hobbesian wars of total extermination to soothe their bloody consciences, and does not here refer to a biological theory about the origin of species.

      • Comment by David_Marcoe:

        I’m working on a hard sci-fi space opera (taking inspiration from you, Mr. Wright) and one of the technological reasons that I worked out for the reintroduction of swords as a practical weapon is this: in the seesaw between defensive and offensive technologies, the sophistication of active countermeasures at thwarting kinetic and directed-energy weapons has made closing the distance and sticking a blade in someone the most practical line of attack. Otherwise, you would have opponents standing around lobbing things at each other, waiting for a lucky hit. It was actually the first dueling scene in COUNT TO A TRILLION that brought the notion to me.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          You have to make up a reason why the countermeasures that can parry a bullet in flight cannot parry the much larger and slower pointed steel stick in motion we call a sword.

          • Comment by David_Marcoe:

            High velocity, low mass. That is, it would have to parry the blade, a relatively massive object (from the point of view of man-portable countermeasures, presumably possessing constraints on heat, energy, and the like, to fit in a small package), and the body directing the blade, plausibly augmented by genetic, cybernetic, or wearable augmentation. The inertia of that combination might be daunting for the capacity of man-portable countermeasures, whether kinetic-kill or directed-energy, particularly when going up against competing countermeasures. That, and the range of engagement might preclude the safe use of some countermeasures.

            • Comment by John C Wright:

              You could also say that there was some sort of counter-countermeasure which a large flat surface like a blade could hold or have wired into it which a small bullet could not. But then you have to explain away why they do not use spearguns or telescoping pistons with a blade on the end. Or hairspraycans full of poison. Or throw scorpions on each other.

              • Comment by Mary:

                Well, you don’t have to. You just have to convince your readers that there are good sound reasons why they don’t resort to them. Explaining is a good method, one of the best, but not the only one.

              • Comment by David_Marcoe:

                Well, I would note the impracticalities involved. Throwing a rather un-aerodynamic arachnid at an armored individual isn’t much help. A spray can of poison is easily enough defeated by a breathing apparatus. Telescoping pistons, to be wielded by a human being, are just impractical from an engineering perspective, though telescoping weapons in general would be an interesting option, but are limited by the need to retract. Spearguns have potential, but they’re single shot weapons. Even with far future upgrades, that’s a risky proposition. I suppose you could have spears that acted like a technological Gáe Bulga, flowering outward with barbs to increase the chance of hitting the target and ablating any active countermeasures in the vicinity.

                It’s the simplicity of a blade that makes an ideal primary weapon, where defensive and offensive systems are at parity, such as to practically void each other under battlefield conditions. I’m simply using the age old constraints any craftsman, artisan, engineer, or designer has had to face when creating a weapon.

                But ultimately, Mary’s right. If we’re using swords as a dramatic conceit, our task amounts to creative misdirection.

  5. Comment by Clibanarius:

    “Why is the preferred weapon of the Galactic Empire the sword?”

    From a more practical point of view, it might be because defense technology evolved in a direction that set the clock back for the offense. I think the aforementioned Mr. Haldeman had something along that order.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      Part of the craft of the science fiction writer is to invent some plausible excuse for swords in space.

      Frank Herbert invented a ‘Holzmann’ field, which reacted more strongly against fast moving particles than slow, whereas Roger Zelazny just made the weapons of his gods into props, so that the lance of Shiva or the bow of Rudri were actually energy weapons, designed to look primitive in order to awe the rubes. Edgar Rice Burroughs and Gene Wolfe put their protagonists on worlds which had advanced weapon technology, but they are dying worlds with no resources, so the firearms are rare and expensive, and swords don’t run out of ammo: Mad Max in the movie ROAD WARRIOR has the same gun-too-rare constraints. Neal Stephenson had an even nicer solution in SNOW CRASH: sword work in cyberspace because the designers programmed it that way.

      • Comment by danurdan:

        The book of the new sun is one of my favorite series. Too bad I only understand about 10% of what’s going on. One needs an IQ boost like Walter Pidgeon using the Krel device on the forbidden planet to grasp Wolfe. Please forgive grammar and style errors. I’m replying via my lousy kindle fire device

    • Comment by David_Marcoe:

      I did not see this comment at all before I posted. Wow, do I feel like I have egg on my face right now…

  6. Comment by Earl Wajenberg:

    Philosopher Mary Midgley has devoted a book (and more) to the misuse of evolutionary theory for political ends: Evolution as a Religion: Strange Hopes and Stranger Fears. She distinguishes two sects of Evolution-worshipers, idealist and ruthless. One believes in Progress, which is inevitable but must curiously be helped along. The current version of this is transhumanism. The other believes in Survival of the Fittest, and Nature Red in Tooth and Claw, and is the sort you have been discussing. Midgley dissects both kinds, and dedicates her book “To Charles Darwin, who said none of these things.”

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      The Marxists more than the Transhumans are the idealistic evolutionists.

