The July 20 Plot

Today is the 74th anniversary of the nearly-successful attempt to kill Hitler.

A lot of alternate history in popular imagination tends to focus too much on “For Want of a Nail” style events. Those have existed, but the July 20 Plot was not one of them overall. The conspirators were not Adenauer-ian liberals, but nationalists who the Allies would never have negotiated with. Moreover, the plan was extremely unlikely to succeed in gaining control of the government even if Hitler had died-the result would probably have been either Goering or, if he had died or been ousted in the chaos, some military junta ruling Germany for the last year of war.  Likely, very little would have changed.

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Flash Fiction Reviews, Vol 1

All right, time to launch a set of rapid-fire fiction reviews. Two paragraphs per book at most.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I did. The military thriller genre can always use some outside perspectives. Sadly, and this more the fault of my expectations than the actual book itself, it ended up as a routine romantic suspense novel. Romantic suspense has always been an awkward genre, in my opinion, the inverse of adding a clunky romance to an otherwise pure action story.

Still, the book is well-written for what it is, and it just was me expecting a genre I wanted rather than the genre the book ended up being. Recommended if you like romance or romantic suspense.

This is the work that (at least partially) kicked off Sea Lion Press, and has the divergence that the conspiracy theory of Harold Wilson being a Soviet agent was true, leading to the already unstable scene of the 70s getting overloaded in a chaotic romp. While not perfect (it gets a little too “inside baseball for enthusiasts of 70s British politics, and a lot of the scenes with Wilson himself are too goofy), it nonetheless avoids almost all of the pitfalls a lot of alternate history has.

Namely, it’s a proper story, not a “get right to the good stuff in a six paragraph infodump” shortcut. It’s also an example of using research to help a story rather than using the story to show off the research. And by choosing an “implausible” divergence, it makes the reseach good anyway. Highly recommended.

This is a short World War III tank story featuring the often-underappreciated Bundeswehr. Smith struggles to overcome his wargaming “I must list everything” detail, but he makes a legitimate and good effort to make a proper story. The result was a good time-passer for me. It’s not a classic, but it doesn’t have to be. Recommended as a “cheap thriller”.

This is another short military fiction tale by a wargame designer. This is a good what-if to answer the ever-present “what if the Gulf War Iraqis were more compenent” question. It’s short and the main character is a little too Mary Sueish, but that’s understandable given the point the author is trying to make. Also recommended as a cheap thriller.

This is a terrible, wretched, creepy melodramatic fraud sold as a genuine World War II memoir. Even without historical inaccuracies, it’s a clear modern fake. The monstrous “Wehrabooism” (at one point the main character comes face to face with a literal ASIATIC HORDESMAN)  turns it from simply bad to creepy-bad.

The main character has the situational awareness to see huge tank battles, which always happen at close range in plain sight and always involve tanks and vehicles exploding and flying through the air in massive fireballs. The action is so over the top it becomes dull and predictable. Not recommended.

 

 

The AH conundrum-Solved?

A long time ago, I made a post wondering why there was so little “middle-tier” alternate history. Why was there so little alternate history that wasn’t either blatant or technical. There was a discussion to this end on Sea Lion Press some time ago, and (at least partially) from seeing and participating in that, I had an “ah-hah!” moment that might help explain the reason why.

The reason is simple: What would be “middle-tier” alternate history isn’t sold as or even considered alternate history most of the time. Using a ridiculously expansive definition, anything that isn’t an explicit reenactment/retelling of a historical event can be considered “alternate history”. A fictional city? Alternate history. A fictional political leader? Alternate history. A never-was weapon or car being used because the author liked it? Alternate history.

Even in lesser cases, where there’s a clear timeline divergence, it could be considered alternate history, but isn’t. For instance, since the timeline diverged in the 1980s with the arrival of Scion, Worm could be considered alternate history.

The sad truth (for alternate history fans) is that there isn’t much gain in labeling something alternate history. It’s known, but it’s known as a genre where the divergence is clear and blatant. For a more mainstream audience, it’s been shown that it’s better off being labeled as just what its genre is-a thriller, a mystery, or whatever it might be.

