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.

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).

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.

 

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.

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.

The Iceland Scale And The Origins of Fuldapocalypse

Back in the day when I was convinced that everywhere was being overrun by bad World War III stories, I made the Iceland Scale as part of my backlash. Now with a sense that I got too angry about it, I figure I should post both the scale itself and commentary on how it did and didn’t hold up.

This is probably going to be the longest post yet on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s been a long time in coming. This is something that I wanted to look back on. Now, with a lot of time on my hands and the last review of a “World War III” book being months old, I think it’s as good a time as any.

I’ve been worrying about how to say what I want to. Regardless, I still think this should be told, for it influenced the formation of this blog.

Here’s the scale itself:

BACKGROUND

-If the Soviets start the war: 1 Iceland
-If the Soviets do so in a way that, to the average reader, makes little sense: 3 Icelands.
-If there’s at least one chapter of “intrigue” leading to the shocking result that yes, in a WW3 book, WW3 starts: 5 Icelands per chapter/update.
-If NATO starts the war: -10000 Icelands

-If the third-person narrator delivers an infodump about forces deployed: 50 Icelands per infodump.
-If there’s a scene where a bunch of generals and leaders stand in a conference room and deliver a joint infodump about forces deployed: 600 Icelands per infodump.
-If the central and obvious protagonist is introduced prior to the fighting started: -20 Icelands

-If the war takes place in the 1970s or earlier: -100 Icelands
-If the war takes place in the 1980s: 1 Iceland
-If the war takes place in the 1990s or beyond, with a surviving/restored USSR: -5 Icelands

CONDUCT OF THE WAR

-If NATO wins: 1 Iceland
-If the USSR wins: -500 Icelands
-If the war ends in a nuclear apocalypse: -200 Icelands

-If the war remains conventional throughout: 1 Iceland
-If nuclear weapons are occasionally used in anger, but the war stays largely conventional: 150 Icelands

-If the Soviets invade Iceland: 1000 Icelands
-If the Soviets invade any part of the United States proper: 15000 Icelands

-If the battles focus around tanks or aircraft: 1 Iceland per battle
-If the battles focus around ships or submarines: 1 Iceland per battle
-if the battles involve gritty, close infantry firefights: -10 Icelands per battle

-If any part of the story takes place in Germany: 100 Icelands
-If any part of the story takes place in the Atlantic Ocean: 200 Icelands
-If any part of the story takes place in a theater other than the two mentioned above: -50 Icelands

CHARACTERIZATION

-If there is one central, total viewpoint character: -25 Icelands.
-Likewise, if the number of viewpoint characters numbers:
-2-5: 10 Icelands
-5-10: 50 Icelands
->10: 1000 Icelands
-If there are no “characters” in a traditional literary sense at all: 500 Icelands.

-If a character’s physical appearance is described: -10 Icelands
-If a character is given an infodump to serve as their sole form of development: 100 Icelands

-If a weapons system is described in more detail than the basic terms (ie, M1A1, T-80BV rather than M1/Abrams or T-80): 15 Icelands
-If a weapons system is given more description or development than a character: 100 Icelands

-If any characters are in a position of utter powerlessness-(civilians, routed soldiers): -25 Icelands
-If any Soviet characters exist as mustache-twirling puppy kickers: 10 Icelands
-If any NATO characters exist as mustache-twirling puppy kickers: -100 Icelands

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

So how did this come into being?

At the time I had read far fewer “cheap thrillers” in general and my exposure came in three places:

  • Wargames, where World War IIIs are over-represented compared to other types of fiction. (A study of scenario locations in Steel Panthers MBT had about 27% of them being “World War III” in some form, a ratio that is definitely not true of fiction in general).
  • Red Storm Rising itself and a few of the knockoffs, particularly Harvey Black and Brad Smith.
  • A boomlet of conventional World War III TLs/stories on alternatehistory.com.

In hindsight, the knockoff triple-xeroxed fanfiction of Hackett (or Clancy/Bond, or Coyle, or Peters, or Red Dawn) that appeared on AH really wasn’t that good, bad, or representative. It’s like trying to see what crime fiction is like by reading the entries in the Law and Order section of fanfiction.net.

But it’s what I was reading at the time.

What holds up?

I’d say the supervillain Soviets and longer weapons descriptions. That’s pretty much it for just cheap thrillers in general. For technothrillers, the conference room scenes are probably the biggest.

And there are “Icelandic” stories out there. There just aren’t that many. Instead of looking at overbearing cliches, I was accidentally focusing on a very small, very niche type of writing. I was the blind man touching one part of the elephant.

And what doesn’t?

A lot. First, the invasion of Iceland itself isn’t a staple even in World War III stories. It appeared in wargaming and Red Storm Rising. And really not that much else, even in that narrow niche.

A few instances had stories that were “Icelandic” but not necessarily bad. Team Yankee checks most of the Iceland boxes on paper, but is a smoothly flowing story that’s the exact opposite of the cumbersome “boom boom goes the tank” I’d seen on the internet.

