Review: Worm

Worm

This is a weird story to be reviewing on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s a weird context. But Worm has been so crazy on Spacebattles to the point where the mods had to make a separate forum specifically for Worm fanfics.

Worm is a story about a teenage girl in a rough and tumble city who, after being shoved into a filthy locker by bullies, develops superpowers. Much, much, much more happens after that.

Worm has a lot going for it. It’s a superhero story that keeps the basic archetypes everyone knows and loves while shedding every last piece of baggage the big two comics have dragged over decades. The powers are interesting and distinct-for instance, the closest prominent figure you can find to the main character’s power set of insect control is a boss in Metal Gear Solid 3. There aren’t lazy “Superman” or “Batman” figures made with the minimum distinction. The characters are well developed and sympathetic in a truly dark world. It sounds very good……

 

……until it’s actually read. The fundamentals are ‘iffy’ enough that it becomes a slog. Especially early on, events happen and pass very quickly, not helped by the prose. But on the other side of the coin, the story as a whole is over one and a half million words long-longer than War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged combined. And I’ve found the prose to be simply dull.

In no small part because of this, every flaw in the worldbuilding comes up in a way that it wouldn’t in a better story. The biggest issue I’ve found is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Worm goes into a huge amount of in-universe detail to try and justify its common superhero-vs-supervillain tropes. To me the amount of raw effort required has the effect of making it seem less, rather than more plausible.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Worm-I can see its appeal, and consider it “not for me” rather than outright “bad”. It just didn’t really “click” for me, and I don’t want to read a million+ words of something that didn’t do that.

 

Unstructured Review: The Valor Series

Valor Series

One of my first “get me through a vacation” books was an omnibus containing the first two volumes of Tanya Huff’s Valor series of military sci-fi. At the time, I was impressed by how an author who was clearly new to the genre could write something well. Now, some time later, I’m even more impressed. Other authors of either fantasy or (surprisingly) contemporary action have stumbled, in my opinion, when they turned to the difficult genre of military science fiction. Huff, for the most part, did not.

Oh, it has its pitfalls. Some of the prose is a little “flowery fantasy”-esque, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There’s a line in one of the later books that about how drones were obsolete compared to a “good pair of eyes” because they kept getting shot down (when the alternative is losing those eyes). But those are tiny compared to the advantages.

Heroine Torin Kerr is a good enough protagonist, especially by the standards of the genre. Huff tends to keep her in smaller, fantasy adventure party sized engagements that she’s comfortable with and work very well. And the series takes out a lot of the “brown M&Ms” that plague the ‘spacesuit commando’ subgenre (that I groan at but still somehow read and like anyway). For instance, while other, worse military sci-fi books have the main character promoted ridiculously high ridiculously fast, Kerr starts as a staff sergeant and ends the series as a… gunnery sergeant.

For these reasons I recommend the Valor book. Sure they’re lightweight, but they’re lightweight in a good, solid way.

 

Unstructured Review: Blood and Tacos

Blood and Tacos

The “Blood and Tacos” book series is a playful mockery of and love letter to the classic action-adventure series. Something as big and pulpy as the Mack Bolan-style adventure fiction genre is both easy and hard to make fun of. Easy because it has a lot of obvious “flaws”, hard because it was so prolific that it frequently fell into the “Poe’s Law” pit of being an unintentional self-parody.

For instance, I can give a personal anecdote. I was flipping through Mack Bolan store pages and finding one where he was fighting genetically modified super-soldiers. Given the series started as a somewhat grounded tale of fighting mobsters, I went “a-ha, this must be an ‘Arkansas vs. The Blimps’ moment of craziness.” When I looked back, I found multiple ones where this happened.

The four ebooks in the Blood and Tacos series have a list of short stories and parodies/homages to classic adventure fiction, tales by obscure (made-up) authors that were later “discovered by” the actual ones. There’s also spotlights of either the most ridiculous or the most creepy real adventure novels.

