Bad Fiction Spotlight: Rumsfeldia

What do you get when you combine what had been a decent dystopia, a politically charged reaction, a “nothing-but-spine” setup, and cheerleading? You get Rumsfeldia, an alternatehistory.com timeline that is-something.

As a counter to the numerous bad right-wing stories I’ve covered in this setting, Rumsfeldia is a bad left-wing story. Following on from its predecessor timeline, Fear Loathing and Gumbo, the story begins with the titular figure becoming president. Then he proceeds to unleash capitalism (as defined by the hard left of a hard-left message board), launches a horrifically botched invasion of Cuba, and then is overthrown by “Christian Values” crusaders, and the US is now totally fragmented and….

The timeline becomes more sensationalist and inaccurate. Yet its background could still have worked well as say, the backdrop of a GTA game. (They share the horrifically unsubtle left-wing “satire”, at least). That it stands entirely on its own means that it stays terrible, for there is nothing to to it but-fetish.

One of the things I was reminded of was the (in)famous Left Behind series, or at least the excellent Slacktivist commentary. This seemed strange at first, but it was an issue of tone rather than story similarity. Two themes stood out for me when applied to Rumsfeldia. The first was that Slacktivist considered them worse than other Rapture-styled apocalyptic fiction.

While he would have still vehemently criticized said works and their authors from a theological and moral perspective, there was more respect in that while those authors viewed it with horror, LB’s LaHaye and Jenkins viewed it with a sort of snide triumphalism. 

The second was the desire to feel oppressed. No one wants to be oppressed, everyone wants to feel oppressed.

I found the same basic idea through a lot of Rumsfeldia. While filtered through the exact opposite political lens, both it and the commentary have the same sort of apocalyptic fetish as the strawman falls, with cheering, and, in Rumsfeldia’s case, a two-for-the-price of one double punch of both social and fiscal conservativism on a notoriously left-wing board.

Rumsfeldia is also an example of logrolling, where the timeline gathers momentum. Everyone is too involved now to say “THE EMPEROR HAS NO CLOTHES! SIDEWINDERS DON’T WORK THAT WAY! RUMSFELD WAS A SIMPLE ESTABLISHMENT TYPE ECONOMICALLY AND NOT A PSUEDO-RANDIAN!” And if someone did, it’d be drowned out.

What I think is worse than the timeline itself is the the imitators it’s spawned, catering to the same fetish with even worse writing.

The Alternate History Line

What separates good alternate history online from bad alternate history online (besides the usual literary qualities)? I think it’s whether or not the authors have a “not one step back” attitude.

Not whether or not they’re willing to defend their choices, but how willing they are to let implausibilities slide, to treat fiction like fiction instead of “This is my genius, so I’m offended that you’d attack my genius”.

This is why I liked a story called “Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire” for all its flaws (including a contrived way of getting the title character into office in the first place), while the work in previous Bad Fiction Spotlights stood out for authors who stubbornly defended every last bit.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: World War III 1946

There exists a particularly egregious timeline that in terms of its actual content is mediocre, but in terms of internet arguments is something else.

Something much like the previous Bad Fiction Spotlight subject, The Big One, but with far less technical knowledge on the part of the author.

That timeline is “World War III 1946“. The plot goes as follows.

-In 1943, a Mary Sue named “Sergo” starts work on super-tech projects for the USSR.

-In 1946, Stalin attacks west.

This started off as a scenario set/way to use the advanced planes in Il-2 Sturmovik. Then it became something worse. Rather than just being a narrative whose contents wouldn’t have been examined closely, Hairog [the author’s screen name] viciously defended it. There’s a reason I suspect he was so tough in the defense, but here’s the “what”.

Hairog based the land war off of contemporary worst-case plans by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Justifiably worried about the Eastern Front-winning Red Army but in many ways ignorant of the logistical and political problems said military would face, these plans involved retreating all the way to the Pyrenees and Sicily while conducting a heavy air attack.

(One genuine way to give the Soviets a free boost would be to have the Western Allies spook and retreat far more than they needed to, but Hairog didn’t portray it like that).

