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: 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.

 

Review: Agent Lavender

Agent Lavender

I’m going to push my review system to the limit by reviewing a mostly nonviolent alternate history story set in 1970s Britain. But Agent Lavender deserves all the positive recognition it can get.

Icelands

The “Iceland Scale” is simply not suited for something like this. After all, World War III never happens here. And that’s a good thing, especially considering the genre. Alternate history tends to swing to two extremes. Either it appears (especially in mass market fiction) as an often clunky parallel of actual historical events, or (in niche fiction and online postings) as a bunch of events happening for the “thrill of it”, often descending into lurid darkness.

Agent Lavender manages to dodge both these extremes. Yes, in the tumult of Britain in 1970s, stuff happens. But it never spirals out of control or is clearly something contemporary pasted over the date.

Rivets

This “section” is one of the book’s weakest parts. It can get very “inside baseball for nerd aficionados of British political history” at points. Thankfully this doesn’t take the form of clunky infodumps.

Zombie Sorceresses

This is where it gets effective. There’s one implausible divergence, and that’s the main character, Harold Wilson himself. A lot of alternate history tries to make the divergence itself plausible. This shows that an implausible zombie-sorceress induced divergence can work as long as there’s care shown to the aftermath.

The “Wha?”

Agent Lavender probably boasts the best example in this section I’ve seen. The plot and pacing are very, very good. There’s only one small bump in the scenes with Wilson himself that descend into pure goofiness. Other than that, it flows well and avoids a lot of the mistakes.

First, it feels right. This kind of verisimilitude is what makes or breaks alternate history. Parallelism tends not to feel right because it’s easy to tell what event the author is making an analogy of at the expense of accuracy. Lists of events tend not to feel right because they feel very clunky and artificial. An integrated, grounded story like this may not be right (After all, it has the one big divergence and I’m not exactly the best expert on 1970s British politics), but it feels right, and that’s what matters.

Second, the research is done to benefit the story, rather than the story being done to show off the research. Which is to say, it’s integrated to aid the feel of the plot and only dwelled on when necessary rather than just being shoved out in infodumps. The most infodumpy parts are placed in a section at the end where they don’t interfere with the main novel.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Agent Lavender is probably the finest work of alternate history and one of the best political novels I’ve read. It’s not perfect, but what is? I highly recommend it.

Review: Long Reach

Long Reach

What do you get when you take the scrambling paradigm of the post-1991 technothriller, a country that was always on a lower ‘tier’ to start with, and an interesting prose style? This. Long Reach by Mike Lunnon-Wood tells the story of a Guatemalan invasion of Belize, one of the British Western Hemisphere flashpoints-a far cry from the goofball Libyan-Palestinian invasion of Ireland in Dark Rose.

It’s an example of a story I wasn’t the fondest of personally, but can still see as well done.

Icelands

Long Reach follows the formula of the ‘national-scale’ cheap thriller fairly well. Viewpoint hopping, crisis, the like. That it has to be a British-scaled cheap thriller means everything has to be toned down compared to an American-scaled one, so it handles it.

Rivets

This book does have a lot of rivet-counting, although it’s mostly a symptom of the overall prose. I’ll talk about that more in “The ‘Wha?'”.

Zombie Sorceresses

Except for a bit of logistical handwaving on both sides to help smooth things along, the zombie sorceresses actually don’t have much to do here. They needed a break after Dark Rose, and they got one, for which I’m sure they’re grateful.

The “Wha?”

The plot is what it is and the characters are mostly flat, but the prose has the same issues Dark Rose has-it’s this (to me) overly lush, overly detailed, overly Hemingway-esque writing style that feels a little iffy for the boom-boom cheap thriller it is.

Thankfully, it’s a lot better paced and cohesive than Dark Rose.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is a somewhat tricky one. For all its issues, Long Reach is not badly written, and it manages to dodge a lot of issues that could have sunk it. The enemy is more plausible, the action detailed, and for all the prose gets clunky, it could have been worse. It’s readable and conceptually interesting. After all, if American post-1991 military thrillers had to struggle with scaling down their opponents, British ones with a smaller base had to go even lower.

I just didn’t find it the best myself, because of personal quibbles with his writing style. But it’s both more plausible and better-paced than Dark Rose, and you could do a lot worse if you wanted a military cheap thriller.

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: Stand To

Andy Farman’s Armageddon’s Song series starts with Stand-To, published in 2013. It’s-something. It tries to be a post-USSR thriller, but that description does not do it justice. It’s something. I’ll put it that way.

Icelands

The spy-novel intro is out-there, but then it manages to devolve into a sort of meta-WWIII against a Sino-Russian alliance, diverging from formula via pure spectacle and some very bizzare national alignments.

Rivets

Stand To might as well be the rivet capital of the world. It has, especially after the war starts, infodump after infodump after infodump after infodump after infodump after infodump after infodump after infodump after-you get the idea. I’ve seen outright pseudo-historical summaries that have fewer infodumps than this. Far fewer.

Infodumps on everything from artillery trajectories to squad tactics to equipment to chemical suits to chemical paper to radar types to training to repeated rants about how the British military is underfunded and underequipped are tossed clunkily onto the pages.

