Review: Red Storm Rising

Red Storm Rising

This is it. For my fiftieth post on Fuldapocalypse, I’m going to review one of the tentpoles. Red Storm Rising is something I’ve written about before, but I figure it’s time to review this classic. And it’s very hard-surprisingly hard, even, to review.

This is because, while I have an interest in the subject, I have almost the exact opposite knowledge and life context than a member of the target audience back in 1987 would have had.

Who and What

A terror attack that knocks out the USSR’s biggest oil refinery triggers a Third World War. The Soviets invade Western Europe and Iceland. It stays conventional throughout the of the book, and we see characters from all branches and ranks throughout. To me it’s a basic outline for World War III tales. To a reader back in 1987, it would be fresh and fascinating, especially from someone whose only view of recent war was Vietnam.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This book does get infodumpy. However, once again, I think it’s worth noting to the context. To someone like me, it tends to be either noticing an understandable inaccuracy in the infodump or going “Ok, I know what a Motor Rifle Regiment is, you don’t have to explain” (or something like that).

A layman reading this in 1987 would not have the same issues at all.

Zombie Sorceresses

Now this is the weakest part, whether it be in 1987 or today. The cause-and-effect clunkiness of “Lose the refinery, our oil-exporting economy is smashed”, “we need to seize the Middle East”, and “But NATO could stop us so we need to invade Europe first” is the weakest part of the book. The Politburo scene is cringeworthy in the extreme.

Sometimes a ‘handwave’ is necessary, but Clancy dwelled on it for too long. Red Army has a few chapters of preparation but is deliberately vague on how the war started, while Team Yankee uses Hackett’s backstory but doesn’t go into detail, starting the action very quickly. This lingers too long, but not to a truly monstrous degree.

The other one, the invasion of Iceland, is something that’s actually handled well in the book. It’s a jury-rigged expedition that barely succeeds because of how unexpected and out-of-character it is. The issues of supplying and reinforcing such a distant holding are not shied away from.

Tank Booms

From a later reader who was born in 1991, the action is merely middle-of-the-road at best.

For someone in 1987 who hasn’t read this kind of book before, it’s, if nothing else novel. This is, I think, the biggest reason the book hasn’t aged so well, and it’s not Clancy or Bond’s fault. Here are all these new things for someone whose last image of war was Hueys flopping around in the jungle: Nuclear submarines! Tomahawks! Nuclear submarines with Tomahawks! M1 tanks! Reactivated battleships! Smart weapons! Stealth Aircraft!

Then comes the Gulf War and every subsequent intervention where these things become simply routine and normal. The novelty factor is completely lost on a modern reader, especially a wargame-informed one.

Speaking of wargaming, the classic Harpoon board game was used in its creation, blending two elements that have always been close together. It’s at least interesting as an example of different media types joining together.

The Only Score That Really Matters

So, I want to give an unbiased evaluation of Red Storm Rising. Completely without context, it’s a somewhat middling story that isn’t the best in the genre but is still better than a lot of the lesser copycats.

In context, it’s an extremely important work, even if it influenced a niche more than mainstream thrillers. This was one of the commercial high points of the ‘conventional WWIII’ niche, and it’s still good enough to easily be worth checking out.

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!

Review: Stone MIA Hunter

Stone: MIA Hunter

Stone: MIA Hunter is an incredibly 1980s cheap thriller that kicked off an entire series of 1980s cheap thrillers.

Who and What

This stars hero Mark Stone as he hunts for MIAs. And gets set up by the CIA. And beats up drug dealers with martial arts (I told you it was very 1980s). And travels around the world, from Asia to California to Central America to back to Asia.

The characters never progress beyond cheap thriller stock ones (not that it’s that bad) and the constant stream of world travel is a little disruptive to the narrative.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Its infodumps are in the weird “middle of the road” part that affects the rest of the book. And it calls LAW rockets “Light Artillery Weapons”. Multiple times.

Zombie Sorceresses

Think of how much effort a zombie sorceress would need to make a 1980s action movie work, and you have what they need in this book.

