Review: Vati

Vati

R. M. Meluch’s Vati is a short story originally printed in the Alternate Generals anthology and since republished as a standalone ebook. It’s an alternate history with the divergence being Werner Moelders surviving and getting the wunderwaffe into service. Of course, the war still does not end well for Germany, with the Allies turning to something that makes a very, very big boom.

Although written before The Big One, and with likely no cross-pollination, I can’t help but think of Vati as “TBO done right”. Less rivet-counting technical accuracy to be sure, but a far more concise and far more literary way of illustrating the same point-“give the Germans their wunderplanes and see what good it truly does them.” Even without comparisons, this is well worth a read.

Review: Vortex (Larry Bond)

Vortex (Larry Bond)

Larry Bond’s Vortex is a tale of war in southern Africa, as a revanchanist South Africa seeks to retake Namibia, with the opposition of Cuba and the Americans drawn into it. My first proper Larry Bond novel in some time, I wanted to see how this, his last pre-Soviet collapse novel went. And the answer, sadly, is “not too well”.

I knew his style, and, starting this blog, thought it was a lot more common than it actually was. I knew it’d have a lot of conference room scenes. I knew it would have a very long opening act to set up the war everyone knows is going to happen. I knew it would hop around viewpoint characters a lot and focus on each and every part of the war. Yet I wasn’t prepared for how excessive all of it would be. This is the longest, clunkiest, and, I hate to say it, worst Larry Bond I’ve read.

It takes over a hundred pages just to get to the conference rooms. The book has this weird “too hot and too cold” feeling where it stays for a while on a low-rate cloak and dagger plot in the first half and then explodes into too many tangled threads in the second. Naturally, all of this makes the ending too contrived and neat.

This is a shame because the premise-expanding on a real conflict with truly interesting participants and tactics in a theater of war genuinely unfamiliar to many Americans-is a very good one. Which makes it being squandered in this huge mess all the worse. Bond has written much better than this, and his other works have similar-level battle scenes without the structural failings here.

Review: The Rules of The Game

The Rules of The Game: Jutland And British Naval Command

In the seventh game of the 2001 World Series, Mariano Rivera faced Tony Womack, giving up a game-tying hit and setting the stage for Luis Gonzalez to win the series for the Diamondbacks. In that plate appearance, Womack triumphed. In the rest of their careers, it was quite potentially the greatest relief pitcher ever (Rivera) against a poor hitter whose sole virtue was speed in baserunning (Womack). A sample size of one doesn’t lead to good results.

Unfortunately, this is what Andrew Gordon tries to do in The Rules Of The Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, a history epic that is equal parts awe-inspiring and frustrating. When younger, I hung on this book’s every word. Now, it comes across highly erratic. See, the writing quality is still amazing. The research and attention to detail is excellent as well. In terms of historiography, Gordon stands out.

It’s just a shame that in terms of slant, he stands out as well.

Gordon is one of the few historians who stands with David Beatty over John Jellicoe, and his defense is weird. In the actual book, Gordon points out Beatty’s flaws -he put the slower but most-armored Queen Elizabeth battleships in the back of his formation, he didn’t coordinate more, he was a ‘difficult’, arrogant person that nobody liked, and so on. And yet he still supports the BCF commander on “his heart was in the right place” grounds. You know, he was scrappy, and he had that clutch spirit.

With a bias towards a decisive victory that never truly needed to happen, the book comes across as not what it could have been. Gordon takes that sample size of one (hey, remember the time a relief pitcher with only two career plate appearances managed a double off of Randy Johnson? The time Muggsy Bogues blocked a shot from Patrick Ewing?) and seems to just miss the forest for the trees-or if he doesn’t, he barely dwells on it.

This book is still a huge accomplishment and one very much worth reading. It just needs to be understood that it’s not exactly the most neutral in tone.

Review: The Stars Shine Down

The Stars Shine Down

Sidney Sheldon’s The Stars Shine Down is the story of ruthless businesswoman Lara Cameron, her rise and fall as she builds a real estate empire and gets entangled with everyone from mob lawyers to piano players. It’s the type of gilded trash melodrama I know very well after reading so many of his books. This one, released later in his life, feels a little less than his at his best. It’s still a very readable book, and it’s still well ahead of The Other Side of Midnight. Yet there’s just so much that brings it down. And it’s not just the formula being familiar to me by now.