The Soviet Pentomic Division

In the late 1950s, the United States adopted the ill-fated Pentomic Division layout of organization for its army. While going through declassified CIA documents, I found that (assuming the CIA document is accurate, the necessary caveat) around the same time, the Soviets were seriously considering adopting a similar model with a similar justification. The document in question is here.

Here’s the important picture. The proposed “Soviet-Pentomic” structure is on the left.sovietpentomic

The big thing that makes the two similar is skipping conventional battalions in favor of regiments/”Battle groups” with a large number of companies in them. I thought it interesting at any rate, a minor footnote in organizational history.

 

Hackett’s The Third World War

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve finally read Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War. The best I can say about it is that it set up the (minimal) backstory for Team Yankee, enabling Coyle to concentrate fully on the action without as many infodumps.

Compared to it, I consider Red Storm Rising and Larry Bond’s own works to be Nobel Prize-worthy by comparison. If I think Cauldron or Red Phoenix would be considered mediocre middle-of-the-road technothrillers if they were written later and by someone else, I think The Third World War would be a bottom-of-the-barrel example if it was written later.

First, it’s incredibly dated. And not just dated in the sense of politics, or dated and biased in its supervillain Soviets[1]. Its problem is that if a reader (especially a reader with hindsight) knows anything about the subject at hand, there’s no “wow” factor. This is a problem with Red Storm Rising. It’s a bigger problem with Hackett.

Why it’s a bigger problem is the near-total lack of any kind of narrative control, as it wobbles back and forth from token gap-filling cutout characters to complete infodumps. The character scenes, especially the Soviet ones, are almost painful to read. It has contrivances. One is NATO’s victory, which I’ve heard was changed from the first drafts. A far bigger one is the Minsk-Birmingham nuclear exchange, where nuclear war is treated like hitting batters with baseballs (you hit one of my cities/batters, I hit one of yours, and it stays “under control”). The contrivances would be forgivable if there wasn’t so little “meat” that they stand out. It feels like only the most half-hearted attempt at sorta kinda looking like a story was made.

All of my annoyance buttons are pushed. I’ve seen its legacy, which makes it not only a dated book, not only a thinly veiled “more spending on the army, please” tale, but a bad influence. Granted, it may not bear that much responsibility, but it couldn’t have helped from people who saw it as an example. I believe it to be an example of how one should not write a WWIII story.

[1]Team Yankee has the same problem, but has a flowing action story to go with it. This does not.

 

The Tank Crew

Tank crews can make for an underappreciated fictional niche. There’s enough of them to be more than an individual (ie, pilot), yet not enough to get out of hand. You get between three and five crew to a tank (again, barring the edge cases), and there’s less need to perspective hop.

Sea Lion Press

Sea Lion Press has, since 2015, been devoted to publishing alternate history. Named after the hopeless would-be German invasion of Britain in 1940, they have an extensive amount of published works.

And now, Sea Lion Press has embarked on an ambitious expansion, aiming to be, in their own words, “a crucible of activity in the counterfactual fiction world.” This includes articles (starting with one about their namesake), and a forum.

It’s well worth a shot. I’ve read some Sea Lion Press works and wish them the best of luck.

 

Submarine Fiction

With the release of The Silent Service DLC for Command, I figured I’d talk about submarine fiction. Now, the genre includes traditional classics like Run Silent Run Deep, and of course, a submarine novel kickstarted the technothriller genre as we know it.

Submarine fiction is a sort of genre that’s interesting in the context of how it adapted to the post-USSR period. It was a very hard, very uphill struggle. Probably more so than any other subgenre of technothriller, because not that many countries even have subs, much less modern ones.

Small fry? You’d be lucky to get anything more than a Kilo or Type 209.

Nuclear submarines? Only six countries operate them, four are democracies, and three of the four are NATO members.

