Flash Fiction Reviews, Vol 1

All right, time to launch a set of rapid-fire fiction reviews. Two paragraphs per book at most.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. The military thriller genre can always use some outside perspectives. Sadly, and this more the fault of my expectations than the actual book itself, it ended up as a routine romantic suspense novel. Romantic suspense has always been an awkward genre, in my opinion, the inverse of adding a clunky romance to an otherwise pure action story.

Still, the book is well-written for what it is, and it just was me expecting a genre I wanted rather than the genre the book ended up being. Recommended if you like romance or romantic suspense.

This is the work that (at least partially) kicked off Sea Lion Press, and has the divergence that the conspiracy theory of Harold Wilson being a Soviet agent was true, leading to the already unstable scene of the 70s getting overloaded in a chaotic romp. While not perfect (it gets a little too “inside baseball for enthusiasts of 70s British politics, and a lot of the scenes with Wilson himself are too goofy), it nonetheless avoids almost all of the pitfalls a lot of alternate history has.

Namely, it’s a proper story, not a “get right to the good stuff in a six paragraph infodump” shortcut. It’s also an example of using research to help a story rather than using the story to show off the research. And by choosing an “implausible” divergence, it makes the reseach good anyway. Highly recommended.

This is a short World War III tank story featuring the often-underappreciated Bundeswehr. Smith struggles to overcome his wargaming “I must list everything” detail, but he makes a legitimate and good effort to make a proper story. The result was a good time-passer for me. It’s not a classic, but it doesn’t have to be. Recommended as a “cheap thriller”.

This is another short military fiction tale by a wargame designer. This is a good what-if to answer the ever-present “what if the Gulf War Iraqis were more compenent” question. It’s short and the main character is a little too Mary Sueish, but that’s understandable given the point the author is trying to make. Also recommended as a cheap thriller.

This is a terrible, wretched, creepy melodramatic fraud sold as a genuine World War II memoir. Even without historical inaccuracies, it’s a clear modern fake. The monstrous “Wehrabooism” (at one point the main character comes face to face with a literal ASIATIC HORDESMAN)  turns it from simply bad to creepy-bad.

The main character has the situational awareness to see huge tank battles, which always happen at close range in plain sight and always involve tanks and vehicles exploding and flying through the air in massive fireballs. The action is so over the top it becomes dull and predictable. Not recommended.

 

 

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The AH conundrum-Solved?

A long time ago, I made a post wondering why there was so little “middle-tier” alternate history. Why was there so little alternate history that wasn’t either blatant or technical. There was a discussion to this end on Sea Lion Press some time ago, and (at least partially) from seeing and participating in that, I had an “ah-hah!” moment that might help explain the reason why.

The reason is simple: What would be “middle-tier” alternate history isn’t sold as or even considered alternate history most of the time. Using a ridiculously expansive definition, anything that isn’t an explicit reenactment/retelling of a historical event can be considered “alternate history”. A fictional city? Alternate history. A fictional political leader? Alternate history. A never-was weapon or car being used because the author liked it? Alternate history.

Even in lesser cases, where there’s a clear timeline divergence, it could be considered alternate history, but isn’t. For instance, since the timeline diverged in the 1980s with the arrival of Scion, Worm could be considered alternate history.

The sad truth (for alternate history fans) is that there isn’t much gain in labeling something alternate history. It’s known, but it’s known as a genre where the divergence is clear and blatant. For a more mainstream audience, it’s been shown that it’s better off being labeled as just what its genre is-a thriller, a mystery, or whatever it might be.

Hackett’s The Third World War

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally read Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War. The best I can say about it is that it set up the (minimal) backstory for Team Yankee, enabling Coyle to concentrate fully on the action without as many infodumps.

Compared to it, I consider Red Storm Rising and Larry Bond’s own works to be Nobel Prize-worthy by comparison. If I think Cauldron or Red Phoenix would be considered mediocre middle-of-the-road technothrillers if they were written later and by someone else, I think The Third World War would be a bottom-of-the-barrel example if it was written later.

First, it’s incredibly dated. And not just dated in the sense of politics, or dated and biased in its supervillain Soviets[1]. Its problem is that if a reader (especially a reader with hindsight) knows anything about the subject at hand, there’s no “wow” factor. This is a problem with Red Storm Rising. It’s a bigger problem with Hackett.

Why it’s a bigger problem is the near-total lack of any kind of narrative control, as it wobbles back and forth from token gap-filling cutout characters to complete infodumps. The character scenes, especially the Soviet ones, are almost painful to read. It has contrivances. One is NATO’s victory, which I’ve heard was changed from the first drafts. A far bigger one is the Minsk-Birmingham nuclear exchange, where nuclear war is treated like hitting batters with baseballs (you hit one of my cities/batters, I hit one of yours, and it stays “under control”). The contrivances would be forgivable if there wasn’t so little “meat” that they stand out. It feels like only the most half-hearted attempt at sorta kinda looking like a story was made.

