Review: People’s War

I’m doing it. I’m breaking all my rules. I’m reviewing an in-progress internet online alternate history piece by an author I overreacted to in the past, at one point calling his TLs the “worst ever”, something which is not true and which I apologize for. I speculated as to why I felt as negative as I did in the very review itself, and with years of hindsight I can say that, sadly, it was just personal stress mixed with tunnel vision. The actual view I have of them is what I said I’d have felt in isolation before-middling Hackett-fics, no better or worse than say, Operation Zhukov and not really the most able to build a long review around.

But I think this new TL is worthy. I feel I’m calm enough to look at it more objectively, unlike my past axe-grinding. Like with New Deal Coalition Retained, I feel that this isn’t an obsession and that one post on an internet timeline won’t overwhelm dozens of those on other topics far less controversial to me. And I feel it does have something to say about the genre. I don’t want to come across as gatekeeping or saying someone shouldn’t do anything that they and others enjoy. I’m just giving my personal opinion. And of course, if my opinion on it changes as new updates emerge, I will gladly make an update post.

The timeline is called People’s War, and it’s about a surviving East Germany.

What I consider People’s War to show actually has a parallel in sports betting. What William Leiss calls “manual research”.

Now obviously literature is not a zero-sum game like sports gambling is. Everyone has to start off with the surface level details, and not everyone can or wants to do Kirov-level simulations. But this kind of ultimately surface research applied to a pseudo-Hackett pure exposition style has made me see the strengths and weaknesses of it.

The biggest strength is that there is a lot more verisimilitude. This is something that Young Grognard Me took for granted because I started with nonfiction books and wargames and went backwards from there. Now I know how rare even nominally accurate military fiction is in a world of “machine gun pistols”, “Flamethrower M60 Abrams”, and “A-130 helicopter gunships”. More to the point, this and the WW3 TLs that preceded it and which I got far too angry about are far more sensible than the clearly just tossed carelessly out “stock photo and a wikibox” stuff like the infamous New Deal Coalition Retained Part II. It’s one thing to arguably lean too heavily on Hackett, Bond, and primary sources as Lions Will Fight Bears and its successors did. It’s quite another to avoid them completely in favor of BIG NUMBERS, as NDCR Part II did.

But Hackett, Bond, and the WW3 TLs were dealing with a hypothetical conflict that had decades and decades of simulations, analyses, and sources dedicated to it. Said documentation is a big reason why it’s up there with the American Civil War and World Wars for wargaming and “hard” alternate history. But what happens when you’re dealing with something that doesn’t have that paper trail?

Trying to Hackett-ify a 1980s technothriller scenario is one thing. But this TL is trying to Hackett-ify what’s essentially a 1990s technothriller, where a surviving East Germany ruled by Honecker’s widow comes into conflict with the western world. Now looking at the reams of studies of a theoretical conventional Fuldapocalypse is one thing. But where are the think tank papers for “Fighting a somehow surviving ex-Warsaw Pact state post-USSR, especially with the hint of threat balancers you’d find in a Larry Bond novel?” They aren’t there. The closest are clear surface details like the names and amounts of weapons that end up feeling close to the more shallow “here’s the exact designation of a Scud TEL” than what effect barrages of those missiles would have in practice.

And this is my objection. Because there’s less opportunity to look, this sort of thing just feels kind of shallow to me without either simulation/deep analysis or just setting up the basics and running with a conventional story. And the TL format prevents the latter.

It’s still far superior to the outright Calvinball of NDCR’s Neo-Timurid Empire or postwar AANW’s “Eastern Siberia as an American state.” The military details are still far greater and more plausible than 3 million Soviet troops sloooooooooooowly advancing against 2 million NATO ones. Compared to “historical fanfiction” AH, it is better.

But there still doesn’t like a real solid base is there. And by the standards of either wargaming or literary fiction, I feel it doesn’t reach its potential.

