The Most Prominent World War III Books

So what World War III novels have had the most effect on me? Let me see…

Red Storm Rising

Yes, this starts with Tom Clancy and Larry Bond’s epic. I shouldn’t have to explain it. However, there’s stuff I’ve noticed that I might as well share about it. It may be the most prominent book, but it really hasn’t made that many copycats. Hackett is the greater “template” in terms of the war’s conduct. RSR has the war stay conventional from start to finish, and most others have plotnukes of some kind. RSR has an invasion of Iceland that not a lot of other ones have. It’s a little strange that the more dry Hackett has had the most influence on future narratives while the more conventional book of RSR has had more on future wargames, but that’s how it went.

The Red Line

This has significance I totally missed when I first read it. I could understand that creating a weird backstory to have an 198X war in the “present” was there to make it more marketable. Yet it was only after seeing that alternate history WWIIIs have very few works and none by big names that I saw it was arguably necessary. This is why broad perspective is important!

Team Yankee

This I think put the first nail in the “litmus test” coffin. See, my pet peeves were “it has to be bad if it has lots of technical descriptions and lots of viewpoint characters.” Team Yankee had those. And it wasn’t bad at all. Which makes sense in hindsight because it’s still ultimately a star-spangled cheap thriller and cheap thrillers rely near-completely on execution.

Red Army

Oh, it’s just the best World War III novel of all time, in my opinion.

“Effect” series

By reading Harvey Black’s novels so soon after Red Storm Rising, they played a big role in convincing me that the conventional World War III field was bigger than it actually was. I guess it’s like watching two baseball games with knuckleball pitchers back to back, and not seeing any more games for a while after that.

Survivalist: Total War

See, Jerry Ahern’s massive opus technically counts as a World War III novel. And when I read it, I saw something so totally different, a ridiculous and amazing “Western Fist of the North Star”. This book basically made Fuldapocalypse what is now.

Kirov Series

What I found the most likeable about these books was that they worked (to me) while having everything I thought I’d dislike about everything. The pure audacity of the series, and how it uses wargaming sandboxes in a style I’m familiar with makes up for well, a lot of stuff. Even the most mundane and legitimately worst arc in the series is still the result of time travel shenanigans.

The Yearly Blog Year In Review Post

So 2020 happened. The worth of this blog in getting me through a lot of stress this year cannot be overstated. It’s been an amazing experience. What’s also been an amazing experience is seeing just how me becoming more broad-minded about fiction has manifested. What might have been exactly the sort of thing I would dismiss with a firebreathing sneer. Now I read and enjoyed it. I’ve been reading and reviewing far more alternate history than I had in the past as well.

I also feel comfortable with how I stopped the Creative Corner. That blog was becoming nothing but filler posts for the sake of a perceived obligation, and I found that once I made the conclusion post, it just felt right to concentrate entirely here.

There’s two book series I read this year that really stand out. The first is John Gilstrap’s Jonathan Grave series, which happened at the right time. I was having what I call the “D-Day Effect” where something big and covered you’ve previously dismissed becomes novel simply because you haven’t experienced it. This has happened to me and “grocery store books”, and this series was proof that some mainstream successes are deserved.

Of course, the second and much bigger series is Kirov. This is weird. Not just in its “three mediocre Final Countdown/Axis of Time knockoffs turning into a combination of wargame lets play and time travel soap opera” content, but in how I enjoy it without necessarily recommending it for others to read. But I enjoy it nonetheless, and love how I took so much to a series with a ton of jumping Steel Panthers Characters, wargaming lets plays, and World War IIIs (plural). Knowing that I embraced a series that, before the beginning of this blog, I would have done nothing but sneer at has warmed my heart.

However, there’s also been a bittersweet side to this blog, and that’s in seeing a lot the distant vistas close. Seeing the conventional World War III subgenre at its limits and piecing together what happened to the “Men’s Adventure” fiction that seemingly disappeared after 1990 can be fun, but it can also evoke a feeling of “that’s it”? Then there’s also seeing that some pieces of fiction are just easier and more interesting to actually review than others, even if they’re both equally fun to read. If the blog goes in the direction of those, so be it, but I feel obligated to bring that up. While I obviously haven’t completely dropped them, a “51%” thriller just isn’t as good to review or analyze as an ambitious, conceptually interesting work.

This brings me to the announcement. My answer to “what do you do if you’ve seen all there is of conventional World War III?” is “Write your own take on it.” So I’ve started writing my own supernatural/weird-tinged conventional 1980s World War III novel.

This concludes my 2020 posts on Fuldapocalypse.

Me and NaNoWriMo

I like the concept of NaNoWriMo. It’s just a shame that it happens at the worst possible month for me.

