Make-Believe Battles That Seem More Real Than History


Maybe it’s because I’ve been revisiting some old lore and fiction from BattleTech, or maybe it’s because I’ve gotten back to watching Legend of Galactic Heroes, an military sci-fi anime series that unfolds its critical battles with about as much attention to detail and context as a documentary. Whatever the reason, I’ve found myself thinking about my favorite completely fictional battles, the ones that are imagined and described in such detail that you can almost draw a map of them.

Tom Clancy and Larry Bond achieved military speculative fiction immortality with Red Storm Rising, which has a fictional depiction of a battle in the North Atlantic between a NATO carrier group and the Soviet air force. The ensuing chapter “Dance of the Vampires” tells the story of how complacency and tunnel vision on the part of the NATO commanders, coupled with over-reliance on their advanced technologies, leads them straight into a brilliantly-designed Soviet trap and results in the near annihilation of a Nimitz-class battle group. That battle, as well as a few great submarine combat sequences and some horrifically vivid depictions of armored warfare in Germany, has kept Red Storm Rising in rotation as one of my favorite “guilty pleasure” books even as its politics and much of its writing have aged terribly.

But I suspect one of the reasons the battle unfolds so vividly, with the NATO leadership plausibly opening themselves to a devastating surprise attack, is because the plotting for the battle took so many cues from Larry Bond’s famous wargame, Harpoon. With its fiction grounded in a realistic, chess-like naval wargame, each battle in Red Storm feels readily intelligible. By the midway point of the book, you’re so up-to-speed on anti-submarine tactics that you’re ready to step into the characters’ shoes and start doing doing convoy escort duty.

At the other end of the spectrum, though perhaps it’s of a piece with Red Storm Rising because it’s another story of militaristic hubris, is the Battle of Yonkers depicted in Max Brooks’ World War Z. Basically, with a zombie infection having overrun New York and panic beginning to spread across the country, the US military stages a massive set-piece extermination battle in Yonkers. They set up a gigantic kill-zone covered by tanks, artillery, aircraft, and infantry, then they lure a zombie mob into it.

'They Are Billions' screenshot courtesy of Numantian Games

The entire thing is described by one of the battle’s survivors, a grunt who watched the entire debacle unfold from the front row. He describes the slow-dawning horror as the military’s weapons, designed to destroy armor and shatter the morale of an enemy force, prove completely ineffective against waves of resilient, shambling zombies. Instead of the showpiece the military wanted to show they were ready to contain the problem, what gets broadcast across the country is the best military money can buy getting literally eaten alive by zombies.

It’s a vivid sequence, but it’s also one that works as a detailed metaphor for the blind spots caused by America’s form of techno-militarism, and what happens when theory-induced hubris encounters messy reality. With each additional page, you see the army’s battle plan coming undone, how each piece of technology and standard-operating procedure has doomed those soldiers to a trap of their own making. It’s also a great example of how World War Z uses the metaphor of a zombie apocalypse to examine the assumptions and weaknesses of the fraying neoliberal order of the 1990s and 2000s.

What about you? What are you favorite make-believe battles, and what’s the part that keeps you coming back to them?

Let me know in today’s open thread!

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at


Definitely not on the same scale as what Rob is talking about, but I find myself thinking about the final battle in Redwall a whole bunch. Jaques will be remembered for his great descriptions of food, but he was pretty good at painting the ebb and flow of battle well enough that I remember it 18 years later.


That series had some serious brutality in it. I remember a spear killing the rat in Outcast, the water poisioning I think it was Long Patrol or Salsmastron. It’s all kinda fuzzy now for me though.


I just started Battletech yesterday, and I went through the sequence early in the game where the coronation gets disrupted by an attack from another family (the uncle, I am not well-versed in the lore and forget all the names).

Something didn’t sit right with me. I think it can be explained by the power of narrative in history, as well as the blending of feudalism and space stuff.

So, you are told this story of the uncle who has been relentless in trying to make Princess Kamea “restore old glory of this dying empire” by creating a more authoritarian state and actively going against the enemies nibbling at the frontier (which is, uhhhh, OK dude, but whatever), or something to that effect.

It is an obvious signal that shit’s about to go down at the coronation - the narrative that the player is presented with makes it clear-as-day, the old protector guy says something doesn’t feel right, you start a tutorial in your mech on the day etc. Realistically, if this has been made so clear to you the player, it just felt so strange that this Princess (who is framed as naive, but come on) is so surprised at this betrayal.

