Review: Total War

Total War

It does not take a PHD in literary theory to guess why interest in postapocalyptic stories rose as the Cold War heated up in the early 1980s. One of the most infamous is Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series, starring the Detonics miniature 1911 pistol-and the man firing them, John Rourke. Reviewing Total War, the first book in the series, I found it very good for what it is.

Icelands

Ok, I want to take a second to argue that my original category of “Icelands” may be obsolete. I’d envisioned it as applying to a much narrower group of stories than I ended up reviewing on this blog. It was designed for a very short continuum between Hackett’s Third World War and Team Yankee. It was not designed for something like this, a pulp adventure thriller. So I may be doing a revamp of my whole post structure, and if I do, “Icelands” is the most likely category to be changed or revamped.

That being said, Total War is very much an 80s pulpy cheap thriller. Just those words should give you a hint of what to expect.

Rivets

This is one of those “it tells you exactly what kind of gun it is” books, be it a revolver or Detonics pistol. It has a lot of lists (including a description of Rourke’s survivalist lair), a lot of long descriptions of scrounged gizmos. Yet they don’t really get in the way of the fast-paced action.

Zombie Sorceresses

Pretty much what you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic thriller in terms of contrivances. The nuclear blasts are actually handled fairly reasonably, especially given the genre. They’re not the biggest issue. If I had to give one issue that’s the most contrived, it’s how waves of bandits for our hero to fight appear out of nowhere like it was a Bethesda Softworks video game.

The “Wha?”

This flows good for a first installment. We go from Rourke fighting in Pakistan to an infodump about his survivalist lair to the nuclear war, to him and his wife both fighting bandits.

One thing I was impressed by was how even-handed he was by action novel standards. For an American cheap thriller written in 1981, Ahern portrays some of the Soviet characters with surprising deftness and sympathy.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Ok, this is basically a western version of Fist of the North Star, except instead of going “ATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATA omae wa mou shindeiru”, Rourke simply shoots his opponents with his Detonics pistol. If you think that’s tacky, this book isn’t for you. If you like it even a tiny bit, it is.

Furthermore, Ahern is surprisingly good on some of the literary fundamentals. The book is short and moves quickly. The “clunky first setup part” only exists to a small degree here. And while Total War isn’t exactly Peters’ Red Army, its Soviets are considerably less supervillain-y than a lot of other novels in this time period.

Total War is worth a read if you like cheap 80s action.

Why I Liked Them

Why I Liked Them

So, it’s been difficult for me to explain why I did like something, as opposed to why I didn’t. Hoping to do a very positive review, I found myself diverting towards whole paragraphs of nitpicks. So I’m deciding to take three books I liked-one a well-known classic, two obscure, and list only what they did right. The three books are Ralph Peters’ legendary Red Army, Kevin Miller’s Raven One, and Peter Nealen’s Frozen Conflict.

Besides me liking them a lot, I think they represent a sort of “big-medium-small” continuim. One’s an epic theater-spanning World War III, one’s a medium regional clash with a carrier squadron, and one’s the comparably small tale of a mercenary squad. Thus seeing how each of these stories works in a different subgenre is interesting.

I’ve talked about them before, but figure this challenge would help.

Red Army

Ralph Peters’ classic has many things right, but I view what it’s done the best is a flawed victory. It doesn’t portray every single thing about Soviet doctrine of the time as ideal,  it doesn’t have supertech effortlessly ripping NATO to pieces, and it especially doesn’t have the characters acting like it’s a cakewalk either. On the contrary, most of them die and die horribly. By allowing for vulnerability and failure, it makes the success all the more convincing. The Soviets have to earn their victory, it isn’t handed to them on a silver platter.

I don’t want to call anything my absolute favorite, but as of now, Red Army remains my favorite 198X WWIII story, and one of my favorite high-level, multiple viewpoint thrillers.

Raven One

Raven One, a recent thriller, is excellent at scale, managing to do a lower-end aircraft-centric story very well. It focuses on one squadron of F/A-18s and their pilots battling Iran, and manages to stay very tight. It doesn’t try to turn a regional conflict into a global one.

