Review: Tales of World War III 1985

Tales of World War III: 1985

Looking back at the progression of this blog, I’m reminded a lot of the story of trying to make a cockpit design that could fit the “average pilot”, and then finding that no one actually met that criteria. I feel similarly when I look back at just how little anything actually met my stereotype.

Brad Smith’s Tales of World War III: 1985 series comes closest, edging out Larry Bond’s earlier work. It’s done by a wargame designer and thus features the wargame-friendly setting of 1985 Europe, with battles taking place in various parts of it. There’s a lot of technical description.

I don’t feel nearly as much negativity towards it as I would have and did in the past. Smith has sincerely tried to build characterization, even if the execution is still often clunky and the characters often Steel Panthers cameras in practice. And the wargaming at least takes the series above Ian Slater in terms of technical accuracy. But it’s still a 51% entry in a niche genre, the pilot who isn’t particularly good or bad but has the dimensions to actually fit well in the “average” cockpit.

Review: Firedrake

As of now the most recent book in the Kirov series, Firedrake combines the worst and best of it all. The worst is that all of the structural problems are still there and that the wargame lets play structure is beginning to wear thin, especially with the foreshadowing that this particular timeline is getting erased/destroyed. The best is, well….

The best is that plot points involve the ship transported to a bleak, dark, empty world where only hostile mechanized drones roam the seas and skies (was it Skynet or Yawgmoth that was responsible? :p ). Then it moves into another timeline courtesy of supervillain Ivan Volkov, where a Third World War (the fourth in the series) is about to begin, one where Japan won the second thanks to Volkov giving them nuclear bombs.

The Kirov series is best when it wargames out drastically changed situations, and that is the case in half of Firedrake. The other half is wargame action as usual.

Review: The Secret Weapon

The Secret Weapon

A thriller in the Alexander King series, Bradley Wright’s The Secret Weapon is an example of how tough it is at the margins. My history with the author is a little strange. I’d read some of his books in the past, where they faded from memory as bland and mediocre. Then I saw this book, felt it was bland and mediocre-and then realized I’d read the same author before.

Anyway, the book isn’t really the worst ever. On-paper, it does what a cheap thriller is supposed to do, and only feels like its slightly below average in every category that matters-the action is slightly less exciting, the pacing slightly less efficient, and so on. Yet it’s that little bit that makes the difference.

Because the “action hero” genre is so big, has so many choices, and is reliant on execution rather than concept, for something to fall behind somewhat means there’s a lot out there that’s better. This isn’t like the much tinier “big war thriller” genre where a flawed entry like Chieftains or Arc Light can still be conceptually interesting enough to recommend. Instead, its flaws means it sadly misses the cut.

Review: ParaMilitary Action-Adventure Fiction, A History

Paramilitary Action-Adventure Fiction: A History

I have loved and respected Nader Elhefnawy’s analyses of fiction. So it’s with a heavy heart that I say that his Paramilitary Action-Adventure Fiction, A History doesn’t live up to his other work on the technothriller.

I saw one big technical error, claiming the SEAL Team Seven series was issued in the 2010s by “Keith Douglass.” In fact, it was reissued from its original run in the 1990s and 2000s after the bin Laden raid and “Keith Douglass” was a pen name used by at least two different people (William Keith and Chet Cunningham) and possibly a third or even more. But a bigger problem is structural.

My biggest criticism is the overly long amount of time spent on the socio-political context of the times, which while obviously relevant at times (such as the crime increase of the 1960s that paved the way for the vigilante novels or the Vietnam War MIA obsession that did the same for action novels in the 1980s), sometimes doesn’t feel like that. It flows a lot worse than the techno-thriller piece does and, worse, zooms out too much. There’s a saying of missing the forest for the trees. This misses the trees for the forest. It’s okay enough when talking about non-print items, but misses the mark when talking about books.