Some of the stories are too forced in their humor, but others manage to hit the spot perfectly. My favorite is “Battleground U.S.S.A., Texasgrad”, for not only managing to spoof adventure novels, but technothrillers and invasion novels as well.

Unstructured Review: Marines Crimson Worlds

Marines: Crimson Worlds

So, as part of my holiday book odyssey, I devoured a huge quantity of trashy military science fiction novels. And Jay Allan’s Marines: Crimson Worlds kind of fit the bill for what I got too much of. If Starfist was “mainstream military sci-fi cliche bingo” this was “self-published military sci-fi cliche bingo”. If not worse. Marines Crimson Worlds is the sort of book I derogatorily call “spacesuit commando”, and after reading just a few of these I got a very clear guideline for how a lot of these (I must be fair and say not all) went.

Now it’s important not to overstate. This kind of book is the literary equivalent of a Nissan Versa or Mitsubishi Mirage. So comparing this to the classic writers like Heinlein or Haldeman is totally unfair. Even comparing it to (early) Tom Clancy is unfair. No, this is best compared to the Mack Bolan-spinoff style ‘contemporary’ action. And it still falls short. Part of it is combining an infodump-heavy format with a first-person view, but that’s not all of it. If I had to boil it down to two points, I’d say these have:

  • Excessive training sequences. This I can pin on Heinlein and people who didn’t get that the training was, for better or worse, the actual point of Starship Troopers. Cheap trashy military sci-fi tends to involve excessive training sequences in ways that cheap trashy contemporary thrillers don’t. This is a self-imposed higher bar to clear.
  • Bad antagonists. How can you get worse than the cackling supervillains of cheap thrillers? Answer: Popup targets with no reason for existing save to provide something for the heroes to fire at. I’d compare it to video games, except most video games have better and more-developed opponents. Marines: Crimson Worlds is particularly bad because the opponents are other humans and not even “generic aliens out to kill everything”.

Marines: Crimson Worlds has all this and even more of the tropes I’ve noticed. Some vague dystopian background, the main character being a super special champion who gets promoted ridiculously high ridiculously fast, and action that falls into the “military sci-fi pit” of neither being grounded nor over-the-top (this is a particular problem with ‘spacesuit commando’ novels where the only real gimmick is power armor that doesn’t seem to do anything) and thus appearing merely dull. The supporting characters in Marines: Crimson Worlds are, for the most part, nothing but blank names.

While I’ve spent the last five paragraphs slamming the novel, I’ll say that it at least worked as a mindless time-passer. But only that, and I’d in most cases prefer a contemporary action novel for the same purpose.

Unstructured Review: X-Wing Series

As a kid, I inherited (and read) a lot of my family’s old Star Wars novels. The most relevant to Fuldapocalypse and most fun are the X-Wing novels by Michael A. Stackpole and the late Aaron Allston. For books that are both movie tie-ins and video game tie-ins at the same time, they’re actually really good.

Especially Allston’s. The Wraith Squadron series are a combination Dirty Dozen and fighter story (and yes, fighter pilots somehow turn into effective commando-spies. But this is Star Wars), and manage a degree of emotional height (Allston’s not afraid to kill off developed sympathetic characters) and comedy (such as someone having to fly into battle with a giant stuffed Ewok in his lap-long story) without feeling jarring at all.

Stackpole’s books are more formulaic, less daring, and he has the tendency to take game mechanics a little too literally, but they’re still solid and still better-scaled than a lot of the other Star Wars books of the time period (which have all the antagonist problems of 1990s technothrillers and then some).

Technothriller authors could do worse than read these. They’re good examples of how you can manage a decent-sized cast and medium-scope story, and they’re fun.

 

Unstructured Review: The Power

Ok, now I’m really stretching things with Fuldapocalypse. I’m reading and reviewing something that’s social-commentary supernatural fiction. Even if it does involve a war.

The book is Naomi Alderman’s The Power.