All of my annoyance buttons are pushed. I’ve seen its legacy, which makes it not only a dated book, not only a thinly veiled “more spending on the army, please” tale, but a bad influence. Granted, it may not bear that much responsibility, but it couldn’t have helped from people who saw it as an example. I believe it to be an example of how one should not write a WWIII story.

[1]Team Yankee has the same problem, but has a flowing action story to go with it. This does not.

 

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.

 

Bad Fiction Spotlight: James G’s WW3

On alternatehistory.com, there have been published a handful of World War III in 198X stories by user “James G”, formerly known as jimmygreen2002. The finished stories are:

Lions Will Fight Bears

For Queen and Country

National Volksarmee

Fight to the Finish (TAKEN DOWN)

Going West

Spetsnaz: Week of the Chameleons

And I really don’t like them. Even I don’t know exactly why. Applied in isolation, they’d just be dry sequence-of-events war fics. And they even have better prose than a lot of them-which may be the problem. Because somehow, mysteriously, through a way I might not even recognize, they push every single one of my buttons in a way that Red Storm Rising itself, many of its imitators, and even fellow 198X WW3 stories on AH.com do not.

(To give credit where it’s due, Week of the Chameleons isn’t as bad as the rest. I think it’s structural, being inherently more interesting.)

Why? I think it’s a melding of the board culture and text itself into a group of factors that, all together, make it something that stands out from the pack. It’s a bunch of little things and slightly-worse-than-normal stuff that adds up.

  • First there’s the obvious. Clunky prose, little characterization, a sequence of events plot with little flow, and a nonsensical background. But if this alone were the criteria, it wouldn’t be enough.
  • I’ll start with the prose. It’s just good enough to make me take the stories more seriously. This isn’t like say, bashing a fanfic with bad prose and grammar where the narrator overslept and had to get an unusual choice as his first Pokemon. This series has enough skill to get it to a higher threshold for taste.
  • The prose is clunky, but what’s worse than the usual overly descriptive descriptions and infodumps is the tone. There’s a sort of feeling of forced Deep, Solemn Seriousness that goes through every update of every story. And while I can get most of it (I mean, it is about World War III after all), even a story in that setting would benefit from different moods.
  • The characterization is, interesting. First, like the prose, that there’s characterization at all means I view it from the perspective of a story and not a pseudohistory. But a lot of the characterization-when mentioned at all, is not only in shown-not-told infodumps, but infodumps that feel like the description of how many T-___ tanks or ____-class sloops were made before the war began. It’s a writing trait I find telling.
  • The plot, well, the plots start with the usual ridiculous ways to get the war to start, and I can forgive those. They have no flow, and cut from a scene that individually offers a bit of at least potential poignancy to another update that does nothing but remind the reader that yes, Military Unit _____ does in fact exist. It’s a great example of bowl-of-ingredients writing, where all the individual parts are there but the whole is not.
  • Lots of undeveloped viewpoint characters. This almost goes without saying.
  • Action I feel absolutely no involvement in. Far too clinical. It’s more even-handed than an outright nationalist fantasy, which paradoxically makes it worse instead of better. Imagine if an 80s action movie had semi-realistic firing at the occasional muzzle flash (but without any drama) and then cut back to some general at his desk at random intervals and you get the idea.
  • The setting, well, hmm. It’s basically the same story in the same place repeated multiple times with slightly different names. I’ve said some bad fiction resembles a dry, overly literal let’s play/AAR. This feels like different LPs of the same game with different time and difficulty settings. Oh it’s easy mode this time. Or hard mode! Map X as opposed to Map Y!
  • And it’s like the stories set out to hit every single cliche that the niche genre had. That’s how many of them there are.

Those are the main issues with the stories themselves, with “take a genre cliche, make each genre cliche slightly worse than the norm, then pile them up and make it just ‘big’ enough to judge by a literary standard” pushing them over the top. But maybe it’s the AH.com board culture that sets it apart, as my dislike of the stories grew with the dislike of the site. That could be a reason why I feel the way I do. I can’t say I’m unbiased given that I’ve been in arguments in the threads, so I don’t want to go into detail about those. And I feel like I shouldn’t make an appeal to that-the stories should speak for themselves.

So yeah, that’s them. I wonder if my personal biases and experiences skewed them from mediocre to terrible in my own eyes, or if the works by themselves merit a Bad Fiction Spotlight.