Furthermore, this leads to something else it does very well-antagonist equalizers. I think that Raven One has one of the best. Whether by accident or design, Kevin Miller created gimmicks-a MiG 1.42 super-fighter and some high-end ECM devices on the Iranian side-that serve to challenge the characters well without feeling too contrived.

The squadron is the centerpiece of the story, and what matters is the ability to challenge the squadron, not the US Navy as a whole. In this Raven One succeeds beautifully, and its pacing doesn’t hurt either.

Of all the post-1991 technothrillers I’ve read, Raven One is one of the best at managing the challenges of that time period well. This is no small feat.

Frozen Conflict

I could really use any of Peter Nealen’s thrillers as my example, but Frozen Conflict, where his mercs romp in the former USSR, is perhaps the most suited for Fuldapocalypse. Besides being well paced, they do several things excellently. These are logistics, tone, and characterization.

In terms of logistics, Nealen takes something generally boring and actually integrates it well into the story. As the ragtag mercs shop or scrounge for their weapons and equipment, it feels like it reinforces the rough and tumble plot rather than interfering with it.

And it also reinforces the tone. The tone is pitch-perfect. It’s gritty and grounded with some over-the-top feats, but it keeps the stakes in their proper element. I particularly liked how a simple BTR-60 in Frozen Conflict with only a 14.5mm heavy machine gun is rightfully portrayed as a devastating threat to the light infantry heroes.

For characterization, it makes me feel for the heroes. In one of the bloodiest books in the series, I felt for them when several characters died, even the one who was written as something of an ass.

Because of this tightness and caring, Nealen’s stories remain some of the best low-level “infantry” thrillers I’ve read.

Conclusion

So there you have my explanations of why I enjoyed several military thrillers as much as I did. This was a very fascinating exercise and I hope to do more of this positive regard in the future. It really helps me a lot with something I’ve long had trouble with.

Review: Dark Rose

Dark Rose

I’m used to having technothrillers with dubious backgrounds, especially ones written after the fall of the USSR. But Mike Lunnon-Wood’s Dark Rose, set in Ireland, takes the cake. The zombie sorceresses were strained to their limit here.

Icelands

Well, at least this isn’t formulaic. Sure, this has the general literary pattern, but in terms of variance from the thriller genre, it’s big. This book is also a very good example of why being formulaic isn’t necessarily bad, and why diverting from the formula isn’t necessarily good.

Rivets

The rivet-counting doesn’t really pick up until the action starts, but when it does, it does so very hard. Furthermore, the rivet-counting infodumps are exacerbated by Lunnon-Wood’s writing style, which I’ll get to.

They have the effect of being “look how much I know” telling rather than experienced showing.

Zombie Sorceresses

Oh boy. Palestinian-led Arabs seize control of Ireland, first financially, then militarily. Their goal is to use it as a bargaining chip in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, for the Irish lobby in American politics is extremely strong.

They and their Irish puppet government are countered by having Irish-descended soldiers in armies around the world volunteer for the resistance, led by the newly crowned queen of the restored Irish monarchy. It’s mentioned as being little but a legal trick, but still. This makes Cauldron look like a meticulously researched counterfactual.

This is one of the most “zombie sorceress”-dominated stories I’ve read. There’s a lot of emphasis elsewhere in the book (and in the rest of Lunnon-Wood’s work) of interviewing military personnel, of being detailed and accurate. But it’s all the service of this ridiculous plot.

The “Wha?”

So, this book has two problems independent of the crazy zombie sorceress backstory. The first is its pacing. The book’s “action” doesn’t start until about halfway through, and it only really intensifies about three quarters of the way through.

The second is its prose. Lunnon-Wood’s writing style is this take-your-time, talk-it-out lush slow system. It’s almost as if Hemingway wrote ridiculous cheap thrillers. Because of that, the small-unit actions (when they start) are tricky. They’re detailed, grounded, and sometimes gory,  but the nature of the prose doesn’t make them feel very visceral, for lack of a better word. The characterization suffers from almost the exact same problem. Characters get so many drawn-out conversations that they feel like blurs, and Lunnon-Wood isn’t the best at distinguishing them.

