Review: Soviet Era Airliners

Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades

In many ways, Aeroflot mirrored the USSR itself. Its breakup in 1991 scattered the massive airline’s assets across all the independent republics. Christopher Buckley’s Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades tells the story of what happened to all the “Classics”, “Crusties”, “Carelesses”, “Clobbers”, and more. While the collapse of the USSR and the failure of its aviation industry to make a competitive product caused its new-build civil aircraft industry to fall apart instantly, there were lots of surplus planes around.

This book does a great job showing most of their fates. There’s lots of details and even more excellent photographs. If you like civil aviation at all, this is a great book. I was curious to see what happened to these flying trilobites, and now I know.

Weird Wargaming: Missile Iowas

The Command database now has many more hypothetical proposed missile upgrades of the Iowa-class battleships, including adding a ramp for fixed-wing aircraft in one entry (!). These ships bring a very strange feeling to me. Because they inspire equal parts awe, horror, and disgust.

See, the problem is that missile launchers intended for long-distance operations render the 16 inch guns nothing but a heavy explosive risk. This has been known in real life too. There was a serious consideration during the reactivation of the Iowas (primarily to have tons of box launchers for Tomahawks) of just leaving the guns closed up and inoperable. They’d be unlikely to fire in a fleet action, and if they did fire, it couldn’t be good for any sensitive machinery in the rest of the ship.

So my head regards the Missile Iowas with derision. But my heart adores them. Simply because of how crazy and audacious they are. Do I really need to explain this?

Anyway, for the boring details, they’d likely be used in a way similar to how the real 1980s reactivated Iowas were. As the centerpiece of surface action groups. If you wanted to be cold-hearted, you could treat them as expendable sunk costs. But you can also revel in the absurdity.

Arthur Hailey: Technothriller Writer?

Generally speaking, alternate history questions about how some creative artist’s career could have gone differently are not my favorite thing. There are just too many inputs and inspirations, and one would be hard pressed to find something more volatile than popular culture tastes. That being said, I’ve found one author who I can definitely see sliding into a different genre if he’d come to fame 10-15 years later.

That author is Arthur Hailey, most famous for his novel Airport, which inspired the movie that spawned the entire disaster genre (and its parody in Airplane!). Hailey loved to write books that examined a complex thing (be it banks, airports, car factories, or what not) in amazing detail, before climaxing in some kind of crisis. He also loved technology to the point of taking too many futurists at face value (Passenger pods loaded into planes on conveyor belts!)

Hmmm, massively researched technical detail? A love of technology? That sounds like he’d be right at home with technothrillers.

In fact, I can so easily imagine Arthur Hailey’s Aircraft Carrier. The carrier and everything from the catapults to the air tasking order is described in minute detail. As is the drama surrounding members of the crew, which will consist of at least two middle-class Americans committing adultery. Then, in the final chapters of the book, the carrier will sail into action! But it won’t be a full on Fuldapocalyptic world war with the carrier fending off a hundred Tu-22s in the GIUK Gap while a nuclear sword of Damocles hangs over everyone’s head. Hailey just wasn’t that high stakes a writer, and his target audience probably wouldn’t go for something as tense as that. It would probably be something like El Dorado Canyon, probably against a fictional OPFOR country. The carrier accomplishes its mission, but not before a million more “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL” infodumps are launched and at least one of the adulterers is blown up.

Look, I didn’t say it was going to be a good technothriller.

Indeed, as much as Clancy and Bond’s books may have been dated and rendered less potent by their technology becoming considerably less novel, Hailey’s have aged far worse. And I’m not (just) talking about their culture and characterization. Their entire gimmick is “this is a thing.” And if you already have the slightest familiarity with that thing in ways that audiences in the 1960s and 1970s did not, the books become empty clunkfests.

Still, it’s very easy to see the success of someone who wrote in a very similar style (Airport is basically a peacetime technothriller, after all) translating to something else down the road. That’s the fun of alternate history.

Review: Crimson Star

Crimson Star

The third Maelstrom Rising book, Peter Nealen’s Crimson Star takes the action to the American west. With the collapse into anarchy and invasion underway, the Triarii have their hands full. Having read this, I feel like it is both a lot better and a lot worse than the first two books.

First, the good. It’s written in third person, which is so much more suitable for a work of this nature. So much. Granted, the viewpoints are a little too restricted (try telling pre-Fuldapocalypse me that I’d think that), but it’s still a huge step that makes it so much better to read. And of course the action takes advantage of the larger scope, with lots of vehicle units and large forces. It is as good as anything else Nealen has done.

Now, the bad. The annoying slobbering over the Mary Sue protagonists reaches new heights. Any alternative to them is viewed as a completely incompetent obstacle. The narration does everything but say that their training was a combination of “SEAL, Ranger, Special Forces, and gutter fighting.” It got irritating, and it would be even more so if I hadn’t adjusted my expectations. After all, it sold itself as Larry Bond. By now, it’s actually Jerry Ahern’s The Defender updated to the present with more realistic battle scenes.

Do they balance each other out? My answer is: I still want to read the next book in the series. Make of that what you will.

