Review: Festung Europa

Festung Europa

Festung Europa: The Anglo-American Nazi War is a very tricky book. Judged by one standard, It’s a World War III with the same participants as our World War II, fought with what amounts to Korean War-era technology. This kind of tale doesn’t have that much leeway in how it’s set up.

Who And What

Festung Europa tells of how, after a German victory on the Eastern Front in World War II, the Reich and United States have the inevitable confrontation.

This is not really a story, it’s a recitation of equipment and events. A routine cheap thriller is gigaparsecs ahead of this in terms of actual “story-ness”, and even an excessively infodumpy tale is still far close to a conventional story than this. I want to make clear that this is not necessarily a bad thing. This pseudo-historical document style can work.

That being said, I feel that there are several pitfalls to this style. First, it utterly demands the reader be already interested in the subject matter, for there’s no plot or characters to gain attraction to. Second, at least to me, it opens the work up for more plausibility criticisms, because beyond the blanket talk, it’s hard to criticize it on grounds other than “does it make sense?”

And the “prose”, such as it is, feels clunky in this case even by the standards of history books or historical genres.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

You will learn exact casualty rates. You will learn the exact details of tanks. You lurn because yu at tem wur cool leg to learn tem’s DEEP HISTORY. If the entire book is one infodump, which it is, can it be considered many infodumps or just one big infodump?

Zombie Sorceresses

The major contrivances are:

  • The German victory on the Eastern Front being done in an openly handwaved manner.
  • Allied firepower, particularly air power, being probably a little too effective given the time period.
  • The Germans sidelining the Heer, turning the SS into what amounts to their entire military, and devolving dramatically in terms of skill. (I’m one of the first to criticize the “super-military only beaten by the Allies throwing more Shermans and T-34s than they had antitank rounds” cliches, but still think it went too far in the opposite direction)

There’s more than that if I wanted to dig deeper.

None of these are too bad by themselves and some can be arguable. The problem is that, as mentioned above, there’s no “cushion”. This isn’t like “well, the setup is weird [if understandable] but the action/characters/pacing is good”. No, this is just a sequence of events, and thus every zombie sorceress handwave makes itself a lot clearer and a lot more blatant.

Tank Booms

There are no booming tanks. There are simply narrations of “this unit of tanks went boom.” The “action” is extremely clinical. And often repetitive.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This is a stark example of an ultra-niche story. Do you want a hypothetical pseudo-history of a German-American third world war? Do you care if it’s drier than the Gobi Desert? Are you willing to accept unfiltered contrivances?

If the answer is yes, then Festung Europa is for you. If the answer is no, it isn’t. This kind of specialty alternate history has a very narrow audience base, and it’s no shame to not be in 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.

New Year Blogging

Happy New Year

Happy New Year. My rough Fuldapocalypse plans are as follows.

  • Northern Fury will hopefully release soon, and I eagerly await the chance to review it thoroughly.
  • My military science fiction collection has grown and I’m in that kind of mood, so expect to see a lot more of that.
  • Finally, I’m looking to review some “classics”-the earlier books that helped create and forge their respective (sub)genres. You’ll know them when you see them.

 

Getting this blog going was one of my favorite things of 2018, so here’s to 2019 in Fuldapocalypse!

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: 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.

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.

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.