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

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