Review: SEAL Team Seven

SEAL Team Seven

st7 coverjpg

This book about a certain amphibious special forces unit is quite possibly one of the best 1990s military/techno-thrillers I’ve read. It spawned a huge series, and I can see why. SEAL Team Seven is very, very good.

The book tells the story of Lt. Blake Murdock, the son of a powerful political family (while present, the clunky politics in this book aren’t too bad) and his titular team as they’re called to action in a big crisis. Because this is a 90s thriller, the antagonists are a zombie sorceress-assisted mix of renegade Japanese and renegade Iranians who’ve taken control of a freighter loaded with plutonium. SEAL Team Seven has good fundamentals and manages to have its cake and eat it too.

It starts with a well-written battle in post-Desert Storm Iraq. Then the opening act introduces and humanizes the characters. When the main conflict starts, the action is highly well done and manages, for the most part, just the right mixture of “grounded” and “fantastical”.

SEAL Team Seven isn’t literary fiction or anything like that, it’s still ultimately just a cheap thriller that has a lot of cheap thriller components and cliches. But it’s an excellent cheap thriller.

Review: Fortunes of War

Fortunes of War

While Stephen Coonts is one of the classic technothriller writers, I’d actually never read any one of his books in full until now. Picking Fortunes of War, a late 1990s technothriller after his sales had peaked, is kind of like wanting to start listening to Yes with Big Generator.

Now that that shoved-in prog rock reference is out of the way, I was interested in this because of its depiction of a second Russo-Japanese War. One of my Command Live scenarios deals with such a thing itself, so I was curious to see how a spectacularly successful author handled it.

Who and What

Let’s see, an unconventional opponent (Japan) with some sort of super-gimmick weapon (Super fighter aircraft),  attacks a helpless Russia for zombie-sorceress induced reasons. This is very 1990s technothriller. In fact, this is one of the most 1990s technothrillers that ever technothrilled in the 1990s, even more so than poster child Cauldron. The 90s contrivances are there, and the technothriller “snapshot and superweapons” model, going from aircraft to submarines to dogfights to knife/fistfights is there.

Apart from that, it’s a little iffy with characterization (even by the standards of the genre). The American “Volunteer” F-22 pilots are too numerous and the book too short to really examine in depth. One final bit of serendipity happens in this novel. The villainous Japanese Prime Minister is named “Abe“-I was reminded of The Hunt For Red October having a “Putin” in it as well.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This is slightly less infodumpy than the absolute worst the genre has to offer, although it’s still very, very description-heavy. One interesting part is that Coonts can leverage two pieces of genuine but “new enough to be exotic and techno-thrillery” technology-the F-22 and JDAM-style munitions.

Zombie Sorceresses

Ok. Apart from the geopolitics (Belligerent Japan, Russia being worse than it was even at its 1990s nadir), and the technology, the big zombie sorceress contrivance is in nuclear weapons. Russia has disarmed (almost) all of its nuclear weapons as a foreign aid condition so that the conventional invasion of Siberia, but kept a few for the plotnuke climax. Japan has developed a few in secret, also for the plotnuke climax.

Tank Booms

There are two types of action scenes in this book. The first are the aerial combat scenes, something which the Distinguished Flying Cross recipient Coonts knows very well. The second are the technothriller/action scenes like fistfights or anti-submarine warfare that he doesn’t have as much firsthand experience with. And it shows.

Even the former are let down a little by a few too many exact-detailed “and the missile exploded in exactly 2,003 fragments, turning the enemy plane into 1,200 fragements and its pilot into 320 fragements” scenes.

The Only Score That Really Matters

By the standards of 1990s technothrillers, this is very good for what it is. It’s technically competent and has its authors expertise in his subject matter carry it above the pack. But in some ways it feels more artificially stilted, like its creator’s most vigorously creative days are behind it. So, suspiciously like 1980s Yes (to swing back to progressive rock).

Still, it makes me want to check out Coonts’ earlier books, and that’s endorsement enough for me.

Review: Death Watch

Death Watch

So, after over two dozen books, the Survivalist series came to a close with 1993’s “Death Watch.” In some ways, the series was lucky to have progressed for as long as it did. Similarly to the technothriller, the action-adventure genre that typified Jerry Ahern’s other work declined massively in mainstream popularity when the Berlin Wall fell, with many series (always ‘cheaper’ and lower-margin than the likes of Clancy and Dale Brown) getting outright cancelled.

So surviving for two years after the end of the USSR and getting a proper conclusion instead of just a pulled plug made the Survivalist a lucky series. But the end was overdue.