      • Comment by Jordan179:

        I can’t speak for other Transhumanists — but as for me …

        … I’m sort of a Transhumanist, in that I think that technological progress in various fields will inevitably make it possible and once possible the normal churning of social dynamics will make it inevitably happen that human beings will improve themselves in various ways: genetic engineering, cyborging, mental backups and editing, and so forth. I don’t pretend to know how fast each of these developments will occur, and I especially don’t pretend to know whether this will prove a good or ill thing in the long run. My dreams lead me to say “good,” but I can also see how all these technologies could be, and from history suspect that they will be, used to cause harm. So what I hope for and try in my small way to act for (by talking to people about this, as I am doing here) is that we will discover and apply these technologies in ways which will tend toward good rather than evil for Mankind (and other species of higher animals, since such technologies also make animal Uplift practical in time).

        I certainly don’t think it inevitable that things will turn out for the best. Or the worst. That’s something I hope to live to see — how all this turns out.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          While I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for transhumanists, you will forgive me if I am somewhat skeptical of the goals. I have no objection to medical advances. If genetic engineering can eliminate cycle-cell anemia, this is cause to rejoice. However, unlike Jules Verne daydreaming about a cannon shell being shot to the moon back before the turn of the previous century, daydreaming about reading and editing the human brain involves matters of pure speculation: we have no assurance such a thing is possible.

          We do not even, as yet, have the conceptual vocabulary to express the mind-body relation in empirical terms. For philosophical reasons I will not go into now, I do not believe such a vocabulary is possible. Therefore I suspect human race will never accomplished the act of manipulating brain matter in order to manipulate thought content, indeed, I speculate the human race will never find a coherent and precise scientific way even to talk about the problem. It is like manipulating the three dimensional volume of a sphere by altering its two dimensional surface features. But, like you, I do not know.

          If such a technology were possible, it would most certainly do harm, because we are human beings, and we use tools to do harm. That is the definition of our race: Homo Instrumentalis Malum, or something like that (I so not speak Latin) — whether some good might come of this, I also hope.

          But I am not the one who said Transhumanists were evolution worshipers. That honor goes to Nietzsche and Marx and their epigones. They are the ones who held both that there was a superman into which man would inevitably evolve, and that this inevitability would never take place unless we all pitched in and helped, and that this evolution made all bourgeoisie and Christian notions of decency and morality no longer fashionable.

          While some, indeed, many of the Transhumanists with whom I have spoken were socialists, some were libertarians, and none necessarily believed the pseudo-Darwinian theories of the crackpots Nietzsche and Marx; two frothy-mouthed loons which the modern age, for some reason invisible to me, regards as being philosophers and economists and men of intellectual stature.

          • Comment by robertjwizard:

            Some aspects of transhumanism are surely pure speculation. With all due respect to Vernor Vinge and his Singularity, I find this aspect of transhumanism to be fantasy. We have not been able to reproduce an iota of consciousness. A camera is not an eye. Kasparov was not defeated by a computer, but men who built a tool that could defeat him – they defeated him. That we can make a sensor that registers heat and triggers a mechanical response that moves said sensor away from the source of heat is not to say that we have reproduced the same effect of a child pulling his hand away from a hot stove.

            Only sloppy thinking on the nature of mind and the nature of consciousness allows one to assert we are anywhere near building Skynet, let alone a retarded starfish.

            But not all of transhumanism is pure speculation. I read last year that some scientists were able to produce a prosthetic memory chip in rats that augmented their memory. I would love to have one of those for world history – I get lost in the details.

            But here is a quote by a widely read, some would say scholar, with a PhD in cognitive neuroscience, Sam Harris. The man has not moved beyond Descartes’ argument.

            It is surely a sign of our intellectual progress that a discussion of consciousness no longer has to begin with a debate about its existence. To say that consciousness may only seem to exist is to admit its existence in full—for if things seem any way at all, that is consciousness. Even if I happen to be a brain in a vat at this moment—all my memories are false; all my perceptions are of a world that does not exist—the fact that I am having an experience is indisputable (to me, at least).  This is all that is required for me (or any other conscious being) to fully establish the reality of consciousness. Consciousness is the one thing in this universe that cannot be an illusion.[3]

            Of course this is the same guy who said the following:

            “We don’t have a word for not believing in Zeus, which is to say we are all atheists in respect to Zeus.

            Which I would think would have been Atheos. It was a charge leveled against Socrates.

    • Comment by Jordan179:

      I don’t “worship” evolution, any more than I “worship” chemistry or gravity. I merely accept it as a Law of Nature, and then study its history and possible effects on the future.

  7. Comment by Scholar-at-Arms:

    As usual, I enjoyed this essay very much, Mr. Wright. One minor piece of pedantry, however. While it might make sense to the English-speaker that just as a composer is one who composes, so a paratrooper is one who paratroops, this is not the case. “Paratrooper” is a contraction of parachute-trooper, and his activity is conducting parachute-drops, or paradrops (though at least in this country, that term is in disuse). The second paragraph on STARSHIP TROOPERS should end “or extrapolating how to paradrop from orbit.”

    Heinlein neatly used this contraction to show the march of time by referring to men in the M.I. as “cap troopers,” obviously a parallel contraction of “capsule-troopers,” parachutes having gone the way of gunpowder.

  8. Comment by Cambias:

    I think it’s also worthwhile to consider SF’s complicated relationship with war in a historical context. Science fiction was born about the time of the First World War. That was the first “scientific” war, in which weapons moved from drawing board to battlefield while the fighting went on, and in which Science (capitalized) was recognized as one of the sources of military power.

