Review: Events

Events

The debut published work of Sea Lion Press author Charles E. P. Murphy, Events tells the story of alternate British prime ministers as they deal with the economy, other familiar problems, and, uh, alien invasions. The book is told in a deadpan pseudo-historical fashion, complete with footnotes that reference made-up history books. Anyone who knows internet alternate history will see the style being poked at instantly.

And this is the novella’s biggest issue: You need to be in an extremely small, insular community to really appreciate it. Otherwise, the obvious joke will just get repeated. “Oh, this prime minister dealt with an alien attack and then (insert mundane historical political problem here). And then this prime minister did (___)….” Even though it’s very short, the gag wears out its welcome by the third alien invasion.

But if you do know internet alternate history, the joke becomes better. A genre with a frequent rivet-counting “how many B-52s can dance on the head of a pin” obesssion and which cares absolutely nothing for conventional plot or characters gets skewered by Murphy treating made-up nonsense as if it was a meticulously researched order of battle for 1863/1942/1985.

Of course, the book also gets soured a bit by Poe’s Law (there is no parody of something that cannot be equaled in extremes by a sincere expression of the same). Since many internet alternate history timelines often portray events rivaling flying saucer wars in terms of divergence unironically, this can feel like just a handwaved in timeline that happens to be tongue in cheek. And (thankfully) without wikiboxes.

This is a first novel, so I can forgive its flaws. But it’s still made by and for those who follow a specific niche.

Review: Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Wings Over The Hindu Kush

Lukas Muller’s Wings Over The Hindu Kush shines a light on an obscure footnote in aviation history: The Afghan air forces (yes, plural) between the Soviet withdraw and Enduring Freedom. Leaving behind a large quantity of helicopters and aircraft, there were enough parts and willing pilots for the Taliban and its rivals to create air forces up until 2001. As someone aware of their existence and interested in how functional air units could be maintained from such “scraps”, this book was an easy purchase.

In a complex, fluid situation without the best documentation, getting the detail that Muller did was no small feat. The book isn’t the biggest or most absolutely detailed, but it does tell the story of these helicopters, Fitters, and Fishbeds. And it’s a very interesting story.

The strike aircraft were far from the most capable or effective (the transports in a place with poor infrastructure were far more vital), but their mere presence in such conditions was surprising. And this book clears up the surprise in a great way.

Review: Soviet Era Airliners

Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades

In many ways, Aeroflot mirrored the USSR itself. Its breakup in 1991 scattered the massive airline’s assets across all the independent republics. Christopher Buckley’s Soviet-Era Airliners: The Final Three Decades tells the story of what happened to all the “Classics”, “Crusties”, “Carelesses”, “Clobbers”, and more. While the collapse of the USSR and the failure of its aviation industry to make a competitive product caused its new-build civil aircraft industry to fall apart instantly, there were lots of surplus planes around.

This book does a great job showing most of their fates. There’s lots of details and even more excellent photographs. If you like civil aviation at all, this is a great book. I was curious to see what happened to these flying trilobites, and now I know.

Review: Wheels

Wheels

Arthur Hailey’s Wheels, published three years after Airport, turned its attention to the auto industry. While I’ve been a fairly new study to the aircraft industry, I’ve been interested in cars for much, much longer. So I knew I had to at least try this book. Especially because there are bizarrely few novels about the auto industry’s shenanigans. The biggest names are just this and The Betsy, which barely counts as a coherent book.

This is only somewhat more focused than Robbins’ scattershot, crazed novel. And it’s less focused than Airport. While that had a big broad soap opera and industry exposition that concluded with a rushed thriller plot, this is nothing but a Detroit drama. Or to be more specific, a series of Detroit dramas that range from car design to the struggles of a poor assembly line worker to the not-exactly-scintillating subject of middle class adultery.

I can respect this book for what it is-a lot of the research holds up, even if Hailey once again fell for futurist wonders being just around the corner (room-temperature superconductors in this case). It does work as a snapshot of an utterly rotten industry that was practically begging for the imports to come and whip it into shape (Published in 1971, the only reference to Japanese cars is a Subaru 360-esque “four wheeled motorcycle” that no one likes). But it doesn’t really work as a practical narrative.

Review: Airport

Airport

Author Arthur Hailey had a gimmick. He would find a certain field, research it massively, and then build a thriller and/or pop epic around said filed. One of his most famous and successful novels was 1968’s Airport, which inspired the movie series and the parody Airplane!. In it, an airliner is threatened by a both literal and figurative perfect storm of everything from horrible weather to a blocked runway to angry neighbors to a man determined to kill himself and blow up the plane-for the sake of insurance, nothing political.

Hailey spent a gargantuan amount of time on research, and it shows. I’ve always wondered if him being around in the age of the internet would have made his endeavours quicker and easier, or if it would have just prompted him to go even further down the rabbit hole. My hunch is the latter. There’s a lot of well-done and accurate depictions of airport operations (and a lot of weird-in-hindsight 1960s futurism, such as talk of superlifter cargo planes being thought of as something that would render sea freighters as obsolete as ocean liners and passenger pods being loaded into civilian C-5s).

