By Colin Salt
The time has come to address one of the most central issues, and potentially the most central issue of World War III fiction. This is, of course, nuclear weapons. On one hand, few things define the Cold War more than the threat of nuclear annihilation. Take away that, and you take away history. On the other, for literary or wargaming purposes, many writers just want a megabattle between a NATO corps and a Soviet field army without nuclear weapons to get in the way.
Thus, it depends on the kind of story the writer wants to tell. A World War III staying conventional can be as acceptable, or at least understandable, as a sci-fi story with faster-than-light travel and aliens that look like humans in bad costumes. And it’s not a matter of sliding between realism and drama either. There are many science fiction settings that have “no aliens, no FTL, no _____” rules, even as they have other strange factors.
Breaking those ‘rules’ tends to produce a backlash, even though they’re not really much different from the background setting in terms of actual ‘plausibility’. Indiana Jones is full of supernatural devices, but the grey aliens and flying saucers of Kingdom of the Crystal Skull led to a backlash from many who thought it didn’t feel right (I’m one of them). Star Wars has all sorts of science fantasy devices and never intended to be ‘realistic’, but the story where a robot who was on screen for less than a minute in The Empire Strikes Back turns into a Skynet-style droid rebel plugged into the second Death Star had even a young teenage me going “No. This just is not right”.
And that’s just the most famous pop-culture examples. I could go deeper and bring up Battletech’s (faster than light travel and giant piloted robots) no-aliens ‘rule’ and the outrage when it was broken in the novel Far Country. I could bring up the ‘deeprealms’ in Fire Emblem Fates, a J-Fantasy game, both for being a shoved-in way to have children units return and for being the kind of thing more suited to the cosmic fantasy of say, Magic: The Gathering than what the series had ever experienced thus far.
I could even bring up the review that denounced a later Mack Bolan book for being too realistic. But back to nuclear weapons and World War III.
The so-called “Nuclear Triad” involves three main delivery systems: air-launched/dropped weapons, submarines, and land-based missiles. So perhaps it’s fitting that the spectrum of nuclear weapons in fiction can take the form of a triangle.
Conventional books that take the reality of deterrence, MAD, and the political issues of nuclear escalation into account and use them to avoid a Fuldapocalyptic World War III sit on one point of it. Works like Dale Brown’s later tales where nuclear weapons are used routinely and almost nonchalantly sit on another. Stories (or games) where nuclear weapons are handwaved aside completely sit at the third point.
In between sit what I call “plotnukes”.
Sometimes the point is very near the “total handwave” end, and the nukes are neutralized via some in-universe contrivance, usually an overly successful ‘counterforce’ strike. This plot device is used in both serious stories (Larry Bond’s Cauldron, where the French strategic arsenal is quickly taken out), and less-than-serious ones (Red Alert 2, where the missile silos are neutralized by mind-controlling their operators).
Sometimes, and in my opinion the best way, the conflict starts conventionally, but the final climax is about preventing nuclear escalation. This is both at least a slightly more plausible way of depicting escalation and a way for the writer to have their cake and eat it too. Like every other plot device in fiction, it can be done well or done badly.
And sometimes it’s handled in the way I think of when I think of plotnukes. Hackett’s Birmingham-Minsk “trade” is the starter that launched far too many copycats, although that was still handled somewhat better than a lot of the imitators. Basically, and this is obviously subjective on my part, plotnukes are when nuclear weapons are introduced and used only as a cheap gimmick. The most annoying instance is when a period of completely conventional warfare follows the limited use of atomic weapons, and not for any good reason (such as simply running out in the early Cold War). Rather, nukes are simply the “threat of the week”, to use a serial fiction analogy. Maybe the next threat of the week is just a tank division of modern T-80s.
Plotnukes also serve as an example of how the technothriller genre as a whole is not the most suited to long series. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done, but rather that it has to go uphill in ways that other types of stories don’t have to. The worlds of later Tom Clancy and Dale Brown are faced with super-threat after super-threat without any societal change to match. I don’t think it’s the biggest reason by far why the genre declined in the 1990s and imploded in the 2000s, but it certainly couldn’t have helped.
If I had to end with opinionated advice for aspiring writers, I’d say three things. The first is set your ground rules. Do you want a Red Storm Rising-style conventional World War III? Do you want a Twilight 2000/Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist-style post-nuclear war where enough survives to keep fighting? Do you want “Red Storm Rising, but with a few more nukes?” Be consistent.
The second is see how it feels. If the last option in the previous paragraph is chosen, I’d accept a few FROG or Lance style battlefield nuclear weapons being launched and hitting an enemy formation in a mostly uninhabited field much more easily than I would a “city trade” with a handful of strategic missiles.
And finally, remember that you can’t please everyone. Someone might find a conventional World War III too inherently implausible. Someone else might find a post-nuclear wasteland too overdone. Just stick to your own rules.