Who and What

By this point, the increasingly science fiction Survivalist series has stopped being remotely post-apocalyptic in any fashion. There’s the world-threatening ‘catastrophe’ of the week, the secret supervillain lairs, the Nazi mad scientist and his pre-programmed clones, and so on.

Long series tend to fall into three general, understandable pits. One is simple repetition of what happened before. One is what I like to call, after Bill Hicks’ classic Gulf War joke, the “Elite Republican Guard” effect, where the antagonists become less credible-seeming. The other, a reference to a Twilight 2000 module, is what I call “Arkansas vs. The Blimps”, where they grow more outlandish as a way of avoiding repetition. The blimp effect isn’t always bad and can sometimes be beneficial.

By the time of “Death Watch”, all three were in effect. The repetitive parts were more small-scale (and worthy of being covered in different sections), while the other two were bigger. The “Elite Republican Guard” is embodied by, in the face of this supposed peril, a decent-sized passage being devoted to the main character’s wedding, and said wedding being handled nonchalantly. “Arkansas vs. The Blimps” is the sci-fi subject matter.

And the book is kind of rushed. Everything is resolved in one book, and the final denouement is just one chapter at the end.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Ahern’s long description of weaponry keeps coming back. For instance, one passage describing a character at the wedding lists the gun they have, the brand of the gun they have, the caliber of the gun they have, and the brand of holster that they have.  This is not an aberration.

Zombie Sorceresses

The Survivalist has always been zombie sorceress heavy, but the later sci-fi parts made it reach new heights. It went from “pulpy post-apocalyptic” to “pulpy sci-fi with action-adventure scenes and familiar weapons.”

Tank Booms

The action hasn’t gotten any worse over the last 26 books, but it hasn’t really gotten much better either. While still good by cheap thriller standards, if someone like me was crazy enough to read all the books in a row, well, I’ll just say it felt awfully repetitive to have Rourke shoot a guy with his Detonics for the 500000000000000000th time. And I don’t think the best author in the world could have improved it (not like that author would have written a 27 book long cheap thriller epic)

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is the final installment of a decade-long soap opera which has the usual problems of something moving too slow suddenly forced to wrap up quickly. The Survivalist series, in my opinion, should have ended around the tenth or eleventh book. The main characters survived, ensured the future of humanity, and accomplished the clear goal. Instead it was followed by more than a dozen books of sci-fi-with-Colt.45-soap-opera-adventure.

While the later Survivalist books are interesting to look at, I’d be loath to actually recommend them to all but the most devoted Jerry Ahern and/or “weird pulpy fiction” fans. And Death Watch symbolizes the later books at their most er, “different”.

 

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.

 

Review: Thunder of Erebus

Thunder of Erebus

Thunder of Erebus may just be the technothrillerest technothriller that ever technothrilled. I’ll probably eat those words, but I don’t say this lightly either. And it’s not a bad thing.

Who and What

The book features a Soviet-American battle in Antarctica over a rare element. When reading it, I checked all the technothriller boxes. Land battle! Air Battle! Sea Battle! Soviets who only really win anything with their zombie sorceress superweapons! Viewpoint characters galore!

But more importantly, this was the clearest kind of technothriller that really emphasized the “techno-” part. Technology is both the goal and the process, be it real platforms or the ASBM-torpedo dispensers. By being so blatant, it cleared up a very blurry genre.

And the prose is-interesting. There’s a lot of flowery descriptions that made me smile, starting with  someone being “So thin that his polyester uniform seemed to be draped on a coat hanger instead of a human frame”, and only getting ‘better’ from there. Despite (or because of) this, it flowed well, which is good because…

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Not only does the “technothriller trope bingo” extend to infodumps, this book also has an infodump that states that an infantry division with the word “light” in its name is, in fact, a light infantry division. Yes.

Zombie Sorceresses

There’s every contrivance needed to have a giant battle take place in Antarctica.

Tank Booms

There are M1 tanks booming in Antarctica, and boomer submarines booming, and aircraft booming. The “maximum technothriller” and “flowery prose” apply to the battles as well.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is it. A 1991 (year of the USSR’s collapse) maximum technothriller. Everything technothrillery in one package. I didn’t find the cliches grating-I found them, and the book, entertaining.

Review: Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet

Steel Gauntlet is Starfist at its most cheesy ridiculous. Take the MARINE FIGHTING MAN bias and add a bunch of other hangups and you get this book.

Who and What

So, the MARINES are sent to deal with a power struggle where Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr has rebuilt an army of ancient, previously forgotten vehicles called “tanks” and used them to seize total control of a resource-rich world. Once they get past the weasely politicians and non-MARINES, the MARINES have to fight a giant tank army. And I use the term “tank army” literally.