With hindsight, in 1946, central Europe was too shattered to support a substantial advance, and the Soviets needed to demobilize to save their economy and secure their new vassal states. Even many of the harshest critics said “give them a few years to catch their breath, and it’s more plausible”. Nope. Gotta be 1946.

The air war was ahistorical and crazy. With the aid of their omniscient spies (that can destroy the US nuclear program and provide essentially real-time updates on air raids), the Soviets foil everything with SAMs and launch a Second Battle of Britain (yes, with an entirely tactical air force). They have German wonder planes-see the inspiration in Il-2, as reenacted by the author:

The prose isn’t good, but it would sit in the forgettable middle of the bad fiction pack-

-if Hairog hadn’t spent hundreds and hundreds of pages across multiple boards defending every last bit of its plausibility. Countless ones, that consisted of him doing everything from simply shoving sources at people without understanding them to declaring that they were simple racist fools that couldn’t bear the thought of the Soviets actually winning.

I found the likely answer when I saw him referring to Sergo as “Hairogski” in an early post. It’s not about criticizing the Soviet plans, it’s about criticizing his plans. Plans that range from using B.F. Skinner’s pigeons as SAM guidance systems to making German midget subs into long-range raiders via mothership submarines.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: The Big One

This is one of the first bad fiction series I found out about online, read for myself, and then criticized. So it’s kind of special-in multiple meanings of the term, of course.

This series is called The Big One. Written by a naval analyst named Stuart Slade, they’re both the most uninteresting (badly written with not a hint of excitement in the battles, obvious chapter-by-chapter webfiction turned to self-publishing with only a hint of the battles), and strangely interesting (the whole mystique around it).

So, first an examination of the “what.”

The timeline begins in 1940, with Lord Halifax seizing power from Churchill in a parliamentary coup. Then he makes peace with Germany, who then deploy “guards” to England, in a prelude to a Crimea-style taking of Britain(!). The US enters the war, fights on the mega-Eastern Front, Stalin is killed and the USSR reverts to Russia, and the war drags on until 1947, where a huge fleet of B-36s easily nukes Germany into utter ruin.

That was the “sane” part of it. The work had originated from a what if forum post, and turned into a sort of mix. Part of it was showing off the power of the early Cold War nuclear bomber fleets, and part of it was debunking the “wehraboo wunderwaffe” exaggeration of WWII Germany, showing that if the US enters the war, it will just be nuked even with artificial advantages.

Then things get crazier and crazier.

With Russia turned into a cuddly, fuzzy, Britain Special Relationship-level teddy bear, the opposition is dubious. First you get the holdout Germans who’ve managed to keep their logistical state in southern Russia going for a bizarrely long period before taken out in a final Russian ground offensive. They flee into the Middle East-

-And ally themselves with an anachronistic “Caliphate” that is blasphemous to any form of Islam, given that Stuart simply copy-pasted the Taliban organization over everything, and made things even worse by making Khomeini the “first among equals”. The goal is simply to turn a region that’s a decades long-puzzle of complexity into a pop-up bombing target that in terms of competence, makes the 1991 Iraqis look like aces in comparison.

(This was written around 2003-2004, for historical reference)

The other opponent is “Chipan”. A mix of the lazy “China absorbs its conquerors” pop history-gimmick and plot device, it’s a mix of China and Imperial Japan. Yes. The goal is to A: Neutralize both, and B: provide a “Cold War” against a state that has all the USSR’s weaknesses but none of its strengths.

One guess if it succeeds.

The US itself is a min-max army of nothing but nuclear bombers, aircraft carriers, and Marines for the obligatory ground battle.

All the books beyond the original suffer from being a sequence of events, where Stuart simply takes a snapshot of everything happening in the world and stuffs them all together in a way that makes sense for a posted-one-at-a-time forum work, but not in an actual novel.

The characters have no characterization. At best they’re one-note stereotypes, and at worst they’re just unit names. The battles-well, for anything American, it’s going to be an effortless victory, and for anything non-American, it’s a dull “LP-esque” description that makes the battles in The War That Never Was seem gripping.

The few recurring characters are a mix of forum member self inserts (one particular one being a “C. J. O’Seven”), and the immortal Mary Sues that make sure the timeline goes right. The leader is known as “The Seer”, and I’m sure it’s a coincidence that one author username was “Seer Stuart”.