    Which may be why SF responded so differently to WWI than pretty much the rest of Western (or at least Anglophone) culture. In literature and philosophy, WWI was pretty much the Apocalypse. The confident, optimistic Edwardian society was utterly swept away. Mass political movements led by psychopaths began to proliferate like weeds. Religion lost ground to nihilism and ideology. Postwar fiction was a lot more grim, a lot less optimistic, and a lot more cynical.

    Except science fiction! For SF, World War I was an inspiration and a justification. It made radios, aeroplanes, and other neat toys widespread. Where the rest of culture saw despair, science fiction saw the boring old world swept away and a new universe of infinite possibilities opening up! (And yes, in that respect it was rather disturbingly akin to those same psychopathic mass political movements I mentioned.)

    So right from the start, SF considered war to be bad — something unfortunate and unpleasant, a messy chore — but not especially bad. War also meant neat stuff and social change. And if Science was what wins wars, then devotees of Science, like SF readers and writers, don’t have to fear winding up on the losing side.

    Fast forward a generation, to World War II. Again, SF’s reaction to it was a lot more complex than other branches of Western culture. Yes, it was a horrible war — but it was “obviously” caused by specific evil men — leading to the possibility that if we could just cure the insanity of a Hitler or a Tojo, we could make war obsolete. Hence, I think, the vogue for scientifictional theories of psychology and “mental conditioning” in the postwar era.

    And if World War I was an inspiration and a justification, World War II was a science fictional dream come true! Airplanes went from wood and canvas biplanes to sleek silver jets! Infra-red vision devices! Sonar! Radar! Rockets! ATOMIC POWER!! If there was any doubt that Science equated directly to military power, WWII erased it.

    So the specific historical environment in which SF developed into its own genre affected how it approaches war. Wars are often seen as an aberration, brought about by human frailty which should be overcome or “treated.” But wars are also a direct exercise in applied scientific power, so they can also be seen as part of the triumphant march of human progress. I think the tension between those two attitudes underlies a lot of how science fiction approaches war and warfare.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      This is a brilliant insight, and I wish I had consulted you before writing my article. I agree with your assessment about the relation of SF versus mainstream literature to World War One — science fiction, as you say, remained optimistic while mainstream lit swirled down the sewer drain of pure style without content i.e. ULYSSES by James Joyce, published in 1918.

      • Comment by Jordan179:

        There have been periodic attempts by science fiction writers who believed that it was important to be respected by “mainstream” literature to make science fiction equally depressing: the obvious examples being the New Wave of the 1960’s – 1970’s, and the Mundane Science Fiction Movement of the 2000’s. But they have failed, because they could never force most of the writers to join them, and they were ultimately sterile side-branches. Indeed, the big truth is that so-called “mainstream” literature is itself a sterile side-branch of mundane fiction: all the vitality in mundane fiction is now in the “genres” such as historical fiction, romance fiction, mysteries etc. Mainstream literature has defined itself so exclusively that it can only tell a very limited class of stories.

        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I have started the “New Space Princess” movement in science fiction, complete with manifesto, in order to achieve LESS respect from the mainstream writers. You see, the mainstream went mad sometime after World War One, and lost the basic idea of what it means to tell a story. Only in the science fiction field, and, later, fantasy, was the basic idea kept.

          The movie STAR WARS was nothing but the basic idea of how to tell a story, and it is perhaps the best loved movie of all time (right behind GONE WITH THE WIND).

        • Comment by Brad R. Torgersen:

          One of the things I decided I wanted to do when I started publishing was to turn the nihilism and pointlessness of SF-trying-so-hard-to-be-respectable-and-literary on its ear: if the end-game of literary SF was hopelessness, what happens after that?

          All of us have moments in our lives when doubt seems total. The clouds have utterly blocked the sun. And we ask ourselves, “What’s the point?” SF-trying-so-hard-to-be-respectable-and-literary treats this question as the end. I treat it as the beginning.

          I did this with my Analog AnLab award winner, “Outbound,” and I did it again with my Hugo/Nebula nominated story, “Ray of Light.” The period of absolute darkness, when hope is banished and all is lost, is not where the story finishes — it’s where the story starts.

          I’ve learned three things with these stories.

          First, there is a massively underserved 21st century audience eager for hopeful science fiction.

          Second, hopeful SF stories stand the best chance of reaching outside of the SF “ghetto” and speaking to wider audiences.

          Third, many readers are sick and tired of seeing religion treated like dirt in science fictional settings, and enjoy seeing religion and religious characters given both respect and dignity in scientifictional settings.

        • Comment by bfwebster:

          “SF’s no good!”
          They shout until we’re deaf.
          “But _this_ is good.”
          “Then it’s not SF!”
          — Fred Pohl, I think.

    • Comment by Nostreculsus:

      [The First World War] was the first “scientific” war, in which weapons moved from drawing board to battlefield while the fighting went on, and in which Science (capitalized) was recognized as one of the sources of military power.

      I am not so sure that the Great War was the first in which weapons moved from the design stage to implementation.

