Review: Tarnsman of Gor

Tarnsman of Gor

The Gor series is perhaps the most infamous science fiction one ever. Yet you’d never know it from the beginning entry, Tarnsman of Gor. What that is is a somewhat sleazier and really, really blatant John Carter of Mars knockoff. As transported Earthman Tarl Cabot goes to a world of barbarians, slavery, and giant birds (the titular “tarns”), a clunky narrative ensues.

The series devolved fairly quickly into what is best known as slave sleaze, where it becomes filled with blocky rants about how men holding women as slaves is the best, most natural form of society, and how many Earthwomen suddenly find themselves loving being slaves. This isn’t as present in the first installment, but Cabot is still not exactly the most ideal protagonist.

More interesting than the blocky prose is how the series got its reputation: I mean, there’s certainly no shortage of outright and far more explicit sleaze fiction, whether in the 1960s-70s or today. So why do sci-fi/fantasy fans turn their anger more on Gor and not those? I’d argue that it’s because it makes the fig leaf of “sword and planet adventure” too blatant, putting it in a different standard. Even Dray Prescot got into mocking Gor, naming a barbaric continent of slavers “Gah”.

But yeah, even in the early, less problematic books, I can unhesitatingly say: Skip Gor. Author John Norman rivals William W. Johnstone for “worst mainstream published author”, and that is no small feat.

Review: Siege

Siege

Edwin Corley’s Siege is a 1968 thriller with a bizarre premise. In many ways it’s like the ahead-of-its-time version of Mike Lunnon-Wood’s Dark Rose. Except everything the much later Dark Rose does right, this does wrong.

The premise here is that Black Power militants are holding Manhattan hostage so that the American government will give them New Jersey as a new homeland for African Americans. As a New Yorker, I am obligated to bash Jersey, but I will suppresses the urges here. This makes it seem like the book would be wacky. But it’s actually not. It’s very dreary and sometimes even ugly.

First, the obvious issue. You might think a cheap thriller from 1968 would not be the most progressive or racially sensitive novel. And you would be right. But even by those low standards, the racial content becomes outright uncomfortable too many times here. Second, even leaving that aside, the book is terribly paced. Like Richard Rohmer, it’s just mostly meetings and plans, and the competence of the characters changes on a dime. Skip this book. It’s not worth it.

Review: McNamara’s Folly

McNamara’s Folly: The Use Of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War

Involving applicants and draftees who would previously have been rejected, Project 100,000 was one of the least-covered but most horrendous parts of the Vietnam War. Hamilton Gregory, who served along multiple “entrants”, writes one of the most scathing and personally touching history books in McNamara’s Folly. I say “personal” because I have some mental conditions, and growing up, went to school with others with traits very similar to those described in the book. To send these people into battle, whatever one thinks of the Vietnam War as a whole, feels particularly wrong-as did the theory that military service would make them better.

Project 100,000 was done mostly to avoid tapping into a National Guard/reserve force that came from a wealthier and more politically sensitive background (only around a hundred National Guardsmen were killed in action in the whole war). Its recruits were killed in action at a rate three times greater that of serving soldiers as a whole. Officers of all ranks hated the program, and their reactions ranged from trying to steer the “Moron Corps” (or less nice terms) people into the least dangerous areas to having them be the point man on patrols because of perceived expendability. Gregory is clear to point out that he could not find any confirmed cases of Project 100,000 recruits being deliberately executed by their compatriots to prevent their ineptitude from resulting in more deaths, but the constant rumors are telling.

Weaving personal experiences (such as one particularly chilling story of a fellow recruit who didn’t even know that the Vietnam War was happening when he entered boot camp) with scholarly research, this is an excellent recounting of a project that benefited no one, save for maybe the North Vietnamese.

Review: Once an Eagle

Once an Eagle

A fairly long time ago, I received Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle as a gift, because I liked books on military fiction. This book is a classic of its genre and is very highly spoken of. The only issue is, well, I didn’t like it very much. Granted, my first impression of it was clouded simply by a mismatch of tastes. To me (esp. at the time), “military fiction” meant Dale Brown-style thrillers. This book is a sweeping pop epic that just happens to have the American military as its setting, the way my own The Sure Bet King has the underground sports betting industry or Susan Howatch’s Sins of the Fathers has the New York banking industry.