  • I have seasonal affective disorder, or at least what feels like it. So this time of year, regardless of what else happens, is extra-stressful for me. This is a problem because…
  • The hard truth is that I’ve found writing actual books to be (understandably) stressful, even if ultimately rewarding, while writing reviews is stress-relieving and fun. This is made worse by how I’ve found it very, very hard to read for pleasure while I’m in the middle of writing a book.
  • So doing something in November is the worst for me.
  • However, I have written at a similar pace to NaNoWriMo before. My two Sea Lion Press thrillers are only slightly-to-somewhat shorter (The Smithtown Unit is 45,000 words and Box Press 41,000), and they took a little less than a month to write. I probably could have gone over the word limit in the time limit if I pushed a little more. But there’s the issue in that I don’t want to make what should be a fun hobby too forceful.
  • Finally, I should note that I do get motivated to write when I find, for whatever reason, I’m not reading as much anyway, taking away the biggest disadvantage. This was the case when I made Box Press. I was in a reading slump so I figured-hey, why not write? And I did.

Tank Fiction

The comparative lack of “tank fiction”, especially non-historical tank fiction, compared to other types of thrillers isn’t really that surprising to me, but it is a little bit disappointing. I can see why that’s the case, because tanks have less (literal and figurative) flexibility than dismounted people, and because they can appear in books without being the absolute center of everything.

Still, when it does appear, I tend to like tank fiction. Tin Soldiers, a tank novel extraordinaire, is arguably my favorite post-1991 technothriller. Although this raises the question of how prominent a tank or other AFV needs to be in a book for it to be considered true “tank fiction”, especially once one gets past the easy cases.

The Lack of Mainstream AH WW3

So, a look at alternate history conventional World War III novels revealed a very small number of them. Even smaller is the number of novels that were alternate history, took place after 1980, and made by larger/mainstream presses. Granted, like in that previous post, I used only the most unambiguous examples. But even I was a little surprised by the number I ended up with.

Zero.

I found two games that fit the criteria. These were World in Conflict and Eugen’s Wargame series. But those are games, and I think they’re a different paradigm. If I wanted to stretch things, I’d go with the Command and Conquer: Red Alert games. Those are kind of like including the Wingman novels in with Hackett and Bond, but they’re alternate World War IIIs.

Yet I’ve seen no actual novels, and if they existed, they’d probably be well below any “too obscure to really ‘matter'” standard. Everything has been either futuristic or contemporary. What I find very telling is the case of Walt Gragg’s The Red Line. That was crudely transformed into a “contemporary” setting instead of being sold as alternate history.

And the big-name AH authors have stayed away. Harry Turtledove has made a series about a 1950s World War III but not a 1980s Fuldapocalypse. The closest Robert Conroy came to one was a book (and one with nukes involved) set in 1963. Of all the topics that other authors choose when they dip into alternate history from time to time, the “conventional WW3” simply isn’t one of them.

Now, there are several reasons I’ve theorized for this. Perhaps the biggest is that it’s a small genre to start with, and there’s little incentive to not go for either a conflict that actually happened or a contemporary one, both of which have more mass appeal. There’s far more of a hook and comfort (as weird as it is to say) with a realistic nuclear conflict. The second-biggest is that much mainstream AH is generally meant to be metaphorical, to represent some contemporary issue through the lens of a different past. To be frank, the prevailing style of most conventional World War III fiction is not the ideal medium to express these. About the best you can get is something directly related to the military in some way.

So this makes printed alternate history World War III something that’s the domain of enthusiasts, for better or worse. While I already knew that to be true in general terms, I didn’t know the extent until I counted it. And the reverse is also true-Tom Clancy, Larry Bond, and Harold Coyle quite understandably did not write tales of a Cold War gone hot a decade or two earlier.

The “Shoot The ___” Genre

Along with “Spacesuit Commando”, one of my derogatory terms I use is “shoot the terrorist”, and its 70s counterpart, “shoot the mobster”. Now, like with “spacesuit commando”, I’ll admit it’s a nebulous term that I use when I feel like it. And there are plenty of books with a formulaic setup but good execution.

That being said, If I had to make a checklist of the usual elements of a book I consider “shoot the ____”…

  • The book doesn’t have the best execution (no pun intended).
  • The book has a trendy enemy (terrorists! mobsters!) as its antagonist, and one not done particularly well.
  • The MacGuffin is something dull and mundane like a nuclear bomb and/or poison gas-if that.
  • The book is too out-there to be truly realistic but too sedate to be truly out-there, in prose and action.
  • The book just doesn’t feel lively.

The Case For Flawed Ambition

Of all the literary attitudes I’ve had that have changed since I started blogging, I think none is bigger or more important than how I’ve approached ambition. In the past, I’d had this attitude that if the execution was subpar, the ambition wasn’t worth the effort. It was better to aim for something attainable, so the thinking went.

