A Thousand Words: Tucker The Man And His Dream

Tucker: The Man And His Dream

Imagine a movie that depicted the infamous Juicero in a romantic and fluffy way. Why, its founders were plucky little upstarts who wanted to save the world and make a buck but they got ground down by the evil monolithic force of Big Juice Squeezer. You know, instead of being an obviously doomed-from-the-start project.

Replace “juice squeezers” with “cars” and you have the big problem with Francis Ford Coppola’s Tucker: The Man And His Dream. A biopic about entrepreneur Preston Tucker and his attempt to start a car company, the actual movie is well-acted and well-made. Its just that it romanticizes an inevitable failure.

Henry Kaiser’s car company with far more resources only succeeded in the gargantuan seller’s market that was the immediate postwar period (when there was a ridiculous amount of pent-up demand). Then it became the second of four Jeep Zombies. And Kaiser knew a thing or two about supply chains, which let him take advantage of that boom. Meanwhile, Tucker’s project would have rammed right into a righted market and the Korean War-if it made it that far. It was less that suppliers and financiers were crushed by the Evil Establishment and more that they were rightfully reluctant to work with such a ramshackle operation.

No one said historical films had to be 100% accurate. But the message here is so whiny and maudlin, and Tucker’s saga so misinterpreted that it squanders the production. The Tucker Tiger, a would-be scout car in World War II, is mentioned as being rejected because “gosh, it was too fast”. The reality was that it had absolutely no off-road capability, a rather serious problem with a scout car.

Preston Tucker was not a martyr, and the film tries to make him one. The walls and furniture of this movie are good, but they can’t make up for a talc foundation.

Review: The Years of Rice And Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice And Salt is probably the most highbrow and audacious work of alternate history printed by a mainstream publisher and aimed at a wide audience. A sweeping magical realist epic, this starts with the question “what if there was no Europe?”

To achieve this, Robinson uses a plot disease to wipe out Europe’s population in the Middle Ages while leaving the rest of the world mostly unscathed. It’s basically the literary, sophisticated version of The Seventh Carrier’s haywire satellites knocking out every jet and rocket engine. While there are many contrivances and valid criticisms, it’s clear what the author is trying to do. Alternate history by English-speaking authors can understandably be kind of Eurocentric, something which he takes a chainsaw to with his divergence. Robinson tries to be different.

And he succeeds, going from character to character in a millennia-long saga, with excellent prose and a great sense of wonder. It manages to achieve the not-easy feat of being both broad and human at the same time. The writing style and structure helps a lot in this regard.

Unfortunately, even something as distinct as Rice and Salt can still fall victim to a common issue with alternate history: Getting worse as one gets farther away from the point of divergence. The last part of the book has both clunky historical parallels (like a giant decades-long World War I static conflict) and political soapboxing ramped up. But even this can’t harm the book too much.

Alternate history fans should read Rice and Salt. It’s a rare anomaly in an otherwise constricted genre.

Review: Invasion Uprising

Invasion: Uprising

DC Alden’s Invasion: Uprising follows the Anglo-American counterattack into occupied England, and manages to be (even?) worse than its predecessor in all that matters. The only real highlights are some middling amounts of mediocre cloak-and-dagger stuff and a few C-list infantry firefights, neither which can make up for the collapse elsewhere.

First, the big battles come across as something that could have been written by post-Sum of All Fears Tom Clancy. They involve Americans with supertech handily crushing their hapless opponents. Needless to say, they’re not very good. The weird and slapdash enemy arsenal is still there, as is the politics.

Criticizing an invasion novel for its politics is kind of like criticizing a professional wrestling match for its melodrama. But I feel obligated to note that the book seems to direct less of its anger towards the invaders themselves and more towards the British who enabled and allied with them, in a message that is not exactly subtle. From a series that started off iffily, this book has the “achievement” of sinking lower.

