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World War Two

Entry updated 24 October 2022. Tagged: Theme.

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The 1939-1945 War was the central military convulsion of the twentieth century, anticipated in numerous Future War scenarios and succeeded – thanks to the climactic use of Nuclear Energy-based Weapons against Japanese Cities – by several Cold War decades overshadowed by the prospect of a nuclear World War Three. The continuing sense that Germany's defeat in the European arena had been far from inevitable spawned a substantial Alternate History subgenre discussed at length in the entry Hitler Wins. Sf has much less to say about the Nazi Holocaust; but see Holocaust Fiction.

Post-World War One fictions anticipating (see Prediction) some more or less recognizable version or aspect of World War Two – though never plumbing its full horror – include Eugene P Lyle Jr's The Great War of 1938 (September 1918 Everybody's Magazine; 1918 chap); E Phillips Oppenheim's The Wrath to Come (February-May 1924 Everybody's Magazine; 1924); Hanns Gobsch's Wahn-Europa 1934: Eine Vision (1931; trans Ian Fitzherbert Despard Morrow as Death Rattle 1932); Rudyard Kipling's play The Pleasure Cruise (11 November 1933 Morning Post; 1933 chap); S Fowler Wright's Prelude in Prague: The War of 1938 (1935 Sunday Dispatch as "1938"; 1935; vt The War of 1938 1936); Brian Tunstall's Eagles Unrestrained (1936); and, shortly before war was declared, Nevil Shute's What Happened to the Corbetts (1939; vt Ordeal 1939) with its Near Future description of Southampton being bombed. George Bernard Shaw's Back to Methuselah (1921; revs 1921-1945) briefly looks back from 3000 CE to the war of 1914-1918 and its successor "about ten years later" when "seven of the capital cities of Europe were wiped out of existence." A Cinema anticipation of the war is Men Must Fight (1933). Pre-War art – whether from the left, as in "Guernica" (1937) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), or from the right, as in "The Great Helmsman" (1939) by Ernesto Thayaht (1892-1959) – seems in its radical procedures to have anticipated the publicly unanticipated horrors of the conflict to come; art generated during the conflict tended to be conceptually less daring, though what it presented to the eye was very frequently intolerable.

The Counter-Earth of Ben Barzman's Out of this World (1960; vt Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star 1960; vt Echo X 1962) is essentially an Alternate-History setting in which World War Two never happened. Further alternate-history scenarios range from chillingly plausible – like the strand of Christopher Priest's elusive The Separation (2002) predicated on a "separate peace" deal between England and Germany, with the scattered Jews rehomed in Madagascar – to almost comically bathetic, as in Harry Turtledove's Worldwar sequence opening with Worldwar: In the Balance (1994), in which the direction of the war is radically altered in mid-1942 by an Invasion mounted by Starship-borne Aliens who are reminiscent (despite their overwhelming firepower) of the slightly slow-witted extraterrestrials in much sf by Christopher Anvil or Eric Frank Russell. Turtledove continued to ring the changes on World War Two in his six-book Darkness series, opening with Into the Darkness (1999), which reimagines the war as Hard Fantasy [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below] with a broadly similar succession of events – including an occult equivalent of the Manhattan Project – but renamed countries and many modifications or inversions of detail.

In Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream (1972), Hitler is no leader but a pulp sf novelist whose perfervid obsessions – racial purity, phallic Weaponry, military spectacle – inform a cleverly horrific Satire of Nazi ideology; another alternative career for Hitler is that of a Berlin police captain in Michael Moorcock's "The Pleasure Garden of Felipe Sagittarius" (September 1965 New Worlds as by James Colvin). Alfred Coppel's The Burning Mountain: A Novel of the Invasion of Japan (1983) prolongs the Japanese war following a plausible delay in atomic bomb development. David Britton's Lord Horror (1989) and its comics adaptation treat the whole fracas as gonzo Satire, with frequent resort to "gross-out" ploys. Japan wins through a 1939 Pearl Harbor attack in G Miki Hayden's Pacific Empire (coll of linked stories 1998); Japan fights on the side of the Allies in the rearranged historical back-story of 2009: Lost Memories (2002); Japan ends the war under partial Soviet occupation in Makoto Shinkai's film Kumo no Mukō, Yakusoku no Basho (2004; vt The Place Promised in Our Early Days, 2004 US). John Birmingham's Axis of Time sequence, opening with Weapons of Choice (2004), introduces twenty-first-century soldiers and Weapons into the war. Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007) sees Berlin nuked and the Jewish homeland relocated at least temporarily to Alaska.

