Reading Good Books

So, I am in a weird position where both Frank Herbert’s Dune and A Game Of Thrones sit unread on my shelf, whereas I’ve downed a million cheap thrillers. It’s time for me to start reading the classics.

So, I’m putting myself on a book-reading moratorium (at least of cheap thrillers) until I finish both of them. Thankfully, I read very fast. And of course I’ll give my opinions.


Submarine Fiction

With the release of The Silent Service DLC for Command, I figured I’d talk about submarine fiction. Now, the genre includes traditional classics like Run Silent Run Deep, and of course, a submarine novel kickstarted the technothriller genre as we know it.

Submarine fiction is a sort of genre that’s interesting in the context of how it adapted to the post-USSR period. It was a very hard, very uphill struggle. Probably more so than any other subgenre of technothriller, because not that many countries even have subs, much less modern ones.

Small fry? You’d be lucky to get anything more than a Kilo or Type 209.

Nuclear submarines? Only six countries operate them, four are democracies, and three of the four are NATO members.

So the methods I’ve found authors use are:

  • Give the enemy a “thingy”. That is, the weaker opponent has a submarine (or submarines) as well. Is it a Kilo/209? Is it an upgraded Kilo/209-style submarine? Is it a newer, quiet submarine?
  • Make the story part of a big great-power conflict, in some form or another.
  • Go full sci-fi or weird and make it unconventional in some form. Larry Bond’s Cauldron is a mild example of this, whereas Joe Buff‘s submarine novels are an extreme example.
  • Finally-have a submarine that’s hijacked/hacked/rogue/stolen/otherwise in the hands of the antagonist. This is one of many examples, as is this.

Obviously, they can mix, these are not hard and fast categories by any means. The only thing that really feels “natural” is the great-power conflict, and that has its own issues and hangups. The others can still be done well. As with any genre, a skilled author can turn a questionable setup into a delight, while a bad author can get a story handed to them on a silver platter and mess it up. But the obvious handwaves and possible pitfalls are still there, and still clear.

An additional one that I think exists for submarines regardless of the time period is that they’re “all or nothing”. You can destroy individual protagonist tanks or aircraft easily enough, but, for the most part, either all the submarine’s crew makes it, or none of them do.

Submarine fiction is an interesting technothriller niche, that, thanks to the real exclusivity, seems to amplify the issues the genre has had. And that’s legitimately interesting to me.

Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix

Larry Bond is a figure to whom wargaming and military fiction owes a lot. His writing suffers from a very peculiar problem, in that it feels cliche and clunky, in a way that isn’t his fault. In short, he is a victim of his own success.

It was this feeling I had when I was reading the classic Red Phoenix. I’d heard it was a superb technothriller. I read it and found it to be a middle-of-the-road one. It was like Cauldron, a slightly later book I read, only with a more plausible and grounded opponent. Maybe my hype aversion kicked in, but it just felt-normal. Not rising above the pack, but in it, and not nearly as focused and flowing as Coyle’s Team Yankee. But this is not a Bad Fiction Spotlight, and in total isolation, it would be a good cheap thriller.

However, I did not approach this in total isolation. Bond is, even more than Clancy, a poster child for “having seen so many imitators, the original doesn’t seem so original”. The multiple viewpoint characters, the descriptions, the every section of every theater, the political “””intrigue”””, all of it is there. He definitely helped pioneer it. At the time it would have been better. But now I’m thinking “and this is how the trends I disliked got started [or at least popularized]”, because of how influential he was.


It’s not Worm

So, there’s a dirty little secret about Worm fanfiction, the kind that has taken SB/V by storm so much the mods had to make separate boards. I didn’t realize this secret because I (wisely) stayed even farther away from the fanfic scene than I did from the original story, but then I found out once I discovered more.

It’s not based on Wildbow’s original story.

It isn’t. A lot of Worm fanfic writers admit to having never read the original. Now, under normal circumstances, I would denounce that. And I still do. But even if it’s hard to defend, I can at least understand why people wouldn’t want to slog through a story that’s about as long as War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time put together. And has terrible pacing and other fundamentals.

