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.

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license


Imagined conflicts-to-come between the nineteenth century and the eve of WWI

By the beginning of the Twentieth century, the imagery related to future wars already had precedents, having been a topic touched upon in future-set narratives across different textual genres since the Seventeenth century. Early examples had used ominous depictions of future invasions and scenarios of armed conflict to argue in favour of specific political options in texts whose primary aim was to influence the political debates of the day.

Argaud de Barges, La Thiloriere ou Descente en Angleterre: Projet d’une Montgolfiere capable d’enlever 3.000 Hommes et qui ne coutera que 300.000 Francs [etc.], etching and pointillé gravure (Paris: Chez Boulard, 1803), Bibliothèque nationale de France, accessed via Gallica, identifier: ark:/12148/btv1b8509550q.

During the first years of the nineteenth century, however, future-war literary fictions were few in number, while war technologies were of course object of fantastic representations also unrelated to future settings, a notable example being Baron Munchausen’s adventures on battle fields and on cannonballs becoming means of transport across Earthly territories and even to the moon.[1] Future settings were also exploited by prophetic novels imagining remote futures for humanity or one subject as the sole survivor of a catastrophe indebted to Romantic inspiration (e.g. Restif de la Bretonne’s Les Posthumes in 1802, Jean-Baptiste Cousin de Grainville’s Le Dernier homme in 1805, Félix Bodin, Le Roman de l’avenir in 1834).[2] While important milestones were reached in later decades by Louis Geoffroy’s alternative history Napoleon et la conquête du monde 1812-1832: Histoire de la Monarchie universelle (1836),[3] and by the American Civil War imagined by two American authors, Nathaniel B. Tucker (The Partisan Leader, 1836) and Edmund Ruffin (Anticipations of the Future, 1860), future-war narratives did not become a codified sub-genre until the 1870s.[4]

By then, the presence of intertextual references to similar texts, a shared encyclopaedia of recurring motives and topoi, and textual devices implying a recognition of existing readers’ expectations had gradually led to the sub-genre taking shape, helped by the emergence of a mass market for magazines and books, a rich breeding ground for popular publishing formulas.

Particular attention has been paid by recent scholarship to the seminal role of George T. Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking (1871), given the innovative nature of a setting located in a very near future, and the public debate that followed its publication in England, originating sequels, editions, and translations over a number of European countries and the US. Designed to encourage reform and modernisation in the British army, Chesney’s book was written after the Franco-Prussian War, and envisaged a scenario in which Germany had taken France’s place as the invader able to cross the English Channel.[5] According to Mike Ashley, “Chesney’s alarmist story had catapulted the genre of future-war fiction into the public arena.”[6]

The ensuing decades saw waves of imagined conflicts-to-come especially notable in England and Germany, in the short-story form as well as in serialized long narratives and volume-length novels. Depicted conflicts were consumed between European powers, as well as on a global scale (such as Robida’s La guerre au vingtième siècle, and Giffard and Robida’s La guerre infernale). Invasions from the east were relevant to the codification of the Yellow Peril theme (e.g. M. P. Shiel’s The Yellow Danger, 1898), and threats from mad scientists and terrorist organizations were also imagined (e.g. George Griffith’s The Angel of the Revolution, 1893).

In H. G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1898), the novelty of having extraterrestrials as invaders made explicit the relationship between ideas of progress and the recourse to the future as an imaginative device for conducting hypothetical experiments, informed by conceptualisations of historical time as characterised by a unidirectional flow. As John Rieder has argued, “… Wells asks his English readers to compare the Martian invasion of Earth with the Europeans’ genocidal invasion of the Tasmanians, thus demanding that the colonisers imagine themselves as the colonised, or the about-to-be-colonised. …  the analogy rests on the logic prevalent in contemporary anthropology that the indigenous, primitive other’s present is the colonizer’s own past … The confrontation of humans and Martians is thus a kind of anachronism, an incongruous co-habitation of the same moment by people and artefacts from different times.”[7]