Zombie Sorceresses

This book opens with a ridiculous spy-novel plot involving femme fatales so tasteless and ridiculous they’d be rejected from an Austin Powers movie, and just incredible sleaze as tasteless as it is ridiculous. Then once the war actually starts, well, it has a Slavic ex-Soviet republic, deeply divided, with parts of it allying with the Russians but the bulk of it siding with the West.

It’s Belarus. That other big former SSR you might have thought was the culprit from the description is barely present, but the Czechs have flipped and are the spearhead of the enemy into Western Europe (so that the opening lines can still be in Germany).

Then there’s plot-nukes that open the war but don’t distract from the chemical-conventional clashes (and infodumps). The zombie sorceresses were very busy here.

The “Wha”?

First, the prose isn’t very good. There’s typos galore, everything is spelled out in amazing detail, and it makes gory deaths seem yawn-inducing. Second, the characters zig-zag from the raunchy spy novel caricatures of the opening to the flat infodumped “there to provide an anchor for the action and nothing else” ones of the proper war. Even when there’s a hint of personal struggle, it’s right back to more infodumps.

Second, the entire story takes a 180 turn from the bad spy novel tone to the infodumpalicious actual war.

The Only Score That Really Matters

And yet I felt amused by this. This is raw, unpolished, unfiltered-something. It earnestly combines infodumpy “boom boom goes the tank” action with sleazy spy novel stuff. It honestly felt a little novel in its excess. This kind of fiction at its worst tends to be either ultra-infodumped and over-researched or slapdash with stuff done for the fun of it. Stand To somehow manages to be both at the same time.

For normal readers, I wouldn’t recommend it. But for someone like me who enjoys such spectacles, it was amazing. It takes a lot of effort to shock me with too many infodumps, but this managed.

 

Review: Chieftains

Chieftains

Chieftains is an early WWIII novel (published in 1982, likely written before that) starring the titular tanks. I figured it’d be good for an initial review, as it falls nicely in the middle. It’s well-known but isn’t quite on the same level as some of the “classics” like Red Storm Rising itself. It’s also more in the middle literature-wise.

Icelands

Chieftains actually avoids many of the tropes that would make up the Iceland scale. It stays concentrated on the ground and ends in a nuclear blast. However, I believe this to more the result of its early publication, before the genre really gelled, than any degree of brilliance on Forrest-Webb’s part. It does have a lot of hopping viewpoints, mostly for the worse.

Rivets

The rivet-counting doesn’t (mostly) go into too much detail about which battalion went where, but it does go into heavy technical detail with unit designations and gun barrel sizes. Here’s where the sloppy, uneven quality of the book comes into being. The descriptions of British equipment are mostly accurate, but the American and Soviet equipment descriptions-aren’t. Especially with hindsight.

An East German Su-15 (an interceptor that served only in the specialized Soviet Air Defense Force, and which would never flown over foreign soil), fires an AA-8 missile (in reality a light air to air missile), at a ground target, to give one particularly egregious example. All sorts of prototypes and prototype names get to the front, and there’s even occasionally something like pure sloppiness, with a reference to a “T-60” tank. Including a lot of the detail and getting it wrong just seems pretty dubious-either do the research or be less “specific”.

Zombie Sorceresses

The zombie sorceresses are mostly in the background here. The war starting is glossed over, and the final nuclear blast is vague enough to not fall into my pet peeve of “plot-nukes”. To its credit, the explanation for the war starting is vague and contrived, (NATO will soon climb out of its pit and the Soviets must strike when they can) but still handwaved past quickly to get to the action. This is well-handled, and the low-level focus of the book keeps their hands from showing.

The “Wha?”

Like with the technical details, Chieftains is wildly inconsistent in literary terms. The same trend holds. British scenes and characters are mostly good, while the Americans are less so, to put it mildly. Given how Forrest-Webb portrays the Americans, I shudder to think at how he would have handled Soviet viewpoint characters. Thankfully, he doesn’t have them. The characters are serviceable by tank novel standards, and the disruptions are never that immense-the story still flows, and flows very well in spite of them. It does end too quickly even given the circumstances-its ending is like if Dr. Strangelove stopped right after the guy rode the bomb down.

The entire American segment could be cut without hurting anything. The occasional cut away from the British tank unit could be cut without hurting anything. And, finally, the “capture scene” could definitely be cut.

The action is gritting, bloody, and effective-except for the “capture scene” where the tank regiment’s commander is captured, has a flashback to sleeping with a colleague’s wife after being told of it by his interrogators, gets shot, gets up, and then shoots up the camp like an action hero, killing his torturer in a cinematic way with grenades. It’s out of place. Very out of place.

A small issue is the tone. A lot of the time it has an implicit anti-war tone simply by showing the brutality and gore first-hand, but it has a clashing explicit “this is why we need more money for the Army the politicians starved” message sometimes that also gets in the way. Bigger than that by far is the prose. Forrest-Webb’s writing is kind of clunky and he loves his exclamation points a little too much.

The Only Score That Really Matters

I liked this book. It’s a good tale of tanks exploding, and it’s got a degree of real grit to it that a lot of otherwise well-written books don’t have. I would have loved it if it wasn’t for the unevenness and sloppiness. But the sloppiness is there, and while some of the unevenness is forgivable, more of it is not.

This is a good tale, but it could have been a great one with some polish that it simply doesn’t have.