The Hunt For Red October

I’m finally reading the original book version of The Hunt For Red October. As a kid, I repeatedly watched the movie. Can’t believe it took me as long as it did to get into the actual book, but I finished it.

Having gotten through my initial first read-through, I’m sharing my thoughts. I’m not posting this at Fuldapocalypse because it’s deliberately meant to be more an off the cuff first impression than a structured review.

Granted, the deck is a little stacked with stuff that was beyond Clancy’s control. Like his RSR co-author Larry Bond, he has a big “after you’ve read so many imitators, the original doesn’t seem so original” effect. There’s a vastly different cultural context-high tech military equipment is routine rather than novel now. There’s the “all or nothing” problem that’s inherent to submarine fiction as a whole. And it feels a little harsh to slam someone’s first novel. So I’ll admit there’s some bias here.

Still, reading it supports the feeling I had when reading Red Storm Rising.

Said feeling is that Tom Clancy was a decent-at-best author whose success came more from being able to tap into the zeitgeist of the time than any true writing skill, and that his work doesn’t age well even compared to other 80s cheap thrillers.

Now he’s not a terrible or unreadable author by any standard, and it’s easy to see his appeal. If it was written later and/or by someone else, The Hunt For Red October would still be a good enough submarine novel. But it has two big problems.

  • Infodumps and plotlines. Plotlines, dogfights and at-sea antics. And infodumps. Frequently outdated and/or inaccurate (that’s not a big deal to me) infodumps that cross the line, in my opinion, from “understandable” to “self-indulgent” (that is a big deal to me) .
  • Supervillain Soviets. Reading the infamous “Politburo Chapter” of Red Storm Rising was not a pleasant experience, and I saw a lot of stuff like that in The Hunt For Red October.

It’s why I think the movie is better. The book just has so much “fluff” to trim that the movie could do so without compromising the basic quality of it. The movie is also, in my opinion, less reliant on the rapidly dated “wow-look-at-this-supertech” factor.

Yet for all its problems, it’s still quite readable and is very good as a “historical” document for what an archetypical thriller of the time was like. So I can’t be too hard on it.

 

Reading Red Army

So I read Ralph Peters’ Red Army, one of the fewer classic World War III novels I hadn’t read yet. A part of me doesn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. This is better-written than many of its contemporaries and well-intended. It isn’t just the grit of the battles that works, but how Peters, unlike so many other writers in the genre, goes light on the technical terminology. It still has a little too much viewpoint-hopping, but flows well. In that, I’m reminded of Team Yankee doing a similar thing, and both books are good “counters” to each other[1].

However, I still have some criticism. A lot of the characterization is done through telling and not showing, and while the viewpoint hopping is smoothed over, it still exists. Also, I think the two main parts of the book are at cross-purposes. The intent is to tell a ground-eye-view story that humanizes the Soviets and a cautionary tale of how NATO could lose. They don’t quite gel, and a lot of the high-level viewpoint characters are infodumpers that make it a little ham-fisted.

The last major comment I have is that the book has a lot of its power lost when read by a history enthusiast several decades later. All the “classics” have this issue too, and it’s not the fault of their writers. But the big “punch” of this is a softball to someone who already knew about the issues that plagued NATO for its entire Cold War existence that the book brings up.

But this is still a worthy Cold War Hot novel that any enthusiast should pick up. I still recommend it.

[1]IE, two good but fundamentally different Cold War novels, idealized American vs. ideal Soviet, star-spangled spectacular American win vs. gritty Soviet win. The readable but horribly erratic Chieftains (let’s say I’ll just be talking more about that book later) can’t quite serve as Coyle’s foil. This can.

Xenonauts

So, time to use a weird analogy where I compare alien-fighting turn-based strategy games to cars.

The original X-COM is a quirky old British sports car. Yes, it’s unreliable and the dashboard looks like it was designed for some bizarre species, but it has an undeniable feeling of fun, with the strange suspension part of the thrill.

The new XCOM is a modern performance car. Still a premium, somewhat niche product, and definitely smoothed out compared to the old classic, but keeps enough of the “feel” to be both practical and exciting.

Xenonauts, the X-COM spiritual sequel, is an econobox without power windows. It’s still a car, and it’s ultimately filling the car roles, but it’s dull and tedious.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Xenonauts ultimately isn’t a bad game, just as how a basic point-a-to-point-b econobox that’s reliable and has good enough cargo room and mileage ultimately isn’t a bad car. But it’s just… bland. I was “spoiled” by the new XCOM using the same basic concept in a “Streamlined” fashion. This is just the original X-COM with the worst excesses polished off.

There’s two problems with this mechanical approach. The first is that enough issues remain from the old X-COM-the two worst being garbage-tier rookies and a clunky “time units” system for determining what you can do in a turn-that the gameplay experience can drag. The second is that the very polish drags away a lot of the goofy charm of the original X-COM, where you start with rookies who exist as grenade tossers and stun-rod zappers and plan to lose half of them in every fight, and end with super-psychics who never have to leave their starting positions. Instead, it’s just-bland. Harder and blander.

And the visual design has to win some kind of award for being “bland”. It’s a combination of “as close as we can get to the original X-COM without legal trouble, but without anything silly” and “generic military base”. I generally don’t care about graphics, but this was still a big issue. The only good thing is the excellent music.

It’s playable, and something true X-COM style fans can enjoy as a part of the experience. But it’s just bland.

The (intended) use of postwar heavy tanks

While many designs and prototypes of larger-than-normal tanks were made, the only American heavy tank to reach a degree of production was the M103. Even then, the Marines were more enthusiastic about it than the Army.

But the army had worked heavy tanks into their doctrine. And they were primarily tank destroyers. Not completely, like the purpose-built TDs of WWII, but organized very similarly.

According to the 1949/1951 edition of FM 17-33, when heavy tanks were “brewing”:

“The missions of the heavy tank battalion are:
a. To provide antitank protection, in both offense and defense, against enemy tanks.
b. To support the advance of the medium tank and armored infantry battalions.
c. To perform, in addition, the missions normally assigned to the medium tank battalion.”

Note the prioritization. Paragraph 254 is even more explict and similar to the initial wartime tank destroyer doctrine.

“The heavy tank battalion of the armored division normally will be given an antitank mission in both the mobile and sustained defense. When attached to the combat commands or the reserve command, the battalion, or its companies, usually will be held in reserve, ready to move out to meet any enemy threat, especially by tanks superior in capabilities to the medium tank.”

Now, other roles for the heavy tank, including the breakthrough/support role its eastern counterparts were primarily envisioned for (and which it was designed to stop) were mentioned, this was not inflexible. But the focus was on the anti-tank role.

The IS-7 Tank

This is the IS-7 heavy tank.

IS-7

Although impressive in firepower (in addition to its heavy gun, it had an assisting semi-autoloader) and armor, it was understandably and justifiably cancelled for being too heavy, clunky, and complex. The final Soviet heavy tank would be the T-10.

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.