World War 3 1987 Blog

I will share, for your pleasure and amusement, a blog that I recently found providing a “play-by-play” of a theoretical World War 3, the classic fiction and wargaming topic.

This is Third World War 1987. By my incredibly low standards (read: I’ve seen so many downright awful World War III stories on the internet that anything exceeding them is at least good in perspective) it’s good, and certainly readable. Not the best, but far, far, from the worst either.

 

Alternate History’s Missing Middle

While I’ve blogged a lot about Alternatehistory.com as a website recently, I’ve been similarly disenchanted with the genre as a whole. Even by my critical standards, I can only find a few works that I actually like.

First, it’s an inherently smaller genre, so the portion that falls into Sturgeon’s Law is going to be bigger and the sparks of brilliance smaller in number. Perhaps. But I think it goes deeper. I think the genre is limited, potentially inherently so.

It’s like Arcade, who’s very good for individual filler issues for low-to-mid level superheroes, but fails utterly whenever he’s used for anything else. That might be a weird comparison, but I’m about weird comparisons.

See, I find alternate history to be a perfect example of the “barbel genre”, which gravitates towards one extreme or the other, with little in between. To be fair, the “middle” is the absolute hardest to get right, as you have to find just the right balance between skimping and splurging. But I’ve seen very few ones that even try, and most of the ones that do are just changing the setting to something slightly more obscure.

So, on the low end, you have what I call “Turtledove AH”, which is a sort of often implausible one that focuses more on prominence in popular culture. The two biggest are “South wins in the American Civil War” and “Axis wins WWII”. Harry Turtledove popularized this genre, but it is not limited to him. This genre has its worldbuilding be shallow and not terribly concerned with plausibility, and its plots frequently used for unsubtle commentary on contemporary politics. Often historical events are transposed full force into the alternate history even if it doesn’t make sense.

That’s one end. It’s aimed at people who won’t know the implausibility, or won’t care. At least they tend to have decent plots.

On the other end is what I call  “Online AH”, a sort of hyper-niche story where there’s more attention to detail, less on plot (if any exists at all), and the change itself is the be-all-and-end-all of the work. This is the kind that’s prevalent on AH.com proper, and has plenty of pitfalls of its own. The standard of worldbuilding is set so high that even small implausibilities stand out, there’s zero attraction to someone who isn’t already interested, and the chapter-at-a-time online nature means it, much like fanfiction, can be overwhelmed by fans or write itself into a corner.

What would the missing middle be? Probably look at a more obscure divergence, and leverage it into an interesting and distinctive story. Some of the late Robert Conroy‘s books tried this, but they failed and sank into cliche. Oh well.

Why do I think this is the case, that the genre’s so “barbel-y?” I think that economics might play a role, that there’s a difference between commercial authors (not unreasonably) wanting something that will sell, and obscure niche authors (also not unreasonably) wanting something they know a lot about, to an audience they know will read it.

But it could also be that the nature of alternate history itself provides an object that’s hard to blend in. Either it stands as a metaphor for something else (Turtledove) or becomes the center of everything (online). This is also an imperfect theory, but it might work.

Whatever the reason, it’s something I’ve noticed.

 

The Alternate History Blowup

It’s a weird coincidence.

Shortly after I made my post about how I’d soured on Alternatehistory.com, there was an incident in the dreaded Chat. The board administrator had undertaken another mass banning and issued a rant that many considered to be far beyond his well-known anti-Israel bias, crossing the line into being outright anti-Jewish. As a result, with the aid of friendly staff, a breakaway (sub)forum was set up on Sufficient Velocity.

Many people pointed out the irony of that, since disagreements with board administrators was how SV got started to begin with. And like the Athene Incident, I viewed the latest blowup as primarily a catalyst. Mass bannings/kickings [tempbans] over Israel and the administrator’s view on the country were not exactly a new experience.

This makes me all the more glad I moved away when I did.

 

Wither Alternate History

So, I was in that awkward position. I was getting annoyed at arguments and the board surroundings on Alternatehistory.com, but still felt semi-obligated to post there. So I tried an experiment. I’d go without posting on there for one day, and see how it went.

So I stayed away for that day. It was hard, like resisting an addiction. But I made it, and once I stepped back, I wasn’t eager to go forward again. Now, this should not be construed as a public “I’M NEVER GOING BACK THERE AGAIN!” boast. (Most of the time, the arguers come back soon anyway). I still browse and have posted since the date, but my activity there is far, far less than it was. (from multiple posts a day to only one a week, and probably less).

There’s one redeeming niche to AH, albeit one that’s still slipping. It is a place where people knowledgeable on obscure minutia can be. But that assumes interest, which isn’t always there. But hey, there’s talk of obscure car brand what ifs! And a few good stories.

