Nuclear World War IIIs

So I figured: How true was my stereotype of “conventional” WW3s? I decided to take a look and see. For this exercise, “yes” means a full nuclear exchange, “partial” something like say, Hackett’s infamous plotnuke, and “no” means the war stays completely conventional. This is an incomplete, unscientific list, but still.

  • Hackett-PARTIAL
  • Red Storm Rising-NO
  • Team Yankee-PARTIAL
  • Red Army-NO
  • Chieftains-YES
  • Black’s “Effect”-PARTIAL
  • Kirov-YES
  • Arc Light-YES
  • Red Hammer 94-YES
  • Bear’s Claws-PARTIAL
  • Cauldron-PARTIAL
  • War That Never Was-NO
  • Ronsone/Watson’s Red Storm-PARTIAL
  • Zone-PARTIAL
  • Weekend Warriors-NO
  • The Red Line-PARTIAL
  • Andy Farman’s Armageddon’s Song-PARTIAL
  • Wingman-YES

Besides the possibility of me remembering wrong, the line between “Partial” and “Yes” is sometimes blurry-for instance, I had a hard time deciding whether or not to include Arc Light as “Partial” or “Yes.” And in Team Yankee, which follow’s Hackett’s plot, the nukes are offscreen. Still, it was a little surprising how few outright “no’s” there were and how many “Partials”. It’s just the biggest “no” was Red Storm Rising.

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.


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 Worst Book?

While looking for bad books, I came to this post in the Imaginary Museum blog by Dr. Jack Ross. An excellent piece of writing (even if I didn’t know who frequently mentioned David Lodge was), this paragraph in particular rang extremely true for me:

“Ever since I started writing novels myself, I guess I’ve been a bit more chary of parlour games such as this. There is, however, no accounting for tastes, and it can come as a shock that something you mildly enjoyed yourself can be right up there on someone else’s hitlist. A lukewarm response is the worst fate any book can receive, in any case, so I don’t think being on a list of world’s worst novels is likely to do lasting harm to any of the books (or authors) mentioned above.”

Being a writer and knowing the effort it requires dampening a lot of the previous snark? Check. (I’ll put it this way-I don’t think being a critic has helped me with being a better writer, but I think being a writer has helped me with being a better critic). Tastes differ? Check. (I learned of Jon Land from a massively negative review of one of his books). A mediocre reaction is the worst? Often very true, especially for reviewing as opposed to simply reading.

Onto the main subject, Ross sets out very good criteria for “worst book”, something I’ve used very cavalierly in the past (to my dismay now).

You can’t pick a novel you didn’t manage to finish

You can’t pick a novel by an author you entirely despise

There’s no point in selecting something completely obscure

Since I’ve had a tendency (although it’s waned somewhat now-I’m dropping books I find dull at rates I haven’t in the past) to finish books, the first isn’t an issue. The “obscure” part is, however. I don’t want to get dragged into a fandom war or pick a too-easy target, so I’ll go with “did it appear in mainstream bookstores.” While William W. Johnstone had that honor, the second rule strikes him out.

Thankfully, I’ve long had an answer. Not surprisingly, it is…

Ready for it…

Executive Orders by Tom Clancy. It’s one of the most successful authors ever, so I feel no guilt about slamming it. It’s an exceedingly bad book that almost certainly could never have been published by a first author. And while I’ve been critical of Clancy’s entire catalog, his earlier books were significantly better. It all “clicks” into being my choice of the worst.

(And yes, I’ve heard The Bear And The Dragon is even worse, but I haven’t read that and have no desire to-remember the rules)

If I had to give a second choice, it would probably be Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight. That’s another literary big name, I finished it, and it comes across as significantly worse than his later novels after reading them. Those at least can do the “gilded cheap thriller soap opera” better and have lots of out-there set pieces. All Midnight has is just romance novel stereotypes (that I could instantly tell despite barely knowing the genre) stumbling around for the entire book.

The Distant Vistas

J. R. R. Tolkien’s quote about “distant vistas” is something I’ve thought about. The quote itself is this:

“Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.”

Because Tolkien was nothing if not detailed with his worldbuilding, this quote seemed a little surprising to me. But I can understand it, and definitely sympathize with it. See, when you provide a small glimpse, the world often looks big, mysterious, and wondrous. Give a big detailed view and it ends up looking small and mundane. This is why I tend to dislike excessive “lore”, author statements intended to be definitive, and attempts to explain backstories too much. Not always, but a lot of the time.

Weird Wargaming: Independent Scotland

The subject of what military an independent Scotland might have has gathered a lot of attention. One of the most serious and definitive reports on the matter comes from the respected Royal United Services Institute, a piece entitled “A’ the Blue Bonnets.

The RUSI piece in short depicts a small and light land force not too dissimilar from Ireland’s, unsurprising in light of their similar geography. However it does assume a more capable air/naval element. The report shows a comparably strong navy and an air force with hand-me-down BAE Hawks as its fixed-wing fighters.

Assuming no political issues, something like the KAI Golden Eagle might also work as a basic air defense fighter, an heir to the F-5 of the past. That’s the only real quibble I have with the report, which is otherwise well worth a read.

As for the possible opponents of this Scottish military, far and away the most realistic is, like Ireland, whoever they’d face on foreign peacekeeping operations. For more out-there ones, you have Russia (especially at sea), and if you want to be really out there, you could do a “Kobayashi Maru” situation where the Scots have to inflict as much damage on the invading English/British invaders as possible.

And of course, this assumes a commitment to plausibility-if you strip-mined Scotland’s entire military age population and had an outsider equip and train it, then you could end up with something completely gigantic. But the “Ireland on land and another North Sea state on sea and air” option is the most logical.

The Confrontation

See, I’ve always envisioned an out-of-the-norm final confrontation in a hypothetical video game as being in this large vacation home in a beautiful mountain town (kind of inspired by the Adirondacks). The town would otherwise be peaceful. A sort of melancholy but beautiful music would play in the town.

There’d be no enemies except for the principal antagonist, and I’d imagine the confrontation mostly taking place through dialogue. Maybe that’s be appropriate to the genre and maybe it wouldn’t, but it’s sort of how I’d want my dream video game to conclude.

The Hall of Fame And The Hall of Herb

One of the most amusing things that I look at in sports history is to see how many Cooperstown plaque-holders can match the title record of Herb Washington-one. A little background is in order.

Herb Washington was a track athlete who was hired by the Oakland A’s as a “designated runner”. His lack of baseball knowledge meant that in practice, despite his speed, he couldn’t steal bases effectively. The trend of pinch-running specialists continued throughout the 1970s (in 1976, the A’s had two, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander), but those were actual baseball players who could run fast. Washington, on an excellent three-peating A’s team, appeared in the 1974 World Series-and promptly got picked off at first. But he still got a title that many Hall of Famers didn’t have.

Just in the inaugural 1936 class, only one inductee (Babe Ruth) exceeds Herb Washington in championships (with seven). Then you have Ty Cobb (zero), and Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson, all with one, “equaling” Herb Washington.