Far more important than what effects the economy had on the national mood were just the simple economics of dealing with anything low-margin, which is what these novels were. The sad, harsh, boring reality is that the kind of disposable paperbacks that the work covers are/were the most expendable bottom feeders of commercial literature. The slightest dip in the economy and/or change in customer tastes could knock out all but the most popular. I don’t blame Elhefnawy for taking the approach he did, but think he was looking in the wrong place.

Review: Hitler Invades The United States

Hitler Invades The United States

I’d thought that Hitler Invades The United States was going to be just a dime-a-dozen work of internet alternate history. I was mostly right, but one part of it was a lot weirder than I thought, and that part both makes it lower quality and more interesting to write about.

The point of divergence is that the Germans delay their campaign so that the wunderwaffe can be ready. With said wunderwaffe, they easily take over the USSR. Then they launch a successful and “essentially unopposed” (exact words) invasion of Britain. Then it comes time to-guess. It’s not exactly the most plausible or original World War II alternate history story out there.

The story itself is a clunky mess of what you’d probably get if you only looked at the most shallow and popular sources of World War II, and then decided that an American invasion had to happen. The Axis invades the US and is only stopped when the Americans drop a nuke on Nuremberg-at which point the war ends instantly. But the real “star” is the conference room.

Barring a few “recollections” from participants, this book is entirely conferences and meetings, written in a fashion that feels like the script for a stage play. I know this genre has a lot of conference room scenes, but this takes the cake. And they’re not even done well.

What I think makes this interesting to look at is how something like this compares with Robert Conroy, who also wrote technically inaccurate alternate history tales of the US getting invaded. At least with Conroy you had a proper novel, even with often-subpar execution.  Here, it’s the kind of “semi-exposition” alternate history that in theory should be used in places where a normal narrative wouldn’t work, but in practice I feel is used likely because it’s easy to write.

What this has in conclusion is the negative elements of two types of alternate history “traditions” (as per Alexander Wallace’s excellent article) amplified at the same time. One perceived negative element of the “print tradition” is that it’s less plausible and tends to focus on the most visible and obvious trends, like the American Civil War or World War II. This is that. However, it also has the issues with storytelling (and then some) that the “internet tradition” can have. The result is the worst of both.

Review: Ward


The sequel to Spacebattles darling Worm, Ward arrived to much fanfare, to the point where the end of its author’s last web serial was overshadowed by antsy fans waiting for it to start. Now Ward itself has just finished.

When I started reading it, I saw that Wildbow’s literary issues didn’t change. The prose was too flat. The action likewise was too flat. The pacing had only two speeds: “Way too fast” and “Way too slow”. The descriptions are either overdetailed or underdetailed. I’d tried to follow all of his serials after Worm itself when they were written, and ended up just abandoning them.

Reading more of Ward, it has Worm’s problems, if not more. The structural issues mentioned above. The tendency to write into a corner and then ESCALATE out of it. The way the cosmology becomes ridiculous (you don’t include precognition as a power without good reason, much less two super-precogs, and that’s just one problem).

But really, Ward is a tragedy. I don’t mean inside the story itself, although it has plenty of dark moments. I mean that it’s dragged down by two big factors. The first is the legend of Worm bringing up unrealistic expectations (something Wildbow himself mentioned in his retrospective). The second is that its predecessor had just the right amount of factors to make it popular. Lightning was never going to strike twice.

One strange effect was that an improvement in the characterization actually doomed the serial. Worm’s fandom success hinged on Taylor, its protagonist, and her lack of what would normally be considered substance. Someone who was about 30% power fantasy of fighting back against the people who were just UNFAIR TO HER and 70% blank slate camera RPG protagonist created some strange incentives.

If you saw Worm as something that was more of a superhero RPG let’s play than anything else (which it comes across as), then the fanfiction boom made sense. Taylor’s bug power was just one “build” among others, and if the sole part of her character that filtered down was that wish fulfillment, then it’s easy to see why (combined with bandwagon inertia) why it got all the fanfiction it did on one small part of the internet.

