The Bujold Nexus

Lois Bujold's speech on "Wars of the Future" Panel

Lois Bujold's speech

I should state up front that I am a fantasist, not a futurist. I found when I sat down to prepare these remarks that they had an inherent tendency to split in two mutually exclusive directions. As a citizen and a futurist, it's in my interest to pursue those avenues that promise to reduce war and the tendency to war. In real life, I like being bored. As a novelist and a fantasist, my interest is the reverse -- to create exciting scenarios, sometimes violent, that test my characters, if necessary, to destruction. Never has the difference between author and character been more clear. So I'm afraid you'll find in what I have to say a disconcerting tendency to veer from one position to the other, depending on how far my remarks drift from fantasy, in which I'm more comfortable -- for no real people are ever hurt in the making of a novel -- to real life and real future possibilities.

My first general comment is the obvious one that real-life war as a bad thing, although not only for the most obvious reasons. It's expensive, painful, and wasteful, and the money would be better spent on almost any other endeavor. Americans have a peculiar chronic blind spot when thinking about war, that I've noticed on almost every "women in the military" Usenet argument I've seen -- they always imagine the theorized war in question as taking place somewhere else. Truly war-torn countries can't afford space programs, nor to give mankind the stars, nor any other good thing. Creating the future is a rich culture's game; poverty can only re-create the past. Yet by the relentless logic of competition, all countries are driven to aspire to war readiness equal to that of their least-enlightened neighbor; the bar is set by the worst of us, alas, not by the best of us.

But we are fiction writers here: what about war in fiction? (By far the best place for it.) In practice, writers seem to use one of two methods for generating fictional war scenarios. The first is to make a xerox copy of history, taking a real past war and closely modeling our fictional creation upon it. This has certain advantages of built-in coherence, and isn't a bad organizing principle; in addition, the historically literate readers can have the pleasure of awarding themselves points for recognizing the sources.

The second main method is to scrape back one's thinking to the original principles of wars, distilled from an understanding of history but not just duplicating it. Both systems have their place, subordinate to needs of the story, but the second is more exciting if it can be made to work. In my own work, I've looked at two underlying principles of possibility.

If geography is the mother of strategy, surely technology is its father. Between them, geography and technology define the limits of the physically possible, within which are bounded the limits of the psychologically and financially possible. If one's characters' wills exceed their ways, incidentally, we have a tight and powerful recipe for a tragedy. Good strategists often define their box of the possible in this intersection of geography and technology. Great ones look at the sides of the box and figure how to punch through them. History delivers us lots of exciting tales of these -- in the past, usually geographical -- adventures: Eugene of Savoy or Hannibal crossing mountains that "couldn't" be crossed, T.E. Lawrence, who defied geography and took his armies where they supposedly couldn't go, and on and on.

Technology tales include both positive and negative examples, with all the stories of hot-shot junior officers like Admiral Rickover in US history arguing new tools and methods with a generation of senior officers trained in the previous war, who apply, not wrong lessons, but lessons wrongly. Officers on top of their new tech innovate successful strategies. And then grow old in turn, of course... Though I would observe in passing, new tech trumps the old only as long as the power stays on.

As speculative fiction writers, to create convincing wars on our pages, ones that will ring true to people of real experience, we're compelled to look at what changes in both geography and technology might wring. My own Miles Vorkosigan adventure series begins with a not very original bit of science fictional astro-geography -- the vision or scenario of defined and limited wormhole jumps between star systems. In strategic and tactical terms, a wormhole is the equivalent of straits, mountain passes, and especially bridges and tunnels, writ large and in odd dimensions. So I can raid real history for tales of battles turning around these sorts of choke points, and extrapolate (and, not incidentally, simplify -- this is a novel, you know.)

Weapons systems are by no means the only shifting technology that changes how wars can be made on our pages. The scope quickly widens to every science, biological/genetic/ chemical/computer technologies -- a war of brains not brawn -- wars on economies, and on and on. I would also point out, technology changes (effective) geography. A mountain range that is impossible to a war elephant is non-existent as a barrier to high-flying aircraft. Of course, each new weapon that I invent for my pages should come with its own set of limitations around which its new tactics must turn.

The psychology of war and war-making, armies and the military, does fascinate me. I've looked at film clips of ranks of guys marching in goose step, and thought, "Y'know... I don't think they could ever get a bunch of women to do something so incredibly goofy-looking and take it seriously." The military and its psychological techniques for group cohesion is an intensely, inherently weird way for people to organize themselves. It's also remarkably powerful. Bujold's rule of logistics, developed from getting a family of four loaded into the car for vacation, is that the chaos involved in launching any endeavor goes up as the square of the number of people involved. By this rule D-Day starts to look pretty miraculous.