And going for more fanfics makes it more flexible, since there’s nothing in the way. This explained everything when I came to that conclusion in one of the many Worm discussions. It explains why Wildbow’s later stories, including Worms own sequel, have generated basically nothing in terms of Spacebattles fanfics. It explains why everything is so divergent and why certain elements are latched on to beyond the usual “fanon” misunderstandings.

Wildbow writes, long dark, fantasy stories. The Worm fanfic writers write in a superhero sandbox, and the original work might as well have been an RPG sourcebook that was never meant to be treated as anything more than a vague guideline for the GM to fill in the blanks.

Now I’d be honestly interested to see what the main stories were that sparked this “fanon Worm”, the critical mass of early fanfics. Because it’s them and not the main story that are the real source material.

The Twilight 2000 Campaign And More Thoughts

From my travels across the internet, I’m proud to share the Twilight 2000 Polish Campaign  that I found while looking at the WW3 1987 blog. It’s a good AAR/let’s play of the game at its best.

I’ve blogged about Twilight 2000 in largely critical terms before, but the initial Polish/German campaign setting is the game at its best. There’s talk on the about page of maybe, if/when the players survive, taking them back to the continental US.  Now here I have a recommendation, if that indeed happens (it’s a big if). Ignore the actual 1.0 modules on the continental US and go homebrew.

Maybe it’s because I like the idea of them returning to a battered but largely peaceful homeland as a proper reward. Or maybe it’s because the North American modules I’ve seen basically seize the always-existed dichotomy I mentioned in my previous post and take it to 11. They’re something. In fact, if the game’s plot had existed only of them, I might even consider them worthy of a Bad Fiction Spotlight.

The later v1 modules have the impression of turning more and more from the “survival and maybe solve some local disputes” theme to a full-blown and ultra-blatant Adventure Friendly World. (That was always there, as it would be in any tabletop RPG, but it was more subtle and interesting).  Even a lot of other T2000 fans have been disdainful of the North American modules, one not unreasonably comparing them to “bad Mad Max”.

Having read the “Kidnapped!” module, I can see it. The first is a description of the megadrought that’s about to strike North America. I’ve heard grumblings about its plausibility, but from an in-universe perspective, there’s worse things. Where I think the megadrought goes wrong is that it’s a clear attempt from an out of universe perspective to up the stakes and become “darker” still. So yeah, there’s a megadrought, and food/water is going to become worse yet. I guess that means the scenario will be about…

Seizing a fascist-populist leader in his supervillain’s lair in West Virginia? You don’t say.

The “Kidnap Carl Hughes, the leader of New America” part is incredibly gamey and has obvious contrivances throughout. There’s the necessary evil of an adventure tip, and then there’s the lair itself. In true game fashion, the lair down to its final bunker is drawn out in massive detail, but to balance it for the players, it’s accessible. Hughes conveniently happens to be in the most vulnerable parts of the lair throughout much of the day, and infiltrating a secure complex run by a mega-paranoiac is suspiciously easy provided the players have the right clothes.

Then there’s a second lair that is long-deserted and only exists to provide clues to get the players to the real lair (yet is also massively detailed in its description).


There’s more on New America itself and even the MilGov/CivGov split (in short, the former is clearly there to be a convenient supervillain faction, the latter there for contrived drama), and how it’s handled, but that’s for another time.


Stretching a Car Platform

In this post, when I refer to stretching a car platform, I mean in the sense of extending its lifespan, not physically stretching it (although I have seen a six door 1995 Cadillac limo used as a daily driver-it was something).

There are very good reasons for cars being updated as frequently as they are, for lesser models will be devoured in the notoriously competitive market. Yet some linger on, with unsurprising results. A purely commercial model like the Chevy Express or a niche one like the Land Cruiser-70 can last longer than a car at the forefront of the market. The exception to this is the Camry, which had/has stayed on a similar platform for around 15 years, but that’s an example of not fixing what isn’t broken.

This got my attention with the announcement of “facelifts” and platform updates in Automation.

I was wondering “how much could you extend a basic car platform’s life, or change it into something else by fiddling/replacing the engine.” It’s an interesting question, and I like the ideas of cars in some out-of-the-way assembly line or plant still being built as part of my love of the weird (an older variant of the Lada was like this)



A reference in their eyes

I may have noticed a small developer’s reference to a past game of theirs. In the last Advance Wars game, I noticed that Caulder’s clone daughters have yellow eyes.