      What of the legendary siege of Syracuse? Even if we discount the stories of mirrors focused to create an incendiary ray, Archimedes did developed great engines of war, such as a mechanical claw to counter the Roman innovation of floating siege towers.

      Or consider the duel between CSS Virginia (the refitted Merrimac) and USS Monitor in the War of Northern Aggression (US Civil War). The Confederacy developed an ironclad ship that could break the Northern blockade until checked by Ericsson’s ironclad Monitor.

      Leonardo da Vinci was another science boffin who enjoyed developing new and phantastical weapons.

      • Comment by Stephen J.:

        All of that is true, but the twentieth century had two advantages none of your earlier examples did: an organizational structure of information-sharing, aided by cheap printing and widespread literacy, and assembly-line manufacturing techniques that allowed the one-off inspirations of individual geniuses to be translated into mass-producible technologies with unprecedented speed and volume — and to make these technologies *useable* by people who did not have the knowledge necessary to *understand* the technologies.

        So perhaps it would be more accurate to say: “The First World War was the first ‘scientific’ war, in that for the first time the development feedback loop between deployment of a weapons design and practical improvement based on in-field operations was fast enough and integrated enough to outpace strategies and tactics which did not integrate that loop into their conditions.”

        • Comment by Mary:

          That would surprise the Rebels who complained that the Yankees loaded their guns in the morning and shot all day. The repeating rifle was certainly introduced with enough time to produce a noticable impact. The barge-tethered balloon was useful enough for the Confederates to try to produce their own — and only managed one.

          Not many, to be sure.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        The Great War was different. Science was a deliberate social product in those years, and not just a one-off river duel between two ships. If you want to say that the Monitor and the Merrimac was the first scientific clash of weapons, that I will grant, but this did not underpin the whole war. ALso, science is not just craftsmanship nor just cunning nor just engineering: it is the disciplined investigation by a group. There was nothing like than in any ancient war. The Chinese invented the gunpowder rocket and the kite, and the ancient Greeks had a toy for opening temple doors that worked on the same principle as the steam engine, but this was not science. Franklin flying a kite in the thunderstorm was science, even though he did nothing an ancient could not have done. They did not have the mental tools in their mental toolkit, the categories and disciplines of empirical work.

        • Comment by Nostreculsus:

          I see a progression from the Napoleonic wars to the American Civil War to the Great War to WWII towards ever greater mobilization of ever larger proportions of the population in the war effort. It is difficult to be sure that we can return to an age where a smaller but well-equipped corps of professional soldiers are capable of maintaining order. Perhaps jihad is a means of enlisting an entire population to carry out attacks on another, more civilized, people.

          They [the ancients] did not have the mental tools in their mental toolkit, the categories and disciplines of empirical work.

          You may be overstating your case. Two centuries before Christ, Eratosthenes formulated a hypothesis that the earth was round, measured the sun’s angle of elevation at two latitudes and trigonometrically calculated the earth’s curvature. He was a scientist.

          But the submarine, poison gas and the tank involve no new principles, only disciplined engineers in a group.

          • Comment by John C Wright:

            What Eratosthenes did was that branch of natural philosophy known as astronomy. It was “science” in the same way that Euclid was, or the poliocratics of
            Archimedes or the engineering of Hero of Alexandria. Eratosthenes was a scientist in the same sense as Aristotle was a scientist. You are attributing modern categories of thought to ancient figures where they do not belong. Science properly so called, that is, an organized discipline of technical development, was born in the Middle Ages.

            You also introduce a distinction between science that involves new principles and science that does not: but this distinction has no place here. Poison gas and armored tanks and machine guns and so on were developed by teams of engineers for military purposes. They were weapons developed scientifically, not by natural philosophers or single geniuses like Da Vinci acting alone.

            Science in the proper sense of the work implies an organized body of development which operates by shared principles. Eratosthenes neither knew nor applied those principles: he took a measurement and did a geometric calculation. It was brilliant, but it was not the thing that develops technology.

            I do not mind if you use the same word to refer to the actions of a technological civilization and the speculations of natural philosophers. I myself often use the word “science” in this expanded meaning when I call economics a science, that is, a disciplined body of knowledge. But if you use that word in that way, you must, in order to be fair, made the mental distinction between sciences like that involved in creating the aeroplane and “sciences” like astronomy as it was seen and used in the day when astronomy was a branch of mathematics and not a branch of physics.

            • Comment by Sylvie D. Rousseau:

              …an organized body of development which operates by shared principles.
              You are speaking of applied science, that is, engineering.

              Eratosthenes neither knew nor applied those principles: he took a measurement and did a geometric calculation.
              This is precisely what fundamental science is: to use theoretical reasoning, principles and calculations to check and explain observations of nature. In that case, any attentive observer knew the sky was curved and mariners knew the sea was curved as well.

              It was brilliant, but it was not the thing that develops technology.
              It was precisely the kind of thing that eventually leads to developing technology.

              Dr Charlton worries in his scientific papers on the decline of general intelligence and that less and less people know how things work on the mere technological plane, let alone on the fundamental, theoretical plane. The result is that we are becoming helpless in maintaining and fixing the devices we are using. He also complains — and I heard the same 25 years ago in a conversation with scientists — that research funding is lavishly bestowed on applied (nowadays often futile or seriously biased) research while next to nothing goes on real, fundamental, theoretical science.

