One thing I’ve noticed in the admittedly small number of conventional/mostly conventional World War III stories is that the decisive make-or-break battle is fought in the vicinity of Hanover, West Germany. And I have to ponder how much of it is realistic, how much of it is a coincidence (since there’s only so much room and it is in the northern sector) and how much of it is literary license.
As readers of this blog undoubtedly know, I’ve dipped pretty deep into the small field known as [mostly] conventional World War III fiction. So when I saw an actual new release of one, Evan Currie’s Holy Ground, I felt obligated to check it out. The book is a prequel to an extensive science fiction series, and it shows. It centers around the defense of the island of Iwo Jima, on land, sea, and air.
Honestly, the setting image that came to my mind was “Command and Conquer Generals”. Not in the exact form or in it being an exact ripoff of that game-it definitely is not. But in the general (no pun intended) sense of a combination of sci-fi technology and stuff that’s visible in the obvious headlines/popular culture. Despite nominally taking place several decades in the future, there’s a lot of contemporary fighter aircraft designations. There’s also a lot of “cinematic” stuff, like missile-age aircraft using guns far more often than they realistically should.
Because of these limitations, it doesn’t succeed in being a technothriller. At the same time it’s too comparably grounded to be a Wingman-style pulpy thriller. And even judged purely on its own terms, the action isn’t the best. I want to emphasize it’s not the worst either, but I’ve definitely read better. For me it was a little fascinating to see what a technothriller in the style of a popular science fiction book looked like, but that can’t raise the novel above average on its own.
I’ve talked sometimes about the “you’ve seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect with regards to fiction. When reading this translated, declassified 1969 Soviet lecture on conventional operations after the monomanical focus on nuclear weapons earlier that decade, I’ve found it applied to history as well. Because a lot of it just seems like later pieces on how a large force would fight conventionally. And there’s more interesting things to it as well.
- “A future world war is first and foremost a nuclear war.” Similar pieces illustrate that while the Soviets had made plans under the assumption that a World War III would start conventionally, they did not believe that it would end conventionally.
- This is for front and army level operations, with one frequently replacing the other. This I’ve seen a lot of in translated Soviet field regulations, to include two unit names being used interchangeably, one an echelon below the other. The assumption I’ve always had is that it’s a concession to heavy casualties because your “front” will quickly be worn down to the size of a paper-strength army, your army worn to a paper-strength division, and so on. I could be wrong.
- The stated rate of advance is 35-40 kilometers a day, a slightly lower one than their later 40-60.
- Airborne forces are to be used.
- The “going over to nuclear weapons” section specifically brings up the opponent pushing the button as soon as they start losing badly.
- With typical Soviet precision, the article estimates “A fighter bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two to three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20 percent losses) on one to two enemy brigades.”
- As always, there’s the boilerplate necessary propaganda statements and the obligatory (if quite understandable) reference to World War II.
Pale Horse 3
Russell Greer’s Pale Horse 3 is the story of a B-52 in a 1980s World War III-published in 2020. So it’s another entry in the “alternate history World War III after Vietnam” genre which, as I’ve said many times, thought was too big but ended up being too small. Except this is in an even smaller field because it has nuclear weapons involved. But wait, unlike the apocalyptic For Alert Force, this falls back into limited plotnukes.
That quibble as to what tinier chuck of a tiny segment of fiction it falls into aside, how is the actual book?
The answer, I’m sad to say, is “not the best”. Given that this is only the author’s second novel, I’m not holding it against him, but the prose is still very clunky, the plot is kind of jumbled and a little slow with the backstory, and even the action gets a little too Herman Melville-y. Dale Brown at his finest this is not.
Besides the review of the book itself, this has a very bittersweet “closing the frontier” feeling for me. It’s one thing to know the “AHWW3AV” (how’s that for an acronym?) genre inside and outside, but quite another to literally read the literal last one on the current list. One reason I actually like having backlogs of books is because of the empty feeling when they’re finished, even if in a satisfying way.
Once the magic of figuring out the genre is gone, you’re left with a field that, like any other, has good, bad, and in this case middling entries. Conventional (or mostly conventional) World War III felt like something to explore. Something to help me mature when I saw how little it actually resembled the “Icelandic” picture I had in mind before. Something to start a whole blog about. Now it’s just another tag in this blog, and I’m really not sure how I feel about that.