Applying conventional technothriller infodumps to this style makes them worse, and when the “resistance forces” (a giant multinational technicality that includes the USMC) finally do mobilize en masse, it’s a (realistic) never-in-doubt Gulf War-style crush. So despite the slow pace, this book is also kind of too fast as well when push comes to shove.

Also, there’s a lesbian seduction subplot that stops about halfway through the book. I will leave it to the review readers to guess as to whether it’s an important part of the story or just cheap sleaze.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Dark Rose could have been worse. It could have been unreadable in its prose. It’s not. It could have been more axe-grindingly political than it was. It could have been even longer.

As it stands, the actual substance of the book is a little aimless and clunky, but the concept is so completely ridiculous that I feel it’s still worth taking a look at. That it’s not too political makes it more pleasant to read, and you don’t see “grounded” stories with setups this ridiculous every day.

Review: Arc Light

Arc Light

Arc Light by Eric Harry is a good but uneven World War III tale. Even at its worst, it never dips below the genre median, and at its best it goes in a novel direction that takes a big concern head-on instead of sidestepping it. While this might seem (and is) praiseworthy, it left me wanting the whole story to be more consistently good.

Icelands

Arc Light has two “parts”. One is bold, the other cliche.

The first part is the nuclear war. This, for all my small quibbles, handles the defining weapon of the Cold War excellently. The initial strikes are described in massive detail, and the threat hangs uneasily for the rest of the book. Instead of either handwaving nukes aside altogether or, worse, dropping a few contrived “plotnukes” (Hackett’s Birmingham-Minsk exchange is a picture-pefect example), it launches a big but survivable nuclear “counterforce” strike while keeping the unease of follow-up strikes there.

The second part is a totally conventional military cheap thriller. It’s not outright bad or unreadable, but it has most of the genre tropes there. Multiple viewpoint characters (though, I will say, not too many), and worse, contrived, tinny political scenes that only serve to set up the action that everyone knew was coming anyway.

Rivets

The rivet-counting concerning the nukes is present and annoying. Annoying in the sense that they alternate between well-described horror of nuclear war and clinical, dull infodumps. A lot of the nuclear infodumps have the “I know what the formal name of a Scud TEL is” feeling, where it sounds like the author using the story to demonstrate what he knows instead of using what he knows to help make the story better. But, in an excample of how conflicted this book can be, they’re interspersed with genuinely gripping descriptions.

The rivet-counting concerning everything else is just irritating, especially when large battles and plot-progressing moments are told in nothing but infodumps.

Zombie Sorceresses

While I’m sure the zombie sorceresses were at work with the setup, the important part was that it didn’t feel as contrived as it had been. It has Russia as the opponent and its nuclear exchange dominates the book without being too big.

I’d say the biggest zombie sorceress intervention came in politics and the Americans invading Russia. But even that I forgave, for it was more novel.

The “Wha?”

This kind of wobbles a lot. The low-level soldiers are handled very well. The noncombatants are handled decently, at least in a well-intended way. Anything political turns into either infodumps or Larry Bond-wannabe “they set up what you knew what would happen” scenes.

Arc Light feels like it’s trying to tell a big Red Storm Rising-style story while using a fairly small number of viewpoint characters. The former is acceptable, and the latter to me is laudable. But what this means in practice is that a lot of the story is told in either infodumps or maps. It either needed more characters (which are not necessarily bad if handled well) or a smaller scope.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This takes the eccentricities of 90s techno-thrillers and manages to use them well. But it still could have been more. At times it feels like a gritty genre-amplifier and at times it feels like a routine Larry Bond knockoff.

It’s kind of befuddling. Arc Light will have a gritty infantry battle that has down and dirty bleeding and confusion, and then it will have a classic conference room infodump. It will show something with great skill-and then tell anyway. A giant tank battle is explained in an infodump.

