Future-war fiction and global simultaneity

A new post in the future-wars series: techno-scientific acceleration and space-time compression on the eve of WWI

To understand and critically assess the wave(s) of future-war narratives that characterised European illustrated periodicals and book markets before 1914, we need to look at the historical circumstances that provided fertile ground for this production. While writers and artists might have been aware of current events and political circumstances that contributed to the subsequent First World War outburst, we may resist the temptation to make any simplistic teleological connections between works of fiction written at the turn of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century and the terrible events that then ensued.

In fact, authors and illustrators were presented with rich sources of inspiration in the recent past and contemporary history of Europe, with societies that, in the space of just a few years, had been changed forever by an astonishing mass of new inventions. The year 1869 saw the opening of the Suez Canal – connecting Europe to South and East Asia – and also of the first railroad to connect the East and West coasts of the United States, ushering in a phase in the history of technology characterised by rapid acceleration in change and innovation. Between 1873 and 1906, from the typewriter to the phonograph, the telephone, and radio broadcasting, from the steam engine to the automobile, from dirigibles to the airplane, an impressive series of milestone-inventions was made possible, to follow Daniel R. Headrick argument, by intensified and stable connections between scientific research and technology. This impressive amount of technological novelties accompanied broad changes in agricultural production, hygiene practices and medical science, urbanisation process and literacy rates.[1]

A global dimension was experienced in daily life not only by an elite section of the population. New mechanised means of transport and of communication determined an increased dominion over space, while from 1884 onwards, the adoption of a common system in time computing based on the Greenwich meridian affirmed the present and a global simultaneity as a widely shared frame of personal experience. According to Stephen Kern, technology as a source of power over the environment also suggested new ways to control the future.[2]

Innovations such as railroads and the telegraph brought about profound changes in warfare, allowing armies and supply columns to be constantly on the move, and the chain of command to operate over unprecedented distances. Modern marvels also posed specific issues, from the necessary system of poles and wires that rendered the telegraph useless in mobile campaigns, to the limited manoeuvrability of mass armies over a territory despite new means of transport. Technological innovation as applied to warfare dramatically increased the destructive power of weapons: machine guns, magazine-fed rifles, quick-firing and heavy artillery improved the range, accuracy, and firepower of infantries. The extension of the so-called “deadly zone,” “the area in front of the defender’s positions covered by the concentrated fire of his weapons,”[3] increased from 150 meters in the Napoleonic era to 300-400 meters during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871, with casualties among the attackers reaching percentages between 25 and 50), and then tripling to 800-1,500 meters by the mid-1890s.

Long-range rifle fire was decisive in defeats of numerically superior forces such as the British in the opening battles of the Second Boer War (1899-1902), in which knowledge of the territory and strategic choices and tactics nonetheless continued to be crucial, as the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) would also confirm.

Important developments in naval warfare, such as the accuracy of self-propelled torpedoes, steel battleships, and underwater mines, occurred regularly from the Russo-Turkish War (1877-1878) onwards. Following British investments in steam-powered battleships equipped with small-calibre guns and in new classes of armoured mine-sweepers, by the mid-1890s many European powers were investing in innovations in naval gunfire, vessel manoeuvrability, self-propelled submarines, and wireless communications. The Russo-Japanese War would be a reminder to all “that large-scale naval battles were still possible.”[4]

As for aerial warfare, the development of lighter-than-air balloonsused for reconnaissance – led to better manoeuvrability, with France at the forefront in aviation technology from the late 1870s onwards, followed by Germany. After Zeppelin’s flight across Lake Constance in 1900 in an aluminium airship filled with hydrogen and the Wright brothers’ flight in 1903, investments in aircraft research and production by Western powers such as Germany and the US increased significantly. Aerial assaults such as those carried out during the Italian invasion of Libya (1911-1912) and the Balkan Wars (1912-1913) established a new role for aerial warfare not only in the gathering of intelligence but also in combat, to attack and destroy buildings, artillery, and troops on the ground.

