The Big Idea: Sean Patrick Hazlett

The cover to Weird World War III

It might not surprise you that the stories in the fantasy collection Weird World War III have at least some basis in reality — the Cold War actually was thing, after all. But what might surprise you is which things were based in reality. Editor Sean Patrick Hazlett is here to lay all the weirdness out for you.

SEAN PATRICK HAZLETT:

In August 2008, I got a frantic call from David, a former classmate. His parents were trapped in the Republic of Georgia during the Russian invasion. He had one question: how could they flee the country without stumbling into Russian troops? 

So I pulled out a map, analyzed Georgia’s topography, identified high value targets, and mapped battalion mobility corridors. After I finished my assessment, I told him where the Russians would send their forces, which Black Sea ports they’d blockade, and what airfields their airborne units would seize. I recommended his parents travel only on mountain backroads. For extra safety, I advised they use some unorthodox camouflage techniques on their car so Russian aircraft wouldn’t target them.

The kernel of the Big Idea for Weird World War III began over two decades ago when I reported for duty to the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment. Known as the Blackhorse, my unit served as the US Army’s Opposing Forces (OPFOR) at the National Training Center, an installation near Death Valley roughly the size of Rhode Island. The US military conducts wargames there with hundreds of armored vehicles and thousands of soldiers. The Army’s training philosophy is based on the old adage, “The more you sweat in peace, the less you bleed in war,” so the OPFOR’s mission was to beat the “good guys” so badly they wouldn’t make the same mistakes in combat. We fought so many simulated battles we became extremely proficient in Soviet doctrine and tactics.

But my fascination with the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union began long before that. I was a child of the Cold War, growing up in the late 70s and 80s when the threat of nuclear annihilation loomed like a Sword of Damocles. I devoured thrillers like Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising, Ralph Peters’s Red Army, and Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee

During the Cold War, facts were often stranger than fiction. Dr. Ash Carter, my thesis advisor and Obama’s Secretary of Defense, once related an odd story about one of his early Pentagon assignments. Ensuring the survivability of a nation’s nuclear arsenal was and still is a bedrock of national security. To that end, the US and USSR relied on the nuclear triad of land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and strategic bombers to guarantee second-strike capability. In the late seventies, a newly deployed generation of Soviet ICBMs were accurate and destructive enough to wipe out US ICBMs in their hardened silos.

To mitigate this risk, the Pentagon examined multiple basing modes for the MX missile no matter how absurd. One idea was to circulate MX missiles on continuously mobile dirigibles. Besides being slow-moving targets, airships were exposed to an even more direct threat: gun enthusiasts. Apparently, Goodyear blimps operating over rural areas in states like Ohio (Dr. Carter specifically mentioned that state) accumulated hundreds of shotgun pellets each year. Suffice it to say, the Pentagon ruled out this option.

As crazy as nukes on airships may have seemed, it wasn’t the weirdest aspect of the Cold War. Secret projects on mind control, remote viewing, and the investigation of unidentified flying objects all had their bizarre moments in the sun. The US government ran a slew of real programs such as MKUltra, Sun Streak, Grill Flame, Stargate, and Blue Book that explored these strange phenomena as the arms race extended toward increasingly esoteric ways of waging war. Weird World War III explores those ideas and many more. It’s a love letter to a bygone era, when the world was simpler, but the stakes were existential—where one errant signal could unleash the dominos of mass destruction. 

The Big Idea for Weird World War III was inspired by the fusion of two seemingly unrelated concepts. The first was to explore how a war between the US and Soviet Union may have unfolded. The second was to give that conflict a weird fictional flavor. Think Tom Clancy meets H.P. Lovecraft. After all, what is the existential threat of nuclear annihilation but another manifestation of cosmic horror? After discovering H.P. Lovecraft, I became so enamored with the weird fiction genre that I quickly migrated to the works of Clark Ashton Smith, Algernon Blackwood, Robert W. Chambers, and Thomas Ligotti, among many others. Having original stories from some of today’s most talented weird fiction authors like John Langan and Nick Mamatas builds upon that legacy.

This anthology also honors the Blackhorse Regiment and the troopers who’ve served with it. Both contributor David Drake and I rode with the Blackhorse—he, in Vietnam and Cambodia, and I, in the Mojave Desert training the US military for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It is an homage to Blackhorse troopers like my friend and high school classmate, Captain Jay Harting, a brother-in-arms who’d died fighting with the Regiment in Iraq. Our daughters were born a day apart in the same hospital ward. Many of the soldiers he’d led in combat were the same soldiers I’d spent time with in the desert. 

Finally, Weird World War III is a tribute to Mike Resnick. A legend in the genre, Mike always made a point of giving back to the science fiction and fantasy community by taking new writers and editors under his wing. I consider myself one of his “writer children” as do several of the authors in this collection. It is with both great pride and profound sadness that I have the privilege of sharing one of his final stories in this volume. Mike’s advice and encouragement were instrumental in bringing this project to life. Without his guidance, this anthology would never have been possible.

Two weeks after my classmate’s call, David reached out to me again and said, “Sean, how the f**k did you know what the Russians were going to do?”

“For five years, I used their tactics against US forces,” I said, “and I can read a map.”

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Weird World War III: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the editor’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

12 Comments on “The Big Idea: Sean Patrick Hazlett”

  1. I doubt the blimps were riddled with shotgun pellets, they wouldn’t go that high (unless being shot at during takeoff or landing). Regular rifle bullets, yeah. I can see some yahoos shooing their rifles at a blimp.

