Review: Condition Zebra

Condition Zebra

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The (supposedly) final arc of John Schettler’s epic Kirov series, now exceeding even The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest in terms of word count, begins with Condition Zebra. This is the story of a contemporary World War III, after the Kirov timeshifted away from another contemporary World War III, possibly making it the first series to have multiple World War IIIs in it.

Having read two books in the 49-and-counting series, I figured it would at least be the same as before.  I was wrong. It somehow managed to be worse. And it manages to be worse in ways that might be considered contradictory at first glance.

One one end, the basic nuts and bolts writing has all the problems of the past Kirov books (characters who exist solely to operate military equipment, rote technical descriptions of the battles that give away the wargames used to sim them, and overall clunkiness) and just feels sloppier, with the dialogue, grammar, and even structure seeming worse.

On the other, the giant timeline tangles get bigger, more confusing, and somehow more pointless-seeming than ever. Knowing the end result and purpose, it just feels like the developers of Madden, 2K, or The Show making up a gigantic plot about time machines and time-traveling team general managers to explain why past players can appear in a game with current stars.

Maybe it’s those above flaws and maybe it’s just that the novelty of seeing the world’s longest wargame let’s play has worn off after three books, but this doesn’t even seem bad in a bemusing way anymore. It’s just bad.

 

Review: Howling Wilderness

Howling Wilderness

The sourcebook Howling Wilderness sets the basis for the remaining North American setting in Twilight 2000.

I feel that in an isolated spherical cow world, the North American modules of Twilight 2000 should have been a different setting, something like “Apocalypse 2000”. It would probably be a good idea to alter the rules so that the out-there adventures can be a lot more viable. But theme alone would be enough to make the switch.

There’s two literary problems with actually keeping it and the original European setting part of the same universe. The first is the creative regression. The European setting is a clever way to square the circle of “Ok, we want you to be in the army but we also want you to be able to run free. We’ll make this post-apocalyptic, but not too post-apocalyptic, since we still want there to be tons of those tanks around.” There are still flaws, and not just the impossibility to balance dark struggles for survival, rivet-counting crunchy gaming, and traditional RPG adventure that all appear in the rules.

Enter this, where the setting is more of a traditional post-apocalyptic one. North America has been crushed by a mega-drought and everyone has withered down. This leads to the second problem, which is how this led to gimmicks. It feels like the setting should be doubling down on the “grim survival” element, but then an individual sourcebook has a submarine plot right out of Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist, making things more muddled than ever.

I don’t blame GDW for releasing new content out of business necessity. I also think that, given the flexibility GMs have for actually running games, the negative effects of any official supplement are inherently limited. But I still feel that, like how the Survivalist jumped the shark post-timeskip, Twilight 2000 also jumped post Atlantic crossing.

Review: Divided Armies

Divided Armies

Jason Lyall’s Divided Armies is a big look at how societal inequality can influence military peformance. It’s mixed and uneven but still worthy.

First, the research is exhaustive and extensive. Lyall specifically aims to avoid a Eurocentric/great war bias by looking at a gigantic sample size of conflicts around the world from 1800 to the present. The book is not the easiest read and is written in “Academic-ese” with lots of political science formulas. However, I didn’t consider this a bad thing so much as just being part of its very nature (it’s not the only book of this type of I’ve read). The case studies feature more and more obscure battles. It’s a solid, disciplined set of information that shows a lot of underappreciated and understudied wars.

Of course, this book also has the weakness of the approach. I had two main doubts about this book. One was that Lyall would overcorrect and make the issue too dominant. Although not quite as bad as I feared, I saw a lot of this happening.

The weakest part of his research by far is, ironically, when he goes into great power wars. His study of the World War II Eastern Front, despite citing modern scholars, is still disappointing and clearly viewed through the lens of his thesis. So it means an overt focus on the early war (because the Soviets were clearly doing poorly), and an over-focus on Stalinism at the expense of other factors (because it fits the tone of the book). This image is rather distorted, to say the least.

