Future Wars: Introductory remarks

Introducing a series on future-wars fiction in modern European culture

Ne soyez point en peine de ce Heros inconnu qui se presente à vos yeux. Encore qu’il ne soit pas ny de ce Monde ny de ce Siecle, il n’est pas si farouche ny si barbare, qu’il ne soit capable de faire un beau choix, & qu’il n’ait jugé aussi juste de vostre merite, que l’auroient pû faire tous ceux qui ont l’honneur de vous mieux connoistre.

Jacques Guttin [Michel de Pure], 
Épigone, histoire du siècle futur
 (A Paris: Chez Pierre Lamy, 1659), aij-p.nn.

Late modern and early contemporary imageries related to techno-driven globalization processes are to be found, in some of their most popular and graphic expressions, in visual and literary works of fiction. Made possible by the emergence of new ideas of a secularized historical time, early speculative fiction is an exceptional vantage point from which to observe the birth and development of popular themes and tropes related to those compressions of time and space, which increasingly characterized the world system between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century.

In the European cultural space, and especially in mature publishing markets such as the French one, speculative fiction set in the future became an apt expression of new imageries related to techno-science, including new communication and transportation systems and the astonishing speed of their development.1 Narratives and illustrations interpreted the appearance of new forms of awareness of globalization processes, becoming part of a communicative circuit, which was expanding its audience at a fast rate, thanks to the increasing presence of the popular press.

In this phase of techno-scientific acceleration and tumultuous changes in cultural habits, speculative fiction began to depict a major shift that had been occurring in the European mind-set during the late modern era: the emergence of a plastic future. New ideas of the future were a consequence of new, secularized temporalizations of history. The conception of historical time as home to linear processes of development was in turn deeply influenced by a close encounter with “others,” by explorations, voyages and the availability of written, figurative and material sources regarding remote parts of the world, which documented Western forms of ethnocentric hierarchization and, at the same time, began the task of problematizing them.2

Fantastic narratives and illustrations can be read as part of a broader social history of ideas of space and time,3 and work as litmus tests of the complex reconfigurations they underwent in the Western mind, as global interconnectedness brought new subjects and issues onto the stage.

The subgenre of imagined future wars developed in relation with the use of alternate history as a means for political propaganda, which could be found from the late seventeenth century onwards in non-fiction tracts and pamphlets, as in some of the examples discussed below. Near the end of the nineteenth century, this literary and visual narrative strand assumed clear-cut characteristics, and articulated concerns regarding instabilities and tensions in international relations, and fears related to the destructive use of those technological innovations that were following one another so rapidly and that were taking centre stage at the great international exhibitions and world fairs. 

The discovery of a selection of Albert Robida’s original sketches for Pierre Giffard’s feuilleton La guerre infernale (1908),4 offers an occasion to connect these various strands and critically assess the role of wars to come in the development of an imagination related to the future, and in the construction of the consciousness of a global, human, earthly destiny.

Recent scholarship in speculative fiction studies and cultural history has produced a few excellent studies tackling speculative fiction as a laboratory for a global space-time between the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century,5and the emergence of science fiction as a genre in the age of colonialism and empires.6 Existing contributions, also when dealing with the specific theme of imagined future wars,7 tend to concentrate on the early-contemporary age, rightfully stressing the significant changes that in that phase affected the European techno-scientific, socio-political and economic system, and their influence on new forms of mass media communication, collective imagery and textual genres.

Histories of science fiction dealing with the development of the genre from ancient times through the ages tend, in turn, to be written from a perspective internal to the science fiction genre..8 While excellently outlining main authors and trends, general histories of science fiction necessarily give up more in-depth analysis of specific themes, and usually broader issues of cultural history remain outside their scope. Such works do not deal, or only marginally, with the connection between speculative imagery and the conceptualization of time, and they often keep their focus on literary expressions, while leaving aside other spheres and levels of public discourse and forms of representation.

The present series of posts, building on existing contributions, aims at fostering a better understanding of imagined future wars in the early contemporary age by locating them within a long history of imagined warfare, including late-seventeenth and eighteenth-century developments, and against the backdrop of the cultural history of time. Furthermore, for late modern and early contemporary expressions, this study – drawing on Robida’s case –, aims at enhancing the deep connections that run between literary, figurative and exhibitionary cultural artefacts in terms of representation strategies and circulation of ideas.



“SF and Globalization,” ed. David Higgins and Rob Latham, special issue, Science Fiction Studies 39, no. 3, 118 (November 2012).

2Reinhart Koselleck, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Keith Tribe (1979; New York: Columbia University Press, 2004).

3Peter Burke, “Foreword: The History of the Future, 1350-2000,” in The Uses of the Future in Early Modern Europe, ed. Andrea Brady, Butterworth Emily (New York and London: Routledge, 2010), ix-xx.

4Presently part of the Civico Museo di guerra per la pace “Diego de Henriquez” of the City of Trieste, of which seven are reproduced here (Figures 6-12). Diego de Henriquez, Italian ex-soldier and creator, between the 1940s and the early 1970s, of a notable private collection of armaments, military tools and technologies, documents and books pertinent to the theme of war throughout history, bought fifteen of Robida’s original sketches in 1957, when he found them on a bookstand in Rome. On Henriquez (Trieste 1909-1974) see Antonella Furlan, Antonio Sema, Cronaca di una vita: Diego de Henriquez (Trieste: APT Trieste, 1993); Furlan, La civica collezione Diego de Henriquez di Trieste (Trieste: Rotary Club Trieste-Civici musei di storia ed arte, 2000). On Robida’s sketches within Henriquez collection: Giulia Iannuzzi, “The Cruel Imagination: Oriental Tortures from a Future Past in Albert Robida’s Illustrations for La guerre infernale (1908),” in Law, Justice and Codification in Qing China. European and Chinese Perspectives. Essays in History and Comparative Law, ed. Guido Abbattista (Trieste: EUT, 2017), 193-211, esp. 194, note 3.

5Higgins and Latham “SF and Globalization,” quoted above.

6E.g. Istvan Csicsery-Ronay Jr, “Empire,” The Routledge Companion to Science Fiction, ed. Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), 362-372; John Rieder, Colonialsm and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008). See also Paul K. Alkon’s works cited below.

7E.g. I. F. Clarke, “Future-War Fiction: The First Main Phase, 1871-1900,” Science Fiction Studies, 24, no. 3 (November, 1997): 387-412; I. F. Clarke, “Before and after ‘The Battle of Dorking,’’’ Science Fiction Studies 24, no. 1 (1997): 33-46.

8E.g. Adam Roberts, The History of Science Fiction, 2nd ed. (London: Palgrave, 2016).

This post is adapted from Iannuzzi, G. (2019). “The Illustrator and the Global Wars to Come: Albert Robida, La guerre infernale, and the Long History of Imagined Warfare”, Cromohs – Cyber Review of Modern Historiography22, 95-136; par. “Introductory remarks”, pp. 96-98. DOI: 10.13128/cromohs-11706. Full text available in open access: https://oajournals.fupress.net/index.php/cromohs/article/view/11706.

See here all posts in the future-wars series