Review: The Awakening

The Awakening

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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.

 

A Thousand Words: They Saved Hitler’s Brain

They Saved Hitler’s Brain

This movie is probably best remembered for its title-the originally shipped one the “The Madmen of Mandorus” is not nearly as clear or memorable. In that movie, the Nazis, facing defeat, cut off Hitler’s head while keeping it alive, fly it out of the country, and keep it safe in the fictional Mandorus until they can launch their evil plot to take over the world with poison gas.

Besides the title, there are two more things that make this movie stand out. The first is, of course, the novelty of Hitler’s head in what looks like a glass cake container. The second is what turned it from “The Madmen of Mandorus” to its most famous name.

The movie needed to be lengthened for TV, so an additional, completely unrelated opening act was filmed with UCLA film students. Since pop culture and film technology had changed so much in the few years, it stands out dramatically. All that amounts to in terms of actual plot  is a bunch of people with bad post-Sgt. Pepper Beatles mustaches getting in and out of cars before they all die. Then the actual movie starts, and, barring the Hitler Head, is a conventionally bad B-movie. It’s very stupid all around, but it’s the kind of distinctive “fun-stupid” that’s enjoyably bad.

Review: Deep Blue

Deep Blue

Reading Deep Blue, one of the later John Schettler Kirov books, brought a strange feeling to me.

Reading it, I encountered all of the issues with Homecoming, the previous book in the series I’ve read. And then some. The almost interchangeable battles are over-detailed and underwhelming to an extreme. The plotlines are clunky and shoved together. By all “normal” accounts, I should have been dismissive at best and disliking at worst. But I just wasn’t. As I read through tons of time-travel shenanigans, I felt a sense of “woah. Wow”, for lack of a better phrase.

It hit me when the ship time-warped from the current near-future World War III to another near-future World War III, only with different equipment and different sides. Everything just then clicked suddenly into place.

This is kind of like the later Survivalists-if Ahern had meticulously simmed every clash in Advanced Squad Leader or something like that and recorded the verbatim results in the books. And the time travel isn’t just a small throwaway part-it’s a a big central element, with a huge effort towards enabling this kitchen-sink wargaming. It’s like having a zombie sorceress start a Fuldapocalyptic World War III, and devoting a lot of effort to her, her rivals, and her powers as you move from 1985 to 1988 to 1981 to a 1986 with the YF-17 chosen as the light fighter and the British using a different divisional structure.

I still don’t recommend the actual books, unless you like lots and lots of barely disguised wargaming AARs. But if I had to choose a series with a lot of novelty and effort put into it or a series that just clunks along without any of those, I’m definitely picking the former. The sheer excess of the Kirov series makes it at least interesting.

Review: Cold Allies

Cold Allies

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Patricia Anthony’s debut novel Cold Allies is a distinctive book. But it is not exactly distinctive in a good way.

First, there’s two awkward plots. One plot is the surrealist tale of blue alien orbs that suck people in. The second plot is a sort of “World War III” where an “Arab National Army”, fleeing the drought and famine of an ecologically devastated world, invades Europe. There are (even by technothriller standards) a ton of shallow viewpoint characters who are constantly being shuffled around, taking out what little coherence might have existed.

The war plot is one of those weird cases where one might think the biggest issue would be the book being too political. And yes, a lot of the characters are shallow stereotypes, seemingly contributing to it. But it’s handled just totally matter-of-factly, kind of like Dark Rose or Ian Slater’s USA VS Militia series. For the alien plot, it crosses the line from “surreal” to “pretentious” pretty handily. This book is little but a bizarre novelty.

 

Review: Steel World

Steel World

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For BV Larson’s Steel World, I returned to a familiar place-the land of spacesuit commandos. Almost every single value checks out. Dystopian background? Check. The main character is a super-special spacesuit commando in a super-special spacesuit commando unit (in this case, a secret dirty tricks “Legion”)? Check. The main characters use nothing more than power armor and ray guns that don’t seem to really do much? Check. The tactics are iffy and everyone uses Roman ranks? Check.

The only novel feature, besides the use of “rules of war” that are clearly structured to enable the plot, is revivification. However, in practice all it does is remove tension, best summed up by having people -multiple times at that- want to be “killed” for the sake of convenience.

For all my complaining, Steel World manages to dodge the biggest problem with the subgenre. Its training sequences are not overly long, and I was thankful for that. And for all its issues, it’s still readable and fun as a mindless spacesuit commando novel.

Review: Transit To Scorpio

Transit To Scorpio

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Though published close to fifty years ago, Kenneth Bulmer’s Transit to Scorpio was already almost an anachronism when it was released. Much of what we now know as “science fiction” and “fantasy” was once unified in a type of genre following in the footsteps of the legendary John Carter of Mars, one known as “sword and planet”, involving Earthmen traveling across exotic worlds and fighting with blades.

This book fits that category to a T. 18th century sailor Dray Prescot is transported to the planet Kregen around the star of Antares, where he proceeds to be rejuvenated and made near-immortal, only to be cast loose as he disobeys his masters to aid a beautiful woman, Delia. Cue a book of “planetary romance” (another name for the genre) in every definition of the term.

Transit to Scorpio has a lot of prose that’s sadly familiar even to someone like me who’s only read a bit of the style of the day, being both overwrought and clunky. It also has a plot setup that’s familiar, with almost all of the “science fiction” elements being used to set up the plot and little more. In spite of this, it’s not bad, particularly by the standards of the genre.

