Alpha Kat and 90s Cheap Thrillers

So, I just finished breezing my way through the cheap thriller novel Alpha Kat by William Lovejoy. The book was first published in 1992, and it shows. it’s a very early 90s thriller, which is to say that it has to desperately dig for antagonists (in this case a drug lord poised to take over Southeast Asia) and ways to weaken the heroes (they’re commissioned to use their prototype super-planes rather than being part of the regular military). The book itself isn’t terrible, especially by cheap thriller standards. But it is awkward in terms of pacing and the ending is a little too “quick”.

Now it says something about the kind of books I read that I’ve read enough 90s cheap thrillers to really get “ah-ha, this isn’t just a 90s technothriller, it’s an early 90s technothriller.”

And yet, I don’t mind this. It’s endearing to see something flawed instead of something playing it safe all the time. It’s inspiring, even, because of my love of the unconventional in Command scenarios. So yes, two cheers for the early 90s technothriller.



Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix

Larry Bond is a figure to whom wargaming and military fiction owes a lot. His writing suffers from a very peculiar problem, in that it feels cliche and clunky, in a way that isn’t his fault. In short, he is a victim of his own success.

It was this feeling I had when I was reading the classic Red Phoenix. I’d heard it was a superb technothriller. I read it and found it to be a middle-of-the-road one. It was like Cauldron, a slightly later book I read, only with a more plausible and grounded opponent. Maybe my hype aversion kicked in, but it just felt-normal. Not rising above the pack, but in it, and not nearly as focused and flowing as Coyle’s Team Yankee. But this is not a Bad Fiction Spotlight, and in total isolation, it would be a good cheap thriller.

However, I did not approach this in total isolation. Bond is, even more than Clancy, a poster child for “having seen so many imitators, the original doesn’t seem so original”. The multiple viewpoint characters, the descriptions, the every section of every theater, the political “””intrigue”””, all of it is there. He definitely helped pioneer it. At the time it would have been better. But now I’m thinking “and this is how the trends I disliked got started [or at least popularized]”, because of how influential he was.


Fictional Legacies

A lot of fiction has the issues with “legacies”, the sense that it’s there because that’s what everyone else in the genre does, and you somehow have to have them. Nearly all points and lives systems in video games for anything other than arcade machines, especially early ones, are “legacies”.

Legacies are not necessarily bad, and from a commercial standpoint they make sense-you don’t want to diverge too much and have a work as alien as the 1996 Ford Taurus. But sometimes legacies feel a little off to me.

I think one of my least favorite legacies in military fiction is the “conference room scenes”. Not the ones where it’s an excuse to infodump-I may not like those, but I can understand them. I’m talking the near-invariably badly done political maneuvering and setup before the action takes place.

And I may be misinterpreting the target audience, but at least I don’t really get anything out of most of this “””intrigue””” (quotes deliberate). It sours the tone of the work to come, takes up too much time, interrupts the plotting, or all of the above.  I’d rather prefer trying to develop the characters.

But I must add that this may be more a symptom than a cause. If the overall story is good, I tend to forgive conference room intrigue. If it isn’t, I zoom in on it.

But, thrillers pale in comparison to the genre that has decades of baggage-superhero comics[1]. You have to have a story where characters in 1930s strongman outfits jump around punching dudes. You have the legacy of the Golden Age, and, most importantly, you have the legacy of the Silver Age.

I like the Silver Age. It’s what my family’s comics collection contained. It has a lot of goofy stories that have inspired me. I don’t blame the silver-age writers for what they did. They were laboring under the Comics Code, at the time at its most restrictive. (For instance, the Adam West Batman could and did actually get away with more than what the comics did).

But the way comics steered away from the Silver Age, as the Code loosened, did not work. I don’t know how much of it is the legacy’s internal effects, how much of it was appealing to what had become an insular market thanks to comic book stores, how much of it was the never-changing soap opera world of comics, and how much of it was that you couldn’t take out one part without knocking everything over (metaphorically).

Maybe it was because the Silver Age comics were so light and fluffy that simply doing what other stories had done for thousands of years was viewed as profound in comics. But there’s just too much baggage, and the best symbol lies in one of my favorite characters, Arcade.

I like Arcade as an anachronistic Silver Age villain. But in any superhero story that wants to be slightly realistic or have a slight amount of sense, he cannot exist. And characters like him weigh down everything. You can’t make a serious statement when your villain group has a Silver Age name. It’s harder to show true drama when you’re in an outfit that was viewed as out of date in the 1960s.

But adaptations take a cutting torch to the legacies. Notice that Arcade has not appeared in any X-Men movies[2]. Notice how changed the costumes are. Notice how even with a ton of movies and cartoons, the least deserving (tend to) stay behind. So legacies can be overcome.

[1]I’m referring to mainline Big Two, stuff like Watchmen or even Worm which is more tightly plotted is different.

[2]Though I think he would fit in a Deadpool film, simply because that’s knowingly ridiculous.

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.

Command Semi-Fiction: Pearl Harbor

Today is a Command Fiction day, but it’s also the anniversary of Pearl Harbor. So, what should I do?

Link back to the old Final Countdown reenactment in Command, of course. And ponder something about the date the movie was made. If it had been made a few years later and/ or been a potboiler book with no need to worry about budgets, would it have been, like the scenario was, a triumphalist tale of 1980 airpower crushing the 1941 IJN with the carrier strike going through? (Given the infamous Japan Inc fears of the time, it might be included just for that purpose.)

Interesting how pop culture can change quickly.

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.