Good Fiction Spotlight: Brannigan’s Blackhearts

So, I’m delighted to note that I’ve read an obscure series worthy of a good Fiction Spotlight. Overjoyed. Because Peter Nealen’s Brannigan’s Blackhearts is just the type of cheap thriller that fits me right now.

The series  is about the “adventures” of an ex-USMC colonel and his band of mercenaries. And it’s what I’d call a “cheap thriller”. But in a good way, for these books are what cheap thrillers should be like. I had good timing in that the latest book in the series was released after I’d started digging into the series.

The best part of the books is that they combine visceral yet exciting action with very good literary fundamentals. Not only is there action, but it’s varied action. The action goes from the forests of Myanmar to offshore oil rigs to the frozen fields of eastern Europe. It feels truly varied, and Nealen isn’t afraid to punch readers in the gut every now and then.

What Nealen also demonstrates is a welcome display of, for lack of a better word, restraint. Some of the plot setups feel a little contrived, but they aren’t dwelled on. There’s exact descriptions of the weapons, but not too detailed. Having read stories where the fundamentals weren’t there, it’s a treat to read ones where they are.

I must give a few obligatory criticisms. The villains aren’t that great as characters and the “shadowy conspiracy organization” meta-plot that’s developed in the later books has me raising my eyebrows with apprehension. But even these are worked around-the latter is streamlined in as a setup hook for the adventure, and the former work in the context of a thriller story. Plus these are still thrillers and not “high literature” by any standards.

But they’re good cheap thrillers, and I urge anyone who likes pulpy thrillers to read these.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: The IG-88 Star

It’s a matter of controversy that the old Star Wars Expanded Universe was “decanonized” into “Legends” status. I personally think that it’s no big deal, because the best stuff from the Old EU can be and has been folded in (ie, Thrawn appearing in Rebels much the way characters like Harley Quinn moved from the show to the comics). There was a ton of clutter that Disney clearly didn’t want to deal with—

—and then there were some of the most egregious offenders. Stuff that wasn’t just out-of-place extradimensional beings  or “Dark Greetings From The Mofference” or just the sneering Imperial guy with the superweapon of the week. No, this was something that took an annoying trait and would have fundamentally changed the movie it was based on. Something that was the very first thing I mind-retconned out of my personal canon as not right.

That something was the short story “Therefore I Am: The Tale of IG-88“. The annoying trait was to turn everyone who appeared on screen for two seconds in the movie-in IG-88’s case, as one of the few bounty hunters on screen with Boba Fett in Empire Strikes Back-, and make what felt like each and every one of them big and important and special somehow. And this was coming from Kevin J. Anderson, who’d already upstaged the movies with his super-superweapon. “YEAH, BUT THIS TOTALLY INDESTRUCTIBLE AND IS THE SIZE OF A FIGHTER AND DESTROYS FREAKING SYSTEMS DUUUUUDE!”

But on to the point. IG-88 decides that only droids deserve to live (gee, I wonder when Kev-I mean, he got that from?), takes control of a droid factory world, and then, after shenanigans (which include shoehorning his movie role in there almost as a clunky obligation), ends up uploaded into the second Death Star, where he’s about to broadcast his big signal and then gets destroyed.

It’s like the titular ring in Lord of The Rings being “revealed” in a far later, non-Tolkien authored book to secretly be about to activate an army of (anachronistic) zombies under the command of someone who appeared in one page in the first book when it fell into Mount Doom. Or Lord Voldemort from Harry Potter being “revealed” to be on the verge of inadvertedly signalling an array of alien robots to destroy the world when he’s defeated, all at the behalf of a Muggle mailman who had a small cameo four books ago. That’s how weird, bad, and inappropriate this whole mess is.

Stuff like this makes me not sorry the Old EU got tossed.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: Red Dawn +20

Of all the Bad Fiction Spotlights, Red Dawn +20 is one of the loosest. It’s closer to the Infinite Loops, being a loose internet construct rather than the single work of one person. So it consists of over a thousand pages spread across multiple web boards, and the two closest cases to a definitive piece are the TVTropes Page and this summary.

And through a combination of accident and design, it ended up with the poorest tone you could have. Granted, the entire “invasion novel” genre does not exactly lend itself handily to Nobel Prizes for Literature, and it’s hard to move anything that decentralized in a deliberate path anyway. So, it does end up kind of like the Loops in another form, in that it’s barbel-led between two extremes. I guess being done on a whim with detail-oriented users leads to that. And as it’s (technically) part of a more grounded genre, those extremes are weirdly interesting to explore.

First, except for the setting, it has very little in common with the classic movie it’s nominally a fanfic of. Red Dawn is darker than its reputation suggests, and, more importantly, is not Red Storm Rising: Western Hemisphere Edition.

More importantly, it simultaneously brings to the forefront…

  1. Fantasic and sometimes juvenile fantasies.
  2. Long, technical infodumps and dry recitations.

I shouldn’t have to explain how these clash.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: James G’s WW3

On alternatehistory.com, there have been published a handful of World War III in 198X stories by user “James G”, formerly known as jimmygreen2002. The finished stories are:

Lions Will Fight Bears

For Queen and Country

National Volksarmee

Fight to the Finish (TAKEN DOWN)

Going West

Spetsnaz: Week of the Chameleons

And I really don’t like them. Even I don’t know exactly why. Applied in isolation, they’d just be dry sequence-of-events war fics. And they even have better prose than a lot of them-which may be the problem. Because somehow, mysteriously, through a way I might not even recognize, they push every single one of my buttons in a way that Red Storm Rising itself, many of its imitators, and even fellow 198X WW3 stories on AH.com do not.

