Review: The Doomsday Spiral

The Doomsday Spiral

Some content creators have first works that are rough around the edges. Some start off strong and get weaker. Some, like Billy Joel in the psychedic-progressive-just-a-keyboardist-and-a-drummer Atilla, are vastly different from their subsequent and most famous pieces. So I decided to read Jon Land’s first novel, The Doomsday Spiral, and see where it fell.

The book roars out of the gate as Israeli super-vigilante “Alabaster” must stop a plot by the Palestinian “Red Prince” to neutralize the Americans so that they can deal with the Israelis later (the Red Prince must have gotten his lessons in target priorities from the Red Storm Rising Politburo). This could have been a middle-of-the-road “shoot the terrorist” novel. It wasn’t.

By Jon Land standards, fighting a giant man with a chainsaw (as happens in this book) is pretty tame. By normal thriller standards, especially the kind of thrillers I call “supermarket novels”, it’s delightfully out there.

I saw pretty much every plot device used in subsequent Land novels. The superpowered main character. The over-the-top ridiculousness of it all. The conspiracy-in-a-conspiracy. The inevitable action scene against a particularly tough level boss antagonist. An overall feeling of swinging back and forth between “awesomely stupid” and “stupidly awesome.” I’d say it’s formulaic, but when part of the formula is “ridiculous stuff happens”, it doesn’t feel so bad as long as Land can deliver. And here he does.

Review: Fortunes of War

Fortunes of War

While Stephen Coonts is one of the classic technothriller writers, I’d actually never read any one of his books in full until now. Picking Fortunes of War, a late 1990s technothriller after his sales had peaked, is kind of like wanting to start listening to Yes with Big Generator.

Now that that shoved-in prog rock reference is out of the way, I was interested in this because of its depiction of a second Russo-Japanese War. One of my Command Live scenarios deals with such a thing itself, so I was curious to see how a spectacularly successful author handled it.

Who and What

Let’s see, an unconventional opponent (Japan) with some sort of super-gimmick weapon (Super fighter aircraft),  attacks a helpless Russia for zombie-sorceress induced reasons. This is very 1990s technothriller. In fact, this is one of the most 1990s technothrillers that ever technothrilled in the 1990s, even more so than poster child Cauldron. The 90s contrivances are there, and the technothriller “snapshot and superweapons” model, going from aircraft to submarines to dogfights to knife/fistfights is there.

Apart from that, it’s a little iffy with characterization (even by the standards of the genre). The American “Volunteer” F-22 pilots are too numerous and the book too short to really examine in depth. One final bit of serendipity happens in this novel. The villainous Japanese Prime Minister is named “Abe“-I was reminded of The Hunt For Red October having a “Putin” in it as well.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This is slightly less infodumpy than the absolute worst the genre has to offer, although it’s still very, very description-heavy. One interesting part is that Coonts can leverage two pieces of genuine but “new enough to be exotic and techno-thrillery” technology-the F-22 and JDAM-style munitions.

Zombie Sorceresses

Ok. Apart from the geopolitics (Belligerent Japan, Russia being worse than it was even at its 1990s nadir), and the technology, the big zombie sorceress contrivance is in nuclear weapons. Russia has disarmed (almost) all of its nuclear weapons as a foreign aid condition so that the conventional invasion of Siberia, but kept a few for the plotnuke climax. Japan has developed a few in secret, also for the plotnuke climax.

Tank Booms

There are two types of action scenes in this book. The first are the aerial combat scenes, something which the Distinguished Flying Cross recipient Coonts knows very well. The second are the technothriller/action scenes like fistfights or anti-submarine warfare that he doesn’t have as much firsthand experience with. And it shows.

Even the former are let down a little by a few too many exact-detailed “and the missile exploded in exactly 2,003 fragments, turning the enemy plane into 1,200 fragements and its pilot into 320 fragements” scenes.

The Only Score That Really Matters

By the standards of 1990s technothrillers, this is very good for what it is. It’s technically competent and has its authors expertise in his subject matter carry it above the pack. But in some ways it feels more artificially stilted, like its creator’s most vigorously creative days are behind it. So, suspiciously like 1980s Yes (to swing back to progressive rock).

Still, it makes me want to check out Coonts’ earlier books, and that’s endorsement enough for me.

