By Alexander Wallace
Back when I was getting into the alternate history fandom in the early 2010s, I read many strange alternate history works available on Kindle. Many of them were franky not very good (we all cut our teeth in the alternate history fandom, after all), but there are a few I look back upon with fond memories.
One of these books is Walt Snedeker’s The Bat and Balloon War, which on the surface of it seems to be a zanier take on the standard World War II alternate history story. Its title and its central conceit comes from two different proposed weapons during World War II: a proposal to use bats to deliver bombs, and another proposal that would have used balloons for much the same purpose. In our world, neither became used widely; the Japanese did use balloon bombs to attack the American West Coast, but that particular attack didn’t have any major effect on the war.
Snedeker begins his alternate history with the British devising balloon bombs during the Blitz; in our world both proposals were American. This evolves into a stochastic alternative to our world’s strategic bombing campaigns, which allows for the Royal Air Force to wreak devastation on German cities at a much lower cost in blood and treasure than the similar campaigns in our world. The second half of the book moves to the Pacific, where the men behind the British balloon bomb join with the Americans to unleash bat-carrying bombs onto the Japanese home islands.
This book is a rarity: the humorous alternate history work (in which it joins Sea Lion Press’ anthology Comedy Throughout the (P)Ages, edited by David Flin). This is a book that does not take itself too seriously, and does so to its credit. Snedeker is smart enough to know that a truly serious World War II alternate history could not be written about balloons and bats, and wisely decides to go for a tone with significant levity and a sense of humor that for the most part works.
The plot of the book is what could be called an allohistorical ‘Edisonade.’ John Clute, in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, puts it well:
“As used here the term ‘edisonade’—derived from Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931) in the same way that "Robinsonade" is derived from Robinson Crusoe—can be understood to describe any story which features a young US male inventor hero who uses his ingenuity to extricate himself from tight spots and who, by so doing, saves himself from foreign oppressors.”
With the exception that some of Snedeker’s heroes are British, the above definition fits The Bat and Balloon War very well. It is an aspect of this feature that leads to the novel’s only significant flaw: its portrayal of women. The women here are presented as if their affection are some of the myriad awards showered upon our male inventors. I can’t help but think that this novel is something of a wish-fulfillment fantasy for a certain sort of scientifically adept yet isolated young man who aspires for the societal accolades he feels that someone of his stature deserves.
In terms of the novel’s plausibility, I am unsure what to think. It is true that the manufacturing of balloons and bat bombs would be much cheaper per potential damage than the same amount of money spent on bomber planes; likewise, I can see its appeal in light of the abysmal casualty rates of bomber crews. One of the reasons such programs were scrapped during the war in our world was due to the beliefs that they were taking resources from the Manhattan Project and that they would not be ready by the end of the war; Snedeker works around this by having the balloon weapon pitched earlier on in the war. Our world’s testing came to the conclusion that they were a viable weapon; as one testing chief said:
“A reasonable number of destructive fires can be started in spite of the extremely small size of the units. The main advantage of the units would seem to be their placement within the enemy structures without the knowledge of the householder or fire watchers, thus allowing the fire to establish itself before being discovered.”
However it is known that strategic bombing did not have the strategic effects that its proponents wanted. Whether bat or balloon-based weapons would have been as effective as Snedeker describes them is unknown. I can certainly see these weapons causing frustrating localized effects, particularly in one variant involving counterfeit currency.
This book is a rather charming one; it’s one that I have no regrets having read again later in life after first reading it as a neophyte. It is ultimately something of a power fantasy, and that is to its detriment, but it is written well and characterized well. It provides our genre with levity; Lord knows we need it.