FICINT

I have to say this about the FICINT concept after seeing some of it being mentioned. I can see its appeal and use, but I have concerns. So I’m going to sound like I’m more negative on it than I actually am. I’m not against speculative fiction or applying it to real-life possibilities in the slightest.

Where I do have wariness comes from my decade-long consumption of bad fiction. In short, my biggest feeling of caution comes from this: There might be survivorship bias at work. Because my experience reading everything from alternate history timelines to 90s technothrillers is that for every hit, you get a lot of misses. For every Hector Bywater, you get a ton of invasion novels that were as inaccurate as they were overwrought. And that holds true whatever the period. There’s also getting a wrong impression from fiction (a technothriller having an overly optimistic portrayal of high-tech gadgetry, to give one example) or treating stuff that’s still meant to be narrative-first as some kind of counterfactual prediction.

I don’t want to strawman or sound like I’m being more critical than I am. In fact, studying the misses of speculative fiction writers could be just as important and insightful as looking at the hits, if not more so. So I’m not against FICINT, I just think it should be applied cautiously and with a study of past failures as well as present speculations.

Good Writing Music

Good writing music is frequently long, ambient, and low-intensity, for lack of a better word. It’s just noticeable enough to distract you from the outside world while you write, but not prominent enough to take attention away from the writing itself.

There are exceptions, of course, but I’ve gotten a lot done listening to relaxing instrumental music.

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.

A genre I’d never write?

So, for the August 2018 #TheMerryWriter challenge started by Ari Meghlen and Rachel Poli, the second day’s question was “Is there a genre you would never write?”

It was a tough question to answer. My tastes are incredibly varied already and can change a lot. A desire to move away from fire-eating hyperbole on my part made it even harder. Finally, the vague nature of what constitutes certain “genres” at all makes it tougher.

I don’t want to say I’d never write a certain genre, but certain ones are lower on my priority list. The one I tweeted was “classic Westerns”. I’ve never been terribly interested in them past watching The Magnificent Seven as a child, and if I’m not into reading them, then writing them, well, yeah.

However, a lot of genres I would gladly write-the adventure genre, part of the “cheap thriller” genre I love, has been clearly inspired by classic Westerns. So genres are not easy to separate.

Other genres low on my list:

  • Outright horror, especially cosmic horror. Not really for me, but I can see the appeal.
  • Contemporary romance. For the most part I’m not in the demographic, so that’s pretty self-explanatory.
  • Mysteries. Argh. The problem is a spectacular true crime book by The Wire creator David Simon called Homicide: A Year On The Killing Streets. With that being as piercing as it is, traditional mysteries look especially formulaic and unrealistic. That being said, I do like the concept more.
  • Zombies. At least shambler zombies. Too often they become a “theme park apocalypse”.
  • Urban Fantasy. Fantasy overall is fairly low, but urban fantasy is even lower. I like it in theory, it’s just too often I see it falling. It might just be me seeing poor examples, but I think a lot of the time it tries to have its cake (modern relatable characters and the fantastic!) and eat it too (too neatly segmenting off the societies), and that annoys me.
  • Legal thrillers. I’m not a lawyer, self-explanatory.

This is of course my personal taste and I have nothing against the genres or anyone who likes them. And my opinion could very well change again.

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.

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.