The plot is a little more scattershot than what Sheldon was capable of in some of his other books, and the ending feels a little rushed. There are a few weird choices like the decision to have all the Scottish character dialogue in clunky phonetic writing that subtracts more than it adds. Sheldon focuses too much on the nuts and bolts of Lara’s building development, something he doesn’t write well.

One legitimately good part is its main character, with Lara drawing both opposition and sympathy. As Sheldon at his worst wrote characters as either dumb, naive dopes or ruthless Machiavellian masterminds, having someone who can truly have elements of both strikes me as a solid achievement. The protagonist is arguably Sheldon’s best I’ve read so far. It’s just the book around her isn’t.

Gulf War Anniversary

On the 30th anniversary of the 1991 Gulf War, I have these things to say.

  • The question of how successful the Iraqis could have been if they’d attacked into Saudi Arabia during the earlier part of Desert Shield is an open and disputed one. Even after the historical war, American commanders had different opinions.
  • While I believe it played a role in the decline of the technothriller, I don’t want to overstate it. According to the analysis of bestseller charts by Nader Elhefnawy, the technothriller was already on its way down significantly in 1990. My opinion is that it wasn’t the one-sided nature of the war so much as how it made high technology weapons look routine and normal.
  • Another part of this belief is that “big war thrillers” both continued to be published post-1991 (Cauldron, The Sixth Battle, etc…), and that they were always very rare to begin with.
  • Of course, I don’t think the Gulf War helped the technothriller either.
  • The very first time I used the word “Fuldapocalypse” was in a message board post on the Gulf War, where I mentioned the Americans were “revved up for a Fuldapocalypse“. It turned out to inspire the name of this blog.

Review: Armor Attacks

Armor Attacks

John Antal’s Armor Attacks is essentially a choose your own adventure book about a tank platoon. Created as a training tool, it was originally released shortly before the Gulf War. Thus it provides a window into Fuldapocalyptic tank battles.

The premise is that the Krasnovians (or, as they’re called in the book, the “Threat”-essentially a Soviet-style OPFOR) wants to seize the Middle East, and the Americans (and you) must stop them. While it shouldn’t be fair to criticize what’s clearly just a setup for the instructional vignettes he wants, I should still point out the Melville-esque prose clearly leaves something to be desired. Everyone talks in unrealistically robotic, exact terms. It’s understandable, but I still didn’t really like it in that sense.

At least this doesn’t do what Antal did in his first proper novel, Proud Legions, and try to make the reader’s unit the absolute conflict-defining centerpiece. The low, dirty place of the reader is emphasized, and rightfully so. Which is a good thing, as the actual vignettes/choices are well done.

I was “genre-savvy” enough to make some of the right decisions when I tried a run through of one of the scenarios. Tanks are more vulnerable to artillery than you might think, so don’t stay in one spot too long. Taking on a company of T-72s with a platoon of M1s is totally viable, even with 105mm M1s (I have the feeling that this would have been less intuitive pre-Gulf War). And so on.

However, and this may have been the legacy of The Henry Stickmin Collection and its “failure is just as good and entertaining as success” mindset at work, I also attacked up the middle. It didn’t go so well. In fact, I’d have loved for one of the scenarios to be a “Kobayashi Maru” one where you get wiped out no matter what you do.

The newest digital edition of this book does the orginal one better by showing the instructor’s material used. To me at least this was fascinating and interesting. For anyone interested in tanks of the period, I highly recommend this book.

A Thousand Words: High Seas Havoc

High Seas Havoc

Data East’s High Seas Havoc is one of the many 1990s mascot platformers. In fact, it was so generic at first glance that when I saw footage of it and wanted to look further, it took some effort to do so. Still, looking at it closely shows some interesting things and some that are very well-done.

The title character, a sailor seal (no, not that kind) has to save the damsel in distress and Macguffin Gem from an evil pirate lord. The opening part is a sort of semi-soft attempt to sort of, maybe a little, come close to Sonic. There’s slopes but not really any mechanics to take advantage of them. The base mechanics are a lot different too-most notably, you have a refillable health bar instead of anything like rings. Then the game gives up on that and goes back to being a completely traditional platformer. It also becomes a lot harder.

Though janky (the main character really needed to be able to use the sword he was shown as having in the box art instead of relying on an iffy flying kick) and having all the issues of a “B-list” game, this is never outright bad. Certainly it’s not a rushed absolute low-effort game like too many other trend-following platformers of this time. And this especially shows in the music. Emi Shimizu’s soundtrack is one of the most underappreciated ever, with my favorite track being “Cold Paradise“.

