Review: X-COM UFO Defense

X-COM UFO Defense

Video game novelizations do not have the best reputation. Keeping that in mind, how does Diane Duane’s work on the classic video game X-COM turn out?

The story of X-COM commander Jonelle Barrett running a base in Switzerland, Duane seems interested in making a huge effort to write about everything except fighting aliens. This by itself isn’t too bad. In terms of accuracy, X-COM, particularly the original, is as much about managing resources as it was battling the invaders. In terms of plausibility, no one’s going to be spending every waking moment shooting Sectoids. In terms of characterization, they shouldn’t be automaton spacesuit commandos.

And yet they basically are, for the book is about 95% pure padding. Descriptions of Swiss geography fill most of it, alongside what seems like an obligatory mention of every element in the game. The rest consists of half-hearted “she just looked at the names and wanted to get them over with” battles with redshirts that are every bit as expendable and forgettable as the actual minions one controls in the games. This is one of the most blatantly obvious “I did this for the money with no enthusiasm” books I’ve read.

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.

Review: Edison’s Conquest of Mars

Edison’s Conquest of Mars

From energy guns to ancient aliens building ancient civilization megastructures, a lot of sci-fi tropes originated in Edison’s Conquest of Mars. Besides that, this book is fascinating because of how min-max it is. A sequel to War of the Worlds bootlegs (it’s a bit of a long story), author Garrett Serviss made-something.

On one hand, the prose is terrible and flat even by 19th Century standards. It’s a self-promoting effort by the title character/famous person. The plot goes against Wells’ theme to a ridiculous extent. The most ridiculous elements seem mundane when actually described. It was originally a short-form serial and it shows in the writing.

And yet so much of the sci-fi cheap thriller was started, or at least popularized here. This, is very much like seeing a video game or movie that’s at the very, very beginning of its genre. It looks horrifically crude in comparison to its later successors, but you have to start somewhere.

Review: The One Who Eats Monsters

The One Who Eats Monsters

monstercover

Once again, Fuldapocalypse takes the plunge into a new genre. After seeing a good review of it on Spacebattles, I decided to read Casey Matthews’ The One Who Eats Monsters for myself.

This of course, is an “urban fantasy” novel, where you have supernatural entities hidden inside the modern world. Ryn, the protagonist is one of them, an ancient humanoid creature and vicious ‘hunter of monsters’. Throughout the book she alternates between being a vigilante and protecting a politician’s daughter she begins to develop very human feelings for.

Urban fantasy isn’t really a genre I read much of, although more for matters of admitted personal taste than any actual, inherent dislike. With that in mind, it was good for what it was. It definitely has some notable flaws. The human dialogue was often, er, “subpar”, and there were dramatic contrivances that made sense in-universe but still felt forced from a storytelling perspective.

But that’s more than made up for by the book having exactly what a cheap thriller needs to succeed-good action and good pacing. This definitely has both, although the sequel hook segment at the end is incredibly rushed.

The characterization is mixed but still ultimately positive. Many of the other characters are either shallow, stereotypical, or both. However, Ryn’s “monster with a conscience” is well-done, and that’s what matters most. Even the romance (and this is not a romantic fiction blog) is done surprisingly well-done.

One interesting note is that this is technically an alternate history novel. Among other things, supernatural shenanigans prolonged the existence of the Soviet Union (ah, those Fuldapocalypse zombie sorceresses). It reminded me, alternate history reader and writer, of this very big phenomena where a lot of fiction could be reasonably labeled “alternate history”, but because there’s no real incentive to do so, it isn’t.

I’m still not exactly a fan of urban fantasy, but I don’t regret taking a chance on a different genre with this book.

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.

Review: Sandstorm

Sandstorm

sandstormcover

James Rollins’ Sigma Force series begins with Sandstorm.

I might have a little bit of “hype backlash” because of the way this series has been praised so much. I might also be used to ridiculous thrillers because of the way I’ve actively sought them out, so what seems utterly crazy to a less prolific reader might not be that way to me.

That being said, this was a very good, very out-there cheap thriller. I’d describe it as a more tacticool version of Clive Cussler. The ridiculous technobabble and ancient puzzle-solving is there, but the action (which is both incredibly frequent and often janky) is more conventional and, for lack of a better word, “tactical”, save for an amazing scene where someone dual-wields pistols on horseback. While I like it, it’s not the best ever in my eyes.

 

Review: Opening Moves

Opening Moves

At the start of this blog, I thought that William Stroock’s World War 1990 was the worst World War III work of fiction I’d read. That is no longer the case. Colin Gee’s The Red Gambit: Opening Moves now holds, as of this post, that dubious “honor”.

Why have I made such a bold claim?