But it still tries to move outside the narrow genre limits and mostly succeeds. In particular, it handles WMDs without them ever feeling like “plotnukes” there to just add a bit of cheap drama. It just could have used a little more focus and a lot less tinny politics.

Review: Chains of Command

Chains of Command

Dale Brown is one of those authors who managed to remain firmly in a genre even as it declined. Which is to say, as the genre began to decline and other authors like Ralph Peters and Harold Coyle moved to different topics like the American Civil War, Brown and his super-planes just kept going and going and going and going and going and going like a technothriller Energizer Bunny. Somehow enough people bought the books that he kept getting publishing deals for more of them without being a super-big name like Tom Clancy.

He was also out-there from the get go, leaning on the “super-science-fiction” edge of technothrillers from the start of his first book, Flight of the Old Dog, which featured a super bomber against a super-laser. (That book I unreservedly recommend-it’s a fun cheap thriller). This and the melodramatic excess of his later novels has made him who he was.

How does Chains of Command, this Russo-American war novel, stack up?

Icelands

Dale Brown has been there from the start, so it’s no surprise that if you know the type and time period of this thriller, nothing will be surprising. It’s a Dale Brown thriller so you’ll get the Air Force saving everything, lots of nukes flying, and more than a few political rants. It’s a cheap thriller, so you get a cheap thriller plot. It’s post-1991, so the enemy is a regressed Russia.

Rivets

Like a lot of technothriller authors, Brown loves his rivet-counting, with lots of exact designations and detailed descriptions. The biggest problem isn’t so much the infodumps themselves as how they exist in this exaggerated fantasy world of super-planes. It’s like giving a detailed, technically exact description of a car’s engine and mechanics-in a cartoonish video game.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, there’s the regression of Russia, for one. Then there’s the plot-nukes. Dale Brown loves nuking everything without going full Dr. Strangelove. Then there’s an infodumped past war that should crowd out the real Gulf War but doesn’t. The zombie sorceresses haven’t been the busiest here, but they’ve still had to work.

The “Wha?”

This is a cheap thriller plot, and it wildly zigzags. On one hand, Brown is a former navigator-bombardier in the Air Force, so he can show a feeling of immediacy in the battle scenes. On the other, they’re loaded with infodumps. On one hand, Brown’s plotnukes show he isn’t afraid to have the enemy do real damage. On the other, they make the world seem less real and more contrived.  On one hand, the heroine is an effective character by the standards of the genre. On the other, the action is too spread out…

You get the idea.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Chains of Command is not truly bad, but Brown has definitely written better. While he hadn’t yet sunk to the levels he would later on, this is not his best book, nor is it the best in the genre. It manages to deploy both general technothriller and Brown-specific cliches in bulk without having anything like prose or plot to make up for them.

I’d recommend reading Flight of the Old Dog first and seeing if you like his style before trying Chains of Command. It can work as a time-passing cheap thriller, but even in that easy genre there are better books.

Review: The Defense of Hill 781

The Defense of Hill 781

Time to start off October by reviewing an unconventional favorite of mine. Like many stories in its genre, The Defense of Hill 781 is nothing but an excuse to show tanks exploding. Unlike many stories in its genre, it accepts and embraces this as a form of Duffer’s Drift style ‘edutainment’.

Icelands

The book diverges from the formula by going right to the action and doing so in a form of various “learn from failure as well as success” vignettes following the classic Duffer’s Drift style formula. It’s not a conventional thriller or even a conventional story, and this works in its favor exactly.

Rivets

The Defense of Hill 781 has a lot of detail. However, in its specific context, it’s understandable and forgivable. This is meant as an instructional piece, and thus it needs to be detailed. So while the detail can be clunky, it’s not “I know how many wheels are on a Scud TEL and what the proper name of that TEL is.” It’s relevant to what needs to be taught.

Zombie Sorceresses

This book has the humorously named protagonist A. Tack Always thrown into a ‘real’ purgatory of the National Training Center to fight the infamous Krasnovian OPFOR. It is completely artificial and makes absolutely no pretensions of being anything else.