The morphs in Fire Emblem 7 also have yellow eyes. Both are artificial humans. It still could be a coincidence, but it looks likely it’s Intelligent Systems doing a little callback/in-joke.

Fictional Legacies

A lot of fiction has the issues with “legacies”, the sense that it’s there because that’s what everyone else in the genre does, and you somehow have to have them. Nearly all points and lives systems in video games for anything other than arcade machines, especially early ones, are “legacies”.

Legacies are not necessarily bad, and from a commercial standpoint they make sense-you don’t want to diverge too much and have a work as alien as the 1996 Ford Taurus. But sometimes legacies feel a little off to me.

I think one of my least favorite legacies in military fiction is the “conference room scenes”. Not the ones where it’s an excuse to infodump-I may not like those, but I can understand them. I’m talking the near-invariably badly done political maneuvering and setup before the action takes place.

And I may be misinterpreting the target audience, but at least I don’t really get anything out of most of this “””intrigue””” (quotes deliberate). It sours the tone of the work to come, takes up too much time, interrupts the plotting, or all of the above.  I’d rather prefer trying to develop the characters.

But I must add that this may be more a symptom than a cause. If the overall story is good, I tend to forgive conference room intrigue. If it isn’t, I zoom in on it.

But, thrillers pale in comparison to the genre that has decades of baggage-superhero comics[1]. You have to have a story where characters in 1930s strongman outfits jump around punching dudes. You have the legacy of the Golden Age, and, most importantly, you have the legacy of the Silver Age.

I like the Silver Age. It’s what my family’s comics collection contained. It has a lot of goofy stories that have inspired me. I don’t blame the silver-age writers for what they did. They were laboring under the Comics Code, at the time at its most restrictive. (For instance, the Adam West Batman could and did actually get away with more than what the comics did).

But the way comics steered away from the Silver Age, as the Code loosened, did not work. I don’t know how much of it is the legacy’s internal effects, how much of it was appealing to what had become an insular market thanks to comic book stores, how much of it was the never-changing soap opera world of comics, and how much of it was that you couldn’t take out one part without knocking everything over (metaphorically).

Maybe it was because the Silver Age comics were so light and fluffy that simply doing what other stories had done for thousands of years was viewed as profound in comics. But there’s just too much baggage, and the best symbol lies in one of my favorite characters, Arcade.

I like Arcade as an anachronistic Silver Age villain. But in any superhero story that wants to be slightly realistic or have a slight amount of sense, he cannot exist. And characters like him weigh down everything. You can’t make a serious statement when your villain group has a Silver Age name. It’s harder to show true drama when you’re in an outfit that was viewed as out of date in the 1960s.

But adaptations take a cutting torch to the legacies. Notice that Arcade has not appeared in any X-Men movies[2]. Notice how changed the costumes are. Notice how even with a ton of movies and cartoons, the least deserving (tend to) stay behind. So legacies can be overcome.

[1]I’m referring to mainline Big Two, stuff like Watchmen or even Worm which is more tightly plotted is different.

[2]Though I think he would fit in a Deadpool film, simply because that’s knowingly ridiculous.

The Venom Teaser

To say that Sony’s solo Venom movie has been met with skepticism is like saying that a cat reacts to tuna with interest.

They released the teaser. It does not show Venom. My theories were:

  • This was an earnest attempt at “what you don’t see is scarier” that failed because we know full well what Venom looks like.
  • The Venom effects are bad and Sony wanted to hide them as long as possible.
  • This is just a “dubious” production from top to bottom.

I dunno, this actually interests me. In an age of superhero movies that are meticulously polished, an age of Chevy Impalas and Toyota Camry equivalents, an AMC Gremlin would at least stand out.


Another Goofy Supervillain

So, what’s another goofy supervillain whose gimmick makes no sense, and is as known for his weird outfit as anything else?

Why, The Ringmaster, of course! The Ringmaster is more “useful” than Arcade in the following ways.

  • The circus can go places, whereas superheroes have to enter Murderworld.
  • The Ringmaster has a slight power of his own, the hypnotizing hat.
  • The Ringmaster at least has basic henchmen.

This silver age villain was the subject of the first team-up between Spider Man and Daredevil, so I have good memories of him.