Cold Allies is one of the most chilling and memorable 90's SF novels I've read, and it's all the more remarkable for being Patricia Anthony's debut. The story is set during the Third World War, and yet this is not the simple pushbutton nuclear holocaust most of us have been conditioned to imagine WW3 would be. A famine-motivated assault on the West by the Arab National Army has nearly brought the disparate and disorganized Allies to their knees. Even the continental U.S. is mostly a wasteland of violent refugee camps where hopelessness holds sway.
The story follows a plethora of characters — each of whom, commendably, gets solid development: a young soldier who operates a remote battle robot from a VR station in Portugal, who is forced to confront his myriad inadequacies; a crass female writer who has authored a series of bogus UFO books and thinks nothing of exploiting her fans; a Russian general for whom the war has become a fresh battle with old personal demons; an idealistic young Arab captain and his father, a battle-hardened general whose love for his son proves to be his Achilles heel. All of these people and more are players in a game of sheer turmoil as the world heads inexorably to Armageddon.
If things weren't bad enough, suddenly a new group of players injects itself into the conflict: sentient alien globes of blue light that hover across Earth's battlefields. Both sides of the conflict find themselves at a complete loss when confronted with these apparitions. In some cases, the lights seem entirely benign. One even follows the aforementioned battle robot like a curious lost puppy. Yet other times, the lights seem far less friendly, joining in the fray and killing wantonly on both sides, leaving ghastly wounds from which all their victim's bodily fluids are sucked dry. Nice.
Still other times, the lights engage in that favorite alien pastime: abduction. Three characters find themselves absorbed by the lights, and taken into a strange dreamlike surrealistic world wherein images of loved ones and home morph and mutate, and smiling faces that melt like wax ask questions about sadness, war, and death.
Cold Allies is in many ways a book about futility. Whereas many war stories attempt to deliver messages of the nobility of the human spirit and of courage in the face of adversity, Cold Allies turns inward and explores the sheer helplessness and terror present in human conflict, through both the device of the alien lights (who feed upon the emotions and psychic energies created by the people they encounter in the war) and by Anthony's incisive and often poignant (without being morbidly so) characterizations. We think of war as an act that takes place to achieve an end only after peace and diplomacy fail to do so, and yet when many wars are over, it seems nothing much has changed and the sense of loss felt by millions of survivors is irreparable.
The characters in Cold Allies possess that similar sense of loss, the feeling that what they desire most in life is forever unattainable. A young boy abducted by the aliens and presented with a simulacrum of his father, with whom he never had a loving relationship, chooses to stay with the aliens even after he learns the image is false. The soldier who had kept himself free from the realities of wholesale slaughter through his control of a remote battle robot (a duty which reinforces his inability to form genuine connections with real people) loses his reason when he witnesses the one person who did mean anything to him gassed to death; finally confronted with human tragedy, he finds himself unable to return to his video-game reality, and hence bereft of purpose. A general who believes his one hope of winning the war lies with help from the aliens becomes confused and distraught, unable to understand why they won't even contact him as they have so many others.
Even the aliens themselves are bewildered. Feeding almost vampirically upon the emotional energies of people swept up in the conflict (particularly enraptured by the "taste" of death), they are still utterly at a loss to comprehend the social and political forces that have led to the war, and thus at a loss to understand human beings overall. Throughout the novel, characters yearn for goals that they believe are the only things that will make them happy, but which are either always out of reach or in most cases ill-defined to begin with. In their obsession with "there must be something more," most often they find themselves alienated from what they have or have had.
Cold Allies takes on quite a large thematic challenge, but Anthony never gets didactic. For the most part this is a blistering, suspenseful story of action, horror, and a world rushing towards hell. Written at a breakneck pace that leaves your breath ragged and your hair mussed, Cold Allies lingers in your shellshocked mind long after its last bombs have fallen.