How War is Portrayed in Science Fiction

9 Min Read

Aadrito Maitra

Science fiction has always been on a different level for the enthusiastic youth out there. And when it includes action — and more precisely, wars — the ensuing adrenaline rush might seem comparable to an uncontrollable stream.


Space Opera

Whenever we speak of war in science fiction, we cannot help but link it to the space opera subgenre, specifically space warfare. Space warfare features inter-planetary or even inter-galactic wars, showcasing the destruction of planets, stars, and other celestial bodies, with the use of high-tech, mostly non-existent futuristic weapons. For example, on a general basis, lasers are used instead of bullets.

Fictional space warfare tends to borrow elements from naval warfare, often calling space forces space navies or simply navies. For example, the Royal Manticoran Navy (David Weber’s Honorverse series), the Federation Starfleet (Star Trek), the Imperial Navy (Star Wars), the Systems Alliance Navy (Mass Effect), and Earthforce (Babylon 5) used naval-style rank-structures and hierarchies.

Precursors to space warfare can be found in “future war” stories dating back to the 17th century, with the first story being The Battle of Dorking by George T Chesney in 1871. The inclusion of yet-nonexistent technology became a standard part of the genre. George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution (1892) featured self-styled “Terrorists” armed with then-nonexistent arms and armour such as airships, submarines, and high explosives. Griffith’s last “future war” story The Lord of Labour also included such technology as disintegrator rays and missiles.

Depiction of the usage of non-existent weaponry is immense in the sci-fi film industry as well. In the Star Trek series, ships carry missiles armed with antimatter warheads, known as “photon torpedoes”, and deflector shields for defence. George Lucas’ 1977 film Star Wars broke new ground in its depiction of space warfare. The battle sequences were modelled after World War II-era tactics and were a major milestone in fictional space combat. However, the 2003 “re-imagining” of Battlestar Galactica uses more conventional weaponry, such as guns and missiles mounted on the primary capital ships and starfighters.


Space Opera (but with ALIENS)

Another colossal form of space opera is the fantasy of alien incursions. H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds revolves around the war between humans and an extraterrestrial race, the Martians. Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series depicts an alternate history of World War II, where humans were forced to momentarily halt the war and fight the common enemy, the extraterrestrial intruders. Joe Haldeman’s novel The Forever War tells the contemplative story about human soldiers fighting an interstellar war against an alien civilisation known as the Taurans.


Military Sci-fi

Apart from space opera, military science fiction is a pivotal segment if we are to talk about the portrayal of war in science fiction. This subgenre features the use of sci-fi technology, mainly weapons, for military purposes, and principal characters that are usually members of a military organisation involved in military activity, usually during a war; the wars sometimes occur in outer space or on different planets.
Military sci-fi stories often borrow references from the real world, be it past or current occurrences, and couple them with imagination, keeping the arsenal more advanced than the present in most cases. Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, as mentioned beforehand, is a notable example in this regard. The Vietnam War, which resulted in veterans with combat experience deciding to write science fiction, include Joe Haldeman and David Drake. However, some stories have kept technology static and weaponry conversant to present-day soldiers.

Works like H. Beam Piper’s Uller Uprising (1952), based on the events of the Sepoy Mutiny, Robert A. Heinlein’s Starship Troopers (1959), and Drake’s Hammer’s Slammers popularised the subgenre among the young readers of that time. Short stories also were popular, collected in books like Combat SF, edited by Gordon R. Dickson, an anthology that seems to have been the first time SF-stories, specifically dealing with war as a subject, were collected and marketed.


Man vs Machine

And lastly, robot wars. In literature, robot wars are mostly post-apocalyptic, set in the future world (as obvious as it seems). Some wars are shown as human-robot wars, envisioning the robots as counterproductive innovations of humans. The Humanoids by Jack Williamson is the perfect instance where humanoids created by a scientist spread throughout the galaxy, threatening to stifle all human endeavours.
The science fiction action film I, Robot directed by Alex Proyas, though it does not actually portray war, illustrates the devastating consequences of using AI robots along with mankind. However, a collection of sci-fi short stories, War with the Robots, focuses on what robots can do better than humans. War with robots is a solid, early look at man losing the man vs machine war.

Another form of robot war is the use of giant robots piloted by humans in the post-apocalyptic science fiction film Robot Jox. In the film, mankind is decimated due to a nuclear holocaust and the surviving nations — the western-influenced Market and the Russian-influenced Confederation — have agreed to outlaw traditional open war by gladiator-style matches between giant robots.


Reflecting Reality

After all, these wars we have talked about don’t only entertain us, but also delineate the barbarity and the amount of sacrifice and bloodshed the world has gone and is going through. They have always reflected real-world issues, and our fears and anxieties in their own recreational form. They precisely present the future world in front of us and give us insight into how wars can torture humankind.

In colonial times, people cried out against foreign enslavement through H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. In The Battle of Dorking, just as ticking time bomb scenarios are used to ignite antiterrorism legislation, George Chesney’s nightmarish vision of German occupation was intended to inspire larger spending for Britain’s defence.

Such forms of delineation from war inform us about the real world political scene. The Babylon 5 science fiction TV series showcases the obnoxious consequences of extreme nationalism (in a negative sense, zealotry of increasing power and prestige), as vile as leading to enormous harm and repressive, counterproductive policies.

The original 1970s Battlestar Galactica TV series reflects a conservative response to the Cold War: the humans fall victim to a Cylon surprise attack because they were influenced by gullible peaceniks. The remake of the series in the 2000s stresses the importance of democracy and civilian leadership and condemns what it regards as dangerous demonisation and mistreatment of the enemy — even one that commits genocide and mass murder. Political issues are also upheld in Star Wars and Star Trek.


In conclusion, it would be apt to say that wars, portrayed in the form of science fiction, tackle variegated arenas, and the connection of the wars with the real world remains as relevant ever.


The writer is a part of the TDA Editorial Team.  

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