This is the feudalism - space stuff melding. I mean, the narrative of a younger offspring being betrayed by a more experienced member of the family who explicitly is disagreeing with how the young would-be ruler thinks about the throne etc. is SO obvious from so many histories and pieces of media, that it just seems unbelievable that the Princess is so shocked at this development. Shocked, I tell you!

This is only further strengthened by all the lore I read as I was building my character (ahem, all the lore that was available in the game, because I am that guy. FYI my character is inspired by Indian revolutionary M.N. Roy and I’m happy I get to make up all this in my head). Clearly, this space universe is ruthless, cut-throat, and many of these empires are modelled on a variety of Earthly predecessors where betrayals like that would happen every other week.

What I thought was “real” in this “made-believe” story: what felt right is that during the battle, they basically only sent a few mechs and vehicles at you because it didn’t actually matter - the dropship with the Princess on it (who I am assuming survived, given the earlier cut-scene) was always going to be blown out of the sky as soon as it took off. Also - the barbarity of the event, as they made it clear that Uncle’s mechs were straight up pummelling through crowds of people, also seemed like a faithful representation of how a space coup might be conducted, given the overwhelming power of the war-making equipment available in this future.


Hmm, yep this is somewhat directly up my alley.

Glenn Cook’s Black Company series has some fairly interesting battle depictions throughout, from massive set-piece clashes to skirmishes, grueling sieges to desperate retreats. But the Battle of Charm sticks with me as a compelling take on the “desperate victory” fantasy trope. Even as the battle unfolds and the reader begins to realize how The Lady is spending her forces and most powerful minions in a way to produce a specific post-bellum status, the grinding and draining nature of the conflict on those taking part is told in a very engaging way. Rather than being about a glorious moment or moments which saves the day, the Battle of Charm feels throughout like the battle of attrition it is supposed to be.

Jerry Pournelle was a writer whose works and beliefs could often be…problematic, and yet there are a few works of his that I still cling to. Usually these are his collaborations with Larry Niven, but King David’s Spaceship is Pournelle’s alone and contains a battle/campaign I find very interesting. A veteran military leader from an early-Industrial Age world is stranded on another world with roughly High Medieval technology in a besieged city which is well-equipped but hamstrung by leadership which is disastrously unsuited to the current state of affairs. Knights on horseback are sent out in glorious charges, only to be butchered by light cavalry which outmaneuvers them, while the rest of the city watches and despairs. The offworlder hammers together an army from multiple social classes and marches out to meet an enemy which is completely unprepared for a cohesive combined-arms force with effective leadership, and does enough damage to the enemy to negotiate a peace.

These days I’ve studied period warfare enough to poke my share of holes in the various details of this battle, but overall I still enjoy it. It’s a more effective depiction of combined arms than many fantasy/quasi-historical books, and I especially enjoy the result not being an utter route or unqualified victory. The campaign ends with a negotiation, and a recognition that both sides will continue to exist largely unchanged after the present war is ended.

Roger MacBride Allen’s Allies and Aliens, actually a single-volume combination of two earlier novels, has a lot of interesting conflict both on land and in space. It’s also something I have recently begun recommending again since the primary antagonists for the book are descended from a group of American and European White Nationalists who colonized a planet and, after a they got their “ideal” civilization going, decided the peaceful League of Planets is ripe for conquest so why not start enslaving people and found an Empire. Yes, the bad guys are literally the Alt-Reich’s wet dream.

The Battle of Britannica sees the pride of the good guys’ Royal Brittanic Navy (just go with it) surprised and all but decapitated by a surprise bombardment of asteroids flung from linear accelerators on the fringe of their star system. With most of their flag officers and senior commanders dead, the surviving fleet must detect and destroy the follow-up attack by an enemy battlefleet. While the book has a somewhat outdated depiction of computers and is guilty of embracing tropes like Space Carriers, Allen does dive into the issues of how spaceships both can and cannot hide in the vastness of space and touches on issues many writers ignore such as the critical and vulnerable nature of support/supply ships accompanying a battlegroup and the necessity to maintain a fleet-in-being, even in the event of a defeat, in order to deter the enemy from moving with impunity.


One of my favorite examples of subversive historical fiction is the long-deleted but archived Wikipedia article on the Upper Peninsula War, which never actually happened but fooled early Wikipedia admins for years because the article’s writer put so much work into creating the story behind this fictional battle between Michigan and Canada over possession of the upper peninsula.

