Monsters

When it comes to aliens or monsters, I must admit to being more “Battletech” (no aliens save for one weird diversion) and less “Star Wars”. It’s just a matter of personal taste, I’ve enjoyed many stories that feature aliens and/or monsters, and I don’t hold anything against settings that do feature them. But it’s a taste I’ve found surprisingly consistent over time, and most of my plans for writing , as opposed to just reading, don’t feature sentient nonhumans.

Some of it is my preferred genres that don’t tend to diverge into science fiction or fantasy. Some of it is a dislike of “rubber forehead aliens” (I like Stephen Baxter because his aliens are truly alien). But some of it is a sad commentary on human nature. I can sum it up as “Why would I need monsters? Humans can be monstrous enough already.”

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.

 

Viewpoint Characters

While I still dislike too-large numbers of viewpoint characters, I’ve come to the conclusion that they’re more a symptom than a cause of questionable writing by themselves. I say this because I’ve read a lot of good books that have their share of them.

Now, this could be just the stories themselves being good enough that I can brush past the viewpoint character issues. But I think the bigger issue isn’t too many viewpoint characters per se so much as too many environments. Team Yankee was able to flow well despite having, on-paper, a lot of viewpoint characters, simply because almost all the action was in the same general environment. It adds a sense of connection, a feeling of purpose, rather than just being a clunky “this happened here, then this happened here, and then this happened here…”

It’s obviously not hard and fast, and all boils down to that intangible writing art. It’s possible to have a bunch of environments that works better, and it’s also too possible to have a one-environment story that still ends up as clunky and dubious. I’d still recommend trimming the viewpoint characters, simply because it’s an easy solution, but I think they’re symptomatic of just too many environments and plotlines.

Alpha Kat and 90s Cheap Thrillers

So, I just finished breezing my way through the cheap thriller novel Alpha Kat by William Lovejoy. The book was first published in 1992, and it shows. it’s a very early 90s thriller, which is to say that it has to desperately dig for antagonists (in this case a drug lord poised to take over Southeast Asia) and ways to weaken the heroes (they’re commissioned to use their prototype super-planes rather than being part of the regular military). The book itself isn’t terrible, especially by cheap thriller standards. But it is awkward in terms of pacing and the ending is a little too “quick”.

Now it says something about the kind of books I read that I’ve read enough 90s cheap thrillers to really get “ah-ha, this isn’t just a 90s technothriller, it’s an early 90s technothriller.”

And yet, I don’t mind this. It’s endearing to see something flawed instead of something playing it safe all the time. It’s inspiring, even, because of my love of the unconventional in Command scenarios. So yes, two cheers for the early 90s technothriller.

 

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).

Yeah.

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.