First, the prose is very poor and the book incredibly long and clunky. (And it’s just the beginning of a series!). This alone would have been enough for me to not recommend it. However, there’s more. Like Dragon’s Fury, it manages to stumble into seemingly all of the worst parts of the “big war thriller” (overdescription, characters that are too flat and too many at the same time, etc…) all at once. I mean, it has two conference room scenes in a row just at the beginning.

It also has the issue of being very close to World War II. This is one of the trickiest time periods to write a World War III in (for reasons of both military logic and storytelling) and it’s safe to say, especially given just how early Stalin attacks in-universe and how Japan allies with the Soviets (!), that Gee doesn’t do it right.

Although the biggest problem is how horrendously stereotyped everyone is. After reviewing Gee’s Atlantisch Crusaders, I kind of expected this, but that doesn’t make it any better. While terrible stereotypes don’t break a cheap thriller by themselves (if they did I’d have never read a single Casca book), this doesn’t present itself as a cheap thriller.

It presents itself as both a “crunchy” tale of military detail and as a sweeping war epic. For the former, the stereotypes, contrivances, and extreme premise counter whatever technically accurate rivet-counting details appeared. For the latter, the storytelling is just far too clunky for it to work.

Thus the stage is set for a truly gigantic mess. There’s stereotypical pulp, there’s overly rote “lines on a map” fiction, there are overlong big-picture doorstoopers, and then there’s this, which somehow manages to be all of the above.

 

Review: The Nash Criterion

The Nash Criterion

After three stumbles, Erec Stebbins suddenly struck the right note with The Nash Criterion.

After one bad and two middling thrillers, Stebbins suddenly turns into Jon Land-if not Hideo Kojima- with this ridiculously overstuffed tale of a second American Civil War and ancient world-controlling super conspiracies. This book just was so over-the-top that I grinned at every single later page.

A lot of times it’s hard to review additional books in a series. This is not one of them, as it offers a distinct change. Many more times, if there’s a distinct change worth pointing out, it’s a negative one as the series drops in quality. Here, the opposite is thankfully true. The INTEL 1 series has gained in quality with this book, and I was very glad to see it.

Review: Ward

Ward

The sequel to Spacebattles darling Worm, Ward arrived to much fanfare, to the point where the end of its author’s last web serial was overshadowed by antsy fans waiting for it to start. Now Ward itself has just finished.

When I started reading it, I saw that Wildbow’s literary issues didn’t change. The prose was too flat. The action likewise was too flat. The pacing had only two speeds: “Way too fast” and “Way too slow”. The descriptions are either overdetailed or underdetailed. I’d tried to follow all of his serials after Worm itself when they were written, and ended up just abandoning them.

Reading more of Ward, it has Worm’s problems, if not more. The structural issues mentioned above. The tendency to write into a corner and then ESCALATE out of it. The way the cosmology becomes ridiculous (you don’t include precognition as a power without good reason, much less two super-precogs, and that’s just one problem).

But really, Ward is a tragedy. I don’t mean inside the story itself, although it has plenty of dark moments. I mean that it’s dragged down by two big factors. The first is the legend of Worm bringing up unrealistic expectations (something Wildbow himself mentioned in his retrospective). The second is that its predecessor had just the right amount of factors to make it popular. Lightning was never going to strike twice.

One strange effect was that an improvement in the characterization actually doomed the serial. Worm’s fandom success hinged on Taylor, its protagonist, and her lack of what would normally be considered substance. Someone who was about 30% power fantasy of fighting back against the people who were just UNFAIR TO HER and 70% blank slate camera RPG protagonist created some strange incentives.

If you saw Worm as something that was more of a superhero RPG let’s play than anything else (which it comes across as), then the fanfiction boom made sense. Taylor’s bug power was just one “build” among others, and if the sole part of her character that filtered down was that wish fulfillment, then it’s easy to see why (combined with bandwagon inertia) why it got all the fanfiction it did on one small part of the internet.

So Victoria Dallon may have been an improved character, but the mystique was lost. Ward ended up as feeling to me like the kind of webfiction that, if you’re into it from the start (I wasn’t) you’d follow until it finished and then leave it behind.

 

 

 

Review: Life Without Giamotti

Life Without Giamotti

Sean Munger’s surreal Life Without Giamotti may be one of the most influential books I’ve read, with its surrealism influencing so much of my thinking with regards to fiction that I’ve sometimes had to step back and look to see if the tracks are there. For instance, my story thought of the pilot who finds his wingman is just a shell is, upon even a brief inspection, very much inspired by it. Possibly too much so. Oh well.

The narrative is a strange and unconventional one about an author and his character who has gained sapience. Perhaps fitting, it’s very hard to review. How can one score a book like this? It’s a strange book. Either you’ll think it’s a thought-provoking psychological story, pretentious emptiness, or a sum of parts that doesn’t quite add up to a whole. At times I’ve felt each of those opinions about this book.

Yet it’s well-written technically and its prose is sound. I can’t help but recommend it, to see if another reader will find it appealing.