Especially because this is a redo of a previous concept for a surviving East Germany war that was ultimately abandoned in part because, unsurprisingly, its base was too one-sided strategically. This is what I think goes full circle back to the “Manual Research” video, because Leiss specifically talks about the follies of using manual research for an obvious mismatch. Manual research can tell you what common sense and the odds show-that the powerhouse team against a paid-to-lose punching bag will easily win. But it can’t tell you how likely the opponent is to cover the inevitably massive point spread.

The force regarded as the best non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military can definitely still threaten the characters in a normal narrative and can definitely still do more damage than Saddam’s army did. It’s just that this and other works like it sit in an awkward middle ground between hard and soft. I wouldn’t call it a trinket, but it still feels less than whole.

Review: Praxis Tacticum

Praxis Tacticum

Canadian retired colonel Chuck Oliviero has released the new Praxis Tacticum. It’s one of those “mean 51%” books, being incredibly erratic. Much of the actual content is not objectionable-ie, “learn to face someone who isn’t a low intensity, technically inferior opponent”. Some of it is stuff even unqualified armchair general me picked up-me being the OPFOR addict I am, I’ve seen journal articles complaining about the rigidity of the OPFOR in practice compared to its flexibility in theory that he states. And some of it, however much I’d disagree with, is at least defensible and understandable. Oliviero is much, much more of a “manueverist” than I would be.

Plus, anyone who wants to simplify documents and instructions into something that isn’t in field-manualese has their heart in the right place.

However, the execution does not come across as ideal. For something aimed at lower-level commanders, it feels far too pretentious and buries the important stuff (stuff like how to do rapid drills and move a unit very quickly without outrunning your supply lines), in a mess of pompous mush. His decision to have a flexible, winning OPFOR (good) turns into an embrace of exercise munchkinism. This also has its heart in the right place (again, an opponent with the ability will seek to disrupt your setup and can often succeed) but I had the uncomfortable feeling that it was just him wanting to show off his supposed genius, crossing the line too often from “spar in an unconventional way” to “spar in traditional boxing and then instantly launch a Masvidal-Askren flying knee to crush your partner before patting yourself on the back.”

And this is the biggest problem. There is a very, very, very obvious barely disguised subtext of resentment that he didn’t get to be in charge throughout the book. High technology is treated with skepticism, unless it’s on tracks. Like everyone, Oliviero comes across as unavoidably biased-but he takes it to extremes.

I would recommend this for enthusiasts or intellectuals who have a full grasp of the context surrounding this book. Yet from my limited viewpoint, I actually would not recommend it to his target audience. It comes across as too slanted and inefficiently written.

Review: Sporting Blood

Sporting Blood

Carlos Acevedo’s Sporting Blood is a nonfiction chronicle of boxers at their worst. Not at their worst in the ring, but at their worst out of it. His writing is excellent and well-handled (legendary boxing historian Thomas Hauser praises him in the foreword, no easy feat). It’s just the book can get a little repetitive.

There’s some interesting entries, like a 1920s prizefighter prolonging his career through quack medical surgery. But so much of the book is just one entry after another detailing how a boxer got beat up, lost his brain, lost his temporary money, lost his prestige, and sank back into the terrible life he came from. And then there are the stories of how many of them had terrible upbringings-the tale of boxing trainer Tony Ayala Sr. and how he treated his sons was especially disturbing. (Sadly but unsurprisingly, one of them became an absolute monster).

This isn’t the author’s fault, but it does make for melancholy reading. And it also details why the talent pool of American boxers shrank so dramatically after World War II. Because given a choice between that and another career, athletic or note, who would want to subject oneself to the vicious free-for-all of boxing?

Review: Deception

Deception

Zach James’ Deception is a debut thriller by a debut author. While it has some roughness around the edges and is a little clunky plot-wise in terms of jumping around between times and places, it does enough right to make me forgive it. I’ll even forgive the description of “Hudson Bay” as being close to New York and not close to northern Canada.

Hopefully the announced and obviously set up sequel will improve the writing fundamentals. But this is still a good action read and a good enough cheap thriller. Welcome to the community of thriller writers, Zach James!

Review: WagerEasy

WagerEasy

It took me a long time to actually read the sports betting-centric thriller/murder mystery WagerEasy by Tom Farrell. This is simply because I was writing my own book centered around that industry, and didn’t want any, however accidental, cross-contamination or subconscious comparisons. So I only took it up after I finished The Sure Bet King.

