What Happened To Men’s Adventure Novels?

So, what happened to the likes of “men’s adventure novels”? If the technothriller declined enormously after 1991, the smaller “men’s adventure” series seemingly just dissolved completely. But now, from my own readings, and from looking at Serial Vigilantes of Paperback Fiction and reviews/commentary of later “men’s adventure” books, particularly on Glorious Trash, I think I might have found it.

They did drop dramatically after the 1980s, and the reason, from pretty much everything I’ve heard and readabout, is economic. They were just too low margin. I should refer you to this post by thriller author Jack Badelaire about the details, and he brings up another reason I agree with, which is that visual media got better.

But whatever the why, what happened? Well, cheap thrillers did not stop being written by any means, as Lee Child can attest. Someone comparing Jack Reacher to a classic men’s adventure hero would find more similarities than differences. But as for those dime novels, the surviving ones sort of – shifted. A look at everything from page counts courtesy of Serial Vigilantes to review commentary to my own study finds three main things.

  • They grew longer and their MSRPs grew higher.
  • They became increasingly “militarized” for lack of a better word (another connection to technothrillers), a process that started with the team-based novels of the 1980s and grew more and more prominent.
  • They increasingly began piggybacking on the names of big-time authors.

Yes, what happened is that the men’s adventure book became the “Tom Clancy’s” book.

Some More Thoughts on The Sum of All Fears

My mind has recently turned back to Tom Clancy’s The Sum of All Fears, the book I used for the 1st Anniversary Review of this blog. That was a great choice, I’ve felt. The book was not only prominent, but mixed in the best possible way-I could really go into detail the way I couldn’t in just a “51% book”, however readable.

In fact, I had some more thoughts on it.

  • The book is somewhat unusual in that I found the first part (before the bomb explodes) almost as disjointed and clunky as the later Tom Clancy books, but the second part is a well-done finale.
  • In many ways, this is one of, if not the last books truly of the Cold War thanks to its timing.
  • It’s rare to find a perfect shark-jumping moment in fiction. This is one of them. There’s the obvious reasons of the USSR falling and sending the genre into a scramble mixed with Clancy becoming editor-proof at the same time. A more subtle one could be that the stakes were so high this time that, well, where you could go from there?
  • It’s also rare to find something that could serve as a stopping point for its series, but didn’t. The only other example as neat I could think of was the end of the first arc in the Survivalist.
  • Finally, I have to give Clancy credit for actually having the bomb go off. A lot of thriller authors would just have had the protagonists stop it before it did, and that would be that.

The Worst Book?

While looking for bad books, I came to this post in the Imaginary Museum blog by Dr. Jack Ross. An excellent piece of writing (even if I didn’t know who frequently mentioned David Lodge was), this paragraph in particular rang extremely true for me:

“Ever since I started writing novels myself, I guess I’ve been a bit more chary of parlour games such as this. There is, however, no accounting for tastes, and it can come as a shock that something you mildly enjoyed yourself can be right up there on someone else’s hitlist. A lukewarm response is the worst fate any book can receive, in any case, so I don’t think being on a list of world’s worst novels is likely to do lasting harm to any of the books (or authors) mentioned above.”

Being a writer and knowing the effort it requires dampening a lot of the previous snark? Check. (I’ll put it this way-I don’t think being a critic has helped me with being a better writer, but I think being a writer has helped me with being a better critic). Tastes differ? Check. (I learned of Jon Land from a massively negative review of one of his books). A mediocre reaction is the worst? Often very true, especially for reviewing as opposed to simply reading.

Onto the main subject, Ross sets out very good criteria for “worst book”, something I’ve used very cavalierly in the past (to my dismay now).

You can’t pick a novel you didn’t manage to finish

You can’t pick a novel by an author you entirely despise

There’s no point in selecting something completely obscure

Since I’ve had a tendency (although it’s waned somewhat now-I’m dropping books I find dull at rates I haven’t in the past) to finish books, the first isn’t an issue. The “obscure” part is, however. I don’t want to get dragged into a fandom war or pick a too-easy target, so I’ll go with “did it appear in mainstream bookstores.” While William W. Johnstone had that honor, the second rule strikes him out.

