Review: British Battleships

British Battleships

Oscar Parkes’ 1957 British Battleships: Warrior to Vanguard is exactly what it says: A gigantic encyclopedia on every large armored warship the Royal Navy operated from 1860 to the then-present. This has been one of the oldest, rarest, biggest, and most expensive books I’ve owned, and it’s amazing. This is a big, comprehensive look at British capital ships, from the famous ones of the World Wars to weird 19th Century contraptions.

The mid/late 1800s are the most interesting time period as battleship design zigzagged around, but every part of the book is effective. There are numerous cutaway drawings, and they’re well done. The writing is descriptive and engaging as well.

Yes, being made in the 1950s means a lot of it is dated now. Yes, it’s a little more broad than it is deep, a consequence of having to cover so much ground. But it is still an amazing, incredible history book. When published, the age of the battleship had just ended, making this book a fitting tribute.

Review: Assault Into Libya

Assault Into Libya

With this post, I will have reviewed every book in the Cody’s Army series on Fuldapocalypse. How does the second, Assault into Libya, hold up compared to the others? Well, it does what a men’s adventure novel is supposed to. Like some of the other entries, it’s a 51% book in a 51% series. Beyond the basics, it only really stands out in being a little more willing than some when it comes to killing off supporting characters.

For the series as a whole, it’s ideal for showing off the most single representative example of what 1980s men’s adventure was like. Teams of secret agents pursue terrorists through headline-ripped locations (this particular book has Libya, the crown jewel then). There’s lots of at least moderately effective action. And yet this book has the same issue that all Cody’s Army entries save for the truly engaging Hellfire in Haiti share-they’re mostly interchangeable and there’s no reason to pick them ahead of better examples in the same genre.

Review: New Deal Coalition Retained

New Deal Coalition Retained

I’ve finally felt it’s time for this blog to come full circle and return to internet alternate history. Now knowing so much more about the depth and context, I feel comfortable returning at last to a topic I’ve mostly avoided since starting this blog. This has not been a light decision.

Most TLs on alternatehistory.com I’ve avoided-in hindsight, most that aren’t eventually commercialized in some fashion are shallow pieces of de facto fanfiction. I’ve found that, once one moves past the board drama, there isn’t really much to say. But for this one, I found a lot. Especially as it has a standout (in a bad way) Third World War.

New Deal Coalition Retained is one of the most infamous TLs, and it includes a conventional World War III in its second arc. Now for the others I read, I maintain by the Iceland post that they “weren’t particularly good, bad, or representative” any more than, say, Command and Conquer fanfiction. The WW3 in NDCR is bad, and it is representative, but not of conventional WW3s. In fact, its massive distinctiveness from other World War IIIs is because it’s representative of a trend in internet alternate history, what I call “trinketization”. And it seems to perfectly and eerily show that at its absolute worse.

I got this name from an Alexander Wallace post on Sea Lion Press. The entire article is very much worth reading, but here’s the most relevant part.

A mistake many newcomers make (and this is a nation encouraged by many online historical discussion fora, not just alternate historical spaces) is assuming that history is simply the aggregation of bits of trivia, whose own complex interrelationships are neglected. This reduces the study of history to a collection of trinkets rather than the system of the world that many academics spend entire lives studying but a tiny portion.

In some ways, this trinketization was inevitable. The fandom was going to grow larger and more “diluted”, and the internet made it far easier to find broad surface facts than deep knowledge. Audience attitudes shifted from nitpicking to fanfic consumption, with updating frequently and playing to the crowd taking precedence over all else.

I’ve softened somewhat on severe rivet counting because of its comparative infrequency, but also because it’s still preferable to trinketization. At least rivet-counting means substantial research has been done in at least one area.

Trinketization in practice means that it feels like just a collection of names, numbers, and events tossed out, with divergences being for their own sake and no attempt to work them into a bigger whole. Often the names are of semi-obscure figures who feel like they were just yanked out of Wikipedia or somewhere similar. AH works consisting purely of maps are often vulnerable to this, because they represent just one object. But those are nothing compare to the grand emblem of trinketization: The wikibox. Wikiboxes remove the need to add any sort of context or detail to the event. Simply put, they merely list the event itself. Imagine a sports story reduced to just the game score.

NDCR’s first act is essentially impossible to summarize beyond “Sherman Adams dies in 1957 and then a ton of weird stuff happens.” There are election wikiboxes, war wikiboxes, and stock photos interspersed with long blocks of exposition that are too big to be concise but too dull to be engaging, especially when one realizes the lack of research. Events simply happen.