But most of it was simply not “Icelandic” at all. And this includes almost all of the cheap thrillers that were actually written. Nukes aren’t handwaved away, they’re incorporated into the story in some fashion. As a look at the number of “Action Hero” and “Special Forces” tags on this blog shows, shooter fiction with an unambiguous main character leaves “big war thrillers” in its dust. By a gigantic margin.

Why is the “They invade the US” score so high?

This is probably the most personally biased score of them all. It’s not overly representative or even prominent in a few specific pieces the way Iceland was (the exception being Red Dawn). Rather, seeing rote rivet-counting descriptions of Soviet invasions of the continental US flared up one of my frustrations with internet alternate history.

I should note that this is one of the least connected to actual commercial fiction. It could not be further from the special forces raid in Northern Fury (a more workable scenario) or the invasion in the early Survivalist (something that didn’t involve rivet counting).

So why this? Well, internet alternate history has, as it’s grown, sort of shifted in a questionable way. The idea behind simply writing in ways that aren’t conventional narratives was so that writers, unencumbered by the need for plots/characterizations, could fill in a lot of details.

As the community diluted, this became a way to avoid detail, done by people who cared less about “plausibility”. The analogy I’d use is, of all things, car racing. A race car is not a practical car for everyday driving, and the people involved know it. But then people start building race cars. They have one seat and no amenities, but the focus is on that one seat and the shape and not how fast they can go. But at the same time there’s just enough residual race car focus to dull the edges. The cars aren’t in goofy novelty shapes, they’re just race cars that look like race cars but with engines that a stock 1992 Camry could outpace.

As AH’s own wiki states about fictional election results lists, “No offense, but very few people are impressed by your ability to make up fake percentages. For extra cliché points, present them through Wikiboxes. “

Likewise, seeing lists and lists of orders of battle and recitations for something I knew was both implausible and unsuitable for its genre prompted an overreaction in me. I say overreaction because it’s like treating fanfiction that ignores the genre of its base work in favor of sleaze and/or sloppiness as something unique or distinctly bad. Once you know the context, it’s unsurprising and arguably uninteresting.

I guess another analogy is like vs. debates tiering, where it’s something nominally “crunchy”, a field that can bring often unjustified aggravation quickly, and where studying the context of how something that should be technical became lowbrow is a lot more interesting than seeing the end result of questionable infodumps.

Does the Iceland Scale have any retroactive value?

It’s basically one of those fanfic “litmus tests” you see floating around on the internet. After all, the place that motivated it was essentially a fanfiction board, only with “history” as the setting .

And well, especially after writing creative fiction, and especially after seeing much more, I don’t really think so. I’ve been a litmus test skeptic because this kind of fiction tends to have the execution be important. It’s entirely possible to have what should be a rote “shoot the terrorist” premise but succeed with good execution. Likewise, take a “Clive Cussler’s” book that has on paper a goofy premise but is just dull.

Team Yankee has a lot of “Icelandic” elements on paper but is well-done. Even Red Army has a parade of viewpoint characters-and it’s also done well. Northern Fury H-Hour would probably rank very high given that it’s an explicit homage, and its execution was also done effectively.

I mean, this has been a little unpleasant for me to think about, which is why I’ve been holding off on writing this post or something like it for a long time. I got too caught up in board drama (which is a staple of AH.com), and it’s kind of a sign of how narrow-minded I was. As I’ve repeatedly said, the diversification of Fuldapocalypse was something genuinely good in a lot of ways.

Some time ago, I made this silly graphic to show how much my horizons were broadened. It’s true.

fuldapocalypseexpectation

What lessons do you think there are from the Iceland Scale?

These are kind of truisms, but…

  • Don’t get too caught up in any one fandom. While I think alternate history has some unique hangups, fandom drama is definitely not unique to it.
  • Don’t get caught up in something with small sample size, and always look for more perspective.
  • Broaden your literary horizons, even in the same basic genre.

When I wrote the Iceland Scale, I was convinced there were too many conventional WW3 stories out there. Now I feel there arguably aren’t enough. There’s certainly very few. A single very long series can outnumber the “conventional WWIII” genre, and a single prolific author can easily outpace the entire “big war thriller” type of book.  So upon seeing an “Icelandic” story, my thought is now less “Argh, another WWIII” and more “oh, it’s a niche story that probably isn’t for me”. So this horizon-broadening has been very positive. Not just for enjoyment, but for understanding.

How did this help lead to Fuldapocalypse?

Here’s how. Part of the reason for starting Fuldapocalypse was because I didn’t want to crowd out the Creative Corner. Of course, this ended up doing just that as my interests shifted, but that’s another story.

But another part of starting Fuldapocalypse came from me wanting to give these stories a more fair and critical shake. And I’ll say this flat out-I at first went about it the wrong way. My initial goal was “move past the board drama, look at ‘real’ published World War III books, and use a rigorous scale to see how they differed and what cliches they did and didn’t follow, so that your own emotion and opinions can mostly stay out of it”. It was trying to move towards a narrower slice of fiction, towards a more robotic litmus test.