That was the good. Now for the bad.

The Staff

First, it’s understaffed in conventional terms. It has far fewer mods per user than Spacebattles, Sufficient Velocity, or most other forums. It’s not uncommon to go to another board and see more mods earmarked to one section than AH has overall.

There is a mechanism around it, and it’s actually interesting to watch from a distance. It’s almost the opposite of Spacebattles/SV, as an AH regular turned recent-SBer noted. Basically, if SB is more uptight and enforcing of small violations but relatively lenient about banning, AH is the opposite. There isn’t the energy or will to deal with so-called “shitposters”, but cross a line and get the axe.

The worst thing the board leadership does is use sensitive political topics as a form of entrapment. Instead of declaring a moratorium, they simply ‘invite’ users in to post something against the grain and then ban them.

This is why going through any thread on AH from a few years back will find a mountain of members with “BANNED” in their title.

That’s one problem. But it’s actually not the biggest problem-after all, the staff’s hammer falls most often in the dreaded “Chat” (or ‘Polchat’, as it’s nicknamed), and I almost never went there. (And with good reason.)

The Userbase

The bigger problem for me was the sort of users the board has. Since I generally view AH as a kind of second War Room on Spacebattles, the quality of poster there is much lower. It feels like a barbel. Young and/or clueless posters on one end, and bitter old cold war vets on the other.

SB’s userbase in the War Room tends to be between the groups, contains a lot more recent veterans, has the average user being more knowledgeable, and their high-knowledge posters can talk in a more accessible way.

The userbase is highly compartmentalized, which leads to the surreal example of a “look at the Abrams go!” 198X WWIII TL being right next to a contemporary one where Iran kicks the US’s teeth in to cheers and schadenfreude.

As for the younger posters, they’ve gravitated to pop-culture timelines, which leads to a major problem in why I left AH. But overall, the combination of the staff and userbase leads to this weird mutually unsympathetic situation where the staff acts in a heavy-handed way, but the user they crushed seems to have deserved it nonetheless.

Still, bad users are a problem anywhere. What made me finally pull away was…

The Stories

Ok, so I was following a lot of narrative TLs on AH, and even helped contribute to a few. This is the reason I stopped. Users and staff are a distant second. I could no longer enjoy them-not even a “follow them till they stopped, then think ‘what was I thinking’?”

Like all too many other internet fiction places, there’s an attitude of stories receiving little but unconditional praise. Many of the stories also have a lot of not uncommon wish fulfillment. If only it was that. No, the two annoying examples are:

  • People saying “What about the thing?” What about this person, or that person, or this game, or that song, or whatever. This happens most frequently in pop culture timelines, but pops up now and then in other places.
  • Rivet-counting. There will be technical nitpicks and criticisms, some more valid than others, in any sort of detailed TL.

That’s it. Very little about narrative, even less about characterization. I’ve repeatedly characterized the clunktastic The Big One as on the level of a middle-of-the-road alternatehistory.com timeline. It certainly does fit the template, even if its politics don’t. Slides in next to, or maybe a little above the 198X WW3 tinny Red Storm Rising knockoffs. At least those have a story.

The timelines unto themselves don’t. I see too many brown M&Ms, and my brain has changed. Some of them can be interesting and/or plausible, but I’ve seen behind the curtain. My belief in mega-butterflies doesn’t help. All I see of cause and effect is “because the TL writer wants it”, and thus all the psuedo-historical timelines have all the organic flow of someone building a toy tower.

I ditched Massively Multiplayer because it was wish-fulfillment (however intentional or not) and had a commentary of “what about the thing?”. The other timelines I dismissed for that narrative reason alone.

This is kind of a rant I’ve been wanting to make for a long time. But I must emphasize I have no ill will towards people who want to stay there, or write in that board’s style.

I’ve just grown not to like it. And because I used to like it, I felt the need to see what I think happened to make me not enjoy it anymore.

 

Alternate History Brown M&Ms

I’m seeing too many of what I call “Brown M&Ms” in alternate history timelines.

Now, the term comes from a line in Van Halen’s contracts where they specified that there would be a bowl of M&Ms backstage, but no brown ones were to be in it. Often misinterpreted as them being crazy, it was in fact a way of seeing if the contractors read the fine print for safety reasons.

I see a lot of brown M&Ms in alternate history timelines. The most common are historical figures from our time being relevant when they probably shouldn’t be. (Rule of thumb-any real political figure still in the same or similar office higher than a safe legislative seat two or more election cycles after the point of divergence is the brown M&M for me.)

This is why, for all their problems, I have a liking of pop culture timelines, which bizarrely enough seem to be better at world events than a lot of ‘serious’ timelines. Although even there the brown candies still emerge too often.