Review: The Natural

The Natural

Sports fiction strangely suffers from the exact same problem that political fiction does. Because there’s so much available in the true world, both past and present, fiction has to be either an obviously forced and exaggerated version or often come across as feeling simply redundant. While success is not impossible, it’s an uphill climb.

One of the classic sports novels is Bernard Malamud’s The Natural, famous for its enduring reputation and movie version that sits alongside Starship Troopers in the field of “movies completely different from the book”. Having read the original book, I have to say: I don’t like it.

There’s one big problem with this book about baseball, which is that Malamud didn’t know that much about the sport. While others have gone into more detail, I’ll say this. There’s some errors like talk of a past World Series between the A’s and White Sox (two AL teams), but the bigger issue is simple. Hobbs comes across as what someone who doesn’t know that much about baseball would think a great player is.

Hobbs is good (unless the plot calls for him not to be) and good in a very boring way, simply hitting and hitting and hitting, not even rising to the level of classic Paul Bunyan baseball stories like how Cool Papa Bell supposedly got hit in the back by his own line drive simply because he ran so fast. Nope, it’s just four home runs in a game and “wondrous averages”. This isn’t a John Rourke or Blaine McCracken of the diamond, it’s a guy skilled in the baseball equivalent of “Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting”.

Without that frame of reference, a lot of it is just references to various baseball legends-Babe Ruth, in the form of the Whammer. Fred Merkle’s baserunning fail, in the form of Fisher’s Flop, the Black Sox (in the form of the ending), and so much more (as the Gerry O’Connor article points out). A modern version would incorporate versions of Bill Buckner, Steve Bartman, and the 2004 lunar eclipse, to give you an idea of how blatant it all is to anyone who knows the slightest bit about early 20th century baseball.

So why am I suddenly so hard on realism and accuracy, when I’m clearly not when it comes to other books? Because the book is self-serious, for one. It’s like trying to write a literary novel about the life of a man who was a soldier, making the battle scenes right out of a stereotypical John Wayne movie, and sometimes descending to Ian Slater levels of technical inaccuracy. Would that interfere with the tone? Definitely.

Especially since, with the benefit of hindsight, this just looks like an exaggerated version (remember the introduction) of the Capital N Narrative approach to sportswriting, the clumsy and inaccurate reduction of a game into a tale of personal morality and internal struggle, applied constantly to real games by sportswriters of dubious quality (sometimes with extra crass humor).

Finally, the prose simply isn’t very good. It’s blocky, incredibly “lush”, and everything is either overdescribed or underdescribed. None of the characters are particularly interesting. And to be honest, in many ways the book feels just as shallow as the movie, only with a different morality. Give me saccharine goo that knows it’s saccharine goo over pretentiousness that doesn’t know its own subject any time.

Review: Air-Mech Strike

Air-Mech Strike

The book Air-Mech Strike holds the origin of the infamous “Gavin” nickname for the M113. It’s also extremely dated and, for the most part, badly written. This is a very 1990s book, despite being published in the early 2000s.

The “Gavin” name is a little more forgivable in this context because it’s meant to refer to a heavily modified and upgraded M113 instead of just the stock vehicle itself. The problem is that the authors want to have their cake and eat it too-they want an existing vehicle to fill the “medium motorized” infantry role out of legitimate concern that a big procurement wouldn’t happen in the post-USSR budget crunch, but also want a lavishly upgraded one. Yes, they give supposed cost figures, but I’m still skeptical (to put it mildly).

There are huge lists of TO&Es, to the point where I could probably just say “read the book itself” if I was doing a Weird Wargaming on the “air mech strike force”. There are piles and piles of 1990s NETWORK SMART WEAPON BUZZWORDS. There’s a utopianism that goes far beyond the reasonable arguments to mechanize existing airborne forces.

This is only backed by lopsided and unconvincing hypothetical case studies with absolutely no effort to “stress-test” the proposal. There’s a cakewalk in Central Asia against ragtag (conventional) opposition, a Kosovo intervention with pushover Serbs that might have been understandable before the actual war, but which feels like it would turn into the next Market Garden with the knowledge of their abilities gained after it, a Second Korean War where a risky deep attack is brushed aside as succeeding in one paragraph, and a Kuwait defense scenario that rightfully argues it’d be better than a footbound “speedbump”, but doesn’t examine how much better.

Ultimately, it just comes across as being enthralled by a certain type of theoretically possible toy. This is the land warfare equivalent of arguing for an air doctrine built around flying aircraft carriers, a naval doctrine built around submarines of various sizes, or any other gimmicky weapon that could be technically buildable.

