Review: Area 51

Area 51

The first book in a long series, Bob Mayer’s Area 51 (originally published under the pen name “Robert Doherty”) is a “secret history” flying saucer thriller story. By itself, it’s a decent enough 51% book. What brings it down is, weirdly, the plot. Oh, there’s a few technical inaccuracies like having F-16s be around in 1970 and putting them on aircraft carriers, but the real issue I found was structural.

What my binge of Cussler-esque “find the ancient MacGuffin” books has taught me is that premise alone doesn’t make for a good read. And this is definitely the case with Area 51.

Here, there’s two problems with the alien technology. The first is that it’s too powerful in context. Not only does it function as a convenient plot enabler and deus ex machina, but it basically turns the entire book into watching a tale of the aliens. And that tale is dull and cliche. The second problem is that flying saucers don’t embody majesty and secrecy, but rather goofy Plan 9 From Outer Space kitsch.

The result is that the book is little but a throwaway curiosity.

Review: The Fourth K

The Fourth K

fourthk

Fuldapocalypse now turns its attention to Mario Puzo’s The Fourth K. Puzo was most famous for writing The Godfather. In one of his later books, he writes of a fictional member of the Kennedy family becoming president before facing a crisis overload. I was reminded most of Sidney Sheldon’s “gilded trash” with this novel.

So little of it makes sense to anyone really knowledgeable,which makes its supposed prescience backfire. Instead of going “A-ha, that foresaw (vaguely related event) “, I went “Well, in real life (vaguely related event) didn’t happen anything at all like this”.

The political details don’t make sense. The military details especially don’t make sense (Puzo seemed to have no idea how big a “division” of troops would be, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg). But when did not making sense stop me?

The bigger problem comes from the prose. Sheldon’s writing was very simple and flowed freely and easily. This is incredibly blocky and clunky. The plot feels like a badly-flowing sequence of events, and isn’t helped by the “crisis overload”. Imagine House of Cards, The Sum of All Fears, pure sleaze, and a bit of science fiction all jumbled together.

It’s easy to feel the “one man’s descent” storyline that Puzo was sort of aiming for, but there’s nothing to really reinforce it. It just comes across as wandering, vaguely coherent, gilded sleaze.

A Thousand Words: Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Alien Vs. Predator Arcade

Coming on the heels of my last post about beat ’em ups, one of the more interesting examples came from Capcom. The 1994 Alien Vs. Predator arcade game is fascinating. As a game, it has the same beautiful spritework you’d expect from a Capcom game of this time period. Its mixture of enemies is not exactly a bunch of street punks led by a well-dressed man with a gun.

But what the most interesting thing is is that it does what an adaptation needs to do. Granted, in many ways the setting tone is kind of incompatible with the game-you aren’t an outmatched human facing horrific, inhuman monsters, you’re beating up hordes of them en masse. But in terms of the pure essence, it distills all the convoluted lore into one simple goal. Humans reluctantly ally with monsters who sometimes want to kill them against both monsters who always want to kill them and a government/corporate conspiracy foolishly trying to use the latter monsters.

And this is done so well that Capcom could put a bubbly-voiced kounichi in and have it work.

 

 

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.

Review: Assault of the Super Carrier

Assault of the Super Carrier

supercarrierfinale

Peter Albano’s Seventh Carrier series comes to an ignominious end in Assault of the Super Carrier. The action has gotten incredibly repetitive, the worldbuilding feels like even more of a toy box, the novelty has worn off for a long time, the characters are horrifically stereotypical, and the base writing just isn’t good enough for eleven books.

There’s two things that make this last entry especially disappointing. The first is the “girl of the book” subplot becoming its sleaziest, most useless, and most distracting yet. The second is that there really isn’t an ending. There’s a battle that feels like every other battle in the series, a victory that should have been an arc-level one at best, and then the novel-and the whole series- just ends quickly.

What I’ve found after searching out books with novel setups is that they alone can’t carry a series. And this is the best example. Take away the goofy “carrier thaws out, jet/rocket engines get insta-zapped” setup, and all you’d have is something like Ian Slater, only with (even?) worse writing and a fixation on World War II military equipment. And like Slater, that’s not enough to sustain a huge amount of books by itself. Maybe the Seventh Carrier saga could have worked with three books. It couldn’t with this many.

Review: Super Carrier

Super Carrier

supercarrier

Peter Albano’s “epic” series about a thawed-out Shinano fighting in a world where the clock is turned back lasted for eleven books. With me not considering the first two of be of the highest quality, and hearing that they got very repetitive, I jumped to the second-to-last installment, Super Carrier.

And I probably didn’t jump far ahead enough, for the tenth book is very much like the second, only worse. A gigantic chunk at the beginning is devoted to a overly long mission in a B-24. A smaller but still horrendous portion consists of a tank battle that is not exactly the equal of Team Yankee or Tin Soldiers. Then there’s the “romances” and the girlfriends getting killed horribly for “poignancy”. Neither is written well.

The retro dogfighting also appears clunkier than I remembered it being in the first two books, and the list of horribly written national stereotypes grows even larger. This book is only recommended to people who really liked the past Seventh Carrier entries.

