Review: Vortex (Larry Bond)

Vortex (Larry Bond)

Larry Bond’s Vortex is a tale of war in southern Africa, as a revanchanist South Africa seeks to retake Namibia, with the opposition of Cuba and the Americans drawn into it. My first proper Larry Bond novel in some time, I wanted to see how this, his last pre-Soviet collapse novel went. And the answer, sadly, is “not too well”.

I knew his style, and, starting this blog, thought it was a lot more common than it actually was. I knew it’d have a lot of conference room scenes. I knew it would have a very long opening act to set up the war everyone knows is going to happen. I knew it would hop around viewpoint characters a lot and focus on each and every part of the war. Yet I wasn’t prepared for how excessive all of it would be. This is the longest, clunkiest, and, I hate to say it, worst Larry Bond I’ve read.

It takes over a hundred pages just to get to the conference rooms. The book has this weird “too hot and too cold” feeling where it stays for a while on a low-rate cloak and dagger plot in the first half and then explodes into too many tangled threads in the second. Naturally, all of this makes the ending too contrived and neat.

This is a shame because the premise-expanding on a real conflict with truly interesting participants and tactics in a theater of war genuinely unfamiliar to many Americans-is a very good one. Which makes it being squandered in this huge mess all the worse. Bond has written much better than this, and his other works have similar-level battle scenes without the structural failings here.

Review: Pale Horse 3

Pale Horse 3

Russell Greer’s Pale Horse 3 is the story of a B-52 in a 1980s World War III-published in 2020. So it’s another entry in the “alternate history World War III after Vietnam” genre which, as I’ve said many times, thought was too big but ended up being too small. Except this is in an even smaller field because it has nuclear weapons involved. But wait, unlike the apocalyptic For Alert Force, this falls back into limited plotnukes.

That quibble as to what tinier chuck of a tiny segment of fiction it falls into aside, how is the actual book?

The answer, I’m sad to say, is “not the best”. Given that this is only the author’s second novel, I’m not holding it against him, but the prose is still very clunky, the plot is kind of jumbled and a little slow with the backstory, and even the action gets a little too Herman Melville-y. Dale Brown at his finest this is not.

Besides the review of the book itself, this has a very bittersweet “closing the frontier” feeling for me. It’s one thing to know the “AHWW3AV” (how’s that for an acronym?) genre inside and outside, but quite another to literally read the literal last one on the current list. One reason I actually like having backlogs of books is because of the empty feeling when they’re finished, even if in a satisfying way.

Once the magic of figuring out the genre is gone, you’re left with a field that, like any other, has good, bad, and in this case middling entries. Conventional (or mostly conventional) World War III felt like something to explore. Something to help me mature when I saw how little it actually resembled the “Icelandic” picture I had in mind before. Something to start a whole blog about. Now it’s just another tag in this blog, and I’m really not sure how I feel about that.

Review: Starmageddon

Starmageddon

In 1986’s Starmageddon, Richard Rohmer struck again. By this time, The Hunt For Red October had been out for some time and Red Storm Rising was soon to come. One of my comments about Tom Clancy has been that his success and popularity was more due to being able to tap the trends of the time than any directly superlative writing skill. Well, for Rohmer, that kind of trend-chasing, mixed with inertia, was the sole reason for him being as successful as he was.

I’m reluctant to call anything the “worst ever”. But in terms of the worst World War III book written, Starmageddon is at least up there. Especially in the category of “worst World War III book by a big name author/publisher”. So what is this book?

Basically, take the hot-button issues and events of the day, in this case the KAL007 shootdown, the Strategic Defense Initiative, and trade concerns with Japan and South Korea. It’s okay to wonder what the third has to do with the first two, and that’s because it’s part there to set up the “plot” (which in turn cycles back to just reasons for showing those topics) and more there for just padding.

Shove them into a barely fictionalized form. In Starmageddon’s case, toss it into a lame, low-effort “future” where everything besides one superweapon is still at present-day technology levels. Add in what feels like the outline for a military/technothriller, and tell it completely in the form of conference rooms and scenes so flat they might as well be in conference rooms. Jumble them into an only slightly coherent plot. End on a “cliffhanger”.

