Review: Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire

Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire

Infamous nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky recently passed away. Fans of online alternate history know him as the main character of a timeline-turned-ebook called Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire. In it, Yeltsin is killed during the August Coup and Zhirinovsky ends up in control of the USSR-turned-“Union of Independent States”, with the 1990s going from mostly peaceful to mostly not peaceful.

What this does right is actually using the “snippets of fake newspapers” formats very well. There are elements of drama that are well done, and the whole thing seems like a way to tell a story rather than a way to avoid writing a narrative. However, the biggest issue is the tone, which can go from too serious to too goofy and back at the drop of a hat.

Furthermore, while it’s not intended to be the most “plausible” alternate history, there were more than a few times when my suspension of disbelief didn’t hold up. Zhirinovsky is portrayed as a wild man who barely wins even with dirty tricks, yet he somehow has the political pull to wrestle something as powerful as the Russian arms industry into a 180 degree shift in policy (a so-called “billion Kalashnikovs and one nuke approach). And of course, him getting to power is ultra-contrived to begin with.

But by the standards of online alternate history, this is a good story. It has a proper beginning and end, and is better paced.

Review: Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Apartheid South Africa built a handful of nuclear bombs before the ANC government dismantled them. As a result of that revelation and transparency, it provided an interesting look into a a field that is understandably quite opaque otherwise. David Albright and Andrea Stricker’s Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program show it in depth.

Altough this is a technical nonfiction book, Albright and Stricker nonetheless write well, and it’s quite accessible to non-nuclear physicists. The creation, developmental struggles, warhead production, and removal of South Africa’s nuclear weapons is all covered, and there are several interestingly unique factors about it that the book provides.

The first is a technical tidbit. South Africa went with a conceptually simpler gun-type device in the style of Little Boy. However, their device was small enough to fit on a Raptor glide bomb carried by a Blackburn Buccaneer, and there were (preliminary) plans to boost it to around a hundred kilotons using a special pellet. As most powers have used implosion devices, South Africa’s experience shows how far the basic gun-type can be pushed.

The second is that, unlike other nuclear programs, South Africa’s was comparably well run and efficient. The pragmatic choice of a gun-type was one of the good decisions that it made. And it still took several years in peacetime while running into bottlenecks-most notably the enriching of uranium.

For those interested in the relevant subjects, this book is thus a good read.

A Thousand Words: Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9

Judged on its own without any other context, Mighty No. 9 would resemble a mediocre Mega Man-style game. There have been dozens of those, including more than a few in the official series itself. To study it there would not be the most interesting. About the only things I can say for the game itself are that it copied the cheapest difficulty elements (why?) and in everything from plot to aesthetics simply tried to be “as close to classic Mega Man as possible without lawsuits”.

But what is interesting is the ridiculous amount of hype that came around its crowdfunding. Occuring in the “irrational exuberance” phase of Kickstarter and spearheaded by ex-Mega Man head Keiji Inafune, this was one of those “the gaming king came down to make a dream” experiences. This prompted emotion that successful MM-esques like Azure Striker Gunvolt (made conventionally by a firm that had experience on the official games) and 20XX (crowdfunded yet made by an unknown) couldn’t bring.

The result was a ton of stretch goals “met”, feature creep, the project getting out of hand, the mood turning from hopeful to laughable, and then the game itself sinking like a stone when it was finally released. Whether it could have been better or if the expectations were just too great is an open question. What is not is that this was one of the biggest crowdfunding embarrassments.

A Thousand Words: The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin

For May Day, I figured I should do something Soviet. And what more “appropriate” than this movie? Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin is a blisteringly dark satire which uses the events surrounding the titular event as the basis for twisted humor. It’s not exactly the most accurate historically, but it has many good actors and good scenes.

Steve Buscemi steals the show as eventual victor Khrushchev. He slides into the role with the perfect mix of earnestness, sleaze, and silliness. Likewise, even though his entire character is ahistorical (at this point IRL, Zhukov was kicked upstairs to command a district in the middle of nowhere) Jason Isaacs does a similarly excellent job as the head general. The casting isn’t perfect, though. Jeffrey Tambor’s one-note portrayal of spineless wimp Malenkov is grating and mostly not funny.

Still, this is a funny, entertaining and now relevant movie.

Review: Redux

Redux

The second book in Steven Konkoly’s Black Flagged series of thrillers, Redux sadly doesn’t live up to either its predecessor Alpha or the later Deep Sleep. Granted, it took me a while to read it because of too close things-first, it involved killer diseases, second, it involved Russia, but I finally got around to it. It’s still not exactly the worst thriller ever, but it’s not the author’s best, unfortunately.

While the action isn’t exactly bad per se, the book still bounces around too much from character to character and place to place. This combined with the frequent exact spelling out of every weapon and accessory makes it look like a Gold Eagle book-and not in a good way. Even the best players can swing and miss, and this is a miss.

Review: The Russian Way of War

The Russian Way of War

One of the biggest surprises of the initial part of the 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War was that the former did not fight according to its paper doctrine. At all. Lester Grau and Charles Bartles The Russian Way of War is an excellent attempt at explaining said doctrine for a western audience. As anyone who’s studied them knows, they’ve left quite the paper trail. While sources like the VDV Textbooks Collection can provide them online in Russian fairly handily, this translates them to English.

