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.

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Plot Device Characters

Some characters in stories are obvious devices to make the plot go in a certain way, instead of being actual characters. They serve as a very interesting example of how personal taste matters-people who agree that the characters are there simply as plot devices can still disagree on whether or not that damages the actual story or not.

In my opinion, I view an overabundance of plot device characters as a big problem in Worm. Without spoiling anything, there’s one character notorious for having the most blatant and ridiculous plot-device power imaginable, but most of the others still have it to some degree or another.

Then again, because I never got into the immediate prose of Worm, I notice small issues like that in outsized terms. So it’s back to personal taste, I suppose.

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.

A writing strategy

For my newest in-progress book, I’m trying a slightly unconventional writing style. I’m initially putting all the chapters in separate documents so that I don’t feel overwhelmed and can, if I only have the time or motivation for a “nibble”, can contribute to the chapter where I feel the most enthusiastic.

So far it seems to be working and I’m avoiding the “stare at the processor, do nothing” effect that has plagued my other writing for too long.

A few further genre fiction thoughts

So, a while ago, I mentioned Tanya Huff’s Valor series as an example of someone who could work around a writing weakness. Basically, an author whose background and resume would be, on paper, the last person to write effective military fiction managed by setting up the plots so that the characters were in small groups and situations she was comfortable with. It was a sign of working around weakness.

Now, a part of me thinks that its success might not have been in spite of her lack of experience, but in some ways because of it. That is, she had less of the genre’s baggage because she didn’t know you were “supposed” to do something. Granted, all this could just be me viewing the Valor books with rose-tinted goggles as I count the cliches in my latest binge of technothrillers, but still.

(Besides Team Yankee, I’m reading another piece of “Tank Fiction”, Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers. The latter hits a lot of the technothriller cliches but is still a good “cheap thriller”)

Antagonist Tone

I’ll be honest. When writing it, I pulled the entire original set of antagonists I’d planned for Todd’s Super Racket Adventure and replaced them with quickly shoved-in goofballs and homages to 90s video games. I feel it was the right thing to do, for having villains who I wanted to be serious in a book that was inherently silly and goofy would have just cheapened them without really adding anything to the “goofy, silly” part of the story I wanted.

The villains I wanted originally will have to wait for another book, I suppose.

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.

 

 

My five least favorite antagonists

In no particular order, some of my least favorite antagonists in fiction:

SCP-682 (SCP Foundation)

“The Greek” (The Wire)

The Soviet Leadership (Red Storm Rising)

Andries Rhoodie/The Rivington Men (Guns of the South)

Missingno (Pokemon)

_ _ _ _ _

Missingno:

Missingno is just a glitch. It bugs me so much how a programming error can be treated by fans as some sort of creepypasta scary monster. It’s like making a Fallout or Elder Scrolls fic starring the Glitched Monster From ________.

SCP-682

Now this is what happens when “meme” powers become reality. The lizard is indestructible. That’s it. It’s dull and lame and boring.

“The Greek”

That he’s in one of my favorite shows of all time illustrates that even good works of fiction can gave bad antagonists. A sneering one-dimensional mustache-twirler whose entire gimmick is that he’s greedy, “The Greek” is a bad character in a good story. “The Greek” is supposed to represent unrestrained capitalism, but Stringer Bell shows it in a much more balanced and nuanced way. And even his own lieutenant, Spiros, comes across as a much better and more charismatic character.

The Soviet Leadership

The Politburo scene in the beginning of Red Storm Rising has aged poorly and exists to set up the excuse plot for WW3. Sneering supervillain Soviets might work in a Red Alert game, but in a serious book, it’s a headdesk moment. Their entire plan is invading Europe so they can invade the Middle East later. And this is one of the things the copycats have copied. Ugh.

Rhoodie

Guns of the South does many things right. One thing it does wrong is its antagonists. The Rivington Men are some of the worst antagonists. They exist to make the Confederates look better in race relations by comparison (ulp), and then, when they decide that Lee has to go, with all their futuristic technology, they… have guys with Uzis fire wildly in his general direction.

Tone

It’s very, very important for fiction to have an appropriate tone. As for the difficulty of that, it’s strange. On one hand, I’ve seen many otherwise bland stories at least manage to keep an appropriate and decent tone. On the other, I’ve seen just as many ones-and these include professional and/or long works- that don’t.

I view maintaining a suitable tone as a kind of art that’s not easily explainable in terms of how to do, because you have no one answer for every story. What I also see is that getting the right tone is a very key factor in separating a proper story from a bowl-of-ingredients clunker where you have events and characters but they’re not really integrated. Not everything, but a big part.

Supertanks

So, my big dilemma can be summed up in one work. Supertanks.

There are a bewildering array of paper supertanks that the fall of the USSR nipped in the bud. These, both western and eastern, range from conventional upgrades of previous-gen tanks (many of which were actually made, at least in prototype) on one end, to ultra-exotic “Crew of two and they’re both in the hull” designs on the other. 140 and 152mm monster guns, uncrewed turrets with innovative autoloaders, the list goes on and on. They’re interesting to see, and I’m wondering “If I’m making a semi-grounded fictional supertank, what real one should it most resemble?”

And yet, for one of my main antagonist groups, the question of supertanks gives way to the more important one of “are they the kind who’d have large formations of tanks at all, be they surplus or super”. That’s the question I should be asking.