However, even accepting that it’s an orange rather than an apple, I still don’t think it’s a very good orange. Main character Sam Damon is an obvious and massive Mary Sue, and the Manichean nature of the book doesn’t really suit a horrifically complex subject. Maybe if Myrer’s writing fundamentals were really good, they could have saved the book. They aren’t.

You could definitely do (and people undoubtedly have done) a gigantic, excellent pop epic on a long military career. But this is not it.

Review: Hitler’s Last Levy

Hitler’s Last Levy

Hans Kissell was chief of operations for the German “Volkssturm” (lit. “People’s Storm”), the infamous last-ditch militia created at the end of World War II. In Hitler’s Last Levy, published in German in the 1960s and translated decades later, he told their story. It’s an interesting look at a horrific footnote.

The Volkssturm was both a desperation formation and Martin Bormann’s attempt at making his own pet army (like the SS was for Himmler or the Luftwaffe ground formations were for Goering). Kissell goes into detail and includes a massive amount of direct primary sources. While this is a work by a German WWII commander, its subject matter makes it at least a little better than the usual “we fought in our unstoppable kitty-tanks until we ran out of ammunition and fought totally cleanly” memoirs. It’s impossible to portray the ragged old men as some kind of super-army, and they had far less opportunity to commit war crimes simply because by that point they were losing. And Kissell doesn’t hesitate to point to their (many) weaknesses.

Because of this, and because of the wealth of primary sources and details (for instance, describing how on paper, some Volkstturm battalions had an organic battery of captured anti-tank guns), I recommend this for anyone wanting to know about them or similar emergency territorial formations. Yes, it’s dated and slanted. But it’s not nearly as bad in those regards as you might think.

Review: Brute Madness

Brute Madness

Ledru Baker’s Brute Madness is the kind of book I haven’t read in a while. The kind of novel that’s both ridiculously stupid and ridiculously, stupidly fun. A hardboiled Cold War spy thriller about a nuclear scientist and a woman, this book has action, adventure, and… well, what made me see the book in the first place.

That “distinction”, and one that made me go “I have to see this” when I heard it was the claim that the book had some of the worst sex scenes ever written. I was not “disappointed”. In fact, the book has the audacity to make such a scene its very first paragraph. Wow. Adding to the uh, experience is Baker’s constant repetition of the word “erect” to refer to things like someone standing up, something with obvious Freudian connotations.

The book overall is an ultra-trashy cheap thriller. But it’s a fun ultra-trashy cheap thriller. There’s definitely a place out there for horribly so-bad-its-good books like this.

A Thousand Words: The Blue Max

The Blue Max

A classic World War I aircraft film, 1966’s The Blue Max is the story of Bruno Stachel, a self-absorbed, vainglorious fighter pilot in the German military. How does it hold up today? Well, I think it suffers from being a product of its time, although not in the way one might think.

For its time, the aerial flying sequences and acting are very good. For its time, it’s an edgy and hard-hitting movie compared to the stereotypical John Wayne fluff of war movies past. Yet by modern standards, it pales in comparison to what post-Vietnam war films have to offer. Still, that’s through no fault of its own and it’s still a very good historical fiction film.

As an aside, I’ve heard it’s one of the few movies to depict largely realistic air combat maneuvering. Later movies have gone for more visually impressive but less practical aerobatics. This goes for wider, bigger turns. It may be a virtue made out of necessity with the lower-performance planes involved in production, but it’s still interesting to see.

The Big Baseball Business What-If

There’s an underappreciated what-if concerning the business of baseball that I’ve considered worth exploring. Too much sports alternate history simply shuffles players, teams, and outcomes around. It feels both obvious and unsatisfying to me, the equivalent of the Red Sox unloading not just Babe Ruth but the entire core of what would become the 1923 champions on the Yankees or the A’s “Mustache Gang” all leaving in free agency when they got the chance. This is something different and could have changed the entire business model to be more like what’s in our time a vastly different type of sports.

