Review: Howling Wilderness

Howling Wilderness

The sourcebook Howling Wilderness sets the basis for the remaining North American setting in Twilight 2000.

I feel that in an isolated spherical cow world, the North American modules of Twilight 2000 should have been a different setting, something like “Apocalypse 2000”. It would probably be a good idea to alter the rules so that the out-there adventures can be a lot more viable. But theme alone would be enough to make the switch.

There’s two literary problems with actually keeping it and the original European setting part of the same universe. The first is the creative regression. The European setting is a clever way to square the circle of “Ok, we want you to be in the army but we also want you to be able to run free. We’ll make this post-apocalyptic, but not too post-apocalyptic, since we still want there to be tons of those tanks around.” There are still flaws, and not just the impossibility to balance dark struggles for survival, rivet-counting crunchy gaming, and traditional RPG adventure that all appear in the rules.

Enter this, where the setting is more of a traditional post-apocalyptic one. North America has been crushed by a mega-drought and everyone has withered down. This leads to the second problem, which is how this led to gimmicks. It feels like the setting should be doubling down on the “grim survival” element, but then an individual sourcebook has a submarine plot right out of Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist, making things more muddled than ever.

I don’t blame GDW for releasing new content out of business necessity. I also think that, given the flexibility GMs have for actually running games, the negative effects of any official supplement are inherently limited. But I still feel that, like how the Survivalist jumped the shark post-timeskip, Twilight 2000 also jumped post Atlantic crossing.

Review: Divided Armies

Divided Armies

Jason Lyall’s Divided Armies is a big look at how societal inequality can influence military peformance. It’s mixed and uneven but still worthy.

First, the research is exhaustive and extensive. Lyall specifically aims to avoid a Eurocentric/great war bias by looking at a gigantic sample size of conflicts around the world from 1800 to the present. The book is not the easiest read and is written in “Academic-ese” with lots of political science formulas. However, I didn’t consider this a bad thing so much as just being part of its very nature (it’s not the only book of this type of I’ve read). The case studies feature more and more obscure battles. It’s a solid, disciplined set of information that shows a lot of underappreciated and understudied wars.

Of course, this book also has the weakness of the approach. I had two main doubts about this book. One was that Lyall would overcorrect and make the issue too dominant. Although not quite as bad as I feared, I saw a lot of this happening.

The weakest part of his research by far is, ironically, when he goes into great power wars. His study of the World War II Eastern Front, despite citing modern scholars, is still disappointing and clearly viewed through the lens of his thesis. So it means an overt focus on the early war (because the Soviets were clearly doing poorly), and an over-focus on Stalinism at the expense of other factors (because it fits the tone of the book). This image is rather distorted, to say the least.

A far less bad but still iffy example comes from his comparison of Ethiopa in the 1998 war with Eritrea and the DRC in the simultaneous Second Congo War. Despite Lyall’s box-checking and vigorous arguments, I’m still left thinking of the two having far more differences than similarities. They’re not the ones I’d use in a direct comparison, the former having overwhelmingly more experience with large, conventional operations.

The second doubt I was also vindicated with was a sense of “you needed a ton of formal data to say this?” The conclusion of less cohesive societies translating that into ineffectual military performance was not exactly the most shocking or counter-intuitive one.

However, with those caveats in mind, as well as the usual focus on keeping eyes open, the book is still a worthwhile read. The basic conclusion is sound, the examination of previously under-explored conflicts is fascinating, and if the “what” isn’t the most interesting or noteworthy, the “how” definitely is.

 

 

 

Review: Red Phoenix

Red Phoenix

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Larry Bond’s Red Phoenix, telling the story of a second Korean War, is something I’ve struggled with for a while but now, after a lot of other books read, have the words to successfully describe. In short, it’s the Marine Force One of “big war thrillers”.

Every archetype of the small genre is there. The shifting viewpoints from top to bottom. Going into every part of the theater. And so on. And they’re executed with enough skill to not be bad, but not enough to be truly memorable or standing out.

What does stand out, and which I also have a more nuanced view of than I used to, is the long intro setting up the war. I’ve thought it, from a literary perspective, to be less than ideal. It’s taking a huge amount of effort to set up something the reader already knows will happen.

But from a plausibility perspective, given the massive unlikelihood of a Second Korean War even at the height of the north’s power, I can forgive it for putting in the effort to set up a situation where it could happen. It’s certainly better and less ridiculous than Cauldron at any rate.

And what else is there to say? This is very much a “if you like the genre, you’ll like this book. If you don’t, you won’t” kind of novel.