Thankfully, I’ve long had an answer. Not surprisingly, it is…

Ready for it…

Executive Orders by Tom Clancy. It’s one of the most successful authors ever, so I feel no guilt about slamming it. It’s an exceedingly bad book that almost certainly could never have been published by a first author. And while I’ve been critical of Clancy’s entire catalog, his earlier books were significantly better. It all “clicks” into being my choice of the worst.

(And yes, I’ve heard The Bear And The Dragon is even worse, but I haven’t read that and have no desire to-remember the rules)

If I had to give a second choice, it would probably be Sidney Sheldon’s The Other Side of Midnight. That’s another literary big name, I finished it, and it comes across as significantly worse than his later novels after reading them. Those at least can do the “gilded cheap thriller soap opera” better and have lots of out-there set pieces. All Midnight has is just romance novel stereotypes (that I could instantly tell despite barely knowing the genre) stumbling around for the entire book.

Review: The Hunt For Red October

The Hunt For Red October

This is it. The book that started it all. The book that turned Tom Clancy into a juggernaut. It’s time to review The Hunt For Red October. How is it? In short, it’s well-ok?

What I can say about this tale of a loose super-submarine is that it doesn’t really pass the “if this had been published a year or two later by a different author, would it still be as popular as it was?” test. Many works of fiction are so good on their own terms that they’d succeed in that goal. This isn’t. If it had been written by someone else later on, it’d probably be barely remembered as a middle-of-the-road technothriller.

The novel itself isn’t bad by any standards, but it still has all of the issues that would drag Tom Clancy down later on. It’s just those are in a smaller and more manageable form. There’s some bloat, but it’s manageable here. There’s a few too many subplots, but they’re manageable here. There’s the bias, but it’s manageable here. You get the idea. It’s easy to see why it could be a success in its time, but with hindsight, and with me having read other technothrillers before it, I don’t find it that impressive.

It’s also a little dated. Some of it is technical issues that are understandable and minor (for instance, a western author could be forgiven for getting the type of reactor in an Alfa-class wrong). But some of it is the general “wow” factor, again that would have made them a lot more impressive to someone at the time than to a post-Gulf War reader for whom advanced military technology is familiar. This is of course an issue with all of his books and with technothrillers in general. However, it is not an issue with the lavishly-produced, well-filmed movie.

I would say that, like Red Storm Rising, The Hunt For Red October is more of a historical book than an enduring technothriller that can really stand on its own. However, Red October comes across slightly worse in that regard due to being in a bigger niche. While also smaller than I originally thought, the number of technothrillers is still considerably larger than the number of conventional World War III novels.

A Thousand Words: The Hunt For Red October

A Thousand Words: The Hunt For Red October

Probably my first exposure to technothrillers came on the screen, when I watched The Hunt For Red October long ago. The movie is both a classic and, in my controversial opinion, better than the book.

Yes, I said it. The movie distills the essence of the book into one brief tour de force. The main plot is simple enough to distill into screen form without most of the clunkiness that Clancy had even back at the beginning. Yes, there’s more “Hollywood-ism”, but there’s also less of Clancy’s bias.

Technothrillers in general are hard to adapt to the screen because they require a big budget to be effective. In this case, the filmmakers got the budget, got the actors (Sean Connery’s accent notwithstanding), and knew how to separate the wheat from the chaff. The result is one of the best film adaptations of all time.

Special First Anniversary Review: The Sum Of All Fears

SPECIAL FIRST ANNIVERSARY REVIEW: THE SUM OF ALL FEARS

sumofallfearscover

This is it. For the first anniversary of Fuldapocalypse, I felt I had to review something big by a big-name author. And The Sum Of All Fears was not exactly a difficult choice. I felt it had to be Clancy, and I wanted to pick what’s often regarded as his absolute height.

Now, I’m not and have never been that much of a Tom Clancy fan. Even in his Hunt For Red October/Red Storm Rising-era “early, lean” period, I’ve felt he was never more than decent, and that his rise was more about circumstance and being able to tap a national mood than actual standout writing. And his later period (at least from Executive Orders onward) is just bad.

Enter The Sum Of All Fears, between them. It’s 1991, right before the Soviet Union collapses. How does it hold up? Well, that’s a tough question. What bizarrely helps is that judging it by the standards of something like Executive Orders, as opposed to The Hunt For Red October (to say nothing of books by other authors), means that any improvement over that clunker makes it look better. Also beneficial is that The Sum Of All Fears is over 100,000 (!) words shorter.