Review: The German Aircraft Carriers

The German Aircraft Carriers

A book devoted to German aircraft carriers could have all the pages be blank and still be technically accurate. After all, the decision to not go ahead with them was one of the very, very few good ones the country made in World War II. But Simon Beerbaum’s work on them manages to show an excellent train of thought. For most of the actual writing and layout quality, what I said about the Russian carriers book applies just as well to this. What’s interesting is the content.

You might think that a compilation of never-built German designs would have a lot of weird ones as gargantuan as they were impractical. And you would be right. But there was a method to the madness of several. Intended as commerce interdictors, the carrier designs mostly had substantially large gun armament but smaller airwings. They resembled a pre-missile version of the Kiev “air carrying cruisers” in that regard. The book also covers postwar helicopter/VSTOL designs proposed by shipyards for export customers. It’s an interesting look at an interesting set of designs.

Review: The Thousand Dollar Touchdown

The Thousand Dollar Touchdown

Time to review another thriller with a main character that has a perfect thriller name: Colt Ryder. When I saw that the premise of The Thousand Dollar Touchdown involved sports and gambling, I knew I had to read it. Ryder, the wandering “thousand dollar man”, helps people for that amount. He also kills people in the process. This time his client is the wife of an NFL quarterback. Her brother-in law has died suspiciously, and she thinks he’s been throwing games.

This is very much a 51% book. None of the elements are really that bad, and it’s short and breezy. But it falls short of being genuinely good. A bit of this is the premise: Someone who’s studied the actual way that the sports leagues have been two-faced behind sports betting, the actual composition of their management, and the actual composition of the gambling underworld will notice the oversimplifications and inaccuracies. But since cheap thrillers do not have to be accurate per se, I can wave that off.

A bigger problem is the style. It’s written in this first-person classic hardboiled type that I don’t care the most for, and that style is not the best suited for an action-packed climax where the main character performs ridiculous feats. There’s also a bit of tonal clash. The main character’s approach involves Jack Bauer-ing his way to information by beating people up until they talk, but he’s kept alive in a Dr. Evil Deathtrap after being captured because of plot.

This is a 51% book, but it’s a more interesting to review “mean 51%” than a flat “median 51%”.

A Thousand Words: Sonic Adventure

Sonic Adventure

I was a child when Sonic Adventure first came out on the Dreamcast. I was also one of the rare few who got to see it new and firsthand. At the time it looked impressive. Now with hindsight, it’s basically the Yak-38 of video games.

The Forger was basically a tech demo of a V/STOL fighter that got shoehorned into being an operational aircraft out of desperation. It was horrendously underpowered and unsafe. Likewise, this is a massively erratic way to show off all the things the Dreamcast could do more than an actual game. Sonic himself is a barely controllable pinball. Everyone else is there to represent something “new” and “amazing”. Tails can fly. Knuckles is there to have the same kind of collectathon gameplay pioneered in Mario 64. Amy-uh, does, basic puzzle stealth? Gamma the robot does third-person shooting by way of locking on, and Big the Cat infamously has that classic element of a speed game: Fishing. Slow paced fishing at that.

The cinematography in the cutscenes is utterly horrendous with the slightest point of comparison to anything else. And this introduced the storyline elements that would explode to horrendous proportions in Shadow and 06 and remain with the series even to this day. Which is to say, a combination of mystical mumbo-jumbo, Dr. Robotnik/Eggman messing with something he shouldn’t, and tons of new characters with each installment.

What I consider interesting is that Super Mario 64, made by Nintendo from a position of strength, did not do anything like this. It kept the same basic excuse plot as the past installments, and didn’t feel like it had to push anyone new very hard. Sonic Adventure, made by Sega from a position of weakness, had to stretch, and it failed in that regard.

The tragedy of this for the series was that instead of trying to improve the fundamental controls, Sonic Team focused on one gimmick after another. Mechs, teams, guns, telekinesis, anything but razor-sharp platforming. Adventure didn’t cause the famous 3D pit all by itself, but it started the process of digging.

Review: Blind Strategist

Blind Strategist

I’ve wanted a book that dove deep into the excesses of supporters of so-called “maneuver warfare”. In Stephen Robinson’s Blind Strategist, I finally have it. How is it? Mixed. Thankfully, it’s the kind of mixed that makes for a good review.

