From the moment Emperor Hirohito surrendered to the Americans, humanity has feared the possibility of a third world war. The first gave us trenches, machines guns and poison gas, and broke three empires. The second gave us the nightmares of Auschwitz and Nanjing and Berlin and Hiroshima. It would be insane to fight a third war like it. Yet speculative literature of all kinds has tackled the theme, from contemporary thrillers like Red Army and Red Storm Rising (review here) to John Hackett’s The Third World War to more openly futuristic tales like P. W. Singer and August Cole’s Ghost Fleet.
There are many ways to write the story of Word War III. In 2020, Baen Books published an anthology dedicated to the notion. Weird World War III, edited by Sean Patrick Hazlett, boasts many luminaries of fantasy and science fiction, foremost among them David Drake and Mike Resnick.
It is a collection that runs the gamut in terms of what it does with the premise. Temporally, it is divided roughly equally between those set in a version of the Cold War that went hot and those set in the near future, predicting a maelstrom yet to come.
You can also put the stories on a spectrum between the completely fantastical and the hard science fictional. The result is a candy bowl of speculative literature that is a joy to read.
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One of Alec Guinness’s greatest roles was as Colonel Nicholson in the 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai. The World War II movie is rightly remembered as one of the greatest ever made. But few remember it was based on a novel: Pierre Boulle’s 1952 The Bridge over the River Kwai, translated in 1954 by Xan Fielding (who also translated Jean Lartéguy’s The Centurions, reviewed here).
Boulle served in the French armed forces in Indochina during World War II, and it seeps into the narrative. There’s a grottiness, a putridness, in the novel that could only come from first-hand experience.
If you’ve seen the film, you know the story: British soldiers captured by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Malaya are made to work on the Burma Railway. You will recognize many characters, Saito and Nicholson in particular, as portrayed by the actors who are now immortal.
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People have been telling stories about strange and tempting things in the sea since at least the ancient Greeks. Do not Scylla and Charybdis count? In the age of sail, they became stories of krakens and mermaids. Even now, in an age of satellites that have mapped the entirety of the world’s oceans, tales of the sea are enrapturing to us, as the success of Pirates of the Caribbean and Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World show.
E.C. Ambrose has written a short novel which is another take on those legends: The King of Next Week.
It is the 1860s, after the end of the American Civil War. A merchant ship under the command of Matthew Percy loaded with ice stops briefly on an island somewhere near the coast of Morocco. He and his crew expect it to be empty, but they find that it is inhabited by jinn, the creatures of Islamic legend. The captain falls in love with one of these jinn, who he ends up marrying within a day of landing.
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Confessions of a Marrano Rocketeer fell into my lap through fortuitous chance. I learned of it through BookBub, an email service that gives subscribers book deals. That is how I came to Daniel Schenker’s debut novel — and what a debut it is!
Arthur Waldmann is a strange collection of attributes: ethnically Jewish, religiously Lutheran, living in Germany in the interwar years, obsessed with rocketry. Although a recent ancestor converted to Christianity (as many Jews in Germany did in the period), Athur grew up with the wisdom of the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. He is a man thoroughly at war with himself over who he is in light of his ancestors and his society, and how he trespasses against those in trying to pursue his passion.
From the very beginning of the book, the specter of Nazism hangs over Arthur’s life. He meets multiple people, with steadily increasing resources behind them, to build machines that will take humankind into space. This is harmless enough at first, but becomes very murky when he and his compatriots are contracted to build rockets for the German military and the country rearms in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Arthur begins to see the deal with the devil he has made, including the imposition of Nazi race law. He nevertheless soldiers on, having to see the nightmare unfurl as he enables it.
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One of my stranger memories from DISCON III, the 79th World Science Fiction Convention (I detail my experience in this article) was having a thriller novel from an author I had never heard of aggressively foisted upon me in the dealer’s room. The people behind the desk were quite friendly — I don’t mean to impugn their character — but they were certainly insistent that I take it. That book was David Edward’s Panama Red.