A far less bad but still iffy example comes from his comparison of Ethiopa in the 1998 war with Eritrea and the DRC in the simultaneous Second Congo War. Despite Lyall’s box-checking and vigorous arguments, I’m still left thinking of the two having far more differences than similarities. They’re not the ones I’d use in a direct comparison, the former having overwhelmingly more experience with large, conventional operations.

The second doubt I was also vindicated with was a sense of “you needed a ton of formal data to say this?” The conclusion of less cohesive societies translating that into ineffectual military performance was not exactly the most shocking or counter-intuitive one.

However, with those caveats in mind, as well as the usual focus on keeping eyes open, the book is still a worthwhile read. The basic conclusion is sound, the examination of previously under-explored conflicts is fascinating, and if the “what” isn’t the most interesting or noteworthy, the “how” definitely is.

 

 

 

Review: Red Phoenix

Red Phoenix

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Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix, telling the story of a second Korean War, is something I’ve struggled with for a while but now, after a lot of other books read, have the words to successfully describe. In short, it’s the Marine Force One of “big war thrillers”.

Every archetype of the small genre is there. The shifting viewpoints from top to bottom. Going into every part of the theater. And so on. And they’re executed with enough skill to not be bad, but not enough to be truly memorable or standing out.

What does stand out, and which I also have a more nuanced view of than I used to, is the long intro setting up the war. I’ve thought it, from a literary perspective, to be less than ideal. It’s taking a huge amount of effort to set up something the reader already knows will happen.

But from a plausibility perspective, given the massive unlikelihood of a Second Korean War even at the height of the north’s power, I can forgive it for putting in the effort to set up a situation where it could happen. It’s certainly better and less ridiculous than Cauldron at any rate.

And what else is there to say? This is very much a “if you like the genre, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you won’t” kind of novel.

A Thousand Words: Yume Nikki

Yume Nikki

The early indie game Yume Nikki is, even by the standards of what this blog has become, a strange choice. It’s a cult classic art/puzzle game. There really isn’t that any plot or explanation beyond the surreal illustrations as a pigtailed shut-in named Madotsuki wanders around various dreamworlds. For an indie game, it has a distinct, memorable artstyle, and its early origin, much like Cave Story’s, helped it along significantly.

Of course, the other side of this is that it combines the type of low-intensity gameplay later referred to derisively as “walking simulation” with (barring looking it up online) often impenetrable puzzles. It’s definitely a cult classic, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t become anything more.

There could hardly be anything less like the usual fare of Fuldapocalypse. Which is kind of why I selected this. A huge part of the appeal is in wondering what everything is and what it means-all the many, many, many guesstimates of who Madotsuki is, what happened to her, what all the monstrous dreams mean, and even the seemingly obvious ending, add to the appeal of mystery and uncertainty.

It would be ruined if there finally was a definitive, official explanation for everything.

And yet, in the technothriller and especially “alternate history as a genre” style of story, massive detail is a centerpiece. This could just be apples and oranges, but a thought that often comes across when I read such tales is “Is this detail really necessary? Would it often be better, or at least not any worse if it wasn’t spelled out so much?”

It’s good food for thought.

The Second Soviet-Finnish War

Based on various general doctrine goals and precedents in similar regional conflicts, I’ve put together a hypothetical Second Soviet-Finnish War. No direct external intervention on behalf of the Finns, no other conflict it’s in the middle of to distract them.

I haven’t done any formal wargaming, but still came up with this outcome:

  1. The Soviets overrunning all of Finland in around a week, maybe a little more. I’m using their best-case on-paper rates of advance against China, which, though not a perfect analogy, was also underequipped, had lighter infantry and a doctrine focused around them, and had rough terrain in the border regions.
  2. Low/mid single-digit thousands killed (assuming a gigantic invasion force, the Finns standing and fighting, and the Soviets willing to press the attack, all of which are reasonable).
  3. Tank losses in the mid-high hundreds, with a similar amount of other AFVs. How many aren’t repairable is an open question.
  4. I want to say around mid-double digits for aircraft. That’s the biggest question mark.

The Finnish armed forces are, of course, wiped out, at least conventionally.

