In 1903, celebrated British science-fiction writer H.G. Wells introduced the world to a fabulous new weapon of war – the tank. Quite an ingenious fellow, Wells had already previously invented the time-machine back in 1895 and a fully functional invisibility potion in 1897.
This time, in his short story The Land Ironclads, he introduced a blueprint for large, track-propelled armored vehicles resembling giant metallic beetles, of the same basic kind later unleashed onto the genuine off-page battlefield by Britain to try and break the trench-warfare stalemate in World War I.
Thanks For the Tanks
One eager reader of Wells’ story was Sir Winston Churchill, who, as First Lord of the Admiralty, became convinced the author’s creations could be made to work in reality. Churchill was instrumental in establishing Britain’s ‘Landship Committee’ in 1915, a year prior to the resultant tanks’ maiden deployment in 1916.
Wells didn’t get everything right about tanks – his own verbal prototypes were propelled by ‘pedrails,’ wheels with rows of miniature legs attached, “flat, broad things, reminding one of the feet of elephants or the legs of caterpillars.” However, without his story’s lasting influence upon Churchill, the real thing may never have got built at all, at least not until many years later.
Reviewing his role in 1917, Wells boasted of Britain’s new tanks that “they were my grandchildren.” However, he did also admit he had simply stolen the real-life 1903 creation of rudimentary pedrails by a British inventor named Bramah Joseph Diplock, and then extrapolated outwards by imagining what potential military uses such peculiar contraptions could one day be put towards.
Yet, cautioned Wells, although his mental offspring had since been a great military success, Britain’s War Office had initially thought the whole idea ridiculous, with Churchill being thought “a most dangerous lunatic” for proposing it. As Wells warned, “That foolish British trick of sneering at ‘imagination’ has cost us hundreds of thousands of useless casualties and may yet lose us the war.”
Tales of the Unexpected
Today, Britain’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) is less skeptical of sci-fi, its Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL) subsidiary even going so far as to publish its own sci-fi anthology in March 2023. Called Stories From Tomorrow, and available free of charge on the MoD’s website, its eight stories were co-authored by US sci-fi scribes P.W. Singer and August Cole.
Known as ‘The Mad Scientists,’ Singer and Cole have founded their own specialist story-factory, ‘Useful Fiction,’ which liaises with NATO allies, taking the technological insights of their military scientists, then embedding those insights within easily-consumed micro-narratives. The way people use new technologies can be unpredictable, and the authors claim their tales allow for cheaply-produced anticipation of such “unknown unknowns,” as Donald Rumsfeld once put it.
The duo’s prose does not possess the literary merit of H.G. Wells, being functional at best. The anthology’s most publicized piece, Silent Skies, is written as a simple broadsheet newspaper report from 2040, detailing a mass weaponized drone attack on a future British Prime Minister during a public speech, resulting in over 300 deaths. Alarmingly, London’s drone-defense mechanisms failed to differentiate between terror-drones and those simply delivering parcels, so the writers’ message to the MoD is simple: make sure your upcoming drone-defense systems can make this distinction!
According to Singer and Cole, sci-fi stories are an actual form of “technology”, whose function is “conveying insight through narrative” rather than via dry technical reports. A non-qualified British Cabinet might understand a story about their PM being attacked by misidentified drones better than a more technical explanation of the matter. As the authors say, “Characters [in stories] become guides through whose eyes and other senses we literally experience key concepts.”
The trouble is, the West’s enemies, most notably China, can easily make just as good use of sci-fi stories as inexpensive forms of futurology too.
On the Chinese Internet, numerous fan-fiction websites provide domestic military sci-fi fans with an outlet for publishing a wave of patriotic literary serials with comically ultra-nationalist titles like Resist Japan and Expel the Japanese Pirates, or 2066: Red Star Over America.
There are thousands of such trashily jingoistic pulp-fictions available online where the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of tomorrow takes on regional rivals and Western devils alike, often using imaginary super-weapons even more unlikely than H.G. Wells’ ones of old – levitating tanks, for example, which can cross trenches even more effortlessly than ones with legs.
Despite their popularity, printed copies of such yarns are strictly unobtainable; the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) won’t allow it. Fearing unnecessary diplomatic tension with rivals abroad, in all officially available commercial sci-fi the PLA are allowed to fight only aliens, terrorists or fictional nations.
This does not mean, however, that the ‘aliens’ or generic ‘foreigners’ in such stories are not thinly-veiled analogues of real-life nations like America, South Korea or Japan – it is just that the CCP will not allow its literary propagandists openly to say so.
As I have shown elsewhere, the CCP have invested huge sums in their domestic sci-fi industry over recent decades, hoping to generate potential new military-industrial ideas, in direct imitation of H.G. Wells and his tanks. Their biggest success so far has been the Three-Body Problem trilogy of novels by Cixin Liu, the first Asian texts ever to win a Hugo, the sci-fi equivalent of an Oscar, in 2015.
The books are commonly seen as an allegory for future great-power competition between China and America, an interpretation initially accepted by Liu but later denied – perhaps after being silenced from above. British historian Niall Ferguson has consistently pushed this interpretation, however, once arguing that, similar to the way in which the Covid-19 pandemic was presented in compliant CCP media, the books’ basic message is that “It’s OK for China to cause a global disaster [here, an alien invasion] in order to [then] save the world”, like a classic arsonist-turned-firefighter.
Or, says Ferguson, 21st-century geopolitics may turn out to be a literal Three-Body Problem (a technical term from astronomy, referring to the impossibility of working out accurate gravitational orbits wherever a planet has three suns), as in the new Cold War 2.0 between China and the US, there will probably be a large non-aligned movement of lands like India whose orbit will veer unpredictably between Washington and Beijing as circumstances change.
So militarily prescient is Liu’s trilogy often deemed to be that an urban myth has spread that its central conceit of alien invasion was based upon an actual piece of academic research on the dangers of interstellar conflict cited by one of Liu’s characters. This in-book report was named The 100,000-Light-Year Iron Curtain by Bill Mathers, allegedly a genuine employee of the US-based RAND Corporation think-tank, but in reality just another figment of Liu’s fertile imagination.
What is true, however, is that Liu has readers in high places – including former US President Barack Obama, who met Liu in Beijing in 2017, and is an open fan of his books. High-ups in the CCP Politburo read Liu too. In 2015, China’s then-Vice President, Liu Yuanchao, organized a seminar with Liu to discuss his oeuvre, showing the author his own personal copies, described as being “dense with highlights and annotations.”
But what made them so worth the study? As in all good melodramatic sci-fi serials, we must wait to find out in Part Two . . .