  2. I enjoy anthologies, military SF/fantasy, alternate history, weird fiction; this seems like a book created to force me to click buy!

  3. Regarding rifle holes, that was a problem back in the days when blimps shared the skies with aeroplanes, according to a children’s encyclopedia article on blimps that I read back in the 1960’s, published even earlier.

  4. So you think military aircraft shot at civilian blimps in their own country for the LOLs? Or the yahoos learned to fly, got a plane, and took potshots at the blimps?

    That would be an interesting story in and of itself.

    Sorry for hijacking the thread John, Althea, and Sean.

  5. I started trying to write sci-fi way back in the 90s, inspired by the “Alternate” anthologies Resnick and Greenberg edited. I actually met Mike and got to thank him in KC at Worldcon years later! I’m getting this anthology; thanks for telling me about it!

  6. Anyone who thinks the real heat of the Cold War was in the 1970s and ’80s doesn’t remember the Cuban Missile Crisis first hand. I tried to dig a shelter in our crawl space with a pick axe and shovel at the age of 11. Did not work. Was confused that my Dad wouldn’t help out. Of course he thought it was useless if they really launched.

    It did not calm down after that. When I served in the USN in Key West there were still US Army missile bases hidden behind big banks of coral in 1970.

    But I’m sure this will be an interesting set of stories. Can’t believe Mike Resnick is gone.

  7. No, Jim the a., no. Back in the days of aviators (Amelia was called an aviatrix) the U.S. army airforce was quite small—I wouldn’t be surprised if the navy had more aeroplanes than the army did at that time.

    To strafe during peacetime was a court-martial offence—or would be, but ammunition was in very short supply. It was sometime after Pear Harbor that a U.S. admiral dared—after the Great Depression—to waste a perfectly good torpedo by firing it at a sea cliff and thus discovering, at long last, that torpedos wouldn’t detonate if they hit square on as they were supposed to.

    This after submariners kept hearing the thunk of a hit on an enemy vessel but no explosion—giving away their presence all for nothing.

    But farmers commonly owned rifles, and the percentage of yahoos was (at least) the same as it is today.

    Today we have trouble keeping idiots from shining lasers at medical and police helicopters. Or at lecturers and performers. Or from misusing drones… Friends don’t let friends break the law. Remember Jim, if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.

  8. I’ve regularly seen the Goodyear blimp flying over my area in central Georgia, and at fairly low altitude with no events in the area. They transition through here on the way to Florida events I suspect. They are certainly low enough to puncture with a common hunting rifle. As for a shotgun…I suspect it depends on the load. Unlikely with birdshot, but likely well within the range of heavier buckshot if it was directly overhead. In this area you still have to tell people not to fire a gun in the air on New Year’s Eve and many of the rural road signs have bullet holes. I’m certain blimps still get shot at by people.

    I read the excerpts yesterday, and I think I’ll pick up the book. Fun stories and I’m digging on the short-story format lately.

  9. Common sense 101: As people who have never touched a gun would know, a bullet fired straight up rises, comes to a stop, and returns at the original muzzle velocity; call it terminal velocity.

    How can idiots on New Year’s ignore that? But they do. Maybe they pray it will land in a field or trees.

    Lebanon, though, is more crowded.

    Another example of yahoos would be the opposition when Israel invaded Lebanon to get their two kidnapped soldiers back. On news reels the opposition, after the peace but before withdrawal, were shown emptying assault rifles in the air, and I saw at least one guy firing a shoulder rocket into a building. I later heard from an army general that police (not shown) had to go around smashing with batons to make people stop firing. Stupid yahoos… if police can have common sense, so should they.

  10. @Sean Crawford

    A bullet fired straight up that actually comes to a stop and then falls does NOT return at the original muzzle velocity. Its final speed is going to depend on a number of factors such as the shape of the bullet and its orientation as it falls. If the bullet doesn’t come to a stop before starting to fall (presumably because it was actually fired at a bit of an angle) then the speed is also going to depend on how much of the muzzle velocity it retains.

  11. Michael, I assume you say that gently, because what you say is more common sense 101…. Need I have said a bullet in a vacuum? It was solely because of nerds that I (needlessly?) added the phrase terminal velocity, because some Doctor Spock was sure to think the muzzle might be one or more meters off the ground. (In the show poor Spock didn’t do rounding of numbers)

    Meanwhile, the British manage their gun enthusiasts by providing very little habitat, while Canadian gun incidents are very seldom from long guns but normally from handguns, by criminals, usually smuggled in from “the states,” usually in their big U.S.-size city, Toronto.

    In my city this year, (the fourth largest in Canada) all the shootings have been by drug gang members. The police here say you can’t be shot unless you actively go looking for it. (Such as by arguing in a bar with a person of low self esteem late at night) Nothing random.

    Come to think of it, I have never seen a Canadian road sign with a bullet hole. Trivia Note: I knew my international hunting guide brother-in-law, Ron, trusted his city-slicker ex-army acquaintance, me, when he would walk in front of me as we were plinking with deer rifles. Meanwhile his girls, my nieces, we always kept in front of us, in extended line, as they plinked with 22.s.

    Trivia II: Ron guided Sylvester Stallone. You know in that first Rambo movie where all the lights in town go out? That actually had to happen, as this was before CGI. It was filmed in the Canadian town of Hope, in British Columbia.