So the methods I’ve found authors use are:

  • Give the enemy a “thingy”. That is, the weaker opponent has a submarine (or submarines) as well. Is it a Kilo/209? Is it an upgraded Kilo/209-style submarine? Is it a newer, quiet submarine?
  • Make the story part of a big great-power conflict, in some form or another.
  • Go full sci-fi or weird and make it unconventional in some form. Larry Bond’s Cauldron is a mild example of this, whereas Joe Buff‘s submarine novels are an extreme example.
  • Finally-have a submarine that’s hijacked/hacked/rogue/stolen/otherwise in the hands of the antagonist. This is one of many examples, as is this.

Obviously, they can mix, these are not hard and fast categories by any means. The only thing that really feels “natural” is the great-power conflict, and that has its own issues and hangups. The others can still be done well. As with any genre, a skilled author can turn a questionable setup into a delight, while a bad author can get a story handed to them on a silver platter and mess it up. But the obvious handwaves and possible pitfalls are still there, and still clear.

An additional one that I think exists for submarines regardless of the time period is that they’re “all or nothing”. You can destroy individual protagonist tanks or aircraft easily enough, but, for the most part, either all the submarine’s crew makes it, or none of them do.

Submarine fiction is an interesting technothriller niche, that, thanks to the real exclusivity, seems to amplify the issues the genre has had. And that’s legitimately interesting to me.

Operational Map Games

I’ve been entertaining a few operational “map exercises”. Some are “semi-real” and others completely fictional.

One, which I like because it’s the most readily translatable to Command scenarios features a deep intervention of the XVIII Airborne Corps (or a differently-named formation designed to evoke it) against the fictional “Turkic Republic”, an amalgamated Central Asian opponent.

Which Turkic Republic it is-the strong power or the weak wreck, depends on the kind of scenario I want to make.

 

A Big Post on Military Fiction

I’ve wanted to write this post in some form or another for a while. Getting the tone right was going to be important. I now feel I’m comfortable enough to try. Because I found two “a-ha!” moments where I could finally say clearly what I’d been thinking in vaguer terms.

The First Moment

So, wargames and military fiction have been linked together for quite a while. After all, it was the original Harpoon tabletop version where the naval action in Red Storm Rising was famously gamed out. I’d known this for a while, but the connection just emerged to me. It was reading the detailed orders of battle.

I’ve made my previous opinions on wargaming a battle pretty clear. It can be a good help, but deserves to be used in moderation, not taken too literally. My previous concern was that a wargamed-out battle would appear too robotic, but I was thinking too narrow.

Basically, there’s a common complaint about “wannabe movie director” video game developers. One of the most frequently spoken is Hideo Kojima, but he’s far from the only one. Trying to make a game cinematic is not a bad thing by itself[1], and Metal Gear Solid at least deserves some credit for refining, if not inventing, the detailed game experience. (I specifically mentioned the first game, before the series just got really, really weird).

So thus came the writing, and I thought that a similar case applied here. Some of the crunchier military fiction writers never quite got out of the wargamer’s mindset. This is not a bad thing, it’s just a way of approaching things. It’s just my personal tastes lay in a different, strange direction.

This sort of thing-big, deep OOBs, possibly wargamed out directly, is fascinating because while I’d look down on it from a literary perspective, if it was in Command, Steel Panthers, or another proper wargame, with all the research and detail incorporated in to the scenario, I’d actually jump at the chance to play it. Let me put it this way:

If the author plans “Ok, the _______ Infantry Division of reservists dug in near __________ is going to encounter the ____________ Tank Division, earmarked by the army commander as an operational maneuver group, and conducting an exploitation mission. The tank division has, out of a sense of either overconfidence or believing it to be part of their mission, chosen to slam into the formation instead of trying to pin or move around it”, it’s probably going to come across differently than if they plan it as “The protagonist is in his rapidly dug trench when suddenly he hears and sees a large group of tanks and IFVs heading his way.” This is not a knock at the hypothetical author, nor is it a claim to be “bad” beyond my opinion-it’s just understandably different, even if subconsciously so. (My biggest complaint is that the fog of war is often, perhaps accidentally, lifted if the author knows exactly what’s there on both sides)

I’m forgiving of a lot of authors. I’d understand if a wargamer writing narrative fiction earnestly and sincerely went with what they were comfortable with. I’m trying hard to move away from the sneering critic I fear I once was[2]. You have to start somewhere. It’s just that what works in one situation doesn’t necessarily work in another, especially if the work isn’t just a “pseudo-history” with no pretensions of being anything else.