These magical realist immortals have the historical lineup of presidents, to make sure the right decisions were taken. Of particular note is Robert McNamara, who is viewed as an evil man for cancelling the B-70 in real life, and thus is to be taken out-not just written out, but put into office so that he can be shown how wrong he was.

The books themselves would be a small diversion.

What’s more interesting is the internet drama around them.

Stuart was a massive panderer, which is why the hard-right cold warrior was able to stay at left-wing Stardestroyer.net for so long. By downplaying his views and presenting himself as the True Expert in a board that loved “true experts”, he stayed.

This sort of “true expert” phenomenon led to a weird condition where the books as written were obvious forum-pandering works. However, after they were completed, they turned into Serious, Important Works that had to be defended. Why, that book wasn’t a stompfic, it was a story of people trying to minimize the damage from an unavoidably bad outcome! It wasn’t celebrating the Massive Retaliation doctrine, it was criticizing it! The Seer wasn’t a self-insert, he was based on other people in “the business” Stuart knew! Honestly!

Then came the Salvation War series. These featured a seemingly un-mess-upable plotline: a Doom-esque struggle of modern weaponry against literal demons. (It was no coincidence that SDN had a reputation of being incredibly anti-religious).

Stuart messed it up.

The humans win easily with boring battles, then win slightly less easily in the sequel. That’s basically it.

At that point, SDN turned on him. First, people began openly criticizing the work, in a place apart from the main thread where it would be drowned out by cheers. Second, the true ‘horrors’ of the tiny board he had been based on became known, and his reputation as an unorthodox but still powerful “expert” dropped there. Third, there was the Publishing Incident.

According to Stuart, he was in the process of getting a huge advance from a publisher to legitimately set the books, but then someone posted the story on the internet for download, and the deal collapsed. That someone was an insulted religious fundamentalist.

No one believed the story, and Stuart ended up being outright banned, his works treated with mockery thereafter in the declining SDN.

Was there any lost potential drowned out by the sea of sycophancy? In the original The Big One itself, a tiny bit. But very tiny. It’s at least more focused due to fewer plotlines, as opposed to later events where, between a bomber being shot down over the Middle East (thanks solely to McNamara’s evil intervention, of course), and the response to that, the reader gets an unrelated chapter including a long infodump on the politics of arms sales to Taiwan.

So, probably-not.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest

Fanfiction has a way of becoming long-winded. The total lack of editors, the make-it-up-as-you go nature, and the “locked-in” effect of being unable to edit past chapters easily all contribute into works that make War and Peace seem tiny.

Enter The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest, which makes Proust seem tiny. This Smash Brothers fic is arguably the longest piece of fiction in the English language, with its four million words making it over three times as long as the classic In Search of Lost Time

The “plot” of this story is incredibly simple. An original character named Chris (which happens to be the name of the author as well-hmm…) and his Lucario, join up with the cast of Smash Bros. Brawl in a crossover through every other game the author has played. This is not an exaggeration.

That being said, it’s hard to sink the claws into it. The writing isn’t that detailed (but it has gotten better as the story has progressed), so it’s difficult to “mock” in that sense. The author is actually good-natured (if embodying all the traits of a Fanfiction.net writer from Central Casting), so there’s no “drama” around it. And that the fic has slowed down and lingers un-updated like the half-iguana in Boatmurdered,  indicates that it doesn’t stand apart from the Fanfiction.net mediocrity so much as represent an oversized version of it.

This is important.

What this fic is every young gamer’s fantasy that they’ve scribbled, or kept in their head. I’ve certainly thought of similar things when I was younger. It’s just-written out, and written to a gigantic extent.

Red Storm Rising

I got Red Storm Rising. How could I not get it? I’ve played Command, so why not get the book that inspired so many wargames? Why not read the traditional genre classic that simulated the battles in the Harpoon boardgame?

So I got the book and read it. And it was-mediocre. Not bad, in the sense of the horribly bad books I’ve read far too many times. But it just didn’t have the sense of “wow, this is a giant classic”. I think there are two main reasons for this.

