20 March 2017

Review: Rumors of War and Infernal Machines by Charles E. Gannon

Vaguely related (in that apocalypses come up): my review of series five of Terry Nation's Survivors is available for your consumption.

Hardcover, 311 pages
Published 2005 (originally 2003)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
Rumors of War and Infernal Machines: Technomilitary Agenda-setting in American and British Speculative Fiction
by Charles E. Gannon

When you read as many academic monographs as I do, it's easy to hate them for their long sentences, long paragraphs, and unclear thinking. (All things, I should point out, that my own academic writing is prone to as much as anyone's.) Often one yearns for a book that has interesting ideas and writing that is merely acceptable. So I was very pleased when Gannon's book turned out to more more than acceptable, but good-- Gannon constructs a compelling narrative chock-full of interesting details.

The focus of his study is on near-future military science fiction: stories about the "next" war where the technology deployed does not yet exist (or has not yet been used), but plausibly could exist. He's interested in how these stories exploit contemporary anxieties, but also in how they affect them: science fiction about future wars can have a real effect on politics and policy. So mostly the book consists of a series of illustrations of how a future-war narrative drew on contemporary concerns, and then how it affected them. The book has two primary parts: chapters 1 through 4 cover British narratives of invasion published during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods (1871 to 1914) and chapters 5 through 10 are about American stories drawing on the Cold War and after (1950 to the present).

Obviously the first half was of more interest to me personally than the second. Gannon covers a number of familiar texts, giving probably the most thorough account of the highly influential The Battle of Dorking (1871) that I've read, a mere pamphlet which changed the shape of British politics-- its author was even elected to Parliament! Probably the best part was the chapter covering the work of William Le Queux, who drove around Britain in his motorcar to figure out the perfect invasion route for his newspaper serial The Invasion of 1910 (1906), but was forced by his publisher to plot a less plausible one that intersected more major population centers where newspapers could be sold. The Invasion of 1910 drew on a contemporary spy scare, but magnified it all out of proportion.

There's other famous stuff here too: The Great War of 189— (1893) by Admiral Philip Colomb, and much H. G. Wells, especially his "The Land Ironclads" (1903). It was fascinating to learn that the inventor of the tank, Ernest Swinton, was friends and collaborators with a writer of future-war fiction who wrote about tanks, Captain R. E. Vickers, who wrote the story "The Trenches" (1907). Gannon traces their relationship in detail from scant archival evidence to show a compelling connection between science fiction and the deployment of actual science fiction weaponry. The one real weakness of the first half is how much he glosses over everyone who wrote about the airplane before H. G. Wells, like George Griffith.

The second half of the book ought to have been less interesting to me because it's not "my" time period, but I still found much to enjoy, such as a persuasive discussion of Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957) and its film adaptation mere weeks before I ended up teaching the book. Gannon argues that nuclear war fiction is important because the atom bomb has a destructive power beyond our ability to grasp in numbers: "the discourse of nuclear literature had traditionally relied upon images because a personally meaningful quantitative assessment of the bomb’s annihilatory powers is impossible" (129). As in the earlier section, Gannon delivers compelling connections between fiction and reality: the Eisenhower administration tried to suppress the film because they thought it would make the American people lose their nerve in the Cold War, President Truman carried a copy of Tennyon's future-war poem "Locksley Hall" (1835) with him and cribbed one of his speeches from a 1907 future-war magazine serial! Once the book moved past the atomic bomb, though, it sort of lost my interest.

Overall, a good book covering an interesting topic in a compelling fashion, and well written. I liked his breaking down of genres into subtypes, each with different purposes-- it's a good example of how to do genre-based criticism. The only bugbear of academic writing Gannon falls victim to is overuse of hyphens and parentheses in titles. "An Imperfect Future Tense(d): Anticipations of Atomic Annihilation in Post-War American Science Fiction" makes me wince a little, but "Cultural Casualties as Collateral Damage: The Fragment-ing/-ation Effects of Future-War Fantasies vs. Fictions" is unforgivable.

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