World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Lusitania”

Cover by Wayne Miller

It’s been too long since I’ve done one of these, and I want to get back to the series.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Lusitania”, William Meikle, 2011. 

The purpose of this series is to look at how fantastic fiction uses the reality of World War One. Are the details cited accurate? How does the author use those details?

Remember, this series is about literal, not metaphorical, uses of the Great War experience. It will not cover alternate histories though some works I’ll be examining were written before the war ended.

I’ve reviewed Meikle’s tale already. This will concentrate on one particular aspect of the tale. Continue reading

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Deaths of Jeremiah Colverson”

“The Deaths of Jeremiah Colverson”, George Wilhite, 2015.

This story shows a token use of World War One. It does not use images from the war as a short hand to evoke horror, a technique I suspect was used less and less as those who lived through the war died off.

Here the war is just another variation on a common experience. Specifically, the story deals with an American soldier killed in his country’s civil war, the first of its civil wars it turns out.

But, unlike his fallen comrades, he will not join Death and “refuses to learn the dance and follow him to the River Styx”. Jeremiah pleads he is a failure, there is still more he can do for his fellow soldiers, more heroics to perform.

Death describes what happens next:

You felt like a failure. You begged me for more time. Jeremiah’s time is up, I told you. But I’ll see what I can do.”

Death arranges a new identity for Jeremiah. A soldier in World War I on the German front lines, John Carter, is taken to the Underworld prematurely, his soul replaced by Jeremiah’s. This process is repeated two more times— Jack Corelli, World War II, and Joshua Campbell, Vietnam.

That is the sole mention of World War One in the story, merely one link in a series of repeating events. Other American wars could have been substituted and the narrative remain unchanged.

The hero, incidentally, finally accepts his death — in the Fourth Civil War of the United States of America.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve”

The Far Side of the Bell-Shaped Curve“, Robert Silverberg, 1982.

Franz Ferdinand, red-faced and tense in preposterous comic-opera uniform, waved half-heartedly to the bleakly staring crowd. Drab, plump Sophie beside him, absurdly overdressed, forced a smile. They were meaty-looking, florid people, rigid and nervous, all but clinging to each other in their nervousness.

“Now it starts,” he said.

“Yes. The foreplay.” She slipped her arm through his.”

And so our lovers, the time travelers Reichenbach and Ilsabet, have their first encounter one summer day in the Sarajevo of June 28, 1914.

And the climax of an age, and a sort of sublimated climax for our lovers: Continue reading

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Old Virginia”

Old Virginia“, Laird Barron, 2003.

In 1959, in the woods of West Virginia, a secret CIA research takes place to test the psychic abilities of an old woman. It is hoped she will be a potent weapon in the Cold War. She does turn out to be a weapon — but for something far older and much more inhuman than either the United States of America or the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

The narrator is about 70 years old. He has spent a lifetime doing covert missions for America and seeing many theaters of war — unlike the men he administers on this, his final project.

None of them had been in a war. I’d checked. College instead of Korea for the lot. Even Dox had been spared by virtue of flat feet. They hadn’t seen Soissons in 1915, Normandy in 1945, nor the jungles of Cuba in 1953. They hadn’t seen the things I had seen. Their fear was the small kind, borne of uncertainty rather than dread. They stroked their shotguns and grinned with dumb innocence.

In case you are wondering, American troops were in no way at Soissons in 1915 nor could I find record of any major fighting in the area in 1915. Likewise, Normandy was firmly in Allied hands in 1945. Batista was in power in 1953’s Cuba, and the CIA was not running operations against him.

So, Barron uses Soissons — where American troops did fight in 1918 — as part of a supersecret history of American covert activity.

More conventional is Barron’s second use of the Great War — as shorthand for twentieth century horror, indeed its opening act. And also a resume enhancer for what an ancient entity has in mind for man:

“We need men like Adolph, and Herman, and their sweet sensibilities. Men who would bring the winter darkness so they might caper around bonfires. Men like you, dear Roger. Men like you.” Virginia ended on a cackle. Hiroshima bloomed upon my mind’s canvas and I nearly cried aloud. And Auschwitz, and Verdun, and all the rest. Yes, the day was coming.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: References but nothing on stage.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “The Foundation”

The Foundation”, Andrew Leon Hudson, 2014.

