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.

 

 

Advertisements

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 Wail Rid I Row Project

So, now I have time to put together something that I’ve wanted to do for a while. Namely, start up an anthology of World War III fiction. The details can be viewed on my secondary blog devoted specifically to it, the Wail Rid I Row Project.

(Wail Rid I Row is an anagram of World War III.)

This is a passion project, everything will be free. I’ve been too critical for my own good-I want to help make fiction, not destroy it. I have modest expectations, but you never know.

An Alien Era

Today is my 27th birthday. And I think my date of birth might explain why I have a sudden fascination with Cold War fiction.

Because it’s after my time. I was born the year the USSR fell, so the world I entered is a lot different. Looking back on it is like looking back at something different, something that has changed so quickly. And fiction tends to reflect fact. From a literary perspective, it feels interesting to study a genre, even one as “fluffy” as the technothriller, to see its ups and downs.

It’s very fascinating.

 

Another Issue of Scale

It’s very easy to be “spoiled” by World War II sizes, where even second-stringers could handily field large formations (by the standards of later armies), and where the 90 division US Army was not unreasonably criticized as being too small.

Even Cold War armies appear small compared to those[1], something that I need to keep in mind when making my guilty pleasure OOB lists.

[1]In terms of number of divisions, of course. In capability, they’re far superior.

The Twilight 2000 Campaign And More Thoughts

From my travels across the internet, I’m proud to share the Twilight 2000 Polish Campaign  that I found while looking at the WW3 1987 blog. It’s a good AAR/let’s play of the game at its best.

I’ve blogged about Twilight 2000 in largely critical terms before, but the initial Polish/German campaign setting is the game at its best. There’s talk on the about page of maybe, if/when the players survive, taking them back to the continental US.  Now here I have a recommendation, if that indeed happens (it’s a big if). Ignore the actual 1.0 modules on the continental US and go homebrew.

Maybe it’s because I like the idea of them returning to a battered but largely peaceful homeland as a proper reward. Or maybe it’s because the North American modules I’ve seen basically seize the always-existed dichotomy I mentioned in my previous post and take it to 11. They’re something. In fact, if the game’s plot had existed only of them, I might even consider them worthy of a Bad Fiction Spotlight.

The later v1 modules have the impression of turning more and more from the “survival and maybe solve some local disputes” theme to a full-blown and ultra-blatant Adventure Friendly World. (That was always there, as it would be in any tabletop RPG, but it was more subtle and interesting).  Even a lot of other T2000 fans have been disdainful of the North American modules, one not unreasonably comparing them to “bad Mad Max”.

Having read the “Kidnapped!” module, I can see it. The first is a description of the megadrought that’s about to strike North America. I’ve heard grumblings about its plausibility, but from an in-universe perspective, there’s worse things. Where I think the megadrought goes wrong is that it’s a clear attempt from an out of universe perspective to up the stakes and become “darker” still. So yeah, there’s a megadrought, and food/water is going to become worse yet. I guess that means the scenario will be about…

Seizing a fascist-populist leader in his supervillain’s lair in West Virginia? You don’t say.

The “Kidnap Carl Hughes, the leader of New America” part is incredibly gamey and has obvious contrivances throughout. There’s the necessary evil of an adventure tip, and then there’s the lair itself. In true game fashion, the lair down to its final bunker is drawn out in massive detail, but to balance it for the players, it’s accessible. Hughes conveniently happens to be in the most vulnerable parts of the lair throughout much of the day, and infiltrating a secure complex run by a mega-paranoiac is suspiciously easy provided the players have the right clothes.

Then there’s a second lair that is long-deserted and only exists to provide clues to get the players to the real lair (yet is also massively detailed in its description).

Yeah.

There’s more on New America itself and even the MilGov/CivGov split (in short, the former is clearly there to be a convenient supervillain faction, the latter there for contrived drama), and how it’s handled, but that’s for another time.

 

Team Yankee

I’ve just finished Harold Coyle’s Team Yankee, the classic tank novel.

By its own terms, it’s not the best book.

It’s like a micro-scale Red Storm Rising. (I don’t mean in tone, or obvious setting, I mean it’s a decent but dated and over-jargoned book). It’s a little too clinical. Too much explanation of attacks and formations and stuff in detail, like Coyle wanted to show off what he knew. At times I thought “this is like Melville, only with tanks instead of sailing ships”.

The characters away from the main group aren’t that good. The wife subplot seems superfluous, cutting to an A-10 pilot or headquarters officer is a little jarring, and the occasional Soviet viewpoint character exists basically to go “curse those dastardly Americans!”

And yet when comparing it to the later WW3 imitators I’ve seen on the internet and self-published fiction, it comes across as better. For while it has the flaws mentioned above, it also has one thing a lot of the later ones don’t-a truly consistent narrative. The viewpoint disruptions aren’t too bad, and some are indeed tied in to the main action, which cannot be said for others. This alone makes it worth a read.

Bad Fiction Spotlight: Red Dawn +20

Of all the Bad Fiction Spotlights, Red Dawn +20 is one of the loosest. It’s closer to the Infinite Loops, being a loose internet construct rather than the single work of one person. So it consists of over a thousand pages spread across multiple web boards, and the two closest cases to a definitive piece are the TVTropes Page and this summary.

And through a combination of accident and design, it ended up with the poorest tone you could have. Granted, the entire “invasion novel” genre does not exactly lend itself handily to Nobel Prizes for Literature, and it’s hard to move anything that decentralized in a deliberate path anyway. So, it does end up kind of like the Loops in another form, in that it’s barbel-led between two extremes. I guess being done on a whim with detail-oriented users leads to that. And as it’s (technically) part of a more grounded genre, those extremes are weirdly interesting to explore.

First, except for the setting, it has very little in common with the classic movie it’s nominally a fanfic of. Red Dawn is darker than its reputation suggests, and, more importantly, is not Red Storm Rising: Western Hemisphere Edition.

More importantly, it simultaneously brings to the forefront…

  1. Fantasic and sometimes juvenile fantasies.
  2. Long, technical infodumps and dry recitations.

I shouldn’t have to explain how these clash.

Twilight 2000

Twilight 2000, the classic semi-postapocalyptic tabletop RPG, is a very contradictory game, one of the most so I’ve ever seen.

See, the plot is good enough. It’s more realistic than many WWIIIs in that the nukes fly, but manages to stay intact enough so that all the cool toys aren’t taken away. And whatever the many plausibility issues, it works for the sake of setting up an adventure.

The problem is in the dichotomy. The mechanics have a detailed, often-realistic unglamorous focus on the dirty work-logistics, disease, and the like. Characters are quite vulnerable. This mixed with the shattered, post-nuclear war-bandit setting means it should be poised for a low-tier, somber look, right?

Wrong. Sharing equally with the dirty-work mechanics are detailed stats of individual guns, tanks, and artillery pieces, starting dubious already but taken to excess in supplements. The post-apocalyptic setting is there to provoke challenges, but it’s also clearly there to take away the command post and those pesky orders. The target audience and themes are for the “bored soldier and military enthusiast” crowd, not exactly something somber. It’s like This War of Mine was jumbled together with Medal of Honor Warfighter and printed, to use later video games as analogies.

And then some of the later supplements got-weird. I’m talking “save Arkansas from evil airships” weird.

It’s still fascinating, both as a product of its time and for the “excesses” and contradictions it has.

 

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 (TAKEN DOWN)

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.