A Thousand Words: Airport

Airport: The Movie

I was not exactly the fondest of the original novel Airport. So what did I think about the Burt Lancaster movie, which basically created the disaster genre? It was mixed, but I’m willing to give it a break based on its limitations. Having read the book first was not the best way to appreciate the movie, especially as it tracks the plot well. Too well.

First off, the cinematography is dated and clunky. This isn’t the movie’s fault, but it was one of the last “old fluffy Hollywood” movies, and it was made just before movies got more dynamic and more of an edge (the low body count in this compared to later disaster films is something.) But that’s not really its fault.

What I do think is its fault is trying to cram too many subplots from the book into an inherently shorter movie. A looser adaptation would have been preferable, especially because the book is not very movie friendly. It has too much overhang of “look inside an airport” and less focus on the main “a plane is in danger” plot.

Thankfully, the cast and crew are undeniably talented, and they do the best within these limitations. It’s easy to see why it made so many imitators, and at the time, it would have been seen rightfully as a giant spectacle.

Review: The Rich and the Righteous

The Rich and the Righteous

I’d already known why Sidney Sheldon had the appeal that he did. One of his strengths that appealed to a lot of readers (including me), was a very simple, easy, and smooth-flowing writing style. The virtues of this writing become far more apparent when you read another “pop epic” that doesn’t have that advantage. Helen Van Slyke’s The Rich and the Righteous is one such book.

The story of a struggle for corporate control, this is like a specific type of airplane. It has an excellent shape regarding aerodynamics. It has excellent sensors and a cockpit layout. There’s just one small problem: Its engine can’t get it off the ground. Likewise, Van Slyke is one of the blockiest, clunkiest authors I’ve read, and thus what should be interesting just sort of taxis down the runway and then falls into a ditch. Ouch.

Which is a shame. But oh well.

The Box MLRS Revolution

The BM-30 Smerch remains a fearsome weapon. It’s often compared and not unreasonably to the M270 MLRS on the opposite side of the Berlin Wall. But in many ways, it’s like the last generation of propeller aircraft, while the MLRS was one of the first jets. And I’m not talking about guided rounds.

One of the biggest differences is that the Smerch has to be manually reloaded one rocket at a time. The MLRS/HIMARS just involves plopping in a new canister full of rounds (and the launch vehicle itself has a crane to boot). Many other newer systems (primarily Chinese, Israeli, and Turkish) also use the canister system, even if some still need the extra expense and risk of a separate loading vehicle.

Though too little and late for the current war, the Russians did eventually go for the box MRL with the Tornado series. However, I’m earnestly baffled why they didn’t try to do so more while the USSR was still intact, given the obvious advantages of such a system. Sunk costs of existing rockets and later post-1991 financial troubles are a possibility. Or maybe it was because the Smerch’s giant rockets couldn’t be canisterized. But still, given the prominence of artillery, and the use of other mechanical aids (automated naval vessels, autoloaders for tanks), it still is a little surprising.

Review: Holding Action

Holding Action

Peter Nealen’s second installment in the Maelstorm Rising series, Holding Action is an attempt at a bigger-scope war than the small-unit ones that make up a lot of his other books. Here it’s a clash in Poland in a campaign very clearly inspired by Larry Bond’s Cauldron (which was reviewed by the author and read for inspiration). And I’m sad to say I found it somewhat lacking.

The first and biggest problem is that the book is both written in first person perspective and clearly wants to be a big-scope tale. This square peg and round hole do not exactly align properly. And it’s not like the reader gets an excellent character study from it: The biggest trait I remembered in the main character was him being Catholic.

The second is that the Triarii, the “military NGO” that the protagonists serve in, feel like Mary Sues in ways that Brannigan’s Blackhearts never did. The Blackhearts are a bunch of expendable, disposable people doing underground dirty work. These are propped up as the centerpiece of fighting, more so than the bumbling regular American army. And listening to the narrator extol their awesomeness and the regular army’s weakness doesn’t exactly help matters either. The third and least important is that the setting tries to walk a tightrope between “plausible” and “distinct” and doesn’t really stay balanced.

That being said, the actual nuts and bolts action is as good as always, and I don’t fault Nealen at all for trying something very ambitious. It’s just that when you aim high, there’s a greater risk of falling short. This is a definite “uneven 51%” book. And there are worse things I could have called it. Besides, it’s fun to review an actual conventional World War III novel and go back to the blog’s roots.

Review: The Machine That Changed The World

The Machine That Changed The World

The product of a large MIT study of the auto industry, The Machine That Changed The World attempts to tell the story of “lean production”. The two other production types of motor vehicles mentioned in the book are obvious: Handmade/custom “craft production”, only used for a handful of low-unit firms, and classic assembly line “mass production”. But what is “lean production”? This was and still is a hard question to answer. But in its attempt, the book is an excellent study of the car industry.

One hand, this is a masterpiece in many ways. It’s a very technical but also very accessible study. It shows the difference between the older and newer ways of auto production very clearly. And its anecdotes are good in and of themselves.

But it also has some pretty serious flaws. This book is not only dated, but also was released at the absolute peak of the Japanese market bubble. So its veneration of Japanese production when the industry had a huge tailwind and was yet to experience a massive stress test needs to be taken with a large quantity of salt.

That being said, while not the most definitive book on auto production, it’s still a great historical resource.