Space warfare in fiction

"Space combat" redirects here. For the video game, see Space Combat. For the video game genre, see Space combat simulator.

Space warfare has served as a central theme within the science-fiction genre. One can trace its roots back to classical times, and to the "future war" novels of the nineteenth century.[1] An interplanetary, or more often an interstellar or intergalactic war has become a staple plot device in space operas. Space warfare has a predominant role in military science fiction but is not believed to be a realistic possibility because of the distances involved and the logistical impracticalities.[2]



In his second-century satire True History, Lucian of Samosata depicts an imperial war between the king of the Sun and the king of the Moon over the right to colonise the Morning Star. It is the earliest known work of fiction to address the concept.[3]

Future war: the precursor to space warfare

The first "future war" story was George T. Chesney's "The Battle of Dorking," a story about a British defeat after a German invasion of Britain, published in 1871 in Blackwood's Magazine. Many such stories were written prior to the outbreak of World War I. George Griffith's The Angel of the Revolution (1892) featured self-styled "Terrorists" armed with then-nonexistent arms and armour such as airships, submarines, and high explosives. The inclusion of yet-nonexistent technology became a standard part of the genre. Griffith's last "future war" story was The Lord of Labour, written in 1906 and published in 1911, which included such technology as disintegrator rays and missiles.[4]

H. G. Wells' novel The War of the Worlds inspired many other writers to write stories of alien incursions and wars between Earth and other planets, and encouraged writers of "future war" fiction to employ wider settings than had been available for "naturalistic" fiction. Wells' several other "future war" stories included the atomic war novel The World Set Free (1914)[4] and "The Land Ironclads," which featured a prophetic description of the tank, albeit of an unfeasibly large scale.[5]

Space opera

The modern form of space warfare in science fiction, in which mobile spaceships battle both planets and one another with destructive superweapons, appeared with the advent of space opera. Garrett P. Serviss' 1898 newspaper serial "Edison's Conquest of Mars" was inspired by Wells and intended as a sequel to "Fighters from Mars," an un-authorized and heavily altered Edisonade version of The War of the Worlds[6] in which the human race, led by Thomas Edison, pursues the invading Martians back to their home planet. David Pringle considers Serviss' story to be the very first space opera, although the work most widely regarded as the first space opera is E. E. "Doc" Smith's The Skylark of Space. It and its three successor novels exemplify the present form of space warfare in science fiction, as giant spaceships employ great ray guns that send bolts of energy across space to shatter planets in a war between humans and alien species.[7][8]

David Weber's Honorverse novels present a view of space warfare that simply transplants the naval warfare of Horatio Nelson and Horatio Hornblower into space. The space navy battle tactics in the Honorverse are much like those of Nelson, with the simple addition of a third dimension.[9]

R.M.Solea's Balada a symphony of eternity has space fleets that number at least 10.000 ships each, set in a universe where magic instead of technology was used to create interstellar nations that encompass hundreds of million of worlds. The tactics presented are a combination of WWII carrier and long range battleship duels, with space weather and the stars and planets themselves used as 'terrain advandage'

Late 20th century depictions

More recent depictions of space warfare departed from the jingoism of the pulp science fiction of the 1930s and 1940s. Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, was partly a response to or a rebuttal of Robert A. Heinlein's Starship Troopers, wherein space warfare involved the effects of time dilation and resulted in the alienation of the protagonists from the human civilization on whose behalf they were fighting.[10][11] Both novels have in the past been required reading at the United States Military Academy.

Science fiction writers from the end of World War II onwards have examined the morality and consequences of space warfare. With Heinlein's Starship Troopers are A. E. van Vogt's "War against the Rull" (1959) and Fredric Brown's "Arena" (1944). Opposing them are Murray Leinster's "First Contact" (1945), Barry Longyear's "Enemy Mine," Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike," Connie Willis' "Schwarzchild Radius," and John Kessel's "Invaders."[11] In Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, the protagonist wages war remotely, with no realization that he is doing so.

