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

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.

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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.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: Victoria

Now, a little under two years ago, I found a book by the defense commentator and author William S. Lind. The book was called “Victoria: A Novel Of Fourth Generation War”.

I was expecting, at best, a book that would be illuminated by its author’s genuine fame as a military expert and advisor to Gary Hart, and at worst a conventional crazy right wing novel. What I got was -something else.

I had to mock it. So mock it at Spacebattles I did. (As with everything I’ve written a long time ago, I feel a little embarassed by it and wish I’d done some things better. Oh well.) It was written right after Lind fell from grace dramatically in the wake of the Gulf War, and his bitterness shows. Boy, does it show.

 

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.