A Thousand Words: Yume Nikki

Yume Nikki

The early indie game Yume Nikki is, even by the standards of what this blog has become, a strange choice. It’s a cult classic art/puzzle game. There really isn’t that any plot or explanation beyond the surreal illustrations as a pigtailed shut-in named Madotsuki wanders around various dreamworlds. For an indie game, it has a distinct, memorable artstyle, and its early origin, much like Cave Story’s, helped it along significantly.

Of course, the other side of this is that it combines the type of low-intensity gameplay later referred to derisively as “walking simulation” with (barring looking it up online) often impenetrable puzzles. It’s definitely a cult classic, but it’s easy to see why it hasn’t become anything more.

There could hardly be anything less like the usual fare of Fuldapocalypse. Which is kind of why I selected this. A huge part of the appeal is in wondering what everything is and what it means-all the many, many, many guesstimates of who Madotsuki is, what happened to her, what all the monstrous dreams mean, and even the seemingly obvious ending, add to the appeal of mystery and uncertainty.

It would be ruined if there finally was a definitive, official explanation for everything.

And yet, in the technothriller and especially “alternate history as a genre” style of story, massive detail is a centerpiece. This could just be apples and oranges, but a thought that often comes across when I read such tales is “Is this detail really necessary? Would it often be better, or at least not any worse if it wasn’t spelled out so much?”

It’s good food for thought.

Review: USA Vs. Militia Series

USA Vs. Militia Series

Ian Slater’s USA vs. Militia series is one of those bizarre footnotes in military thriller writing that I just had to check out in full. A while ago, I reviewed Battle Front, which is actually the third installment. Having since read all five books, now I can give my opinion on the entire series.

I described Battle Front as “This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium.” In short, this is applicable to the entire series, particularly the last two books. These involve more pedestrian hunt-the-MacGuffin plots with small unit heroes that serve as a perfect example of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music Syndrome”. The most bizarre part is a general personally leading this formation, and it has all of Slater’s numerous writing weaknesses without the appealing strengths. If it consisted of two books with action somewhat below the Marine Force One line, I’d have barely given them a second thought.

But the series is more than that.

At its best, you have ferocious fights between the federal army and militia in technicals with add on “reactive armor” (Slater is, to put it mildly, not the best with terminology). You have Abrams’ deploying from C-130s. And of course, you have preternaturally well-organized and numerous militia romping through the country. To try and make them viable, Slater turns every federal commander and soldier who isn’t Mary Sue Douglas Freeman into hopeless bumblers. It’s still badly written in actual practice save for some bizarre prose turns Slater uses, but the novelty is still something.

There’s two more distinctive elements. The first is the politics. Now, normally you’d expect a book about a second American civil war to be monstrously political. This, surprisingly isn’t. Or at least it feels oddly detached, coming from an Australian-Canadian having to look across the border through a distorted, second-hand lens.

The second is a complaint I’ve heard a lot about Slater’s World War III series, and which I saw firsthand here-he has absolutely no concept of continuity. There are references to the Third World War, references to the Gulf War, jumping references to real events that happened before the book in question got published, contradictory historical references, and no real sense of overall progression. The series ends on a strange half-conclusion, with the out-of-universe reason for its stoppage obviously clear from its publication date of December 2001.

This series occasionally can be an interesting curiosity, but it’s a mere curiosity without much substance.

 

A Thousand Words: Command And Conquer Generals

Command And Conquer: Generals

EA’s 2003 real-time-strategy game Command And Conquer Generals was a fixture of my childhood. Along with Advance Wars, it was one of the two “bottom rungs” on the complexity ladder of getting me into wargaming. (From there came Fleet Command and Steel Panthers: Main Battle Tank, then came Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations and the rest is history).

In gameplay terms, it has the same benefits and flaws all RTSes do (A “turtle/murderblob” singleplayer, a “chess boxing” multiplayer that’s utterly different from single-player) and the specific issue all C&C-style RTSes have (infantry are weaker than they should be because vehicles can run them over). And, through no fault of its own, it has the awkward turn of the millennium “the graphics are 3D models, but they’re not the best 3D models” effect. It arrived at kind of the tail end of that, but still.

But what I think is most interesting is the tone. Beyond just the stereotypes and the “it’s ripped from the headlines, honest” parts, there’s some “iffy” parts. China has double-barreled megatanks but its infantry don’t even have AKs. F-117s are stealthier than F-22s because they’re stealth fighters, duh. It’s very much a “pop culture war” from the early 2000s.

Review: The Sword of the Templars

The Sword of the Templars

swordtemplarscovers

A work in the genre of “Templar Catholic Secret History” thrillers that followed in the wake of The Da Vinci Code, Christopher Hyde’s (under the pen name “Paul Christopher”) The Sword of the Templars manages to be somehow fun. Even though by all “normal means” it shouldn’t be.