The “Wha?”

So The Defense Of Hill 781 does not have a conventional plot, nor does it have conventional non-lecturing characterization. What it does have is detailed yet visceral battles that redeem the lack of this.

Instead of robotic “Fifty T-62s and ten M60s were destroyed” infodumpy battles, you have the main character running around trying to find a radio after each of his comm sources is either jammed or outright destroyed. This grit and pain is what lets author James McDonough play to his strengths and make the lack of “fluff” a strength rather than a weakness.

The Only Score That Really Matters

The Defense of Hill 781 is one of those “either you like it or you don’t” books. If you want any kind of plot or characterization whatsoever, it’s no good. But if you want to see well-written battle scenes in training aid-level detail, and I did, this is a good tale that is completely without any extraneous fluff. It doesn’t always work, but it does here. This stands out of the pack as a unique and varied contribution to the 1980s mechanized combat genre.

 

Review: World War III: The Beginning

World War III: The Beginning

By the early 2000s, while the mainstream technothriller was declining, the self-published one was on the rise. In time this would lead to a very unique paradigm that I definitely wish to explore. But it also got some stinkers, like this. Despite the title, I could find no other books by Fulgham.

This is a submarine book, so it has the perils of submarine fiction. Or at least it would have if it wasn’t so badly written that any genre problems become secondary.

Icelands

The structure of this book is rather cliche and technothriller-y, albeit applied in a very, very sloppy way. What it does is have its cake and eat it too with a “Islamic Republic” that has a giant carrier navy. (The first edition was in 2000, after 9/11 the author tried to claim it was prescient.)

So yes, we get Conference Room Infodumps. Rushed and sloppy conference room infodump.

Rivets

A lot of the technical designations for aircraft and the like are just made up, but where this book shines in rivet-counting is in submarine operation commands. I hope you like reading submarine bridge commands, because it feels like 3/4 of the book consists of them.

Zombie Sorceresses

The antagonists-a Middle Eastern superstate with three times as many aircraft carriers as the US Navy (!), are the perfect zombie sorceress state. Very little else really comes close.

The “Wha”?

Well, the characters are mostly flat, the biggest issue being that they’re always referred to by their first names. The plot is a confused vague mess of technothriller mush and some submarine bridge commands. Oh, and a romance. Mustn’t forget the romance between the female commander and her male XO (who I suspect strongly is an author Mary Sue). Yeah.

The Only Score That Really Matters

As a book itself, this is forgettably bad, one for just the self-published slush pile. But as an example of a certain kind of book, it’s a good early case study. The self-published thriller that lacks both the polish of a mainstream book and the attention to detail of an enthusiast story is one I’ve seen too much of.

So while a mainline technothriller, especially a later one, will have somewhat exaggerated gimmicks (IE, Dale Brown’s “stop the superlaser”), and an enthusiast one will have detailed, at least nominally grounded forces (The 20th Guards Motor Rifle Brigade and 2nd Tank Brigade crossed the border…) , this just goes “unite the Middle East and plop down dozens of aircraft carriers”. In a way it’s actually endearing.

One slightly redeeming quality to Fulgham’s book is that it’s short, unlike the somewhat similar but utterly unreadable Dragon’s Fury by Jeff Head.

I cannot recommend World War III: The Beginning, unless you like submarine steering commands. Then it’s the best book ever.

 

Why 1985?

In his review of Dark War Revelation, the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Reviewer remarked  “(it’s always 1985 in these books for some reason)”. So, why is it always 1985?

One possible reason is (even subconciously) imitating Hackett’s original The Third World War: August 1985. Another,as argued by the WW3 1987 blog is that 1985 is the most “fair” of the time periods. Still another may just be that it’s the middle of the decade, so it’s an easy number to reach.

But yes, 1980s WWIII stories often appear in 1985.

Review: Tin Soldiers

Tin Soldiers

I’ve talked before about Michael Farmer’s Tin Soldiers on my main blog, and his debut thriller pictures a regional war quite different from a Fuldapocalypse. But it’s worthy of a detailed review for two reasons. One is that it, published in the early 2000s, remains a picture-perfect example of the tropes of post-USSR technothrillers. Another is that it, although hardly flawless, is by and large an example of how this can be done right.

