‘The minute I was bored with a book or a subject I moved to another one, instead of giving up on reading altogether… The trick is to be bored with a specific book, rather than with the act of reading.’ – Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Late last year, I wrote a wrap up for the Australian Defence College’s inaugural Science Fiction and the Future of War Seminar. The seminar focused on how we, as military professionals, can utilise science fiction (especially military science fiction) to help us envisage how the future may look and the potential implications for shaping future defence thinking. In this, it provides an avenue to consider the potential uses and problems of different technologies, emergent threats, and changing social context. The aim of this article is to give my introduction to science fiction to hopefully give others a place to start their own science fiction journey or suggestions for new books to explore.
Below I have listed several series and individual books that I have been favourites of mine over the years. With each entry, I have tried to include a brief description of what the book or series is about, and the themes within it that are perhaps relevant to a military professional.
A point worth raising here is about how to approach reading science fiction for Professional Military Education (PME). I hint at this in the opening quote by Nassim Taleb, however, I will paraphrase the complete quote here: the aim is to enjoy the act of reading first and then to find the ‘gold’ in a book rather than become trapped searching for ‘gold’ in books. The ‘gold’ here refers to lessons one can glean from science fiction. This comes from enjoying reading, from reflecting on the thoughts and questions you had while reading, from reading widely. Enjoy the process, and the ‘gold’ will come naturally.
‘Star Wars: Republic Commando’ & Other Titles
The short version is this is a five-book series about loyalty, choice, and chance. But it is also a highly enjoyable exploration of a different face of the Star Wars universe. The series follows a small team throughout the Clone Wars. It explores the importance and role of interpersonal relationships and the relationship between chance and choice in conflict.
I’ve selected three of the Halo books that I can recall having read: ‘Halo: Ghosts of Onyx’, ‘The Cole Protocol’, and ‘Halo: Cryptum’. Each of these three books explores the wider ‘Halo’ universe beyond the popular video game series. This is important because they explore the wider themes of warring ideologies, the fog of war, and extremes in war.
‘Warhammer 40,000: Horus Heresy’ & Other Titles
Warhammer 40,000 has an enormous universe and wealth of information about it. However, the ‘Horus Heresy’ series is a great read that looks at a civil war within the Imperium of Man. Each book tells a story from the larger Horus Heresy saga that can be a useful narrative to examine different perspectives on human nature (such as Thucydides’ or Machiavelli’s) and Clausewitz’s Wonderous Trinity.
One of my favourites and I’ll say it now: the book is better than the movie. While I enjoy the book far more as a story, from a professional perspective, it can be read as a case study on resilience, grit, and empathy, all qualities necessary in the profession of arms.
A classic that I first read in high school, Orson Scott Card’s ‘Ender’s Game’ deals with the themes of war-gaming, genocide, force, and child-soldiers. ‘Ender’s Game’ also explores responsibility, and where the responsibility lies for what is acceptable and what is not.
‘Dune’ is essentially a story about a teenage boy becoming a man and a leader against uncertain odds. To some degree, the book also deals with the topic of uncertainty and prediction, however, this is an undertone to the overarching story.
John Scalzi’s debut novel explores a wide variety of ideas from how and why we fight to how we interact with different cultures (or species in this case). ‘Old Man’s War’ also probes into our relationships with people, and how these can affect our actions.
The story of this book also explores how and why we fight, but also examines the society within which the military operates, and which dictates when we fight. Heinlein spends a great deal of time describing these additional aspects rather than focusing on the action itself. For the military professional, understanding the society we fight for and within is essential to excellence.
A classic of the science fiction genre, ‘Foundation’ is about an isolated settlement that struggles to maintain its independence against external and internal threats. The book to a large degree explores the power of non-military means in diplomacy and statecraft (the other elements in DIME-C), and the relationship between technology and ideology.
The books I have mentioned so far are some of the main books I recall reading and enjoying. They form some of my favourites from over the years of reading science fiction. For the military professional, science fiction can offer plenty of potential futures that help us to envision what our future might look like.
Officer Cadet Chris Wooding is a trainee officer in the Australian Army and is at the Australian Defence Force Academy. He is the Trainee Officer J7 for Academics and Training and is studying a Bachelor of Science, majoring in Mathematics and Computer Science. He has a strong interest in military history, strategy, education, and how to think better.