The first is that the prose just wasn’t the best. The hopping-around viewpoints to show every front of World War III took away from a sense of continued immediacy, and even without that, the writing wasn’t the most powerful. Although a far different period, HMS Ulysses captured northern-latitude naval combat in a much more intense and well-written way. In addition to that, the book stumbled as well by giving an inevitably contrived explanation for starting the war (and a horribly composed Politburo scene), rather than just saying “The war started, now let’s fight it”, and going past it to the real draw.

The second was not the fault of the book itself. Rather, I think it has to deal with the context I read it in. A lot of things in it that were novel at the time, like Tomahawks and (inaccurately speculated) stealth fighters hitting key targets just don’t seem very awe-inspiring to a post-Gulf War reader who sees them as standard procedure.

Then there’s that I’ve seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original. To someone who’s seen many Backfire regiment vs. carrier group scenarios, I especially don’t have an interested reaction to watching one in a book. Also unsurprising is the Soviet invasion of Iceland-a pipe dream out of place for a defensive fleet, which only works in the book itself as a jury-rigged surprise attack. Yet after that book, Iceland landings are ubiquitous in WWIII fiction, as if standard Northern Fleet procedure was to attack it that way.
While not a totally bad book, through some things that are its fault and some things that aren’t, I just didn’t find Red Storm Rising the most engaging.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: Tom Kratman’s Carrera series

Imagine you have a series where everything is handed to the main character on a silver platter, and they still appear like they’re barely able to reach the plate. This surreal experience is the heart of Tom Kratman’s Carrera series.

The backstory of how the series came to be is in many ways more interesting than the story of the books themselves. Tom Kratman was an officer in the US Army who had a disappointing career, rising to lieutenant colonel essentially by default without actually getting to command anything of significance. This was combined with a legal career that, to put it mildly, he wasn’t suited for.

So, he wrote several manuscripts of military fantasy stories. Then the infamous Baen Books accepted those manuscripts (after one throwaway novel featuring a heroic Texas taking on an evil Hillary Clinton caricature that even Kratman himself put solely into the “potboiler” category). Now, if these were just conventional thrillers that happened to be, say, a little more right-wing than even the norm for the genre, they would have been considered mild curiosities at best.

The Carrera books were not conventional thrillers. For one, they were intended as military manuals, to show the guy who was too good for those jealous idiots in the Pentagon how to really do stuff. Next, they were extremely cumbersome in terms of prose (to the extent that the first book had to be released in two volumes because it was too big). Finally, Baen had to apply a ‘sci-fi’ covering to them-but only the most basic covering. The result was very interesting.

So, here’s the plot summary of the actual books themselves. A space probe discovers another habitable world, and a force led by evil European administrators sends colony ships across the distance to “Terra Nova”, with various nationalities. Terra Nova is essentially exactly the same as the world the colonists left, only with everything upside down and backwards and the country names replaced with bad puns. South Africa becomes North Uhuru, the US is the Federated States of Columbia, France is Gaul, Britain is Anglia, to the disgust of Scots, Iraq is Sumer, etc… The worst examples are China and India, which become Zhong Guo and Bharat-yes, China and India become-China and India.

Meanwhile, the United Nations that ruled Old Earth collapsed into a literal backwards, decadent monarchy. Their space fleet was rusty and malfunctioning, to the point where they needed to buy replacement parts from the Terra Nova surface.

After a nonsensical “World War” that involved the “US”, “England”, and “Germany” against “France”, “Russia”, and “Japan”, there was a “Vietnam War” and a “Gulf War”, and even an “Iran-Iraq War”. (You see a pattern with the quotations).

At this point the actual books start. Patrick Hennessy has his family killed on “9/11” (which involves airships), kills several obnoxious yet nonviolent strawman pro-Muslim demonstrators, and after a bit of “Kind Hearts and Coronets-ing”, gets a huge inheritance. Calling himself Carrera, the vengeance-minded soldier sets to work on building a mercenary force out of formerly-demilitarized “Panama”.

After Carrera acquires a ton of suspiciously cheap military gear, he now has a brigade. Said brigade fights in the invasion of “Iraq”, where they find the Mystery WMDs after Carrera befriends a defeated “Iraqi” commander.

