Review: Area 51

Area 51

The first book in a long series, Bob Mayer’s Area 51 (originally published under the pen name “Robert Doherty”) is a “secret history” flying saucer thriller story. By itself, it’s a decent enough 51% book. What brings it down is, weirdly, the plot. Oh, there’s a few technical inaccuracies like having F-16s be around in 1970 and putting them on aircraft carriers, but the real issue I found was structural.

What my binge of Cussler-esque “find the ancient MacGuffin” books has taught me is that premise alone doesn’t make for a good read. And this is definitely the case with Area 51.

Here, there’s two problems with the alien technology. The first is that it’s too powerful in context. Not only does it function as a convenient plot enabler and deus ex machina, but it basically turns the entire book into watching a tale of the aliens. And that tale is dull and cliche. The second problem is that flying saucers don’t embody majesty and secrecy, but rather goofy Plan 9 From Outer Space kitsch.

The result is that the book is little but a throwaway curiosity.

Alternate History World War IIIs

That there are significantly fewer “conventional World War III” books than I thought when I started this blog is something I’ve repeatedly said. But I recently decided to take a look and see just how many (or, to be honest, how few) World War IIIs fit the “tail of the elephant” category of what I first saw online. The criteria were as follows.

  • They obviously had to be mostly conventional World War IIIs.
  • They had to be commercialized, even if only in self-published form.
  • They’re listed by series and not author to prevent long individual series from skewing the results.
  • They had to be unambiguous alternate history. So the 1980s classics wouldn’t count because those are set in a then-contemporary time.
  • They had to take place after 1980. The “just after World War II” WW3s are a different kind of fiction in my eyes.

With that, I got the following rough list.

  • -Harvey Black’s “Effect” series
  • -William Stroock’s World War 1990 series
  • -The Bear’s Claws by Russell Phillips
  • -Northern Fury H Hour
  • -John Agnew’s Operation Zhukov
  • -Brad Smith’s World War III 1985
  • -Martin Archer’s War Breaks Out
  • -James Burke’s The Weekend Warriors
  • -John Schettler’s Kirov series.
  • -Mark Walker’s Dark War series

There’s obviously ones I missed, but still, only ten entries. Ten. For comparison, there’s easily more different authors on the “action hero” tag here (I counted around 17.) It feels both satisfying to see even a general number and a little weird to know that what you saw was something as narrow in scope as Worm fanfiction (even if understandably so).

Review: The Fourth K

The Fourth K

fourthk

Fuldapocalypse now turns its attention to Mario Puzo’s The Fourth K. Puzo was most famous for writing The Godfather. In one of his later books, he writes of a fictional member of the Kennedy family becoming president before facing a crisis overload. I was reminded most of Sidney Sheldon’s “gilded trash” with this novel.

So little of it makes sense to anyone really knowledgeable,which makes its supposed prescience backfire. Instead of going “A-ha, that foresaw (vaguely related event) “, I went “Well, in real life (vaguely related event) didn’t happen anything at all like this”.

The political details don’t make sense. The military details especially don’t make sense (Puzo seemed to have no idea how big a “division” of troops would be, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). But when did not making sense stop me?

The bigger problem comes from the prose. Sheldon’s writing was very simple and flowed freely and easily. This is incredibly blocky and clunky. The plot feels like a badly-flowing sequence of events, and isn’t helped by the “crisis overload”. Imagine House of Cards, The Sum of All Fears, pure sleaze, and a bit of science fiction all jumbled together.

It’s easy to feel the “one man’s descent” storyline that Puzo was sort of aiming for, but there’s nothing to really reinforce it. It just comes across as wandering, vaguely coherent, gilded sleaze.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

Weird Wargaming: Beat Em Ups

Ah, the “beat ’em up”, a type of video game that achieved its first popularity with Double Dragon, and may be known best from Final Fight and Streets of Rage. Should one wish to simulate it using tabletop rules, the following should be adhered to:

  • Given the genre, the system must have robust melee rules. This is an obvious requirement that needs no further explanation.
  • The enemies will resemble, by and large, stereotypical 1980s “punks”. Bosses will be bigger and stronger versions of them and/or exotic in some way.
  • If they have weapons, it will be stuff like pipes, bricks, and knives. Because…
  • The amount of guns used, especially any bigger than a pistol, can be counted on one hand. Double Dragon set the precedent that only the final boss is allowed to have a gun. While the degree to which this adhered to varies, it’s still generally enforced.
  • The final stage will be this opulent area that contrasts massively with the tone and theme of the rest of the game. Double Dragon had an ancient temple complete with mechanical traps. Final Fight and the first two Streets of Rage games have giant mansions. The latest Streets of Rage has an island supervillains lair complete with a castle.

 

Review: X-COM UFO Defense

X-COM UFO Defense

Video game novelizations do not have the best reputation. Keeping that in mind, how does Diane Duane’s work on the classic video game X-COM turn out?

The story of X-COM commander Jonelle Barrett running a base in Switzerland, Duane seems interested in making a huge effort to write about everything except fighting aliens. This by itself isn’t too bad. In terms of accuracy, X-COM, particularly the original, is as much about managing resources as it was battling the invaders. In terms of plausibility, no one’s going to be spending every waking moment shooting Sectoids. In terms of characterization, they shouldn’t be automaton spacesuit commandos.

