Review: The Ultimate Solution

The Ultimate Solution

Eric Norden’s The Ultimate Solution is a fairly early alternate history novel. A short book told in the style of a classic detective novella, it tells the story of an NYPD officer who, after the German victory in World War II and occupation of America, must track down a reappeared Jew, long after they were thought exterminated. Or at least that’s what the nominal plot is about.

The real meaning of this book is a trend in alternate history that this book was a pioneer in-use an Axis victory world as a way to express social commentary about contemporary society. This is the kind of thing that sometimes can be an insightful “mirror darkly” presentation, but often degenerates into massive axe-grinding.

Here it’s the latter, with a vengeance. Norden has the subtlety of Tsar Bombas preceding a parade of NASA Crawlers blaring Korn out of sonic blasters. Everyone is a (literal) puppy kicking monster. It’s so over-the-top it actually takes away from the message. Instead of “this is how good people can believe and do bad things”, it’s the far less profound or interesting “people here are bad”. And since most of the small book is devoted to this horrible horribleness of horrors, there isn’t really much else. This is the kind of book that’s interesting for its place in the chronology of its genre (in this case, alternate history) but has little else to recommend it.

A Thousand Words: Undertale

Undertale

It’s the 5th anniversary of Undertale , the cult classic indie RPG/homage to Earthbound. It’s hard to really explain, because in some ways it’s a victim of its own success. There was a yo-yo of crazed fandom and understandable backlash. People know the plot twists now.

When I first played, I didn’t, and I could appreciate what it delivered, and what’s been lost. So yeah, I know it’s a five year old game now and has been successful, but I’m going to be spoilering it all.

You control a deliberately androgynous-looking child (I thought the sprite looked more feminine) as they fall, Alice-in-Wonderland style, into a sealed-off world of goofy monsters. The battle system is an action-RPG hybrid where you can move around on a screen to avoid attacks.

What works is how it works with the expectation of it being a normal RPG. Basically, I thought “You don’t have to destroy anything” was just a sardonic comment like Postal 2’s “only as violent as you are”. Flowey, the psychotic flower-beast, is basically a “lolmeta-lolgoofyIkillforfun”… at first. When I first battled Toriel, the overprotective monster-mother, I was convinced that reducing her to zero HP would just trigger some kind of cutscene, and that she’d be fine. (She wasn’t).

To date, one of my absolute best video game moments comes from fighting the dogs. Now, they’re portrayed as little more than normal enemies and not the most special, so I deal with them. Then I go into the town and they ask where the dogs were and how good they were and wonder what happened to them and I go…

“Oh.” (gulp)

That’s why I haven’t personally played the game since my one violent neutral route. In many way it’s still a short, cheap, simple indie game, and the magic just wouldn’t be there if I knew what was happening.

Even with the blind run, the game had some down parts. The Hotland area is execrably bad, being a combination of the same lame social media joke, an extremely annoying character, and puzzles just hard enough to annoying but not complex enough to be fun. I felt like I had to stagger through-then came the finale.

Even with full hindsight, I can say this-the finale, whatever route, is the highlight of the game. Part of this, I believe, is that it plays everything straight and goes for legitimate gravitas. The best fiction, even the kind that’s often silly, knows when to be earnest, and the conclusions of Undertale count as that.

It’s still good-the music and art are both excellent, and the mechanics, while simple, aren’t bad by any means. Undertale definitely deserves its success. It’s just that I think it was at its absolute best when you didn’t know what to expect-and I was fortunate enough to play it that way.

Nuclear World War IIIs

So I figured: How true was my stereotype of “conventional” WW3s? I decided to take a look and see. For this exercise, “yes” means a full nuclear exchange, “partial” something like say, Hackett’s infamous plotnuke, and “no” means the war stays completely conventional. This is an incomplete, unscientific list, but still.

  • Hackett-PARTIAL
  • Red Storm Rising-NO
  • Team Yankee-PARTIAL
  • Red Army-NO
  • Chieftains-YES
  • Black’s “Effect”-PARTIAL
  • Kirov-YES
  • Arc Light-YES
  • Red Hammer 94-YES
  • Bear’s Claws-PARTIAL
  • Cauldron-PARTIAL
  • War That Never Was-NO
  • Ronsone/Watson’s Red Storm-PARTIAL
  • Zone-PARTIAL
  • Weekend Warriors-NO
  • The Red Line-PARTIAL
  • Andy Farman’s Armageddon’s Song-PARTIAL
  • Wingman-YES

Besides the possibility of me remembering wrong, the line between “Partial” and “Yes” is sometimes blurry-for instance, I had a hard time deciding whether or not to include Arc Light as “Partial” or “Yes.” And in Team Yankee, which follow’s Hackett’s plot, the nukes are offscreen. Still, it was a little surprising how few outright “no’s” there were and how many “Partials”. It’s just the biggest “no” was Red Storm Rising.