The book is nominally aimed at John “OODA Loop” Boyd. However Boyd, due to his aversion to writing anything down, his own constantly shifting imagination, and his uh, “difficult personality”, is hard to pin anything on. I do not think it’s a coincidence that Boyd’s teachings are excellent in general terms but almost never work for anything specific.

Blind Strategist spends most of its pages slamming Basil Liddell-Hart and William Lind, who did not have an aversion to writing anything down. It also talks of the Wehrmacht Legend that drove maneuver warfare activism, and defends the oft-criticized William DePuy and his “Active Defense”. (I agree with almost all of the substantial criticisms of Active Defense, but think that in the mid-1970s, the post-Vietnam US Army needed to walk before it could run). Finally, it tries to hold maneuver warfare responsible for the Iraq War’s struggles. Even I think this is going too far, and it doesn’t exactly sound convincing.

Even in its main thesis, this comes across as being overly nitpicky and a little straw-mannish. I do not believe that even almost all of the most devoted maneuver practitioners would deny that there comes a point where you have to close and destroy. Note that I said “almost all”…

…Because Lind is one of those obsessives. And here, weirdly, Robinson arguably doesn’t go far enough. Blind Strategist neglects Victoria, a fantasy where indeed, just doing the right principles and following the right footwork causes the Mary Sue’s enemy to collapse totally without the need for a slugfest. It rightly talks about him trying to shove “third-gen” maneuver war into “fourth-gen” unconventional war, but doesn’t elaborate (and should) on just how he jumps right back to his third-gen map exercises at the slightest opportunity.

I feared this book would go a little too far in the opposite direction, and it does. But I can understand, given the maneuverist min-maxing, why it would do so. I don’t blame Robinson, and if there is room for extreme pro-“maneuver” arguments, there’s also room for extreme reactions.

A Thousand Words: WMMA5

WMMA5

Grey Dog Software’s World of Mixed Martial Arts 5 is an excellent mixed martial arts simulator/tycoon game. It’s best to keep your game worlds small as loading times are still an issue, but that’s the only (small) sour note in a very sweet game. As a tycoon, you can participate in building your own MMA empire, and learn the hard way that trying to do right by either your fighters or your fans has financial consequences.

Or you can just smash the figures together in the game’s Quick Fight mode, which is where I spend most of my time with it. The character editor means you can create anything from all-rounders to monomanical specialists who can’t strike or can’t grapple (or both!) As MMA has even more “moving parts” than boxing, making a proper sim is tough. Thankfully, this delivers.

Review: Invasion Downfall

Invasion: Downfall

DC Alden’s Invasion series is infamous. After reading Downfall, the first installment in the series, I soon found that this infamy is completely deserved. First, the obvious part: This is a book about an Islamic superstate invading the UK. And it has the politics you’d expect from such an invasion novel. Yes, there’s a lot objectionable about it, including the “traitorous fifth column in waiting” trope taken to extremes even by the standards of the genre.

Of course, I found something else objectionable, which is that it started off in a conference room. And we see a lot of those, and not in a well-handled way. At least the “setup phase” isn’t too long, even if what’s going to happen is completely obvious.

When push finally comes to shove, the military action is not exactly a rival to Larry Bond. The enemy uses a surprisingly bland array of mostly western equipment (not helped by later editions trying to make it “contemporary” by erratically changing names), and there are iffy set pieces like an E-3 letting itself get in range of a short-range missile. The infamous “strong but weak” trend that I was already on thin ice about picks up. “The horrible hordes can easily overrun England-but they can lose multiple strategic aircraft in one battle with named characters.” Like a slightly less intense version of Joly’s Silent Night, nearly all of the British military is incapacitated by irregulars before the conventional forces land.

Just a little bit more research and/or imagination would have made the battles a lot better. As would having the opponents actually earn their victory in Operation أسد البحر. The actual book is a “get the conference rooms right, but not the battles” mediocrity.