In the 1950s, the Dodgers were intrigued by a company called Skiatron, offering pay-TV services. The technology did exist at the time but was very rudimentary. The possiblities were obvious. After all, even at a dollar per game, a six figure audience could translate to that much every home game, a huge sum at the time.

In OTL, this did not come to pass in this form. Besides the obvious ferocious opposition from the existing broadcasting industry, Skiatron’s technology and finances just weren’t viable at the time. But if something like that could be done (and I don’t know the exact plausibility-I’m not that kind of technical expert), it would be, no pun intended, a game changer. The obvious is that there’d be a big jolt of money, getting the historical broadcast windfall in earlier.

There are easy ramifications. There’d be more money in the sport, which would increase the pressure by players to get more of the growing pie for themselves. A historically unsuccessful team that used this to its advantage would result in the championship races being different. But there’s also more thoughtful ones.

One on-the-field change I could see resulting from this could be in pitcher usage. Here I’m kind of extrapolating from the “overworked for the sake of attendance” policy of Mark “The Bird” Fidrych (which may have contributed to his severe injury). I’m also extrapolating from boxing and MMA, which historically have leaned the most on PPVs. Put simply, more people have been willing to pay to see Connor McGregor than to see Valentina Shevchenko. And I’d bet more people would be more willing to see Sandy Koufax than Ned Garver.

Another, sleazier one is the notion of small-market/poor team owners simply giving up and advertising the players on the opposing team for the PPV spectacle. “Hey, [Small City], do you want to see the Yankees? The Dodgers? The [other good team with an exciting player]?” There are possibilities here.

Review: Dune

Dune

It’s finally here. The time has come to do a review of Dune, Frank Herbert’s legendary science fiction classic. Arrakis is a very long way from the Fulda Gap. This book is not the usual fare of this blog. Even beyond that, it’s pretty tricky to get a really solid opinion on, because it has two qualities that are both richly deserved.

On one hand, it deserves to be a classic. It’s one of those sci-fi books that has genuine depth, and you can see how enduring and influential its setting is, even little factors like me thinking that Jabba the Hutt had to be inspired by Vladimir Harkonnen. Compared to spacesuit commandos and Kenneth Bulmer making up five million words for “plot-creature”, this is the real deal.

Unfortunately, it’s also a novel that’s written in an overly long, overly flat manner. While it has the imagination to back it up, its prose is still over-descriptive. And while this obviously isn’t Herbert’s fault, Dune has been famous enough that seeing its world doesn’t bring about the sense of wonder it would have to a far more fresh reader.

Dune is both of those things, which makes it very hard to actually judge. But science fiction is richer for it having existed. It can be an apple that stands alongside the pulpier oranges.

The Beginning of Conventional WW3 Plans

I’ve talked sometimes about the “you’ve seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect with regards to fiction. When reading this translated, declassified 1969 Soviet lecture on conventional operations after the monomanical focus on nuclear weapons earlier that decade, I’ve found it applied to history as well. Because a lot of it just seems like later pieces on how a large force would fight conventionally. And there’s more interesting things to it as well.

  • “A future world war is first and foremost a nuclear war.” Similar pieces illustrate that while the Soviets had made plans under the assumption that a World War III would start conventionally, they did not believe that it would end conventionally.
  • This is for front and army level operations, with one frequently replacing the other. This I’ve seen a lot of in translated Soviet field regulations, to include two unit names being used interchangeably, one an echelon below the other. The assumption I’ve always had is that it’s a concession to heavy casualties because your “front” will quickly be worn down to the size of a paper-strength army, your army worn to a paper-strength division, and so on. I could be wrong.
  • The stated rate of advance is 35-40 kilometers a day, a slightly lower one than their later 40-60.
  • Airborne forces are to be used.
  • The “going over to nuclear weapons” section specifically brings up the opponent pushing the button as soon as they start losing badly.
  • With typical Soviet precision, the article estimates “A fighter bomber division is capable, in one day of combat with two to three sorties, of inflicting destruction (up to 20 percent losses) on one to two enemy brigades.”
  • As always, there’s the boilerplate necessary propaganda statements and the obligatory (if quite understandable) reference to World War II.