World War 1990: Battle of The Three Seas
It’s time to return to William Stroock, an author who I’ve previously slammed as the worst World War III writer ever. Has this been fair? And has his new Battle of the Three Seas improved on his previous entries?
For the first question, it’s a weird answer. It’s like talking about the New York Knicks or Jets. They’re still pro-level teams, and even a “bad” pro player is still among the greatest in the world. Being the 32nd-best team in the world is still an accomplishment. Similiarly, to write a long novel at all in a niche genre is a talent many don’t have, and Stroock has still gotten more basics right in the field than non-specialized authors have. (Research on military equipment, especially above small arms, is something frequently in very, very short supply). So yes, it has been unfair to simply denounce in fire-breathing terms.
Yet it’s still fair to consider the Knicks and Jets not the 32nd-best teams in the world, but the worst compared to their colleagues. They’re still bad by those (incredibly high) standards. And they’re not going against college/international teams-you judge them by who they’re up against. So, with a heavier heart, I still have to say that Stroock is one of the worse World War III specialist writers, and while this book has improved somewhat compared to the earlier ones, it’s not enough to shift the rankings that much.
The book is less one-sided in absolute terms than some of his previous books. It’s undeniably improved in prose quality. But it still has a jumbled structure with way too many viewpoint changes for its own good and writing that’s still too flat to really work. There are still bizarre subplots that don’t really add anything.
It’s ultimately just still too hard to find something in this book, or Stroock’s series as a whole, that does what another “conventional World War III” book doesn’t do better, be it characterization, tone, or technical plausibility. It might be better than a historical “sports nadir” team. But it’s still, in a now-obsolete baseball term, very much a “second-division” series.
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!
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.
Oh, it’s just the best World War III novel of all time, in my opinion.
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.
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.
Dance of the Vampires
The ebook Dance of the Vampires is a behind-the-scenes look at the wargaming Larry Bond used for what would become Red Storm Rising. It’s fascinating to see how this battle was conducted. For someone who’s worked on Command, seeing this comparably ancient system is like looking at one of Naismith’s original basketball games.
Most of the book is composed of after action reports and figures detailing the games. Besides the ones that play out similarly to the actual book, there’s a short summary of the “Keflavik Turkey Shoot”, a scenario where the Soviets attempted to force the GIUK Gap with heavy bombers and got crushed (despite legitimately clever play on their side). This was what required them to take Iceland in Red Storm Rising proper. The smaller-than-I-thought presence of that country in World War III fiction started here.
This is in many ways a book about struggles, because they were on unfamiliar ground, and not just about rivet-counting specifics. When something like this hadn’t been done in this way before, there’s bound to be issues. And there were. But the results were still impressive, and so is this chronicle of the wargames. For those interested in this kind of history, I can recommend this book.
This could only have been produced in a very short time period, after the Berlin Wall and end of the Warsaw Pact but before the actual breakup of the USSR. Because of this, this RAND report looks interesting, especially in its “long-term” ramifications.
Having an intact, hostile USSR but no Warsaw Pact means that to threaten Germany, it has to move through Poland first, can only put two fronts against Germany directly due to Poland not being that wide (the third has to either be a reserve/second echelon or swing through the Czech Republic), and puts the initial front line considerably farther to the east, with the Oder river being the first big obstacle. It’s an interesting piece.
In 1986’s Starmageddon, Richard Rohmer struck again. By this time, The Hunt For Red October had been out for some time and Red Storm Rising was soon to come. One of my comments about Tom Clancy has been that his success and popularity was more due to being able to tap the trends of the time than any directly superlative writing skill. Well, for Rohmer, that kind of trend-chasing, mixed with inertia, was the sole reason for him being as successful as he was.
I’m reluctant to call anything the “worst ever”. But in terms of the worst World War III book written, Starmageddon is at least up there. Especially in the category of “worst World War III book by a big name author/publisher”. So what is this book?
Basically, take the hot-button issues and events of the day, in this case the KAL007 shootdown, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and trade concerns with Japan and South Korea. It’s okay to wonder what the third has to do with the first two, and that’s because it’s part there to set up the “plot” (which in turn cycles back to just reasons for showing those topics) and more there for just padding.
Shove them into a barely fictionalized form. In Starmageddon’s case, toss it into a lame, low-effort “future” where everything besides one superweapon is still at present-day technology levels. Add in what feels like the outline for a military/technothriller, and tell it completely in the form of conference rooms and scenes so flat they might as well be in conference rooms. Jumble them into an only slightly coherent plot. End on a “cliffhanger”.
