I’m doing it. I’m breaking all my rules. I’m reviewing an in-progress internet online alternate history piece by an author I overreacted to in the past, at one point calling his TLs the “worst ever”, something which is not true and which I apologize for. I speculated as to why I felt as negative as I did in the very review itself, and with years of hindsight I can say that, sadly, it was just personal stress mixed with tunnel vision. The actual view I have of them is what I said I’d have felt in isolation before-middling Hackett-fics, no better or worse than say, Operation Zhukov and not really the most able to build a long review around.
But I think this new TL is worthy. I feel I’m calm enough to look at it more objectively, unlike my past axe-grinding. Like with New Deal Coalition Retained, I feel that this isn’t an obsession and that one post on an internet timeline won’t overwhelm dozens of those on other topics far less controversial to me. And I feel it does have something to say about the genre. I don’t want to come across as gatekeeping or saying someone shouldn’t do anything that they and others enjoy. I’m just giving my personal opinion. And of course, if my opinion on it changes as new updates emerge, I will gladly make an update post.
The timeline is called People’s War, and it’s about a surviving East Germany.
What I consider People’s War to show actually has a parallel in sports betting. What William Leiss calls “manual research”.
Now obviously literature is not a zero-sum game like sports gambling is. Everyone has to start off with the surface level details, and not everyone can or wants to do Kirov-level simulations. But this kind of ultimately surface research applied to a pseudo-Hackett pure exposition style has made me see the strengths and weaknesses of it.
The biggest strength is that there is a lot more verisimilitude. This is something that Young Grognard Me took for granted because I started with nonfiction books and wargames and went backwards from there. Now I know how rare even nominally accurate military fiction is in a world of “machine gun pistols”, “Flamethrower M60 Abrams”, and “A-130 helicopter gunships”. More to the point, this and the WW3 TLs that preceded it and which I got far too angry about are far more sensible than the clearly just tossed carelessly out “stock photo and a wikibox” stuff like the infamous New Deal Coalition Retained Part II. It’s one thing to arguably lean too heavily on Hackett, Bond, and primary sources as Lions Will Fight Bears and its successors did. It’s quite another to avoid them completely in favor of BIG NUMBERS, as NDCR Part II did.
But Hackett, Bond, and the WW3 TLs were dealing with a hypothetical conflict that had decades and decades of simulations, analyses, and sources dedicated to it. Said documentation is a big reason why it’s up there with the American Civil War and World Wars for wargaming and “hard” alternate history. But what happens when you’re dealing with something that doesn’t have that paper trail?
Trying to Hackett-ify a 1980s technothriller scenario is one thing. But this TL is trying to Hackett-ify what’s essentially a 1990s technothriller, where a surviving East Germany ruled by Honecker’s widow comes into conflict with the western world. Now looking at the reams of studies of a theoretical conventional Fuldapocalypse is one thing. But where are the think tank papers for “Fighting a somehow surviving ex-Warsaw Pact state post-USSR, especially with the hint of threat balancers you’d find in a Larry Bond novel?” They aren’t there. The closest are clear surface details like the names and amounts of weapons that end up feeling close to the more shallow “here’s the exact designation of a Scud TEL” than what effect barrages of those missiles would have in practice.
And this is my objection. Because there’s less opportunity to look, this sort of thing just feels kind of shallow to me without either simulation/deep analysis or just setting up the basics and running with a conventional story. And the TL format prevents the latter.
It’s still far superior to the outright Calvinball of NDCR’s Neo-Timurid Empire or postwar AANW’s “Eastern Siberia as an American state.” The military details are still far greater and more plausible than 3 million Soviet troops sloooooooooooowly advancing against 2 million NATO ones. Compared to “historical fanfiction” AH, it is better.
But there still doesn’t like a real solid base is there. And by the standards of either wargaming or literary fiction, I feel it doesn’t reach its potential.
Especially because this is a redo of a previous concept for a surviving East Germany war that was ultimately abandoned in part because, unsurprisingly, its base was too one-sided strategically. This is what I think goes full circle back to the “Manual Research” video, because Leiss specifically talks about the follies of using manual research for an obvious mismatch. Manual research can tell you what common sense and the odds show-that the powerhouse team against a paid-to-lose punching bag will easily win. But it can’t tell you how likely the opponent is to cover the inevitably massive point spread.
The force regarded as the best non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military can definitely still threaten the characters in a normal narrative and can definitely still do more damage than Saddam’s army did. It’s just that this and other works like it sit in an awkward middle ground between hard and soft. I wouldn’t call it a trinket, but it still feels less than whole.