And yet they basically are, for the book is about 95% pure padding. Descriptions of Swiss geography fill most of it, alongside what seems like an obligatory mention of every element in the game. The rest consists of half-hearted “she just looked at the names and wanted to get them over with” battles with redshirts that are every bit as expendable and forgettable as the actual minions one controls in the games. This is one of the most blatantly obvious “I did this for the money with no enthusiasm” books I’ve read.

The Three World War IIIs

After long since realizing how few conventional World War III stories there actually are out there, I nonetheless have a classification system for the very small genre, perhaps because there’s very few. They fall, perhaps fittingly, into three main categories.

Literary

“Literary” World War III includes Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, Red Army, Northern Fury H-Hour, and even some more uneven ones like Chieftains and Arc Light. What these have in common is:

  • A “big picture” writing style featuring lots of viewpoint characters.
  • A sincere attempt at both narrative and at least nominal accuracy.

Not surprisingly, these are the rarest and hardest to do right. In fact, I think those above examples are most of the books that fall into that category.

Pulpy

“Pulpy” World War III is basically stuff like Ian Slater, Martin Archer and Joel Fulgham, as well as the shameless Wingman and Zone novels. These are distinguished by a lower-brow form of writing and/or not knowing/caring about accuracy. Some books may have aimed at being “literary” but ended up as pulpy in practice, while others (like anything by Mack Maloney) were knowingly that from the start.

“Wargamed”

“Wargamed” World War III, for lack of a better word, is the kind of story that, by virtue of me being exposed both with wargames themselves (which can over-represent WWIII, as I show in this Sea Lion Press post.) and internet alternate history (which lends itself to dry “TLs”) I thought was present much more than it actually was.

This is the stuff that follows in Hackett’s footprints. If characters exist at all, they’re either human cameras to illustrate aspects of the conflict or conference room speakers. Every order of battle is spelled out in exact detail.

Obviously there’s going to be edge cases of all sorts, but those are the three big categories.

Review: Edison’s Conquest of Mars

Edison’s Conquest of Mars

From energy guns to ancient aliens building ancient civilization megastructures, a lot of sci-fi tropes originated in Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Besides that, this book is fascinating because of how min-max it is. A sequel to War of the Worlds bootlegs (it’s a bit of a long story), author Garrett Serviss made-something.

On one hand, the prose is terrible and flat even by 19th Century standards. It’s a self-promoting effort by the title character/famous person. The plot goes against Wells’ theme to a ridiculous extent. The most ridiculous elements seem mundane when actually described. It was originally a short-form serial and it shows in the writing.

And yet so much of the sci-fi cheap thriller was started, or at least popularized here. This, is very much like seeing a video game or movie that’s at the very, very beginning of its genre. It looks horrifically crude in comparison to its later successors, but you have to start somewhere.

Review: The One Who Eats Monsters

The One Who Eats Monsters

monstercover

Once again, Fuldapocalypse takes the plunge into a new genre. After seeing a good review of it on Spacebattles, I decided to read Casey Matthews’ The One Who Eats Monsters for myself.

This of course, is an “urban fantasy” novel, where you have supernatural entities hidden inside the modern world. Ryn, the protagonist is one of them, an ancient humanoid creature and vicious ‘hunter of monsters’. Throughout the book she alternates between being a vigilante and protecting a politician’s daughter she begins to develop very human feelings for.

Urban fantasy isn’t really a genre I read much of, although more for matters of admitted personal taste than any actual, inherent dislike. With that in mind, it was good for what it was. It definitely has some notable flaws. The human dialogue was often, er, “subpar”, and there were dramatic contrivances that made sense in-universe but still felt forced from a storytelling perspective.

But that’s more than made up for by the book having exactly what a cheap thriller needs to succeed-good action and good pacing. This definitely has both, although the sequel hook segment at the end is incredibly rushed.

The characterization is mixed but still ultimately positive. Many of the other characters are either shallow, stereotypical, or both. However, Ryn’s “monster with a conscience” is well-done, and that’s what matters most. Even the romance (and this is not a romantic fiction blog) is done surprisingly well-done.

One interesting note is that this is technically an alternate history novel. Among other things, supernatural shenanigans prolonged the existence of the Soviet Union (ah, those Fuldapocalypse zombie sorceresses). It reminded me, alternate history reader and writer, of this very big phenomena where a lot of fiction could be reasonably labeled “alternate history”, but because there’s no real incentive to do so, it isn’t.

I’m still not exactly a fan of urban fantasy, but I don’t regret taking a chance on a different genre with this book.

The Flying Aircraft Carrier: Not Just For Comic Books

Yes, there was a serious study on the possibility of equipping 747s with trapeze catches and stuffing them full of “microfighters” to serve as flying aircraft carriers that could reach any hot spot soon.

aacdesign

Besides the expense and equally obvious safety issues, these microfighters were only benchmarked against the MiG-21 and their small size would make them harder to upgrade (although this could be mitigated by increasingly miniaturized electronics and giving them smart weapons that didn’t need to be carried en masse). Still, this is a similar gimmick to what the absolutely crazy (in a good way) Black Eagle Force series did with its fighters, and it’s great for fiction.