This is nothing new for Rohmer, although he has regressed at least a little from the very small “height” of Periscope Red. Combining his writing “quality” with a World War III subject matter (no matter how halfhearted) automatically makes this book one of the worst ever in the small subgenre. This is especially so given the context. By this time, other authors were doing similar themes with far more skill, leaving Rohmer well behind.
New Deal Coalition Retained
I’ve finally felt it’s time for this blog to come full circle and return to internet alternate history. Now knowing so much more about the depth and context, I feel comfortable returning at last to a topic I’ve mostly avoided since starting this blog. This has not been a light decision.
Most TLs on alternatehistory.com I’ve avoided-in hindsight, most that aren’t eventually commercialized in some fashion are shallow pieces of de facto fanfiction. I’ve found that, once one moves past the board drama, there isn’t really much to say. But for this one, I found a lot. Especially as it has a standout (in a bad way) Third World War.
New Deal Coalition Retained is one of the most infamous TLs, and it includes a conventional World War III in its second arc. Now for the others I read, I maintain by the Iceland post that they “weren’t particularly good, bad, or representative” any more than, say, Command and Conquer fanfiction. The WW3 in NDCR is bad, and it is representative, but not of conventional WW3s. In fact, its massive distinctiveness from other World War IIIs is because it’s representative of a trend in internet alternate history, what I call “trinketization”. And it seems to perfectly and eerily show that at its absolute worse.
I got this name from an Alexander Wallace post on Sea Lion Press. The entire article is very much worth reading, but here’s the most relevant part.
A mistake many newcomers make (and this is a nation encouraged by many online historical discussion fora, not just alternate historical spaces) is assuming that history is simply the aggregation of bits of trivia, whose own complex interrelationships are neglected. This reduces the study of history to a collection of trinkets rather than the system of the world that many academics spend entire lives studying but a tiny portion.
In some ways, this trinketization was inevitable. The fandom was going to grow larger and more “diluted”, and the internet made it far easier to find broad surface facts than deep knowledge. Audience attitudes shifted from nitpicking to fanfic consumption, with updating frequently and playing to the crowd taking precedence over all else.
I’ve softened somewhat on severe rivet counting because of its comparative infrequency, but also because it’s still preferable to trinketization. At least rivet-counting means substantial research has been done in at least one area.
Trinketization in practice means that it feels like just a collection of names, numbers, and events tossed out, with divergences being for their own sake and no attempt to work them into a bigger whole. Often the names are of semi-obscure figures who feel like they were just yanked out of Wikipedia or somewhere similar. AH works consisting purely of maps are often vulnerable to this, because they represent just one object. But those are nothing compare to the grand emblem of trinketization: The wikibox. Wikiboxes remove the need to add any sort of context or detail to the event. Simply put, they merely list the event itself. Imagine a sports story reduced to just the game score.
NDCR’s first act is essentially impossible to summarize beyond “Sherman Adams dies in 1957 and then a ton of weird stuff happens.” There are election wikiboxes, war wikiboxes, and stock photos interspersed with long blocks of exposition that are too big to be concise but too dull to be engaging, especially when one realizes the lack of research. Events simply happen.
One of the first things that jumped at me was Pakistan not only winning decisively against India (very, very unlikely), but annexing the Hindu nationalist stronghold of Gujarat. The alarms this set up (especially since looking up the relevant demographics is not truly difficult) were an indication of how everything else was going to go. Most relevant for the WW3 to come, there’s a bizarre and nonsensical situation where the Prague Spring ends up breaking Czechoslovakia into western-aligned Czech and eastern-aligned Slovak states.
This goes on and on. Imperial Germany and Japan somehow get restored. One of Richard Nixon’s daughters ends up marrying into the British royal family, earning the timeline the nickname “Queen Nixon” among detractors. Cuba stops being communist while Brazil starts. It’s a giant jumble.
And then comes the most legitimately creepy part, which is that almost every postwar neo-fascist figure ends up “redeemed” in some way, with the biggest example being German Gerhard Frey. What makes this stand out is that looking around for these figures seems to be the only legitimate, serious research done in the TL. Frey creates one of those “Notzi” ideologies where it comes across as “We support a state with that triumph-of-the-will stuff, but it’s for GOOD and not EVIL”. For all the alarm bells it trips up, I want to downplay this part for the review. However, it exists and needs to be mentioned.