In the years immediately preceding World War I, future wars became part of a proto-science fiction repertoire, in works written, published and read as entertainment.[8] Notable cases include William LeQueux’s bestseller The Invasion of 1910 (1906), and Saki [Hector H. Munro]’s When William Came: A Story of London Under the Hohenzollerns (1913), apt examples of the coeval Germanophobia caused in England by the perception of an increasing Teutonic menace.[9] Imagined conflicts became a fairly well-established subgenre, in which technology supplied a spectacular element, while being a focal point for anxieties related to the increasing speed of technological progress and world connections, as well as of international relations characterised by instability and/or by the emergence of non-Western actors such as Japan and China, with their economic and demographic power.

The next post will aim to understand and critically assess the wave(s) of future-war narratives that characterized European illustrated periodicals and book markets before 1914.


[1]  [Rudolf Erich Raspe], Gulliver revived, or The vice of lying properly exposed. … Also an account of a voyage into the moon and Dog-Star; with many extraordinary particulars relative to the cooking animal in those planets, which are there called the human species (London: Printed for C. and G. Kearsley, 1793).

[2]  Marc Angenot, “Science Fiction in France before Verne,” Science Fiction Studies 5, no. 14 (1978): 58-76.

[3]  Published anonymously until 1841; Pierre Versins, Encyclopédie de l’utopie, des voyages extraordinaires & de la science-fiction (Lausanne: L’âge d’homme, 1972), ad vocem.

[4]  Darko Suvin, “Victorian Science Fiction, 1871-85: The Rise of the Alternative History Sub-Genre,” Science-Fiction Studies 10, no. 2, (1983): 148-169; see also Brian M. Stableford, “Future War,” SFE: Science Fiction Encyclopedia, ed. John Clute, David Langford, Peter Nicholls, Graham Sleight, 2005, last version 2018, http://www.sf-encyclopedia.com/entry/future_war.

[5]   First published in Blackwood’s Magazine, and reprinted as a stand-alone pamphlet. A contemporary edition is in Clarke, British Future Fiction, vol. 6: 1-44; on its reception: I. F. Clarke, “Before and after ‘The Battle of Dorking,’’’ Science Fiction Studies 24, no. 1 (1997): 33-46, see 42-44; on its innovative role see also: Paul K. Alkon, Origins of Futuristic Fiction (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1987), 40.

[6]   Mike Ashley, “The Fear of Invasion,” British Library, Discovering Literature: Romantics & Victorians, 15 May 2014, https://www.bl.uk/romantics-and-victorians/articles/the-fear-of-invasion.

[7]   John Rieder, Colonialsm and the Emergence of Science Fiction (Middletown CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2008), qt. 5.

[8]   Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space, 1880-1918 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 90.

[9]   Cecil D. Eby, The Road to Armageddon: The Martial Spirit in English Popular Literature, 1870-1914 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1988), 33 and ff., 80 and ff.

This post is adapted from Giulia Iannuzzi, “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 (2019): 95-136; par. “Techno-apocalypses”, pp. 111-113. 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, "Techno-apocalypses," in Geographies of Time, 15/11/2020, https://ian.hypotheses.org/1539.

This blog is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license

The Illustrator and the Global Wars to Come

Fantastic narratives and illustrations as part of a broader social history of ideas of space and time

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.

My latest work on the conceptualisation of historical time in late modern and early contemporary European culture is now on Cromohs: Cyber Review of Modern Historiography.

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.

Louis-Sébastien Mercier, L’an deux mille quatre cent quarante (1774; nouvelle edition, Paris, an X [1801-1802]) vol. I, 12. Looking at the public notices posted on a wall, the protagonist realizes he has slept for 672 years. Source: gallica.bnf.fr / Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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. 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.

Fantastic narratives and illustrations can be read as part of a broader social history of ideas of space and time, 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.

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