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.

 

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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 Chrysler Yugo

So I was rereading an excellent history of one of the world’s most infamous cars-Jason Vuic’s The Yugo.

One of the things that jumped out at me was a possible sale of the Yugo rights to Chrysler that Malcolm Bricklin refused. From the revealed potential figures, Bricklin would have made a massive profit and Chrysler would get a new low-end car.

Yet he refused, being, as Vuic cited, someone for which business “it wasn’t the money, it was the chase” (The Yugo, p. 112). The book did not paint the auto entrepreneur in a very good light, and he seemed to combine the worst attitudes of a business leader. On one hand, he lived very large on an ornate ranch, on the other he had zero regard for actually maintaining value instead of racing from one stupid scheme to another.

If the Yugo had been Chryslerized, I feel confident in saying that it wouldn’t have the pop-culture impact it did. Being sold as its own standalone brand would give it a standout character that the economy model in an existing company wouldn’t. One does not see many jokes about the Mitsubishi Mirage , the current Thai-built super-econobox in the US market. (Previous-generation Mirages were actually rebadged by Chrysler as the Colt).

_ _ _ _ _ _

In any case, Chrysler would have lost the Yugo when its native country collapsed, if poor sales hadn’t stopped it already.

One thing that got me reading the Yugo story again was articles about the Eastern European cars that were popular in the United Kingdom for a time. There was indeed a market for ultra-cheap boxes based on previous-gen Fiats. Naturally, my newest projects in Automation have centered around making such cars. The latest model regretfully needs a safety upgrade to be sold in “Western” markets, and I’ll see if I can do that without increasing the price too much.

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.