Review: The Zone Hard Target

The Zone: Hard Target

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In 1980, Hard Target was released. It was the first book in The Zone series of post-semi-apocalyptic World War III novels. Just that description alone gives the impression of the book being weirdly different. And in many ways, it is.

The background of this book is simple, contrived, and still somewhat novel. Basically, there’s a World War III, but now the fighting is limited to a contaminated zone in Europe, and the westerners have super-hovercraft for some science fiction flair. I was reminded of the Ogre board game/franchise, which has hovercraft and limited conventional nuclear war (it makes sense in context). That came out three years before this book did, and I don’t know how much influence, if any, it had over the writing.

This is a “have your cake and eat it too” kind of book. On one hand, the action is grittier and gorier compared to some other works in the genre, and the target MacGuffin is a tank repair unit and not some kind of superweapon. On the other, it’s still very much a cheap thriller with a premise, like Twilight 2000, that’s pretty much designed to be an adventure-friendly setting.

But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and Hard Target is a good book for what it is. It checks the boxes of what makes a cheap thriller passable, and as obviously contrived as they were, the setting and tone were novel enough to take things up a notch for me.

Another opinion on this book can be found on the excellent Books That Time Forgot blog.

 

Snippet Reviews: July 1-6, 2019

Ok, it’s time for the next round of snippet reviews.

Trident Force

Trident Force is one of those mushy, mediocre 2000s cheap thrillers, not bad so much as just dull. Not much action happens, and not much else interesting happens (it’s definitely not a Melville-style “slice of military life” book-it’s meant to be a thriller). A one sentence summary is “A lethargic version of SEAL Team Seven”.

I don’t know why I keep reading thrillers from this time period, but I do. Maybe it’s the hope of finding another Tin Soldiers, or maybe it’s a weird fascination with seeing a genre at its lowest.

Merchants Of War

Merchants of War is a decent mindless popcorn mecha action novel. It’s let down by a few weird perspective shifts, but still works if you just want to see mechs explode. You have to suspend disbelief about their effectiveness, but that’s true of almost all fiction.

Belfast Blitz

A middling entry in the Cody’s Army series, for the most part Belfast Blitz offers what one might expect from a second-tier 1980s action-adventure series. The “International Flashpoint” wheel landed on “Northern Ireland” for this adventure. The only standout is an incredibly telegraphed “tragic love story” between the British member of the Army and a local woman.

Review: Starship Troopers

Starship Troopers

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Ah, this book. Starship Troopers is a misunderstood classic. It’s also something where the influence is worse-considerably worse- than the content of the book itself. Heinlein’s famous tale of the Mobile Infantry deserves a lot of scrutiny, and it’s very, very hard to give a “conventional” score.

For the book itself, if the average military sci-fi cheap thriller is an apple, this is definitely an orange. Viewed as a coming of age story, a training story with realistic drudgery, and (however worthy or unworthy the politics) a political piece, Rico’s story is better than it would seem from the perspective of “how many explosions are there?”. If I had to give a critique of the orange that’s independent of that, I’d say the writing tone is a major problem.

The book is written in a sort of, for lack of a better word, “Gee-whiz” style that I recognized from another Heinlein book of the time I read, Tunnel in the Sky. This style happens to not go well with any of the elements. Not the “Space Herman Melville”, not the politics, and not what action there is.

If it was just an orange,  I’d feel better about it. It’d just be a type of orange that I could personally dislike to a degree, but still understand why others would like the taste. However, it’s an orange that influenced a whole lot of apple farmers.

 

When reading military sci-fi and then reading what I call “contemporary action”, there are differences that drag the former down. Perhaps the most obvious, and the most obviously taken from Starship Troopers, is filling every first part of the first installment with training. Contemporary action heroes, in contrast, tend to just stride in wholly trained. There are exceptions, but those are the trends I’ve seen.

Imagine if, somehow, the romantic-ish Vigdis subplot of Red Storm Rising made the book popular to readers of romance fiction (let’s just assume the zombie sorceress mind control was particularly effective that day). Now imagine that what sometimes feels like every fluffy romance novel you read adopts the structure of a technothriller, with a lot of viewpoint characters, a lot of sitting in conference rooms giving details of little particular relevance to the (crowded out) main characters, and a general “big-picture” scope that doesn’t seem to fit the small, intimate story you’d expect from a romance. And you just stand there going “no, no, Red Storm Rising wasn’t a romance, it was the story of a third world war! It didn’t really fit but people are copying it anyway!”

That’s what Starship Troopers has done to military science fiction. I don’t want to put too much blame on it or any one book, but it’s a definite influence in that negative direction, and, apple or orange, I don’t see the original as being good enough to make up for the way it pushed its genre down the road of the (pun very much intended) “spacesuit commando.”

Review: Scythian Dawn

Scythian Dawn

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I’ve always had a soft spot for the underused Central Asia in fiction. So when I saw P. K. Lentz’s Scythian Dawn, I knew I had to pick it up. It’s a self-proclaimed “barbarian space opera”, and I was intrigued from the start. That sums it up-it’s nomadic warriors against spaceships. And no, it’s not a stomp or a lopsided game of Civilization.

The execution of the book is merely decent, but I’m willing to accept a decent execution for a very imaginative premise. After all, a Central Asian princess-turned nomad-turned enhanced fighter is more interesting than a spacesuit commando by far.