A Thousand Words: Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove

Welcome to A Thousand Words, my attempt to expand Fuldapocalypse into visual media. Since this is a blog that’s technically about World War III, I figured I’d open it up by reviewing the movie that probably, more than any other, represents World War III in popular culture. This movie, obviously, is the Stanley Kubrick/Peter Sellers classic Dr. Strangelove.

The movie itself is excellent. I could complain about how some of the humor seems a little forced at times, but the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. It’s a classic for a reason.

What I find more intriguing is how utterly different Dr. Strangelove is from, say, Red Storm Rising. The entire plot centers around nuclear war, as opposed to the sidestepping most of the “WW3s” I knew did. It’s started by an American general, and there are only a few characters. Granted, some of this is the movie format at work, but still.

Review: The Saudi-Iranian War

The Saudi-Iranian War

saudiiranianwar

As my first Command LIVE scenario was a conflict between Iran and Saudi Arabia, when I saw Ted Halstead’s The Saudi-Iranian War, I knew I had to check it out. I was sadly disappointed.

The Saudi-Iranian War is a technothriller through and through. Not only does it depict a military conflict with jumping viewpoints at all levels, but it does so through the lens of technological spectacle. It reads like a cargo-culted classic technothriller that manages to have even less of a human element than the stereotype would predict.

Halstead takes us on an all-tution paid semester in Rivets 205 at tem wur cool leg. The book just starts with character after character after character saying what they’re going to be doing, along with such important DEEP HISTORY details as the horsepower of a jeep’s engine. It’s the worst kind of knowledge-detail, the kind that goes “I know [or looked up] the exact designation of a Scud TEL, so I’ll write it out”, rather than leveraging any of it into making an actually better story.

The early part of this is rote description, metaphorical conference room scenes, and literal conference room scenes. It’s about as exciting as it sounds.

Halfway into the book, the “action” finally starts. If, by action one means “there’s descriptions of tanks, followed by descriptions of tanks firing, with a description of the exact shell [ie, M829A2] the tank fired.” Not only are the large battles treated purely as deterministic clashes of military hardware, but they’re also dull to the point where I’ve read more melodramatic Let’s Plays/AARs of various wargames. The smaller scale “cloak and dagger” stuff is also not ideal, but even it’s still better than the big battles.

Perhaps the most disappointing part is the setup. Iran hopes to defeat Saudi Arabia via a series of technothriller set pieces. Everything just feels like it’s one isolated, stilted technothriller set piece after another instead of anything that seems like it’s genuinely flowing. The tanks are a technothriller set piece. The aircraft are a technothriller set piece. The WMDs are a technothriller set piece. Not helping matters for a story so centered around military equipment is said equipment being a mix of “The Wikipedia page for Saudi and Iranian equipment”, plus a few shoved-in ‘exotics’ like T-14 Armatas and J-20s.

I’d recommend something like Raven One for a modern technothriller where an Iran with an expanded arsenal is the opponent. The Saudi-Iranian War just feels like a rote, box-checking IKEA Technothriller that has far more of the genre’s bad parts than its good ones.

 

Review: Defcon One

Defcon One

Joe Weber’s Defcon One is a late Cold War technothriller with one unintentionally prescient scene and a lot of iffy clunkiness.

Who and What

This is a very stock technothriller. It’s also a very boring techno-“thriller”. Which is a shame because its nuclear “almost-war” could have been better in defter hands. Instead it has supervillain Soviets and makes what should have been a second Cuban Missile Crisis look very boring. It’s technically competent, but also dull and feels from start to finish like it’s just going through the motions of what a technothriller is supposed to be. “Superweapons. Check. Action. Check. Conference Rooms. Check. Lots of Viewpoint Characters [who aren’t developed even by genre standards]. Check.”

The creepy and unintentionally prescient scene is having the Space Shuttle Columbia get damaged in space and then be destroyed during reentry. The book was published in 1989, 14 years before that happened in real life.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

Not only are there lots of infodumps in Defcon One, but they feel sort of-forced. Like it’s “I have to describe what this aircraft engine is”. Weber is a former Marine aviator, but at least in this book he fell too often into the trap of “I know the exact designation of a Scud TEL, and I’ll share it” that some writers with genuine expertise fall into.

Zombie Sorceresses

Let’s see, the initial push, the too-neat final resolution of this (even Arc Light did better), and the general “supervillain Soviet” trend. A goofier premise might have helped it along.

Tank Booms

There’s some fighting at sea, having spies run around in the USSR, and having the occasional superweapon-beam destroy a space shuttle. The action describes the biggest problem that DefCon One has-it’s too exaggerated to be a good grounded highbrow story, but too tame to be a good cheap thriller.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Defcon One is well-put together, especially for the first novel that it was. I just found it dull and kind of an “IKEA Technothriller”. It has the contrivances and structure of a technothriller, but surprisingly few actual thrills.

 

Review: Total War

Total War

It does not take a PHD in literary theory to guess why interest in postapocalyptic stories rose as the Cold War heated up in the early 1980s. One of the most infamous is Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series, starring the Detonics miniature 1911 pistol-and the man firing them, John Rourke. Reviewing Total War, the first book in the series, I found it very good for what it is.

