Review: Fire Ant

Fire Ant

Jonathan Brazee has been prolific with his books, and so, not knowing where to start at first, I decided to simply jump into one of several. Fire Ant, telling the story of a woman explorer pilot turned fighter pilot in the far future, is an excellent sci-fi thriller tale.

Who and What

The story follows the saga of a pilot who has the long name of “Floribeth Salinas O’Shea Dalisay” but is thankfully just called “Beth” for most of the book. A corporate exploration pilot, Beth finds aliens, escapes from them, and gets sucked into the military as a fighter pilot, facing even more action.

It’s a simple plot but an effective one. Likewise, the characters, including Beth herself, are simple but as effective as they need to be for the sake of the story.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Unfortunately, there are a few too many infodumps. Some are forgivable in terms of defining the mechanics of the universe, but some are less so. None are that bad, but it could have used a little more showing and a little less telling.

Zombie Sorceresses

This is the kind of book for whom the “zombie sorceress” scale isn’t that suitable. Enough contrivances to set up a science fiction tale are there, simple as that.

Tank Booms

The action here is crisp and involved. Moreover, Brazee manages a balancing act of keeping the tale mostly “soft” in science fiction terms without going all the way to “historical but with blaster rays”. It’s an impressive accomplishment.

The Only Score That Really Matters

If you want starfighter action that pushes a little, you can’t go wrong with Fire Ant. I certainly enjoyed it.

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.

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.

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.

Review: Operation Arctic Storm

World War 1990: Operation Arctic Storm

I have a little bit of queasiness towards reviewing self-published ebooks. Often they’re, even if well-intended, lacking in quality. I’ve felt I’ve made too many sneery reviews of internet fiction that wasn’t even commercialized, and want to move towards being fair.

That being said, I’d gotten William Stroock’s World War 1990: Operation Arctic Storm long before I started this blog, so it wasn’t like I’d just plucked it out. I should have known what I was getting into, because I’d read another book by the same author that was as dubiously written as it was one-sided.

So why review it? Well, because it’s organically bad, and that for all I want to review good fiction, I need something to compare it with. Plus there’s one scene that’s something I wanted to share because of its ridiculousness.

Icelands

This is a pretty “Icelandic” tale (Soviets start, conference room infodumps, etc…), not helped by the portrayal of the Soviets that somehow manages to make Tom Clancy at his worst look like Tolstoy.

Rivets

Stroock listed a long series of references and advisors at the beginning of the book. They did not help in making it accurate, and especially failed in making it un-stereotypical. There are technical inaccuracies that range from small nitpicks (elite paratroopers and SPF still using “AK-47s” instead of “74s” in 1990?) to massive ones (see the “Zombie Sorceresses” section below) and the dialogue is extra-clunky.

There isn’t that much “The T-64BV1K was hit by an M829A1 round”-style exact equipment specification infodumps, but that’s only a small silver lining.

Zombie Sorceresses

Besides keeping the war conventional, the zombie sorceresses also make the Soviet advance into Germany stopped at the Weser very quickly. This by itself isn’t that implausible. This is 1990, at the absolute height of NATO’s power.

What is more implausible, not to mention slanted (and then some) is the one-sidedness of how they were stopped. Apart from treating GSFG 1990 equipment like Iraqi export equipment, there’s things like a single fourteen-tank company of Abrams’ being able to hold off a whole operational maneuver group for half a day. Worse, in the highlight battle, Soviet paratroopers lose to armed civilian Alaskans.

The “Wha?”

The plot and pacing of this book is clunky. It’s about half tinny infodumping by stereotypes and about half poorly written battles. And they intersect, with the initial halt of the West German invasion being told via a Politburo infodump that is written with such “fervor” that I was nostalgic for the Politburo infodump at the beginning of Red Storm Rising.

But there’s one scene-one scene that pushes the book into the surreal, and was the tipping point for me writing this review.

That’s a scene where the Soviet paratroopers in Alaska find someone’s NES and play various video games, including Tecmo Super Bowl (which is mislabeled as Super Tecmo Bowl). It’s either a clunky effort at comic relief or just there to be there.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Ok, there’s no other way to say this. This book is to WWIII novels what Plan 9 From Outer Space and The Room are to movies. Something so bad it becomes slightly amusing, at least to gluttons for punishment like me.

I’m very reluctant to call something the “worst ever”-I’ve used that term in the past with far too much shortsighted hyperbole. But it’s definitely one of the worst World War III stories I’ve read. At least it gave us Soviet paratroopers playing Tecmo Super Bowl.

Review: Line of Control

I decided to go on a hunt for new thrillers. By chance when looking them up, I found Line of Control by Mainak Dhar, where after coups in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, they ally to reheat the conflict with India. This was an Indian technothriller. I was intrigued.

Icelands

Dhar has read his classics, and it shows. After a few chapters, the structure is very clear to anyone who’s read Clancy, Bond, or the like. I was reminded more of Larry Bond than anyone else. I think it was because Dhar, unlike more specialized authors, went all the way from infantry to air and naval crews to spies to leaders.

Although I will say this- in one very crucial way, Dhar manages better than Bond. Much better.

Rivets

Of course, with the classic inspiration comes the classic drawback. Sometimes, especially in air-to-air combat, the listing of exact numbers and ranges gets a little too high. It isn’t the absolute worst, and it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the novel as a whole, but it’s there and it grated a little.

One silver lining is how the setting of the book allows for considerable novelty in terms of equipment without being contrived in the least. The protagonists are using largely Soviet/Russian systems, while the antagonists are using mainly American ones, with F-15s as their secret techno-weapons.

Zombie Sorceresses

I didn’t really feel that much “zombie sorceress” contrivance in the book. It existed, but never truly beyond the norm for the technothriller genre as a whole. When one of the biggest issues apart from the belligerency of the antagonists (which is part and parcel of the whole genre) is “they found enough irregulars to launch a corps-sized conventional attack”, it’s pretty good.

A lot of it I think has to do with the setting. When you have two real-world enemies that are much closer in power as-is, I don’t think you need nearly the amount of contrivances or “equalizers” that occur in a post-1991 technothriller with the US as the protagonist country.

And then there’s dealing with the nuclear weapons. But that’s done in a literary way that made me excuse anything.

The “Wha?”

On one hand, this has the usual thriller tropes. It has lots of viewpoint characters, perhaps a few too many. It has lots of subplots, bouncing around a little too much. The characters are stock thriller ones.

And yet, it never felt like Dhar put a character in without a purpose he intended for them. There may have been a few too many subplots, but there’s just enough characters to fill those plots without being excessive. Furthermore, Dhar handled a very, very difficult issue for technothrillers in an effective way.

Dhar takes the “stop the nukes” plot and makes it the final climax of the book. He doesn’t brush past them with a handwave. And he doesn’t do what Larry Bond did in Cauldron and just remove them with a super-counterforce strike early in the book. There’s the conventional battle and then the fear of escalation. While I could nitpick the plausiblity of how it played out, it worked in literary terms.

The Only Score That Really Matters

I liked this book. It has infodumps, conference room infodumps, a buildup to something you know is going to happen, and other faults of the genre. But it also has the strengths of it, handles some elements very well, and has a setting that’s novel to a filthy Yankee like me.

I recommend it.