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World War Three

Entry updated 6 March 2023. Tagged: Theme.


Following the 1945 Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs which ended World War Two, a third world War involving nuclear Holocaust became the recurring nightmare of twentieth-century sf throughout the Cold War decades and even beyond. Often it was tacitly assumed that a third world war would constitute the final instalment of a worldwide state of conflict that began in 1914 and whose Near Future culmination would bring the end of civilization, a conviction that led in sf to numerous Post-Holocaust (including Nuclear Winter) and Survivalist Fiction scenarios. The term World War Three is restricted in this Encyclopedia to conflicts that climax the long story of twentieth-century slaughter.

The first sustained presentation of a World War Three scenario is probably the array of articles and tales assembled as Preview of the War We Do Not Want (27 October 1951 Collier's Weekly), a special issue of the magazine which begins with news reports of the 1952 Russian Invasion of Jugoslavia, setting off a moderately contained nuclear war Future War, though both London and New York are destroyed; eventually the Allies win, arrange a just peace with Stalin's successors, and commit themselves to building a better world. Contributors included Arthur Koestler, J B Priestley, Philip Wylie, and many others. All in all, it is perhaps the most hopeful presentation of World War Three on record.

Most sf scenarios are far grimmer. Omitting settings where the conflict depicted seems too remote to climax the interwoven planetary war that consumed the twentieth century, a nuclear World War Three destroys our civilization in many works including René Barjavel's Le diable l'emporte ["The Devil Takes All"] (1948), Wilson Tucker's The City in the Sea (1951), Hans Hellmut Kirst's Keiner Kommt Davon (1957; trans Richard Graves as The Seventh Day 1959; vt No One Will Escape 1960), Kendell Foster Crossen's The Rest Must Die (1959) as by Richard Foster, Mordecai Roshwald's Level 7 (1959), Neville Shute's On the Beach (1957) – filmed as On the Beach (1959) – Jack Danvers's The End of it All (1962), and James K Morrow's This Is the Way the World Ends (1986). Charles Stross adds Cthulhu Mythos entities to the nuclear arsenal, making World War Three a particularly final End of the World in "A Colder War" (July 2000 Spectrum SF).

Among other treatments of the hypothetical nuclear war are Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959), Paul Stanton's Village of Stars (1960); Robert A Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold (1964), whose nuclear attack on the USA Timeslips a bomb shelter and its occupants into the Far Future; John Hay's The Invasion (1968); Vernor Vinge's "The Whirligig of Time" (in Stellar 1, anth 1974, ed Judy-Lynn del Rey), which jumps from Near-Future nuclear destruction of the USA to Far-Future vengeance; James Rouch's Zone sequence beginning with The Zone #1: Hard Target (1980), whose nuclear (and chemical and biological) battleground is chiefly confined to the eponymous strip of Germany; Eric L Harry's Arc Light (1994); and Humphrey Hawksley's Dragonstrike: The Millennium War (1997) with Simon Holberton and Dragonfire (2000) solo.

Seemingly inevitable war is prevented by the titular assassination in Sterling Noel's I Killed Stalin (1951), and by the caution of the titular US general – "the man who could push the button" – of J F Bone's "Triggerman" (December 1958 Analog), following the destruction of Washington by (as it turns out) a meteor impact. A similar misunderstanding in Donald Kingsbury's The Moon Goddess and the Son (December 1979 Analog; exp 1986) – where a massive terrorist strike against Soviet targets (including the Kremlin) is initially interpreted as US attack and triggers a first wave of nuclear retaliation – is for the most part neutralized by the deus ex machina of an Antimatter-fuelled ABM system deployed from a US Space Station in low Earth orbit. Non-nuclear World War Three is relatively rare in sf; one example is On the Last Day (1958) by Mervyn Jones. Alternate History approaches include Watchmen (graph 1987; with additional material 1988), with nuclear confrontation looming in the story's alternate 1980s; and Brendan DuBois's Resurrection Day (1999), in which the 1962 Cuba crisis took a different and disastrous turn. Weird World War IV (anth 2022) edited by Sean Patrick Hazlett, though its title implies an imminent resumption of combat, features stories set after World War Three has ended.

