Rumors Of War And Infernal Machines by Charles E. Gannon (book review).

May 8, 2017 | By | Reply More

Charles E. Gannon’s objective is to compare how the blend of Science Fiction tropes have blended with real life military. From my perspective, it’s a bit like which came first, the egg or the chicken. SF authors have always looked in the news to see what is going on and often extrapolated how far it could go. With SF only growing in the early 19th century, there were fewer authors so tracking down the early sources isn’t that difficult. With this book, ‘Rumours Of War And Infernal Machines’, Gannon does take a while to get going. More so if you look at the extended sub-title, ‘Technomilitary Agenda-setting In American And British Speculative Fiction’.

He starts with a reference to the Ironclads, we call them tanks today, but not to HG Wells who even wrote a book with that title showing them used in war. Well, that is until chapter three onwards where Gannon points out that apart from tanks, ‘The Ironclads’ (1903), airplanes in ‘The War In The Air’ (1908), atomic bombs in ‘The World Set Free’ (1914) and ultimately, ‘The War Of The Worlds’ (1898) with Martian heat rays that you spot a trend in Wells’ examination of warfare, even if the last book was printed first. When you consider the number of wars during Wells’ lifetime, he was bound to be affected what he wanted to be influenced by and hardly surprising he was the first. Jules Verne, although not used in this book, was less concerned with weapons but more to do with transport for adventure. He had the Nautilus but never equipped it with torpedoes.

An interesting comment from Wells in ‘The War In The Air’, there is an observation that aircraft hold no territory. All of these books were ahead of the different types of warfare and extrapolated their use. Although Gannon doesn’t point it out, looking at the information above, you do have to wonder if Wells switched away from aliens attacking to terrestrial warfare seeing it as something with more in common and a danger to life and their ramifications. It would certainly have a stronger impact on his readers than an extra-terrestrial menace although in perspective, which of his books do you remember the most, even if you haven’t read it.

It’s hardly surprising in the real atomic age that modern SF writers are involved, chiefly that of Robert Anson Heinlein. Gannon explores not only Heinlein’s famed short story, ‘Solution Unsatisfactory’ (1941) which upset the FBI with his knowledge of atomic bombs but also explores ‘Starship Troopers’ (1959) and the mechanised exo-suits which are coming to the fore today. It should hardly come as a surprise that several of the Golden Age SF authors ended up being on several American government committees voicing their speculations on where certain objectives were going. Imagine if that happened today? Mind you, considering that these SF authors were also either scientists or involved in the defence community might have contributed to their selection. Later, Joe Haldeman explored exo-suit usage in ‘The Forever War’ (1974) being the latest book covered.

I love the opening to chapter 9 and the various quotes about the limited use of computers by those involved in making them and their software and their inaccuracies. Even Bill Gates quoted back in 1981, ‘no one would need no more than 640kB of computer memory!’ When you consider how much space the latter Windows today fills in RAM, that’s a serious under-estimation.

In many respects, Gannon is typical of a university don in that he goes a long way about explaining his objectives and loaded with enough footnotes for a thesis. As such, he does tend to hide what he is saying far more than getting his message across

If you’re familiar with early SF, you will have read most of the source material although not necessarily all the connections here.

I did have a think about whether Gannon missed anything, especially in whether any SF author was ahead of the game with the direction of advancing warfare but what can you do after nuclear warfare, blow up a planet or a star even? Maybe an exploration of bacterial warfare but it would be questionable as to who got there first, reality or fiction and, in that respect, the former won.

Despite my criticism of long-windedness, this is actually a reasonably quick read but, then, I was familiar with the subject. I do think you will come away with some respect to HG Wells and even Robert Heinlein’s insight into their war extrapolations.

GF Willmetts

May 2017

(pub: Liverpool University Press. 311 page indexed enlarged paperback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-85323-708-5)

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Category: Books, Culture, Scifi

About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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