The Worst Book?

While looking for bad books, I came to this post in the Imaginary Museum blog by Dr. Jack Ross. An excellent piece of writing (even if I didn’t know who frequently mentioned David Lodge was), this paragraph in particular rang extremely true for me:

“Ever since I started writing novels myself, I guess I’ve been a bit more chary of parlour games such as this. There is, however, no accounting for tastes, and it can come as a shock that something you mildly enjoyed yourself can be right up there on someone else’s hitlist. A lukewarm response is the worst fate any book can receive, in any case, so I don’t think being on a list of world’s worst novels is likely to do lasting harm to any of the books (or authors) mentioned above.”

Being a writer and knowing the effort it requires dampening a lot of the previous snark? Check. (I’ll put it this way-I don’t think being a critic has helped me with being a better writer, but I think being a writer has helped me with being a better critic). Tastes differ? Check. (I learned of Jon Land from a massively negative review of one of his books). A mediocre reaction is the worst? Often very true, especially for reviewing as opposed to simply reading.

Onto the main subject, Ross sets out very good criteria for “worst book”, something I’ve used very cavalierly in the past (to my dismay now).

You can’t pick a novel you didn’t manage to finish

You can’t pick a novel by an author you entirely despise

There’s no point in selecting something completely obscure

Since I’ve had a tendency (although it’s waned somewhat now-I’m dropping books I find dull at rates I haven’t in the past) to finish books, the first isn’t an issue. The “obscure” part is, however. I don’t want to get dragged into a fandom war or pick a too-easy target, so I’ll go with “did it appear in mainstream bookstores.” While William W. Johnstone had that honor, the second rule strikes him out.

Thankfully, I’ve long had an answer. Not surprisingly, it is…

Ready for it…

Executive Orders by Tom Clancy. It’s one of the most successful authors ever, so I feel no guilt about slamming it. It’s an exceedingly bad book that almost certainly could never have been published by a first author. And while I’ve been critical of Clancy’s entire catalog, his earlier books were significantly better. It all “clicks” into being my choice of the worst.

(And yes, I’ve heard The Bear And The Dragon is even worse, but I haven’t read that and have no desire to-remember the rules)

If I had to give a second choice, it would probably be Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight. That’s another literary big name, I finished it, and it comes across as significantly worse than his later novels after reading them. Those at least can do the “gilded cheap thriller soap opera” better and have lots of out-there set pieces. All Midnight has is just romance novel stereotypes (that I could instantly tell despite barely knowing the genre) stumbling around for the entire book.

The Distant Vistas

J. R. R. Tolkien’s quote about “distant vistas” is something I’ve thought about. The quote itself is this:

“Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed.”

Because Tolkien was nothing if not detailed with his worldbuilding, this quote seemed a little surprising to me. But I can understand it, and definitely sympathize with it. See, when you provide a small glimpse, the world often looks big, mysterious, and wondrous. Give a big detailed view and it ends up looking small and mundane. This is why I tend to dislike excessive “lore”, author statements intended to be definitive, and attempts to explain backstories too much. Not always, but a lot of the time.

Weird Wargaming: Independent Scotland

The subject of what military an independent Scotland might have has gathered a lot of attention. One of the most serious and definitive reports on the matter comes from the respected Royal United Services Institute, a piece entitled “A’ the Blue Bonnets.

The RUSI piece in short depicts a small and light land force not too dissimilar from Ireland’s, unsurprising in light of their similar geography. However it does assume a more capable air/naval element. The report shows a comparably strong navy and an air force with hand-me-down BAE Hawks as its fixed-wing fighters.

Assuming no political issues, something like the KAI Golden Eagle might also work as a basic air defense fighter, an heir to the F-5 of the past. That’s the only real quibble I have with the report, which is otherwise well worth a read.

As for the possible opponents of this Scottish military, far and away the most realistic is, like Ireland, whoever they’d face on foreign peacekeeping operations. For more out-there ones, you have Russia (especially at sea), and if you want to be really out there, you could do a “Kobayashi Maru” situation where the Scots have to inflict as much damage on the invading English/British invaders as possible.

And of course, this assumes a commitment to plausibility-if you strip-mined Scotland’s entire military age population and had an outsider equip and train it, then you could end up with something completely gigantic. But the “Ireland on land and another North Sea state on sea and air” option is the most logical.

