Korea was the first slugfest of the Cold War. It was where capitalism and communism had their first conflict on open ground, rather than through covert means such as in Greece and Iran. In America, it is something of a forgotten war, overshadowed by World War II before it and Vietnam after it.
James Michener, known for his epic historical novels, was a journalist during the war (and elsewhere; his experiences in the 1956 Hungarian Revolution were the basis for The Bridge at Andau, reviewed here). He draws on that journalistic skill in his 1953 novella The Bridges at Toko-Ri.
The book is about the toll war takes on people, on servicemen and their families. It revolves around naval aviators based on an aircraft carrier off the coast of the peninsula, tasked with destroying the titular bridges.
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It’s not exactly insightful to say that historical fiction, alternate history included, is obsessed with war, and there are good reasons for that. War is both common, being able to live through a lifetime without ever directly experiencing combat is a privilege that most of humanity didn’t have, and incredibly dramatic, nations and ideals can fall and rise based on a single gunshot.
But every genre needs variety. If all alternate-history stories are war stories, then the genre can appear, as Arturo Serrano put it, as of only interest to war gamers. All about tanks and bullets with little interest in the cultures and societies that wars defended, formed and destroyed.
This article, while originally written before our panel discussion on “Guns or Butter,” will go out sandwiched on either side by that discussion which was about the question, “What has alternate history lost by focusing on military fiction instead?”
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In The Last Battle, Stephen Harding tells the unlikely tale of Allied and former Nazi troops making common cause to protect prominent French prisoners of war from the Waffen-SS.
This Battle of Castle Itter really happened, on May 5, 1945 — three days before victory in Europe. Elements of the American 12th Armored Division, Austrian resistance fighters, defected soldiers of the German Wehrmacht and several of the French prisoners themselves held off an attack by SS diehards before they could be relieved by the 142nd Infantry Regiment.
Among the prisoners were former prime ministers (and bitter rivals) Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, former army commanders Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand, and the former leader of the French far right, François de La Rocque, who had turned against Marshal Philippe Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime to secretly provide intelligence to the British.
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If you’re anything like me, you’ve been watching events unfold in Ukraine with mounting frustration. Vladimir Putin is inflicting terrible and unnecessary suffering on the country, but there is so little we, ordinary Westerners, can do.
I recommend donating to a charity of your choice to help the people of Ukraine. 3.5 million have fled the country. Millions more are internally displaced, hiding out with family or friends or — worse — in basements and bunkers in cities like Kharkiv and Kiev and Mariupol, often without electricity, heat, medicine and running water. Charities like Doctors Without Borders and the Red Cross are doing what they can to reach these people, and others are helping to provide shelter to refugees both inside Ukraine and in other European countries. They need and deserve your help!
Thanks to Sergeant Frosty Publications, a relatively new publisher of historical fiction, fantasy and science fiction, there is one more thing we can do: buy the alternate-history anthology Building a Better Future. Edited by David Flin, it contains thirteen stories. All the proceeds go to charities helping the people of Ukraine.
Click here to find the book on Amazon.
Also consider signing up for a writhaton this Saturday, Alternate Historians for Ukraine, which will raise money as well.
Albert Einstein once said he expected World War IV to be fought with “sticks and stones”. It feels lunatic to suggest there could be a fourth world war. Wouldn’t the third blow us all to Kingdom Come?
In defiance of that hesitation, Sean Patrick Hazlett has edited yet another anthology of speculative fiction based on the conceit of a world war, and that is Weird World War IV, published by Baen Books.
Much like the previous anthology, Weird World War III (review here), the stories run the gamut from hard science fiction to pulpier science fiction to open fantasy. Unlike the last book, all of these stories, as far as I can tell, are set in the future; there is none of the alternate history that played with last century’s fears of nuclear conflict between the Soviet Union and the United States. This was mildly disappointing to me as an alternate-history fan, but in any case, it’s a solid science-fiction anthology.
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The House of Lost Horizons introduces (or reacquaints) Mike Mignola’s Sarah Jewell and Marie-Thérèse LaFleur. In this new story, the intrepid female detectives investigate murders in a house on an island. There is a storm, there is a vault filled with occult items ready to be bargained off. It’s not an original tale, but it has been masterfully presented.
Introduced in Rise of the Black Flame, this is one of the first times the lady detectives star in their own story, and it hits the mark straight out of the gate. You don’t need to have read their debut (which is for the best, considering the prices paper copies seem to go for these days), as there is just a passing allusion to The Black Flame Cult that will hit home with those who have.
No, all you need to do is pick up and enjoy this story, and live though the storm, just like the characters, to discover what the blazes is going on.
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Our image of the First World War is dominated by Europeans and their descendants. Trench warfare, as portrayed in books like All Quiet on the Western Front, is shown as fought by Americans, British, French and Germans.
Those European countries, however, were also imperial powers, with many subject peoples made to contribute thousands of men to the war effort. One recent novel does not overlook them: David Diop’s At Night All Blood Is Black, translated into English by Anna Moschovakis.
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Being a voracious reader, I have read many strange books. Sometimes that weirdness is in a poor way, ruining the experience. Sometimes it’s in a fun way, making the book stand out long after you’ve read it. James Morrow’s 2014 novella The Madonna and the Starship is the latter. It is one of the strangest science-fiction novels I have ever read, and one of the most memorable.
It’s 1950s in New York. Television is the hip new medium, its conventions still being worked out. A beleaguered science-fiction writer hosts a children’s adventure show, giving science experiments at the end of each episode. Used to displaying aliens on the silver screen, he is surprised to learn that actual aliens love his show, and they come down to give him an award. Unfortunately, during the ceremony, they learn that his network also broadcasts a Christian show every Sunday. Being unabashed logical positivists and atheists, they find the idea abhorrent and announce they will inject death rays into the broadcast, killing two million believers in North America.
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When we think about the Eastern Bloc, large Brutalist apartment buildings loom from Erfurt to Anadyr. The collapse of the seemingly powerful Soviet empire was a shock to essentially everyone, not in least the people who lived in it. A mistaken turn of phrase by an Eastern German official opened the Berlin Wall, and the winds of change blew across half of a continent. The Soviet jackboot was lifted.
It is this time in East Germany that Jennifer Hofman portrays vividly in her novel The Standardization of Demoralization Procedures, released in 2020.
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Americans have a love, perhaps an obsession, with the Irish that sometimes goes to the point of irritating the actual Irish (the term “plastic paddy” exists for a reason). Some of it is that Irish revolutionary writing, especially their songs, are in a language Americans can understand. More is due to the influence of Irish migrants who traveled across the Atlantic, some fleeing the Great Famine, to escape British oppression.
It is that history, of the Irish in America, that James D. Nealon, former American ambassador to Honduras, plays with in his novel Confederacy of Fenians. It involves an old and honored alternate-history scenario, of the British intervening in the American Civil War, and adds an Irish twist to it. His point of divergence is that the Fenian Brotherhood, an Irish revolutionary group among immigrants in America, has Irish troops in the Union Army defect to the British in hopes that doing so will encourage the British to grant Ireland home rule.
The historically informed reader will notice a number of issues here.
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