Tank Booms

So the action in this isn’t bad, even if it’s not up to the higher standards of other cheap thrillers (it feels so weird saying that). It’s just in a strange place. Maybe it’s just the writing style (while the first book in the series, it’s far from the first book author Stephen Mertz wrote in the genre), but it’s in this awkward middle in terms of plot and tone.

It’s definitely not intended to be a grounded, gritty action-adventure story. But it doesn’t have the full pull out all the stops crazy gonzo action either. The martial arts vs drug dealers comes close, but the climax is less goofy.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is a fun throwaway action novel. It’s far from the best, but I enjoyed it for what it was anyway.

Unstructured Review: The Survivalist

Having completed the Herculean task of finishing the entire Survivalist series, I figured it would be ideal for my first unstructured review. The “formal” parts can be found in my reviews of Total War and Pursuit, and not that much has changed in terms of zombie sorceress contrivance or rivet-counting detail.

The first nine books are good fun for anyone who likes 80s cheap thrillers, and the overall arc provided the series with a natural stopping point. The Rourke family and friends ride out the fire wave around the world in suspended animation, and they wake up to await the return of the Eden Project, a similarly suspended group of people launched into space just before the nuclear war to return a long time later.

Ideally, they’d ensure the safe return (with Billy Thorpe’s “Children of the Sun” blaring? 😛 ) and that would be that.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Instead, after the tenth book, the series felt increasingly less post-apocalyptic and more self-indulgent. Ahern could finally write the sci-fi he wanted to, and the books felt like an author’s toy box. This is not a bad thing at all by itself-after all, more than two dozen books of Rourke flopping around in the wilderness would have felt monstrously dull and samey in its own right. However, the hearts of the books are still close combat with laboriously described pistols, bullets, and knives. It’s just occuring around a backdrop that by the end involves Nazi mad scientists, memory-implanted clones, and hypersonic fighter aircraft.

The soap-opera serial nature meant a clear-cut possible ending never emerged again after the ninth book (even the finale is kind of rushed). The characters almost never have to scavenge and can fish from convenient arsenals. The world has a “Fallout game” problem of everything working after sitting for centuries (and of course, everyone using either real or replica versions of centuries-old equipment). Convenient underground and underwater cities emerge when the plot calls for it. The series never was “plausible” and had ridiculous geology from the get-go, but the parade of gimmicks still felt contrived.

The rough and tumble charm of the first few books is gone and the sci-fi action stuff doesn’t quite rise to the level of replacing it. If I had to give a reason, it’s a sort of “have the cake and eat it too” effect where there’s all this supertech but still the good old familiar (and of course, exactly infodumped) weapons. The science fiction tone isn’t really that much of a problem, but I still liked the original postapocalyptic one better and have read better military science fiction than the weird hybrid Ahern made.

And then there are the fundamentals. They don’t get that much worse, but often they weren’t the best to start with. That Ahern wasn’t afraid to shake up the character relationships and kill an important character off is a good thing. That Ahern devoted a lot of time to characters pondering about their lives and continued a love triangle for muuuuch longer than he should have is not. For the action and prose, Ahern’s definitely not the worst, but he doesn’t really try to grow that much.

The later books are still readable and still have the action feel -if they didn’t, I wouldn’t have finished them-, but the series definitely goes past the point of diminishing returns after the ninth or tenth book and the lack of “compartmentalization” means they’re less enjoyable on their own.

_ _ _ _ _ _

I’d only really recommend the first nine books to cheap thriller fans. I must emphasize I don’t want to be too hard on the later ones in spite of my critique. A much better author would still struggle with keeping quality up over a very, very long series. Ahern was clearly writing the way he liked and was making a sincere effort to be different. The books kept flowing well and did not devolve into total clunkers like say, later Tom Clancy ones.

But they’re still less interesting and unless one is really into Ahern’s writing or is determined to see the overall plot through to the end, I’d say that there’s better sci-fi or contemporary action novels out there than the later Survivalist novels. Still, nine fun goofy over the top cheap thrillers isn’t bad.