The Confrontation

See, I’ve always envisioned an out-of-the-norm final confrontation in a hypothetical video game as being in this large vacation home in a beautiful mountain town (kind of inspired by the Adirondacks). The town would otherwise be peaceful. A sort of melancholy but beautiful music would play in the town.

There’d be no enemies except for the principal antagonist, and I’d imagine the confrontation mostly taking place through dialogue. Maybe that’s be appropriate to the genre and maybe it wouldn’t, but it’s sort of how I’d want my dream video game to conclude.

The Hall of Fame And The Hall of Herb

One of the most amusing things that I look at in sports history is to see how many Cooperstown plaque-holders can match the title record of Herb Washington-one. A little background is in order.

Herb Washington was a track athlete who was hired by the Oakland A’s as a “designated runner”. His lack of baseball knowledge meant that in practice, despite his speed, he couldn’t steal bases effectively. The trend of pinch-running specialists continued throughout the 1970s (in 1976, the A’s had two, Larry Lintz and Matt Alexander), but those were actual baseball players who could run fast. Washington, on an excellent three-peating A’s team, appeared in the 1974 World Series-and promptly got picked off at first. But he still got a title that many Hall of Famers didn’t have.

Just in the inaugural 1936 class, only one inductee (Babe Ruth) exceeds Herb Washington in championships (with seven). Then you have Ty Cobb (zero), and Honus Wagner, Christy Mathewson, and Walter Johnson, all with one, “equaling” Herb Washington.

Weird Wargaming: The UN Standing Army

An underappreciated and underutilized force for wargaming (particularly as it can be made with existing surplus equipment), the UN standing army as discussed in books like A UN Legion. Unlike some other entries in Weird Wargaming, the nature of this force makes describing it in any exact detail much harder.

On one end, there’s light peacekeepers with nothing but small arms or vaguer proposals. On the other, there’s the incredibly detailed “Vital Force” proposal. The bigger “world army” proposals also tended to be the most vague in terms of equipment. Yet it’s easy to find analogous historical units. Either the entire force or a large chunk of it could easily be structured like existing high-deployability forces. Airborne and amphibious units provide an excellent, well-documented guide.

For “world armies” with more conventional units, there’s plenty of national and/or theoretical inspiration to be drawn, possibly with some inferences (for instance, a priority may be on allowing smaller units to operate as independently as possible). The heavy divisions in the rapid-response units may get prioritization for upgraded equipment. As for that equipment, it can be anything from purpose-built (especially if it’s intended to be airdroppable/amphibious) to surplus.

The proficiency levels of a “small force” should be high, as creating a handpicked, well-trained force over clunkier ad-hoc formations is the entire point of their existence. Bigger “world armies” are going to be inevitably diluted, but should still err on the side of greater skill.

The Nature Of It All

This is the 300th post on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s fitting that it comes now, because well, I’m in what feels like a blog midlife crisis. I don’t want to overstate this, because the diversification of the blog, which I’ve talked about many times, means there’s no problem with supplying actual content. But there’s still a strange feeling in me.

See, there’s an increasing feeling in me that the well is running dry. I’ve said many, many times that there’s a lot fewer World War III books than I thought. And that’s only a little less true for “big war thrillers” in general. It’s a little weird knowing your views were distorted by a combination of one field where those tropes were common (wargaming) and an internet trend that, in hindsight, was no more significant or influential than a long-ago boomlet on Spacebattles of who-would-win matches involving lions (yes, this actually happened).

And yet, for the fiction of that type that actually exists, my initial wariness still often holds true. It’s still often a cross between conference rooms and paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters. Sturgeon’s Law still applies, and in any exposition-heavy format, I consider the “floor” to be lower than in a lowbrow action thriller. So I’m in the strange position of, regarding the supposed subject matter of this very blog, either having already read or having little desire to read a lot of the of “Icelandic” books I set it up to review. Not all-I still have some I want to read, and genres should never be discounted altogether. But a lot.

And what else that’s come to me is the sense that this kind of “big-war thriller” is just harder to write well than a conventional cheap thriller (I’m not saying it’s impossible, only harder). I’ve felt this way about alternate history, and think it’s also true here. You have to balance a good and reasonably accurate picture of the conflict/divergent setting with a good story and characters, and sometimes those are at cross purposes. It’s why, with my annoyance at there seemingly being too many “conventional WWIII” stories having long-subsided, I feel that there aren’t enough, and that there especially isn’t enough cross-pollination (which is understandable, but that’s a subject for another post).