So, the premise of the book is that women gain the ability to fire blasts of electricity (the way Alderman explains the origins of this power reminded me of old comic books, and I really wish she’d kept it more deliberately mysterious than she did). The most oppressed are the first and most determined to lash out, and they end up taking over the world and showing that power corrupts (hence the title).

The geopolitics are weird (A Saudi-focused Moldovan civil war?) and clearly bent to fit the story even by the standards of a world where women can become she-Electros. The depictions of every conventional armed force are cringeworthy in the limited research, even if forgivable given the author’s background. There are interludes that serve as combination infodumps and “ok, do you get it now? DO YOU GET IT NOW?” reinforcements of the point. Worst of all, the prose manages to be exceedingly dull and exceedingly pretentious at the exact same time, plodding on with every chapter feeling the same.

I can’t fault the book for wanting to have a message or make a statement. The basic messages of “people who are pushed down will push back if given the chance” and “power corrupts” are true and worth sharing, even if they’re not exactly the most profound or unknown. But it’s just so blatant and so clunkily executed that I was soured by it.

Which is a shame, because both of the concepts (women suddenly gaining a physical advantage and/or superpowers emerging regardless of the context) would make for good serious speculative fiction if done right.

(For a somewhat different opinion on this book, see author Kate Vane’s review here )

Unstructured Review: Armor

Armor

To go back to military science fiction, John Steakley’s Armor is one of those cult classics. It’s exactly the type of book that Spacebattles would like, and it’s where I found out about it. So I got it, and I read it, and it’s really two books.

The first “book”, the story of Felix, is a tour de force. Unashamedly wearing its inspiration from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers on its sleeve, the Felix section starts with one of the greatest openings I’ve read, an excellent set piece of frenzied, futuristic violence. It lags only a little in the later Felix portions (in no small part because the opening is hard to top), but remains an effective tale of action.

The second “book”, the story of Jack Crow, is a far slower and far less interesting portion. While Jack Crow’s story would not be the absolute worst tale by itself and I can see why Steakley wrote it, it pales in comparison to Felix’s. At times it descended into outright annoyance, because I wanted to return to the amazing part and not the iffy part.

Still, even with the Jack Crow interlude, Armor deserves its prominent place in the history of military science fiction. It’s well worth a read and the opening is simply fantastic.

This is the last Fuldapocalypse review of 2018. Happy New Year to all readers!

Unstructured Review: Starfist

Starfist

Ah, Starfist. I’ve wanted to do a piece on this series for a loooooong time. It is a series that deserves to be criticized, but with playful slaps instead of vicious claws. Starfist is something. That something is “military sci-fi cliche bingo”.

  • First is the technology, which is the height of “Vietnam but with a coating of laser and a gimmick or two”. It uses advanced technology neither in semi-realistic fashion (IE, drones, AI, etc…) or over-the-top fashion (giant mechs, etc…)
  • Then there’s the tone of the writing, which manages to be some of the most “MARINES!” type of prose I’ve ever encountered. I’ve read plenty of books by other veterans, and most don’t have a tone as “RAR! We’re MARINES, you know!” as this.
  • Then there’s the bias (to put it mildly) of the authors towards the MARINE FIGHTING MAN. It gets really, really, really bad.

That’s the baseline, which is enough to give this series a review. However, there’s something else that’s both a problem and an opportunity for giving individual books specific reviews. That would be the great inconsistency of the series. The prose is never truly bad by itself, and they never feel too long.

However, even in the small sample size I’ve personally read, the series has zigzagged from “Decent time-passing cheap thriller” to “laughably enjoyable thanks to the ridiculous yet self-serious action” to just plain bad. One thing that doesn’t help this is the tendency of the books to have long, barely connected subplots. Still, I can’t be mad at Starfist, for it is quite simply something, if only something that becomes so cliche it stands out.