In Europe, Russia and the US, in fact, its potential military applications were one of the main attractions of air-mindedness – that “popular fascination with airships” that gave rise to a host of “glider clubs and rocket societies, air-shows and air races.”[5] Attacks from the sky were soon to be found in works by key-figures in the history of speculative imagination such as Jules Verne (The Master of the World, 1904) and H. G. Wells (The War in the Air, 1908; The World Set Free, 1914). Air-ground battles and airborne weapons quickly became a staple in future-war narratives throughout the twentieth century.

As John Rieder has argued

“the arms race is one of any number of sites where ideas about progress link the various threads of colonial discourse to one another and to science fiction.” [6]

This technological competition opened up a critical power gap between those cultures and territories which owned certain technologies and those which did not. In doing so, it widened the gap between the industrialised hearts of colonial empires and their peripheries.

Locating war and warfare at centre stage of the European mind during a pivotal phase between the 1870s and the 1890s, Matthew D’Auria has highlighted how during these years the representation of the violence of war influenced conceptualisations of and reflections upon European identities on the part of intellectuals and writers.[7]

Furthermore, technical means of image production and reproduction had a deep impact on how violence and war were represented, disseminated and perceived in European public discourse, especially from the American Civil War onwards, with the regular use of photography to document death and slaughter in popular illustrated magazines beginning around 1900.[8] Illustrations and sketches were common in popular periodicals to document conflicts happening outside the European borders before the advent of photography, contributing to the circulation of news, ideas, and stereotypes across geographical and linguistic borders.[9]

Oriental tortures are documented through photography: Albert Robida, illustration for La guerre infernale by Pierre Giffard (Paris: Èdition Méricant, 1908), published in instalment 29 – Dans l’avenue des supplices, p. 921.


[1]   Daniel R. Headrick, Technology: A World History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 111 and ff; Jürgen Osterhammel and Niels P. Petersson, Geschichte der Globalisierung: Dimensionen, Prozesse, Epochen (München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2003, Eng. transl. Globalization: A Short History, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), ch. V.

[2]   Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), esp. 90 and ff.; see also Vanessa Ogle, The Global Transformation of Time: 1870-1950 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015); Jürgen Osterhammel, The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century, trans. Patrick Camiller (2009; Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2014), esp. 69 and ff.

[3]   Antulio J. Echevarria II, Imagining Future War: The West’s Technological Revolution and Visions of Wars to Come, 1880-1914 (Westport, CT-London: Praeger Security International, 2007), qt. 28. I am indebted to Echevarrias’s work for the technical notes on warfare in this paragraph.

[4]   Echevarria, Imagining Future War, 34.

[5]   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, qt. 365.

[6]   John Rieder, Colonialsm and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), 29.

[7]   Matthew D’Auria, “Progress, Decline and Redemption: Understanding War and Imagining Europe, 1870s-1890s,” Making Sense of Violence: Intellectuals, Writers, and Modern Warfare, ed. D’Auria, European Review of History: Revue européenne d’histoire, 25, no. 5 (2018): 686-704, doi: 10.1080/13507486.2018.1471046.

[8]   Mark Hewitson, “Introduction: Visualizing Violence,” Making Sense of Military Violence, ed. Matthew D’Auria and Hewitson, Cultural History 6, no. 1 (2017): 1-20, esp. 10, doi: 10.3366/cult.2017.0132.

[9]         E.g. “La Guerra in Cina. Cronaca illustrata degli avvenimenti in Estremo Oriente” published in Italy by Aliprandi, in 20 installments in 1900 covered the Boxer rebellion using as sources other periodicals from Italy (e. g. “Natura e Arte”), Anglophone countries (“Times,” “New York Herald»”), France (“Le Journal illustré”), Germany (“Kölnische Zeitung”), Russia (“Novoye Vremya”). “La Guerra in Cina” would make for an interesting case study as regards the representation of Oriental cruelty and yellow-peril stereotypes.

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. “Techno-apocalypses”, pp. 113-116. 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

Cite this article as: Giulia Iannuzzi, "Future-war fiction and global simultaneity," in Geographies of Time, 24/04/2021, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1704.

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