So what I’ve been experiencing is something very much like the bittersweet feeling someone gets when they finally finish a long series that they enjoyed. I felt this way with the Survivalist. I felt this way with Blaine McCracken. I felt this way with video games and movies and TV shows that I liked. In all those cases I found later replacements (for the Survivalist, it’s responsible for getting me into an entire genre) but the feeling still remains.

And so it feels this way for here. I’ve reviewed, judging by tags and discounting essay posts, about 28 “World War III” books. They range from good to bad, from rote to pulpy to clunky to outright bizarre. I’ve experienced a huge range. In many ways I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. And while that sort of thing can bring about justifiable pride, it can also bring about a sense of understandable emptiness.

My feeling isn’t “what do I do now?”, since the answer (read and write about either other types of fiction or history/theory in general) is what I’ve been doing. Rather, it’s a simpler “So, that’s it? That’s all there was?”

Some Blog Updates

Just some blog updates here.

First, I found out about Never Was magazine, an online magazine devoted to alternate history, after they announced a partnership with Sea Lion Press. Signing up and liking what I saw, I’ve posted a link to it on the sidebar blogroll. Looking a little deeper, I saw a piece on a subject dear to Fuldapocalypse-World War III Without Missiles. I recommend checking it out.

Second, as you may have noticed from the Red Hammer Down review, I’m experimenting with changing the layout just a bit. Nothing too big, just something done for the sake of curiosity.

Short Baseball

I discovered a sport called “short hockey” existed. That is hockey played with four skaters and a goalie per team with 10 minute periods across the width of a half-rink. As it’s much less exerting, teams can play a lot of games in just one day. As the ownership/sponsorship of all the Russian short hockey leagues I’ve seen by sportsbooks shows, it’s aimed more at gamblers than actual fans.

So I figured, what would “short baseball” look like? As is, baseball already has many more games feasibly scheduled than many other sports. Yet I decided to amplify it more with two tiers.

  • Semi-short baseball, which is like conventional baseball only with six innings, games ending in ties after two extra ones, a designated hitter, and some pace of play rules. Semi-short leagues, despite their betting-friendly nature, are treated as serious competitions with ceremony, champions, and the same rigorous record-keeping.
  • Mega-short baseball, which is just a means to an end of making as many gambling-friendly matches. Games are five two-out innings which automatically end in ties after the bottom of the fifth, there are rapid pitch clocks, and, most crucially, pitchers have to throw the ball in the least stressful way possible. This both saves on the need for countless pitchers and encourages scoring by having pitches be easier to hit. There are also no formal standings and essentially no official record-keeping.

If I can find an appropriate place for it in my fiction, I’ll gladly put “short baseball” in, with an alternate history background as to how it got started and developed (which almost certainly means earlier and more widespread legal sports betting in baseball-friendly countries).

On Larry Bond

One of my personal in-jokes is how few Larry Bond books I’ve actually read and reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, which is either two or three as of this post. The books are Cauldron, Red Phoenix, and Red Storm Rising if you count it. This combined with the increasing diversification of the blog makes me sometimes go “Boy I’ve reviewed more [insert genre or author that’s nothing like him] books than I have Larry Bond’s”.

Bond, along with Hackett himself, is the most “Icelandic” of the authors I’ve read on Fuldapocalypse. The most tied to wargaming. The most determined to have a “broad-front”, top-to-bottom perspective with a bunch of viewpoint characters.

And well, I have to say he’s not the most impressive, at least judging from the sample size I’ve seen. Not the worst by any means, but you’ll notice how “meh” I sound in my review of Red Phoenix. I’ll be fair and say that I think a big part of it isn’t his fault. In short, I know too much about the subject matter to be impressed the way a “normal” reader might be.

And yet, from the broader perspective I’ve experienced, my respect for him has actually grown. For Bond’s work remains distinct. There are lots and lots and lots of more “normal” cheap thrillers, and it’s, to be frank, not the hardest genre to succeed in. There are much fewer “big-war thrillers”, and it is a harder genre to do right.

Larry Bond can’t be faulted for trying. And there’s certainly room in the literary sphere for books in his style alongside the spacesuit commandos and terrorist-shooters.