Submarine Fiction

With the release of The Silent Service DLC for Command, I figured I’d talk about submarine fiction. Now, the genre includes traditional classics like Run Silent Run Deep, and of course, a submarine novel kickstarted the technothriller genre as we know it.

Submarine fiction is a sort of genre that’s interesting in the context of how it adapted to the post-USSR period. It was a very hard, very uphill struggle. Probably more so than any other subgenre of technothriller, because not that many countries even have subs, much less modern ones.

Small fry? You’d be lucky to get anything more than a Kilo or Type 209.

Nuclear submarines? Only six countries operate them, four are democracies, and three of the four are NATO members.

So the methods I’ve found authors use are:

  • Give the enemy a “thingy”. That is, the weaker opponent has a submarine (or submarines) as well. Is it a Kilo/209? Is it an upgraded Kilo/209-style submarine? Is it a newer, quiet submarine?
  • Make the story part of a big great-power conflict, in some form or another.
  • Go full sci-fi or weird and make it unconventional in some form. Larry Bond’s Cauldron is a mild example of this, whereas Joe Buff‘s submarine novels are an extreme example.
  • Finally-have a submarine that’s hijacked/hacked/rogue/stolen/otherwise in the hands of the antagonist. This is one of many examples, as is this.

Obviously, they can mix, these are not hard and fast categories by any means. The only thing that really feels “natural” is the great-power conflict, and that has its own issues and hangups. The others can still be done well. As with any genre, a skilled author can turn a questionable setup into a delight, while a bad author can get a story handed to them on a silver platter and mess it up. But the obvious handwaves and possible pitfalls are still there, and still clear.

An additional one that I think exists for submarines regardless of the time period is that they’re “all or nothing”. You can destroy individual protagonist tanks or aircraft easily enough, but, for the most part, either all the submarine’s crew makes it, or none of them do.

Submarine fiction is an interesting technothriller niche, that, thanks to the real exclusivity, seems to amplify the issues the genre has had. And that’s legitimately interesting to me.


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.



I’ve found myself using the word “crunchy” a lot to describe settings with a lot of detail. I could think I read it somewhere, but haven’t been able to find someone else using it in that way. As for how I took to the word “Crunchy”, I think it might be two things.

  • A derivative of “number-crunching”.
  • A metaphor for density-it’s dense, “solid”, and thus crunches when you bite down.

A use of it in context could be “Worm has a lot of crunchiness to it, making it a favorite on a board [Spacebattles] that likes such things.”

Death Battle

So, Sephiroth vs. Vergil, the final episode of this season of Death Battle has released. The show is one of my favorite guilty pleasures. However, I fear it’s become a victim of its own success. One is that the need to raise the stakes on production values might cost it. The other, and more important one, is that they’ve already done most of the big-ticket matchups (Mario/Sonic, Spider Man/Batman, etc..), leaving them with either obscurities or a shrinking pool of big names.

Oh well. At least it’s still fun.

If I read normal fiction

Sometimes I wonder what my life would have been like if I read “normal” books. And in some cases I do. But-I feel like I’d have missed something if I hadn’t read the undiscovered gems, the hilariously bad monsters, and even the bland potboilers I dig through to get the former two.

That’s just my taste to find the weird and different, I suppose.

Twilight 2000

Twilight 2000, the classic semi-postapocalyptic tabletop RPG, is a very contradictory game, one of the most so I’ve ever seen.

See, the plot is good enough. It’s more realistic than many WWIIIs in that the nukes fly, but manages to stay intact enough so that all the cool toys aren’t taken away. And whatever the many plausibility issues, it works for the sake of setting up an adventure.

The problem is in the dichotomy. The mechanics have a detailed, often-realistic unglamorous focus on the dirty work-logistics, disease, and the like. Characters are quite vulnerable. This mixed with the shattered, post-nuclear war-bandit setting means it should be poised for a low-tier, somber look, right?

Wrong. Sharing equally with the dirty-work mechanics are detailed stats of individual guns, tanks, and artillery pieces, starting dubious already but taken to excess in supplements. The post-apocalyptic setting is there to provoke challenges, but it’s also clearly there to take away the command post and those pesky orders. The target audience and themes are for the “bored soldier and military enthusiast” crowd, not exactly something somber. It’s like This War of Mine was jumbled together with Medal of Honor Warfighter and printed, to use later video games as analogies.

And then some of the later supplements got-weird. I’m talking “save Arkansas from evil airships” weird.

It’s still fascinating, both as a product of its time and for the “excesses” and contradictions it has.