One of the first things that jumped at me was Pakistan not only winning decisively against India (very, very unlikely), but annexing the Hindu nationalist stronghold of Gujarat. The alarms this set up (especially since looking up the relevant demographics is not truly difficult) were an indication of how everything else was going to go. Most relevant for the WW3 to come, there’s a bizarre and nonsensical situation where the Prague Spring ends up breaking Czechoslovakia into western-aligned Czech and eastern-aligned Slovak states.

This goes on and on. Imperial Germany and Japan somehow get restored. One of Richard Nixon’s daughters ends up marrying into the British royal family, earning the timeline the nickname “Queen Nixon” among detractors. Cuba stops being communist while Brazil starts. It’s a giant jumble.

And then comes the most legitimately creepy part, which is that almost every postwar neo-fascist figure ends up “redeemed” in some way, with the biggest example being German Gerhard Frey. What makes this stand out is that looking around for these figures seems to be the only legitimate, serious research done in the TL. Frey creates one of those “Notzi” ideologies where it comes across as “We support a state with that triumph-of-the-will stuff, but it’s for GOOD and not EVIL”. For all the alarm bells it trips up, I want to downplay this part for the review. However, it exists and needs to be mentioned.  

This jumble of trinkets clunks along until the World War III comes along to lend it some tiny attempt at cohesiveness. And here is where it gets interesting. It feels cargo-culted. It has the very basic and shallow box-checks of Hackett/Clancy/Bond knockoffs. It has a conventional WW3 happening at all, it has an invasion of Iceland, and it has a plotnuke conclusion. But when examined in any sort of detail, the World War III doesn’t feel like them in any way.

If it was shallowly copying techothrillers, the war would be over quick and involve NATO airpower and smart weapons crushing the Soviets. It isn’t that. If it was shallowly copying primary sources, it would probably resemble a knockoff The War That Never Was. It isn’t that. In fact, with its jumbled beginnings and strange numbers/conduct, this comes across as the complete antithesis of those kinds of works.

The OOB-person in me noticed the wikibox for the initial offensive listed the Warsaw Pact as having only 1,028 tanks for a force of 222,361 men (look at those exact numbers) carrying out a high-priority operation at the beginning of the war, the initial attack in the Prague area. This amounts to only around 3 or so divisions worth for something involving three whole field armies, and it’s where the formations would be as close to paper strength as possible. Also, the operation takes 37 days, longer than some estimates of the whole war, even with nukes handwaved away. (If the Soviets could stay at their planned advance rates, they’d be in Madrid by that point). For a conventional narrative, I’d be totally willing to let it slide if the story was good, but for something that’s pure description, the description needs to be of a higher standard.

But that’s small potatoes compared to what happens next. The big push appears, with close to 4 million Soviet troops grinding forward across West Germany against around 3 million NATO ones over the course of several months. To the extent where there’s any constant inspiration at all, it feels inspired by World War II. Everyone has totally mobilized drafted armies with huge numbers. Heavy bombers just level-bomb cities en masse like it’s 1943. A part of me thinks this theme might be taken at least in part from Anglo-American Nazi War, a timeline on the same site (published and reviewed as Festung Europa), which is another rote tale of giant armies and giant casualties struggling across the continent for years as seemingly horrific events are flatly described. At least it feels closer to that than pretty much any actually published World War III story.

The Soviets reach the east side of the Rhine, and the button is not pushed. They cross the Rhine, and the button is not pushed. They move some distance into France and the button is not pushed by either NATO or the French themselves. In that and every other theater there are stock photos, battles, and yes, wikiboxes. On every continent. The troop numbers are consistently too big by postwar standards, and when mentioned, the tank numbers are consistently too small-especially since they often depict situations where the explanation of realistic attrition isn’t usable.

The East Germans eventually mutiny due to “pervasive pan-German sentiment” as part of the tide turning. I should note in real life, they were considered trustworthy enough to be plugged right into GSFG-but of course, this is after thirty years of scrambling. The tide turns in more wikibox battles, with NATO eventually counter-invading the USSR itself, including an Arab-Israeli alliance pushing into the Caucasus. NATO crosses the border and the button is not pushed. Baku and Leningrad are overrun and the button is not pushed. Eventually, with Moscow on the brink, the Soviet leader orders the launch-and it’s portrayed as insane with a scramble to stop. One missile makes it aloft but a Star Wars satellite shoots it down. The end. Somehow this lasted for two and a half years of high-intensity fighting and had over forty million military deaths alone distributed evenly among the two sides.

