Magazine - The New York Review of Science Fiction - 313 - 2014-09, page 1
The New York Review
of Science Fiction
Vol. 27, No. 1
Brian Stableford: Putting Flesh on the Myth of the Final War: A Parable of the Limitations of the Speculative Imagination
Bernadette Lynn Bosky: Underground and Secret Spaces in Peter Straub’s Fiction
Bravo by Greg Rucka, reviewed by Alec Austin
The Madonna and the Starship by James Morrow, reviewed by Darrell Schweitzer
Christopher S. Kovacs: The Raw Emotion Behind “A Rose for Ecclesiastes”
Patrick L. McGuire: The Most Accurate Space Movie Before Destination Moon
Ursula Pflug: Around the Gyre: Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being
Editorial Pointing and Seeing
Samuel R. Delany, Contributing Editor; Kris Dikeman and Avram Grumer, Managing Editors. Alex Donald, Webmaster; Jen Gunnels, Theatre Editor; David G. Hartwell, Reviews and Features Editor. Kevin J. Maroney, Publisher.
Staff: Ann Crimmins, Heather Masri, Sophie Logan, Lisa Padol, M’jit Raindancer-Stahl, Jason Strawsburg, Eugene Reynolds, and Anne Zanoni.
Special thanks to Arthur D. Hlavaty and Eugene Surowitz.
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Putting Flesh on the Myth of the Final War: A Parable of the Limitations of the Speculative Imagination
One of the most oft-reiterated myths of French speculative fiction between its inception and the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914 was the idea that in the future, war would become impossible because weaponry would become so powerful that after one conclusive demonstration, no one would ever dare embark upon it again for fear of the resultant destruction. The idea itself is simple, but its fictional development inevitably went through several phases between its initial emergence and its collapse into recognized absurdity, partly due to technological progress in actual weaponry and partly due to changes in its philosophical and social contexts; selection of a few highlights will hopefully serve to show up some interesting features of that pattern.
The myth is not featured in late eighteenth-century works containing futuristic visions—including Monsieur Listonai’s Le Voyageur philosophe (1761; tr. as The Philosophical Voyager) and Louis-Sébastien Mercier’s L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante (1770; tr. as Memoirs of the Year Twenty-Five Hundred)—because those works were inspired by the philosophy of progress, which held that technological progress and moral progress went hand in hand and that war would fade away into desuetude in the future as human wisdom and goodness would be steadily augmented. In the early nineteenth century, however, corrosive skepticism began to gnaw away at that conviction, and future technological advancement began to be considered problematic because of the increased ability it would give to the stubbornly unwise and wicked to hurt one another on a large scale. That skepticism was expressed with a straightforward ironic pessimism in such biting satires as Emile Souvestre’s Le Monde tel qu’il sera (1846; tr. as The World as It Shall Be), and it posed a challenge to writers who wanted to depict placid futures without seeming naive.
One of the earliest writers to use the myth of “the weapon too dreadful to use” as a solution to this problem was Joseph Méry, in an account of “Les Ruines de Paris” (1844; tr. as “The Ruins of Paris”), which prompted a rich series of imitations and variations. The third paragraph of the story laid out the notion robustly:
Denis Zabulon and Jérémie Artémias are the guiding lights of modern science. The first has for an ancestor the immortal physicist to whom the human race owes unalterable peace. Everyone knows that in the year 3509 or thereabouts the great philanthropist in question invented the admirable machine that destroyed two fleets of five thousand steamships and a hundred and thirty-three thousand combatants in less time than it takes a clock to chime midday. The sublime inventor had discovered that the maritime atmosphere is inflammable over an extent of a hundred square leagues, and catches fire spontaneously by means of a brand of pulverized asbestos. Before that discovery, ships armed with simple Paixhans cannons of an improved model could only vomit forth a thousand incendiary bombs per minute, with the result that a third of an enemy fleet was still afloat after a battle. Zabulon’s ancestor, by popularizing his philanthropic secret of destruction, obliged two fleets to burn naturally, down to the last launch and the last sailor. Thus for three centuries, no one in the world has gone to war; the excess of evil has engendered good.
It is typical of such intrusions that they offer the latest developments in modern weaponry as a standard for comparison and a model for development—in this case the Paixhans gun, the first naval cannon desired to fire explosive shells, which had entered service in the French navy in 1841.