Unstructured Review: Exultant

If The Big One was a miss I heard of from Spacebattles, Stephen Baxter’s Exultant was a clear hit. It’s the first military science fiction I’ve found fit to review on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s a bit of an oddball, both by the standards of its author and of the genre. But it’s a good oddball.

Stephen Baxter is usually a big-scope, big picture truly speculative science fiction writer, one who talks about exotic universal processes and has no time for heroic spacemen fighting aliens who look like humans in bad costumes. Baxter’s aliens are truly, massively alien. He also uses time travel in his big “Xeelee sequence”, of which Exultant is a part. This allows a semi-kinda-a-little-plausible form of FTL travel and also spares the need to worry about strict continuity between books (if something changed, well, a time traveler did it).

Exultant is a bit of a mishmash. Part of it is an exploration of alien and extranormal societies, biologies, and universal engineering. Part of it, though, is a conventional tale. Humans have regressed over thousands of years into a society built entirely around a sort of galaxy-scaled trench warfare as they battle the almost godlike Xeelee, an utterly alien race of invisible space-time defects completely integrated with their maple-seed like ships. One fighter pilot has managed the impossible-capture a Xeelee ship intact-and now must battle his own bureaucracy as a chance to end the war finally emerges.

Baxter manages this very well. While there’s speculative infodumps galore, the military part manages to break from the typical military sci-fi “current or recent past with a coating of laser” in both directions. On one hand, there’s time machine computers and deliberately “groundhog-daying” information back to the past. On the other, the actual fighting is deliberately reminiscent of the worst of World War I. Exultant juggles all this without really managing to drop anything, and I recommend it because of this.

 

Unstructured Review: The Big One

About a decade ago, I saw a thread on Spacebattles and got a self-published book that set me on a path. I still can’t make up my mind whether that path was for better or worse, or if that one thriller really had too much of an influence. But that book was Crusade, in The Big One series.

The thing about stuff like this was that it was part of my strange experience where I often experienced the imitators and follow-ons first, and only later looked at the originals.

So my initial view of it was that, after the somewhat forgivable first book, it was something as bad as it was implausible. Now it’s changed. The books themselves haven’t changed and I can still see the many flaws. What has changed in the context I see them in.

So, the Big One Series goes like this. In 1940, Lord Halifax stages a parliamentary coup and withdraws the UK from the war. So far, good enough. Then via zombie sorceress contrivance, the Germans seize Britain in what amounts to a Crimea-style sneak attack into already-guarded airbases. Moscow is overrun, Stalin is taken out in a coup, Zhukov rises to the top and decommunizes near-immediately, returning to just “Russia” (and quickly becoming a pro-American teddy bear). The US gets involved, fighting on the Eastern Front on the ground while its carriers pound western Europe. It devolves into a stalemate until 1947, when a stockpiled fleet of B-36s nuke Germany into utter ruin.

The goal is to show “throw Germany all the bones, and as long as the US enters the war, it’ll just end up nuked even if it does better.” It has many issues with plausibility, but is still accurate in the most general terms and isn’t too bad in terms of plot tangles.

Later, it devolves. The Germans fight on for years in the occupied USSR and flee into the Middle East, where they aid an implausible strawman “Caliphate” as it twirls its mustache and gets beaten up by the Americans. Farther east, China and Japan kind of meld into Communist Imperial Chipan, which proceeds to engage the US in an Easy Mode Cold War where the Chipanese (yes, really) have all the USSR’s weaknesses (and then some) but few to none of its actual strengths.

Meanwhile, immortal millenia-old manipulators have their adventures, and one of them, “The Seer”, serves as advisor to every single American leader. Under his guidance, the US sticks with the course of Massive Retaliation, with a military composed mostly of super-bombers like the B-70.