Now, well, I’ve found myself enjoying works of fiction more when they aim/aimed to be highly ambitious, even when their execution is obviously flawed. Part of this is me now knowing how many “51%” books there are, knowing there’s no shortage of competent but middling fiction. From that perspective, something distinct, or even trying to be distinct, can stand out more. If nothing else, it’s a lot more fun and/or interesting to review. Repeatedly saying “this is formulaic but competent”, even if true, isn’t the most fun.

Another part is that it just felt better to write such out-there stuff when I wrote the two Smithtown books. Previously, I’d wondered why authors who had a good amount of creative control sometimes tended to go more out-there into “Arkansas vs. The Blimps” territory as their series’ progressed. Now, I need not wonder.

The Nature Of It All

This is the 300th post on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s fitting that it comes now, because well, I’m in what feels like a blog midlife crisis. I don’t want to overstate this, because the diversification of the blog, which I’ve talked about many times, means there’s no problem with supplying actual content. But there’s still a strange feeling in me.

See, there’s an increasing feeling in me that the well is running dry. I’ve said many, many times that there’s a lot fewer World War III books than I thought. And that’s only a little less true for “big war thrillers” in general. It’s a little weird knowing your views were distorted by a combination of one field where those tropes were common (wargaming) and an internet trend that, in hindsight, was no more significant or influential than a long-ago boomlet on Spacebattles of who-would-win matches involving lions (yes, this actually happened).

And yet, for the fiction of that type that actually exists, my initial wariness still often holds true. It’s still often a cross between conference rooms and paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters. Sturgeon’s Law still applies, and in any exposition-heavy format, I consider the “floor” to be lower than in a lowbrow action thriller. So I’m in the strange position of, regarding the supposed subject matter of this very blog, either having already read or having little desire to read a lot of the of “Icelandic” books I set it up to review. Not all-I still have some I want to read, and genres should never be discounted altogether. But a lot.

And what else that’s come to me is the sense that this kind of “big-war thriller” is just harder to write well than a conventional cheap thriller (I’m not saying it’s impossible, only harder). I’ve felt this way about alternate history, and think it’s also true here. You have to balance a good and reasonably accurate picture of the conflict/divergent setting with a good story and characters, and sometimes those are at cross purposes. It’s why, with my annoyance at there seemingly being too many “conventional WWIII” stories having long-subsided, I feel that there aren’t enough, and that there especially isn’t enough cross-pollination (which is understandable, but that’s a subject for another post).

So what I’ve been experiencing is something very much like the bittersweet feeling someone gets when they finally finish a long series that they enjoyed. I felt this way with the Survivalist. I felt this way with Blaine McCracken. I felt this way with video games and movies and TV shows that I liked. In all those cases I found later replacements (for the Survivalist, it’s responsible for getting me into an entire genre) but the feeling still remains.

And so it feels this way for here. I’ve reviewed, judging by tags and discounting essay posts, about 28 “World War III” books. They range from good to bad, from rote to pulpy to clunky to outright bizarre. I’ve experienced a huge range. In many ways I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. And while that sort of thing can bring about justifiable pride, it can also bring about a sense of understandable emptiness.

My feeling isn’t “what do I do now?”, since the answer (read and write about either other types of fiction or history/theory in general) is what I’ve been doing. Rather, it’s a simpler “So, that’s it? That’s all there was?”

An Old Story Draft Of Mine

So, a long time ago I had this idea in my mind. Now, granted, I didn’t know how to proceed from there, but it was this idea I had in my mind. Maybe it could still work as a very short story by itself.

I’ve talked before about “Steel Panthers Characterization”, derived from this:

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Basically, in Steel Panthers, a unit has a nationally appropriate name and rank applied to it. Being otherwise interchangeable, this means nothing else in terms of characterization.

I came up with the term “Steel Panthers Characterization” to describe situations when characters were not just underdeveloped, but seemed to exist solely to put a certain piece of military equipment into action.

Fortunately, just as there were many, many fewer “Big-War Thrillers” than I’d thought, there are equally as few Steel Panthers Characters. Yet as a formative experience, this introduction stuck in my mind.

Basically, there would be a pilot in a two-seat, side-by-side aircraft, like an A-6 (as in the illustration) or an F-111 or an Su-24. It would dive in, release its weapons, and fly away on a routine mission.

Suddenly, the pilot would realize something wasn’t right. He looks at the other crewman, clad in his flight suit. Lifting up the visor, the pilot sees absolutely nothing underneath it. Same thing with the gloves and sleeves. Unnerved, the pilot simply ejects. His fate would be left ambiguous in a short story, but in a longer one he would become one of the characters.

What’s soured me on the concept is that I’ve felt it’s not only too harsh a critique, but also too inaccurate of one, given how few works really sink to that level. And the ones that do either make up for it in some way or are just unfairly easy targets. But still, the draft of the pilot’s story is something I feel I should share.