Comparing the two, they have a very similar structure. There’s a bunch of plot threads and they move forward for hundreds of pages with all the speed and gracefulness of a NASA Crawler making its way through the aftermath of the Boston Molasses Disaster. Then in the final couple hundred of pages or so, the plot becomes vastly more focused, moving fast and much, much more smoothly.

And here’s where The Sum Of All Fears beats out Executive Orders dramatically. The latter’s final act was nothing but a dull, triumphalist stomp. This is a far more somber and unflashy piece with the goal being to stop a war rather than fight one. If I had to pick out a strange analogy, it’s the “peaceful resolution” paths of Undertale or a Fallout game. Jack Ryan being Pacifrisk or a speech-maxed protagonist is more conceptually interesting than him as a cook-shooting action hero or as a president.  Here’s the sharp-tongued analyst doing sharp-tongued analyst things in a way that takes advantage of a character built as a sharp-tongued analyst.

This also has the best villain(ess) I’ve read in a Tom Clancy book, in the form of national security advisor/presidential girlfriend Elizabeth Elliot. In a strange way, I liked that she was just petty, shallow, and wrong in a world of blindly ideological supervillains. She’s also one of the few fictional characters that I could instantly pick an ideal actress for-in this case, Amy Poehler (aka Regina’s mother from Mean Girls).

So was The Sum Of All Fears a Team Yankee-style pleasant surprise for me?

Not really. First, there’s still the rest of the book. The plot threads aren’t as tangled as in Executive Orders, and they fold back into the final climax better (there’s nothing like EO’s useless “rednecks with a bomb” subplot in Fears), but they’re still there and clunking along. The setup portion of the book has its share of out-there plots (The “Swiss Guards For Middle Eastern Peace” is very zombie sorceress ) and axe-grinding political figures. Not to the extent of Executive Orders, but still there.

Second, the book is plagued by what felt to me like what can only be described as self-indulgence, even in the conclusion. There’s the infamous chapter (actually, chapters) devoted entirely to a nuclear bomb exploding, but the descriptions of actually building the stupid thing get a much larger word count than they deserve. The adventures of various submarines, aircraft, and electronics get giant infodumps. That’s to be expected, but what really pushed me over the line to “Ok, you’re going ‘Look how much I know’ constantly ” was talking about the vice presidency, from its initial “loser gets in” to the post Twelfth Amendment ticket system.

In the first act, this contributes to the bad pacing. In the climax, it neuters some of the punch (there’s nothing like going from Denver being nuked to a rote description of something far away). This would have been a good finale to the Jack Ryan series. But it had to go on, and some of the elements that weren’t so bad here move on to devour it in later books (which are set up here in plot points that do nothing but slow down the main plot of the current book even more).

If The Sum Of All Fears was four hundred pages long, focused completely on the nuclear bombing and subsequent near-World War III, and written as something completely self-contained by a writer who expected no further success, it would be a good technothriller, if a little clumsy. But it’s over a thousand and clearly written by someone who (accurately) saw nothing but new books, dollar signs, and ever-lighter editing ahead of him.

So, for my conclusions on The Sum Of All Fears, I’d say that the people who argued that this book marked when Clancy jumped the shark were right. It has most of what made his post-USSR books as bad as they were, and the redeeming part is its conclusion. Had it gone with something different (like more direct action, which Clancy never was the best at), I would have viewed it as just a slightly better Executive Orders. But it has that well-done, appropriate climax.

That leaves The Sum Of All Fears as a deeply flawed novel that still has a good conclusion and can serve as an ideal stopping point for Jack Ryan-if not for the writer, then for the reader.

 

Review: Red Storm Rising

Red Storm Rising

This is it. For my fiftieth post on Fuldapocalypse, I’m going to review one of the tentpoles. Red Storm Rising is something I’ve written about before, but I figure it’s time to review this classic. And it’s very hard-surprisingly hard, even, to review.

This is because, while I have an interest in the subject, I have almost the exact opposite knowledge and life context than a member of the target audience back in 1987 would have had.

Who and What

A terror attack that knocks out the USSR’s biggest oil refinery triggers a Third World War. The Soviets invade Western Europe and Iceland. It stays conventional throughout the of the book, and we see characters from all branches and ranks throughout. To me it’s a basic outline for World War III tales. To a reader back in 1987, it would be fresh and fascinating, especially from someone whose only view of recent war was Vietnam.