First, it manages to check every single box one could imagine in a thriller like this. Everything from the academic hero to the unreformed Nazi descendant villain to the general shenanigans to the nature of “the secret” did not exactly surprise me when it was revealed. Second, I’ll just say it sticks to the thriller norms in terms of plot, pacing and action. Third, there’s lavish descriptions of every place that seem different. Fourth, the research ranges from too precise (knowing what color a box of commercial Prvi Partizan ammunition comes in) to too obviously wrong (calling a “point guard” a football position and, worse, describing the details on a submachine gun in terms dubious at best and wrong at worst). Fifth and finally, there’s a lot of blatant direction mentions of other popular books, the very definition of throwing stones from a glass house.

However, it all works somehow. The ability of the villains to throw one goon after another with just the “right” amount of capability against the heroes, the secret history that’s somehow both ridiculous and bland at the same time, and the actually sound literary fundamentals made this readable. In fact, I might say I liked it in part because it hit each and every cliche-it felt like it was to action hero thrillers what Thunder of Erebus was to technothrillers.

Review: Dragon’s Fury

Dragon’s Fury

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Jeff Head’s Dragon’s Fury is a very interesting book, and I mean this without any snark. Viewed in one light, it’s just a clunky 800-page self-published book with robotic prose, a “Heroic Eagleland vs. the Alliance Of Evil” (which somehow includes India) plot,  and a lot of axe-grinding, the kind that would seemingly be just forgettable.

But viewed in another light, it’s weirdly impressive how many technothriller cliches it has. They’re all there, even contradictory ones. Take something with…

  • The bloat and diversion into domestic politics for the sake of soapboxing of later Tom Clancy. (Although Dragon’s Fury’s politics make Executive Orders’ seem restrained, tasteful, and left-wing in comparison)
  • The sci-fi excesses of Dale Brown at his most out-there (there’s a battle in Dragon’s Fury featuring space battleships).
  • The “look out, it’s the MacGuffin superweapon” theme of many technothrillers, especially post-1991 ones.
  • Similarly, the “a thousand viewpoint characters and a million technical descriptions” style common to the genre.
  • The robotic “play by play” battle description of books like The War That Never Was.

All these come together into something worse than the sum of their parts. The bloating and tangling keep it from being a  breezy “51% book”, turning it instead into a total clunkfest. The sci-fi and superweapon components aren’t crazy-fun like Blaine McCracken taking one of his periodic trips into outer space, just out-of-place. The battles get uninteresting very fast, especially given the “show everything in every theater” aspect of it. The big, detailed descriptions don’t work in a setting that isn’t grounded.

If it had the same “political manifesto as told by an early, monotone text-to-speech device” prose but was half the length, and had only two or three of those technothriller staples instead of all five, I’d dismiss it as “forgettably bad.” However, by incorporating all of them, by somehow taking every military/technothriller plot device and using them so consistently poorly in a way that not even Patrick Robinson can manage, Dragon’s Fury manages to become something different. It manages to become unforgettably bad. That the book is an audacious, sweeping tale of a multi-year world war (in a time when many technothrillers were lowering their scope and/or stakes) just amplifies everything.

It’s not enjoyably bad. Even I had a hard time getting through this book. But it is indeed unforgettable in its ambition. It’s as if Florence Foster Jenkins tried not only singing but writing an epic Wagnerian opera accompanied by an unironic Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra. I’d put this book, alongside the previously mentioned Patrick Robinson novels, as an example of the depths the technothriller sunk to in the 2000s. Robinson’s works were the “conventional commercial publishing” side, and this is the “self-publishing” side.

Review: The Hunted

The Hunted

huntedcover

Alan Jacobson’s The Hunted is the first entry in his OPSIG Team Black series of thrillers, although the later ones wouldn’t be written for some time after the initial publication date of this in 2001.

Reviewing this book was a little difficult. As I’ve said many times, I’m not the biggest fan of straight-up cloak and dagger books, which this definitely is. That being said, it’s kind of middling and feels (not surprisingly given its nature) like a smoothed-edges “grocery store thriller.” The climax is well-done, but getting there can be a slog.

The only thing that really jumped out for me was the book giving a “secret history” explanation for the death of Vince Foster, making the antagonist responsible. But even that tidbit can’t sustain this sluggish book.

Review: Frontal Assault

SEAL Team Seven: Frontal Assault

By the time of Frontal Assault, the “Keith Douglass” behind SEAL Team Seven was veteran cheap thriller writer Chet Cunningham. To give an idea of how long and prolific his career was, Cunningham wrote half of the Penetrator books close to twenty years before this one.

Really, this whole book is “what if a classic men’s adventure novelist wrote a technothriller?” Because it is. It combines the very basics of a technothriller (high tech military weapons! Superweapons! Big-picture struggles!) with a bunch of set pieces as Blake Murdock and his team struggle to go against…. Saddam Hussein.

I admit to feeling just a little uneasy about books using then-living real people in them, even utterly unsympathetic dictators (Tin Soldiers and Proud Legions at least had fictional strongmen oust Saddam and Kim Jong-Il before beginning the plot). It’s not a deal-breaker, but it still feels tacky. Even if this genre is tacky.