You have the MARINES, the non-MARINE weasels, the puppy cute space pet-kicking (literally) supervillain, the damsel in distress.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

There are more than a few infodumps here, and not just of the “MARINES awesome, other branches bad” variety. The infodumps about the past of armored warfare in-universe are particularly cringeworthy-especially since I detected an author rant at more than one point.

Basically, tanks never tried to counter increasingly penetrative ATGMs through indirect means (active protection systems, jammers, or just better tactics), instead plopping armor on until the “M1D7” reached 360 tons, twice as much as the infamously unworkable Maus. It could barely move and the “Straight Arrow” anti-tank thingies smashed it anyway. Although in what I hope was a typo, the “Straight Arrow’s” stated penetration value is equal or less than second-tier Cold War ATGMs like the Dragon and Metis.

So tanks went bye-bye, until now. Now having to face “new” tanks, these centuries-old weapons (which are infodumped as having a guidance system, but are treated as ordinary bazookas in-practice) are reverse-engineered, so it’s like fighting people wearing armor with reverse-engineered big muskets.

Zombie Sorceresses

Well, the contrivances run very high here. The MARINE FIGHTING MEN have to face challenges, but the enemy has to behave in a way that doesn’t actually diminish the MARINE FIGHTING MEN. There’s a lot of “Oh look how much danger they’re in” statements that don’t sound credible, to put it mildly.

Tank Booms

There are lots of tanks booming. Their guns boom, and they boom when they explode. In the category of literal tank booms, this book has even Team Yankee or Tin Soldiers beat.

The action is not bad, but most of the first three-quarters of the book involve MARINE FIGHTING MEN destroying unsupported tank formations. The enemy artillery is stuff mounted on tanks, the enemy “infantry” is mentioned as dismounted tank crewmen (who still fall victim to our heroes as easily as their rides do), and the enemy tanks are prey for the MARINES. There’s a ridiculous “copy an amphibious landing with hovercraft” scene at the start which just seems redundant given that they’re landing from space.

The gap between theoretical and actually perceived danger is very big in this book. There’s lots of “Oh no, the undersupported MARINES are facing enemy reinforcements” statements, but almost every battle is just them hitting badly-handled tank-pure formations and wrecking them.

Then (after yet another swipe at the non-MARINE branches), the final act consists of a cloak and dagger plot and chasing Space Corporate Saddam Stand-In Marston St. Cyr himself through the mining tunnels. Here it declines a bit, as the axe-grinding combat gives way to simply decent-ish cheap thriller action.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is one of the highlights of the Starfist series. Seeing MARINES battle a strawman distorted tank force makes for a delightfully laughable tale. The tropes tip over into unintentional cheesy fun, and the book is all the better for it, helped by better fundamentals than the Starfist series sometimes has.

It moves so far so earnestly that I somehow enjoy it.

 

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.

Review: The War That Never Was

The War That Never Was

After some diversions, it’s time to review something that I had in mind when I started Fuldapocalypse. I knew of Michael Palmer’s The War That Never Was from the Command: Modern Air Naval Operations scenarios based on it. These motivated me to get the book itself. Broadening the scope of Fuldapocalypse has been very good, but this is as “World War III novel” as it gets.

This is something of a cult classic. If works like Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, and Red Army represent the most mainstream that World War III novels got, this, apparently based on the Newport Global War Games, is a more inherently niche, wargamey work. And after reading it, it’s understandable.

Who and What

There’s a sort of semi-plot here. A wargame occurs in-universe in the prologue as a vague husk of a fig leaf of a justification. Then it’s mostly just a detailed sequence of events. The Central Front is mentioned sometimes, but most of the book deals with the events on the periphery-the northern oceans, the Mediterranean, and other theaters. Then there’s an epilogue that’s kind of sour. It’s a mix of political tract, “do you get the point, reader?” infodump, and shining light on the graphene-thin setup. Thankfully the epilogue is very small.

The characters are essentially placeholder names there to command or crew pieces of military equipment and lighten up the “after action report” ever so slightly.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

The entire book is basically one big infodump. But it’s not trying to be anything else, so the question of relevance is tough to answer. I’d say that as much as this sort of thing normally isn’t my style, there isn’t too much pointless infodumping. Yes, there’s detailed infodumps about forces, but the forces fight equally detailed battles.

Zombie Sorceresses

There’s the classic zombie sorceress handwaves of the war starting in the first place (although there’s no political elaboration, something I’m grateful for) and it staying conventional. The latter is even mentioned in the epilogue.

There are a lot of other prospective nitpicks, but the book stays grounded enough that I felt it was unfair to go too much in depth. The wargaming link helps it here. Trying out different, even seemingly low-probability courses of action is one of the reasons wargaming exists, and none of the paths it takes are really that outlandish.