DEEP HISTORY OF TEM

This book does get infodumpy. However, once again, I think it’s worth noting to the context. To someone like me, it tends to be either noticing an understandable inaccuracy in the infodump or going “Ok, I know what a Motor Rifle Regiment is, you don’t have to explain” (or something like that).

A layman reading this in 1987 would not have the same issues at all.

Zombie Sorceresses

Now this is the weakest part, whether it be in 1987 or today. The cause-and-effect clunkiness of “Lose the refinery, our oil-exporting economy is smashed”, “we need to seize the Middle East”, and “But NATO could stop us so we need to invade Europe first” is the weakest part of the book. The Politburo scene is cringeworthy in the extreme.

Sometimes a ‘handwave’ is necessary, but Clancy dwelled on it for too long. Red Army has a few chapters of preparation but is deliberately vague on how the war started, while Team Yankee uses Hackett’s backstory but doesn’t go into detail, starting the action very quickly. This lingers too long, but not to a truly monstrous degree.

The other one, the invasion of Iceland, is something that’s actually handled well in the book. It’s a jury-rigged expedition that barely succeeds because of how unexpected and out-of-character it is. The issues of supplying and reinforcing such a distant holding are not shied away from.

Tank Booms

From a later reader who was born in 1991, the action is merely middle-of-the-road at best.

For someone in 1987 who hasn’t read this kind of book before, it’s, if nothing else novel. This is, I think, the biggest reason the book hasn’t aged so well, and it’s not Clancy or Bond’s fault. Here are all these new things for someone whose last image of war was Hueys flopping around in the jungle: Nuclear submarines! Tomahawks! Nuclear submarines with Tomahawks! M1 tanks! Reactivated battleships! Smart weapons! Stealth Aircraft!

Then comes the Gulf War and every subsequent intervention where these things become simply routine and normal. The novelty factor is completely lost on a modern reader, especially a wargame-informed one.

Speaking of wargaming, the classic Harpoon board game was used in its creation, blending two elements that have always been close together. It’s at least interesting as an example of different media types joining together.

The Only Score That Really Matters

So, I want to give an unbiased evaluation of Red Storm Rising. Completely without context, it’s a somewhat middling story that isn’t the best in the genre but is still better than a lot of the lesser copycats.

In context, it’s an extremely important work, even if it influenced a niche more than mainstream thrillers. This was one of the commercial high points of the ‘conventional WWIII’ niche, and it’s still good enough to easily be worth checking out.

Review: Executive Orders

Executive Orders

I’ve never been that much a fan of Tom Clancy, though I admit a lot of my problem comes from a “seen so many imitators that the original doesn’t seem so original” effect. To me, The Hunt for Red October was just OK, and it’s very hard to judge Red Storm Rising because I’ve emerged in a totally different context (but if I had to give a rating, I’d say it’s OK as well).

Executive Orders is not “OK”.

So why did I read it? Genuine curiosity. Not snarky curiosity, but a sincere desire to both see if it was as iffy as I’d heard and see how far the apple fell from the tree. This is a long review, and not just because the book has lots of problems. I figured a big book by a big author deserved a big review.

Icelands

So, take a post-1991 technothriller, with the tropes of crisis overload and limited force. Then take a political thriller. Then take a medical thriller. Then add a second draft of a technothriller. Then shuffle all the notes together and call it a book. It’s several stock thrillers all stuffed into one book.

The tangled plotlines all take a long time to spool up. Sometimes it feels like a filler episode of a shonen anime where Ryan and the antagonist Daryaei spend half an hour yelling at each other and glowing so the manga writer can maintain a head start on the proper chapters.

Rivets

Clancy (and/or whatever ghostwriters assisted him) has to describe everything. When he gets a description wrong, it feels bad. And stuff gets described wrong. Predators, a workman basic drone, are treated like they’re RQ-whatever stealth aircraft that can just fly slowly at 10,000 feet above a heavy mechanized army without a care of being shot down, and tanks specifically designated as T-80s die as easily as early export T-72s did in the Gulf War.

Zombie Sorceresses

Coming on the heels of Debt of Honor’s Japanese-American War, this brings about a United Islamic Republic. So about par for the course in 90s technothrillers concerning the opponents. A lot of other stuff ranges from “implausible” to “very implausible”, but to be honest, my mind was either accepting it as part of a (supposedly) dramatic story or just not wanting to nitpick details that I’d handwave aside anyway when the literary fundamentals were that bad.

