My First Post On Sea Lion Press

I’m delighted to now be a contributor to the Sea Lion Press blog. My first article is a review of an alternate history WWIII thriller, Harvey Black’s The Red Effect. Regrettably, it contained both of my big pet peeves for the genre: Too much perspective hopping and too long of an intro to a foregone event.

The post can be seen here.

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Happy Anniversary Fire Emblem

This time in April marks a lot of Fire Emblem anniversaries. On April 20, 1990, the very first Fire Emblem game was released (in Japan). On April 25, 2003, the first FE game to cross the Pacific after the series got worldwide attention in Smash Bros was released (in Japan, again, it would not get wider releases until later that year).

And of course, in-universe, no doubt as an homage, the FE: Awakening heroine Lucina has April 20th as her birthday.

Sea Lion Press

Sea Lion Press has, since 2015, been devoted to publishing alternate history. Named after the hopeless would-be German invasion of Britain in 1940, they have an extensive amount of published works.

And now, Sea Lion Press has embarked on an ambitious expansion, aiming to be, in their own words, “a crucible of activity in the counterfactual fiction world.” This includes articles (starting with one about their namesake), and a forum.

It’s well worth a shot. I’ve read some Sea Lion Press works and wish them the best of luck.

 

An Alien Era

Today is my 27th birthday. And I think my date of birth might explain why I have a sudden fascination with Cold War fiction.

Because it’s after my time. I was born the year the USSR fell, so the world I entered is a lot different. Looking back on it is like looking back at something different, something that has changed so quickly. And fiction tends to reflect fact. From a literary perspective, it feels interesting to study a genre, even one as “fluffy” as the technothriller, to see its ups and downs.

It’s very fascinating.

 

Another Issue of Scale

It’s very easy to be “spoiled” by World War II sizes, where even second-stringers could handily field large formations (by the standards of later armies), and where the 90 division US Army was not unreasonably criticized as being too small.

Even Cold War armies appear small compared to those[1], something that I need to keep in mind when making my guilty pleasure OOB lists.

[1]In terms of number of divisions, of course. In capability, they’re far superior.

Operational Map Games

I’ve been entertaining a few operational “map exercises”. Some are “semi-real” and others completely fictional.

One, which I like because it’s the most readily translatable to Command scenarios features a deep intervention of the XVIII Airborne Corps (or a differently-named formation designed to evoke it) against the fictional “Turkic Republic”, an amalgamated Central Asian opponent.

Which Turkic Republic it is-the strong power or the weak wreck, depends on the kind of scenario I want to make.

 

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 Big Post on Military Fiction

I’ve wanted to write this post in some form or another for a while. Getting the tone right was going to be important. I now feel I’m comfortable enough to try. Because I found two “a-ha!” moments where I could finally say clearly what I’d been thinking in vaguer terms.

The First Moment

So, wargames and military fiction have been linked together for quite a while. After all, it was the original Harpoon tabletop version where the naval action in Red Storm Rising was famously gamed out. I’d known this for a while, but the connection just emerged to me. It was reading the detailed orders of battle.

I’ve made my previous opinions on wargaming a battle pretty clear. It can be a good help, but deserves to be used in moderation, not taken too literally. My previous concern was that a wargamed-out battle would appear too robotic, but I was thinking too narrow.

Basically, there’s a common complaint about “wannabe movie director” video game developers. One of the most frequently spoken is Hideo Kojima, but he’s far from the only one. Trying to make a game cinematic is not a bad thing by itself[1], and Metal Gear Solid at least deserves some credit for refining, if not inventing, the detailed game experience. (I specifically mentioned the first game, before the series just got really, really weird).

So thus came the writing, and I thought that a similar case applied here. Some of the crunchier military fiction writers never quite got out of the wargamer’s mindset. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a way of approaching things. It’s just my personal tastes lay in a different, strange direction.

This sort of thing-big, deep OOBs, possibly wargamed out directly, is fascinating because while I’d look down on it from a literary perspective, if it was in Command, Steel Panthers, or another proper wargame, with all the research and detail incorporated in to the scenario, I’d actually jump at the chance to play it. Let me put it this way:

If the author plans “Ok, the _______ Infantry Division of reservists dug in near __________ is going to encounter the ____________ Tank Division, earmarked by the army commander as an operational maneuver group, and conducting an exploitation mission. The tank division has, out of a sense of either overconfidence or believing it to be part of their mission, chosen to slam into the formation instead of trying to pin or move around it”, it’s probably going to come across differently than if they plan it as “The protagonist is in his rapidly dug trench when suddenly he hears and sees a large group of tanks and IFVs heading his way.” This is not a knock at the hypothetical author, nor is it a claim to be “bad” beyond my opinion-it’s just understandably different, even if subconsciously so. (My biggest complaint is that the fog of war is often, perhaps accidentally, lifted if the author knows exactly what’s there on both sides)

I’m forgiving of a lot of authors. I’d understand if a wargamer writing narrative fiction earnestly and sincerely went with what they were comfortable with. I’m trying hard to move away from the sneering critic I fear I once was[2]. You have to start somewhere. It’s just that what works in one situation doesn’t necessarily work in another, especially if the work isn’t just a “pseudo-history” with no pretensions of being anything else.