Méry’s friend Théophile Gautier picked up the notion in a more cursory manner. His own vision of “Paris futur” (1851; tr. as “Future Paris”) sparked a parallel series of images of a future Paris that had not fallen into ruins but had gone on to further glories. Writing in the future tense—a device that never caught on in spite of its apparent logical propriety for futuristic fiction—he proposed that:
War will be suppressed, with the vestiges of ancient barbarism; engines of destruction will have been found of such power that resistance would be impossible on either side. There has to be a certain correlation between offensive arms and the human body: some equilibrium beyond which courage no longer exists. Achilles, and Mars himself, would flee before an improved cannon firing sixty cannonballs a minute, each of two or three hundred pounds.
It was, however, inevitable that the notion could not simply be left to background remarks of that sort, merely noting and excusing an absence. Eventually, the idea was bound to move into the foreground with or without the aid of a provocative event to stimulate the military imagination. As it turned out, that event arrived in the French landscape in spectacular fashion when the Prussian invasion of 1870 woke the entire nation up to the a
Chesney’s novelette was rapidly reprinted as a pamphlet and translated into several other languages, including French, where Bataille de Dorking: invasion des Prussians en Angleterre (1871), with a preface by Charles Ynarte, went through several editions. It was swiftly followed up there by Édouard Dangin’s account of Le Bataille de Berlin en 1875 (1871), which references the battle of Dorking alongside the battle of Sedan as if it were a real occurrence. Most exercises in a similar vein to “The Battle of Dorking” in France as in England followed Chesney’s example in focusing on the deployment of contemporary weaponry and strategy, featuring battles that might take place tomorrow or the day after. Although there was intense interest in the possibilities inherent in the new weapons that were being continually developed in the wake of the Franco-Prussian war, attempts to imagine their future development in anything more than the most elementary terms was initially sketchy, and the fusion of that kind of war-anticipation fiction with the established myth of the weapon that would end war was by no means immediate.
Perhaps inevitably, the first large-scale development of the imagery of future weaponry in French fiction was cloaked with satirical humor. French literary dealings with future warfare began to deviate sharply from the English pattern mapped by I.F. Clarke by courtesy of the endeavors of Albert Robida, who followed up the humorous descriptions of technological warfare contained in his Vernian parody Voyages trés extraordinaire de Saturnin Farandoul (1879; tr. as The Adventures of Saturnin Farandoul) with the more sharply satirical La Guerre au Vingtième siècle (1883; different book version 1887; tr. as War in the Twentieth Century), in which he provided relatively brief texts to accompany caricaturish illustrations of monstrous engines of war. Both versions of the text describe wars displaced into a sufficiently distant future for technology to have transformed the mechanics of mass murder, each depicting a conflict on a considerably larger scale than a squabble between neighboring nations: a conflict embracing the whole of Europe and hence (by virtue of colonial expansion) the whole world.
It was in between the two versions of Robida’s visions of twentieth-century warfare that Berger-Levrault et Cie, a publisher specializing in military books, published La Guerre finale, histoire fantastique (1885; tr. as The Final War: A Fantastic Story), the first substantial work to import Méry’s notion of war-ending weaponry into an account of a near-future war begun and primarily fought in Europe. The novel in question bore the sardonic byline “Barillet-Lagargousse, Ingénieur destructeur, Membre de plusieurs societés philanthropique et savantes” [“Barillet-Lagargousse, Engineer of Destruction, Member of Several Philanthropic and Scientific Societies”]; barillet can mean gun-barrel, and a gargousse is a kind of cartridge. No information is available as to who the person behind the pseudonym might have been, although the content of the text seems to support the byline’s contention that he was a military engineer by profession with radical political interests, specifically in the co-operative movement.
It is worth noting in passing that very few immersive fantasies set in the future had been produced before 1885, and all of them had come with cumbersome prefaces explaining the nature of the exercise in advance to readers, who were assumed to be quite unready to confront the idea of a story of the future told as if written from a viewpoint in the further future, rather than being represented as a prophetic dream. Barillet-Lagargousse’s novel does have a preface, but it is both cursory and deliberately enigmatic and does not explain or apologize for the novel’s narrative strategy. That was to become the natural style of future war stories, which were soon able to abandon expository prologues altogether as in Jules Lermina’s La Bataille de Strasbourg (1891–2; tr. as The Battle of Strasbourg), one of the most striking novels following in the wake of Barillet-Lagargousse’s to take up the notion of a “final war” that would settle the fate of the world by means of new powers of technological destruction.
