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.

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.

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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.

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[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.

Review: Cauldron

Cauldron

The 1990s were not a good decade for technothrillers in terms of popularity and sales, and in my opinion, no book illustrates the problems they faced more than Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin’s Cauldron. The question of who to fight a World War III against loomed greatly, and the usual suspects had lost all credibility in the immediate post-USSR, post-Gulf War period.

So it was the US against a-French/German nationalist alliance? Ok.

Icelands

While Cauldron obviously doesn’t fit the “Iceland Pattern” of a Russo-American WW3 in terms of direct events, it does follow the story structure greatly. Too greatly, and this is one of the problems that too many post-1991 technothrillers had. With the scope of conflict (usually) shrinking, too many of them decided to be scaled-down great-power thrillers rather than scaled-up adventure thrillers.

Cauldron is more a symptom than a cause of this decline. It has most of the same issues that Bond’s own Red Phoenix struggled with. That book was written during the Cold War and featured a far more realistic opponent, but they both shared a similar formulaic attitude and a “but we have to show battles at land, at sea, and in the air” attitude.

Rivets

It’s infodump city here. Lots of political infodumps, lots of military infodumps, you name it. Par for the course.

Zombie Sorceresses

After December 26, 1991, the zombie sorceresses were at work finding opponents. The problem of what the opponent would be between the fall of the USSR and 9/11 plagued factual researchers as well as fiction writers-one of the most notorious cases I’ve seen was a RAND study that featured a joint Syrian-Iraqi invasion of Turkey (!) as a contingency plan.

Still, the decision to include not just Western Europe, but a cherrypicked part of Western Europe is very zombie sorceress, made all the worse by Bond’s decision to have a lengthy political intro. This means the implausibility is dwelled on rather than handwaved past.

The “Wha”?

Ok, so Cauldron has a laundry list of issues that plague the genre. It’s as if Bond was trying deliberately to chain them.

  • Having the story be self-contained in one book. This is a valid stylistic choice, a necessity given traditional publishing, and most of the time is a better alternative to the bloated series where nothing happens (see my Axis of Evil review for an example of that). But it means space is at a premium. The later points show how the book wastes that precious space.
  • There’s a too-long opening act. There’s no surprise at the outcome (in a book about a war, a war starts), and the political maneuvering isn’t well written.
  • Even once the action starts, there’s a checklist to fit land, sea, and air clashes all in one book, getting in each other’s way.
  • The entire Russian subplot is both clunky and pointless, an example of too many plots for ones own good.
  • The prose, while not terrible, gets a little too clunky and rivet counter-esque for its own good.

Beyond that, very little can rise above that. There are some tales where massive flaws can be forgiven because the good things are equally spectacular. Cauldron goes from iffy to merely decent-in action and characters.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Completely in isolation, Cauldron is a middle of the road technothriller with all the faults and features of one. But in context, it serves as a picture-perfect example of a genre that was fading from its height, shifting from mainstream to enthusiast fiction. Most of this was due to political and cultural factors beyond its control. But Bond’s literary choices didn’t help.

The shift to being more niche would have consequences for later WWIII/army thrillers, but that’s a subject for another time.