By Colin Salt
So with my strange love-hate relationship with World War III fiction and technothrillers in general, I should start this series by giving a brief, opinionated chronology of the genre with a few examples of books I considered to be noteworthy. I could talk about popular fiction in general throughout the decades (if not centuries), but for the sake of brevity, I’ll start in the 1980s when they really took off.
This is unsurprisingly the golden age of the technothriller, going from a few sprinkled “proto-examples” in the decades before a clear boom here. There’s a certain cultural context that gave it a big boost. The two biggest factors were a heating Cold War and the introduction of many new types of technology, both electronic and military. Although the book that kickstarted the World War III boom, Hackett’s The Third World War, was published in 1978, the genre really revved up in the 1980s.
Tom Clancy, Dale Brown, Larry Bond, Harold Coyle, Ralph Peters, Stephen Coonts, and many others graced the bestseller charts with their technothrillers. 1987’s Red Storm Rising serves alongside Hackett as one of the two largest “templates” for World War III-specific fiction. Bond’s 1989 Red Phoenix is, in my opinion, the most archetypical technothriller ever.
To a mainstream reader whose previous pop-culture military image was of flopping around in the Vietnamese jungle, these offered a look into mysterious new contraptions that promised to change the balance of power. M1 Abrams tanks! Cruise missiles! Apache helicopters! Stealth aircraft! Computers!
My two favorite books from this genre and period have to be the very different Red Army by Ralph Peters and Team Yankee by Harold Coyle. The first is one of the most highbrow World War III stories I’ve read, especially if the context is understood. It deliberately shies away from numbers and descriptions in favor of a human story and in a time of triumphalism provides a contrarian take on how NATO could lose. The second is still nothing but a star-spangled action book and the frequent criticism that the action is too sanitized and the antagonists too stereotypical is very reasonable. But it flows very well and manages to incorporate the potential good of a bigger-picture thriller without too much of the clunkiness.
Tom Clancy himself I have more mixed opinions on. To some extent this is a “seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect. But I think his earlier books, namely Red Storm Rising and The Hunt for Red October, were at least decent.
In 1989, technothrillers were on top the world. But what went up had to come down.
On one hand, this is the period where technothrillers were sputtering out. On the other, it’s my personal favorite because of the way they twisted and turned. At the beginning of 1991, the U.S. quickly turned the fourth largest army in the world into the second-largest army in Iraq and the sixth largest air force in the world into the second-largest air force in Iran. At the end of 1991, the Soviet Union finally split apart. The momentum of pop culture was turning against the genre. Adding to this problem was that all these gadgets and high-tech, after the Gulf War and digital revolution, were now familiar and routine. Abrams tanks, Tomahawk missiles, and smart bombs were now what everyone expected.
The genre, already down in terms of sales from its 1989 height, was faced with a sudden wave of ‘what now?’. There was a huge scramble to try and find different opponents. In some books it was existing opponents like Iraq and North Korea. In many cases, it was a devolved Russia or belligerent China. And, to my greatest delight, in some it was oddballs like western Europe (Cauldron) or drug lords with their private air forces (Alpha Kat). For the most part, it at least gave the genre some badly needed novelty, even if the plot structure often didn’t match the smaller-scale stories.
Tom Clancy, sadly, went from “decent” to “very, very bad” in this time period. He had to do the same scrambling, was clearly out of his comfort zone, and having stayed on top of the charts while the rest of the genre fell down made him increasingly editor-proof. Executive Orders is a bloated mess where a mass of tangled plotlines leads to an effortless, dull final victory. In some ways, it was a sign of things to come.
The 2000s were the nadir of the technothriller. While there were a few gems, particularly early on (2002’s Tin Soldiers by Michael Farmer remains one of my favorite tank novels), for the most part it was collapsing into an awkward mix.
The already over-the-hill mainstream technothriller was given a further downward push by 9/11 and the shift to a very different war. What was left was a small huddled mess of worn out and/or phoned in tales. Self-publishing was just starting to get going, but this was a very, very risky gamble. You were going to pay twice as much as you would for a normal paperback just to get something that 98% of the time, would have all the clichés and flaws of a mass-produced technothriller but worse grammar and formatting (I learned this the hard way more than once).
Besides the post-9/11 political and military situation, video games were also coming of age. Sam Fisher was doing for technothrillers what Claude Speed and Lara Croft were doing for traditional action-adventure. This was good for Tom Clancy but bad for the genre as a whole.
However, the downward slide did not continue forever.
In this decade, the technothriller finally took a few small steps forward. The revival of Russia and rise of China meant that pop culture was shifting slightly towards the kind of high-tech great power confrontation that fueled its last boom. A few more mainstream technothrillers returned, especially compared to the 2000s drought.
But the biggest one was the e-publishing boom, where a wave of independent self-published tales that could be written by and for a niche audience came forth. While many had the same issues as their 2000s brethren, they were at least cheap and bad as opposed to expensive and bad, and a few diamonds did emerge in the rough. One of my favorite independent thrillers of this time is Kevin Miller’s Raven One, which manages to dodge most of the issues while keeping a lot of the genre’s strengths.
This ability to reach more and more of an audience led to a solid link to alternate history as homages to the classic 198X World War III tales/wargaming scenarios emerged. Many technothrillers exist in a sort of grey area in terms of alternate history. While definitely an alternate world, most take place either an implied present or a very near future (which gives the writer a chance to slip in some theorized/under-development weapons). However, stories explicitly taking place in a different past like The Red Effect I previously reviewed here on SLP are unambiguous in being alternate history.
That’s a brief-ish history of the technothriller. As the series goes on, I’ll talk about the even narrower subgenre of “World War III fiction”, which in terms of its actual commercial heights and depths, followed the same general trend as other technothrillers.