Review: The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

David Putnam’s The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog is one of the weirdest alternate history novels I’ve read. And yes, I have read every single Kirov novel. None comes close to this… thing. Really, to talk about it in conventional literary terms is almost beside the point. It’s middling in terms of quality and is a little too bloated, but why talk about that when you have such a befuddling premise?

See, in the 1890s, protagonist David Banner (no relation to the Hulk) has the Judeo-Christian God appear in a dream from His home in the black hole in the center of the Milky Way. A nightmare scenario (aka actual history) awaits if the last of the classic English Bulldogs (always capitalized in the book) goes extinct. There’s exposition where World War I, II, and even III is shown, with animal cruelty activists being portrayed as the equals of history’s worst monsters.

Also, apparently the divine value of a nation comes from the kind of dog that it has. Yes, it’s a weird book. Anyway, man and dog alike uplift the world, fight a very different Boer War, and continue to battle in an ahead-of-its-time World War I. We get loving depictions of bulldogs ripping men and animals to pieces. In fact, most of it is basically just bulldogs in “action”. The question remains: How do you even judge this book? My answer is simple. You can’t. It is not a novel so much as a very bizarre artifact.

Review: On Nuclear Terrorism

On Nuclear Terrorism

Michael Levi’s On Nuclear Terrorism has been the best book I’ve read in some time. In fact, of all the books and papers I’ve read on this topic, it’s arguably the greatest. Levi takes a holistic approach, using the analogy of a sports team where trying to judge each component in isolation falls short. Although he uses baseball when football is a much better analogy. Oh well.

The decision to look at the big picture as well as noting the issues that alarmist worst-case analysis brings are relevant to much more than countering nuclear terrorism. He also turns “the terrorists only have to succeed once” statement on its head by pointing out that while true, it can also be said that “they have to succeed every step of the way, while their opponents only have to succeed at one”. This sort of reasoning is welcome whatever the subject.

Not that this is a brief overview-it goes into a lot of detail on things like the uses and limitations of scanning detectors and does a lot of detail on gun-type weapons (implosion ones get less effort, because given the issues states have had, non-state actors going for them is arguably pushing it). And he even goes into psychology as well, which is important for the goals of irregular groups.

The impression I’ve gotten from this and other sources is that nuclear terrorism can be compared to Y2K. Y2K was mistakenly perceived as an overblown panic when in reality it was a legitimate issue largely solved by a massive effort when the new millennium rolled around. Similarly, while the threat of even a radioactive Beirut/Tianjin/Port Chicago-level blast (to say nothing of even a Little Boy-level bomb) is a legitimately frightening one, the similarly massive efforts to work against it have (to date of course) deterred even attempted nuclear terror attacks. The Aum Shinrinkyo cult marked the only known attempt at a substantive irregular nuclear program, and it failed despite numerous factors in its favor (lots of money, able to operate openly pre-chemical attacks, and access to Russia at the depths of its 1990s desperation).

Bad sports analogies and occasional clunkiness aside, this is an excellent book.

Review: Africa Burning

Africa Burning

Back when I was young, I made a horrendously negative review of Gavin Parmar’s Africa Burning, talking about how little sense the tale of a giant army of T-90s and M113s (really) appearing in the Chadian desert to charge up into the modernized, reformed, opened Libya made. (Boy did that “prediction”, made pre-2011, about the direction of the country, age poorly).

Now, well, I have a soft spot for this amateur Ian Slater/technothriller/shoot the terrorist-wannabe novel. It reads like someone acting out their action hero fantasies after seeing and reading a lot of relevant fiction, and the earnest, genuine quality of it has made me smile. I may not recommend actually reading it, but at least I don’t have a bad feeling towards it anymore.

A Thousand Words: Postal 2

Postal 2

Running With Scissors’ 2000s “masterpiece”, Postal 2 is a game about a man in a small Arizona town whose goal is just to complete mundane errands. However, a lot of stuff gets in the way. This game is infamous for its tasteless dumb humor, its gore, and the ability to use cats as silencers.

The humor is either dated, unfunny, or both. It’s very much in the style of the shock-the-oldies Dennis Rodman meets Bart Simpson style of the time. The actual gameplay, especially in the plot missions, combines two of the worst elements of turn-of-the-millenium FPSes: A post-hitscan, pre-regen system where combat is a deterministic exercise in power ups, and wandering through very similar hallways.

And yet, there’s stuff that’s genuinely good about it. Part of it is that, off the beaten path, it provides the opportunity for silly spectacle. This is helped by the open-world element being genuinely good. Almost all buildings are enterable, there are locations that have nothing to do with the main missions, there’s plenty of easter eggs, and a silver lining of the combat is that there’s often legitimate power ups (and hence reasons to explore) in the nooks and crannies. Another small part is that there’s just a hint of slyness in just wanting to do chores but getting confronted by everyone from creepy mascots to Gary Coleman.

This is a stupid, clunky, awkward game. And it’s fun.

Review: The Bear And The Dragon

The Bear And The Dragon

Tom Clancy’s The Bear and the Dragon is not just the greatest technothriller of all time, but also one of the greatest novels of all time. With its accuracy and evenhanded portrayal of various cultures, it transcends the shackles of genre fiction to create a new class of literature. Not since Vasily Grossman has a writer truly understood and shown the effects of war in its entirety-

-AHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHHAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA

-Just kidding, by all accounts it’s even worse than Executive Orders. April Fools!