Icelands

Tin Soldiers, sadly, manages to be both divergent and cliche at the same time. A rejuvenated Iraq is making another go at Kuwait, and the first line of defense is the main character’s comparably small unit.

What makes this interesting is how it follows the classic “balancer tropes” mentioned here almost to a t. The American forces present are small at first, and the Iraqis have sneaked-out satellite footage and, more importantly, advanced Abrams-busting ammunition for their tank guns. The “crisis overload” is also there to a degree with a small subplot about a rapprochement with Iran that goes nowhere and ultimately is handwaved away.

Political shenanigans are there and “make up” for being less important to the plot by being horribly written. So is a shoved-in “save the helicopter pilot damsel in distress” subplot that rivals even the capture scene in Chieftains for being out of place. Perhaps fitting for a genre on its last mainstream legs, Tin Soldiers manages to fit the formula exceedingly well.

Rivets

This isn’t too bad in terms of rivet-counting. There are mostly familiar platforms, so there’s less need to describe them, and I didn’t feel that bothered by the infodumps that did take place. It’s not perfect and it’s not vague, but somehow most of it flows.

Zombie Sorceresses

This is a book that has all of the usual technothriller contrivances, all the odds-equalizers, and all the stock characters to set up. And yet the final nuclear-chemical escalation was the only one where I went “come on”.

Somehow it felt like the zombie sorceresses didn’t need to intervene as much as they had in other books. Perhaps using a country that was already suited for a regional conflict as the antagonist made it feel better than say, Cauldron did. Perhaps using an “equalizer scenario” of a stronger enemy force in theater against a limited reinforcement that has been feared since the time of TF Smith works better than some of the goofier ones.

They’re still there, but the zombie sorceress hand isn’t as visible in Tin Soldiers, I found.

The “Wha?

The characters are mostly stock. The hero, the supporting hero, the generals, the slightly sympathetic villain, the inept weasel ally, and the politicians. The scenes with politicians on either side are cringeworthy. Farmer’s fictional American president comes across as a figure written as a “bad dude with bad taste” by someone whose cultural clock stopped in 1979.

The low-level characters, while less developed, are at least sufficient for the course of the book. But the real treat is the action itself. Barring the “look at the stealth fighter go” scenes, the final Dale Brown style WMD escalation, and the save-the-girl side-plot, the tank battles are well written. Yes, the book has its share of technological gee-whiz. But it also has more than its share of basic grit, where tanks are very vulnerable.

Also like Team Yankee, a limited theater means that the story becomes more focused and tight.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Tin Soldiers is the perfect example of this category. On paper, it’s got every flaw a military thriller in general and a post-1991 one in particular would have. Its digressions into romance and politics go from awkward to slightly disgusting and offensive. The prose and flow isn’t the smoothest. And yet, in spite of all that, I like this book.

When the tanks get to exploding, it’s at its perfect height. The tank battles themselves are, for the genre, well-done. It manages to maintain a decent scope in those parts, not feeling like it hops around too much and succeeding at the difficult task of making a viewpoint between either “squad in the dirt” or “big picture”. And while it may have just been a happy coincidence, the tank battles against the early T-72s with super-ammo have just the right level of threat, showing that there’s much more to a tank than just how strong the gun is and how thick the armor is.

Tin Soldiers is still a cheap thriller with more than its share of unforced flaws. But it does a lot right, and is one of the best post-1991 “regional war” thrillers I’ve read.

Technothrilllers and WWIII

Technothrillers and WWIII

There is obviously an extreme amount of overlap between the two, but as someone who’s read a lot of both, I don’t think that every World War III story is a “technothriller”, and every technothriller certainly isn’t a World War III story.

Technothriller is hard to define. In some ways (and keep in mind I love weird analogies) it’s like progressive rock-hard to truly explain but often identifiable as part of a genre if viewed/listened to[1].