Eventually, the commander of the Space UN fleet is taken hostage and “Riyadh” nuked (!) by Carrera. This solves the “War on Terror” issue, and the series continues to the original manuscripts, where Carrera, with his array of meticulously built-up defenses, fights off the attacks on “Panama” by the “EU” and “China”.

The series has kind of been put on “indefinite hold”, as Kratman left to focus on writing a web column (and argue in the comments sections of said column) instead. Naturally, it stopped right on a “cliffhanger”, after fending off a “Chinese” amphibious attack.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

What makes the books stand out, besides the horrible writing and worse pacing (I was able to skip an entire book without missing anything, and could probably have skipped two more and still figured out what was going on), is the weirdly unheroic hero.

Carrera is a psychopath whose maximum effort at redemption is the occasional “I feel bad about this” sentence that doesn’t change any example of the characterization. The prologue to “A Desert Called Peace” features a man called the “Blue Jinn” who is confronting a huge group of prisoners, and orders the men to be crucified and the women and children sold into slavery. One reviewer thought the Blue Jinn was some yet-to-be-introduced antagonist-it was Carrera.

(The counterinsurgency tactic Carrea prefers can be summed up as ‘kill every man old enough to grow a beard, unless they’re on your side already’.)

Even towards his own troops, Carrera is unheroic. The main character casually yawns during a discussion of training deaths and views the percentage of casualties in training as not an inevitable tragedy but as an agreeable goal to toughen the troops up. Even the ruthlessness of the protagonist is secondary to the really weird characteristic-the fact, alluded to in the introduction, that even given every advantage, Carrera is a terrible commander.

When equipping his army, Carrera is an announced master of logistics. Unfortunately, Tom Kratman’s definitions of logistics involve only two things:

-An initial sticker price.

-A gamey ‘cost limit’ that can’t be exceeded.

This combines itself with the ‘manual’ part-see, everything is to be meticulously researched, because this is a true manual, and must be accurate. So the military is equipped using the same logic someone uses when looking at a Steam sale (ooh, three indie games for a dollar fifty!). My favorite example is his air force-rather than equip with surplus “MiG-29s” or something similar, Kratman saw that MiG-17s were available for the low thousands of dollars, so he had “Panama’s” air force be equipped with hundreds of “MiG-17s”-of course, they were upgraded with stuff that would obliterate the cost savings, but hey-sticker price.

My second-favorite is the navy, where he buys ships at scrap prices and has them be usable without budget-busting refits.

There are of course exceptions to this cheapskating. Of course “Panama” spends effort designing the Perfect Military Rifle, and makes super-tech whose cost calculations completely ignore development costs-therefore they get submarines that have never-before-used propulsion systems and can dive incredibly deep, as well as stealth aircraft. Then there’s the actual fighting.

In training, the infantry die repeatedly to sloppliness on the part of the trainer that doesn’t teach the survivors anything. The tank crews, on the other hand, not only perform poorly in initial training and are diverted to useless attacks on sea targets rather than returning until they get their fundamentals right, but when introduced to their vehicles, are given a de facto advertisment from the manufacturer instead of a realistic evaluation, to “improve morale”.

Once the combat begins, even that pales in comparison.

Pretty much every conventional battle follows the same formula. Kratman has bragged about writing full OPLANs and logistics plans for every single battle.

-Self-insert comes up with and infodumps detailed Grand Plan. (Sometimes the infodump is even multiple books ahead of the actual battle, but it’s there)

-Battle starts. Whatever the force, they just immediately dig in and don’t maneuver.

-Kratmanland forces get pounded by the strawman enemy.

-The Grand Plan is launched after many casualties.

-The Grand Plan is executed, and routs the strawman enemy.

Reading about tank crews not doing anything while infantry are fighting for their lives not too far away is kind of bizarre-and not even like any other Mary Sue. A conventional Mary Sue is something like the main character in the horribly wish-fulfillment computer fantasy anime series Sword Art Online, who can go into a VR game he’s never played before and zip around leaping and cutting his way to victory in a competitive tournament despite different mechanics. In Kratmanland, he would just camp in a bottleneck until the clock ran out and eke out a tiny victory by default thanks to having two more hit points than his opponent.

Thankfully, those who wish to check out the “majesty” of A Desert Called Peace for themselves can do so, for Baen has made the entire book free.

Just be prepared.