By Colin Salt
Having the chance to read a massive number of books, particularly after my initial writings, can cue one in on literary trends. It did not take me long to find out that there were a lot fewer conventional World War III books than I thought there were. I’d reckon only in the low dozens even counting self-published and long series books, and only four truly high-profile ones: Hackett’s Third World War, Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and Red Army.
Yet the number of alternate history World War IIIs that are mostly conventional and take place after the Vietnam War is smaller still. This may seem like an arbitrary and oddly strict category, but I truly thought there were far more of them in that exact category than there actually were. The reasons were because of my then-narrow experience in wargaming (where there is a lot of material set in a past 1980s WW3), and seeing the World War III books that did exist first. For instance, I read Red Storm Rising long before I read some of the big-name action hero thrillers.
I categorized them by series and not individual books to ensure that the already-small sample wasn’t skewed by one or two big series. I got only ten.
-Harvey Black's "Effect" series
-William Stroock's World War 1990 series
-The Bear's Claws by Russell Phillips
-Northern Fury H Hour
-John Agnew's Operation Zhukov
-Brad Smith's World War III 1985
-Martin Archer's War Breaks Out
-James Burke's The Weekend Warriors
-John Schettler's Kirov series
-Mark Walker's Dark War series
There are almost certainly more, but there aren’t much more. And this becomes even smaller still when the two most out-there series are removed. Dark War is outright supernatural horror, and even the most mundane arc in the Kirov series is launched by a time traveler who misinterpreted a future vision. Furthermore, it’s worth noting that all are niche works. None are by a big-name publisher and/or author like Harry Turtledove.
This is not the case for just-after World War II WW3s, and Harry Turtledove even made a series based on an escalated Korean War turned World War III. Yet the absolute latest work by a mainstream-AH author I found was Robert Conroy’s Castro’s Bomb, set not long after the Cuban Missile Crisis. And I’ve one example of the exact opposite happening. For Walt Gragg’s The Red Line, a mostly conventional WW3 story, it was clearly originally set in (and written in) the Cold War, yet to make it “contemporary” and appeal to a modern audience, a weird backstory had to be created to shift the borders back to their 1989 spots in the present.
Yet this does make sense. After all, Tom Clancy and Larry Bond did not write the story of a Cold War gone conventionally hot in 1956 or 1970. They set them in their own time. For whatever reason, a date-accurate Red Storm Rising remake simply isn’t a hot AH property the way, say, the obvious and often-done Axis/Confederate victories are.
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The next point is that in the World War III novels that do exist, there is a dominant trend in the use of nuclear weapons. Chieftains ends in a nuclear apocalypse. Arc Light has a bizarre “there was a full nuclear exchange, but it was mostly counterforce [against other nuclear weapon sites] and it wasn’t that bad, and then there was a conventional war”. The Kirov series has had two of the four-and-counting World War IIIs in its pages end in a nuclear catastrophe (before the timeline gets overwritten, at least). On the other end, in a survey, I found only four books where the war stayed completely conventional from start to finish. It’s just that two of those novels were Red Army and Red Storm Rising.
Occurring more often than those extremes were the limited use of nuclear weapons, starting with Hackett’s infamous Birmingham-Minsk “trade”. From Larry Bond’s Cauldron (serious) to James Rouch’s The Zone (pulpy), it’s used frequently. If I had to give a theorized reason for the appeal of this plot device, I’d say it’s a way to get the drama of them in the books without having to turn the series into a post-apocalyptic one the author doesn’t want to write.
So, there you have it. It’s been sort of bittersweet to finally see the “conventional World War III” subgenre, especially the “alternate history conventional World War III” subgenre clearly and fully. To see how well, small it was. Yet it’s also interesting.