I’m sure this can and will be disputed. For instance, using a 30 km/day advance rate (rough terrain, NATO opponent) means it’ll take almost three weeks to reach the western coast from the eastern border. Of course, the Soviets can withstand three weeks of vicious attrition a lot better than the Finns can. They also likely wouldn’t need to overrun the entire country to accomplish their political goals, but this is a spherical cow scenario.

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening

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The tenth Survivalist book, The Awakening is when the series changes significantly. Having spent centuries in suspended animation to ride out a world-consuming fire wave underground, the Rourkes now emerge to take stock of the changes and aid the space-launched Eden Project as it prepares to return. John Rourke ages his children by selectively thawing and refreezing them so that they can be the same age as the adults when they wake up, and they emerge into a world where human life still exists.

This book, if I had to reedit/adapt the Survivalist series, probably wouldn’t even exist at all. I’d probably fold the recovery and the Eden Project return into an epilogue to Book 9 at worst and a few extra chapters at best, and then conclude the series there. But in actual history, the books were selling enough to continue and Ahern finally had the ability to make them more and more science fiction-y.

While the Survivalist series was never a “hard” setting to begin with (after all, the nuclear war caused multiple states to tumble into the ocean), here begins an even more contrived setup. There was an underground shelter. And another underground shelter. And another underground city. And an underwater city! It’s very much like a Bethesda Fallout game where there’s a lot of conveniently working stuff laying around centuries after the war, and it becomes a more obvious author’s toy with each new book after this.

(Later there will be a second timeskip that will obliterate the last traces of any post-apocalyptic residue in the setting, but that’s another story)

The actual book itself is more satisfactory Jerry Ahern action, but this is still the time when the series jumped the shark.

 

Review: The Council Of Ten

The Council Of Ten

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Jon Land’s The Council Of Ten is a thriller that starts off with the impression of being overly mundane. Launching with the obvious Miami Vice-inspired tone and location, the book starts slowly and there’s a fear of just being a slightly eccentric drug novel. Thankfully, the super-conspiracy reasserts itself, the Big Burly Bad Guy Thug appears, and soon all is right with the world.

It’s incredibly hard to review a lot of similar books by one author. The Council Of Ten is a little subpar by Jon Land standards. The MacGuffin not living up to some of the more ridiculous ones isn’t really too bad. Worse is that there’s a little too much space devoted to long and comparably mundane fights. But it still has all the wonderful craziness Land is known for, and, after its slow introduction, it never feels like a rote 51% book.

And besides, you’ve gotta give props to a book that has a conference room on its cover.

Review: Armies of Sand

Armies of Sand

This is the first Fuldapocalypse nonfiction book review. Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand is a semi-adaptation of his thesis, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Perfomance, and a semi-sequel to his book, Arabs at War. That looked at how Arab armies underperformed in the 20th century and examined the “how”. This looks more at the “why”.

Pollack uses bits and pieces from both Arab states at war and the non-Arab “control groups” to look at the four explanations-Soviet doctrine, over-politicization, underdevelopment, and culture. The first is a total red herring, with Pollack concluding that if anything, it was at least a little helpful. The middle two have had obvious influence, but can’t explain all of it. The final one is what he feels is the most satisfactory answer.

My biggest problem is his methodology, even though I think his conclusions are mostly sound. A lot of his sources are dated, some of the more lurid anecdotes are thinly-sourced, and a few times the implications go from the more reasonable “New York Knicks” (undeniably underperforming, sometimes significantly so) to the exaggerated “Washington Generals” (completely hopeless from start to finish at everything). This is the kind of argument where you need a lot of rigor, so seeing him pass on examples,  even those that would support his case like looking at the North Vietnamese air force when he used the Vietnam War in another control group, has made me raise an eyebrow.

Still, Pollack handles the cultural argument well, by pointing out education and particularly military training as how it took root. He stresses the dangers of stereotyping and, most importantly, shows both how culture and warfare can change and how workarounds were developed. All of the workarounds involved, in some form or another, a smaller army with a more selective choice of personnel.

Armies Of Sand is not and should not be the last word on the Middle East or military history, and should not be unhesitatingly accepted. But I still highly recommend it, and not just for information on Arab armies. Its study of politicization and underdevelopment in general is fascinating, and it’s well-written.