Review: Exxoneration

Exxoneration

The American invasion of Canada finally begins in Richard Rohmer’s second book on the subject, Exxoneration. The previous installment, Ultimatum, ended with the US announcing its intention to annex Canada. Here, it moves ahead.

As far as its literary quality goes, I’ll just say this: I’ve read field manuals that were less cumbersome and infodumpy. Seriously. The mega-padding is still there, including such things as aircraft takeoff instructions. And the er, “lopsided” nature of a Canadian/American armed conflict means the book has to twist to have its cake and eat it too.

There’s only one fairly brief semi-battle in the novel itself. In it, the Canadians ambush a flight of American aircraft landing at Toronto who falsely assume the invasion will be unopposed. Basically, the Canadians need to win but there’s obviously no way for them to win conventionally so they have to rely on American public opinion (plausibly) promoting a backlash however the tone of the book is such that it wouldn’t do to have Canada devastated by war, so the only onscreen conflict needs to be short and neat.

Most of the book is just about the later efforts by Canada to purchase Exxon (hence the title). Needless to say, this is not exactly the most scintillating topic. While a better author could have made it exciting, Rohmer does not.

I want to compare this to Mike Lunnon-Wood, who wrote about slightly ridiculous to highly ridiculous scenarios in a matter-of-fact manner, but Lunnon-Wood’s prose is significantly better than Rohmer’s. It takes some effort to make a book about a Canadian-American war dull, but Rohmer does so.

A Thousand Words: Waterworld

Waterworld

Guns N’ Roses November Rain is widely recognized as the final, out-with-a-bang entry of the musical niche known as the “power ballad.” Kevin Costner’s infamous Waterworld kind of feels like the movie version of this. Of all the movies labeled the worst ever, this deserves it the least in hindsight-though it’s perhaps fitting, since critics never cared much for hair metal anyway.

The plot and setting make no sense, and the acting is nothing special, barring Dennis Hopper’s typically hammed-up villain. But what this movie offers is spectacle. Before CGI truly came along and money became tighter, the huge practical effects epic had to have one final giant push. And in the form of the evil ski-jumpers, hamfisted environmentalism (from a movie that had to make a giant, inevitably polluting, artificial island in its production), and piles of (oil-burning) pyrotechnics, it succeeded.

This movie can’t really be considered “good”, but I had a lot of fun watching it.

Review: Firedrake

As of now the most recent book in the Kirov series, Firedrake combines the worst and best of it all. The worst is that all of the structural problems are still there and that the wargame lets play structure is beginning to wear thin, especially with the foreshadowing that this particular timeline is getting erased/destroyed. The best is, well….

The best is that plot points involve the ship transported to a bleak, dark, empty world where only hostile mechanized drones roam the seas and skies (was it Skynet or Yawgmoth that was responsible? :p ). Then it moves into another timeline courtesy of supervillain Ivan Volkov, where a Third World War (the fourth in the series) is about to begin, one where Japan won the second thanks to Volkov giving them nuclear bombs.

The Kirov series is best when it wargames out drastically changed situations, and that is the case in half of Firedrake. The other half is wargame action as usual.

Review: Ultimatum

Ultimatum

Richard Rohmer’s Ultimatum is the story of the U.S. invading Canada as written by a Canadian. More precisely, it is the buildup to the invasion, the haggling, set in the backdrop of the 1970s energy crisis as the embargo-facing US confronts resource-rich Canada. Because of this, the novel takes the form of one conference room scene and exposition drop after another. It’s a book meant to show events, not characters.

It’s also a book that, although fairy short, features ridiculous amounts of padding. Part of this can be justified in that its format is that of “events/setting-first”, but even by those standards, it has a lot of stuff beyond it. There are incredibly long Herman Melville -style infodumps on everything from the nature of the Canadian government to pipelines to transport aircraft. A subplot involving two bomb-planters is about the only time the book leaves the meeting room, and even then it somehow feels like it could be cut without really missing anything.