Tank Booms

The book starts with a booming tank battle, but one shouldn’t be fooled. This is in many ways the antithesis of something like Team Yankee. The level of detached detail in this book is so great that it’s little surprise how eagerly Command (and Harpoon, and no doubt other wargame) scenario creators moved to follow it.

So reading a wargame AAR/Let’s Play gives an idea for how most of the battles turn out. Lots of detail, lots of exact detail.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Save for a few “hiccups” and vignettes like the epilogue and a few “character scenes”, The War That Never Was sticks to a niche and is unapologetic about staying there. This book is not for everyone, or even a lot of people. However, it is what it is and it manages to be interesting as a detailed snapshot.

I’ll admit for me there’s a huge “seen so many imitators the original doesn’t seem so original” effect here, but even someone as slanted as me can still appreciate The War That Never Was and its influence.

Review: Battle Front (USA VS Militia)

Ian Slater’s Battle Front spun the 90s Technothriller Opponent Selector Wheel and it landed on “Militias”. While Slater has written some proper World War III novels, this is my first introduction  to him.

Who and What

Now, it wasn’t until sometime in that I found out this was one of the middle books in a five-book series. That explained some of the confusion, but I wasn’t that lost before. There is a Second American Civil War between the federal government and right-wing militias who are both cartoonishly racist puppy kickers and far more competent than they would have any right to be. On the federal government’s side is main character General Mary Sue-I mean, Douglas Freeman.

Now, the book kind of rambles and jumps around, but what was interesting (and good) to me was how it didn’t feel like an axe-grinding polemic. Nor did it feel like a parody either. It takes this crazy setup and plays it completely, sometimes boringly straight. Normally I’d praise a book for not being too political, but it just feels strange. Maybe it’s that the non-American Slater didn’t have a feel for American politics, but that doesn’t explain all of it.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

The book can get kind of infodumpy and it never seems to enter full gritty story mode. Furthermore, a lot of the infodumps are strange and frequently inaccurate (for example, one used ‘TOW’ as a generic term for anti-tank rounds. Not even missiles, rounds).

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses made American militias number in the hundreds of thousands, be unified, and be competent. The latter part required the most zombie sorceress intervention.

Tank Booms

The action is mostly dull and somewhat infodumpy, but it gets the occasional ridiculous moment, like how the evil militia are preternaturally competent (to drive the plot) and the ridiculous stuff like over-effective reactive armor (except it’s described as if it was inert add-on armor) on pickup trucks.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium. Yet I’m a sucker for even a little bit of crazy goofiness. A lot of other readers might not be.

Review: Protect And Defend

Protect And Defend

Protect and Defend by Eric Harry is a very good post-1991 technothriller, albeit one with the issues of the genre. I had mixed feelings about Harry’s Arc Light when I reviewed it here, but enjoy this newer book more.

Icelands

There’s viewpoint hopping, assassination conspiracies, and crisis overload. But there’s also a very novel setting that the ridiculous plot is used to set up-an old-style Chinese army invading the Russian Far East.

Rivets

The gritty infantry combat means the rivet counting is very limited, certainly in comparison with Arc Light. When infodumps happen, they’re generally more relevant.

Zombie Sorceresses

The setup involves an “Anarchist” takeover of Russia and mass assassination of world leaders that leads to an UN force in eastern Siberia, followed by a large Chinese invasion. Ok.

Then when the action starts, both sides have their technology downplayed. China should be several years into its boom-fueled military modernization, yet for the most part it’s treated like a Korean War-era infantry fieldcraft army. The UN, facing such an army, should leverage every technological advantage, but that’s not the focus.

In literary terms this is a good thing (see below), but I still raised an eyebrow more than once at this.

The “Wha?”

Protect and Defend keeps many of the some problems as Arc Light. The tinny, clunky politics get in the way too often. Some of the scenes are a little superfluous, with me thinking “is it really important to show basic training so many times?”.

When it gets to the action, though, it works considerably better. It’s down and dirty infantry combat that, however potentially anachronistic, serves as a nice contrast from the stereotypical technothriller and shows Harry’s resisting the temptation of making it (as Arc Light was) a technological knockout punch . The infantry fighting does get a little too repetitive by the end and the ending itself is kind of abrupt, but those aren’t deal-breakers by any means.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Protect and Defend is one of the better post-1991 military thrillers, and I liked it considerably better than Arc Light. I’d give more credit to changing styles than Harry improving in the fundamentals (although he still did), but the result is what it is-a good cheap thriller if you can get past the setup.