Technothrilllers and WWIII

Technothrillers and WWIII

There is obviously an extreme amount of overlap between the two, but as someone who’s read a lot of both, I don’t think that every World War III story is a “technothriller”, and every technothriller certainly isn’t a World War III story.

Technothriller is hard to define. In some ways (and keep in mind I love weird analogies) it’s like progressive rock-hard to truly explain but often identifiable as part of a genre if viewed/listened to[1].

Also like progressive rock, the technothriller genre was arguably something of a specific time, was ultimately niche at heart, contained elements that would seem to make it unfavorable to a mainstream audience, was generally scorned by serious critics, had a seemingly imaginative premise turned too into follow-the-leader[2],  fell into decline both from outside factors and its own excesses, and was lucky to last as long as it did at the top of the charts.

Ok, I might be taking it too far. But still.

The decline of the technothriller can be studied in several critical articles. Among the reasons given, by both them and me are:

  • Simple changing tastes and trends. (This is probably the most realistic answer, but the least complex. Oh well.)
  • The fall of the USSR contributing to those changing tastes and trends by sapping the technothriller of its immediacy and forcing them to be more contrived.
  • Said contrivances becoming more and more blatant[3], combined with the genre staying with a “big picture” format not as conducive to grubby brushfires as a small-scale focus would be.
  • High-technology stuff in the post-Gulf War period becoming ubiquitous, losing its earlier novelty value. Smart bombs and cruise missiles? Those were routine now.
  • The genre arguably being more suited to video games like the Splinter Cell series than books.
  • The genre arguably being niche to begin with and only staying in mainstream consciousness due to two things happening as it emerged. Those being the beginning of the digital era and the intense late Cold War (the argument in this article).

So for specifics, it’s easy to find perfect overlap. Red Storm Rising, the archetypal World War III story, is also an archetypal technothriller. But even at the time, there were examples on both ends that did not fit neatly into the other’s niche. One of the best-executed was Ralph Peters’ classic Red Army, one of my favorite World War III tales.

Not only is Red Army decidedly gritty and focused on a Soviet victory, but Peters frequently takes care to not go into details about bits of hardware. This helps add to the immediacy and fog of war a lot, but makes it feel less like a techno-thriller. But even in the more conventional examples, there’s differences. Larry Bond’s 1989-published, ultra-formulaic Red Phoenix[4] is still a regional conflict, while the genre-booster of The Hunt For Red October is focused on avoiding the Third World War rather than starting it.

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As the technothriller began to decline from mainstream bookshelves, the World War III subgenre, already a niche-within-a-niche, did so as well. But it fell back on a smaller but very stable base. The wargamers.

Red Storm Rising was famously aided by the original Harpoon board game, and the setting became popular among wargamers for very obvious reasons. Even beyond politics, its appeal is great, for it allows for massive battles of tanks, artillery and aircraft impossible in any regional clash.

This, combined with the influence of the existing 1980s classics, had many effects on how the subgenre developed. But what was more important was the increasing “decentralization” of publishing as a whole. The technothriller/world war genre got a small bump in the mainstream market as the rise of China and resurgence of Russia from its 1990s slump brought “high-tech”, high-end conflict back into vogue.

But beyond that, self-publishing and the internet made it far more easy for “niche” fiction to spread[5], which meant that all kinds of thrillers-World War III, cheap thriller, homage technothriller, all could flourish. In some cases, this pulled the heirs of Clancy and Hackett closer together, in some cases it pushed them farther apart.

How this new paradigm manifests in the actual stories varies considerably, and thus it can only be examined on a case by case basis. But there is a trend throughout the period-the technothriller and World War III stories are never entirely together, but never entirely apart.

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[1]At its most broad, prog rock can be defined as “any rock music made in the 1970s with synthesizers.” Likewise, technothrillers can be defined as any thriller book featuring high technology while not reaching the level of outright science fiction. It’s not helped by Tom Clancy, its forefather, not liking the term and insisting he didn’t create or expand a new genre.

[2]For technothrillers, it was Clancy and Bond. For prog rock, it was the hordes of Yes copycats.

[3]See the opponents in Cauldron.

[4]If I had to list a single commercial book that had the most and most obvious technothriller tropes, it would be Red Phoenix. Note that this does make it necessarily bad, just formulaic, at least in hindsight.

[5]On a personal note, it was internet published/posted military alternate history that played a gigantic role in getting me into this kind of genre to begin with.