Although I will say that a plot involving native saboteurs destroying oil infrastructure, helping lead to a large, somewhat contrived war is basically Red Storm Rising more than a decade before the real Red Storm Rising was published. I don’t know if Tom Clancy saw the plot and I think it’s likely just a coincidence, but it’s still an interesting combination. And in some weird ways it’s actually more plausible than Red Storm Rising, given that seizing Canada directly is more straightforward than “invade Europe so we can seize the Middle East later.”

However, the actual war will have to wait for the sequel, Exxoneration. Here, the book simply ends with the declaration to annex Canada. Thus, it’s all setup.

In terms of quality, this is a very dated book, and I’m not just talking about the politics. It’s entirely meant to capture a zeitgeist, giving curious readers a look at the wheeling and dealing towards an event. This was a time period where the US openly studied seizing OPEC-held fields by force, after all. But this type of work, especially one as “matter of fact” as this, has a very short shelf life, and the result is a historical curiosity.

The Lack of Mainstream AH WW3

So, a look at alternate history conventional World War III novels revealed a very small number of them. Even smaller is the number of novels that were alternate history, took place after 1980, and made by larger/mainstream presses. Granted, like in that previous post, I used only the most unambiguous examples. But even I was a little surprised by the number I ended up with.

Zero.

I found two games that fit the criteria. These were World in Conflict and Eugen’s Wargame series. But those are games, and I think they’re a different paradigm. If I wanted to stretch things, I’d go with the Command and Conquer: Red Alert games. Those are kind of like including the Wingman novels in with Hackett and Bond, but they’re alternate World War IIIs.

Yet I’ve seen no actual novels, and if they existed, they’d probably be well below any “too obscure to really ‘matter'” standard. Everything has been either futuristic or contemporary. What I find very telling is the case of Walt Gragg’s The Red Line. That was crudely transformed into a “contemporary” setting instead of being sold as alternate history.

And the big-name AH authors have stayed away. Harry Turtledove has made a series about a 1950s World War III but not a 1980s Fuldapocalypse. The closest Robert Conroy came to one was a book (and one with nukes involved) set in 1963. Of all the topics that other authors choose when they dip into alternate history from time to time, the “conventional WW3” simply isn’t one of them.

Now, there are several reasons I’ve theorized for this. Perhaps the biggest is that it’s a small genre to start with, and there’s little incentive to not go for either a conflict that actually happened or a contemporary one, both of which have more mass appeal. There’s far more of a hook and comfort (as weird as it is to say) with a realistic nuclear conflict. The second-biggest is that much mainstream AH is generally meant to be metaphorical, to represent some contemporary issue through the lens of a different past. To be frank, the prevailing style of most conventional World War III fiction is not the ideal medium to express these. About the best you can get is something directly related to the military in some way.

So this makes printed alternate history World War III something that’s the domain of enthusiasts, for better or worse. While I already knew that to be true in general terms, I didn’t know the extent until I counted it. And the reverse is also true-Tom Clancy, Larry Bond, and Harold Coyle quite understandably did not write tales of a Cold War gone hot a decade or two earlier.

Review: The Seventh Secret

The Seventh Secret

One of those “just a little bit more highbrow than the mushiest mush” popular fiction authors, Irving Wallace had The Seventh Secret as one of his later books. This is an entry in a subgenre that can best be described as “HITLER LIVED!”, the kind of “secret history” book that embodies a trope that probably started the moment the war ended.

This book has a lot of detail that’s basically higher-brow versions of “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL”. It has Wallace’s reputation for sleaze come across as well. While this sort of thing is common among cheap thrillers, it’s a little bit worse here. Yet the book manages to flow well in spite of these, to his legitimate credit. It also has surprisingly good buildup.

Yet the book ultimately comes across as, weirdly, both too bizarre and too mundane at the same time. Part of this is the very premise. Part of it is a comparative lack of action, with only a handful of humdrum fight scenes. The biggest part, and one that takes away from the effective buildup, is that there really isn’t that much of a villainous plot, expecting the audience to take “HITLER LIVED” as awe-inspiring enough by itself. Still, this was a satisfactory book.

Review: Supercell

Supercell

A tale of FBI agents hunting prisoners who escaped after a weather disaster, Douglas Dorow’s Supercell cannot be mistaken for anything except a light literary snack. And it’s not the “healthiest” literary snack, being a pure cheap thriller. But it is a tasty snack.

Independent publishing pretty much saved the “lightweight novella”. A long time ago, something like this could have been released by a large publisher, likely under a house name. Now, it’s the sort of thing that’s the purview of independent authors. And that enables works like this to flourish again.