Review: The High Frontier

The High Frontier

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The High Frontier is the de facto ending to the The Big One series. The end of the Easy Mode Cold War is, for most intents and purposes, the end of the main published series. And, like The Sum Of All Fears, it’s a good stopping point.

This entire franchise has the slight misfortune of bad context for me. You can see why and what in the entry for the main series. That being said, while The High Frontier may not be the worst book ever, it still stands out only for its plot “novelties”. What plot novelties?

Well, for this individual book, there’s, among other things…

  • A very cheap shot at the Space Shuttle program right off the bat, where the Columbia disaster occurs right after the Challenger disaster. It’s actually semi-realistic in a rivet-counting way. The second post-Challenger mission had foam hit the heat-shield and barely survived, and the Space Shuttle program’s many, many issues are well-known. But the narrative intent is obvious.
  • Exposition where the Chipanese [yes] antagonists lament the inferiority of their military compared to the (awesome) Americans.
  •  The Chipanese campaign in Vietnam, featuring the equivalent of the Soviet general secretary personally running into Afghanistan to command forces there and then getting killed.
  • In said campaign, there are so many names of historical Vietnam War figures that I couldn’t tell if it was just bad naming or the real people (who’d be much older, and in some cases, dead.)

 

Finally there’s the climax, the biggest missed opportunity in the whole book. Having read The Sum Of All Fears makes it look even worse than it did when I first read it. Here’s an opportunity to foil the plot by showing restraint in the face of apocalyptic provocation-and instead it’s the equivalent of having the protagonists stop the nuke from going off in the first place.

Then the book ends with Ronald Reagan asking about the Seer and one final infodump about the nature of the unaging mutants with catlike eyes who serve as combination plot devices, Mary Sues, and ways to not have to create more characters. Of course they happen to stop aging at convenient times, have an ability to sense other long-lifers, are disease-resistant but not immune, and it took as long as it did for one person to find them out. Hmmm….

The book itself is par for the course for the TBO series, which is to say, it’s substantially below-average. Yes, a lot of its negative reputation comes from the gauntlet-throwing and internet drama accompanying its initial release. Yes, it doesn’t look quite as bad in context when compared to the worst of either internet alternate history or post-1991 technothrillers. Yes, a lot of its flaws aren’t unique to it.

But it’s still clunky, hopping around characters and events. It’s still flat, with characters being either Mary Sues, placeholders, or strawmen.  The worldbuilding is still ridiculously stacked in favor of the Americans. The action is still either bland and one-sided or extra-bland. The stiff dialogue in this book (and in the whole series) is distinctly bad, even by the standards of low-end fiction. It’s still just not good.

Snippet Reviews: January 2020

New year, new set of snippet reviews.

Return of the Ottomans

Return Of The Ottomans is a clunky “Big war thriller” only distinguished by its premise. Turkey invading Bulgaria is more conceptually interesting and the action isn’t the worst in a nuts and bolts way, but jumping viewpoints and Steel Panthers Characterization at its worst bring it down.

The Fires Of Midnight

The Fires of Midnight is the last of the classic Blaine McCrackens, before Dead Simple knocked the series off course. While I now knew the formula in great detail, it doesn’t change that the formula is a good one-and that it includes an excellent finale in an excellent place.

Sword Point

I wanted Sword Point, Harold Coyle’s second novel, to be good, and it still ultimately is. Yet it has this awkward feeling of a one-hit wonder musician trying to make lightning strike twice. The same formula and theme is there, and it’s not bad. But it just doesn’t have the kick the initial installment has.

It’s still tanks going boom in a solid, flowing way. And the Middle Eastern setting is distinct. But it’s just missing something.

Review: The Circle War

The Circle War

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The second entry in Mack Maloney’s Wingman series, The Circle War remains every bit as ridiculous, if not more so, than the first. If one desires accurate depictions of military hardware, any kind of deep plot, or moral ambiguity, this book is not for you.