Eliminating Hitler altogether – sometimes via Time Travel – in advance of the war is a fairly common theme, which may lead to a better world as in Jerry Yulsman's Elleander Morning (1984), or a worse one as in Stephen Fry's Making History (1996). The war is otherwise averted, not always to happy effect, in the Alternate World of Sideslip (1968) by Ted White and Dave Van Arnam, featuring a 1938 Alien incursion; in R A Lafferty's fantasy "The Three Armageddons of Enniscorthy Sweeny" (in Apocalypses, coll 1977); and in Martin J Gidron's The Severed Wing (2002).

Time Travel or Timeslip visits to this war which do not actually spin off an Alternate History include Robert C Lee's Once Upon Another Time (1972); Matthew J Costello's Time Warrior #1: Time of the Fox (1990), Melvin Burgess's An Angel for May (1992) and Cherie Bennett's, Joshua Dann's Timeshare: A Time for War (1999) and Cherie Bennett's and Jeff Gottesfeld's Anne Frank and Me (2001). The apparent Time Loop of a recurring day in wartime 1940 in Nicholas Fisk's bleak A Rag, a Bone, and a Hank of Hair (1980) proves to be a Drug-induced Virtual Reality.

While World War Two was inevitable or actually in progress, many stories injected sf devices into the conflict. The development of a German super-plane threatens Allied hopes in George Gibbs's The Silver Death (1939); a new alloy that will revolutionize British air technology is the McGuffin of Hammond Innes's The Trojan Horse (1940); Britain's trump card is a secret Channel Tunnel in Graham Seton's The V Plan (1941); Nazi researches into Matter Transmission go dangerously awry in A E van Vogt's "Secret Unattainable" (July 1942 Astounding); an imagined German stealth Invasion of England is central to the propaganda film Went the Day Well? (1942); Henry Kuttner's "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" (January 1943 Astounding) introduces a compulsive Meme-jingle that will damage the German war effort and (perhaps superfluously) drive Hitler mad; another German superplane features in Leslie T White's 5,000 Trojan Horses (1943); the hero of Walter Karig's Zotz! (1947), published soon after the war, is prevented by US bureaucracy from using his death-bringing Superpower in combat. Wonder Woman, a more traditional Superhero character launched in 1941-1942, was much involved in anti-Nazi efforts both in Comics and in the later Wonder Woman Film/TV spinoffs. The Near Future Japanese (see Yellow Peril) Invasion and destruction of Los Angeles is central to Whitman Chambers's overwrought Invasion! (1943). Rebuilding a defeated Germany was considered in Vernon Bartlett's Tomorrow Always Comes (1943).

Post-war Nazi resurgence features in a great many stories including Mea Allan's Change of Heart (1943), Philip Wylie's "The Paradise Crater" (October 1945 Blue Book), Agatha Christie's Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) and George Bernau's Black Phoenix (1994); this became a well-worn Cliché of thrillers and Technothrillers, as did the quest for some valuable or dangerous McGuffin left over from Hitler's regime. The latter theme is developed bizarrely in the 1975 Illuminatus! trilogy by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, and with great ingenuity by Neal Stephenson in Cryptonomicon (1999).

Numerous authors were permanently marked by their experiences in World War Two, including J G Ballard, as recounted in Empire of the Sun (1984) and Miracles of Life (2008); Jerzy Kosinski; Primo Levi, a survivor of the concentration camps; and Kurt Vonnegut, whose personal memories of the Dresden firestorm are central to Slaughterhouse-Five, or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death (1969).

Relevant anthologies include The Fantastic World War II (anth 1990) edited by Frank D McSherry Jr, Martin H Greenberg and (anonymously) Charles G Waugh, and A Date Which Will Live in Infamy: An Anthology of Pearl Harbor Stories That Might Have Been (anth 2001) edited by Brian M Thomsen and Martin H Greenberg. [DRL]

see also: Command & Conquer; Computer Wargame; Richard Cox; John Creasey; Shaw Desmond; First Person Shooter; Michael Foot; Sesshu Foster; Jon George; Godlike; Hinko Gottlieb; Barbara Hambly; Online Worlds; Roy J Snell; Star General; Paul Tabori; Urban Legends; Gore Vidal; Wargame.

further reading

See also the further reading lists for Hitler Wins and Holocaust Fiction.


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