Science Fiction and the Strategist 2.0

Mick Ryan and Nathan K. Finney


Back in February 2017, we published a short piece on why reading science fiction should be part of the professional reading program of military and national security professionals. Given the feedback we received on that article, and the continued stream of high quality science fiction being published, we decided to provide an updated reading list.

As we wrote then, there are multiple reasons why science fiction should be a key component of an effective, broad reading program for military officers and national security professionals. And it has become clear that this isn’t just some speculative notion harbored by the authors (and those that responded through social media).

Science fiction has been a mainstay of military senior leader reading lists over the past decade, with books such as Ender’s Game, Ghost Fleet, The Forever War, and Starship Troopers being popular among military and national security professionals. Recently, the use of science fiction as part of a wider professional military education approach was also advocated by (another) Army officer from Australia. But the advocacy is much broader. The European Union has recently funded the development of Science Fiction in Education toolkit, that aims to support teachers in interdisciplinary teaching, and to reinforce learning in areas such as technology, the environment, basic literacy and civics. So, there is a broader acceptance around the application of science fiction to education and professional development. Why is this so?

Reading science fiction nurtures hope that there is a better future. While conflict, catastrophe, and climate change feature in many of these novels and movies, much science fiction is highly optimistic in nature. Uplifting stories of positive futures—or of hope and agency in the face of dystopian futures—fill us with optimism that we can drive our services to make positive possibilities happen.

However, reading science fiction also allows us to consider a variety of negative potential futures. The dystopian future genre has been popular of late, but this is not new. Science fiction has always dealt with futures where society breaks down or must deal with a far more pessimistic view of the possible. It is beneficial for military officers to read such descriptions of alternate futures; it is the first step in ensuring that they do not come to pass.

In both these ways, reading science fiction provides variety in honing one’s intellect. Diversity in professional reading increases one’s capacity for generating imaginative options to solve complex problems. Variety in a professional reading program develops a more sophisticated intellect able to appreciate complexity, deal with ambiguity and surprise, and think broadly about the challenging problems we often face.

In a more technical way, science fiction allows us to think about new and old technologies in different ways. Whether it is an alternate reality or the distant future, science fiction can inspire divergent thinking about advanced technologies and how to apply them in concert with new ideas and new organizations.

Finally, science fiction reminds us of the enduring nature of war. Some of the finest science fiction novels explore this. These stories remind us that the clash of wills, the fear, interests, and honor integral to human warfare, are enduring. Notwithstanding the technological marvels of science fiction novels, war ultimately remains a human endeavor.

Unlike the bulk list we provided last year—only broken out by books or online resources—this year’s list contains some holdovers from last year, but many new additions. The list was compiled by re-looking the last list, which was based on our own preferences and experience using the selected works to inform our own careers in the profession, and refining it based on great suggestions from the community on Twitter. We chose to remove some books we viewed as having less applicability to the future of warfare, while adding some new books (at least to us) addressing some key issues that may affect future warfare that were not represented previously. Finally, feedback on our previous list pointed out some holes in our own reading—namely, the lack of female authors. We were thankful for the feedback that brought many fantastic new books to our attention, so we endeavoured to capture those that had great lessons for those in the profession of arms. We hope readers of this list continue to engage with us to fill any other holes in our knowledge!

  A planetscape from Pao (CGHUB)

A planetscape from Pao (CGHUB)

We have broken the list into five sections: a place to begin, military-focused, social-focused, mind-expanding, and online resources to keep abreast of new material. The books we categorized as “a place to begin” are those books we believe provide an entry into science fiction that can support a military professional in thinking both positively and negatively about future trends as applied to the national security space. The books we categorized as “military-focused” are just that—the science fiction books we think are a foundation for military professionals when trying to hone their intellect and apply both old and new technologies in the course of their duties, while still understanding the enduring nature of war. “Social-focused” science fiction books are those that, while not being exclusively focused on military topics, provide ideas that help military professionals understand social dynamics and extrapolate those applicable trends to their profession. We categorized those books that include topics and ideas outside the knowledge of most Western military members as “mind-expanding.” These include books that were written by those with very different cultural and military traditions and translated from foreign languages, as well as books that take on worlds and topics outside the normal fare of science fiction (which largely focus on the linear future applicable of technology on society, whether in a military context or just a social one). Finally, we provided a category of online resources that both of us use frequently to keep abreast of new science fiction or futurism content.

We hope these categories assist in guiding readers through their journey to experience some of the key elements that science fiction has to offer national security professionals.

A Place to Begin

Philip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Ernest Swinton – Defence of Duffer’s Drift
Ursula K. Le Guin – The Lathe of Heaven
Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles
H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds
Joe Haldeman – Forever War
Gordon R. Dickson – Tactics of Mistake
Linda Nagata – The Last Good Man
John Scalzi – Old Man’s War
P.W. Singer and August Cole – Ghost Fleet

Military-Focused

David Drake – Hammer’s Slammers, Redliners
Linda Nagata – The Red Trilogy
John Scalzi – The Ghost Brigades, The End of All Things, and Fuzzy Nation
Iain M Banks – Use of Weapons
Hiroshi Sakurazaka – All You Need is Kill
David Weber – War of Honor
Robert Heinlein - Starship Troopers

Social-Focused

Pamela Sargent – The Shore of Women
Isaac Asimov – Foundation (series), I, Robot
Kameron Hurley – God's War
William Gibson – The Peripheral
Joanna Russ – And Chaos Died
Frank Herbert – Dune
Stephen King – The Stand
Richard Matheson – I Am Legend
Martha Wells – Murderbot series
Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451
Kim Stanley Robinson – Mars trilogy, Wild Shore Triptych
Pierce Brown – Red Rising trilogy
Ben Bova – Moonwar
Robert Heinlein - Stranger in a Strange Land 

Mind-Expanding


Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the Australian Army, the Australian Department of Defence, or the Australian Government.

Nathan K. Finney is an officer in the U.S. Army, a term member at the Council on Foreign Relations; a Non-Resident Fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute; and a former Non-Resident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point and has helped found multiple organizations, including The Strategy Bridge; the Military Writers Guild; and the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum. The views expressed are the author's and do not reflect the official position of the United States Army, the United States Department of Defense, or the United States Government.


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