Fighting the Future War: An Anthology of Science Fiction War Stories, 1914–1945. Frederic Krome, Editor. New York: Routledge, 2012.
Article first published online: 17 MAR 2013
© 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
The Journal of American Culture
Special Issue: Love and Romance in American Culture Guest Edited by Maryan Wherry
Volume 36, Issue 1, pages 57–58, March 2013
How to Cite
Curley, S. (2013), Fighting the Future War: An Anthology of Science Fiction War Stories, 1914–1945. Frederic Krome, Editor. New York: Routledge, 2012. . The Journal of American Culture, 36: 57–58. doi: 10.1111/jacc.12013_5
- Issue published online: 17 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 17 MAR 2013
According to Frederic Krome, science fiction is more accurately viewed as a reflector of the present than a predictor of the future. In other words, its narrative creations mirror hopes, fears and aspirations of the time during which it was written. As such, says Krome, science fiction ought to interest historians.
His contribution to the historical record is this anthology of short stories and editorials (published from the start of the First World War to the end of the Second World) that imagine what future war would be like. Primarily these writings focus on Earthbound (not interplanetary) conflicts, and all but one appeared in pulp magazines that specialized in science fiction. This thematic reader explores an era when pulps flourished and the science-fiction genre was finding its way. That way began with Hugo Gernsback.
Krome provides half a dozen of Gernsback's rarely reprinted editorials and one short story from The Electrical Experimenter magazine. Although his clichéd fiction is yawningly gadget-driven, his editorials are surprisingly lively. Gernsback says he is passionately intent on “firing some experimenter's imagination to work in a new direction” (30). To that end, he proposes wonderfully creative and pragmatic inventions like trench destroyers, long-distance electro-shock guns, and microphone buoys—machines that will bring wars to a quicker conclusion.
Gernsback's tutelage (he controlled the most influential pulp magazines up to the 1929 Crash) fostered programmatic authors whose unsubtle, big-brained heroes defied slow-witted bureaucrats to save Americans from potentially disastrous attacks by unprincipled foreign nations. In one of his later editorials, Gernsback suggested that “the ideal pro-portion of a scientifiction [his earlier term for the genre he would later rename science fiction] story should be seventy-five per cent literature interwoven with twenty-five per cent science” (113). But the stories he wrote and many of those he edited seem to reverse that proportion.
So what is an anthology to do when so many future-war stories are almost subliterary? Krome takes the courageous path less chosen. He deliberately avoids limiting his anthology to canonical literature only; he happily includes short stories that have lain unread because of pedestrian style, plotting and characters. The result for readers is double-edged: we have the joy of discovering old-fashioned ripping yarns, but also the onus of slogging through some leaden prose.
Two Gernsback-era stories in this anthology are especially noteworthy. Philip Francis Nowlan's “Armageddon—2419 A.D.” (1928) is a well written actioner that features the plucky Anthony [later “Buck”] Rogers, teaching future soldiers some long-forgotten tricks learned when he was a WWI ace. And Carl W. Spohr's “The Final War” (1932) paints a profoundly troubling portrait of a culture addicted to endless war.
As the influence of Gernsback waned, that of John W. Campbell (the preeminent editor of science fiction's Golden Age) waxed, and improved literary quality. Three Campbell-era stories stand out in this anthology. Joseph E. Kelleam's “Rust” (1939) eulogizes with poignant dignity and poetic desolation the post-apocalyptic death of the last moving entity on Earth, a robot. C.L. Moore's “There Shall Be Darkness” (1942) is LeGuin-like in its anthropological reading of two cultures: Apollonian Earthmen and Dionysian Venusians. Cleve Cartmill's thriller “Deadline” (1944) follows an undercover agent on a suicide mission to prevent the enemy from developing and deploying the first atomic bomb. Famously, this story spawned an FBI investigation into suspected security leaks from the top-secret Manhattan Project.
Krome's anthology is a good sequel to I.F. Clarke's ground-breaking anthology The Tale of the Next Great War, 1871-1914 (1966). In his introduction and chapter essays, Krome traces themes of the future-war story, from the enticing possibility that technology will make war more humane to the dismal probability that technology will increase the carnage and length of war. The nonfiction selections in this anthology are particularly welcome and edifying. Perhaps more chilling than any fiction is U.S. Army Major J. Halpin Connolly's “War in a Mechanistic Civilization” (published in July 1939 in the U.S. Infantry Association's Infantry Journal). His grim assessment of the machine-made hell in what he sees as an unavoidable war could be read as unnecessarily alarmist if it weren't so accurately predictive.
All in all, Krome's Fighting the Future War makes a valuable contribution to the history of science fiction as seen in its treatment of a particular scenario: the war story. Science-fiction fans and scholars will find it a convenient source for some interesting material that has hitherto not been reprinted.