I hope the feeling of this timeline can be determined from the review/summary here. If it sounds jumbled, it’s because it is. If it sounds like it doesn’t make any sense, it’s because it doesn’t.

There’s a postwar part which returns to the trinketization along with other creepy element common to it and some other trinketized online AH with fairly recent divergences. This is real living people turned into vastly different ones, with one of NDCR’s most prominent and bizarre examples being real actress Mariska Hargitay turned into a Freyist political figure. But little about that can be said beyond what’s been said about the first two parts.

It’s very rare that a work of fiction manages to somehow include all the negative elements of its genre in a way that highlights every single one of them. But New Deal Coalition Retained is such a work. One can sometimes get a feel for the flaws of a genre by looking at something that prominently displays them. Such is the case for later Tom Clancy books and technothrillers, and it’s the case for this and internet alternate history. If those are Chronicles of the Conference Room, this is like a research paper without any research.

A Thousand Words: Shadow The Hedgehog

Shadow The Hedgehog

It’s time to recall a “fond” game from my childhood, the “classic” Shadow the Hedgehog, where a cussin’, gun-totin, “awesome” cartoon animal runs around. The 3D Sonic games have a bad reputation that I don’t think is entirely deserved. After all, for all the bad camera tricks, erratic controls, and other stuff I’ll get to, I managed to beat and unlock the Final True Canon Route on both this and Sonic Heroes. So they weren’t unplayable bad.

Just bad. Although there was the question of just why they were bad and how they got that way. I’m indebted to the Geek Critique series for finally offering a plausible answer-instead of just staying with the “run through the stage” levels and gradually ironing out the issues across games, Sega seemed insistent on adding all sorts of gameplay modes that just diluted them. They had the excuse to just ditch these here with only one playable character, but no. To get all but pretty much one route, you have to go through maze levels and search levels.

The second is that the game setting felt more and more and more like a bad fanfic of itself. Adventure 1 started the process by having it take place in a semi-realistic world, and the process just snowballed and snowballed until it finally (aided by a jump in graphics that only enhanced the uncanny valley) reached its “maximum” in the later Sonic 2006. For the subject of this review, come on. A have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too experience where you have cartoon animals but also GUNS and SOLDIERS and EXTREME ALIENS is exactly what an “edgy” fanfiction writer would make. (And I don’t know what it says or means, but Nintendo’s core games have almost never had this tonal problem).

This is made slightly worse by there not even being any attempt to smooth out the tone. Would it have been that hard to leave the cutesy-est characters like Amy and Charmy behind and try to make the enemies look at least a little “semi-realistic”? I mean, one of the final bosses in this “edgier” game is a giant slot machine.

The stages range from linear and somewhat fun to nightmares like the aptly-named “The Doom“. Even the better ones are made worse by the need to constantly replay them in order to get the true ending. As for having to redo the bad ones-well, that’s about as “fun” as you’d expect.

And, in conclusion, the silly tone is one of the few parts that actually made some internal sense. At least it had an intended purpose. Very little else does. Who thought a game series built on speed needed mazes? Who thought it needed to have every single franchise character, regardless of if they fit the tone or not? Who thought the padding needed to be this awkward? The 3D Sonic games were sometimes talked about as if they were total failures, which isn’t true or fair, especially for the earlier ones. But their bad reputation is deserved.

Review: Magestic Book 1

Magestic Book 1

Geoff Wolack’s Magestic (the spelling is deliberate-it’s a code phrase in universe) is a gargantuan work about a time traveler going back to hopefully change his own apocalyptic time. The first entry is split into 18 volumes, which is still enormous by normal standards, but looks a little less so to someone who’s read a 27 and 54 (and counting) volume series.

Anyway, this is extremely ambitious in concept but less effective in execution, at least as of now. The actual writing is a little crude and jumpy, but I’m willing to let it slide for the time being. The bigger problem is how it handles time travel. The main character keeps predicting events and benefiting from them without any butterflies as of yet. Thus it comes across as bland.

The concept-which reminds me a lot of Asimov’s Foundation- is good enough and the core writing adequate enough for me to continue with the series. If disruptions and challenges do emerge, it’ll look much better. But as of now, the series doesn’t feel like it started on a good note.