Also like progressive rock, the technothriller genre was arguably something of a specific time, was ultimately niche at heart, contained elements that would seem to make it unfavorable to a mainstream audience, was generally scorned by serious critics, had a seemingly imaginative premise turned too into follow-the-leader[2],  fell into decline both from outside factors and its own excesses, and was lucky to last as long as it did at the top of the charts.

Ok, I might be taking it too far. But still.

The decline of the technothriller can be studied in several critical articles. Among the reasons given, by both them and me are:

  • Simple changing tastes and trends. (This is probably the most realistic answer, but the least complex. Oh well.)
  • The fall of the USSR contributing to those changing tastes and trends by sapping the technothriller of its immediacy and forcing them to be more contrived.
  • Said contrivances becoming more and more blatant[3], combined with the genre staying with a “big picture” format not as conducive to grubby brushfires as a small-scale focus would be.
  • High-technology stuff in the post-Gulf War period becoming ubiquitous, losing its earlier novelty value. Smart bombs and cruise missiles? Those were routine now.
  • The genre arguably being more suited to video games like the Splinter Cell series than books.
  • The genre arguably being niche to begin with and only staying in mainstream consciousness due to two things happening as it emerged. Those being the beginning of the digital era and the intense late Cold War (the argument in this article).

So for specifics, it’s easy to find perfect overlap. Red Storm Rising, the archetypal World War III story, is also an archetypal technothriller. But even at the time, there were examples on both ends that did not fit neatly into the other’s niche. One of the best-executed was Ralph Peters’ classic Red Army, one of my favorite World War III tales.

Not only is Red Army decidedly gritty and focused on a Soviet victory, but Peters frequently takes care to not go into details about bits of hardware. This helps add to the immediacy and fog of war a lot, but makes it feel less like a techno-thriller. But even in the more conventional examples, there’s differences. Larry Bond’s 1989-published, ultra-formulaic Red Phoenix[4] is still a regional conflict, while the genre-booster of The Hunt For Red October is focused on avoiding the Third World War rather than starting it.

_ _ _ _ _

As the technothriller began to decline from mainstream bookshelves, the World War III subgenre, already a niche-within-a-niche, did so as well. But it fell back on a smaller but very stable base. The wargamers.

Red Storm Rising was famously aided by the original Harpoon board game, and the setting became popular among wargamers for very obvious reasons. Even beyond politics, its appeal is great, for it allows for massive battles of tanks, artillery and aircraft impossible in any regional clash.

This, combined with the influence of the existing 1980s classics, had many effects on how the subgenre developed. But what was more important was the increasing “decentralization” of publishing as a whole. The technothriller/world war genre got a small bump in the mainstream market as the rise of China and resurgence of Russia from its 1990s slump brought “high-tech”, high-end conflict back into vogue.

But beyond that, self-publishing and the internet made it far more easy for “niche” fiction to spread[5], which meant that all kinds of thrillers-World War III, cheap thriller, homage technothriller, all could flourish. In some cases, this pulled the heirs of Clancy and Hackett closer together, in some cases it pushed them farther apart.

How this new paradigm manifests in the actual stories varies considerably, and thus it can only be examined on a case by case basis. But there is a trend throughout the period-the technothriller and World War III stories are never entirely together, but never entirely apart.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

[1]At its most broad, prog rock can be defined as “any rock music made in the 1970s with synthesizers.” Likewise, technothrillers can be defined as any thriller book featuring high technology while not reaching the level of outright science fiction. It’s not helped by Tom Clancy, its forefather, not liking the term and insisting he didn’t create or expand a new genre.

[2]For technothrillers, it was Clancy and Bond. For prog rock, it was the hordes of Yes copycats.

[3]See the opponents in Cauldron.

[4]If I had to list a single commercial book that had the most and most obvious technothriller tropes, it would be Red Phoenix. Note that this does make it necessarily bad, just formulaic, at least in hindsight.

[5]On a personal note, it was internet published/posted military alternate history that played a gigantic role in getting me into this kind of genre to begin with.