Although a nuclear World War Three is narrowly averted in Peter George's Two Hours to Doom (1958; vt Red Alert 1958) as by Peter Bryant and in Eugene Burdick's and Harvey Wheeler;s suspiciously similar Fail-Safe (13-27 October 1962 Saturday Evening Post; 1962), the movie versions were strikingly divergent. Fail Safe (1964) echoes the novel's painful diplomatic avoidance of war despite an accidental US nuclear strike on Moscow; but in Stanley Kubrick's black comedy Dr. Strangelove Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1963) – notionally based on Peter George's story – the holocaust and its aftermath are almost joyously embraced.

Also in Cinema, Invasion U.S.A. (1952; vt Invasion USA) offers a vision of nuclear war and Soviet Invasion as an awful warning of what will supposedly follow if the US defence budget is not maximized; another propaganda film is Rocket Attack U.S.A. (1961; vt Five Minutes to Zero), in which Soviet discovery (via Sputnik) of inadequate US anti-missile defences leads to the nuclear destruction of New York. Most of the world is destroyed in the Japanese World War III Breaks Out (1960), dubbed and edited for US television as The Final War (seemingly lost). Lord of the Flies (1963) – adapted from William Golding's novel – implies that World War Three is taking place offstage. The War Game (1965) presents – so very bleakly that its UK television showing was delayed by twenty years – the likely effects of a nuclear attack on Britain; The Day After (1983), with more melodrama and a Kansas setting, similarly excoriates the inadequacy of governmental civil defence preparations; in Threads (1984) the nuclear strike is on Sheffield, UK civil defence is shown as utterly inadequate, and there is a flash-forward to a grim Post-Holocaust future; the television mini-series World War III (1982) begins with Soviet invasion of Alaska and ends in mutual Holocaust; Amerika (1987) is another mini-series, largely a response to The Day After and heavy on right-wing Paranoia. A very late film portrayal of nuclear exchange with the USSR is By Dawn's Early Light (1990), based on Trinity's Child (1983) by William Prochnau.

A US nuclear defence Computer gets out of hand and negotiates directly with its Soviet counterpart in Colossus, the Forbin Project (1969; vt The Forbin Project), avoiding war at – it is suggested – too high a cost in human sovereignty. One US general's threat to launch missiles and initiate nuclear war becomes a Political bargaining point in Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977; vt Nuclear Countdown); in the end, war is again averted. WarGames (1983) presents US nuclear strategy as a Videogame-lookalike: a teenage hacker in search of fun penetrates the Department of Defense Computer and almost precipitates a final war. This may well have been inspired by the actual arcade game based on an ultimately doomed defence of Cities against nuclear attack, Missile Command (1980). Final war is again averted in The Dead Zone (1983), adapted from Stephen King's novel. A Graphic Novel treatment of World War Three and its immediate UK aftermath is Raymond Briggs's When the Wind Blows (graph 1982), which deepens the gloom of The War Game by focusing on an elderly and uncomprehending couple; this became the animated film When the Wind Blows (1986). Miracle Mile (1988) tracks the final seventy minutes before the nuclear destruction of Los Angeles (see California) and environs.

In Futures Studies, World War Three was notoriously systematized by Herman Kahn in such works such as On Escalation: Metaphors and Scenarios (1965). This proposes a 44-rung "escalation ladder" of nuclear confrontation, climbing inexorably from "Ostensible Crisis" to "Spasm or Insensate War". George MacBeth's poem "Crab Apple Crisis" (October 1966 New Worlds) darkly and ironically shows a trivial quarrel between neighbours escalating rung by rung up the Kahn ladder. Some futurological examinations rather closer in tone to sf than Kahn's speculations are John Winthrop Hackett's The Third World War: August 1985: A Future History (1978) and The Third World War: The Untold Story (coll 1982), and George Friedman's The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century (2009). [DRL]

see also: Atomic Platters; Graham Hurley; Ian McEwan; Music; Terence Roberts; Theatre; Twilight: 2000.

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