By Matthew Kresal
As I type these words at the start of March 2022, the war between Ukraine and Russia has entered its second week. As the COVID pandemic did for some readers, it seems likely that Europe's most significant land war since the Second World War will see them turning to fiction for insights into how the conflict, and a modern war in general, are likely to unfold in the genre of technothrillers. One of the authors they may turn to is Larry Bond, including his 1993 novel Cauldron with its vision of former allies fighting what is at first an economic and then literal war in eastern Europe.
Not that I'd claim Bond (or his credited inside the covers co-author Patrick Larkin) precisely predicted the current conflict, either in Cauldron or one of his other novels. Indeed, in Cauldron's nearly 900 pages, Russia sits on the sidelines with the threat of getting involved being one of the (many) subplots present to justify its page count. Instead, taking place over the course of the mid-late 1990s and primarily in 1998, Bond's vision extrapolated on a number of trends from the early years of the decade from German reunification, the rise of the European Union, political/economic chaos in Russia, and an ongoing economic recession. As such, it's one of those novels where history overtook it, and in short order, a future history that now reads as an alternate history.
What an alternate 1990s it paints, however. Whereas recession later became boom for the back-half of the decade, Cauldron sees protectionist economics practiced by France and Germany, imposing their economic will on a number of former Warsaw Pact countries and smaller countries, worsening the recession. In the US, Bill Clinton became a one-term President voted out in 1996 with an unnamed pipe-smoking successor occupying the Oval Office. Europe falls under the combined control of France and Germany under the European Confederation (EurCon), with the Germans providing the military muscle to back French policies across the continent by French Foreign Minister Nicolas Desaix. When several eastern European nations stand up to EurCon's policies, either by allying themselves with the US or through popular uprisings, confrontation (and all the hardware you'd otherwise expect from a technothriller) become inevitable.
Reading the opening third or so of the novel, which sets up much of what I've described above, I couldn't help but think of John le Carre's observation to the effect that the US spent much of the post-Cold/pre-9/11 era in search of new enemies. In this case, what a newly empowered and united Europe might accomplish, with the US and UK (and eastern European allies in Poland and Hungry) standing against them. It's a fear that the right in the US and UK alike have tapped into, from Brexit to Christian end-time proponents supposing the Antichrist will rise out of the European Union. As such, as it's hard not to look at the premise and particularly the role that the British isles play as a political and military bulwark against EurCon (including a small scale Battle of Britain redux) and not think that Cauldron's premise reads like something of a Brexit-inspired fever dream nearly two decades on from its original publication. Particularly when with most of the ground fighting going on in Poland with German tanks and infantry and airstrikes against targets in France and Germany that Bond and Larkin were essentially refighting aspects of the Second World War with (presumed, though in some cases not coming into service until later) 1990s weapons and technology.
Nor does Cauldron avoid a number of technothriller pitfalls. Its cast of characters is sizable and wide-ranging, from a Bundeswehr panzer colonel to an American-born Polish fighter pilot to an advisor to the US President and one of Desaix's henchmen in the DGSE, which allows for a variety of points of view on the growing and eventual conflict. All of whom would be welcome if they weren't so paper-thin in their characterizations as to amount to the descriptions just given to them. A number of the subplots, including practically the entire Russian one, detract from the main plotlines, and indeed the resolution of the Russian narrative sees Bond and Larkin having to make an eleventh-hour switch from trying to more realistically depict intelligence work to having a CIA agent go into action movie mode. For that matter, the entire final third of the novel is essentially one long section of convenient plotting, but Bond and Larkin aren't the first writers to have struggled with ending a conflict that they've started.
Those faults aren't to say that Cauldron is either a write-off or not worth reading. On the contrary, like many technothrillers, Cauldron is a pageturner. The pacing is a constant headlong drive, much like many of the novel's battle sequences, where the plot dominates (at the expense of characters). Further, paralleling the current conflict, it was a curious experience to read of the political calculations leading to military action, the assumptions made by Desaix of how the US and Poles especially would, or rather wouldn't react to the use of military force. And, for that matter, how the EurCon plans slow, stall, and reworked, as a result, and how the US and its remaining allies come into the conflict with the threat of its going nuclear. Or, in a twist of fate now playing out in real-life, armed forces learning how to adapt Russian and NATO built weapons and aircraft together as things become increasingly desperate.
Parallels only go so far, of course. Russia is not EurCon, Putin is not Desaix, and the war will not end so conveniently one suspects. Cauldron didn't predict the current war, but the picture it paints in its alternative 1990s war can offer insights all the same. Indeed, like much of alternate history, that might be the best thing to say about it, no matter how implausible time might make its scenario. That and it's a heck of a read.