Most of us can agree that real life wars are pretty horrible. But in the context of fiction – when the carnage is make believe and the bloodshed only exists in the mind of the reader – it creates unparalleled drama. Some of the greatest fantasy and science fiction writers of all time have crafted undisputed masterpieces around epic wars, and with Battle: LA reminding us how evergreen the concept can be, we thought we’d draw up a list of the ten best. We’ve ranked them according to prominence, influence and ability to facilitate good storytelling.
For eight issues of The Avengers, writer Roy Thomas and artists Sal Buscema, John Buscema and Neal Adams engulfed the Marvel Universe in a conflict the likes of which it had never seen. The shapeshifting Skrulls and gene-tampering Kree had been squabbling over Earth for millions of years – it constituted a strategically vital chunk of territory – and neither side wanted the locals asserting themselves. Enter the Avengers who, with a little help from Captain Marvel, lay the smackdown on them both. The arc helped demonstrate the grand scale of storytelling that superhero comics were capable of, and paved the way for similar mega-events in the future.
Star Trek’s optimistic vision of the future had little room for extended conflicts, and indeed the Federation’s greatest enemy – the Borg – engaged in singular, decisive battles rather than drawn-out wars. The Dominion War stands as the most notable exception, a lengthy and devastating conflict between the invading Dominion and the previously battling powers of the Alpha Quadrant. The concept carried a huge dramatic punch by testing the Federation’s ability to stand by its principles – notably in a masterful episode of Deep Space Nine when Avery Brooks’s Benjamin Sisko deceives the Romulans into entering the war – and in the compromised, inconclusive victory the heroes eventually secure.
Alternate history author Harry Turtledove has penned a number of outstanding novels exploring different outcomes of real-life conflict. The best of the lot begins with a one-of-a-kind notion, then plunges into an incredibly rich narrative spanning multiple decades. Alien invaders arrive in the year 1942, expecting to conquer primitive humans wielding swords and axes. Instead, they find industrial nations embroiled in World War II – nations that now need to put their differences aside and battle the common enemy. The Worldwar books are notable not only for their eerie plausibility, but by their understanding of actual history, and the way rival cultures and factions find their way to the messy middle between two opposing sides.
You want zombies? How about a decade-long battle for survival against hundreds of millions of them? People toss the word “reinvent” around very casually these days, but Max Brooks’s ingenious novel – filled with individual accounts of the great war against the zombie hordes – fits the description to a “t”. He retains George A. Romero’s cynical view of humanity, then inflates it to global proportions and fills it with marvelous detail. Like the other titles on this list, World War Z understands that wars move in unexpected directions, and that their ramifications defy any desire for a neat, conclusive victory.
We’re still waiting on Blood and Chrome to get the details on this, but what we know from the Battlestar Galactica reboot is enough to land it in the (ahem) Number Six spot. Though created to serve man, the robotic Cylons eventually rebel against their masters: sparking a twelve-year conflict that ended with an inconclusive stalemate. Forty years later, the Cyclons strike the final blow, and the certainty of their victory neatly encapsulates the folly of war itself. We create it, we suffer from it, and if we’re not careful, it will ultimately destroy us.
Babylon 5 remains one of the best pieces of science fiction ever put on television, and the Earth-Alliance Civil War stands as the possible high point. The show’s future Earth falls under control of a fascist regime – headed by President Morgan Clark -- with only Babylon 5’s Commander Sheridan (Bruce Boxleitner) standing against him. The ongoing conflict provided surprising in that didn’t wrap up in a few short weeks, as well as in the chilling details of life under Clark’s regime. The demagoguery, Orwellian propaganda and ruthless policies of “might makes right” echo more than a few real-world regimes… and remind us how many of these evils continue to flourish in our society today.
Countless science fiction novels, movies and television programs have speculated about a real “war to end all war”: an apocalyptic conflagration that sends the tattered remnants of humanity into a new dark age. The sheer number of World War III stories could fill an article on their own – anything from Dr. Strangelove to The Terminator to the Mad Max trilogy – but their subtext remains unchanged. They shine a light on our capacity for self-annihilation, and allow us to safely confront a universe in which civilization no longer exists. If that doesn’t get a few more Ban the Bomb t-shirts out of storage, nothing will.
The Star Wars universe encompasses the adventurous side of conflict: a Boy’s Own notion that war means action and excitement instead of digging into someone’s entrails with a pen knife. That’s not intended as criticism. George Lucas wanted a grand canvas to tell his mythological tale, and the two great struggles at the heart of it answer the call perfectly. With galaxies to explore, foes to vanquish and a benevolent Force guiding the heroes to victory, it lets us explore our childhood fantasies in the perfect playground, leaving the brutal realities of war for the evening news.
J.R.R. Tolkien saw his share of war, having fought in the trenches of the Somme and losing many of his friends in the process. That sobering realty blends with wish-fulfillment fantasy (which Lucas later appropriated) to create a stunning vision of a fantasy world in conflict. The War of the Ring spent thousands of years gestating, and involved the machinations of godlike beings with nearly limitless power. But it all hinges on the humblest of figures – Frodo Baggins – who brings down the enemy alone in an amazing variation of the “for want of a nail” theme. Tolkien understood the price war inflicts on such figures, great and small, and the pain that lingers long after wounds have healed. It tinges his masterpiece with sadness and regret, tempering the simple adventure it might otherwise have become.
In one fell stroke, H.G. Wells simultaneously created the notion of interplanetary war and gave us an example that may never be topped. The Martians who land on Earth in their tripod-like ships want nothing less than our annihilation, and for most of the book, it looks like nothing we have can stop them. They’re finally felled by an O. Henry twist for the ages, but the book’s bleak, uncompromising possibility of mankind’s extinction expounded upon the folly of war in wholly unique ways, while illustrating the pain and suffering of the innocents caught in the crossfire. All of the other instances on our list owe a debt to this, and many might never have been created without Wells to show the way.