Review: Field of Glory

Field of Glory

With Field of Glory, the Kirov series shifts into another subplot involving-you guessed it-time travelers changing the outcome of famous battles. In this case it’s a French and British time traveler manipulating history with their time-keys as part of a rivalry, with this book being about changing the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo. This entire “Keyholders Saga” was set up early in the series as a possible direction after the initial arc, shelved as an alternate World War II was focused on, and then revived later on as a way to show off wargames in other time periods.

This book is even more blatant than usual about being little but a lets play/after action report. While anyone crazy enough to make it through the Kirov series wouldn’t be surprised by any of this, this is intended as a spinoff. And for what it is, it’s not too bad.

At first it may be confusing and incomprehensible to have a story shift from the World Wars to the distant past, but once the gimmick is understood, it becomes better. Especially since a problem of some of the other Kirovs is that they linger too long on one certain war/campaign. A one-off book doesn’t have that issue.

Review: No Mercy

No Mercy

John Gilstrap’s debut in the Jonathan Grave series, No Mercy, is very much a “grocery store book”. In fact, I first learned of this series after seeing a later book by him in-a grocery store. That being said, not all grocery store books are bad.

This is, in fact, one of the best thrillers I’ve read in a while. Sure, the plot and characters are nothing out of the ordinary for thriller novels, but the execution of Jonathan Grave and his adventure is fantastic. From the opening rescue sequence, I was impressed by the quality of the action. It’s not perfect. The middle drags just a bit. But it’s fantastic nonetheless.

The action is so good that, even though I saw some of my usual quibbles, I brushed them aside effortlessly. From the opening to some unconventional-yet-effective scenes in the middle to a gigantic battle ending, this was a tour de force. No Mercy was the kind of opening act that deserved to bring about a large book series.

Review: Termination Orders

Termination Orders

Leo Maloney’s Termination Orders begins the Dan Morgan series of thrillers. The plot is basically cheap thriller boilerplate, as an action hero faces off against a super-conspiracy. Of course, cheap thrillers succeed and fail based on execution, not concept.

In that sense, the book works. Its action is competent and the pacing done fairly well, although there are a lot of flashbacks in weird places. The exception to the generic yet decent action is one set-piece involving lions that made me smile.

The conclusion I drew is that this book manages to go juuuuust above the middle of the very crowded pack. It’s not the most distinct or best cheap thriller. But it’s done well enough that I wouldn’t call it a mere “51%” book.

Review: Periscope Red

Periscope Red

Richard Rohmer’s Periscope Red is a novel ahead of its time in the worst ways. That its concept of a Soviet covert-to-overt campaign against the world’s oil tankers is interesting makes the flawed execution all the more disappointing. The presence of numerous conference rooms and technical infodumps without any substance or excitement to “balance” them leads to a mismatch. It’s the equivalent of watching a sporting event where quarterbacks throw tons of incomplete passes as rushers stay on the side, basketball players attempt and miss three pointers by the dozens, or where baseball hitters strike out en masse but have absolutely no power when they do make contact.

That the literary fundamentals are slightly improved from Ultimatum and Exxoneration in a way doesn’t help it. It’s still not good by any means, and this quality makes it slightly more generic. Going from “interestingly bad” to “un-interestingly bad” isn’t necessarily a good trade off.

Thus this book is somewhat more realistic than Rohmer’s “invasion of Canada” novels, but lacks their out-there premise. It’s somewhat smoother in its pacing than those, but lacks the weird “appeal” of seeing just how blatant the padding can get. By conventional literary standards, it’s still very, very, bad. The technothriller style would have to wait until better authors than Richard Rohmer came along to achieve mainstream prominence.

Review: Decisively Engaged

Decisively Engaged

It’s been some time since I read a nice, proper spacesuit commando novel. And C. J. Carella’s Decisively Engaged fits the bill. Because boy, is this of the biggest spacesuit commando books ever. It’s Space America vs. The Alien Hordes. Sure there’s a backstory, but all you really need to know is it being (literal) Space America vs. the Alien Hordes.

The military sci-fi cliches are present here in such massive qualities that they stop being annoying and start being oddly endearing. This and the fact that the action is actually decently written-not the best, but at least decently enough-is enough to make the book enjoyable for me. The worst part is overly jumpy perspective shifts, not helped a few clumsy flashback “interludes”.

This is the sort of pulpy cheap thriller that doesn’t feel like “good” would be the right word to describe it. Yet it’s enjoyable, and that’s ultimately what matters more.