Icelands

Ok, I want to take a second to argue that my original category of “Icelands” may be obsolete. I’d envisioned it as applying to a much narrower group of stories than I ended up reviewing on this blog. It was designed for a very short continuum between Hackett’s Third World War and Team Yankee. It was not designed for something like this, a pulp adventure thriller. So I may be doing a revamp of my whole post structure, and if I do, “Icelands” is the most likely category to be changed or revamped.

That being said, Total War is very much an 80s pulpy cheap thriller. Just those words should give you a hint of what to expect.

Rivets

This is one of those “it tells you exactly what kind of gun it is” books, be it a revolver or Detonics pistol. It has a lot of lists (including a description of Rourke’s survivalist lair), a lot of long descriptions of scrounged gizmos. Yet they don’t really get in the way of the fast-paced action.

Zombie Sorceresses

Pretty much what you’d expect from a post-apocalyptic thriller in terms of contrivances. The nuclear blasts are actually handled fairly reasonably, especially given the genre. They’re not the biggest issue. If I had to give one issue that’s the most contrived, it’s how waves of bandits for our hero to fight appear out of nowhere like it was a Bethesda Softworks video game.

The “Wha?”

This flows good for a first installment. We go from Rourke fighting in Pakistan to an infodump about his survivalist lair to the nuclear war, to him and his wife both fighting bandits.

One thing I was impressed by was how even-handed he was by action novel standards. For an American cheap thriller written in 1981, Ahern portrays some of the Soviet characters with surprising deftness and sympathy.

The Only Score That Really Matters

Ok, this is basically a western version of Fist of the North Star, except instead of going “ATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATATA omae wa mou shindeiru”, Rourke simply shoots his opponents with his Detonics pistol. If you think that’s tacky, this book isn’t for you. If you like it even a tiny bit, it is.

Furthermore, Ahern is surprisingly good on some of the literary fundamentals. The book is short and moves quickly. The “clunky first setup part” only exists to a small degree here. And while Total War isn’t exactly Peters’ Red Army, its Soviets are considerably less supervillain-y than a lot of other novels in this time period.

Total War is worth a read if you like cheap 80s action.

Review: Arc Light

Arc Light

Arc Light by Eric Harry is a good but uneven World War III tale. Even at its worst, it never dips below the genre median, and at its best it goes in a novel direction that takes a big concern head-on instead of sidestepping it. While this might seem (and is) praiseworthy, it left me wanting the whole story to be more consistently good.

Icelands

Arc Light has two “parts”. One is bold, the other cliche.

The first part is the nuclear war. This, for all my small quibbles, handles the defining weapon of the Cold War excellently. The initial strikes are described in massive detail, and the threat hangs uneasily for the rest of the book. Instead of either handwaving nukes aside altogether or, worse, dropping a few contrived “plotnukes” (Hackett’s Birmingham-Minsk exchange is a picture-pefect example), it launches a big but survivable nuclear “counterforce” strike while keeping the unease of follow-up strikes there.

The second part is a totally conventional military cheap thriller. It’s not outright bad or unreadable, but it has most of the genre tropes there. Multiple viewpoint characters (though, I will say, not too many), and worse, contrived, tinny political scenes that only serve to set up the action that everyone knew was coming anyway.

Rivets

The rivet-counting concerning the nukes is present and annoying. Annoying in the sense that they alternate between well-described horror of nuclear war and clinical, dull infodumps. A lot of the nuclear infodumps have the “I know what the formal name of a Scud TEL is” feeling, where it sounds like the author using the story to demonstrate what he knows instead of using what he knows to help make the story better. But, in an excample of how conflicted this book can be, they’re interspersed with genuinely gripping descriptions.

The rivet-counting concerning everything else is just irritating, especially when large battles and plot-progressing moments are told in nothing but infodumps.

Zombie Sorceresses

While I’m sure the zombie sorceresses were at work with the setup, the important part was that it didn’t feel as contrived as it had been. It has Russia as the opponent and its nuclear exchange dominates the book without being too big.

I’d say the biggest zombie sorceress intervention came in politics and the Americans invading Russia. But even that I forgave, for it was more novel.

The “Wha?”

This kind of wobbles a lot. The low-level soldiers are handled very well. The noncombatants are handled decently, at least in a well-intended way. Anything political turns into either infodumps or Larry Bond-wannabe “they set up what you knew what would happen” scenes.

Arc Light feels like it’s trying to tell a big Red Storm Rising-style story while using a fairly small number of viewpoint characters. The former is acceptable, and the latter to me is laudable. But what this means in practice is that a lot of the story is told in either infodumps or maps. It either needed more characters (which are not necessarily bad if handled well) or a smaller scope.

The Only Score That Really Matters

This takes the eccentricities of 90s techno-thrillers and manages to use them well. But it still could have been more. At times it feels like a gritty genre-amplifier and at times it feels like a routine Larry Bond knockoff.

It’s kind of befuddling. Arc Light will have a gritty infantry battle that has down and dirty bleeding and confusion, and then it will have a classic conference room infodump. It will show something with great skill-and then tell anyway. A giant tank battle is explained in an infodump.

But it still tries to move outside the narrow genre limits and mostly succeeds. In particular, it handles WMDs without them ever feeling like “plotnukes” there to just add a bit of cheap drama. It just could have used a little more focus and a lot less tinny politics.