I’m delighted to say that The Sure Bet King’s ebook version is now out! Enjoy!
So with the release of Blood Vortex, the Harlequin/Gold Eagle era of Mack Bolan concluded. After reviewing that book, I have a couple more thoughts.
The first is that there simply wasn’t much attention paid to it outside the existing fandom. Nader Elhefnawy has commented that in 2015, the rest of Gold Eagle, a once-big imprint, getting folded attracted literally no comment. Likewise for the end of Mack Bolan, and I can add to that by saying the responses to my Blood Vortex review amounted to “Wait they were still making Mack Bolans?” This isn’t surprising, as the series was an irrelevant shell for years and years.
What I find more interesting is how every Mack Bolan movie project has fallen through. Some of this could just be bad luck, but it implies that, for all the success of the books (at a time before visual media could match its visceral qualities), the character was, unlike his inspiration The Punisher, never truly that marketable.
Now for the biggest surprise I had when reading the later, non-Pendleton Bolans. What I’d expected was for the multiple authors to result in the books being extremely erratic in quality, ie comic books. Yet what I found, albeit based on a small sample size, was strangely the opposite. There was a bit of difference in quality, but there was a lot more similarity.
Whatever the author, the Gold Eagle Bolans I’ve read all have had the same issues with a consistency I haven’t seen among cheap thrillers made by different writers in different settings. Nearly all of them would go into ridiculous detail on the character weapons, but would make gigantic mistakes about anything vehicle-based or bigger that one glance at a Wikipedia page could have corrected. All of them felt filled with obvious padding in spite of their short-to-very-short length. All of them had, to one degree or another, stilted and clunky prose. And all of them were jumbled and had huge issues with their plots (even by cheap thriller standards).
I don’t know the reasons why this was the cause. Whether it was the editors pushing it, the authors just getting into a routine (especially given the undoubtedly tight release schedule), or something else, I don’t know. But it was there, and it was one of the things that made me less eager to read them.
It’s strange. The Executioner (which was originally intended as a one-off!) ended up with so many books and so many more it clearly influenced, including a popular Marvel character. Yet so much of it was also disposable throwaway literature, cheap even by the standards of cheap thrillers.
This is the 300th post on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s fitting that it comes now, because well, I’m in what feels like a blog midlife crisis. I don’t want to overstate this, because the diversification of the blog, which I’ve talked about many times, means there’s no problem with supplying actual content. But there’s still a strange feeling in me.
See, there’s an increasing feeling in me that the well is running dry. I’ve said many, many times that there’s a lot fewer World War III books than I thought. And that’s only a little less true for “big war thrillers” in general. It’s a little weird knowing your views were distorted by a combination of one field where those tropes were common (wargaming) and an internet trend that, in hindsight, was no more significant or influential than a long-ago boomlet on Spacebattles of who-would-win matches involving lions (yes, this actually happened).
And yet, for the fiction of that type that actually exists, my initial wariness still often holds true. It’s still often a cross between conference rooms and paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters. Sturgeon’s Law still applies, and in any exposition-heavy format, I consider the “floor” to be lower than in a lowbrow action thriller. So I’m in the strange position of, regarding the supposed subject matter of this very blog, either having already read or having little desire to read a lot of the of “Icelandic” books I set it up to review. Not all-I still have some I want to read, and genres should never be discounted altogether. But a lot.
And what else that’s come to me is the sense that this kind of “big-war thriller” is just harder to write well than a conventional cheap thriller (I’m not saying it’s impossible, only harder). I’ve felt this way about alternate history, and think it’s also true here. You have to balance a good and reasonably accurate picture of the conflict/divergent setting with a good story and characters, and sometimes those are at cross purposes. It’s why, with my annoyance at there seemingly being too many “conventional WWIII” stories having long-subsided, I feel that there aren’t enough, and that there especially isn’t enough cross-pollination (which is understandable, but that’s a subject for another post).
So what I’ve been experiencing is something very much like the bittersweet feeling someone gets when they finally finish a long series that they enjoyed. I felt this way with the Survivalist. I felt this way with Blaine McCracken. I felt this way with video games and movies and TV shows that I liked. In all those cases I found later replacements (for the Survivalist, it’s responsible for getting me into an entire genre) but the feeling still remains.
And so it feels this way for here. I’ve reviewed, judging by tags and discounting essay posts, about 28 “World War III” books. They range from good to bad, from rote to pulpy to clunky to outright bizarre. I’ve experienced a huge range. In many ways I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. And while that sort of thing can bring about justifiable pride, it can also bring about a sense of understandable emptiness.
