The Big Idea: Sean Patrick Hazlett
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.”