The paradox of this story is that World War One, the war that has been blamed for shattering the self-confidence of Western Civilization and weakening the political and literal immunological systems of millions and exposing them to totalitarian plagues and the Spanish Flu, is not even a memory.

The Great War here exists only in mystical visions and in the memory of a political elite.

The plot is simple enough. At some point in some alternate timeline, the narrator, Karl, and the construction crew he heads up, get on a steam train and travel to the Westerly Fields.

The land is beautiful. As different from my home as a land could be, but still beautiful. No high mountains, no deep forests, no undulating valleys; it stretches to the horizon as smooth and level as an ocean, high lush grass its waves. From time to time islands break the endless green; there, a great, lone tree, heavy branches sweeping the ground like a cloud of leaves; hours later another, surrounded by saplings like a mother with her children; and, as night falls, a cluster of low stone walls, last small remnants of ancient buildings, and we all crowd to one side of the carriage to point and wonder who might have once lived in this vast garden, long forgotten.

At a construction site, Karl meets an old friend, a fellow engineer named Gerhardt. Gerhardt reveals that Karl’s crew is there to build the foundation for a massive statue hundreds of feet high:

… a strident figure, noble in form, classic in style: an archetypal warrior, naked but for crested helmet, pleated skirts and sandalled feet, one hand resting on the pommel of the sword sheathed on its hip.

And the mysterious monument is to have a viewing area where, on a particular date, an assembled group from the Empire’s elite will watch the sun rise along the trailing leg of the statue, behind the torso and up the upstretched arm and balance itself on its palm.

The date? “Eleven, eleven, eleven.”

Neither Karl or Gerhardt have any idea of the significance of the date which in our world is, of course, associated with the armistice that ended the Great War.

As Karl digs on the site with his men (evidently this world doesn’t have backhoes or other mechanical digging equipment), he begins to have dreams and visions. His shovel begins to dig not in dirt but “bodies, corpses with familiar faces, parting with softness of flesh and the splintering of ribcages beneath our blunt, heavy blades.”

He begins to have visions in the day that other men, men of sunken eyes and grey flesh, men not of his crew, are digging with him.

Why, Karl asks Gerhardt, are they on a secret project in a deserted land, land preserved by emperors for who knows how long?

Gerhardt replies:

“Maybe … there is something historical here, of powerful interest to the imperial family, which he now wishes to acknowledge in this grand way. Whatever it is, our duty is to obey, and make his wishes actual.”

“What do we seek to memorialize in ignorance?” asks Karl.

As he continues to dig, in an unwitting, unphysical archaeology, Karl sees a dying soldier. And that soldier blends into a mystical, waking vision of vast and forgotten and mechanical forces at work in a past war. It is a vision of two warring giants, machines composed of smaller parts .

Karl’s final meditation and question, as he continues work on the Foundation, is how so many dead men were not only lost to war but memory.

Hudson story is enigmatic. Why are the Westerly Fields vacant? Did the German Empire win the war in this timeline? Did they depopulate the land they conquered? And why wipe the memory of victory out?

Hudson has done something rather remarkable in this story. Yes, he, like so many authors, has used World War One as a metaphor. But it is an unusual, startling metaphor that brings to mind the fumbling and forbidden attempt by those in totalitarian regimes to capture memories of history. And it is audacious to imagine a history where the Great War is the Forgotten War.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes — via mystical vision.
  • Belligerent Area: No.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “One Man’s War”

One Man’s War“, G. L. Lathian, 2014.

It doesn’t take long, in this story, to find out it takes place in a secret history or alternate history.

We hear, as a woman interviews one Lutz Bergmann, that the “real Adolf Hitler” died in an asylum years ago. It wasn’t the death Bergmann planned when he shot Hitler in the back of the head all those years ago.

