Why Reading Science Fiction is Good For Military Officers

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The 1143 year long war had begun on false pretenses and only because the two races were unable to communicate. Once they could talk, the first question was, ‘Why did you start this thing?’ and the answer was ‘Me?’

The Forever War, Joe Haldeman, 1975

I am an Army officer. I consider myself a dedicated professional, and I have something to admit. I love, just love, reading science fiction.  I always have. And, I think I am a better military officer for it.  So now I have that off my chest, I thought I might discuss the reasons why I think that science fiction is part of an effective, broad reading program for military officers.

It elevates us above the tactical. Reading science fiction forces us to think about the future. It draws our thinking out of current operations, out of the day to day of soldiering, meetings and reports.  It is so easy to remain bogged down of the here and now, and forget about our responsibility to think about the future of our institutions.  The science fiction of authors such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clark, Robert Heinlein, Ray Bradbury and Jules Verne (among others) takes the reader to another time away from the here and now. Consciously or subconsciously, reading science fiction leads to thinking about the future and that of our Service and the profession of arms.

It shifts our paradigm to different subjects.  Science fiction gives military officers a break from military history and current events.  We, as members of the profession of arms, must keep up with developments in strategy, technology, policy and tactics related to our profession.  But at times military officers need to give themselves an intellectual break from the deep import and seriousness of such reading.  Science fiction, with its focus away from current events offers this break.  It should, hopefully, also offer lighter moments – try reading Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy without laughing out loud!  And not only in books. For a more contemporary example, try the work of the Angry Staff Officer, whose obvious affection for Star Wars (which I share) has carried over into posts on his blog.  One particular post starts with: Official complaint logged by Human Resources Division, I Division, Stormtrooper Corps Dear Sir/Ma’am/Alien/Droid, This is a closed complaint from troopers of the I Division, who wish to remain numberless, for very obvious reasons…. Classic!

It nurtures hope.  Reading science fiction nurtures our hopes that there is something better in the future.  While conflict, catastrophe and climate change features in many science fiction novels (often to deliver cautionary tales), much science fiction is highly optimistic in nature.  Carl Sagan’s Contact is just one example. Maybe it is just a personal bias, but uplifting stories of positive futures grill me with hope that in some way our service is helping to make this happen.

And it informs us about bad potential futures.  Reading science fiction allows one to think about a range of bad potential futures.  The dystopian future genre, particularly for younger readers, has been popular of late.  But this is not new.  Whether it is King’s The Stand, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Matteson’s I am Legend, or Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, science fiction has always dealt with futures where society breaks down or must deal with a far more pessimistic view of the future.  Some even deal with the end of the world, with a recent example being Stephenson’s Seven Eve’s.  It is good that military officers should read such descriptions of alternate futures; it is the first step in us ensuring that they do not come to pass.

It nurtures innovative thought.  It allows us to think about technology in different ways.  It is impossible to read science fiction and not be confronted with a myriad of highly technical and sometimes fantastically sophisticated pieces of equipment, weapons, vehicles and ships.  Whether it is the alternate future of a mission to Mars described by Stephen Baxter in Voyage or the distant future technologies of Jack McDevitt’s Alex Benedict series, these novels inspire different ways of thinking about novel technologies and how to employ them.

It encourages diversity in intellectual development.  Reading science fiction provides variety in honing the intellect of a military officer.  One of the basic ideas behind complex adaptive systems is that generating a variety of options is the only way to deal with complex situations. Likewise, embracing variety in professional reading increases the reader’s the capacity for generating imaginative options to solve complex problems. Even within the science fiction genre, there is much variety to embrace. From Herbert’s far off worlds of the Dune series to Kim Stanly Robinson classic Mars trilogy, there are a range of styles and eras that can be appreciated.  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.

It reminds us of the enduring nature of our profession.  Finally, science fiction reminds a military officer of the enduring nature of war.  Some of the finest science fiction novels explore the enduring nature of conflict. Card’s Enders Game, Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, Haldeman’s Forever War, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War series, or Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill, are all fine examinations of the nature of war, and the centrality of human will, placed in a future (or near future) context.  The authors, few of whom have military experience, have demonstrated an understanding of the essence of the military profession and incorporated it into their storytelling.  Their stories remind us that the clash of wills, the fear and honor that are integral to human warfare are enduring. Notwithstanding the technological marvels of science fiction novels, war is ultimately a human endeavour.

Science fiction should form part of the reading program, and the professional library of military officers.  For the reasons noted above, it has been an enduring part of my reading and development over three decades.   Over recent years, science fiction has started to appear in more military reading lists, including the Australian list.   It should remain an element of any professional reading program for military officers.

Brigadier Mick Ryan recently completed his time as Commander 1st Brigade in Darwin and now oversees training for the Australian Army as Director-General Training. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University, the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning. Follow Brigadier Ryan at Learning Army.