(To give credit where it’s due, Week of the Chameleons isn’t as bad as the rest. I think it’s structural, being inherently more interesting.)

Why? I think it’s a melding of the board culture and text itself into a group of factors that, all together, make it something that stands out from the pack. It’s a bunch of little things and slightly-worse-than-normal stuff that adds up.

  • First there’s the obvious. Clunky prose, little characterization, a sequence of events plot with little flow, and a nonsensical background. But if this alone were the criteria, it wouldn’t be enough.
  • I’ll start with the prose. It’s just good enough to make me take the stories more seriously. This isn’t like say, bashing a fanfic with bad prose and grammar where the narrator overslept and had to get an unusual choice as his first Pokemon. This series has enough skill to get it to a higher threshold for taste.
  • The prose is clunky, but what’s worse than the usual overly descriptive descriptions and infodumps is the tone. There’s a sort of feeling of forced Deep, Solemn Seriousness that goes through every update of every story. And while I can get most of it (I mean, it is about World War III after all), even a story in that setting would benefit from different moods.
  • The characterization is, interesting. First, like the prose, that there’s characterization at all means I view it from the perspective of a story and not a pseudohistory. But a lot of the characterization-when mentioned at all, is not only in shown-not-told infodumps, but infodumps that feel like the description of how many T-___ tanks or ____-class sloops were made before the war began. It’s a writing trait I find telling.
  • The plot, well, the plots start with the usual ridiculous ways to get the war to start, and I can forgive those. They have no flow, and cut from a scene that individually offers a bit of at least potential poignancy to another update that does nothing but remind the reader that yes, Military Unit _____ does in fact exist. It’s a great example of bowl-of-ingredients writing, where all the individual parts are there but the whole is not.
  • Lots of undeveloped viewpoint characters. This almost goes without saying.
  • Action I feel absolutely no involvement in. Far too clinical. It’s more even-handed than an outright nationalist fantasy, which paradoxically makes it worse instead of better. Imagine if an 80s action movie had semi-realistic firing at the occasional muzzle flash (but without any drama) and then cut back to some general at his desk at random intervals and you get the idea.
  • The setting, well, hmm. It’s basically the same story in the same place repeated multiple times with slightly different names. I’ve said some bad fiction resembles a dry, overly literal let’s play/AAR. This feels like different LPs of the same game with different time and difficulty settings. Oh it’s easy mode this time. Or hard mode! Map X as opposed to Map Y!
  • And it’s like the stories set out to hit every single cliche that the niche genre had. That’s how many of them there are.

Those are the main issues with the stories themselves, with “take a genre cliche, make each genre cliche slightly worse than the norm, then pile them up and make it just ‘big’ enough to judge by a literary standard” pushing them over the top. But maybe it’s the AH.com board culture that sets it apart, as my dislike of the stories grew with the dislike of the site. That could be a reason why I feel the way I do. I can’t say I’m unbiased given that I’ve been in arguments in the threads, so I don’t want to go into detail about those. And I feel like I shouldn’t make an appeal to that-the stories should speak for themselves.

So yeah, that’s them. I wonder if my personal biases and experiences skewed them from mediocre to terrible in my own eyes, or if the works by themselves merit a Bad Fiction Spotlight.

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.

Good Fiction Spotlight: Raven One

So, I’ve torn into enough bad military fiction to go, “What about good military fiction?” And so I’ll answer it by pointing to a guilty-pleasure cheap thriller favorite ebook of mine: Kevin Miller’s Raven One.

Written by a naval aviator, it covers the adventures of a few aircraft carrier pilots as they fight in the Middle East. Now I’ve mentioned it before, but thought I should go into some more detail as to why I like it so much.

It’s not perfect, it still has some perspective-jumping, still has a lot of technical overdetail, still isn’t exactly the deepest in its plot or characterization. But it’s got a recognizable main character. Some of the perspective shifts make sense, as it shows the team of fighters in an individual battles. It feels overall like part of a whole. The enemy is given a handicap to make them stronger, not weaker, while at the same time not being monstrously overhyped. And for the jargon, there’s a sense of immediacy, of being there in the fighter with the heroes.

Having seen the pitfalls of what the genre can fall into, I can say that Raven One avoids a lot of them. And for that reason alone, it’s well worth a read.

Types of Bad Fiction

There are several categories of Bad Fiction.

Category 1: This is the sad mediocrity. The prose is often functional, but bland. The plot is functional, but bland. Often it has the feeling of being done for money or obligation, and thus suffers for it. Occasionally fun to to read if one doesn’t have anything better, but not fun to talk about.

Cat 2: This is the kind of bad fiction that’s heartfelt but terrible. There’s more sincere effort then Cat 1 Bad Fiction. But it’s still ultimately bland. These are generally sloppy amateur projects with bad prose. Most bad fanfiction falls into this category.

Cat 3: This is the sort of bad fiction that has effort behind. Lots and lots of real effort. Now, maybe the effort is a sort of ‘draw a tree but miss the forest utterly’ effort on worldbuilding for its own sake and details. Maybe most of the effort is spent arguing about the work rather than working on it. Maybe all of the above is true. Category 3 Bad Fiction often has just enough technical competence to not be dismissed outright.

I try to focus my Bad Fiction Spotlights on Category 3 Bad Fiction.