So Victoria Dallon may have been an improved character, but the mystique was lost. Ward ended up as feeling to me like the kind of webfiction that, if you’re into it from the start (I wasn’t) you’d follow until it finished and then leave it behind.




Box Press released

Box Press, my second Smithtown Unit ebook, has been released by Sea Lion Press. While the first installment  aimed to pay homage to the “men’s adventure” genre in all its forms, this one has a narrower and more obscure foundation. That would be the weirder books in the 1970s that tried to move beyond just shooting mobsters and brought in stranger antagonists as a result.

Enjoy the next adventure of Bill Morgan.

Review: Condition Zebra

Condition Zebra


The (supposedly) final arc of John Schettler’s epic Kirov series, now exceeding even The Subspace Emissary’s Worlds Conquest in terms of word count, begins with Condition Zebra. This is the story of a contemporary World War III, after the Kirov timeshifted away from another contemporary World War III, possibly making it the first series to have multiple World War IIIs in it.

Having read two books in the 49-and-counting series, I figured it would at least be the same as before.  I was wrong. It somehow managed to be worse. And it manages to be worse in ways that might be considered contradictory at first glance.

One one end, the basic nuts and bolts writing has all the problems of the past Kirov books (characters who exist solely to operate military equipment, rote technical descriptions of the battles that give away the wargames used to sim them, and overall clunkiness) and just feels sloppier, with the dialogue, grammar, and even structure seeming worse.

On the other, the giant timeline tangles get bigger, more confusing, and somehow more pointless-seeming than ever. Knowing the end result and purpose, it just feels like the developers of Madden, 2K, or The Show making up a gigantic plot about time machines and time-traveling team general managers to explain why past players can appear in a game with current stars.

Maybe it’s those above flaws and maybe it’s just that the novelty of seeing the world’s longest wargame let’s play has worn off after three books, but this doesn’t even seem bad in a bemusing way anymore. It’s just bad.


Review: Divided Armies

Divided Armies

Jason Lyall’s Divided Armies is a big look at how societal inequality can influence military peformance. It’s mixed and uneven but still worthy.

First, the research is exhaustive and extensive. Lyall specifically aims to avoid a Eurocentric/great war bias by looking at a gigantic sample size of conflicts around the world from 1800 to the present. The book is not the easiest read and is written in “Academic-ese” with lots of political science formulas. However, I didn’t consider this a bad thing so much as just being part of its very nature (it’s not the only book of this type of I’ve read). The case studies feature more and more obscure battles. It’s a solid, disciplined set of information that shows a lot of underappreciated and understudied wars.

Of course, this book also has the weakness of the approach. I had two main doubts about this book. One was that Lyall would overcorrect and make the issue too dominant. Although not quite as bad as I feared, I saw a lot of this happening.

The weakest part of his research by far is, ironically, when he goes into great power wars. His study of the World War II Eastern Front, despite citing modern scholars, is still disappointing and clearly viewed through the lens of his thesis. So it means an overt focus on the early war (because the Soviets were clearly doing poorly), and an over-focus on Stalinism at the expense of other factors (because it fits the tone of the book). This image is rather distorted, to say the least.

A far less bad but still iffy example comes from his comparison of Ethiopa in the 1998 war with Eritrea and the DRC in the simultaneous Second Congo War. Despite Lyall’s box-checking and vigorous arguments, I’m still left thinking of the two having far more differences than similarities. They’re not the ones I’d use in a direct comparison, the former having overwhelmingly more experience with large, conventional operations.

The second doubt I was also vindicated with was a sense of “you needed a ton of formal data to say this?” The conclusion of less cohesive societies translating that into ineffectual military performance was not exactly the most shocking or counter-intuitive one.

However, with those caveats in mind, as well as the usual focus on keeping eyes open, the book is still a worthwhile read. The basic conclusion is sound, the examination of previously under-explored conflicts is fascinating, and if the “what” isn’t the most interesting or noteworthy, the “how” definitely is.