Going Mad For Sci-Fi


In the era of cars that drive themselves better than a human operator and machine-learning translation that matches native-language nuance, video games and virtual reality render the future with amazing fidelity. Yet the highly personal process of world building that occurs when reading a short story creates the opportunity to fill in the narrative’s fine brushwork and create an even richer emotional connection than anything on a screen. After all, WIRED Magazine just devoted an entire issue to one of the most powerful and disruptive technologies of all time: the short story narrative.

As one of the farther-reaching efforts by the US Army, the Training and Doctrine Command’s “Mad Scientist” initiative is currently running a short-story contest calling for narratives exploring the 2030 to 2050 military operating environment. It’s a wide-open appeal to bring in fresh perspectives from beyond the military.

“Writers from all walks of life have the opportunity to contribute ideas that are outside what the Army is already considering about the future,” TRADOC said in a statement.

The quest to use art to make sense of technology on the battlefield goes back to Leonardo Da Vinci, if not earlier. More recently during the Cold War, it took many forms in the US, from comics to novels and stories to TV shows. As the Association of the United States Army noted, the service has long been interested in how science fiction can inform visions of the future Army. AUSA published a cover story 60 years ago –“Soldier of the Futurarmy” – in 1956, about seven years before Iron Man debuted in Tales of Suspense in 1963.

The current Mad Scientist contest is in line with the broader “Mad Scientist” effort, a partnership with the Georgetown University Center for Security Studies, which seeks out experts in areas the traditional national security community might overlook or discount. (Art of the Future Project Non-Resident Senior Fellow and World War Z author Max Brooks presented earlier this year at a Mad Scientist conference.) When it comes to foresight, especially far-reaching explorations of the future, science fiction has a long tradition of both rigorous research and riotous imagination that together can be insightful into the critical human elements of tomorrow’s conflicts. The Art of the Future Project has used short stories to explore not only explore future conflicts, but also to examine what happens to soldiers after future wars (see Remote Operations by Marika Landau Wells and The One Nightstand by Jim Gourley) because of fiction’s ability to get to the heart of the increasingly complicated relationship with technology in wartime.

With a February 15 deadline and an eight-page limit, the Mad Scientist contest expressly seeks “unorthodox” ideas and is generally considering future capabilities in future warfare as well as how science and technology impacts warfare during the two decade period between 2030 to 2050.

Read more about the Mad Scientist science fiction contest and the Army’s specific areas of interest.