The Magnificent Forward Observers

Poor me.

I know too much for a Seven Samuraiinspired battle to be both realistic and dramatic. At least against an army, which is what I was going for when I thought of the concept. Because against a larger and at least somewhat disciplined force willing to take any sort of loss, seven people are going to get crushed effortlessly. The best they could do, and this assumes they have the support in the first place, is hide and call in reports and fire support similar to the Marines at Khafji.

Now, against er, “irregulars”, as was the case in the original inspirations, it’s a different story. Still implausible, but they’d likely be far less skilled, and more crucially, have a far more timid risk calculus. Which is to say, there’d be more pressure to just “give up” and loot an easier target rather than take huge losses for the sake of a victory. The historical record of militia shows that, in general, they’re much worse at attacking than they are defending.

But could one still make a good story out of either a semi-plausible or outright implausible version, against either type of opposition? Of course! As long as it was well-written and fit the tone of the overall work, any sort of setup can work very well.

Twig ending and the Worm dilemma

Although Twig has not officially concluded, much less Worm 2 having started, the first epilogue of that story has been posted.

The question of whether I should try to get into Worm 2 is tough. I tried to get into Twig a bit, but it just didn’t really grab me, however thematically interesting. Reasons I’d want to get into Worm 2 are:

  • I could be pleasantly surprised.
  • I want to know more about Spacebattles’ favorite weird niche webfic.
  • Most importantly, reading it as it starts means I’m not buried by a gigantic overload of previous chapters.

However, the reason why I wouldn’t, and why I haven’t, are twofold.

  • Wildbow (the author) has prose that’s just “meh”. Not terrible, but not the most gripping.
  • The pacing of the stories isn’t very good, which combined with their (admirably) fast update schedule means I catch up on several chapters of nothing.

That being said, I’ll still give it a try, and if nothing else, I might be motivated to read through the many updates of Worm 1 while Twig winds down. Maybe I’ll find it an acquired taste. It’s certainly happened before with stuff that didn’t seem good at first impression.


Good Fiction Spotlight: The Defense of Hill 781

It’s time for another Good Fiction Spotlight, in light of all the “Bad Fiction Spotlights” I’ve done. This Good Fiction Spotlight goes to James McDonough’s The Defense of Hill 781.

The book is intended as a late Cold War version of the classic Defence of Duffer’s Drift and is styled as such. The action is evenhanded, detailed, and possibly a little over-detailed. But here’s what sets it apart. Instead of trying to move away from its inherent artificiality, it embraces it completely.

There are very good reasons for this in the proper context-it’s meant to be educational and show the equivalent of a “battle” in the National Training Center in detail-this isn’t attempting to illustrate a full World War III or any other story in any other sense. It’s not like I think McDonough made a deliberate stylistic choice to focus the story entirely on a completely artificial engagement. It was just the nature of a Duffer’s Drift-style tale.

However inadvertedly, the book nonetheless is the closest in-print work to the kind of artificial OPFOR thriller I talked about wanting to see-making no pretentions about being anything more than what it is, and having a sense of humor that stands out in an otherwise serious genre.

In Praise of the Krasnovians

Now, as my writings on both here and Baloogan Campaign have shown, I have a fondness for the “OPFORs”, the representations of the enemy from the Circle Trigons to the present.


This painting is of Krasnovian soldiers and is definitely not one of OPFOR soldiers in Fort Irwin.

Now, part of it is for their historical worth. It’s interesting to see training in history, interesting to see how accurately the doctrine of the enemy being simulated was portrayed, and interesting to see how it compares to the paper doctrine of the “Blue Force” trainees.

But another part of it is, ironically enough, in literary terms. Because of the very “fake” quality of the concept. The exercises themselves of course were not meant to win Nobel Prizes in literature. The OPFOR states were meant only as an openly artificial foe in an artificial fight.

Note the statement “openly”. Having slogged through an Augean stable of bad 198X World War III fiction, I can say that seeing something that’s just openly, plausibly, unconcernedly, an artificial creation feels refreshing in its honesty. Given how many bad works of fiction both prop up the Soviets (or other opponent) as a similarly artificial pop-up target in practice and are treated by their fans as something otherwise, there’s a part of me that just wants to see:

“A Krasnovian Tank Army is approaching. Are you a bad enough dude to stop the Krasnovians?” Cue the Abrams/T-80 slugfest.

Plus I think it adds a bit of humor, a knowing wink. And the genre badly needs works that lighten up a bit.