However, if you desire a tale of a man named after a fighter aircraft flying his super- F-16 from everywhere from Hawaii to Yankee Stadium, fighting everything from “air pirates” to Mongolian horsemen, and periodically recharging by bedding a beautiful woman jumping right into his lap, this book is for you.

What I like is that there’s absolutely no attempt at making this “realistic”, “plausible”, or “grounded” apart from sometimes getting the equipment names right (but only sometimes). It’s just a continent-spanning parade of goofiness, and that’s not a bad thing at all.

Weird Wargaming: Iron Eagle

Weird Wargaming: Iron Eagle

One may not expect a cheesy 80s action movie to produce a viable wargaming setting. Yet Iron Eagle offers a strange example of this.

The antagonist country in Iron Eagle is basically “close to Libya without saying Libya”. Several years before the Gulf War, the Middle Eastern antagonist du joir was Libya and not Iraq, and a hint at the end about Chappie being picked up by an “Egyptian trawler” gives another hint.

Equipment/Organization

First, the obvious issue. As Iron Eagle was filmed in Israel, we got Kfirs as “MiG-23s” and AH-1 Cobras as the enemy helicopters. Now the Mirage (which the Kfir is a variant of) is a hugely prolific fighter series serving in many air forces, including Iraq’s and Libya’s. The Cobra, not so much, but some other medium “attack helicopter on a transport platform” could stand-in.

It depends on the degree of “actor” vs. “character” the player wants.

For organization, Libya serves as an obvious inspiration, along with many other Middle Eastern countries. Having looked at various scenes of aircraft lined up, 5 to 6 appear on one side of a runaway, and six are depicted in one flight formation, for exact detail.

Proficiency

Considering that the antagonist nation failed to stop a pair of F-16s, including one which landed and took off again , that they’re based on Libya, a nation with a bad track record in conventional war even by the standards of 20th-century Arab armies, and they have incredibly poor munitions discipline (what else can explain every building going up in giant flames?), it’s safe to give them specifically a low overall proficiency in settings that allow it.

Other Notes

There’s two specific things I’ve considered for Iron Eagle. The first is to go “what realistic force would you need, against a pseudo-Libyan OPFOR, to have even a slight chance of rescuing the colonel”.

The second is how it leads into one of my pet projects, designing a generic Middle Eastern OPFOR country for wargaming purposes, with the working title “Seleucia” (after the Seleucid Empire), since a nameless, vague country fits that.

Conclusion

-Low proficiency in settings that allow it, for equipment use either Libya or whatever you’d expect a country of that nature to reasonably have, and have them be guarding a prisoner if you want to “realistically” (to the degree that such a thing is even possible) reenact the movie.

Review: The Third World War, August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985

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John Hackett’s Third World War was, even more than Red Storm Rising, the book that started off the subgenre this blog was founded on. Thus I figured making it my first review of 2020 was an appropriate milestone.

This is incredibly hard to review. I was initially very dismissive of this book when I read it. And in an isolated “spherical cow” sense, I still feel that way.

Compared to Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and even RSR itself, it offers very little in terms of literary quality. It’s dated (there’s a reference to Abrams as “XM1s”, which is kind of like calling T-64s “Object 432s”). It’s a mixture of straight “pseudo-history” and clunky, sometimes dubiously written vignettes, all stuffed together awkardly. It has, with the Birmingham-Minsk “trade”, one of the worst examples of plotnukes ever. The whole thing is a political lobbying document in the shape of a novel.

And yet, this is perhaps the most context-affected book I’ve ever read. To someone like me who treated the Heavy OPFOR Tactical as casual reading and has seen many, many primary sources, it’s not novel in any way. To someone of that time period, especially someone who wasn’t an analyst, it definitely would be. The nature of this book makes its novelty even more essential than normal, due to its shortcomings.