This leaves me ambivalent, I love the idea of using that medium to tell alternate histories like this, but it is, in the way that it was posted on actual Wikipedia, at least somewhat intended to be fraudulent. Now, of course, the article’s hosted off-site, so that’s not a problem so much anymore.


ArmA 3 has done a great job fleshing out its conflict between NATO and a fictional alliance called CSAT through various DLC, highlighting different fronts of the war and even what happened to civilians and aid workers.


Some exact opposite: Command and Conquer was a weird one that moved between modern-ish (first game is significantly closer to near-future setting) to alternative history (soft) scifi (Red Alert) and just super campy scifi (later C&C) all covered in the very “best” of FMV. It didn’t feel real, or make sense, and the battles wouldn’t hold up to anything like sustained thought. Hard leaning on stereotypes and outdated tropes abound.

And then they managed to make it somehow far far worse with the semi-reboot Generals that pushed a new near-future with almost “ripped from the headlines” faction stuff (if you’ve not played it, however racist and insulting you’re thinking, it’s probably worse).

Theoretically you’d expect plot about the US, China, and a generic Middle East terrorist faction to feel like a more realistic battle than stories about space-station living future-NATO and weird religious cult terrorists fighting over extra-terrestrial terraforming mineral deposits (or how the origins of that cult was in the Soviet Union, and that Albert Einstein had invented time travel and killed Hitler, thus triggering earlier NATO-Soviet hostilities). Somehow, they made a game about suicide bombers and US tech supremacy vs Chinese numerical might feel even less real. Maybe the intent was to similarly examine the fraying neoliberal order of the 1990s and 2000s, but it sure doesn’t hold up well.


I think in a weird way, a lot of this is why Fall of Reach and ODST were my favorite Halo games.

It wasn’t, at least in story, a romp through a battlefield, leaving a wake of destruction on your way to victory. They were unremarkable stories about small fights for survival.

Try to accomplish this objective. You might not. Retreat. There is no victory. Your ability, and equipment, and struggle are, at most, a small part of a larger story, trying to do your part, with the melancholy and chaos of a war destroying the world around you.

Which, if it exists in another game, hasn’t been something other games have really conveyed to me in a way I enjoyed or appreciated.


The battle scenes that R. Scott Bakker describes in his two (so far) Second Apocalypse series of books (the Prince of Nothing trilogy and the Aspect-Emperor tetralogy) are some of the most vivid and tactical I’ve ever seen in fiction period, much less high fantasy, all while maintaining an amazing flow and consistency of writing style with any writing on either side of the battles (or written as interstices). The battles stand out as really absorbing and engaging in particular in the more war-heavy entries in those series (The Warrior Prophet in the Prince of Nothing trilogy and The Great Ordeal and The Unholy Consult in the Aspect-Emperor tetralogy).

As an aside, The Thousandfold Thought in the first trilogy is easily the best high fantasy novel I’ve ever read, period, and I’ve read a ton of fantasy in my lifetime, it’s absolutely stunning on so many levels. I don’t want to spoil it as a series by saying what other genres it also dominates for me, but I think it’s not really a spoiler to say they’re also the best philosophical novels I’ve ever read (Bakker was one semester away from a PhD in Philosophy when he dropped out to research and blog about the intersection of neuroscience and philosophy of mind and the corporate and military applications that are resulting from people ignoring that intersection, and to write absolutely bleeding edge high fantasy and fair to middling mystery/thriller/detective fiction). The Second Apocalypse books can be a bit too grimdark and misogynist at times (and tw for rape/sexual assault), but I forgive it a lot of the latter because he’s saying something about fantasy writing/fantasy settings that is actually an indictment of misogyny (in fantasy writing, in philosophy and in history), it’s just a slow enough, complex enough and subtle enough burn you think he’s messing up until you get to the most recent couple books and realize what he was building up to. I don’t forgive it the excesses in grimdark tho bc it would’ve been a better series with the grimdark toned down about three notches from the 11 he cranked it to.

Still, absolutely the best battle scenes in fiction IMHO and certainly the most mind-bending philosophical novels since Frank Hebert’s Dune books, but more focused on philosophy and the more mind-bending for it. If you liked the part in God-Emperor of Dune where Leto’s omniscience is described from Leto’s perspective, you’ll love these books for Bakker’s extrapolation on that one note Hebert hit critiqued and explored in ever-greater depth as the Second Apocalypse unfolds.