The level that song plays on, Frozen Palace, is also something to behold. It’s a variant on the typical “mechanical works” level, albeit with freezers and water instead of the usual molten metal. Combined with hovering meditating dogs (yes, really) as some of the enemies, it’s definitely the most unique stage in this game. The rest is more generic, but the graphics are still well done for the time.

There is some undeniable “inspiration” from Sonic and the game is in the same basic field, but it’s different enough thematically and gameplay-wise to not be considered a mere lazy ripoff. Probably the biggest issue besides “cartoon animals” is the gem Macguffin, and that’s small. And did I mention the soundtrack is amazing?

Review: The Thran

The Thran

J. Robert King’s The Thran is meant as a backstory novel in the setting of Magic: The Gathering. It tells the story of the ancient civilization that only existed in ruins by the time of The Brothers War, and the rise to power of Yawgmoth and Phyrexia. This setting, with its fusion of magic and technology (of course there are airships), and especially the twisted technomagical nightmare of Phyrexia itself, is my favorite part of Magic.

The setting and premise is good, as is its antagonist’s/evil main character’s portrayal, but this book desperately needed a better author. Lynn Abbey did Phyrexia’s nightmare justice in Planeswalker. King does not. Not only is the depiction of the human Yawgmoth merging with the plane done in a very “straightforward” manner, but he even “unplugs” and returns to being normal throughout the book afterward, as if the author didn’t feel like writing cosmic-level fantasy.

Which is a shame because not only is the setting good, but the alternate possibilities are there too. The Thran Empire was not exactly a paradise, and Glacian, the withering master technologist, comes across as someone who’d make for a great blue mana-themed villain in his own right, obsessed with building the better mousetrap at any cost. It’s potential that King simply couldn’t realize. So this feels like something only lore completionists would really like, which I feel was probably always the case.

A Thousand Words: Rocky Rodent

Rocky Rodent

It’s easy to dismiss Rocky Rodent as one of the follow-on Sonic The Hedgehog knockoffs. But looking at it and looking at the actual Sonic games makes for an interesting comparison to what something superficially similar just didn’t understand.

Judged on its own terms, Rocky Rodent is decent enough. The music is good enough, the gameplay is never outright bad, and the styling is legitimately quirky, both in the haircut power-ups (seriously) and general eccentricity (the first boss is an SMG-wielding mobster in a VW Bus being driven by a cartoon rat). However, beyond that it’s one of the best examples of copying the surface of something but not getting the points.

Part of this is the level design, but a far bigger part is that the game uses what’s essentially Mario’s damage system. You have a maximum of two hit points, power-ups increase them by one, and getting hit with a power up causes you to lose it. In areas where you HAVE to be powered-up to get past an obstacle, this means backtracking to get it again if you’re hit.

Compare this with the rings intentionally designed to give you a huge margin for error (so you can go faster with less skill) in the real Sonic series, and you see the problem. It’s less coherent thought and more just following the two leaders. Thankfully the visuals and competence of the game mean this isn’t more of an issue than it is.

In an era of lazy, outright terrible cartoon mascot platformers, Rocky Rodent can at least be successful gameplay-wise and a little distinct setting-wise.

Review: The Sixth Battle

The Sixth Battle

Barrett Tillman’s The Sixth Battle is an interesting book. The 1992 novel of a gigantic combined battle over South Africa can either be considered the last Cold War “big war thriller” or the first post-USSR one. Because of its timing, the plot has to be kind of, er, forced a little, but that’s a small issue.

When I started reading the book, my thoughts turned to Red Phoenix. The similarities are there in that both are big picture thrillers that need to have a certain type of structure (most notably a lot of viewpoint characters and a setup period) to get that wide view across to the reader. For me personally, the perils of this is that since I already know a lot of what the authors are trying to communicate to a less knowledgeable audience, I see more of the downsides to this approach than the upsides.

However, I can also see-and appreciate-how rare a book like this is. “Big war thrillers” with this level of detail and knowledge behind them are and were very hard to come by. The Sixth Battle goes for a distinct setup, thinks it through, and competently executes the action in an evenhanded way.

Taking my biases into account and trying to adjust for them, I still recommend this book. It does feel a little clunkier than the best “big war thrillers”, but it’s never unreadably so. And it offers an all-too-uncommon experience that’s rarely duplicated elsewhere.