              I grant you that fundamental discoveries are possible while doing applied science, but if there are holes in theoretical knowledge and reasoning, it is likely that apart from missing fundamental breakthroughs, applied breakthroughs will be restricted to what we can comprehend.

              • Comment by John C Wright:

                No matter what similarities, real or imaginary, you would like to find between the philosophy and mathematics of the classical world, and the science of the modern word, and whether or not you want to use one undefined word to cover both the cases, the two cases are different because the ancient world did not have or practice science properly so called.

                One scientist does not make a culture scientific, nor did Eratosthenes produce a scientific revolution. After a certain point, the absurdity of the argument should be manifest. Did the ancient Greeks have research laboratories? Did they have the steam engine?

                Let me use a parallel: How would you answer if someone said that the Egyptians or Chinese studied geometry, on the grounds that something similar to the Pythagorean Theorem can be found among their ancient writings, but there is no evidence of a Euclid who arranged and organized the various proofs of geometry into a logical order, the the conclusions of one being the axioms of the next?

                It should be obvious that if the scattered and disorganized investigations of the Egyptians and Chinese are called “geometry” that the word is being used to obscure the gulf that exists between an organized and disciplined body of investigation and a scattered craftmanship with rules of thumb.

                Likewise here with whether or not the Greeks had “science.” What they had was logic, rhetoric, music, astronomy, geometry, arithmetic. What they had did not produce the scientific revolution, call it what you will.

              • Comment by John C Wright:

                “This is precisely what fundamental science is: to use theoretical reasoning, principles and calculations to check and explain observations of nature”

                While the word science can be used broadly to include all natural philosophy, which is what your definition is, that is not the thing that differentiates modern science, or, rather physics, from the mathematics and astronomy and music of the ancients. Specifically, it is not observations but the observations of measurable quantities of matter in motion, and the use of theoretical reasoning to discover formal and efficient causes without speculating on final causes.

                Eratosthenes was doing philosophy, not science in the modern sense, and I can prove it with one point: no one checked his results. No other Helene paced out the distance between Alexandria and Thebes, and compared the shadows of two upright sticks at noon, and calculated from the difference of the length of the shadows at different latitudes the curve of the Earth. They did not check his results any more than they checked Aristotle’s theory that bugs are born in dungheaps ex nihilo, or that women have a different number of teeth than men. One does not check philosophical results, one argues them. The idea of reproducing an experiment is a modern (i.e. medieval) idea.

            • Comment by Nostreculsus:

              You also introduce a distinction between science that involves new principles and science that does not: but this distinction has no place here.

              That distinction is precisely the difference between “science” and “engineering”. I consider science to be the discovery and investigation of reality, guided by empirical confirmation. It is situated somewhere between “philosophy” and “engineering” with somewhat vague borderlands on each side.

              So Einstein “E= Mc squared” is science; the A-bomb is (mostly) engineering. Very roughly, in a science experiment, such as the LHC, you do not know what answer you will get and in an engineering project, you do. Or at least, you should know, or your Skylark blows up on the launch pad. The borders are, admittedly vague.

              [Science] is the disciplined investigation by a group.

              And music is, I suppose, disciplined sound production by a group. You emphasize features that are not unique to science – features universal to all successful human endeavours. Of course, scientists study their discipline, share their insights and seek collaborators with complementary skills. So do musicians. And taxi-drivers. And doctors. And lawyers.

              So Eratosthenes, who collaborated with other scholars at the Library of Alexandria and drew upon an established corpus of geometry and maths, was not a scientist, but the engineers that designed poison gas canisters – they were scientists. I suppose a symphony orchestra makes music but a single violinist can only emit noise.

              • Comment by John C Wright:

                You are free to define the word science in any way you wish, and the definition you are using is not necessarily alien to the ordinary meaning of the word. But your definition is misleading, because it leads you to absurd conclusions, such as, for example, that the mathematician Eratosthenes was engaged in the same discipline as Thomas Edison. He was not.

                Call it by whatever word you like — and may this example remind me why it is wise never to get involved in semantic arguments — but whatever you call it, the ancient Greek did not have it, and the European world from the Middle Ages onward did.

        • Comment by Cambias:

          Monitor Vs. Virginia was a fictional battle that somehow leaked out into real life. Consider: the Rebels unveil their ultratech superweapon, nothing can stand before it . . . except the Union’s own ultratech superweapon, just out of the shipyard and rushed to the scene in the nick of time! If it was Seaton Vs. Duquesne we’d roll our eyes at how unrealistic it was.

          More to the point, I wouldn’t call the American Civil War a “scientific” war because although technology did progress, the military and political leaders didn’t think of science as one of the key sinews of war. Plenty of freelance inventors tried to come up with new superweapons, but by and large the generals were content to slug it out with muzzle-loaders and bayonets.

          Invention in those days was a “random event” rather than something which could be organized and directed.

          • Comment by Nostreculsus:

            Come to think of it, Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon” begins at the Gun Club, where armament inventors in the Civil War mourn that there is no further need for their works. The great rivals are Impey Barbicane of Baltimore and Captain Nicholl of Philadelphia.