Review: The Awakening

The Awakening

awakeningcover

The tenth Survivalist book, The Awakening is when the series changes significantly. Having spent centuries in suspended animation to ride out a world-consuming fire wave underground, the Rourkes now emerge to take stock of the changes and aid the space-launched Eden Project as it prepares to return. John Rourke ages his children by selectively thawing and refreezing them so that they can be the same age as the adults when they wake up, and they emerge into a world where human life still exists.

This book, if I had to reedit/adapt the Survivalist series, probably wouldn’t even exist at all. I’d probably fold the recovery and the Eden Project return into an epilogue to Book 9 at worst and a few extra chapters at best, and then conclude the series there. But in actual history, the books were selling enough to continue and Ahern finally had the ability to make them more and more science fiction-y.

While the Survivalist series was never a “hard” setting to begin with (after all, the nuclear war caused multiple states to tumble into the ocean), here begins an even more contrived setup. There was an underground shelter. And another underground shelter. And another underground city. And an underwater city! It’s very much like a Bethesda Fallout game where there’s a lot of conveniently working stuff laying around centuries after the war, and it becomes a more obvious author’s toy with each new book after this.

(Later there will be a second timeskip that will obliterate the last traces of any post-apocalyptic residue in the setting, but that’s another story)

The actual book itself is more satisfactory Jerry Ahern action, but this is still the time when the series jumped the shark.

 

Review: The Council Of Ten

The Council Of Ten

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Jon Land’s The Council Of Ten is a thriller that starts off with the impression of being overly mundane. Launching with the obvious Miami Vice-inspired tone and location, the book starts slowly and there’s a fear of just being a slightly eccentric drug novel. Thankfully, the super-conspiracy reasserts itself, the Big Burly Bad Guy Thug appears, and soon all is right with the world.

It’s incredibly hard to review a lot of similar books by one author. The Council Of Ten is a little subpar by Jon Land standards. The MacGuffin not living up to some of the more ridiculous ones isn’t really too bad. Worse is that there’s a little too much space devoted to long and comparably mundane fights. But it still has all the wonderful craziness Land is known for, and, after its slow introduction, it never feels like a rote 51% book.

And besides, you’ve gotta give props to a book that has a conference room on its cover.

Review: Armies of Sand

Armies of Sand

This is the first Fuldapocalypse nonfiction book review. Kenneth Pollack’s Armies of Sand is a semi-adaptation of his thesis, The Influence of Arab Culture on Arab Military Perfomance, and a semi-sequel to his book, Arabs at War. That looked at how Arab armies underperformed in the 20th century and examined the “how”. This looks more at the “why”.

Pollack uses bits and pieces from both Arab states at war and the non-Arab “control groups” to look at the four explanations-Soviet doctrine, over-politicization, underdevelopment, and culture. The first is a total red herring, with Pollack concluding that if anything, it was at least a little helpful. The middle two have had obvious influence, but can’t explain all of it. The final one is what he feels is the most satisfactory answer.

My biggest problem is his methodology, even though I think his conclusions are mostly sound. A lot of his sources are dated, some of the more lurid anecdotes are thinly-sourced, and a few times the implications go from the more reasonable “New York Knicks” (undeniably underperforming, sometimes significantly so) to the exaggerated “Washington Generals” (completely hopeless from start to finish at everything). This is the kind of argument where you need a lot of rigor, so seeing him pass on examples,  even those that would support his case like looking at the North Vietnamese air force when he used the Vietnam War in another control group, has made me raise an eyebrow.

Still, Pollack handles the cultural argument well, by pointing out education and particularly military training as how it took root. He stresses the dangers of stereotyping and, most importantly, shows both how culture and warfare can change and how workarounds were developed. All of the workarounds involved, in some form or another, a smaller army with a more selective choice of personnel.

Armies Of Sand is not and should not be the last word on the Middle East or military history, and should not be unhesitatingly accepted. But I still highly recommend it, and not just for information on Arab armies. Its study of politicization and underdevelopment in general is fascinating, and it’s well-written.

 

Review: The Yakusa Tattoo

The Yakusa Tattoo

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Jerry Ahern’s turn into (sort of) hardboiled detective fiction, The Yakusa Tattoo, is something.

Ahern has the stereotypical Hardboiled Vietnam Vet Police Officer being tasked to go to (a stereotypical) Japan for a secret mission. Cue a plot with everything from a Hunt For Red October-style super-submarine to lots and lots of ninja fights. What were you expecting from someone who wrote a 27-book centuries-long epic with Hitler’s corpse as a MacGuffin in one of the books?

The prose is – not exactly the best, to put it mildly. There are the huge descriptions of guns and holsters (although thankfully a Detonics only appears once). There are characters talking in gigantic blocky paragraph-speeches. There are perhaps a few too many fight scenes for the sake of fight scenes.

