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Boom Boom Goes The Tank: World War III Fiction

By Colin Salt

Technothrillers and World War III novels are closely linked. But there’s still some big differences between them.


If there’s one lesson that my Fuldapocalypse review blog has taught me, it’s that there are a lot fewer World War III novels than I thought there were. More specifically, there are considerably fewer Hackett/Red Storm Rising style mostly conventional World War III novels than I first thought. To give one example, Jerry Ahern wrote more novels in the Survivalist series alone than Larry Bond penned in total, much less in the time period. Even at the height of the technothriller’s popularity, there were still more stories of preventing World War III than fighting it.


So, what was the background context that made me think there were considerably more tales of mostly conventional World War IIIs than there actually were?


In one word, wargaming. That has been very closely tied to World War III fiction and has remained the niche where it enjoys the most solid and consistent popularity, even as it moves up and down in mainstream consciousness. The Harpoon tabletop game was used extensively in the making of Red Storm Rising. This brings-quirks. Some of it is a focus on unit detail that makes a lot more sense on a gaming table or screen where it does matter than on a page where it often doesn’t. But another part of it is the location.

Take one of my favorite computer wargames, WinSPMBT. It enjoys a very large database that can enable battles with dozens of countries from 1946 to the near future. The depth and diversity of the game is such that it can simulate everything from reenactments of historical battles to Zimbabwean militias parachuting onto Long Island.

There are currently 387 bundled scenarios, and 105 I judged as “World War III”. That would be a very high ratio all by itself. Looking at the settings where these scenarios take place narrows the field even more.


Of the 105 “World War III” scenarios, 52 are in Germany, and the ratio would be higher if I shrank the timeframe to before December 1991 and/or didn’t count some of the edge cases as “WWIII”. I should note that a familiar location is not always a bad thing. My two favorites of Red Army and Team Yankee both take place in Deutschland, while William Stroock’s execrable World War 1990 series deliberately focuses on considerably different theaters.


But it does explain why someone like me who followed the unusual path of (for the most part) wargames first and novels second could start with a narrow view.

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