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World War One

Entry updated 27 February 2023. Tagged: Theme.

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For Edward James's website "Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers in the Great War", which places many relevant authors in this context, see under links below.

The Great War that ran from 1914 to 1918 had hardly run its course before it began, alarmingly – very soon after the publication of The First World War, 1914-1918 (1920) by Charles Repington (1858-1925) – to be known as the First World War or World War One. Under whatever name, the conflict brought an apocalyptic change in fictional views of both War in general and Future War in particular, and put paid to any Pastoral sentimentality about the nature of the land (often metonymized as clods of English soil) to be saved, and the gentlemanly chivalry that would bear lances against barbarians. Its unprecedented death toll, which dwarfed any vision of civilized sacrifice, made it clear that war could assume the proportions of an immense yet man-made Disaster far more deadly and universal than the relatively tame prefigurations found in Imperial Gothic works, where pre-War Invasion hysteria found an ideal home. Numerous poets and authors found creative inspiration, or had creations wrung from them, by the horror and squalor of World War One, a trauma that tested to destruction the capacity of "realist" modes of literature to represent its surreal extremity as a human experience. The uneasy but ambitious expressionism of a nonfantastic novel like Return of the Brute (1929) by Liam O'Flaherty (1896-1984) grasps with relatively trammelled success the kind of landscape of the damned envisioned masterfully in (say) David Jones's In Parenthesis (1937), which is overwhelmingly non-naturalistic. Other authors, like E R Eddison or Hugh Lofting or J R R Tolkien, paid no direct heed whatsoever to the nightmare they had lived through. Overall, at least eighty authors responded to the war in terms that require mention in this encyclopedia [click the Incoming button at the head of this entry for a full list]. Genre SF itself did not then exist, but memories of the Great War were vivid and influential for many years before and after its birth. Thus the book version of E E Smith's Triplanetary (January-April 1934 Amazing; exp rev 1948), whose early chapters are a montage of flashbacks to historical crux points, opens the twentieth century with a war vignette from 1918.

A number of relevant works, mostly contemporary, use the war as setting or background. Robert W Chambers's The Dark Star (1917) injects a modicum of fantasy, as (much later) does Patricia Anthony's elusive and ghostly Flanders (1998). Hugo Gernsback's early "Baron Munchhausen's New Scientific Adventures" (May 1915-February 1917 Electrical Experimenter, irregularly) takes the Baron from World War One into space. Charlotte Perkins Gilman's With Her in Ourland: Sequel to Herland (January-December 1916 The Forerunner; 1997) contrasts war-ravaged Europe with the Utopia of Herland. The war provides a suitable setting for the adventurer-protagonist's eventual death in Jean d'Esme's Les dieux rouges (1923; trans Moreby Acklom as The Red Gods: A Romance 1924). Frøis Frøisland's Fortaellinger fra fronten: Solidt halvlaeder (coll 1928; trans Nils Flaten as The Man With X-Ray Eyes and Other Stories from the Front 1930) includes sf and horror among its wartime tales; the battered protagonist of Walter Owen's The Cross of Carl: An Allegory (written 1917; 1931), taken for dead, is transported to an Auschwitz-like factory to be rendered into pig slop, escaping only to be murdered by the masters of the opposing sides acting in unholy consort. The US Superman of Philip Wylie's Gladiator (1930; rev 1949) wreaks bloody havoc upon German forces in the European battleground, but his efforts (this is made clear) remain trifling by comparison with the Great War's death toll of sixteen million.

Some contemporary novels looked ahead to the end of the war or saw its course altered by deus ex machina. Willem De Veer's An Emperor in the Dock (1915) is a typical work of prolepsis. H Irving Hancock predicted a bad European outcome in Making the Stand for Old Glory, or Uncle Sam's Boys in the Last Frantic Drive (1916), in which Germany has won and proceeds to an Invasion of the USA. The risen dead bring about the titular dream of Louis Pope Gratacap's The End: How the Great War was Stopped; A Novelistic Vagary (1917); German women combine to end the conflict in Gertrude Atherton's The White Morning: A Novel of the Power of German Women in Wartime (1918). Owen Gregory's Meccania, the Super State (1918) shows a bleakly – and prophetically – Dystopian postwar Germany. The title character of Keble Howard's The Peculiar Major: An Almost Incredible Story (1919) uses his gift of Invisibility for startling wartime exploits, rather like a Superhero.

For later protagonists, Time Travel or Timeslips offer access to the Great War era. Jack Finney's From Time to Time (1995) debates whether or not an attempt to prevent the war should be made. Dean McLaughlin's "Hawk Among the Sparrows" (July 1968 Analog) is a Military SF examination of the advantages and disadvantages of an advanced fighter plane in the war's aerial arena. Steve Emmerson's Casualties of War (2000) is a relevant Doctor Who tie.

Alternate History treatments of the war are fairly numerous, beginning with Bernard Newman's The Cavalry Went Through (1930) – though much less so than those of World War Two, since the Hitler Wins scenario is fraught with drama and horror far beyond any plausible "Kaiser Wins" equivalent. It seems not entirely a bad thing that the Allies lose the alternate war of Guido Morselli's Contro-passato prossimo (1975; trans Hugh Shankland as Past Conditional: A Retrospective Hypothesis 1989). One of the alternate timelines visited in Stephen Baxter's The Time Ships (1995) sees World War One miserably prolonged and ready to merge seamlessly into World War Two. Jon Courtenay Grimwood's Arabesk trilogy, beginning with Pashazade: The First Arabesk (2001), is set in a changed world long after German victory in World War One. Martin J Gidron's The Severed Wing (2002) imagines an earlier and less toxic World War One whose outcome avoids the planting of seeds for World War Two. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) – though not its far superior Graphic Novel original – features a failed plot to start the Great War prematurely. Doris Lessing's Alfred and Emily (2008) combines a memoir of her parent's lives with an Alternate History vision of how they might have lived in a world unblemished by the Great War. In the DC Extended Universe film Wonder Woman (2017) (see Wonder Woman Film/TV), Wonder Woman begins her career in 1918 by defeating the god Ares, who has been working behind the scenes to release Homo sapiens's destructive impulses, and wins the war for the Allies.

Even a century later, the shadow of World War One remains long and terrible. Perhaps the strangest Alternate-History fantasy of relevance is R A Lafferty's "The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny" (in Apocalypses, coll 1977) – in which neither World War One nor World War Two has happened, and the impending World War Three may also be averted, because the composer Sweeny has somehow diverted or sublimated these events' appalling energy into the apocalyptic Music of three operas titled Armageddon I, II and III. [DRL]

further reading

The literature on World War One is immense, and no attempt here is made to provide an adequate sample of responses to and histories of the conflict, or of the century-long and vigorously ongoing debates about blame and significance.


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