And just as how the film influence is present in (too?) many video games, the wargame influence is present in a lot of the military stories I’ve read. For better and worse. I’d say that the “better” part means that the stories are often more grounded than the superweapon gizmos of authors like Dale Brown and Clive Cussler, something even I can appreciate.

[1]I think that the more focused, cinematic world of Fallout: NV done by the story-focused Obsidian works better than the gameplay/exploration one of Fallout 3 done by the sandbox-focused Bethesda, to give a non-military example.

[2]Another reason why is that I tend to look to the fringes, and better-done stories in the genre paradoxically tend to blur into being good time-passers. Worse ones tend to stand out, and I don’t want to pigeonhole an entire genre based on even accidental selection (imagine if you took the films covered by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and did serious cinema analysis for an analogy of how you could skew that). So I’m less judgemental overall, which doesn’t stop me from noticing common trends or slamming/writing Bad Fiction Spotlights of individual works. I just don’t want to write off an entire genre.

The Second Moment

The second moment when my opinion finally was realized happened when I saw how the genre used the same kind of plot device as one that would be in what I’d think was the total opposite-romance.

If lots of detail alone was the deal-breaker, the kind of thing that made me go “ick”, then pseudo-historical timelines would have been the worst. But instead I find them more tolerable on average. It was something innocent and well-intentioned. Basically, at the heart of crunchy war stories lies a similar plot device as at the heart of—romance stories. And this isn’t something along the lines of “they romanticize war”, it’s a direct analogy.

The issue is one of connection with the audience. After all, it’s easier to identify with a plain-Jane without too much in the way of income than it is with a stunning tigress who drives a Rolls-Royce. It’s an anchor that adds to the fantasy, keeping it grounded even when the rest of the story is implausible, often to ridiculous extents. Likewise, the detail and weird semi-realism, by having the tanks be in the right place, in the right units, working the right way, is the anchor that keeps it grounded, even when the rest of the story is implausible.

This is not a bad thing in the slightest. Detail and realism are good things to strive for, as is making a character more grounded, relatable, and struggling. Yes, they can be, and are often distorted or taken to excess. But it can be done well, and even when it isn’t, it’s generally done sincerely and earnestly rather than cynically.

The Third World War

Now for what was originally going to be the entire focus of what became this post[1]. World War III fiction. This takes the form of a concluding list rather than the main body. I decided to move away from it because I felt I was cherry-picking. So I’ll try to be broader. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the genre, and nothing completely stopping it from being done well. But I do think it’s harder to do well.

The first is that there’s precedents from the pioneers, the likes of Clancy and Bond, that have gotten used and followed in ways that have been ultimately distortionary and negative. However, I think there’s more to it, and that the kind of story that became what comes to mind when I think “WW3 story” is tough (at least by my probably too-high standards) to do right.

Tough enough that even Clancy and Bond fell short. Let’s start with my favorite gripe. You have a lot of viewpoint characters, so they’re tougher to balance in ways that ensure they don’t dilute into blandness or disrupt the narrative too much. Then you have to balance detail and plot in a way that you don’t have to worry about as much in either a straight pseudohistory or less “crunchy” narrative. Then you have to worry about stuff like how it started and how it stayed (most of the time) largely conventional. It’s a tough balancing act, and I can see why many WW3 tales fall short (which is not the same as them being worthless or not enjoyable). But I would never tell anyone “Don’t Try”. By all means, go ahead-I’ve been pleasantly surprised before.

Whew.

This is something I’ve wanted to write for a while. Now it’s out there.

[1]This was going to be a series of posts, then a possible ebook, then I decided to make it the big blog post you see here.

 

 

The Last Horse Cavalry Manual

I’m currently reading FM 2-15, April 1941.

A US Army manual that is quite possibly the last, and certainly one of the final manuals devoted to horse cavalry in depth. It’s interesting to see the ultimate expression of a soon-to-be-obsolete practice.

For all my knowledge, I still don’t have the full frame of mind to accurately synthesize it with both older horse and later motorized operations, but I can see the passing of an era nonetheless.

Horse cavalry in a mechanized age fits my love of oddball formations, which may be why I’m as interested in it as I’ve been.

The public-domain field manual can be accessed here