Hackett’s Third World War has a few interesting scenes, like the chapter detailing how the general public saw the war. It deserves credit for being the first out of the gate. While I originally thought that it was a bad influence on later books of its type, a more thorough reading of the “big war thriller” subgrene reveals that it really wasn’t.

That being said, to a modern audience, it’s still really nothing more than an even more dated version of The War That Never Was, with all the baggage you might expect from it. It’s a very important historical piece and is worth a read for that alone, but it hasn’t aged well.

Review: Himmler’s War

Himmler’s War

I decided it was time to read one of the most infamous names in alternate history. Entering one of my “moods”, I figured, “go for Robert Conroy, and reverse your order of preference.” Normally I’d pick out the most bizarre premise, and Conroy, with his flock of “US gets invaded” novels, certainly has a lot of those. But for this, I chose the most cliche and shopworn one of all-Himmer’s War, which features that obscure and understudied conflict, World War II.

The divergence is simple to explain-a lucky hit from an off-course Allied bomber kills Hitler after D-Day, the titular SS head takes over, and proceeds to change the war, viewed from the usual top-to-bottom viewpoint characters.

Now it was probably a big mistake reading one of David Glantz’s books on the history of the Red Army right before this, especially with the scenes involving the Soviets. This is one of the most pop-historical, “wehraboo” books ever.

  • In about a month, the Germans can conduct major reforms and become better (sort of).
  • Stalin agrees to peace just because Bagration is slowing down.
  • Stalin agrees to give the Germans huge numbers of T-34s in exchange for one collaborating general. Oh-K?
  • The Germans build an atomic bomb before Skorzeny sneaks it to Moscow and detonates it, killing Stalin.

And then in the later part of the book the Americans just bulldoze their way across the Rhine anyway and win quickly, throwing in a “noble Clean Wehrmacht Rommel” to save the day and neatly clean up the potentially messy aftermath, because Conroy realized he didn’t use that particular World War II alternate history cliche yet.

That part of the book is legitimately interesting because it’s where Conroy’s failure as an alternate historian intersects “perfectly” with Conroy’s failure as a writer. It’s the sort of thing that, ideally, would take two books…

…Or zero, because, alternate history aside, Conroy’s writing isn’t the greatest. His characters are all cliches of some sort. The dialogue is horrendous. And finally, his writing of battles leaves something to be desired. Given that he’s writing a book taking place during a war, this is a big problem. Add in too many characters for their own good and minor, useless subplots like FDR having a stroke and barely living to his next inauguration.

There’s a reason why Conroy has the reputation that he has, and it’s a justified one. Even as “soft alternate history” and as a cheap thriller, Himmler’s War falls short.

 

Review: The Second Voyage Of The Seventh Carrier

The Second Voyage Of The Seventh Carrier

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The Seventh Carrier series by Peter Albano continues in its next installment.

There, the plotline that takes up the rest of the series begins. As Japan and the rest of the world get to grips with the existence of the Yonaga and its aged but living crew, a haywire killer- satellite system launched by the Chinese begins immediately destroying anything with a jet or rocket engine. Then Kadafi (of all the spellings of the Libyan dictator’s name, Albano uses this one) buys up a bunch of WWII surplus equipment and launches a campaign against Israel. Suddenly a carrier with old propeller fighters is a valuable asset, and it sails into battle again.

Most of the issues with the first book remain. The characters are all national stereotypes, and now there’s more nations to stereotype. The premise is goofy and turns into an excuse to have another slugfest with World War II weapons (which include surface warships as well the carrier and aircraft).

In spite of this, the action is good, as long as one considers the kind of book that it is. Yet I felt a sinking feeling in me (pun partially intended) when I read it. See, this is the second book in an eleven book long series. I’m not sure I want to read that many of Albano’s adventures.

 

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: Marching Through Georgia

Marching Through Georgia

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For a while, SM Stirling’s Draka series was a lightning rod for controversy in the online alternate history community. So I wanted to see how these tales of a continent-spanning slave empire fared as books, minus the controversy over their “plausibility”. Fittingly, I started with Marching Through Georgia.