            Now if Barbicane was a great founder of shot, Nicholl was a great forger of plates; the one cast night and day at Baltimore, the other forged day and night at Philadelphia. As soon as ever Barbicane invented a new shot, Nicholl invented a new plate; each followed a current of ideas essentially opposed to the other. Happily for these citizens, so useful to their country, a distance of from fifty to sixty miles separated them from one another, and they had never yet met. Which of these two inventors had the advantage over the other it was difficult to decide from the results obtained. By last accounts, however, it would seem that the armor-plate would in the end have to give way to the shot; nevertheless, there were competent judges who had their doubts on the point.

            It all tends to confirm your insight that mass exposure to rapid technological and social innovation in war creates the audience receptive to science fiction.

          • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

            A similar thing happened during the cold war, I think: We won that war, at least partially, by science. In particular, by one device: The M-1 Abrams Main Battle Tank.

            For most of the cold war we were basically bribing the Soviets to not invade western europe, by giving them food. (Something that, thanks to Stalin, they did not have, nor any hope) The reason for this: They would have won a conventional war, and everyone knew that nuclear war was madness, and thus off the table. But until the 80s, we could not not have stopped the Soviets. They had more tanks, superior thanks, better trained troops, and so on.

            Enter the Abrams: it was the synthesis of several revolutionary new technologies, but the most important: The fire-control system. A computer that aimed the gun for the gunner, automatically correcting for any bumps, movement, etc. It was the first tank that could fire accurately while moving at top speed. When it was deployed, the balance of power turned overnight. In every combat scenario, the Abrams could win battles against Soviet armor even when outnumbered by an order of magnitude. It’s new type of armor could withstand several direct hits without allowing penetration, as well.

            So, now conventional war was off the table. They had no leverage to bribe us with. After that, it was only a matter of time, and Reagan getting them to self-destruct via unsustainable military overspending.

            • Comment by Jordan179:

              Oddly enough, just earlier in the shower I was thinking about the effect that the Reagan arms buildup had on winning us the Gulf War of 1990-91, and thus ensuring that Saddam Hussein would not be in a position to seize the Middle East oil supply. Saddam was hoping to fight a 1960’s – 1970’s style conventional war on the offense and similar-era guerilla war on the defense, all the while inflicting enough casualties on US forces that we would start calling for a truce. His obvious models were projections of World War III in Europe from the time that he was an actual military officer (1960’s to early 1970’s) and the Vietnam War from the same era.

              The equipment purchased during the Reagan military buildup helped defeat him. Iraqi tanks were unable to kill any M-1’s, and the new American Tomahawk missiles, Stealth fighters, Bradley CFV’s and A-10 Warthogs utterly devastated his forces and then cut them up in the retreat. Oddly, the very same people who complained about our “unnecessary” buildup in the 1980’s never reversed their position on this: the smart ones simply stopped talking about it, the stupid ones will talk about it today, unaware that it’s why we’ve been so incredibly militarily successful over the last 30-odd years.

              • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

                Yep. To date, not a single M-1 Abrahms has been destroyed by enemy fire. (although a few have been “mission killed”, IE: Rendered unable to complete their objective, usually because one of the tracks was damaged and the vehicle could no longer move, and had to be left behind during an advance.)

                The main battle tanks of every first world nation have basically emulated this. Germany’s Leopard 2, France’s Leclerc, the Israeli Merkava, all built using the same technologies and design philosophy as the M-1.

                Ironically, the Russians only began producing a tank like this (the T-90) after the Soviet Union fell. Their adoption of it, and selloff of all their older (and completely obsolete and useless) surplus, is the reason all these petty dictatorships have armies bristling with old Soviet gear.

  9. Comment by arnold.williams:

    How about because a lot of science fiction takes place in space, with vacuum outside, and making holes in the hull is dangerous? Swords have a limited, controlled reach.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      That is precisely the reason I used in a book, not yet published, called UNCONQUERED EARTH. (If you see this book in the future, don’t assume I am stealing the idea, assume that great minds think alike.) In that book, the Earthmen regard the use of swords to be an annoying affectation of the spacemen, who form (in that book) their aristocratic class.

      The other reason in the book was that sword-dueling was the best way to extract from the nervous system of the victim a symbiotic life form from 36 Ophiuchus, who granted eternal youth. Hence shooting the enemy with guns or flamethrowers would waste the symbiot, and so a weapon that could maim or dismember the foe without killing him was necessary. Since the symbiot can only go into one new host, the battles tended to be one-on-one, hence the custom of dueling.

      • Comment by Sean Michael:

        Dear Mr. Wright:

        Many thanks for another very interesting essay. And I found comments person as varied as Jordan179 and Cambias also very interesting.

        It is my belief that Poul Anderson took war and its tragedies seriously in works like ENSIGN FLANDRY, A MIDSUMMER TEMPEST, THE WINTER OF THE WORLD, “Kings Who Die,” etc. And that his thought can fit in either the Hopeful or Noble categories.

