Scott Westerfeld explains why World War I should be the new World War II

Today sees the release of Scott Westerfeld's and Keith Thompson's long-awaited third book in the Leviathan trilogy, Goliath. And we can't wait for a third dose of alternate-history World War I, with all the mechs and genetically engineered airships. (And to celebrate, here's a lovely new piece of artwork. Check out the full version below.)


World War I, it turns out, is an awesome setting for alternate history and science fiction. It's full of trenches, death machines, geopolitics, old-world traditions, and carnage — and yet most SF authors seem to focus more on World War II, with its tried-and-true Nazis and nukes. We asked Westerfeld and Thompson to explain to us why World War I should be the new World War II.

Here's what Westerfeld told us:

When you add the word "machine" to the word "gun," and then kill several million people with the result, the romance of the machine fades a little. By introducing tanks, aircraft, and chemical weapons to the battlefield, the Great War not only established modern technology as the basis of power in the world, but also overturned a lot of chivalric notions of bravery and masculinity. Suddenly warfare wasn't about a nation's mettle so much as its metal.

The Second World War brought these technologies into their recognizable modern forms, but the Great War shows them in their bizarre, sometimes comical (to us, anyway) nascent stage. It's full of three-winged airplanes, dirigible bombers, and tanks designed by the Royal Navy - land dreadnoughts! As such, it's a rich vein of technological what-ifs, and a textbook case of collisions between old beliefs and the realities of a new world.


And here's what artist Keith Thompson added:

I tend to view both World Wars as a linked, if not a singular event (the space between the wars was exactly right to regrow a new generation of young men.) World War I was the face of European civilisation prior to its compulsion to commit mass suicide; it's really a separate culture. World War II was the young face of the new world that was being ushered in. The spectre of World War II is finally starting to fade. Since our culture doesn't seem to enjoy looking forward to anything, it's a great time to try to look back into the past. So many things have gotten better in the past century, but going back to World War I can show all the things we've lost at exactly the moment we all decided to start destroying them.


So besides the Leviathan trilogy, what other books explore alternate histories or science fictional versions of World War I?

Not surprisingly, alternate history master Harry Turtledove has spent a lot of time dealing with World War I, most notably in his The Great War series. (Although actually, the series is really a continuation of Turtledove's massive arc about the South winning the Civil War, after which both the Confederate States of America and the United States get involved in the Great War.)


And then there's The Bloody Red Baron by Kim Newman, a sequel to his Dracula novel Anno Dracula, which takes place during World War I and involves German vampire fighter pilots.

There's also Kurt Busiek's excellent comic Arrowsmith, in which the First World War is fought with magic, including dragons.


And some of the anime verison of Full Metal Alchemist takes place in a version of World War I-era Germany.

So what other great World War I stories have there been? And why don't we see more of them?


Thanks to Miguel Lopez, Jeremy Antley, Rory, Jeff Carlisle, Brandon Shiflett and everybody else who suggested stuff.

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