Opinion: How the Ukraine War Changed My Perception of Science Fiction

Science fiction is fiction, not a textbook or current affairs work.  Still, there are many subgenres, some of which are set in the real world, while others draw their timeline from the present time.  Of course, there are plenty of works, a vast majority of them, that have nothing in common with the world we live in right now.  However, I often pick up a book where the setting is familiar, either directly based on real world, or extrapolated from it.  The Ukrainian war has made some of these books age like milk…

Silver Tower by Dale Brown is described as techno thriller, but it has plenty in common with recent works of Neal Stephenson and can be easily considered science fiction.  In this novel, the US must defend, and later restore, a space station that is under attack by space shuttles from the re-formed Soviet Union.  The Frontlines series by Marko Kloos sees a world where the North American forces battle the Sino-Russian armies to a standstill on Earth and in space.  In Wayward Galaxy by Jason Anspach and J. N. Chaney, Russians throw drugged conscripts into the meat grinder, but they also have highly capable special ops that are a match against anybody.  All these books, and many more, have one thing in common: Russians, the antagonists, are technologically equal to the Western world usually represented by the Americans, and at the very least they can force a stalemate.

The war in Ukraine, however, has revealed three things.  First, Russians are far from superior.  Their forces are about as good as the forces of a much weaker country, which was further weakened by a previous invasion and loss of some of their most profitable land.  Their soldiers are also not too motivated to fight.  This would be true about any army that is not defending its land, which is something to keep in mind in all military science fiction.  Second, Russian society is incredibly corrupt, on all levels.  The main reason for the combat inferiority of Russian troops is that anything in the army that could be sold, was sold, replaced by items of a much lesser quality.  And third, Russia is entirely dependent on western technology.  We’ve all seen stories about Russians stripping their washing machines for their microchips, which are then repurposed for their war effort.  Russian planes don’t have spare parts, and even the country’s most vital lifeline, the gas pipelines, are beginning to break down after only a few months of embargos.

All this completely negates any suspension of disbelief I may have had when I’ve read about the Americans and Russians duking it out on a distant planet.  Ironically, Dale Brown’s book would sound most plausible, because he establishes that Russia put the Soviet Union back together and cracked down on corruption.  I don’t see it happening with the current Russia, but if that’s the stated rule in a novel, having a militarily strong opponent doesn’t sound all that farfetched.

Unfortunately, it’s not only military science fiction books that suffer from the drastic change of perception we all are currently experiencing.  Any stories that portray Russian institutions as capable are now suspect.  Andy Weir’s Project Hail Mary has Russia play a prominent role in launching the space expedition, but right now I’d be very skeptical about their capability to build the prerequisite facilities without a majority of the materials being stolen and sold off.  Even such classic as Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy has the US and Russia as equal partners in sending the first colonization expedition to Mars.  What we know now is that even if corruption in Russia were eliminated, building the necessary infrastructure would mean duplicating work, as all high-tech equipment would have to be built elsewhere and imported to the country.  (In this regard, it is more plausible that human expeditions to Mars will be launched by corporations, not nations at all.)

As a result, writers of future science fiction works must change their worldbuilding, if they want their setting on Earth relatively close to our time.  Neal Stephenson has already done so.  In many of his books, he ignores Russia and instead focuses on China as the regional power.  In Termination Shock, for example, he has China operate as the US, but in Asia: they can invade countries within their sphere of influence, and they exert pressure over the rest of the world via clandestine actions and the skillful use of misinformation and social media.  China is being kept in check by India, and nobody even considers Russia to be a valid global player anymore.

Another issue to be mindful of is the actual continuation of Russia as a country.  There are plenty of examples in science fiction where the US is either fragmented into smaller countries, such as in Robert Heinlein’s Friday, or all but dissolved along social and cultural lines with a very weak and ineffectual federal government.  As the dissolution of Russia looms as a real possibility, science fiction authors may now attempt stories in a setting where the country is fragmented.  I personally can imagine a futuristic retelling of the exploits in the Czechoslovak Legion in 1918, or a reimagining of the Odyssey through various new Siberian countries, which would be for the average reader as exotic as far-off planets.

Unfortunately, dismissing Russia in futuristic works or presenting it as a series of new, smaller countries, will only benefit a select few current books and hopefully more future works.  Existing science fiction novels that rely on Russians to be competent are now facing ridicule.  One may consider them as works of pure fiction, but unless very specific rules are established beforehand that explain how Russia has become a power to contend with, I think I’ll find the novels unintentionally funny, and that will certainly color my perception of them.

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