In his 1946 book, The Revolution in War, Basil Liddell Hart wrote that “our planning machinery has been much improved in coordination. Its weakness still lies in a too routine approach to the problem, on conventional lines. Under pressure of war, much greater use has been made of scientists than ever before. But adequate application of the data requires a mind that is both scientific and military, while for thinking ahead imagination is also needed—to complete the trinity of planning qualities.” Reading fiction, especially science fiction, can nurture the imaginative mindset in the military and national security professional.
In February 2017 and again in August 2018, we published articles on why reading science fiction should be part of the professional reading program of military and national security professionals. Given that new and high-quality science fiction has been published since that time, we decided to update our reading list. Welcome to “Science Fiction and the Strategist 3.0.”
There are still multiple reasons why we think 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 is not just some speculative notion harbored by the authors and those who responded through social media.
In the past, science fiction fostered thinking about future conflict and international competition. Before World War One, hundreds of books were written about the future of war. These include classics such as The Battle of Dorking (1871), War of the Worlds (1898), and The Great War Syndicate (1889).
During the Cold War, it was also popular to tell stories about future conflict. Aliens in movies such as The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) and books like The Forever War (1974) were stand-ins for the Communist threat or the broader impacts of war on societies. In the same era, dystopian fiction was also popular, and a large number of books were written in this time, including well-known titles like On The Beach (1957) or The Day After (1983).
Finally, recent scholarship by eminent historians and strategic thinkers like Lawrence Freedman and Antulio Echevarria shows us how military theorists and planners in the past were shaped by the ideas of their own day, which impacted decisions as they prepared for future warfare. Reading and considering contemporary science fiction can provide military leaders and national security professionals the “raw material that the millworks of imagination break up, grind down, and combine anew.”
Science fiction has been a mainstay of more recent military senior leader reading lists, with books such as Ender’s Game, Ghost Fleet, and Starship Troopers maintaining popularity among military and national security professionals. The U.S. Marine Corps’ Destination Unknown series and the U.S. Army’s Future Warfare Writing Program have used science fiction, graphic novels, and short stories to solicit ideas about future conflict and competition. So, the use of science fiction for military education and professional development continues to be accepted. 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 national security professionals with optimism that we can drive our services to make positive possibilities happen.
Reading science fiction also allows us to consider a variety of negative potential futures. The dystopian future genre has been popular lately, 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.
Science fiction permits individuals and organizations to nurture innovative thinking without running afoul of organizational cultures. Because it is fiction it does not interfere with current policies, providing a safe place for ideas that do not threaten current institutional rice bowls—but they might and should in the future. In cultivating this innovative thinking as national security professionals, we might demonstrate that creativity remains an important aspect of military thinking and leadership.
Science fiction allows us to think about new and old technologies in fresh 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. It also permits the thinking through of ethical issues related to using new technologies in a way that is accessible to more of our people. As our national security requires leaders to invest more in thinking about military ethics and moral injury, this is vital.
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.
This edition contains some holdovers from our previous list, but new additions as well. We are thankful for feedback from readers that has brought many fantastic new books from the last couple of years to our attention. We seek to capture those that had the most valuable insights for those in the profession of arms or military strategy. As we wrote previously, our hope is that readers of this list continue to engage with us to fill any other holes in our knowledge!
We have retained the five sections of our 2018 article: a place to begin, military-focused, social-focused, mind-expanding, and online resources to keep abreast of new material. And we have added one additional category—historical fiction. These are the books that predate the massive explosion in science fiction in the wake of the Second World War. We hope that in including these, readers can gain an appreciation of how previous generations of military leaders and thinkers have sought to use fiction and science fiction as a foundation for imagining different military and national security futures.
Reading widely in a professional capacity increases a person’s capacity for generating imaginative options to solve complex problems. Reading science fiction provides this variety. We hope this list provides additional variety in personal and professional reading programs, and guides readers through their journey to discover the insights that science fiction offers national security professionals.
A Place to Begin
Ray Bradbury – The Martian Chronicles
Philip K. Dick – Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep
Gordon R. Dickson – Tactics of Mistake
Joe Haldeman – The Forever War
Anne Leckie – Ancillary Justice
Ursula Le Guin – The Left Hand of Darkness
Linda Nagata – The Last Good Man
John Scalzi – Old Man’s War
P.W. Singer and August Cole – Ghost Fleet
Ernest Swinton – Defence of Duffer’s Drift
Andy Weir – The Martian, Artemis
H.G. Wells – The War of the Worlds
Iain M. Banks – Use of Weapons
David Drake – Hammer’s Slammers and Redliners
Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone – This Is How You Lose the Time War
Shane Gries – From the Ashes of a Dead World
Joe Kassabian – Citizen of Earth
Michael Mammay – The Planetside Series
Linda Nagata – The Red Trilogy
K.R. Paul – Pantheon
Hiroshi Sakurazaka – All You Need is Kill
John Scalzi – The Ghost Brigades, The End of All Things, and Fuzzy Nation
P.W. Singer and August Cole – An Eye for a Storm and Burn In
Peter Tieryas – United States of Japan
David Weber – War of Honor
Isaac Asimov – The Foundation Series and I, Robot
Margaret Atwood – The Testaments
John Birmingham – Zero Day Code
Leigh Brackett – The Long Tomorrow
Ray Bradbury – Fahrenheit 451
Ben Bova – Moonwar
Pierce Brown – Red Rising (trilogy)
Matt Gallagher – Empire City: A Novel
William Gibson – The Peripheral
Robert Heinlein – Stranger in a Strange Land
Frank Herbert – Dune
Kameron Hurley – God's War
Stephen King – The Stand
Mary Robinette Kowal – The Relentless Moon
Emily St John Mandel – Station Eleven
Richard Matheson – I Am Legend
Joanna Russ – And Chaos Died
Kim Stanley Robinson – Ministry of the Future, Mars (trilogy), Wild Shore Triptych
Pamela Sargent – The Shore of Women
Martha Wells – The Murderbot Series
Stephen Baxter – Voyage and The Long Earth Series
Octavia Butler – The Xenogenesis Trilogy
Liu Cixin – Remembrance of Earth's Past (地球往事) Trilogy
James S.A. Corey – Leviathan Wakes
N.K. Jemisin – The City We Became, The Killing Moon, The Inheritance Trilogy, and The Broken Earth Trilogy
Ann Leckie – Provenance
Ursula K. Le Guin – The Lathe of Heaven
Stanisław Lem – Solaris
Walter M. Miller, Jr. – A Canticle for Leibowitz
Nnedi Okorafor – Remote Control
Neil Stephenson – Seveneves
Andy Weir – Project Hail Mary
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
The Association of Professional Futurists
World Future Society
The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Book Club
Not One of Us
The Strategy Bridge
US Army Sci-Tech Futures
USMC Science Fiction Futures
U.S. Army Future Warfare Writing Program
Major General Mick Ryan is an Australian Army officer. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and the USMC Staff College and School of Advanced Warfare, he is a passionate advocate of professional education and lifelong learning. He has commanded at platoon, squadron, regiment, task force, and Brigade level, and is a science fiction fan, a cricket tragic, terrible gardener, and an aspiring writer. In January 2018, he assumed command of the Australian Defence College in Canberra, Australia. He tweets under the handle @WarInTheFuture. 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 a PhD Candidate in history at Duke University, U.S. Army Goodpaster Scholar, and proud co-founder of The Strategy Bridge. Nathan is the co-editor and chapter author of Redefining the Modern Military: The Intersection of Profession and Ethics and the editor and chapter author of On Strategy: A Primer. 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.