That being said, I needn’t have worried (at least in hindsight). WagerEasy is a first-person thriller where the same general subject matter is the only thing it has in common with my own novel. It’s very much an apple to an orange.

So how is it as a book? The answer is-very good, even with me not being the biggest fan of first-person narration or the “hardboiled” style it tries to go for.While I feared it would be just dreary and grubby at first, WagerEasy turns out to have high stakes in a clever way and effective action set pieces. In fact, one of the action scenes in the middle of the novel had me going “Really?” And I meant it in a good way. Like, this could have been written by Jon Land. And Farrell definitely knows his stuff concerning sports betting itself (although I was a little surprised there wasn’t more discussion of the reputation European sportsbooks have for banning/ultra-restricting winning bettors). So I enjoyed this a lot.

Review: ATP 7-100.3 Chinese Tactics

ATP 7-100.3 Chinese Tactics

After seeing the excellent work on North Korea, I eagerly awaited the next installment in the ATP 7-100 series on the most potential opponents. When ATP 7-100.3, Chinese Tactics dropped, I was not disappointed. Well detailed and well laid out, this is the first comprehensive unclassified analysis of the PLA in decades.

In some ways, being a far more advanced opponent that’s far closer to the fictional maximum-challenge “composite OPFOR” than North Korea is means that the tactics shown feel a lot more mundane and slightly less interesting. But showing the (deliberately overcomplicated and confounding) organization is where this shines. The modern PLA is organized a lot like the old “GENFORCE-Mobile” OPFOR with a bunch of brigades and combined arms battalions jumping straight to corps-equivalents with six line brigades each.

This is a great resource and I highly recommend reading it. Besides its topicality, seeing a force structure diverge from the classic Russo-American style is interesting to see and valuable for wargamers.

New Command scen for testing: Sneaky Sneaky

I got back into making Command: Modern Operations content with another draft scenario that I’ve called Sneaky Sneaky. It’s in an alternate historical setting where a “Walkerist” rogue state survived in Central America. Now they have to try and slip a few improvised mini-subs past the Royal Navy to Belize. Much inspirational thanks goes to the Covert Shores website for its great work on analyzing such submarines.

The scenario can be tried out here.

Review: Our Man On The Hill

Our Man On The Hill

Matthew Kresal’s debut on Sea Lion Press (full disclosure, I’m published there too) is Our Man On The Hill, a story which takes a bit of historical commentary and plays with it. It’s been said that Joe McCarthy was such a blustering bumbler that he actually did damage to legitimate anti-communism. Thus Kresal turns into him being a Soviet agent intended to sabotage the opposition.

Though not exact, this has parallels with Agent Lavender, the book that started SLP in the first place. Both make alternate histories where a conspiracy theory about a huge political figure (Wilson, McCarthy) is treated as true. Both are well researched. And both are excellent reads.

Even though I’m not generally the biggest fan of this kind of political/spy story, Our Man On The Hill is well done enough that I had a blast reading it. I highly recommend this book.

Review: North Korean Tactics

North Korean Tactics

One of the best OPFOR manuals I’ve seen, and one of the most recent, is ATP 7-100.2, North Korean Tactics. The manual itself is a good read, and the “Breaking Doctrine” podcast that comes along with does a great job explaining how both it and other OPFOR documents (a long weird guilty pleasure of mine) have come into being.

Thus the manual isn’t a direct “They will do this” the way that some of the more overly rigid Soviet-inspired ones were. But it does show the characteristics of the secretive country (light infantry, high willingness to take casualties, artillery over tanks, etc…) and has to focus on its specific qualities instead of just lumping them in with a generic OPFOR designed for challenge above adherence to any specific country.

It’s not perfect, but it’s intriguing and well-done, showing the seeming contradiction of mass asymmetric warfare in action. Ones for China and Iran are planned, and I’m awaiting them. (There’s one for Russia announced, but it’s kind of in limbo. My hunch is that the need for something so specific is less for a country that’s already studied and already fairly close to the generic OPFOR).