Off the record, Bergmann reveals his final secret, the one regret of his life.

His story goes back to October 1914. Bergmann meets Hitler in the enlistment line, seemingly for Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment 16 which is where he served in our timeline. The two become fast friends. They even look alike. And Hitler is easy to like.

In battle, a “bond forged in blood” forms between the two. Both are aggressive and ambitious. But Hitler is more – observant, on the make, constantly observing and theorizing about human behavior. Hitler even runs an experiment on his theory of the “big lie” and convinces a private his perfectly normal dentition is off-center.

Hitler, says Bergmann, was a genius, his casual remarks set Bergmann thinking about them for hours. Both are German nationalists though neither are German. Bergmann was born in South Africa. Hitler is, of course, Austrian. Both think “We’re run by rich politicians that claim we all live equally, yet are they down here on the frontlines, shovels in hand, digging in for the night with the rest of us?”

There, the similarity ends. Bergmann identifies Jews as those rich politicians. Hitler does not.

The two are separated when Hitler is reassigned to the regimental staff. Years later, though, they are reunited when both are wounded and sent to the hospital.

Hitler doubts the cause they fight for: “We fight for nothing and for that reason we’ll lose this war. … Will duty be enough to win this war?”

In the days of their recovery, they play chess, discuss the great men of history – Sun Tzu, Genghis Khan, Napoleon, Frederick the Great, “men that would be remembered by ink and memory long after their bones turned to dust”.

One day, unable to resist the allure of Hitler’s most private thoughts, Bergmann sneaks a look at Hitler’s diary.

Hitler, he finds out, thinks his constant ranting about Jews makes him uneasy about his relationship with Bergmann.

The two separate again and, when on leave with some other soldiers in Munich, Bergmann decides to do what Hitler will not: put his theories into practice. He leads some other soldiers in beating a Jew.

In his first unequivocal evasion, Bergmann claims the beating only broke some ribs, blackened an eye. Actually, the Jew died.

Bergmann and Hitler are reunited one last time “in Cormines” (I haven’t been able to find out if that’s a real place). Hitler, a corporal, takes charge of a unit as the highest ranking officer. Before the two make one last charge, they have an uneasy exchange.

Talking about their plans after the war, Hitler frankly disagrees when Bergmann says he sees Hitler ruling men after the war,

“My ideas aren’t right for this time.”

… “I believe they are. Perhaps you’re just not the right man for the moment.”

… “Lutz, war has changed you … Or maybe I have.”

As Hitler goes over the top, Bergmann stays behind, shoots Hitler, and leaves him for dead.

It’s at this point that the tension and curiosity of the story evaporate when the authors (G. L. Lathian is actually Garret Streater and Luke Jessop) release the conceptual bonds. What could have become an interesting alternate or secret history fizzes.

We learn no consequential details about Bergmann’s reign — only that he seems to have been a leader, “a man whose legacy can be seen by the millions of crosses and unmarked graves scattered across the world.” And then we get a predictable revelation — Bergmann hates Jews out of a loathing of his own Jewishness.

Certainly the chaos hinted at by Bergmann’s killing a Jew in Munich around the end of the war is congruent with the social unrest, the riots and mutinies, that were convulsing the last days of the German Empire. The main attraction though is not World War One but Hitler the man.

The socialist ideas he hints at were part of Hitler’s thoughts. Are the authors implying, or at least making us consider, that things might have been better for Germany if Hitler’s style socialism minus the anti-Semitism would have replaced the German Empire?

And who is Bergmann’s interrogator? This timeline’s version of a Nuremburg prosecutor? A psychologist?

More of a starting point for a longer work than a satisfying story.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: Yes.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.


World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “On the Cheap”

On the Cheap“, Dan Bieger, 2014.

It is Oct. 25th, 1920 at a Dublin pub.

A crowd sits and listens to Jimmy Choice spin his tale of wartime service. He is modeled on James Joyce and that pun is by no means the last in this humorous tale. (The real James Joyce, incidentally, spent most of the Great War living in Zurich.)