This is nothing new for Rohmer, although he has regressed at least a little from the very small “height” of Periscope Red. Combining his writing “quality” with a World War III subject matter (no matter how halfhearted) automatically makes this book one of the worst ever in the small subgenre. This is especially so given the context. By this time, other authors were doing similar themes with far more skill, leaving Rohmer well behind.

Review: For Alert Force

For Alert Force: KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON

Having essentially run low on World War III books that both held interest to me and weren’t already read has been a slight issue for this blog. Thankfully, I found some newer ones. One of these was Jim Clonts’ FOR ALERT FORCE: KLAXON KLAXON KLAXON, an awkwardly-titled book telling the tale of SAC crews in World War III.

This is a near-immediate 1980s nuclear World War III with none of the contrivances to keep it conventional for any length of time that appear in other works. Clonts, a veteran of B-52s himself, tells their story of fighting in these apocalyptic conditions. The book is good for what it is, but tends to wobble a little.

It has the exact strengths and weaknesses of what something written by someone with personal experience brings. On one hand, it’s detailed and a lot of it is accurate (as far as I could tell). A lot of the scenes are tense and well-done. On the other, it has tons and tons of Herman Melville-grade explanations of everything minor and technical.

Still, it could have been a lot worse than it is, and works as an aviation thriller. It’s not the most pleasant, but as this is about nuclear war, that’s to be expected. A more focused Chieftains (albeit with airplanes instead of tanks) is not a bad thing.

Finally, I noticed that it openly declares itself an “alternate history” on the cover, something a lot of fiction, even the kind that could easily qualify as such, doesn’t do. This fits the description unambiguously. It takes place long before its writing time and has history-changing events. So it’s interesting that Clonts felt comfortable enough to label it as such.

In short, I didn’t regret reading this book.

Nuclear World War IIIs

So I figured: How true was my stereotype of “conventional” WW3s? I decided to take a look and see. For this exercise, “yes” means a full nuclear exchange, “partial” something like say, Hackett’s infamous plotnuke, and “no” means the war stays completely conventional. This is an incomplete, unscientific list, but still.

  • Hackett-PARTIAL
  • Red Storm Rising-NO
  • Team Yankee-PARTIAL
  • Red Army-NO
  • Chieftains-YES
  • Black’s “Effect”-PARTIAL
  • Kirov-YES
  • Arc Light-YES
  • Red Hammer 94-YES
  • Bear’s Claws-PARTIAL
  • Cauldron-PARTIAL
  • War That Never Was-NO
  • Ronsone/Watson’s Red Storm-PARTIAL
  • Zone-PARTIAL
  • Weekend Warriors-NO
  • The Red Line-PARTIAL
  • Andy Farman’s Armageddon’s Song-PARTIAL
  • Wingman-YES

Besides the possibility of me remembering wrong, the line between “Partial” and “Yes” is sometimes blurry-for instance, I had a hard time deciding whether or not to include Arc Light as “Partial” or “Yes.” And in Team Yankee, which follow’s Hackett’s plot, the nukes are offscreen. Still, it was a little surprising how few outright “no’s” there were and how many “Partials”. It’s just the biggest “no” was Red Storm Rising.

Review: Red Hammer 1994

Red Hammer 1994

Robert Ratcliffe’s Red Hammer 1994 is a tale of an alternate nuclear World War III in the early 1990s. The feared regression to authoritarianism takes place in post-1991 Russia, and its leader proceeds to launch a nuclear strike on the west. Cue a big picture, wide-scope look at everything from bombers to silos to submarines to, yes, conference rooms.

The characters feel just like they’re just there to operate military equipment instead of being actual characters. The plot is basically “have a nuclear war that stays mainly counterforce and thus only mauls civilization instead of wrecking it totally, and show every part of it in set pieces”. The grounded and frequently realistic (at least technically) nature of the book is somewhat admirable, but works against it when questionable moments like a giant force of super-Spetsnaz in the continental US emerges-or for that matter, the basic plot happening at all. The ending is incredibly abrupt (and not in a plausible Dr. Strangelove way) and the most positive elements are some of the set pieces themselves.

This is what it is. If you like technical detail and want to see Herman Melville’s Story Of A Moderate Nuclear War, you’ll like this book. But if you want a solid narrative, this isn’t it.

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.