So, what changed? Well, I still view the series as subpar. It’s just no longer as distinctly subpar as I had initially thought, when stacked against its two obvious fellows in arms-later technothrillers and internet alternate history. Look at Crusade, my first entry, and where it was into its full goofiness. That has…

  • Multiple meandering plots that don’t really connect and get in each others way
  • Characters and scenes that exist solely for the author to give political rants.
  • A main character who exists to give the author a mouthpiece in a position of power.
  • Long descriptions of weaponry.
  • An implausible Middle Eastern superstate that beats up a few local jobbers before being effortlessly crushed by (awesome) American Weaponry.

Now, what does bestseller Executive Orders, by the technothriller king himself have?

  • Multiple meandering plots that barely connect and get in each others way.
  • Characters and scenes that exist solely for the author to give political rants.
  • A main character who exists to give the author a mouthpiece in a position of power.
  • Long descriptions of weaponry.
  • An implausible Middle Eastern superstate that beats up a few local jobbers before being effortlessly crushed by (awesome) American Weaponry.

I rest my case. And if I want to go into obscure works, well, I have the Arab invasion of Ireland or the aircraft-carrier spawning Middle Eastern superstate. In terms of plausibility, it really isn’t that much (if at all) worse than other military thrillers. Their wrongs don’t make it right, but at least they’re wrong together.

And in terms of characters and plot, it’s actually better than its contemporaries-especially internet alternate history. The series at least tries to have characters and a conventional plot instead of being purely pseudo-textbook. Whether or not that’s a good idea is a matter of opinion, but it earnestly tries. And it’s definitely not the only tale to star paper-thin and/or strawman characters. The prose is still clunky, but that’s both true of a lot of stories and understandable. The author is an analyst and it can be hard to leave the “analyst mindset” when writing fiction, particularly on a whim.

So what does separate it from the pack? I’d honestly say simple timing, both on my end (it was one of the first technothrillers I really read in depth, alongside Dale Brown) and in general. It was self-published in Lulu and managed to be self-published alternate history that arrived earlier before the Kindle/web machine really got going. Also, at the time, it was both detailed and controversial in the history/military nerd corners of the internet, and you know what they say about bad publicity. And it’s distinct from the “South/Germans win ACW/World War II” divergences that dominate popular alternate history.

But to be fair, I think there still is something that makes it stand out in a dubious way and it’s not the weird divergences or the immortal manipulator contrivance characters (who needs zombie sorceresses?)

The standout element is how ridiculously and incredibly one-sided it is.

Now, far be it from me to say that other thrillers aren’t or can’t be one-sided. They definitely can be and have been. But TBO has work put in to making it one sided. Lots of work. Detailed worldbuilding work on everything from force structure to force competence to technology to politics and constant mentions in-story about how awesome the Americans are.

Any main TBO book will be filled with variants of “The Americans are awesome.” “We can’t attract the attention of the Americans, lest they destroy us awesomely.” “What we can do is nothing compared to what the [awesome] Americans can do.” “The Americans are ruthless and driving (and therefore awesome)” and so on.Likewise, there’s infodumps and conversations galore about how weak their current or potential enemies are compared to them. One one-sided encounter where an American fighter aircraft sinks a missile boat even says “it really wasn’t fair.”

I’ve said multiple times that TBO resembles an “unironic One Punch Man” in terms of how stacked the deck is in favor of its (awesome) Americans. To be fair, there’s battles that are nominally more even because they don’t involve the Americans-only there the clunky writing style really shows and I rarely felt interested. It never felt organic, and in every case I could tell who the winner would be anyway.

So was this worth my kind of fixation on it? Not really, with full hindsight and full knowledge of other books/series’ at the same time or in the same genre. I cannot emphasize enough how much more forgiving of other dubious military thrillers Executive Orders has made me-because if the most mainstream, most popular author in the genre sank that low, could you really blame any of the others?

I wouldn’t recommend anything beyond the original book for casual reading or anything except seeing what happens when an author goes “How can I use a lot of effort and knowledge to remove drama and tension?”.

Still, it’s not the absolute worst ever, and just happens to have been in a prominent place at a prominent time.