The most interesting feature of La Guerre finale from the modern viewpoint, however, is not its narrative strategy, pioneering as that was, but the specific nature of its advanced weaponry, which represents very starkly by virtue of its tactics of exaggeration the narrow horizons of the technological imagination in 1885. The hero of the novel is an “eminent engineer” symbolically named Lichtmann, who goes to work for the Krupp armaments factory and shows such distinction there that Fritz Krupp makes him his heir. In the 1890s he develops a new kind of cannon that has a much longer range than contemporary models and fires shells that, because of the peculiar nature of their disintegration, produce a devastating, horizontal blizzard of shrapnel.
Realizing that the new cannon will make all existing weaponry obsolete, the European powers all rush to place huge orders, making Lichtmann enormously rich, but they also decide that if they are to fulfill their contemporary military ambitions, they must do so immediately before effective defenses can be organized—with the result that a world war breaks out in 1896 before the new weapons have even been manufactured and delivered. Although fast and furious, the conflict rapidly reaches a general stalemate with none of the contending powers able to sustain it any longer, and a hasty armistice is signed, which leaves all the contentious issues unsettled.
In the meantime, Lichtmann uses his unprecedented economic resources to purchase from the German Empire the independence of the area containing his factories and establishes the tiny nation of Canonenstadt as a worker’s cooperative (perhaps the only instance in speculative fiction of a utopia imagined as a gargantuan armaments factory).
All of that is, of course, merely a preliminary. The principal action of the novel begins when the ailing German Empire decides that the only way to restore its economic and military fortunes is to reclaim Canonenstadt and usurp its wealth. Much to the astonishment of the diplomat sent to negotiate the surrender, however, his ultimatum is rejected, even though Canonenstadt is completely surrounded by its enemy and it population outnumbered by thousands to one. The German army sent to back up the initial ultimatum is annihilated by Lichtmann’s cannons, but the Germans assume that all they need to do is to set up a blockade and starve the inhabitants of the enclave into submission. They have, however, reckoned without the next generation of Licthmann’s technology and his new superweapon: the machine gun.
The machine gun might seem an unlikely superweapon now, but when Barillet-Lagargousse wrote his story, the only such weapons in use were Gatling guns and Nordenfelt guns, the latter patented in 1873. The author was not aware that the Nordenfelt would soon be overtaken by the much more efficient Maxim gun, whose prototype was first demonstrated in October 1884 and which became the ancestor of the machine guns employed in the Great War of 1914–18. From the author’s temporal standpoint, his alternative history, in which machine guns fall into disuse before Lichtmann invents his super-powered version, was not implausible. Using a ballistic system similar to his cannon, Lichtmann’s machine guns are enormously destructive, but they are also light and maneuverable with the aid of new carriers he invents, equipped with six mechanical legs rather than wheels, which are very rapid and capable of handling any terrain. With half a dozen such machines and an army of ninety men, Canonenstadt wipes out hundreds of thousands of German troops.
At the same time, Lichtmann unleashes another weapon that he has developed. In order to supply his factories with raw materials, he has developed earth-boring “mole-machines” that can cover vas
Such new forces of destruction were, however, just about to appear over the imaginative horizon. The rapid development of future war fiction in the last few decades of the nineteenth century provides a striking illustration of the adaptation of the imagination to new prospects of future destruction. By the end of the century, the more imaginative future wars were being fought with submarines and aircraft, and the bombardments carried out by the latter, making no distinction between military and civilian targets, employed incendiary bombs and chemical weapons as well as new high explosives of unprecedented force. The most advanced visions also took inspiration from the discovery of X-rays and radium in the late 1890s to envisage weapons involving exotic radiations and atomic disintegration.
None of that had been on the imaginative horizon in 1885 except for submarines, whose problematic actual history, extending back to the seventeenth century, hardly lent confidence to the notion that they would become vital instruments of war any time soon; Albert Robida’s employment of them must have seemed to many of his readers to be a joke. “Hertzian waves” had not yet been discovered, so the possibility of wireless telegraphy seemed equally fanciful to the hard-headed. By 1891, however, when Jules Lermina wrote La Bataille de Strasbourg, only six years after La Guerre finale, the situation was further advanced, and so was the political context in which future wars were imaginable.