My feeling isn’t “what do I do now?”, since the answer (read and write about either other types of fiction or history/theory in general) is what I’ve been doing. Rather, it’s a simpler “So, that’s it? That’s all there was?”
I discovered a sport called “short hockey” existed. That is hockey played with four skaters and a goalie per team with 10 minute periods across the width of a half-rink. As it’s much less exerting, teams can play a lot of games in just one day. As the ownership/sponsorship of all the Russian short hockey leagues I’ve seen by sportsbooks shows, it’s aimed more at gamblers than actual fans.
So I figured, what would “short baseball” look like? As is, baseball already has many more games feasibly scheduled than many other sports. Yet I decided to amplify it more with two tiers.
- Semi-short baseball, which is like conventional baseball only with six innings, games ending in ties after two extra ones, a designated hitter, and some pace of play rules. Semi-short leagues, despite their betting-friendly nature, are treated as serious competitions with ceremony, champions, and the same rigorous record-keeping.
- Mega-short baseball, which is just a means to an end of making as many gambling-friendly matches. Games are five two-out innings which automatically end in ties after the bottom of the fifth, there are rapid pitch clocks, and, most crucially, pitchers have to throw the ball in the least stressful way possible. This both saves on the need for countless pitchers and encourages scoring by having pitches be easier to hit. There are also no formal standings and essentially no official record-keeping.
If I can find an appropriate place for it in my fiction, I’ll gladly put “short baseball” in, with an alternate history background as to how it got started and developed (which almost certainly means earlier and more widespread legal sports betting in baseball-friendly countries).
One of my personal in-jokes is how few Larry Bond books I’ve actually read and reviewed on Fuldapocalypse, which is either two or three as of this post. The books are Cauldron, Red Phoenix, and Red Storm Rising if you count it. This combined with the increasing diversification of the blog makes me sometimes go “Boy I’ve reviewed more [insert genre or author that’s nothing like him] books than I have Larry Bond’s”.
Bond, along with Hackett himself, is the most “Icelandic” of the authors I’ve read on Fuldapocalypse. The most tied to wargaming. The most determined to have a “broad-front”, top-to-bottom perspective with a bunch of viewpoint characters.
And well, I have to say he’s not the most impressive, at least judging from the sample size I’ve seen. Not the worst by any means, but you’ll notice how “meh” I sound in my review of Red Phoenix. I’ll be fair and say that I think a big part of it isn’t his fault. In short, I know too much about the subject matter to be impressed the way a “normal” reader might be.
And yet, from the broader perspective I’ve experienced, my respect for him has actually grown. For Bond’s work remains distinct. There are lots and lots and lots of more “normal” cheap thrillers, and it’s, to be frank, not the hardest genre to succeed in. There are much fewer “big-war thrillers”, and it is a harder genre to do right.
Larry Bond can’t be faulted for trying. And there’s certainly room in the literary sphere for books in his style alongside the spacesuit commandos and terrorist-shooters.
So, a long time ago I had this idea in my mind. Now, granted, I didn’t know how to proceed from there, but it was this idea I had in my mind. Maybe it could still work as a very short story by itself.
I’ve talked before about “Steel Panthers Characterization”, derived from this:
Basically, in Steel Panthers, a unit has a nationally appropriate name and rank applied to it. Being otherwise interchangeable, this means nothing else in terms of characterization.
I came up with the term “Steel Panthers Characterization” to describe situations when characters were not just underdeveloped, but seemed to exist solely to put a certain piece of military equipment into action.
Fortunately, just as there were many, many fewer “Big-War Thrillers” than I’d thought, there are equally as few Steel Panthers Characters. Yet as a formative experience, this introduction stuck in my mind.
Basically, there would be a pilot in a two-seat, side-by-side aircraft, like an A-6 (as in the illustration) or an F-111 or an Su-24. It would dive in, release its weapons, and fly away on a routine mission.
Suddenly, the pilot would realize something wasn’t right. He looks at the other crewman, clad in his flight suit. Lifting up the visor, the pilot sees absolutely nothing underneath it. Same thing with the gloves and sleeves. Unnerved, the pilot simply ejects. His fate would be left ambiguous in a short story, but in a longer one he would become one of the characters.
What’s soured me on the concept is that I’ve felt it’s not only too harsh a critique, but also too inaccurate of one, given how few works really sink to that level. And the ones that do either make up for it in some way or are just unfairly easy targets. But still, the draft of the pilot’s story is something I feel I should share.