There’s inaccuracies like “.25 revolvers”, the USMC still using M48 tanks in the 2000s, and other nitpicky designations, along with a strategic big picture that’s, um, well, less than entirely accurate. As for the actual battles, if original author William Keith tried to at least have a tiny bit of grounding and Direct Action at least got most of the designations right, this is just pure action spectacle with all one would expect from a classic pulp thriller writer. Any one of the set pieces could have made up an entire book on its own, so putting them all in makes this book feel both audacious and overstuffed.

But still, I had fun with this.

Review: Diamondhead

Diamondhead

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Patrick Robinson’s Diamondhead is in some ways the perfect book for this blog. Robinson was one of the few authors to get going as a new technothriller writer after 1991, when the genre was imploding. Robinson also has a reputation for being well, not very good. After reading Diamondhead, I can say that, at least judged from that book, that reputation is accurate.

But there’s more to it. This isn’t just a clunkfest like say, a later Tom Clancy or “Tom Clancy’s” novel. It was strangely fascinating in how so many elements of the “cheap thriller” had, by the year 2009, just sort of mushed together.

The military details are ridiculously inaccurate, from SEALS riding into battle inside tanks (yes, along with the regular crew) to Sidewinders being used as air-to-ground missiles. Where this is particularly bad is the MacGuffin of the book, the titular missiles. They’re a new, formally banned as too cruel (wha?) type of anti-tank missile that burns the crew of any vehicle it penetrates-you know, like any other ATGM with a shaped charge that shoots something very hot into something with a lot of fuel and ammunition inside it.

But even beyond that, the genre kind of comes full circle back to the vigilante style as SEAL Mack Bedford (those are two truck brands) gets excoriated by the EVIL MEDIA, subject to a court martial that reminded me, no joke, of Phoenix Wright with all the loud “OBJECTIONS!”, before he gets his revenge on the evil French businessman/politician who’s been providing these super-missiles to rogue Islamist groups-and personally aiding in the first deployment of them. 

This plot could very well have worked as one of the classic “Men’s Adventure” thrillers. But unlike those, it suffers from the two things that plagued the technothriller-bloat and self-seriousness. At least with one of those books, you tended to get a brisk, smooth, “when in doubt, fight it out” style. This plods and clunks through unsuspenseful “suspense”, and then Mr. Truck just turns into John Rourke when the time comes for him to actually fight anyway. It has cheap thriller implausibility but not cheap thriller whimsy or bombast.

And the sad part is that more and more of the big-name, big-published “mainstream” thrillers (the kind I could find in the small book section of a local grocery store) are like this. There’s a reason why I review very few “big-time big-name” authors. Part of it is expense and part of it is me wanting to highlight obscure authors who need all the recognition they can get. But to be honest, a big part is that most of these thrillers are like Diamondheads in the ways that count.

Snippet Reviews: August 1-11 2019

It’s time for more snippet reviews.

The Omicron Legion

The fourth Blaine McCracken book, The Omicron Legion continues Land’s style of ridiculous plots, quadruple-crosses (yes, I’m using that word), and BLAINE MCCRACKEN action. If you liked the past Blaine McCracken books, you’ll like this a lot.

The Mercenaries: Blood Diamonds

This Peter Telep (under a pen name) novel would be a routine 2000s thriller if not for one thing-the dialogue. It’s ridiculously and constantly crazy. This wouldn’t be too big of a deal if the actual story was goofy to match, but it’s supposed to be a serious tale of weary mercs in the southern African wilderness.

While it at least it stands out a little because of that, this book really ought to be focused around a Macguffin giant magical diamond that can power a super-deathray, not a stash of normal ones.

Terror in Taos

One of the Penetrator novels, Terror in Taos serves up all the 1970s “vigilante vs mobsters” action one could possibly want. By the standards of the genre, it’s very good. The action, which includes hero Mark Hardin storming a desert castle, is good. There’s even a bit of semi-mystical Native American stuff that makes it even more ridiculously over-the-top and fun (yes, it could easily be tasteless and offensive to a modern audience, but this is a 70s action novel-what did you honestly expect?).

Review: Skeleton Coast

Skeleton Coast

Arguably the very first “cheap thriller” I read was Fire Ice, in Clive Cussler’s NUMA Files. By this point (unbeknownst to me at the time), he had already entered his “Tom Clancy’s” phase, farming out a lot of spinoffs to different authors. One of my favorite and most enduring books of this time is Skeleton Coast.

The Oregon Files involves the titular super-ship disguised as a tramp freighter and its commander, Juan Cabrillo. Here it battles African rebels and a plot by an evil environmentalist to cause an environmental crisis (Trust me-do not expect the plots of Cussler books to make sense). There’s also the classic Cussler “Historical Flashback To The Present MacGuffin” scenes, which I was never the fondest of.

What makes Skeleton Coast succeed is its climactic battle. In many other books, the Oregon hasn’t really faced threats that are worthy of its armament and abilities. Here, it fights an army with all its firepower, and the result is very well done by cheap thriller standards. It feels a little more natural and a little less gimmicky than other Cussler books. For someone wanting to experience the huge “Cussler Franchise”, this book is one of the better entries.