The 1990s were not a good decade for technothrillers in terms of popularity and sales, and in my opinion, no book illustrates the problems they faced more than Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin’s Cauldron. The question of who to fight a World War III against loomed greatly, and the usual suspects had lost all credibility in the immediate post-USSR, post-Gulf War period.
So it was the US against a-French/German nationalist alliance? Ok.
While Cauldron obviously doesn’t fit the “Iceland Pattern” of a Russo-American WW3 in terms of direct events, it does follow the story structure greatly. Too greatly, and this is one of the problems that too many post-1991 technothrillers had. With the scope of conflict (usually) shrinking, too many of them decided to be scaled-down great-power thrillers rather than scaled-up adventure thrillers.
Cauldron is more a symptom than a cause of this decline. It has most of the same issues that Bond’s own Red Phoenix struggled with. That book was written during the Cold War and featured a far more realistic opponent, but they both shared a similar formulaic attitude and a “but we have to show battles at land, at sea, and in the air” attitude.
It’s infodump city here. Lots of political infodumps, lots of military infodumps, you name it. Par for the course.
After December 26, 1991, the zombie sorceresses were at work finding opponents. The problem of what the opponent would be between the fall of the USSR and 9/11 plagued factual researchers as well as fiction writers-one of the most notorious cases I’ve seen was a RAND study that featured a joint Syrian-Iraqi invasion of Turkey (!) as a contingency plan.
Still, the decision to include not just Western Europe, but a cherrypicked part of Western Europe is very zombie sorceress, made all the worse by Bond’s decision to have a lengthy political intro. This means the implausibility is dwelled on rather than handwaved past.
Ok, so Cauldron has a laundry list of issues that plague the genre. It’s as if Bond was trying deliberately to chain them.
- Having the story be self-contained in one book. This is a valid stylistic choice, a necessity given traditional publishing, and most of the time is a better alternative to the bloated series where nothing happens (see my Axis of Evil review for an example of that). But it means space is at a premium. The later points show how the book wastes that precious space.
- There’s a too-long opening act. There’s no surprise at the outcome (in a book about a war, a war starts), and the political maneuvering isn’t well written.
- Even once the action starts, there’s a checklist to fit land, sea, and air clashes all in one book, getting in each other’s way.
- The entire Russian subplot is both clunky and pointless, an example of too many plots for ones own good.
- The prose, while not terrible, gets a little too clunky and rivet counter-esque for its own good.
Beyond that, very little can rise above that. There are some tales where massive flaws can be forgiven because the good things are equally spectacular. Cauldron goes from iffy to merely decent-in action and characters.
The Only Score That Really Matters
Completely in isolation, Cauldron is a middle of the road technothriller with all the faults and features of one. But in context, it serves as a picture-perfect example of a genre that was fading from its height, shifting from mainstream to enthusiast fiction. Most of this was due to political and cultural factors beyond its control. But Bond’s literary choices didn’t help.
The shift to being more niche would have consequences for later WWIII/army thrillers, but that’s a subject for another time.