Review: Russian Air Power

Russian Air Power

The 2002 book Russian Air Power, by Gordon and Dawes, is something I was eager to get for the sake of seeing a past snapshot. I was not disappointed. Sure it’s dated (including a laughably inaccurate prediction that by 2010 the Russian Air Force would have streamlined down to three platforms, including the PAK-FA), but I expected it to be dated. A slightly worse criticism is how the doctrinal specifics of a high-intensity “air operation” are left a little vague for my liking.

But I have the Heavy OPFOR stuff for that, and the rest of the book is good. That I already knew much of it was no knock against it. And the part about the air force’s role in the Chechen Wars is excellent (and further reinforces my belief that, despite huge investment in the twenty years since, it may have actually regresssed from that in terms of overall capability in the early part of the Ukraine War.)

If you can get this book, do so. It’s a good historical reference, and Dawes keeps a lot of Gordon’s issues in check.

Review: The Counter Terrorist Manual

The Counter Terrorist Manual

I’ve had a soft spot for Leroy Thompson’s The Bodyguard Manual, simply because of its excess. Sadly, The Counter Terrorist Manual is not quite as well, excessive. The impression I got of this was, well, like one of those “here’s what happens!” picture books, giving a very basic history and overview of SOF units. So it’s not even a book for mall ninjas. It’s a book for wannabe mall ninjas.

But, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This does give the idealized basics of counter-terror special forces. Just take everything in it with a highway truck of salt and you’ll be fine. And don’t read if you desire the slightest depth or critical perspective.

Review: The Inside Ring

The Inside Ring

Mike Lawson’s debut thriller in the Joe DeMarco series, The Inside Ring, is a less-than-coherent thriller. Its stakes zig-zag from high to low to nonsenscially high again at the last second. The cast seems to consist entirely of either slobby white ethnic greasers (including the main character, who is one of the least likable thriller protagonists I’ve seen in recent memory) or slobbier rednecks.

I’ll put it this way. How bad do your rural southerners have to be for a New Yorker like me to go “you’re going way too far here. Ugh”? They’re that bad. The plot is ridiculous, with the villain wanting to do something that would make him far more of a target than if he just did the “conventional” easy thing. Then comes a stereotypical conspiracy to make it even dumber.

While not the worst I’ve read, the literary fundamentals aren’t nearly good enough to salvage this novel. There are better individual thrillers out there, and if nothing else, the series started off on a bad note.

Review: Building The Tatmadaw

Building The Tatmadaw

Likely because it’s lacked the direct confrontation with a major western power that North Korea or Middle Eastern states have had, Myanmar is one of the more forgotten and undercovered of the militarized pariah states. That military dictatorships are not exactly known for their openness and transparency doesn’t help things. Thankfully, Maung Auyng Myoe has risen to the challenge with Building The Tatmadaw.

The often murky and convoluted history of the military, as well as the brutal but often underreported internal wars, is shown in depth. As is the Tatmadaw’s force structure and conventional paper doctrine. For the former, it follows (at least as of the writing of the book) a common in Southeast Asia pattern of having “regional forces” tied to a certain area and mobile reaction forces (known here as “light infantry divisions”) that can travel where needed. Regarding the latter, Myoe’s description comes across as basically a Light OPFOR right out of Central Casting. The picture is that of an infantry-heavy force where advanced and heavy equipment is present but not dominant, and where the strategy against an external opponent consists of fortifications and irregular tactics to counter the material disadvantage.

Published in 2009, this is bound to be outdated, especially given the massive tumult that has happened since then (the “thaw”, the anti-Rohingya campaign, and the military re-takeover). But as always, that’s not the author’s fault. I did notice a few slip-ups and a bit of clunkiness when talking about specific military issues, but none of those are very big or bad. If you want to learn about the Tatmadaw, this book is an excellent resource.

Review: The Years of Rice And Salt

The Years of Rice and Salt

Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Years of Rice And Salt is probably the most highbrow and audacious work of alternate history printed by a mainstream publisher and aimed at a wide audience. A sweeping magical realist epic, this starts with the question “what if there was no Europe?”

To achieve this, Robinson uses a plot disease to wipe out Europe’s population in the Middle Ages while leaving the rest of the world mostly unscathed. It’s basically the literary, sophisticated version of The Seventh Carrier’s haywire satellites knocking out every jet and rocket engine. While there are many contrivances and valid criticisms, it’s clear what the author is trying to do. Alternate history by English-speaking authors can understandably be kind of Eurocentric, something which he takes a chainsaw to with his divergence. Robinson tries to be different.

And he succeeds, going from character to character in a millennia-long saga, with excellent prose and a great sense of wonder. It manages to achieve the not-easy feat of being both broad and human at the same time. The writing style and structure helps a lot in this regard.

Unfortunately, even something as distinct as Rice and Salt can still fall victim to a common issue with alternate history: Getting worse as one gets farther away from the point of divergence. The last part of the book has both clunky historical parallels (like a giant decades-long World War I static conflict) and political soapboxing ramped up. But even this can’t harm the book too much.

Alternate history fans should read Rice and Salt. It’s a rare anomaly in an otherwise constricted genre.