Review: Phantom Force

Phantom Force

A Mack Bolan novel from 1991, Phantom Force is the sort of book that you’d kind of feel would come out of a rushed adventure assembly line. Written by Rich Rainey, it tells the story of the Executioner fighting an evil Japanese cult.

It’s a 51% book through and through. I was not surprised in the least to feel this, for it’s what I expected it to be. No doubt it would accomplish its purpose for the person seeking a small, safe literary diversion. It’s just that even in the context of the cheap thriller, this sort of thing can be done so much better. I inevitably thought of Jerry Ahern’s The Yakusa Tattoo when I read this, and that book’s gonzo excess compared to the rote box-checking of this one could not be more different. You can probably judge for yourself which one would be more memorable.

At this point in time, the pulpy, rapid-fire “men’s adventure” genre was imploding even faster and even more thoroughly than the technothriller. The biggest reason was simple economics-these kind of slim throwaway books were just too low margin in a market already starting to decline and consolidate. The second-biggest was that visual media was now quite able to provide violent, trashy entertainment in a much more suitable form. But a lack of quality cannot be overlooked.

I know this from personal experience. Even when younger and hungry for cheap thrillers, the output of the collapsing Gold Eagle line never appealed to me. I’ve read a few of them since then, but never to the degrees I’ve gone for other lines. And Phantom Force doesn’t seem that much different.

Of course, it’s another comment on the book’s value when writing about the context is more interesting to me than writing about the story itself.

Review: The Vengeance Of The Tau

The Vengeance Of The Tau

The first Blaine McCracken book to stumble, The Vengeance Of The Tau is an interesting case study in how a series can lose its mark while still remaining good. This still has all of Land’s strengths and weaknesses.

Where it goes wrong, besides just having big shoes to fill, is in the revelation of its MacGuffin. While Land is normally great at slowly building up and finally showing what ridiculous premise the book has as its foundation, here he implies something incredible and reveals it to be more lame and mundane. This isn’t just the final gimmick turning out to be something less than Land’s most out-there, it’s an example of going backwards that he almost never does in other books.

This, combined with somewhat less crazy set pieces, makes this lesser in comparison to McCracken books that came before and after it. In a vaccuum it’s still Jon Land, and it’s not even the worst book in the series, but there are definitely better ones.

Review: 38 North Yankee

38 North Yankee

Ed Ruggero’s debut novel, 38 North Yankee, tells the story of an American infantry company in a Second Korean War. It has its issues, but works a lot better than his later book, Firefall. That had a ridiculous setup it didn’t need. This is more grounded and plausible.

Ruggero’s legitimate veteran status both gives the book a degree of verisimilitude and makes it diverge too often into Herman Melville territory.  Most of the “box checking” elements are done right. There are viewpoint characters but not too many. There are things that realistically go wrong. Unlike John Antal’s significantly worse Proud Legions, he doesn’t overemphasize the important of the main character’s unit. This is one of the most grounded “big war thrillers” I’ve read.

However, it also has the weaknesses of being grounded. The viewpoint jumps and the over-detail (including maps) clashes with the fog of war inherent in such thing. And by aiming for the plausibility it does, it sometimes stumbles into the trap of “military action can be written in a plausible or engaging/exciting way , but it’s very hard to do both.” It’s a problem that neither writers of truly serious fiction nor Mack Maloney have, but which something of this nature does.

That being said, none of these are deal-breakers and the book is very much worth a read. It might be the best Second Korean War novel I’ve read, even more than Red Phoenix.

Another (but similar) opinion can be found on the Books That Time Forgot blog.

Review: Drakon

Drakon

drakoncover

The fourth book in the Draka series, Drakon is the story of the Draka utterly triumphant, having bioengineered humanity into master and servant subspecies-in one universe, with only the descendants of those who escaped the “Final War” to stand against them. Too bad homo drakenis Gwendolyn Ingolfsson got sucked through a wormhole experiment into the then-present. She plots to take over the world for the Draka, with only a strange cast of people from multiple universes to stop her.

This isn’t really alternate history, even in the most fleeting sense. It’s pure cheesy science fiction, a “fight the Terminator-Predator-Amazon” story. Drakon is as sleazy as it’s cheesy, with Stirling never missing a chance to throw in a lurid detail. And while it works as a turn-your-brain-off “51% book”, there are some legitimate and serious flaws.

First, it doesn’t have, say, Jon Land’s sense of buildup. Too much is revealed too fast, and the residual baggage of the alternate history background burdens it even more. Second, the conclusion is an utter clunker. That is to say, it’s a simultaneously confusing and rushed mess of escalation that ends with a contrivance and ridiculously obvious setup for a sequel that understandably never came. Third, the only interesting character is Ingolfsson herself, and even she could be done a lot better.

Take away the fandom controversy and the legitimately distinct (however dubious) alternate history that made up the first three installments, and all you have is, as I’ve said before, tawdry fiction that, while not unreadable or unenjoyable, wouldn’t really stand out.