This jumble of trinkets clunks along until the World War III comes along to lend it some tiny attempt at cohesiveness. And here is where it gets interesting. It feels cargo-culted. It has the very basic and shallow box-checks of Hackett/Clancy/Bond knockoffs. It has a conventional WW3 happening at all, it has an invasion of Iceland, and it has a plotnuke conclusion. But when examined in any sort of detail, the World War III doesn’t feel like them in any way.
If it was shallowly copying techothrillers, the war would be over quick and involve NATO airpower and smart weapons crushing the Soviets. It isn’t that. If it was shallowly copying primary sources, it would probably resemble a knockoff The War That Never Was. It isn’t that. In fact, with its jumbled beginnings and strange numbers/conduct, this comes across as the complete antithesis of those kinds of works.
The OOB-person in me noticed the wikibox for the initial offensive listed the Warsaw Pact as having only 1,028 tanks for a force of 222,361 men (look at those exact numbers) carrying out a high-priority operation at the beginning of the war, the initial attack in the Prague area. This amounts to only around 3 or so divisions worth for something involving three whole field armies, and it’s where the formations would be as close to paper strength as possible. Also, the operation takes 37 days, longer than some estimates of the whole war, even with nukes handwaved away. (If the Soviets could stay at their planned advance rates, they’d be in Madrid by that point). For a conventional narrative, I’d be totally willing to let it slide if the story was good, but for something that’s pure description, the description needs to be of a higher standard.
But that’s small potatoes compared to what happens next. The big push appears, with close to 4 million Soviet troops grinding forward across West Germany against around 3 million NATO ones over the course of several months. To the extent where there’s any constant inspiration at all, it feels inspired by World War II. Everyone has totally mobilized drafted armies with huge numbers. Heavy bombers just level-bomb cities en masse like it’s 1943. A part of me thinks this theme might be taken at least in part from Anglo-American Nazi War, a timeline on the same site (published and reviewed as Festung Europa), which is another rote tale of giant armies and giant casualties struggling across the continent for years as seemingly horrific events are flatly described. At least it feels closer to that than pretty much any actually published World War III story.
The Soviets reach the east side of the Rhine, and the button is not pushed. They cross the Rhine, and the button is not pushed. They move some distance into France and the button is not pushed by either NATO or the French themselves. In that and every other theater there are stock photos, battles, and yes, wikiboxes. On every continent. The troop numbers are consistently too big by postwar standards, and when mentioned, the tank numbers are consistently too small-especially since they often depict situations where the explanation of realistic attrition isn’t usable.
The East Germans eventually mutiny due to “pervasive pan-German sentiment” as part of the tide turning. I should note in real life, they were considered trustworthy enough to be plugged right into GSFG-but of course, this is after thirty years of scrambling. The tide turns in more wikibox battles, with NATO eventually counter-invading the USSR itself, including an Arab-Israeli alliance pushing into the Caucasus. NATO crosses the border and the button is not pushed. Baku and Leningrad are overrun and the button is not pushed. Eventually, with Moscow on the brink, the Soviet leader orders the launch-and it’s portrayed as insane with a scramble to stop. One missile makes it aloft but a Star Wars satellite shoots it down. The end. Somehow this lasted for two and a half years of high-intensity fighting and had over forty million military deaths alone distributed evenly among the two sides.
I hope the feeling of this timeline can be determined from the review/summary here. If it sounds jumbled, it’s because it is. If it sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, it’s because it doesn’t.
There’s a postwar part which returns to the trinketization along with other creepy element common to it and some other trinketized online AH with fairly recent divergences. This is real living people turned into vastly different ones, with one of NDCR’s most prominent and bizarre examples being real actress Mariska Hargitay turned into a Freyist political figure. But little about that can be said beyond what’s been said about the first two parts.
It’s very rare that a work of fiction manages to somehow include all the negative elements of its genre in a way that highlights every single one of them. But New Deal Coalition Retained is such a work. One can sometimes get a feel for the flaws of a genre by looking at something that prominently displays them. Such is the case for later Tom Clancy books and technothrillers, and it’s the case for this and internet alternate history. If those are Chronicles of the Conference Room, this is like a research paper without any research.