And yet it has the same “I’m not holding anything back” charm that the Survivalist series at its best had. I mean, it has ninjas and Cold War spy plots. And where else can you get a hardboiled Chicago officer storming an ancient castle?

Review: USA Vs. Militia Series

USA Vs. Militia Series

Ian Slater’s USA vs. Militia series is one of those bizarre footnotes in military thriller writing that I just had to check out in full. A while ago, I reviewed Battle Front, which is actually the third installment. Having since read all five books, now I can give my opinion on the entire series.

I described Battle Front as “This book is about 5-10% crazy goofy, and about 90-95% dull tedium.” In short, this is applicable to the entire series, particularly the last two books. These involve more pedestrian hunt-the-MacGuffin plots with small unit heroes that serve as a perfect example of “Captain Beefheart Playing Normal Music Syndrome”. The most bizarre part is a general personally leading this formation, and it has all of Slater’s numerous writing weaknesses without the appealing strengths. If it consisted of two books with action somewhat below the Marine Force One line, I’d have barely given them a second thought.

But the series is more than that.

At its best, you have ferocious fights between the federal army and militia in technicals with add on “reactive armor” (Slater is, to put it mildly, not the best with terminology). You have Abrams’ deploying from C-130s. And of course, you have preternaturally well-organized and numerous militia romping through the country. To try and make them viable, Slater turns every federal commander and soldier who isn’t Mary Sue Douglas Freeman into hopeless bumblers. It’s still badly written in actual practice save for some bizarre prose turns Slater uses, but the novelty is still something.

There’s two more distinctive elements. The first is the politics. Now, normally you’d expect a book about a second American civil war to be monstrously political. This, surprisingly isn’t. Or at least it feels oddly detached, coming from an Australian-Canadian having to look across the border through a distorted, second-hand lens.

The second is a complaint I’ve heard a lot about Slater’s World War III series, and which I saw firsthand here-he has absolutely no concept of continuity. There are references to the Third World War, references to the Gulf War, jumping references to real events that happened before the book in question got published, contradictory historical references, and no real sense of overall progression. The series ends on a strange half-conclusion, with the out-of-universe reason for its stoppage obviously clear from its publication date of December 2001.

This series occasionally can be an interesting curiosity, but it’s a mere curiosity without much substance.

 

Review: First Clash

First Clash

firstclash

Kenneth Macksey’s First Clash stands as one of the most detailed books about a conventional Fuldapocalypse. Its “plot” can be summarized in one sentence as “a Canadian brigade group fights a Soviet division in the opening phases of World War III.”

This is not a conventional novel by any means. It’s openly stated to be a training aid with a lot of “controlling factors”. Even without that admission, it’s very, very obviously a “how-to guide for facing an attack as a Canadian mechanized brigade, from top to bottom”. This leads to a few issues because a lot of situations have to be included for the sake of training.

Some of the parts from the Soviet perspective are a little iffy. Even accepting that it’s a Cold War piece written by a westerner, they come across as a little too “Asiatic Hordesy”. Also for the sake of training, assuming the worst case about one’s opponent feels to me like the better strategy.

It could be that the Soviet advance had to be imperfect to give a single brigade with Leopard Is and M113s a fighting chance and present a tactical situation other than “they fight a desperate defense but are then overrun rapidly”. I would have cut the “enemy perspective” parts entirely and only showed what parts of the Soviets the Canadians could directly see.

This brings me to my second critique, which is that there’s a lot of detail, likely at an outright unrealistic level that hurts a book that’s otherwise rock solid in that regard. This is understandable as an “after action briefing tape recap” approach, but it doesn’t help with the rest of the book. Like The War That Never Was, this is one specific type of book, and if you don’t like it, this just isn’t for you.

I wanted to like this more than I did. I knew what it was setting out to do, and it accomplished that, but it’s a very niche, slightly dated book. I still think The Defense of Hill 781 manages to speak most of the same messages in a format that’s more readable.

Review: The Lost Codex

The Lost Codex

The third OPSIG Team Black book, The Lost Codex manages to sink lower than the first two-by a considerable amount. The bulk of the actual book is the most bland, clunky thriller against the most bland, generic terrorists imaginable, falling straight into the trap of being too “normal” to be bombastic but too exaggerated to be truly realistic.

This time, profiler Karen Vail is close to being a main character, and is handled in the worst possible way. She’s Miss Infodump and Miss Dragged Along Because The Plot Demands and , finally, Miss Action Heroine all in the same book.

But the icing on the cake is a barely connected bit of Dan Brown-style “secret religious history”. This is only linked to the “shoot the terrorist” plot in the thinniest, clumsiest way, and adds essentially nothing save for giving the book its title and a chance to sell it as being like Clive Cussler. It’s not. It’s worse. A lot worse.