The biggest issue is that the pacing is incredibly slow and lethargic for about four fifths of the book, then it hurriedly sprints to its conclusion. Maybe it was deliberate to try and be suspenseful, but if so, it didn’t work. The second biggest issue is that the characters are dull and dated-most obviously shown in a subplot where one of the main characters gets a flight attendant pregnant and the resulting drama.

This is a decent product of its time, but it’s still a product of its time and not the most recommended for later readers. It comes from an age when air travel was still something novel, and where readers would be less familiar with it. It’s not Hailey’s fault, but the book has aged terribly in that regard. Now it just comes across as 80% Herman Melville’s Airport Tales and 20% A Brief Disaster Novella, neither of which can really stand up.

Review: Sunrising

Sunrising

The wide and ever-expanding amount of genres covered by Fuldapocalypse has now extended to “Zimbabwean Historical Fiction” with Susan Hubert’s Sunrising. Openly inspired by the author’s own background, this is the story of a turn-of-the-century Englishwoman settling in Bulawayo. It’s not the type of fiction I normally read and review, so that might explain a lot of my lukewarm attitude towards it.

But I also think that it’s just too slow and relies too much on the self-proclaimed wonders of seeing Southern Africa as a way to attract attention. To me, I get the impression that the intent was “look at the train disrupted by elephants, wow!” but what came across to me was “I get it. Elephants exist.” That’s an example from one scene in the book and I could easily give more.

I don’t consider this a bad book, and am willing to accept that it being not my usual novel genre may explain my comparative lack of interest. But it feels like the kind of pre-widespread visual media novel that leans massively on its setting. It was published in 2020 but the style feels like a book made fifty years earlier. That’s not a bad thing, but it does make the book feel a little strange to me.

Review: Confrontation

Confrontation: The War With Indonesia 1962-1966

Peter van der Bijl’s Confrontation is a military history of the four-year small war known as the Konfrontasi. It goes into extremely military detail. What’s not to like? The answer is, surprisingly, a lot. This isn’t really a bad book, but it is a flawed one.

The first flaw comes from the nature of the war: It really wasn’t much of one. It was more a political stunt by Sukarno than anything else, and the actual service chiefs did the bare minimum to support it. This isn’t the author’s fault, but his priorities are. There’s less of the politics (though they’re still present) and more of firefights in the jungle that blend together (almost always ending with “better-trained Commonwealth troops get the better of worse Indonesians”).

The second comes from the author’s biases. There are a lot of rants about journalists, especially journalists covering the Troubles, which feel kind of out of place. Worse is the absolute fawning hagiography of the British and Commonwealth armies. This is accurate in terms of specifics vis a vis the Indonesians, but still gets annoying, as does the very British slant of “unlike you knuckle-dragging Yanks, we won our jungle war” without noticing the very different context of Malaya. Finally, there’s no real attempt to explore escalation counterfactuals beyond just “The Indonesian air force and navy wasn’t very good”.

This ultimately comes across as just a series of jungle warfare vignettes. It’s not the worst book about its conflict, but it’s not the best and could be much more.

Review: The Rhodesian War

The Rhodesian War: A Military History

The subject of Rhodesia and its war is dominated by uh, “iffy” sources that I shouldn’t have to explain the problems with. Thankfully, among these strides a beautiful unicorn: Moorcraft and McLaughlin’s The Rhodesian War: A Military History. Originally released not long after the war’s end and Zimbabwe’s creation, it recently got an updated edition on post-war developments.

What this is is a very evenhanded, very detailed look completely devoid of “Fire Forces! Selous Scouts!” “Shorts!” “Be a Man Among Men!” Soldier of Fortune romanticism. It doesn’t hesitate to look at the negatives of the guerillas (and, in the updated edition, the Mugabe regime), but it’s unsparing in its blunt assesment of the minority government: Rhodesia was doomed from the start. The British knew it. Apartheid South Africa knew it, which is why they tried to twist Rhodesia into stepping aside in favor of a moderate African government, rather than face a radicalized one on their border that would develop from a victorious war. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that even South Vietnam and 2001-2021 Afghanistan rested on vastly sturdier foundations than Rhodesia did.

The Rhodesians had no concept of war as a political entity and were only good at leveraging limited resources in tactical operations. Even those were aided by weaker opponents (Rhodesians themselves had said that if the guerillas had been as astute in military craft as the Vietnamese ones had been, the war would have been lost much sooner), and said opposition was becoming better as the end of the decade neared.

This is one of the best-single volume military histories I’ve read. It’s also a great antidote to noxious internet fandom surrounding a country that simply did not deserve it.

Review: Gadget

Gadget

Nicolas Freeling’s Gadget is a book about a terrorist nuclear weapon. It can sort of be described as Red Army (villains win) meets The Sum of All Fears (nuclear terrorism). Only without the strong points of ether and with the latter’s weaknesses.

See, if you really, really loved the scenes in Fears where the nuclear bomb is being constructed, you will like this book. In fact, if the editor had chopped the entirety of that novel down to just the bomb construction scenes and ended the book right when it was successfully brought to the target and detonated, you’d have something very much like Gadget-a dry, technical nuclear tale.

I’ve pondered before why most nuclear terrorism novels were the way they were. The reason is “because it’s more dramatic than this”. If you absolutely need a detailed Herman Melville’s Nuclear Bomb story, this is the book for you. Otherwise, stay away.