Choice served in the “mostly unpublicized, Not-Royal-At-All Dublin Fey Detachment.” Or, as he explains, “We Fey, we happy Fey, we wee band of Others.” One V. A. Yates urges him on. (Don’t worry, you’ll decode the man behind the pun when he opens his mouth.)

We then get a tale of how Sergeant Cork, a fey, shapeshifter, penetrates German lines and impersonates a German lieutenant. He thwarts the defense to a British assault on the line and captures many prisoners singlehandedly. The author’s afterward cites the wartime exploits of American Alvin C. York.

To my mind, the only bits of note involve poetry. There is a humorous fey version of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Irish Guards“. And Bieger raises a pint to just how much the poet has trumped the historian in modern “memories” of the war. Jimmy Choice says, upon coming to the Western Front,:

The scene awaitin’ me eyes was not much different than the trench in which I stood an’ very much as reported in all the better poetry of our time . The trash, the wire , the bits of uniform, the stench, the mud, the blood, an’ the fear. Not unexpected, you know, but a bit off-putting jist the same.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Tradition”

Tradition“, Elizabeth Moon, 1998

On the outbreak of World War One, two dreadnoughts were being finished up in British shipyards. They had been ordered by the Turkish government and paid for by public subscription.

Winston Churchill decided they would not be delivered to the Ottoman Empire, and England bought them from the shipyard.

Two German battlecruisers, the Breslau and Goeben, were in the Mediterranean at the end of July 1914 having just made a goodwill visit to Constantinople. Their commander placed them in position to attack French troop transports as soon as war was declared. The German Empire and France became official enemies on August 3, 1914.

The British Mediterranean Fleet shadowed the German ships expecting hostilities soon between Britain and Germany. When war was declared between Britain and Germany on August 4, 1914, the Germans ships were pursued unsuccessfully. On August 10, 1914, they were safe in Turkish waters. They were “sold” to the Turks, and their crews donned fez and Turkish naval uniforms.

The results were, in retrospect, disastrous. Years later, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty during the event, said the escape of the two ships to Turkey resulted in “more slaughter, more misery, and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship.”

On October 29, 1914, Turkey joined the Central Powers. It didn’t have to happen that way, and that’s the point of Moon’s fine tale of naval combat.

In her story, the British do intercept the ships and sink the Goeben. (The wiki on the historical incident and story claims the Breslau is also sunk. Perhaps I’m just stupid or inattentive, but that doesn’t seem clear in the story or Moon’s afterword which mentions only the Goeben.) The British do lose four out of twelve ships.

It was not a foregone conclusion that Turkey would side with Germany. Britain and Turkey had fought together in the Crimean War. The Turks, like all up and coming countries with naval aspirations, looked to the British Navy as their model, and the British government sent them naval advisors. The Ottoman Empire had asked for an alliance with Britain a year before.

But, in our world, the Ottoman Empire did side with the Central Powers. The Russian Empire’s logistic problems were greatly complicated by not being able to resupply through the Dardanelles. The loss of the Ottoman’s Mid-Eastern territory provided France and Britain the opportunity to re-draw the political map in that area with questionable wisdom. Finally, the death of the Ottoman Empire was accelerated, and Turkey the nation was born.

The pivot point here is that the timid commander of the British Mediterranean Fleet, Admiral Milne, is not served by Admiral Troubridge but Admiral Christopher Cradock. A foxhunter thoroughly familiar with the sea he is chasing the Germans ships through, Craddock is wisely insubordinate and aggressive. Like Admiral Nelson, the man who willingly turned a blind eye to his flagged orders at the Battle of Copenhagen, Craddock disobeys Milne’s timid commands and endures the constant questioning of his subordinate Captain Wray, a man constitutionally incapable of taking the necessary risks.

The one problem with Moon’s story, its only problem, is that she violates one of the aesthetic principles of the true alternate history, which the story is clearly intended to be. She provides no plausible reason why Craddock is where history placed Troubridge.