Several writers in the 1980s were accused of writing fiction as part of a propaganda campaign in favour of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Ben Bova's 1985 novel Privateers has been given as an example.[11][12]

Fiction or non fiction

Early television productions such as Captain Video and His Video Rangers (1949) were severely constrained by the available special effects technology, and effect sequences were typically difficult to set up. This, combined with the fact that early shows were often live productions, meant that space action sequences were usually short and simple.[13]

Production techniques improved throughout the 1950s and 1960s, and most programming moved to pre-recorded productions. This allowed more complex effects to be used, and increased the ability of producers to show action sequences such as space warfare. Star Trek is from this period. While the future presented in the original Star Trek series was not one of open warfare, the machinery of war was ever present, and was used in many episodes. Ships carried missiles armed with antimatter warheads, known as "photon torpedoes", and deflector shields for defense. Battles were shown on screen, but the expense and difficulty of advanced special effects meant that most battles were short and involved few craft. The costs of special effects dropped dramatically over the years, but remained high enough that larger battles showed relatively few ships firing and/or being hit. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (1993) used computer graphics developed in part by Industrial Light & Magic, and could show battles between numerous classes of ships using tactics developed by military strategists.

George Lucas' 1977 film Star Wars broke new ground in its depiction of space warfare. Advances in technology, combined with the film's comparatively high budget, allowed Lucas to create long, complex space action sequences. The battle sequences were modeled after World War II-era dogfighting from films such as The Dam Busters, and were a major milestone in fictional space combat.

A number of more ambitious films and television series soon followed, including ABC's Battlestar Galactica (1978). Battlestar Galactica used expensive effects influenced by those of Lucas' film and followed his lead in concentrating on battles between starfighters. It, and contemporary shows such as Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, set new standards in television space battles.[14] The series primarily used laser-type energy weapons in defense and offence on battleships,[15] although analogues to ballistic weaponry are present in several episodes.[16] The 2003 "re-imagining" of Battlestar Galactica uses more conventional weaponry, such as guns and missiles mounted on the primary capital ships and starfighters, and use pure Newtonian physics to achieve a more realistic representation of how space warfare would actually appear.[17]

James Cameron's Aliens, the 1986 sequel to the 1979 film Alien, used Starship Troopers as the basis for its futuristic military. The movie involves a small unit of the United States Colonial Marine Corps who provide emergency response to a planetary colony in 2179. The film showed futuristic twists on many modern types of military vehicle and gear, including a dropship, 10x25mm caseless "Pulse" M41A1 rifles, flamethrowers and machine guns, and realistic body armor and tactical equipment.

The 1993 television series Babylon 5 chronicled a turbulent time in galactic politics, which involved several inter-species wars. Political and humanitarian aspects were explored, such as atrocities against civilian populations, and telepathy was used as a weapon. The series made an attempt to faithfully depict the physics of combat in a vacuum, instead of using motion modelled on aeroplanes within our atmosphere.

The 1995 American TV series Space: Above and Beyond centered around the "Wildcards", a group of marines in the 2060s who serve as both infantry and fighter pilots. The show attempted to depict technology that was near-future, but based on research. It also explored the alienation of deep space warfare, the horrors of loss and survival on the battefield, the bonds that form in combat, and a fight against an enemy of which they knew little. Space: Above and Beyond differs from many other military science fiction works in that its soldiers use weapons that fire bullets, and fight in space suits in alien environments.

The British TV series Doctor Who, has numerous instances of this. Frontier in Space, set in 2540, mentions a war between Earth and Draconia, fought 20 years earlier. This story involves renegade Time Lord the Master trying to start another war on behalf of the Daleks, who plan to conquer the Galaxy. The Time War is a major plot point in the revived series, during which the Time Lords, the species of the Doctor, fought the Daleks. This war seems to have ended with the destruction of the Time Lord planet Gallifrey, which the Doctor did hoping the Daleks would also be destroyed.



Usually, lasers are used rather than bullets. An August 1939 Astounding Science-Fiction issue consisted of an article written by Willy Ley claimed that bullets would be a more effective weapon in a real space battle.

Destruction of planets and stars

Destruction of planets and stars has been a frequently used aspect of interstellar warfare since the Lensman series.[18] This is not a realistic capability, as it has been calculated that a force on the order of 1032 joules of energy, or roughly the total output of the sun in a week, would be required to overcome the gravity that holds together an Earth-sized planet.[19][20] The destruction of Alderaan in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope is estimated to require 1.0 × 1038joules of energy, millions of times more than would be necessary to break the planet apart at a slower rate.[21]

Fictional space warfare tends to borrow elements from naval warfare. David Weber's Honorverse series of novels portrays several "space navies" such as the Royal Manticoran Navy, which imitate themes from Napoleonic-era naval warfare.[22] [23] [24] The Federation Starfleet (Star Trek), Imperial Navy (Star Wars) and Earthforce (Babylon 5) also use a naval-style rank-structure and hierarchy. The former is based on the United States Navy and the Royal Navy.[25] The United Nations Space Command in Halo fully echoes all ranks of the United States armed forces, even the pay-grade system. Naval ship-classes such as frigate or destroyer sometimes serve as marker to show how the craft are assembled and their designed purpose.

