Armies of Sand

I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately. In terms of fiction, it means (among other things) lots of new Fuldapocalypse reviews in waiting. But I figure I’d cover a non-fiction book here, Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand, because it’s a followup to one of my younger classics.

That younger classic would be Kenneth Pollack’s Arabs At War (and the thesis that led to it, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Effectiveness). It, alongside Andrew Gordon’s The Rules Of The Game, were two of my introductions to serious military history. Both are detailed, long history books that I’ve nonetheless viewed later on with a somewhat more skeptical eye.

I grabbed Armies of Sand on release. By “normal person” standards, it’s a good book. But by my very high ones, I’m skeptical. I’ve found Pollack, who is making very, very serious claims, has a few “Brown M&Ms” that point to some lack of rigor. There’s comparably few updated sources from the ones in the thesis, and he points to hit rates of in comparison to peacetime theory rather than the inevitably much lower ones in wartime practice.

(Granted, I think some of my issues aren’t so much with Pollack himself compared to how the Spacebattles War Room has kind of taken his work and flanderized it, particularly 1991 Iraq, from “They under-performed, sometimes dramatically so” to “They could lose to WWI armies or the like and are completely, utterly incompetent”[1]).

So I want to point out what Pollack does right. He doesn’t discount the other hypotheses (politicization and underdevelopment[2]), and he applies the cultural element (what he thinks is the most responsible) with a lot of care and respect, knowing how easily it is to sink into bad stereotypes.

The best “control group” section is politicization. The Soviet doctrine part isn’t bad at all, and Pollack comes across as less biased than he did in the thesis, but politicization and the two control countries were more fascinating to me, describing the similarities of Argentina in the Falklands War and South Vietnam. My only complaint is that Iraq was used as the Arab case without mentioning the conventional portion of the 2003 war, which is well-documented and also featured a monstrously politicized army.

The biggest miss in the control section is underdevelopment. Pollack uses the same two countries he did in the thesis (Toyota War Chad and Mao’s China) despite a huge pool of choices[3] and uses Syria instead of an oil state with a more dramatic shift for the Arab example, a slightly befuddling choice (I have a hunch Pollack wanted to work one of the most famous armies in there and nowhere else really fit).

Then there’s the culture section. I’d already read about it from the thesis, but he handles it well. Pollack never argues it would always be the case, points to training as the transmission mechanism, and points out examples of Arab armies that, mostly by having a smaller and more selective choice of soldiers, performed better individually.

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Armies of Sand should not be the be-all-and-end-all of books about Arab armies in the modern age, but my critiques and nitpicking shouldn’t be taken as a sign that the book is bad or worthless. On the contrary, as a beginning and general reference for jumping off to more “hardcore” studies, it’s well worth a read.

I’m just “spoiled”, I guess.

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[1]Of course, Spacebattles living through 2014, the nadir of modern Iraqi army performance, may have reinforced this.

[2]The third, Soviet doctrine, had very little negative and many positive influences on the Arab armies that used it.

[3]Pretty much any country with overall economic stats below Western Europe would do. All the other control countries he used in the underdevelopment section, including Argentina, which for all its problems is not a bottom-tier country by any means.

Jumpchain

So, I’ve known it existed for a long time, but have only recently begun to examine the phenomenon known as “Jumpchain”, a kind of internet choose-your-own-adventure story. This post on a jumpchain blog explains it far better than I could.

Being so focused on using and taking advantage of various setting powers, it’s no surprise that jumpchains are popular on Spacebattles. I’ll admit I was reminded of the Infinite Loops, in that both combined fantasy with rules.

On one hand, viewed as an actual story vehicle, it has everything from power creep (the original “victory condition” of the endjump and planeswalker spark went from being an epic struggle with an epic reward to a readily munchkin-able condition that gives something the jumper will likely already have, for one) to (for not all, but too many jumpchain writers) making the actual adventures themselves play second fiddle to describing and arguing about the builds.

But as a munchkin fantasy? I can feel the guilty pleasure, and the weaknesses described above are totally understandable. So I just can’t bring myself to dislike jumpchain.

