Technothriller Games

The role of video games in the decline of the technothriller cannot be discounted. Beyond this, looking at just how closely they matched is fascinating to me.

The first (Splinter Cell) is very unsurprising. The plots of the first few Splinter Cell games match the themes and formats of contemporary technothrillers almost exactly. What else would you expect from a game bearing the “Tom Clancy’s” name?

The second (Metal Gear) is a little trickier, thanks to Kojima’s er, “eccentricity”. The technothriller influence is still definitely there, and at least the original, more grounded Metal Gear Solid is still not that much worse, if at all, than some of the more out-there entries in the genre (which definitely exist).

Review Cravings

My latest Fuldapocalypse “craving” was thrillers written in the 2000s. As it was not a good decade for that genre (for reasons I’ve explained before and might explain again), why did I go there? It didn’t feel like I wanted a change of pace, as they were stylistically similar in large part to what I’d been reading before and after.

My review craving for low-list 2000s thrillers was probably because I wanted to see “were any worthwhile?” and “if they were bad, how were they bad?” And the answer can be seen in the reviews themselves.

Boom Boom Goes The Tank: Plotnukes

In my latest Sea Lion Press column, I finally have the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite technothriller pet peeves-“Plotnukes”.

Plotnukes are a kind of “I know it when I see it” term for the use of nuclear weapons in a highly contrived way. The Birmingham-for-Minsk “trade” in Hackett’s The Third World War and similar events in imitators is what I consider the poster child of such a thing.

The Changing Face of the Cheap Thriller

I had the joy of reading Bradley Mengel’s Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction. This was an annotated chronology of the type of mass-produced Mack Bolan follow-on novels. Like “progressive rock”, the style of book, which has been called everything from ‘men’s adventure’ to just ‘action-adventure’, is very hard to define. Mengel calls them “serial vigilantes” and leaves out a few edge cases while including some I’d think were oddballs. Literature does not neatly fall into categories.

Still, I could see two clear phases. “Phase 1” was kicked off by War Against The Mafia and the Executioner, spawned countless “The ________” vigilantes, and spanned across the 1970s. “Phase 2” was in the 1980s and, like its technothriller cousin, declined quickly and sharply after the USSR’s fall. There was surprisingly little overlap between the two outside of the big-ticket franchises. Of course (at least before the independent boom), Mengel shows that kind of book reduced to a few sputtering, short-lived series formed after 1991.

But really, the cheap thriller itself, as opposed to that specific kind, was not failing. I know this myself-the Dirk Pitt (Clive Cussler) and Jack Reacher (Lee Child) books I found even as a youth speak to that. These were/are cheap thrillers with premises and action that range from “ridiculous” to “really, really ridiculous”. They were in the bigger supermarkets and they were right in the prominent bookstore shelves, while the surviving mass-produced Gold Eagle novels sat in awkward corners.

Serial Vigilantes itself, though dry, is a very interesting book and I recommend it to anyone interested in such fiction.

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.