Some fictional universes have different implementations. The Colonial Fleet in Battlestar Galactica uses a mixture of army and navy ranks, and the Stargate universe has military spacecraft under the control of modern air forces, and uses air-force ranks. In the Andromeda universe, officers of Systems Commonwealth ships follow naval ranking, but Lancers (soldiers analogous to Marines) use army ranks.

The United Nations Space Alliance in Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare formed because of agreements to mine resources in other bodies in the Solar System, due to limited resources on Earth, and they are responsible for the military ships such as the Retribution, Tigris, and spacecraft such as the Jackal, a space fighter used by many pilots including Reyes, and the Raven, a dropship that is used to carry SCAR and SATO troops down into a surface of a space object such as an asteroid. Nick Reyes is the current captain of the UNSA Retribution, its former captain was killed on Earth.

See also


  1. Andrew M. Butler (2005). "Philip K. Dick. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?". In David Johnson. The Popular And The Canonical: Debating Twentieth-century Literature 19402000. Routledge (UK). p. 113. ISBN 0-415-35169-3.
  2. Eugene F. Mallove and Gregory L. Matloff (June 1989). The Starflight Handbook: A Pioneer's Guide to Interstellar Travel. Wiley. p. 20. ISBN 0-471-61912-4.
  3. Swanson, Roy Arthur: “The True, the False, and the Truly False: Lucian’s Philosophical Science Fiction”, Science Fiction Studies, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Nov. 1976), pp. 227–239
  4. 1 2 Brian Stableford (2003-12-08). "Science fiction before the genre". In Edward James and Farah Mendlesohn. The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction. Cambridge University Press. pp. 2021. ISBN 0-521-01657-6.
  5. Antulio J. Echevarria II. "Challenging Transformation's Clichés" (PDF). Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College. Retrieved 2007-01-31.
  6. Edison Conquest of Mars, Introduction Robert Godwin, page 6, Apoge 2005
  7. David Pringle (2000-01-30). "What is this thing called space opera?". In Gary Westfahl. Space and Beyond: The Frontier Theme in Science Fiction. Greenwood Press. pp. 4041. ISBN 0-313-30846-2.
  8. Thomas D. Clareson (December 1992). Understanding Contemporary American Science Fiction: The Formative Period, (1926-1970). University of South Carolina Press. pp. 1718. ISBN 0-87249-870-0.
  9. Jas Elsner, Joan-Pau Ribiés (1999). Voyages and Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel. Reaktion Books. p. 264. ISBN 1-86189-020-6.
  10. Darren Harris-Fain. "After the New Wave, 19701976". Understanding contemporary American science fiction: the age of maturity, 1970-2000. Univ of South Carolina Press. pp. 5557. ISBN 1-57003-585-7.
  11. 1 2 3 Brooks Landon (2002). "From the Steam Man to the Stars". Science Fiction After 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars. Routledge (UK). p. 70. ISBN 0-415-93888-0.
  12. H. Bruce Franklin (1990). War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination. Oxford University Press. p. 200. ISBN 0-19-506692-8.
  13. "Captain Video and his Video Rangers". The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 2007-02-15.
  14. "Science Fiction Programs". The Museum of Broadcast Communications. Retrieved 2007-03-07.
  15. "The Living Legend, Part 2". Battlestar Galactica 1978.
  16. "Experiment in Terra". Battlestar Galactica 1978.
  17. "Miniseries". Battlestar Galactica: The miniseries.
  18. See (e.g.) E. E. "Doc" Smith (1951), Grey Lensman, chapter 23
  19. Uses the Death Star as an exercise in calculus
  20. A page on "How to Destroy the Earth."
  21. Star Wars Technical Commentaries on the Death Stars Archived November 28, 2006, at the Wayback Machine.
  22. On Basilisk Station (© 1993 Mass market paperback, © 1999 Hardcover)
  23. The Honor of the Queen (ISBN 0-671-57864-2, Copyright © 1993 by David Weber, First hardcover printing, March ©2000)
  24. The Short Victorious War (1994)
  25. Okuda, Michael & Denise (1997). The Star Trek Encyclopedia. New York City: Pocket Books. ISBN 0-671-53607-9. Images accessible at 2265-2370 Ranks. Spike's Star Trek Page Rank Chart.

Further reading

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