        As for why so many Galactic Empires have swordfighters, Poul Anderson suggested an ansnwer in “Tiger by the Tail,” to be found in AGENT OF THE TERRAN EMPIRE. Dominic Flandry had, near the story’s end, bested a barbarian who despised him and the Terran Empire using a sword: “Flandry laughed into his stupefaction and told him, “My friend, you didn’t study our decadence as thoroughly as you should have. Archaicism accompanies it. SCIENTIFIC fencing is quite popular among us.” Iow, a harking back to the past can be one reason why swords are still used.

        Sincerely, Sean M. Brooks

      • Comment by deiseach:

        Dear Mr. Wright: Please stop blowing my mind with descriptions of your (as yet) unpublished works.

        Every time I read such a description, my eyes get wider, to the extent that I greatly fear one day they will pop out of my skull. This in turn would mean I could not read the thrilling tales of space-age derring-do and adventure when they do get published, which rather defeats the whole purpose of having me sitting on the edge of my seat, panting in anticipation.


        • Comment by John C Wright:

          I have a number of projects I hope to get to some day. But I sympathize with you: I still regret that Robert Heinlein never got around to writing ‘Sound of His Wings’ or ‘Fire Down Below’ two stories planned for his Future History sequence that never got penned.

  10. Comment by robertjwizard:

    Completely unrelated question.

    There is an event by the Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association a short walk from my house in a few weeks, literally on my street. The featured author is Charles de Lint (who is not from the Pacific Northwest), he’s doing a talk there about writing.

    Anybody ever read him? Is he any good? Any recommendations? I figured for once I would read an author before meeting him. I always feel uncomfortable meeting famous authors I haven’t read. Usually it is not a problem because they have been deceased for some time.

    • Comment by Darrell:

      Charles de Lint is an author who, for the most part, writes urban fantasy with strong links to folk and independent music — so if that is not your cup-of-tea you aren’t likely to care for his fiction. A goodly number of his novels are loosely linked together by his fictional city of Newford and the character Jilly Coppercorn.

      As a sampling if his writings I’d suggest MULENGRO, FORESTS OF THE HEART, DREAMS UNDERFOOT, THE ONION GIRL, and WIDDERSHINS. I wouldn’t think that you’d much care for de Lint but I do recall you making statements in the past suggesting that you have a passion for music and live in the Northwest so I very well could be wrong.

  11. Comment by Clibanarius:

    How about because a lot of science fiction takes place in space, with vacuum outside, and making holes in the hull is dangerous? Swords have a limited, controlled reach.

    We already have rounds that can punch through human flesh, but won’t penetrate sheetrock. And any warship is likely to be compartmentalized and and armored.

  12. Comment by Jordan179:

    The speculative idea is that in the future soldiers will be linked nerve-to-wire into fighting groups that operate war machines by remote control, and that a side effect on the psychology of the soldiers is that, if exposed to this nerve-link for too long, they will develop so much empathy that war and violence will be impossible. As if all violence were merely caused by mere misunderstanding, and none by fear, greed, ambition, or honor. Obviously no one has performed the experiment and discovered this, but, seriously, most hatred between peoples in this world is between neighbors who understand each other very well indeed.

    Indeed. People often hate that which they know: most of our current “tolerance” for Islamism is based on our resolute refusal to face up to the reality of its violent bigotry, misogyny, and hostility to all that makes life beautiful — indeed, ultimately hostility to life itself. What we are tolerating is a fantasy-version of our foe.

    I do think that military units will in time be neuro-linked, but this is likely to increase the strength of the “band of brothers” bonding that occurs between members of a military unit today, which makes members of that unit more (not less) willing to fight and kill outsiders (including civilians and members of other miltary units on the same side, if not watched carefully). Furthermore, such linkages would have to be monitored by some sort of security system to prevent enemies from hacking into and taking over your own units through the linkages.

    Greater empathy for one’s own does not logically imply greater empathy for outsiders. Indeed, it may imply greater alienation from them.

  13. Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

    The ‘hard’ science fiction comes in such elements as extrapolating that technology will give a single soldier the firepower of a modern platoon, or even a regiment.

    It might be interesting to try to measure how much firepower a modern (2013) soldier has, compared to a platoon of, say, 1970, 1940, 1914, and 1870 – or perhaps 1862 for you Americans. Comparing to entire regiments strikes me as a little unrealistic, since that would include large crew-served weapons; it seems difficult to get any reasonable comparison between small arms, no matter how advanced, and actual artillery. (Although we may note that a modern infantryman can, presumably, shoot the crew and horses of an 1862-style 12-pounder before they can get set up, from well beyond their own effective range; and this might be true as early as 1940.)

    Taking a platoon as twenty men for convenience, it does seem that one soldier with a modern rifle, with a twenty-round magazine, can shoot as many bullets in a few seconds as can a platoon armed with rifled muskets, and then reload while lying down at that. Aiming is a different question, though. If we allow a skilled soldier three seconds to find a target, take aim, and fire, and perhaps fifteen seconds to reload and fire a rifled musket (making him slightly faster than the famous three-shots-a-minute of well-drilled smoothbore musketeers in the Napoleonic wars, on the grounds that a Minie bullet doesn’t grasp the barrel as tightly as a round musket ball) then the modern soldier would fire twenty aimed shots a minute while the 1860 platoon would get eighty. Against this, modern firearms have much higher muzzle velocities and consequently flatter trajectories; with blackpowder weapons it takes long training to hit anything beyond say 400 meters, even though the weapon can certainly physically move the bullet out a kilometer or so. Which brings us to the issue of what soldiers we should be comparing; are we talking about the theoretical capacities of the weapons, or about the actual armies that fought the wars of the respective periods? Today’s long-service volunteers are surely much better trained than the short-service conscripts of 1870.