And it translates them to English well. I have a few quibbles. The biggest is the authors taking an overly optimistic view of vehicle adoption, perhaps taking propaganda sources a little too much at face value. But the rest of it is well-done and evenhanded. The only real “problem” I’ve noticed is that I’ve read so many OPFOR documents that much of what they’re saying is already familiar.

But that’s a good “problem” to have, and I was still enlightened by this book. Every wargamer wanting to do missile-age combat involving the Soviets/Russians should read this.

Review: The Profession

The Profession

Steven Pressfield is known for his ancient fiction, but in The Profession he moved to contemporary (technically near-future) action. Or, rather, inaction. Because most of the action is in flashbacks and most of the book is just the main character moving around and monologuing about how wonderful and awesome these near-future supermercs are. It’s almost “A combination of Special Forces, Ranger, SEAL, and gutter-fighting” bad.

When I saw the book was written in first-person, I feared that it would be like some of Peter Nealen’s writing: Good but dragged down by an ill-suited format. Here, the book is so shallow that the format is basically beside the point. It’s like Angola running a man defense instead of a zone one (the textbook basketball strategy against individually better players) against the Dream Team. It still doesn’t matter. Even the basic prose is bad with its giant overdescriptive blocks.

The main character is a misogynistic ass of a Mary Sue intended to represent (and appeal to the fanboys of) the dubious Universal Warrior claim the author loves. The setting, well, anyone who knows anything even slightly deeper will have issues with it (for instance, even a casual scholar of Central Asia like myself could spot a lot of flaws with his description of Tajikistan). And the writing just feels so detached, inauthentic, and over-described.

Finally, I felt sort of insulted by the whole slobbering over the central man-on-a-horse, concluding with an “I admire its purity” plot twist. The track record of military strongmen is more like Thieu and Galtieri than Ike and Schwarzkopf. It doesn’t lead to martial virtue over civilian weakness, it leads to tunnel-vision paranoia.

Review: A Pius Stand

A Pius Stand

The concluding volume of Declan Finn’s Pius Trilogy, A Pius Stand gets still weirder yet. A giant invasion force in the thousands is organized by the International Community League of Evil. It attempts to storm the Vatican, but its soldiers do so in a type of vehicle that sets the tone for the book as a whole. Instead of lavishly described tanks, the League of Evil rides in…..


these

Don’t believe me:

Instead of walking up the middle of the Via della Conciliazione, they drove up the streets on either side—the Via dei Corridori, and Via Borgo Santo Spirito. And, since bringing in armored personnel carriers was too expensive, it was just cheaper to bring their soldiers to St. Peter’s Square with local buses. With each bus driving down the street side-by-side, this amounted to 140 buses shipping in seven thousand soldiers between both streets.

Once the battle actually starts, it’s a goofy spectacle that’s far more Home Alone than Zulu. This is due to the desire of the main characters to keep it as nonlethal as possible. There are Hollywood booby traps, stun beams, and, most ridiculously, cavalry charges with ex-stuntmen. Meanwhile, a League of Good consisting of everyone from NYPD officers to Israeli commandos to the IRA to mobsters (!) fights back and helps defeat the League of Evil.

Like I’ve said about the first two (comparably) tamer installments, this is not exactly anyone’s idea of a good book. But I’d take something weird like this over a thousand shoot-the-terrorist novels any day.

Life Imitates Art

The Kirov novel Eagle Rising, previously reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, has a wargamed out (mostly via the excellent The Operational Art of War) Russian all-out invasion of Ukraine in 2021 with largely realistic OOBs-that ends after a few weeks with the Russians grabbing a chunk of the country but falling short of their objectives and descending into a grinding stalemate. There are of course differences, often erring on the side of spectacle like a brigade-sized air assault into Dnipro at the beginning and, most bizarrely, a counteroffensive crossing the border to hit Belgorod.

It’s described in the book itself after the initial big battles as “All Tyrenkov [the time-traveling Russian leader] has done is buy himself a long war there, and for a lot of blood and steel.”

Like Hector Bywater’s The Great Pacific War, this was strangely prescient in many ways. Even in small details like Ukrainian light infantry succeeding with hit and run strikes. Of course, the background is vastly different, involving a time traveler from the past (Tyrenkov) going forward , seizing control of contemporary Russia, and mistaking a potential future victory for a certain one. But the nuts and bolts are a tribute to both the TOAW simulation and the power of well-designed wargames in general.

Review: Mikoyan MiG-23

Famous Russian Aircraft: Mikoyan MiG-23 and MiG-27

Another Gordon/Komissarov book specializing in the study of just one platform, I knew I had to get the volume on one of my favorite ugly ducklings: the MiG-23. The Flogger did not enjoy a charmed life. With hindsight, it occupied an uncomfortable niche between the cheap MiG-21 and advanced later fighters. Its swing-wing design was a long-term limiter. The MiG-23MS export version, with no long-range missile ability, was the equivalent of using a Manning brother as a running quarterback.

This is a little better laid out than the MiG-29 book, but it still has iffy formatting and a tendency to shift into colloquialisms like lots of exclamation points! That being said, it delivers a lot of technical-and operational-info. It has the strike and fighter variants all covered, as well as exotic proposals like the IFR-capable carrier versions and my most beloved unsuccessful attempt to put new wine in old wineskins: The MiG-23-98 series.

It’s definitely written by and for aviation enthusiasts, but I had fun with this book. It’s a worthy tribute to an often (and not unreasonably) savaged aircraft.