Review: The Eleventh Commandment

The Eleventh Commandment

It’s time for Fuldapocalypse to turn to another author of high sales but low reputation, British writer, politician, and convicted criminal Jeffrey Archer. Even though a lot of Archer’s books, from their descriptions, come across as the type of work I call the “pop epic” (ie, Sidney Sheldon), CIA thriller The Eleventh Commandment looked like a grocery store cheap thriller. In fact, it looked so much like a grocery store cheap thriller that I felt a bit of trepidation-would this be nothing but a Marine Force One with a more well-known author’s name on the cover, forgettable mush?

The answer is “kind of.” Its realism, or lack thereof, comes from simply adopting a different baseline. It wants to be a serious cloak and dagger story, which makes every inaccuracy and contrivance more glaring. Furthermore, the prose is very blocky, the pacing slow, and despite seemingly high stakes on paper, it doesn’t feel that way in practice. At least it’s not too long, but it’s just dry and clunky.

The result is something that feels like it has all the weaknesses of a cliche cheap thriller, but few to none of the strengths. Whatever Archer could write, this kind of novel is not it.

Review: Seven Up

Seven Up

It kind of goes without saying that I’m not in author Janet Evanovich’s target audience, and neither is a Stephanie Plum novel the kind of book I was expecting to review at the beginning of this blog. But Seven Up itself and the story behind how I read it is worth it.

Though the seventh book in the series, this was the first tale of the wacky New Jersey bounty hunter that I read. When I read the back cover blurb, the implication was of a thriller. This was wrong. When I started reading the actual book, it felt like it was going to be a duller one about family drama. This was also wrong. I got one of the biggest pleasant surprises I’d ever read.

When I finished the book, it turned to be a hilarious, fast-moving, laugh-out-loud goofy novel of pure fun. Really, despite its initially slow start, I had a great time with it. To be honest, it reminded me of The Simpsons at its height, which is always something that humorous fiction should aspire to. While I’ve heard the series has grown stale since then, Seven Up itself is extremely fresh and enjoyable.

Review: Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces

So now it’s time to do a formal review of an OPFOR document. While an unusual choice, this one I believe is the most interesting, as it’s both a description and a sort of prediction. A 1990s British document made available via their version of the FOIA law fairly recently, the Mobile Forces is my favorite OPFOR publication, and not just due to its massive size.

First, I have to say the obvious thing quickly: This is a field manual written in field-manualese, not anything that’s meant to be any kind of literary work. That being said, its comprehensiveness is something.

Like most OPFORs, it’s an idealized Soviet-style opponent. Unlike most OPFORs, especially the American Heavy OPFOR, it doesn’t just present that (even with post-1991 hindsight/sources) but also tries to look ahead, in this case towards a “hybrid” model that Russia at the time tried and, for obvious reasons, largely failed to actually adopt until decades later. A two-tier force exists, the “Basic” and “Mobile” forces.

The Basic Forces are arranged in traditional Soviet style, only with some differences-special premade forward detachments, a few other organizational changes, and, most importantly, many divisions having only three rather than four regiments at paper strength. The Mobile Forces, meant to be the cream of the crop, use the same “Brigade-Corps” organization that the Soviet tank forces in World War II used.

The Mobile Forces have permanent combined-arms battalions (while still eager to make ad hoc task forces if need be). Their brigades have a large number of battalions under their command. The document goes into massive detail as to how these two types of forces are meant to fight and work together.

There’s also a few changes.

  • The intended rate of advance slows down. Whether this is because of better artillery/enemy mobility/etc… or because the original rates were too optimistic is a good question, but it’s there.
  • Tactical use of nuclear and chemical weapons, while obviously not removed, is de-emphasized, simply because “conventional” weapons have gotten better.

As one of the best OPFOR pieces, this is well worth a read to enthusiasts, wargamers, and the like as a study of a “futuristic” yet still recognizably Soviet force. I’ll admit I’ve taken more than a little inspiration from it for my own writing, simply because of the effective, distinctive, two-tier military it portrays.

Review: Undeclared War

The Home Team: Undeclared War

The first book in the Home Team series of thrillers, Undeclared War boasts another one of those amazing cheap thriller hero names. In this case, it’s Ted Reaper, SEAL turned vigilante out to stop a -ready for this?- terrorist. Unfortunately, the main character’s name is the only distinguishing feature about it.

