By Colin Salt
Coming along at just the right time and place for me, the The Big One series by the recently deceased Stuart Slade has to rank as one of the most influential alternate history I’ve read. It was one of the first real “off the beaten path” book series in general I’d read, so I can’t help but think semi-fondly of it. Now, one of the things that happened with this that brought my attention was that its author was rather er, ferocious about defending it and its plausibility online.
But that I feel is irrelevant now. The arguments have long stopped, but the books themselves remain in my mind. Starting as web forum posts and turning into books that were self-published before the Kindle wave, they were early arrivers and it’s interesting to compare them to “internet tradition” alternate history that came later.
So the very first installment can be thought of as a kind of “anti-Wehraboo” way of showing that even with all the wunderwaffe and gimmicks the Germans get in World War II, they’ll still be nuked as long as the US enters the war. In this way it’s similar to R. M. Meluch’s short story Vati. Only with more nominal accuracy and less effective prose.
In 1940, Lord Halifax ousts Churchill and sues for peace. Then the Germans in a weird sneak attack manage to seize the British bases and occupy it. This is basically a handwave to give them Britain. The US enters the war and fights on the Eastern Front alongside the decommunized, friendly Russia under Zhukov’s rule, battling bitterly as the Germans take Moscow and hold the Volga line for years. This is basically a handwave to have them do better in the east. In 1947, this stalemate is broken when the US unleashes its fleet of stockpiled B-36 bombers with nuclear bombs which, with few losses, nuke Germany utterly.
The implausibilities can be excused as part of the theme. However, even in that book there’s an awkward clash as the “show the Germans will just get nuked” mixes poorly with “show off the power of the B-36.” This sets up the biggest distinctive point of the series, but I’ll get to that later because it’ll get much worse.
Afterwards, things get loopy. A character who existed for a small winking cameo in the first book, “The Seer”, is revealed to be an immortal Mary Sue/permanent advisor to a string of presidents who, after the fanservice entries of George Patton and Curtis LeMay, become a string of more or less OTL ones. This is so that the author mouthpiece can either praise or criticize them, as well as other historical figures like the Evil Robert McNamara, Slayer of the B-70. Regardless of the obvious author opinion reasons for having them, this sort of parallelism is more reminiscent of Turtledove-style “print AH” than it is for “internet-style AH” that came later. And other immortals exist.
In the rest of the world, the Germans in the former USSR somehow manage to hold out for years despite their supply bases being nuked before being pushed back into the Middle East, where they ally with a politically/religiously implausible strawman “Caliphate” that exists to give the super-USAF a nice live fire target. In Asia, the pop-history “China absorbs its conquerors” trope is applied to Imperial Japan, which as “Chipan” forms the opponent in what I’ve dubbed the Easy Mode Cold War with the US. It has all the USSR’s weaknesses but almost none of its strengths, and coincidentally serves to weaken two of the most viable opponents.
Said US has fully embraced 1950s Massive Retaliation Doctrine, slimming down its army and having its fleet of super-bombers, including the cancelled-OTL B-70 Valkyrie in full bloom. If there’s trouble, it gets nuked. And for the sake of the books, there has to be trouble.
So, are the books actually good? Not really. They still have very flat prose, lots of technical exposition, lots of clunkily arranged subplots, paper-thin viewpoint and/or mouthpiece characters, and detailed rivet-counting exactness for weapons systems that does not translate to any knowledge of geopolitics and/or nuanced views of anything that isn’t American.
And yet, the same could be said about a lot of technothrillers and/or alternate history works. Because I’d actually read the TBO books before say, the actual Tom Clancy ones, I took them to be more uniquely flawed than they actually were. When they are worse, it’s a matter of degree more than anything else. Except of course for what does stand out, because boy does it go far beyond the rest.
That is the one-sidedness of it. In a time when other technothrillers were desperately trying to add “equalizers” of various kinds to add even slight credibility to the opponents, TBO does the exact opposite. It takes a side with all the cards and makes it even stronger.
It’s not too bad in the World War II instalments or when Germans are fought directly outside of a “look at the planes go” set piece, but in any other battle involving the Americans, I’ve used the term “unironic One-Punch Man” to describe it. Everyone from Americans to non-Americans to the narrator endlessly goes on about how great the Americans and how (other opponent/nation) can’t compare. The Americans lose fewer aircraft on-screen post-war than they did in the Gulf War. The gaps in “massive retaliation” that historically developed are plugged by everything from preternaturally effective special forces to the immortal Mary Sues providing unrealistic policy continuity.
This gets to the point where the intended theme is contradicted significantly. Instead of “this shows how a permanent Massive Retaliation could work”, it’s “For a permanent Massive Retaliation to work, you need to have all these huge contrivances.” The worldbuilding is completely set on rolling out the red carpet for the US and handing it victories on a silver platter.
As for the conflicts that don’t involve the Americans, and they’re there, they come across as just watching two low-level sports teams you don’t have a personal stake in play each other. There really isn’t any other way to put it.
In conclusion, this is another example of a series that I don’t recommend for anyone else, but which has had an effect on me. A part of me wants to say it’s just because it got in at the right place ahead of the crowd. But I think that’s unfair.
In a genre that’s become fairly siloed, the books taking elements of what would become both print (lots of parallels and events and people still happening at the same time) and internet (a focus on obscure topics and technical details) alternate history is fascinating. And it’s still, well, different. It puts a lot of effort into a world that’s different from either “Axis/Confederates win” or “OTL with some tweaks around the edges”. And it’s audacious in its difference-just look at the immortals.
The Big One can still be considered subpar AH. But it’s the most influential "subpar" AH I’ve read, and it’s the "subpar" AH that I still feel some fondness for.