It’s not Worm

So, there’s a dirty little secret about Worm fanfiction, the kind that has taken SB/V by storm so much the mods had to make separate boards. I didn’t realize this secret because I (wisely) stayed even farther away from the fanfic scene than I did from the original story, but then I found out once I discovered more.

It’s not based on Wildbow’s original story.

It isn’t. A lot of Worm fanfic writers admit to having never read the original. Now, under normal circumstances, I would denounce that. And I still do. But even if it’s hard to defend, I can at least understand why people wouldn’t want to slog through a story that’s about as long as War and Peace and In Search of Lost Time put together. And has terrible pacing and other fundamentals.

And going for more fanfics makes it more flexible, since there’s nothing in the way. This explained everything when I came to that conclusion in one of the many Worm discussions. It explains why Wildbow’s later stories, including Worms own sequel, have generated basically nothing in terms of Spacebattles fanfics. It explains why everything is so divergent and why certain elements are latched on to beyond the usual “fanon” misunderstandings.

Wildbow writes, long dark, fantasy stories. The Worm fanfic writers write in a superhero sandbox, and the original work might as well have been an RPG sourcebook that was never meant to be treated as anything more than a vague guideline for the GM to fill in the blanks.

Now I’d be honestly interested to see what the main stories were that sparked this “fanon Worm”, the critical mass of early fanfics. Because it’s them and not the main story that are the real source material.

“Crunchy”

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.”

Worm’s Appeal and My Growing Distaste

So how did a minor but incredibly long story about a superheroine end up dominating Spacebattles to the point where it needed its own forum? (NOTE: I’m being a little vague and general due to the desire to avoid spoilers-I may go more in-depth later if I feel like it)

Well, even I can think the concept is interesting enough, and I think it could be due to some other factors:

  • This is not anything having to do with Worm itself, but rather its rivals. Big two superhero comics have the bar set so low that you need a microscope to see the gap between it and the ground. For all the many problems with its own structure and worldbuilding, Worm has a massive advantage in that it’s a contained narrative written by one person.
  • Unconventional superpowers. This is where I think Worm shares an unlikely fandom with the infamous Jojo’s Bizarre Adventure. The characters have unconventional superpowers and use them, and the appeal is there.
  • A sort of “crunchiness” where people like the mechanics. Of course, as someone who dislikes excessive “crunchiness” where it doesn’t matter, this is not the case for me. But people do like it, especially on a place like Spacebattles.

So that’s what gets the appeal of Worm going.

However, I’ve found (and must say that this is my personal opinion), as I’ve read more of it, that Worm is worse than I thought at first. At least, later Worm is. Early Worm (which I define as roughly up to Arc 8) is still in the “not for me” category. Later Worm, well…

  • The powers get more and more contrived.
  • The stakes get raised far too much.
  • The story gets less believable and focused.

And then there’s the final plot twists, which when I saw them, I thought “you’d slog through a million and a half clunky words for this?

 

Ward First Impressions

So, now that the first three chapters of Ward/Worm II have been posted, I’ll give my impression. The impression is simple.

Typical Wildbow so far. You have the detailed, at least theoretically interesting setting, the dark tone, and the mediocre prose that feels kind of “infodumpy” and has trouble moving to different tones. That wasn’t surprising. (Neither is the argumentative discussion on Spacebattles, unfortunately).

The big question mark will be pacing. Pacing was one of the big weaknesses of the original Worm. It managed to be 1.6 million words long, or almost three times the length of War and Peace. Yet it also managed to escalate far too much. Even Wildbow’s shortest full web serial, Pact, is only slightly less than twice the length of that legendary thick book. For me, it’s at least easier to follow if I read from the start and read one chapter at a time (which is easy, I read fast), instead of binging on millions of words written clunkily.

So, I’m not exactly surprised by anything I’ve seen so far in Ward. The question as to whether it can recapture the magic of Worm in SBCRW also remains unanswered. To answer that will have to wait until the story develops more, and then to see how many fanfics use elements from Ward and Ward alone.

That’s Ward after three chapters. More or less what I expected, with all of Wildbow’s strengths and weaknesses. I hope it can improve, but given how it’s checked so many of the boxes already, I’m a little skeptical.