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, 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. 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.
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.
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. 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.
This is something I’ve wanted to write for a while. Now it’s out there.
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.