This is one of the most generic “shoot the terrorist” books there is. It wants to have its cake and eat it too concerning realism, which leads to a bizarre situation where the preparations are handled in realistically drudgerous detail, yet the actual action manages to somehow be both out-there and dull. The whole “we’re scrounging vigilantes but hey, we get rare and exotic weapons from our convenient connections” contradiction doesn’t help either.

The lists of weapon descriptions get excessive even by the standards of the genre. I don’t know what I should have expected from a mid-2000s thriller, but this deserves a pass.

A Thousand Words: Red Dawn

Red Dawn

The 1980s classic invasion movie, Red Dawn is a strange beast. While it rightfully ranks up there with Top Gun as one of the most iconic and remembered movies of its generation, I found it had some fundamental issues. And no, it’s not anything dealing with the actual premise.

The production values are very good. The acting is, at the very least, sufficient. Yet the movie’s biggest problem is its conflicting tone. There’s two types of invasion stories, what I call “grim invasion” and “pulpy invasion”. Grim invasion is what most of the original invasion novels were, while pulpy invasion is something out of, well, guess.

Red Dawn sort of awkwardly teeters between elements of both without really settling into one or the other. While not a deal-breaker for the movie, it sours it somewhat and leaves me with the feeling that picking one type, likely pulpy given the concept, would have made for a better story. That being said, the film is still well worth a watch.

Review: Pacific Storm

Pacific Storm

The Kirov series is over fifty books long and counting. But the third entry, Pacific Storm, was planned as a potential stopping point, according to the introduction of a later entry. And while I normally criticize series from Jack Ryan to the Survivalist for passing good opportunities to conclude, it’s for the best that this one sailed right by it.

After having fought through the Mediterranean in the second book, the missile cruiser battles in the Pacific in the third. Besides the issues with the prose, the encounters fall short because the disparity between World War II ships that don’t know what they’re dealing with and a futuristic warship that does means that all the battles have to be contrived in some fashion. Pretty much the only things that work are various surprise gimmicks, close range, and pure numbers, and that’s barely enough to sustain a three-book series.

The ending still involves sequel hooks, but features the ship going back to its present with its crew having realized they started the (nuclear) World War III by firing on an American submarine. When they see the submarine after their “excursion”, they avoid attacking it. Meanwhile, their experiences have changed the “past” significantly. This would be a perfectly good conclusion that still gave room to continue, but it would have concluded three stilted, modestly out-there books. Instead, the series got bigger, more complicated, and, yes, better.

Review: Tiberium Wars

Command And Conquer: Tiberium Wars

The Keith DeCandido novelization of Command and Conquer: Tiberium Wars was widely denounced upon release. I was there on Spacebattles, and I saw the critiques. I read it, and I agreed.

If the book itself was in an original setting, it would be forgettable and bland, a spacesuit commando Marine Force One with a Mary Sue protagonist. The only real quibble would be extremely rapid procurement of new rifles. But as it stands, it doesn’t gel well with the Command and Conquer game. At all.

There might be a mitigating factor in that I’ve also heard that DeCandido got background material for “Tiberium”, the cancelled C&C FPS project and based the book of of that, which would explain some things like the abundance of rifles. However, whatever the circumstances, this is a book to avoid.

Review: Lethal Tribute

Lethal Tribute

A 2000s SuperBolan, Lethal Tribute tells the story of the Executioner as he fights a group of Hindu cultists with cloaking devices and their stolen nuclear weapons. By this point, Mack Bolan plots had long since devolved into “cheap thriller mad libs”. With the books being published at such a fast pace, it’s hard to imagine how they couldn’t have ended up that way.

That being said, this book is one of the better ones, by later Bolan standards-which may not be saying much. It still amounts to little but an overstuffed jumble of action scenes and very much feels (understandably) rushed. It still has the issue of its plot being so shallow (even by cheap thriller standards) that it needs filler. It still has the strange generic feeling that managed to last across different authors in the series. And it still manages to be both over-descriptive of weapons and sometimes inaccurate, listing two different calibers for the same helicopter gun on one page.

But the premise here is at least more out-there than just a plain “shoot the terrorist” novel. Some of the set pieces, from tank attacks to hallucinations, get crazier than usual, a silver lining of a weird “cheap thriller mad libs” result. The filler isn’t quite as obvious or clumsy as it’s been in some other Mack Bolans. Finally and most importantly, the Executioner himself is portrayed as a lot more vulnerable than he is in some other installments. The Gold Eagle Bolans are not what I’d recommend to action readers-they’re very smooth, disposable, mass-produced, measured and forgettable artificial thrillers from the Harlequin assembly line. But in comparison to some of the others, Lethal Tribute still looks just a little better.