Hackett’s The Third World War

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally read Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War. The best I can say about it is that it set up the (minimal) backstory for Team Yankee, enabling Coyle to concentrate fully on the action without as many infodumps.

Compared to it, I consider Red Storm Rising and Larry Bond’s own works to be Nobel Prize-worthy by comparison. If I think Cauldron or Red Phoenix would be considered mediocre middle-of-the-road technothrillers if they were written later and by someone else, I think The Third World War would be a bottom-of-the-barrel example if it was written later.

First, it’s incredibly dated. And not just dated in the sense of politics, or dated and biased in its supervillain Soviets[1]. Its problem is that if a reader (especially a reader with hindsight) knows anything about the subject at hand, there’s no “wow” factor. This is a problem with Red Storm Rising. It’s a bigger problem with Hackett.

Why it’s a bigger problem is the near-total lack of any kind of narrative control, as it wobbles back and forth from token gap-filling cutout characters to complete infodumps. The character scenes, especially the Soviet ones, are almost painful to read. It has contrivances. One is NATO’s victory, which I’ve heard was changed from the first drafts. A far bigger one is the Minsk-Birmingham nuclear exchange, where nuclear war is treated like hitting batters with baseballs (you hit one of my cities/batters, I hit one of yours, and it stays “under control”). The contrivances would be forgivable if there wasn’t so little “meat” that they stand out. It feels like only the most half-hearted attempt at sorta kinda looking like a story was made.

All of my annoyance buttons are pushed. I’ve seen its legacy, which makes it not only a dated book, not only a thinly veiled “more spending on the army, please” tale, but a bad influence. Granted, it may not bear that much responsibility, but it couldn’t have helped from people who saw it as an example. I believe it to be an example of how one should not write a WWIII story.

[1]Team Yankee has the same problem, but has a flowing action story to go with it. This does not.


One thought on “Hackett’s The Third World War

  1. I’m mostly in agreement with you about The Third World War. It isn’t a “fun” read, it’s undeniably dated, and very badly thought out in respects, in part because of the propaganda element. (Viktor Suvorov reportedly came up with the political premise when the publisher put together the team that actually wrote it.)

    But I do think it’s worth remembering that the book takes the form of a work of future, imaginary history, rather than a conventional novel. And taken on those terms it seemed to me very impressive in its efforts at verisimilitude (the historians’ comments and fake documents and maps and photos of the rest), with only one real, earlier point of comparison–William Le Queux’s Invasion of 1910, the high point of the pre-World War I invasion story (such as it is), and which I think inspired it. It should be remembered, too, that when we look back at the founding works of a genre, in hindsight what they usually accomplish is to stake out a certain “imaginative territory.” Others come in, and while less original, are more artful in what they do with it, so that when we take the good, hard look at the founders, that “bottom of the barrel” evaluation of the first works are pretty commonplace. (Red Storm Rising, for instance, seems to me to have mostly reused this scenario, with quite a bit of Frederick Forsyth’s The Devil’s Alternative mixed in–I’ve been working on a piece about this myself–but produced something more novelistic and, for most, more entertaining.)

    By the way: from the propaganda standpoint, this one’s actually pretty restrained next to the sequel (in part, I think, because it contained so much more about the Soviet side of the war, with all its flaws, but I suspect because of the political shift between the late ’70s and “New Cold War” early ’80s as well).

    Liked by 1 person

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