David Edward is a retired special agent for the United States Army turned writer. He has written science fiction and more grounded thrillers, of which Panama Red is the latter. His Amazon biography says that he “did have a Twitter account, but then he thought it was stupid so he canceled it,” which if anything makes me like him more.
Panama Red follows Dirk Lasher, a US Army special agent stationed in Panama City in the late 1980s. The title refers to a variant of cocaine spreading through the city, with connections to the smuggling operations of Pablo Escobar in neighboring Colombia. A faulty DEA operation, and increased smuggling activity throw, Lasher into the chaos of the Panamanian cocaine trade, and that’s where the adventure really begins.
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The most known example of handing out white feathers to those accused of cowardice was during the First World War, when British men who didn’t enlist were handed the plumes by women who supported the war effort. The tradition, however, is older. It has its roots in the eighteenth century.
In 1902, A.E.W. Mason wrote his novel The Four Feathers about a man who does not want to fight but is made to by his compatriots. It is a novel about what war does to the unwilling and the nature of societal pressure.
Harry Feversham never wanted to be in the British Army. This is inconvenient for him, for he is from a military family. He serves unhappily for a time, then resigns his commission. Unfortunately for him, it is a day before the British Army is deployed to Sudan. Three of his friends send him a white feather each, and a fourth comes from his fiancée, who breaks off the engagement. To restore his honor, Harry disguises himself to go to Sudan to prove himself worthy.
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The Eastern Front of World War II is justly remembered as an exposition of the worst of humanity. It began with an undeclared invasion, was host to genocide and building-to-building combat in major cities, and ended with the largest mass rape in human history. One may be forgiven for thinking there was no decency in the “Bloodlands”, as historian Timothy Snyder called this stretch of Eastern Europe.
David Benioff shows there was in City of Thieves. It was inspired by tapes of the author’s grandfather, who lived through the awfulness. It is an odd thing for the Eastern Front: a coming-of-age novel with a child as its main character. There is hope, in a sense, if not for the country, then for people generally. It may be hard to swallow at first, given the madness of the surroundings, but surprisingly you come around to it.
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The Aeronaut’s Windlass is a hard book to describe. I went into it expecting a steampunk story. That influence is clear, but there is more. Jim Butcher brings elements of high fantasy and naval fiction (albeit transposed into the skies) and perhaps a dash of the post-apocalyptic.
What I can tell you with certainty is that this is an entertaining book.
The world of The Aeronaut’s Windlass (the first volume in the yet-to-be-completed Cinder Spires series) is dominated by massive towers, called spires, in which human beings live. One memorable scene involves a woman seeing the sky for the first time. It is implied that many never do. Something horrible must have happened on the surface, for dangerous creatures will occasionally crawl up the spires through ventilation tunnels.
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George R.R. Martin is probably known best for not having finished The Winds of Winter yet. This is something of a shame, I think, given the many great stories he wrote even before A Game of Thrones (which I confess to never having read). His short stories are incredible: “Nightflyers,” “A Song for Lya,” “The Way of Cross and Dragon.”
Here we turn to one of Martin’s older works: his 1982 gothic novel Fevre Dream.
Martin has described Fevre Dream as “Bram Stoker meets Mark Twain.” It combines an icon of horror with an icon of antebellum America: vampires and steamboats. It is a book that takes advantage of the vastness of the Mississippi and its attendant rivers, providing an oftentimes eerie isolation to proceedings. Like the spaceships of science fiction, steamboats work well as closed environments for odd things to be afoot.
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It is not obvious from my name, I am a Filipino-American. My father is white, of Scots-Irish, German, English and French descent. My mother was born in Manila. Since I was young, I was told stories of my ancestors who fought the Japanese. At times, I regret how little I read about the country, given how much I read in absolute terms. So when I was offered Miguel Miranda’s novel Hostile Participants to review, I leaped at the chance.
Hostile Participants is set during the conflict that is referred to on the Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia (my hometown) as the “Philippine Insurrection.” Filipinos tend to refer to it as a crushed war of independence, an act of flagrant imperialism done in the name of access to Chinese trade and a “civilizing mission.”
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