Jumpchain

So, I’ve known it existed for a long time, but have only recently begun to examine the phenomenon known as “Jumpchain”, a kind of internet choose-your-own-adventure story. This post on a jumpchain blog explains it far better than I could.

Being so focused on using and taking advantage of various setting powers, it’s no surprise that jumpchains are popular on Spacebattles. I’ll admit I was reminded of the Infinite Loops, in that both combined fantasy with rules.

On one hand, viewed as an actual story vehicle, it has everything from power creep (the original “victory condition” of the endjump and planeswalker spark went from being an epic struggle with an epic reward to a readily munchkin-able condition that gives something the jumper will likely already have, for one) to (for not all, but too many jumpchain writers) making the actual adventures themselves play second fiddle to describing and arguing about the builds.

But as a munchkin fantasy? I can feel the guilty pleasure, and the weaknesses described above are totally understandable. So I just can’t bring myself to dislike jumpchain.

If I had to write a big academic book…

If I had to write a big, academic, meticulously researched history/analysis book, I think it would be on the way the sort of story type I call the “cheap thriller” evolved throughout the centuries, from the beginning of modern printing all the way to the present. It would be an excuse to read lots and lots of cheap thrillers, and I find the trajectory of what’s popular and what isn’t at what time period legitimately fascinating.

Good Fiction Spotlight: Brannigan’s Blackhearts

So, I’m delighted to note that I’ve read an obscure series worthy of a good Fiction Spotlight. Overjoyed. Because Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts is just the type of cheap thriller that fits me right now.

The series  is about the “adventures” of an ex-USMC colonel and his band of mercenaries. And it’s what I’d call a “cheap thriller”. But in a good way, for these books are what cheap thrillers should be like. I had good timing in that the latest book in the series was released after I’d started digging into the series.

The best part of the books is that they combine visceral yet exciting action with very good literary fundamentals. Not only is there action, but it’s varied action. The action goes from the forests of Myanmar to offshore oil rigs to the frozen fields of eastern Europe. It feels truly varied, and Nealen isn’t afraid to punch readers in the gut every now and then.

What Nealen also demonstrates is a welcome display of, for lack of a better word, restraint. Some of the plot setups feel a little contrived, but they aren’t dwelled on. There’s exact descriptions of the weapons, but not too detailed. Having read stories where the fundamentals weren’t there, it’s a treat to read ones where they are.

I must give a few obligatory criticisms. The villains aren’t that great as characters and the “shadowy conspiracy organization” meta-plot that’s developed in the later books has me raising my eyebrows with apprehension. But even these are worked around-the latter is streamlined in as a setup hook for the adventure, and the former work in the context of a thriller story. Plus these are still thrillers and not “high literature” by any standards.

But they’re good cheap thrillers, and I urge anyone who likes pulpy thrillers to read these.

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.

 

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.

 

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.