And just as how the film influence is present in (too?) many video games, the wargame influence is present in a lot of the military stories I’ve read. For better and worse. I’d say that the “better” part means that the stories are often more grounded than the superweapon gizmos of authors like Dale Brown and Clive Cussler, something even I can appreciate.

[1]I think that the more focused, cinematic world of Fallout: NV done by the story-focused Obsidian works better than the gameplay/exploration one of Fallout 3 done by the sandbox-focused Bethesda, to give a non-military example.

[2]Another reason why is that I tend to look to the fringes, and better-done stories in the genre paradoxically tend to blur into being good time-passers. Worse ones tend to stand out, and I don’t want to pigeonhole an entire genre based on even accidental selection (imagine if you took the films covered by Mystery Science Theater 3000 and did serious cinema analysis for an analogy of how you could skew that). So I’m less judgemental overall, which doesn’t stop me from noticing common trends or slamming/writing Bad Fiction Spotlights of individual works. I just don’t want to write off an entire genre.

The Second Moment

The second moment when my opinion finally was realized happened when I saw how the genre used the same kind of plot device as one that would be in what I’d think was the total opposite-romance.

If lots of detail alone was the deal-breaker, the kind of thing that made me go “ick”, then pseudo-historical timelines would have been the worst. But instead I find them more tolerable on average. It was something innocent and well-intentioned. Basically, at the heart of crunchy war stories lies a similar plot device as at the heart of—romance stories. And this isn’t something along the lines of “they romanticize war”, it’s a direct analogy.

The issue is one of connection with the audience. After all, it’s easier to identify with a plain-Jane without too much in the way of income than it is with a stunning tigress who drives a Rolls-Royce. It’s an anchor that adds to the fantasy, keeping it grounded even when the rest of the story is implausible, often to ridiculous extents. Likewise, the detail and weird semi-realism, by having the tanks be in the right place, in the right units, working the right way, is the anchor that keeps it grounded, even when the rest of the story is implausible.

This is not a bad thing in the slightest. Detail and realism are good things to strive for, as is making a character more grounded, relatable, and struggling. Yes, they can be, and are often distorted or taken to excess. But it can be done well, and even when it isn’t, it’s generally done sincerely and earnestly rather than cynically.

The Third World War

Now for what was originally going to be the entire focus of what became this post[1]. World War III fiction. This takes the form of a concluding list rather than the main body. I decided to move away from it because I felt I was cherry-picking. So I’ll try to be broader. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the genre, and nothing completely stopping it from being done well. But I do think it’s harder to do well.

The first is that there’s precedents from the pioneers, the likes of Clancy and Bond, that have gotten used and followed in ways that have been ultimately distortionary and negative. However, I think there’s more to it, and that the kind of story that became what comes to mind when I think “WW3 story” is tough (at least by my probably too-high standards) to do right.

Tough enough that even Clancy and Bond fell short. Let’s start with my favorite gripe. You have a lot of viewpoint characters, so they’re tougher to balance in ways that ensure they don’t dilute into blandness or disrupt the narrative too much. Then you have to balance detail and plot in a way that you don’t have to worry about as much in either a straight pseudohistory or less “crunchy” narrative. Then you have to worry about stuff like how it started and how it stayed (most of the time) largely conventional. It’s a tough balancing act, and I can see why many WW3 tales fall short (which is not the same as them being worthless or not enjoyable). But I would never tell anyone “Don’t Try”. By all means, go ahead-I’ve been pleasantly surprised before.

Whew.

This is something I’ve wanted to write for a while. Now it’s out there.

[1]This was going to be a series of posts, then a possible ebook, then I decided to make it the big blog post you see here.