As the paratroopers jump into the Caucasus, there are anachronistic assault rifles and Vasilek-style automortars against Kar98ks and MG34s. There are the equivalent of postwar MBTs with gun stabilizers. Now it’s not quite the most exaggerated “Vietnam technology against a WWII army” some people have claimed and the Drakan characters are certainly challenged, but it’s unmistakably clear that the Drakans are better than the Germans they’re fighting, that they have better equipment and are better fighters. The deck is clearly stacked and the “These are author’s pets” alarms are clearly ringing. So I could see why the backlash came.

In literary terms, the prose is functional even with a lot of clunky exposition to establish how the timeline diverged (a problem hardly unique to it). There are worse stories out there. The biggest problem is that the Draka themselves aren’t just unsympathetic, they’re uninteresting.

Although to be fair, this never really rises above the level of “slam-bang action war story with even more sleazy titillation thrown in”. In fact, it got to the point where I felt that all the effort expended in (not unreasonably) critiquing its plausibility seemed like punching down.

Take a decent-at-best war romp story with an inherently pulpy nation, add in a bunch of BISEXUAL AMAZONS, and for good measure, toss in some of the  understandable “commercial alternate history” tropes like “there’s still people and events the readers will recognize despite the point of divergence being centuries ago”. Now think-would something like that really stand up to massive, gigantic scrutiny over its plausibility? Would you even expect it to?

Review: The Chosen One

The Chosen One

Walt Gragg’s The Red Line was one of the first books I reviewed on Fuldapocalypse-and how could I not, with it being a Russo-American World War III, the kind that was supposed to be the blog’s bread and butter? Now his second book, The Chosen One, is out. And I felt I had to review it.

So, an Algerian man somehow becomes recognized as the “Madhi”, gets a huge army, is able to unify most of the Middle East, equip said huge army, and launch a conventional World War III. It doesn’t take place in the Fulda Gap, but the book does have all the hallmarks of the “big-war thriller” that I had in mind when starting the blog.

It has tons of viewpoint characters from top to bottom, lots of battles, a focus on air, land, and sea (via a cruise missile strike on the American fleet), and the general tropes of the subgenre. So I can say I feel very comfortable in declaring this a World War III book.

A lot of the big-picture stuff doesn’t make much sense (even in a spherical cow lines on a map way), which I’d be more forgiving of if it wasn’t brought up repeatedly in conference room exposition scenes. It’s not quite at the level of The Red Line’s convoluted way to turn the clock back to the 1980s, but it’s still there in force.

There are a few too many viewpoint characters for the book’s own good, they’re not exactly the least stereotypical, and they make the pacing jumbled (the kind of thing I sadly expected). Part of this is a cutaway to the antagonist’s stereotypical childhood. I’ll just say that A: I was reminded of Life Of Brian, and B: you shouldn’t be reminded of Life of Brian in what’s supposed to be a serious story.

As for the actual action, it’s strange. The prose descriptions are ridiculously melodramatic (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but still, given the tone, it clashes), but it also has more than its share of dry weapon over-description as well. There’s also anachronisms with the weapon names (which isn’t so bad if you don’t mind every enemy tank being an “M60” or “T-72”) and tactics (which is understandable but still a little out of date to see carrier aircraft flying at low altitude and having trouble hitting hardened shelters).

It’s not the absolute worst, but it’s still not what it could have been. The conclusion is also a stumbling point, which has a firefight inside an Egyptian pyramid (Ok?) that’s taken seriously and focused on while a big tank battle occurs elsewhere and is only mentioned in passing (not ok), and ends with a really, really blatant sequel hook.

This is a sort of oddball novelty-it has the roughness and er, “quirkiness” of some of the more uneven independent “big-war thrillers”, yet it’s a mainstream publication. And regrettably, its fundamentals just aren’t good enough to be more than an oddball novelty.