Thankfully, it worked out. I soon grew tired with my self-imposed limitations and began, slowly at first, reading and reviewing stuff that wasn’t “Icelandic” at all. While it took a little while for me to throw off the shackles entirely, I did. And this is the reason why I made the post-instead of constantly obsessing over something, whatever its (lack of) quality, shouldn’t be obsessed over, this post can stand between whatever non-Icelandic works of fiction strike my fancy.

Front Defensive Operations

frontdefense

From the Heavy OPFOR Operational, here is a picture of a front-sized defensive operation. My first thought upon seeing it and counting the divisions, besides any political concerns, is – “Does NATO even have enough forces to break through it without a huge amount of technological superiority”?

This particular diagram is something of an idealized best case, as the front has both a second-echelon tank army to counterattack and several independent divisions as “combined arms reserves”. But still. I’d have to ask…

  • How much of a force multiplier are the initial belts (which were expected to be overrun?)
  • How much of the artillery and missile forces can survive and fire effectively on the attackers as they approach?
  • Most importantly, what’s the overall context?

 

 

An Old Story Draft Of Mine

So, a long time ago I had this idea in my mind. Now, granted, I didn’t know how to proceed from there, but it was this idea I had in my mind. Maybe it could still work as a very short story by itself.

I’ve talked before about “Steel Panthers Characterization”, derived from this:

spexample

Basically, in Steel Panthers, a unit has a nationally appropriate name and rank applied to it. Being otherwise interchangeable, this means nothing else in terms of characterization.

I came up with the term “Steel Panthers Characterization” to describe situations when characters were not just underdeveloped, but seemed to exist solely to put a certain piece of military equipment into action.

Fortunately, just as there were many, many fewer “Big-War Thrillers” than I’d thought, there are equally as few Steel Panthers Characters. Yet as a formative experience, this introduction stuck in my mind.

Basically, there would be a pilot in a two-seat, side-by-side aircraft, like an A-6 (as in the illustration) or an F-111 or an Su-24. It would dive in, release its weapons, and fly away on a routine mission.

Suddenly, the pilot would realize something wasn’t right. He looks at the other crewman, clad in his flight suit. Lifting up the visor, the pilot sees absolutely nothing underneath it. Same thing with the gloves and sleeves. Unnerved, the pilot simply ejects. His fate would be left ambiguous in a short story, but in a longer one he would become one of the characters.

What’s soured me on the concept is that I’ve felt it’s not only too harsh a critique, but also too inaccurate of one, given how few works really sink to that level. And the ones that do either make up for it in some way or are just unfairly easy targets. But still, the draft of the pilot’s story is something I feel I should share.

 

Weird Wargaming: Payday

Payday: The Heist

The focus of this Weird Wargaming is the game series that started off as an obvious homage to classic heist movies and became a struggle against a world-controlling super-conspiracy that ended with confronting an evil dentist in a cave underneath the White House.

The Payday Gang themselves are more customizable, and their opponents shouldn’t be too much of a problem to come up with. Bulldozers have heavier armor, cloakers are stealth and possibly melee-based, tasers use electricity, and shields should be obvious. Not all of the specials are suitable for all kinds of rules, so use common sense.

The big issue is choosing between “hard” and “soft”. In “hard” mode, there’s at least a pretense of grounding, everything has to be stealthed if possible, and even loud heists are, by definition, short. In soft mode, closer to the game, the gang massively outclasses its opponents individually and can take on gigantic waves of people. All this depends on the rules and the theme, but Payday certainly offers a lot of chances.

 

Using Paratroopers

One of the biggest problems with using paratroopers besides the limit on airlift, and why they’ve just been high-readiness/at-least-theoretically higher skill infantry in real practice, is the cost-benefit with their operations. This is very tricky.

The Practical Reasons

Apart from situations where there just is no other way to move in quicker (ie, over bodies of water/other gaps), airborne landings, particularly on a very large scale, have faced the issue of either being unnecessarily risky and complicated for the task at hand or simply being too weak to accomplish anything (especially in a situation where everyone has a lot of heavy forces).

The impression I’ve gotten is that anything bigger than a company-sized landing force is dicey, and anything bigger than a battalion is really, really dicey. Yes, if everyone had giant Mi-26 sized helicopters and/or the landing forces had mechanized equipment of their own (ie, BMDs/Sheridans) it would help, but only somewhat.

The Literary Reasons

On the other hand, the literary reasons for big airborne operations are obvious. Just look at Band of Brothers, to say nothing of considerably more obscure works of fiction that range from Marching Through Georgia to Northern Fury H-Hour.

  • They’re big and dramatic all by themselves.
  • Because they’re often centered around (seemingly) important targets, it makes the actions of the protagonists look bigger.
  • Because airborne forces are inherently limited, it means drama can be maintained against a seemingly weaker opponent (a pretty extreme example of this is Marching Through Georgia, where the Draka are otherwise utterly superior to their opponents and paratroopers against a panzer force are the only way to have something even slightly even).