    Moving up to the bolt-action rifles, with smokeless powder and no ramrods, of 1914 and 1940, the comparison naturally gets even worse for the modern soldier; and now you also have to consider that the platoons start to get heavy weapons. On the other hand the 2013 soldier, or at any rate his noncom, can call for air support pretty directly, if I understand correctly; should this be counted as part of his own firepower?

    Really, the comparison gets kind of difficult when you consider that modern armies are rather more heterogenous; what should we make of the firepower of a militia conscript armed with a Panzerschreck? The rate of fire is nothing to write home about, but it blows tanks apart if it hits right.

    I’m rambling; I think I’ll just leave this here and do something useful, instead.

    • Comment by John C Wright:

      I found the comment interesting.

    • Comment by Nostreculsus:

      This enormous asymmetry in firepower is one reason to be hopeful that mass conscription may remain a nightmare from the past – at least when policing lesser breeds. To quote Mr William Blood-

      “Whatever happens, we have got
      The Maxim gun and they have not.”

    • Comment by Dirigibletrance:

      Once you get to the 40s, especially to the end of World War II, you start seeing things like the STG-44 come into service, which is essentially a modern assault rifle.

      A modern soldier is formidable by himself, he can probably decimate a whole platoon of musket-wielding men, although they might still kill him with volume of fire (though it’s unlikely that a musket ball would penetrate an interceptor-vest, it would probably shatter the SAPI plates and also knock him down, and would still be lethal if hit anywhere else.)

      What’s more dangerous, however, is the force multipliers and combat doctrine that modern soldier’s know. A fire-team is an order of magnitude more dangerous than a single rifleman, a squad (3 fire teams) yet another order of magnitude more dangerous. Modern infantrymen understand how to fire and manuver, flank, supress, feint, move from cover to cover properly, and so on. Besides ARs, each squad has a SAW gunner, a designated-marksman, and each fire-team has at least one grenade launcher. All these combat doctrines are force multipliers that make him tremendously more dangerous as a soldier than the conscript from the 19th century and his musket, or even of whole platoons with muskets.

      I think a fire-team of modern infantry could probably rout an entire company of men from the civil war era, if not more. Including their supporting cannon crews. A squad, probably an entire battalion. The biggest barrier the modern soldiers would have is running out of ammunition.

      • Comment by Rolf Andreassen:

        I believe you are correct. I was deliberately limiting myself to Heinlein’s statement (as quoted by our host) of a single soldier having the firepower of a platoon. The combat effectiveness is quite another question; there it starts to get kind of silly to compare single soldiers, since it is mutual support and specialisation, not individual firepower, that matters most. Additionally, a single soldier has much greater variance of outcome; he is vulnerable to the musketeer platoon getting a single lucky hit in a way that a fireteam isn’t.

    • Comment by Sandy Petersen:

      Actually, a Civil War soldier used a rifle that outranged a modern rifle, and delivered a more lethal wound. It was of course far slower to load and use when they had single-shot rifles, but later on they moved to better weapons. A 12-pounder’s solid shot would outrange anything a modern infantry platoon uses. Not saying that a modern army wouldn’t devastate a civil war army – obviously it would – but the olden guys were not backwards primitives.

      While I agree with Mr. Wright that World War I was the first scientific war, the American Civil War was at least haltingly moving towards that fruition. As General Grant said, “War is progressive.” and the use of railroads, ironclads, explosive shells, and repeating rifles demonstrates this. By the end of the war they were up to WWI-style trenchlines. Probably this is because the USA of the time was so vigorously pro-progress and they tried to apply their knowledge and craft to war. Note also that many of the WWI innovations were American in nature, or at least originated in America. The first submarine, the first airplane, the first machine-gun, etc.

      • Comment by John C Wright:

        “…the American Civil War was at least haltingly moving towards that fruition”

        Oh, I completely agree there! The river duel between the Monitor and the Merrimac was like a scene straight out of a Jules Verne novel, or some duel between Seaton and DuQuesne in SKYLARK OF VALERON.

  14. Comment by Vicq Ruiz:

    the easiest way for an author to summon up images of grandeur…… is to hearken to the past

    Indeed it is, and unfortunately the same temptations have occasionally leaked into real-world war. Witness the Stuarts and Custers and J.B. Hoods of the 1860’s and 70’s, and the idiots who insisted that lance-wielding cavalry still had a role on the battlefield of 1915.

    Doubtless it’s the stoic in me, but give me a dour, grimy Grant or Longstreet commanding my troops over a plumed cavalier, any day.

  15. Comment by pst314:

    “THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS…The attitude is inching, however, toward the ruthlessness with find the ends justifying the means. The hardest SF speculation in the book is the use of nonexplosive payloads, that is, merely rocks, dropped from orbit onto targets, landing with the force of meteors.”

    Are the meteor bombs the ruthlessness you refer to, or is there something else?

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