The wiki entry on Craddock provides no rationale. At the outbreak of war, Craddock was in command of the North American and West Indies Station of the British navy.

It does, however, make an interesting connection between Craddock and Troubridge.

Craddock commanded the British navy at the Battle of Coronel. There he died along with 1,569 others after the British force engaged a stronger German one. Craddock made that decision because he was determined not to meet the fate of Troubridge who was court martialed for failing to stop the Groeben and Breslau.

Moon’s story is a well-worked out, if you grant her initial invention, look at the real history of World War One and one of its many possible turning points.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Jawohl”

Jawohl“, Wilson Geiger, 2014.

At the end of most of the stories in the anthology where this story appears, Wars to End All Wars: Alternate Tales from the Trenches, there is a link to the subject that inspired the story. The one for this one is “Nazi human experimentation”. It might have justly said “Wolfenstein” as in the old computer game because, at the end of this story, there is an image reminiscent of the cyborg Adolf Hitler of that game.

Geiger’s tale is well done, if thoroughly predictable, “man realizes he’s a monster” story. Specifically, a German veteran of Verdun is turned into a mechanical warrior. World War One is just a convenient setting.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.

World War One in Fantastic Fiction: “Wormhole”

Wormhole“, Lee Swift, 2014.

This is essentially an action horror story that is well done and uses the exotic, to modern eyes, trappings of World War One.

Our hero is German Lance-Corporal Albrecht Trumann. He is convulsing at a hospital when a Colonel shows up, awards him the Bavarian Merit Cross, and insinuates he’s a shirker: “Perhaps you were more comfortable enjoying the heat and light, cavorting with the fräuleins whilst your fellow countrymen do the fighting.”

After replying to the Colonel, that ” … I cannot speak to the presence of fräuleins in the trenches, but you seem to be under the impression that heat and light were absent from the holes in the ground we inhabited. I can assure you, we had both.”

After threatening to flay Albrecht alive for insubordination, the Colonel recruits him for a strange mission: to take a Panzer, a machine designed to burrow underground and take out a similar machine the British are thought to possess. The Germans army has aerial photographs that show:

the undeniable devastation of a German trench system. Cavernous dark holes roughly five yards in diameter dominate the photograph, along with tremendous mounds of mud cast across the floor.

“This was found by a relief battalion last month. No survivors were found. No bodies either. Soldiers followed the tunnels as far as they could, but none had props, and so the tunnels inevitably collapsed.”

The story seems to be set sometime in the first half of 1916. Albrecht is a veteran of Verdun, but the story makes no mention of tanks which made their debut at the Somme on September 15, 1916.

At the British trenches, the Panzer crew of nine discover there is no British version of their machine. A subterranean monster has been feeding on the British troops, but they meet a survivor. The Germans who have survived enemy fire hear the Tommy’s account as to what’s happened:

“It showed up about a month ago and began taking the men. They radioed their command, but were ordered to stay put and deal with it, but how can you deal with something like that? They expected to be relieved from the line, but no reserves arrived and his company’s been isolated from the rest of the line. None of them have dared flee for they could see it, scouring the no man’s land at night for food, feasting on the fallen. He says it’s more active on the eve of attacks . He thinks the shells hitting the earth somehow summon it.”

The survivors join forces to escape the monster. The end of the story makes me think of the famous Christmas Truce of 1914 (by no means widespread on the Western Front) and the live-and-let-live attitude adopted in some sectors, an informal and illegal effort by the troops to lessen the murder in their lives.

As moral men, men who may kill each other in the future, they have something in common:

For all their perceived faults, at least the British and I dare say the French have a moral stature. At least they’re not carnivorous monsters dwelling in abyssal burrows beneath the earth, waiting to feast on the remains of man.

World War One Content

  • Living Memory: No.
  • On-Stage War: Yes.
  • Belligerent Area: Yes.
  • Home Front: No.
  • Veteran: No.

More World War One in Fantastic Fiction.