 

Review: Flight of the Old Dog

Flight of the Old Dog

Dale Brown has always put the “techno” in “technothriller”, and his first book, Flight of the Old Dog, sets the formula while being very enjoyable.

Icelands

This has the usual technothriller cliches of supervillain Soviets and clunky political wrangling. Where it’s slightly different is Brown’s willingness to take a small leap in terms of supertech and his focus largely on just the titular B-52 and its crew.

Rivets

The rivet-counting and super-detail I knew from Brown’s later work is there and in full bloom. But it doesn’t feel as bad in this installment, because Brown’s experience as a bomber crewman makes the descriptions feel smoother and creating a sense of immediacy.

Zombie Sorceresses

The big zombie sorceress intervention in this book is the technology. The super B-52, space station, and the Soviet superlaser it targets are all the biggest contrivances. There’s also the “have a small ragtag team of _________ to take it on” effect, but that’s handled pretty well.

The “Wha?”

The characters aren’t anything to write home about, but the plot, cliche as it is, is brisk and flows quickly. Flight of the Old Dog remains a good example of how to do a superweapon vs. superweapon story right.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Dale Brown’s first book is, in my opinion, his best. It has the super-aircraft action that’s his trademark, but it also avoids most of the excess that his later novels have. In terms of 80s action technothrillers, his debut remains a rightful classic of the genre.

Review: Pursuit

Pursuit

Pursuit is the thirteenth(!) installment in Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series, the first of which, Total War, I reviewed earlier on this very blog. The Survivalist changed dramatically from start to finish, and Pursuit is representative of this change.

Icelands

Well, on one hand, Pursuit has the series at a crossroads between the pure post-apocalyptic survival it was in the earliest books and the sci-fi action it would become in the latest ones, with the only constant being Rourke shooting lots of people with his beloved Detonics pistols. It has action novel cliches but little else. Certainly a story that starts with the main character piloting a high-tech one-crew “minitank” and ends with a visit to a geothermally fueled paradise colony doesn’t seem like it has much in common with Clancy or Bond…

-But on the other hand, most of it takes place in Iceland. And the Soviets invade Iceland! And it was published one year before Red Storm Rising to boot!

So it’s literally Icelandic. 😛

Rivets

The rivet-counting is reduced to sci-fi infodumps and the usual exact detailed descriptions of firearms anyone who read the series will know as routine by now.

Zombie Sorceresses

Now it gets crazy. Ahern, to achieve his dream of writing backdoor sci-fi with a publisher who wanted modern action adventure, set a massive chain of events in motion. An atmospheric fire-wave would destroy most life on the surface.

Rourke and his family/friends acquired a suspended animation serum and used it after entering his underground “retreat”, leading to a five hundred year time skip. Since then, survivors from other underground shelters (including in the Soviet Union) and from the Western “Eden Project” launched into outer space to return five hundred years later, have repopulated the world, giving Rourke more targets to shoot plot opportunities.

The result was a tech-boost and a supply boost.

The “Wha?”

Now this part isn’t really changed. It’s still ridiculous 80s action, and there’s still some survival there. However, the characters have solidified and so has the series financially. Since by Ahern’s own admission it was a “soap opera”, get ready for cliffhanger endings and long meta-arcs. And soap opera character drama, including things like Rourke’s selective use of the suspended animation process to age his children up to pair them off with fellow adventurers he wasn’t related to (and, conveniently, get them to action hero age), and his wife’s dislike of that.

What has changed, and it’s a gradual change that has progressed ever since Rourke found his way back to the “Retreat”, is that it becomes less and less about actual survival and especially scrounging.

The Only Score That Really Matters

If you’ve made it through the twelve previous books in the Survivalist series, you probably know what to expect. It’s 80s action, and it grows ever more fantastical and less directly post-apocalyptic with each installment.

It’s something, and in this case it was an Icelandic something.

 

 

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.

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.

 

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.

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.