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.


Team Yankee

I’ve just finished Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee, the classic tank novel.

By its own terms, it’s not the best book.

It’s like a micro-scale Red Storm Rising. (I don’t mean in tone, or obvious setting, I mean it’s a decent but dated and over-jargoned book). It’s a little too clinical. Too much explanation of attacks and formations and stuff in detail, like Coyle wanted to show off what he knew. At times I thought “this is like Melville, only with tanks instead of sailing ships”.

The characters away from the main group aren’t that good. The wife subplot seems superfluous, cutting to an A-10 pilot or headquarters officer is a little jarring, and the occasional Soviet viewpoint character exists basically to go “curse those dastardly Americans!”

And yet when comparing it to the later WW3 imitators I’ve seen on the internet and self-published fiction, it comes across as better. For while it has the flaws mentioned above, it also has one thing a lot of the later ones don’t-a truly consistent narrative. The viewpoint disruptions aren’t too bad, and some are indeed tied in to the main action, which cannot be said for others. This alone makes it worth a read.

No Appeal: Special Forces

Ok, some topics don’t appeal to me. This is a matter of personal taste, but still. I might as well give my opinion. I’ll start with the first, and one of the largest. Special Forces.

There’s multiple reasons why I dislike (and wouldn’t routinely use, at least for a main character) the trope of “special forces” or “elite warriors”. One of the biggest is a knowledge of the very real limitations of real special forces, the very different roles employed from the fantasy, the very different basic definitions of the term across different countries and times, and how all of them (in a setting with some degree of realism, at least), differ dramatically from the common fantasy. So that’s one piece of the pie.

But the second has nothing to do with practicality. It just feels off to have someone start the story at the top of the heap. It takes away from the sense of development and heroism, and (especially if used in a fictional fantastical role rather than a more plausibly limited one) smacks of wish fulfillment. It just seems better to have someone ordinary doing something extraordinary than someone extraordinary doing something ordinary-for them.

The Perspective That Destroyed The Technothriller

So, I have an additional theory about the technothriller’s fall. It’s not on the central level that Nader Elhefnawy argued (the fall of the USSR took away the biggest immediate driver), or my own speculation (high technology weapons became so common that they ceased being ‘new and exciting’). This is secondary to those.

The theory is that of a precedent that made it (even) harder to continue the thriller in its post-1991 climate. This is, for lack of a better term, the “high level focus”.

As Elhefnawy describes it:

“Rather than having his protagonist Jack Ryan conveniently turning up in the right place at the right time, every time, so as to dominate the narrative, the story’s action is widely diffused among a large number of organizationally and geographically dispersed viewpoint characters. (11) This includes a large number of minor ones, whose sole connection to one another is their playing some small part in the evolution of a common crisis; and whose sole function in the story is to provide a higher-resolution view of some particularly interesting bit of the larger situation.”

A lot of technothrillers would adopt this high-level focus. While I understand the reasoning behind it, I’ve found that more often than not, it’s detrimental. If I had to describe why, the two biggest reasons would be:

-The perspective-hopping gets in the way of a continual flow, turning it into a “this happened, then this happened, then this happened…” clunker.

-The large number of characters and plots make it harder to develop any specific one in detail.

Those are general critiques that could apply to any genre. Where I think the high-level focus amplifies the problem with the technothriller in general, and the post-1991 one in particular is:

-Going into a genre the author isn’t the best at writing. I’m especially thinking politics here, where it became an increasingly tinny “Stupid politicians getting in our way” at worst and flat at best.

-Most crucially, in terms of threat to the main characters. If there’s a low-level focus and all you need to do is write a challenge to the individuals, that’s fairly easy regardless of how ineffective the threat as a whole is. A single SA-2 battery to a fighter plane, whatever the on-paper threat, is still a guided telephone pole-sized explosive heading straight for it. If on the other hand, one has to go all the way up the chain of command, it becomes harder to present a force with obsolescent equipment as a true threat. And since the conventional threats got harder to find after the Gulf War and fall of the USSR…

This is not to say that a high-level focus can’t be done well, or that a low-level one can’t be done poorly. However, I’ve found low-level works that aren’t the best quality to still be fun (and not in a so-bad-its-good way) that bad high-level ones aren’t.

Before I finish, I should give a recommendation/example: Raven One is a largely low-level work that, while not award-winning, is still a good military thriller.


What Difference A Protagonist Change Makes

For a long time in one of my fanfic-writing goals, I was stuck-stuck beyond the usual lack of energy. What I wanted and what the setting was just didn’t fit together. Then I found, in a somewhat unusual source, something that identified the problem.

I looked at a video talking about Pokemon Reburst, a manga that attempted to “maturify” the well-known series. The series, despite a decent-sized run, seemed to slide down once it wrapped up (the reviewer had trouble finding information on it in Japanese, much less English), and once he got the gist of the plot, it wasn’t hard to see why.

The problem was simple-it was just a second-rate shounen story with a bit of Pokemon window dressing. Despite the vastly different genres, I saw the parallels between my own struggles at writing a long Pokemon fanfiction and what was identified as the problem in ReBurst. Namely, my outline was just a secret agent story with a bit of monster window dressing.

It would center around the League’s Special Intelligence and Investigation department, a combined intelligence service and “intervention” force. SII, in addition to its ‘normal’ duties, takes the job of securing the multiverse (yes, dimensional travel is a thing) from extranormal Pokemon and the artifacts related to them.

Sounds good enough. But there was just one problem-the image I had of SII doesn’t fit into the setting. Not just that they’re too dark. Rather, it’s a combination of their image-semi-realistic agents backed by camo-clad commandos patterned off the infamous Spetsnaz are more suited to Counter Strike: GO than Pokemon Go-and something even worse.

The Pokemon setting, even in its darker fandom interpretations is centered around a fair fight, or at least an individual-on-individual battle. The SII agent does everything possible to avoid that. It just-doesn’t really fit the theme far beyond any appropriate tone.

Thankfully, I’ve found an alternative-make the protagonist a trainer, and keep SII, especially their ERUs (Emergency Response Unit, although the name is intentionally reminiscent of something else) as a supporting cast. I’ve found a plot setup that enables me to do it.
The setup is very simple: Don’t make the main character an SII agent. Make them a normal trainer. This has also solved a lot of other problems with the fic as well-it gives me an anchor, and lets me do things that Secret Agent Super Dragonite or his army of polite masked backflip-hatchet tossers could never do. Never underestimate the power of limiting scope.