Why humans make war is another open field for writers to explore. There's more than one sort of war; we could probably amuse ourselves for the rest of the afternoon classifying them -- wars of aggression, defense, revolution, kleptocracy, vandalism, land theft, or culture/religion/language fights for dominance. Again, as a source for ideas, SF writers want to look at what differences new technologies can make. Language and culture barriers have been a big source of conflict in the past. What happens when cheap instantaneous translation breaks former barriers? (Besides allowing us all to submit our stories to towering slush piles around the world and not just in our own countries.) Will we all grow closer together, or will full exposure to all the blither from all the fringe nut-cases we harbor, normally edited out of most international discourse, so horrify our neighbors as to drive us yet further apart?

Old hopes were that the spread of democracy would reduce war, but that's surely not proven yet. Control of the spread of information -- and, quite as important for the purposes of war, disinformation -- both creates and blocks the ability of propagandists to sway democratic or semi-democratic populations whose moral support must be won or aligned. The media and those who manipulate it are getting really good at this -- can our ability to sort through the crap keep pace? The education of all populations to develop better truth-detectors, to recognize false rhetoric and media spin, has to be a high priority for every thinking person. Immunity to propaganda ought to be taught as a mental discipline, as common a task for grown-ups as learning to balance a check-book.

I happen to believe that almost all the good the human race has experienced in our century is the direct result of rising technology levels. Technology magnifies our good as well as our evil. From a certain utilitarian view every experiment in government can be judged on how little it managed to impede people trying to make things physically better for other people.

At higher tech levels, the more people will have to lose, and the greater the disruptive threat of war Over Here, as opposed to Over There. Here's one for the SF writers who are serious about their futurism -- We've imagined improvement in the techniques of war. What if war prevention techniques improve? All kinds of other accident prevention techniques have, why not this? War prevention in future would require real and truthful understanding of why wars happen, even as accident investigation must be scrupulous to yield knowledge to prevent a repeat. Clear thinking becomes more at a premium than ever, plus the need for the clear-thinkers to write it all down and teach it to others. False models of thinking about each other, of human beings who are in conflict, are as deadly as false maps to the tactician.

Instead of the historical approach, what if we took the engineering approach to war? Define war as a preventable accident, a social catastrophe that should not have happened, that happened because something went wrong. And that wrong thing can be teased out of the wreckage and new procedures devised to keep that accident from ever occurring again. We study accidents of the past to find what went wrong; perhaps we should set the engineers to study history, and ask these questions of the data. In the past, real life has been much too complex and poorly documented. While life will never grow less complex, the masses of our documentation are going up and up -- the problem now is of sorting for what is significant -- but our abilities to handle large masses of complex data are also improving. The human genome project would have been impossible before computers. When we get really good at handling vast complexity, what other barriers might fall?

Are we smart enough yet to handle this much data, this much complexity? Will we ever be? I'm put in mind of those old SF stories from my youth positing weather control, prior to the discovery of chaos mathematics and a deeper understanding of the intrinsic unpredictability of turbulent phenomena. We're not so optimistic about weather control now. On the positive-thinking side, we can look at history of medicine, when dissection and systematic careful observation replaced old wrong theories with new better ones; or look at the painstaking and above all scrupulously honest analysis of industrial accidents leading to safer, better methods that become, over time, routine. Wrong theories will lead to wrong therapies, or ones that are only right by chance. Correct theories of human social and economic behavior should yield better results. Really correct theories should yield powerfully better results.

The anti-war thought that I've encountered in both fiction and real life has been so far too much addicted to feelings and not enough to convincing analysis. Fuzzy thinking won't do for the new discipline of war prevention -- yet whatever we come up with must also charm the inner primate to compete with the glamour of war. I can't imagine there will be easy answers or quick fixes. If what we have to do starts in elementary schools, it's probably still too hard for us. Yet change can happen, does happen, cannot even be stopped from happening.

One possible real-life model for a war-prevention organization for science fiction writers to consider is the famous Center for Disease Control in Atlanta. A disease model of war might envision war as a sort of social plague, and the people who work to prevent or contain it as heroic doctors. Here our tale comes full circle, for much of modern public health technique comes originally from problems first faced and solved by military doctors, such as Walter Reed, who first proved that yellow fever was spread by mosquitoes.

If we have one universal duty as writers, it is to think as clearly as we can; to re-examine all our assumptions repeatedly on both micro and macro scales. Happily, this also will yield us better fiction.

Original copy is here
St. Petersburg, September 2000
© 2000 by Lois McMaster Bujold
Added to The Bujold Nexus: November 16th 2003

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Last updated: November 16th 2003