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

Illustration for article titled 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.)

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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.

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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.

Illustration for article titled Scott Westerfeld explains why World War I should be the new World War II

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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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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?

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

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DISCUSSION

jamesryan04
James Ryan

In answer to the later question first, the First World War is not exactly one of the easier periods to get a handle on from a writer’s perspective.

Unlike the Second World War, which had (in hindsight) easily identifiable themes and personalities that one could quickly grasp and identify with, the defenders of Western ideals at their finest versus cold totalitarianism (and yes, that’s a simplification), the First World War was waged by states and leaders who were for all intensive purposes un-relatable. The states that made up the Triple Entente and the Central Powers were all engaged equally in pursuing colonial empires that provided prestige that was valued higher than what (meager) economic benefits could come from overseas. And all participants were drawn into the war not so much out of a desire to take up arms as just blundering into the conflict because automatic fail-safes through their alliances got tripped thanks to an accident.

The war started after Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated by Bosnian nationalists, which the Austrian-Hungarians blamed on the Serbs, whom the Russians sides with, and by so doing drew in the Germans, who did not have a war plan that didn’t involve attacking the French, which pulled in the English because the best plan they had involved invading Belgium. And if this sounds convoluted, well, yes it was, although Barbara Tuchman’s THE GUNS OF AUGUST does a pretty good job of straightening this all out. The closest equivalent to this mishigas can be found in fictitious assumptions that World War III could be started by an accidental early warning system putting US and Soviet missiles on instant launch; that fact that it took weeks instead of seconds for the leaders of these states to let war engulf them is a concept that most modern readers would be hard pressed to swallow.

Once the war was under way, the stupidity continued for four years as large amounts of men and materiel were fed to the front for very little gain in the west, and for two thirds of the conflict on the eastern front. The conflict can best be characterized by the Battle of Verdun, a ten month slugfest in 1916 that cost 300,000 lives and resulted in a stalemate where both the French and Germans at the end of it had nothing to show for their efforts. France almost dissolved into revolution by the end of the fight, much the way the Russians would the next year.

In fact, one could make the case that we could find more WWI AltHis if we consider the Russian Revolution to be a theater of the First World War as opposed to a separate event unto itself. As the war had destabilized the Romanovs, and Lenin’s trip to Finland Station in St. Petersburg had been made possible by the Germans who hoped to use him to knock the Russians out of the fight, it’s a fair argument to make.

That all said, about the only work that comes to mind not already mentioned in the article is Michael Moorcock’s THE STEEL TSAR, where the alliances before the war get refigured and Communism does not get a chance to establish itself in Russia. But as you can see from the above, there’s a good set of reasons why the pickings in AltHis set in this time are kind of thin…