But I think the biggest zombie sorceress handwave is the series as a whole. Because it’s gone from Jack Ryan, everyman analyst who fights an evil cook, to Jack Ryan, President Mary Sue of the United States with a clean slate to remake the federal government. Now that’s a zombie sorceress plot.

“The Wha?”

As mentioned in the “Iceland” section, this is a very jumbled book. It’s the story of a new inexperienced president and his family getting the hang of the job and a political rant tract and a bioattack and a “normal” terror attack and a conventional war in the Middle East and a crisis in the Taiwan Strait and the story of rednecks with a bomb. All weaving in and out of focus, diluting what few plotlines could have had some potential. Then when they are resolved, it’s often done very, very quickly and sometimes anticlimactically.

It does get a little more focused at the end of the story, but the tame battle in the desert only served to remind me of how much better Michael Farmer did something similar in Tin Soldiers. There’s one late-war, late-book scene in Tin Soldiers where the American missiles and aircraft maul an Iraqi division but don’t stop it, it’s followed by a scare where enemy Hinds with guided missiles of their own do some damage, and is followed still by a ferocious close-quarters battle where one of the main characters loses his tank.

In a similar scene near the end of Executive Orders, a similar UIR force is just walloped by gee-whiz superweapons and finished off by those good ol’ Americans in an almost nonchalant way.

And then Jack Ryan drops a smart bomb on the UIR leader’s home on live television. The end.

I found only two real plotlines that actually seemed like they could be effective.

  • The bioattack. While the most effective on its own terms, it shimmies around the various plotlines in a way that loses its punch, it’s wrapped up far too neatly once the quarantine is established, and in a way it serves as an excuse for a smaller force to face the UIR invaders in…
  • The conventional conflict in the desert. The pacing and flow does improve significantly once it finally revs up. Except it feels like Clancy put in the minimum effort to create theoretical dramatic tension before going back to the stomp he was comfortable with.

As for the characters, not only are they stock thriller characters, they’re overexposed thanks to the long plot. They’re also the subject of many infodumps that characterize them by telling rather than showing (and which makes the book even longer and less coherent).

The Only Score That Really Matters

Executive Orders doesn’t work. It has the one thing that dooms a cheap thriller more than anything else-bad pacing. There’s the “slowly ramp up to something you know is going to happen” problem made worse by there being several plotlines that get in each others way and stop whatever momentum does develop. When action does happen, it feels second-rate. So I found it as bad as I heard it to be.

On top of that, it just feels exaggerated. A lot of the Ryan-as-president scenes are there simply to allow Clancy to rant about domestic politics. Instead of Iraq or Iran, it’s a union of both, turning individually plausible opponents into an implausible one. The American triumphalism that was always in his books reaches even greater heights. I think my “favorite” example is how Clancy mentions the rightfully successful NTC OPFOR in a way that gives as little credit as possible to the actual Soviet/Russian tactics they’ve trained to imitate.

Clancy was the author at the very top, the king of the technothriller, the writer who stayed at the top of the bestseller lists while other technothriller authors faded or changed genres entirely. If he had become like this, does that mean the imitators would go from mediocre to bad, or from bad to worse?

I actually don’t think so. I believe Clancy to be a victim of his own success. Certainly most of the negative trends I could find before in other thrillers written before Executive Orders’ publication date in 1996. I think he simply was so popular that there was no perceived need to make his work “tighter”, and thus all the flaws compounded each other.

It’s just that the end result of a self-published writer working without strict editors and the superstar author having the editors lighten up on their strictness is mostly the same-a big, aimless tale. Clancy faced the same pressures everyone else in the genre he played no small part in creating did. He also faced the fall of the USSR and maintaining novelty in a large series.

About the only thing I can safely say Executive Orders did was help popularize, even before 9/11, the Middle Eastern Coalition antagonist set, but even with that I don’t want to credit it too much. After all, the 90s scramble for new villains would likely have turned up something similar.

I felt no schadenfreude at this book, and felt legitimately disappointed that I considered it as bad as I’ve heard. It’s sad to see the face of a genre decline so noticeably, but decline he did. Thankfully, there are better post-1991 technothrillers out there.