Review: People’s War

I’m doing it. I’m breaking all my rules. I’m reviewing an in-progress internet online alternate history piece by an author I overreacted to in the past, at one point calling his TLs the “worst ever”, something which is not true and which I apologize for. I speculated as to why I felt as negative as I did in the very review itself, and with years of hindsight I can say that, sadly, it was just personal stress mixed with tunnel vision. The actual view I have of them is what I said I’d have felt in isolation before-middling Hackett-fics, no better or worse than say, Operation Zhukov and not really the most able to build a long review around.

But I think this new TL is worthy. I feel I’m calm enough to look at it more objectively, unlike my past axe-grinding. Like with New Deal Coalition Retained, I feel that this isn’t an obsession and that one post on an internet timeline won’t overwhelm dozens of those on other topics far less controversial to me. And I feel it does have something to say about the genre. I don’t want to come across as gatekeeping or saying someone shouldn’t do anything that they and others enjoy. I’m just giving my personal opinion. And of course, if my opinion on it changes as new updates emerge, I will gladly make an update post.

The timeline is called People’s War, and it’s about a surviving East Germany.

What I consider People’s War to show actually has a parallel in sports betting. What William Leiss calls “manual research”.

Now obviously literature is not a zero-sum game like sports gambling is. Everyone has to start off with the surface level details, and not everyone can or wants to do Kirov-level simulations. But this kind of ultimately surface research applied to a pseudo-Hackett pure exposition style has made me see the strengths and weaknesses of it.

The biggest strength is that there is a lot more verisimilitude. This is something that Young Grognard Me took for granted because I started with nonfiction books and wargames and went backwards from there. Now I know how rare even nominally accurate military fiction is in a world of “machine gun pistols”, “Flamethrower M60 Abrams”, and “A-130 helicopter gunships”. More to the point, this and the WW3 TLs that preceded it and which I got far too angry about are far more sensible than the clearly just tossed carelessly out “stock photo and a wikibox” stuff like the infamous New Deal Coalition Retained Part II. It’s one thing to arguably lean too heavily on Hackett, Bond, and primary sources as Lions Will Fight Bears and its successors did. It’s quite another to avoid them completely in favor of BIG NUMBERS, as NDCR Part II did.

But Hackett, Bond, and the WW3 TLs were dealing with a hypothetical conflict that had decades and decades of simulations, analyses, and sources dedicated to it. Said documentation is a big reason why it’s up there with the American Civil War and World Wars for wargaming and “hard” alternate history. But what happens when you’re dealing with something that doesn’t have that paper trail?

Trying to Hackett-ify a 1980s technothriller scenario is one thing. But this TL is trying to Hackett-ify what’s essentially a 1990s technothriller, where a surviving East Germany ruled by Honecker’s widow comes into conflict with the western world. Now looking at the reams of studies of a theoretical conventional Fuldapocalypse is one thing. But where are the think tank papers for “Fighting a somehow surviving ex-Warsaw Pact state post-USSR, especially with the hint of threat balancers you’d find in a Larry Bond novel?” They aren’t there. The closest are clear surface details like the names and amounts of weapons that end up feeling close to the more shallow “here’s the exact designation of a Scud TEL” than what effect barrages of those missiles would have in practice.

And this is my objection. Because there’s less opportunity to look, this sort of thing just feels kind of shallow to me without either simulation/deep analysis or just setting up the basics and running with a conventional story. And the TL format prevents the latter.

It’s still far superior to the outright Calvinball of NDCR’s Neo-Timurid Empire or postwar AANW’s “Eastern Siberia as an American state.” The military details are still far greater and more plausible than 3 million Soviet troops sloooooooooooowly advancing against 2 million NATO ones. Compared to “historical fanfiction” AH, it is better.

But there still doesn’t like a real solid base is there. And by the standards of either wargaming or literary fiction, I feel it doesn’t reach its potential.

Especially because this is a redo of a previous concept for a surviving East Germany war that was ultimately abandoned in part because, unsurprisingly, its base was too one-sided strategically. This is what I think goes full circle back to the “Manual Research” video, because Leiss specifically talks about the follies of using manual research for an obvious mismatch. Manual research can tell you what common sense and the odds show-that the powerhouse team against a paid-to-lose punching bag will easily win. But it can’t tell you how likely the opponent is to cover the inevitably massive point spread.

The force regarded as the best non-Soviet Warsaw Pact military can definitely still threaten the characters in a normal narrative and can definitely still do more damage than Saddam’s army did. It’s just that this and other works like it sit in an awkward middle ground between hard and soft. I wouldn’t call it a trinket, but it still feels less than whole.

Review: Postwar AANW

The Anglo American Nazi War: Part 2

The first installment of The Anglo American Nazi War, published as Festung Europa, has been reviewed on this blog before. Because the postwar part is A: different, B: worse, and C: deliberately not included in the published version, I figured it deserved a separate review.

The wartime portion can fit, slightly awkwardly, into a certain form of pseudo-historical fiction. For fans of conventional World War IIIs, it can be compared somewhat to Hackett and The War That Never Was. It’s a description of a conflict that didn’t happen written in the style of recounting one that did. There is thus a tiny connection to fiction in general, albeit with the thread leading to another very small niche. It also fits into “AH as a genre.”

The postwar installment lacks even that connection. It’s a pure example of internet alternate history, and one of the big problems I’ve had when trying to review is that internet AH is an extremely insulated subculture that lacks almost any tie to normal literary storytelling. How can you critique the characters if there are none? I’ve had to strain to explain it, with the best I can give being “The outline of a de facto fanfic that uses ‘history’ as its setting”. If that sounds unusual and bizarre, it is.

Internet AH has a reputation for its installments being extremely short, something that actually sets it apart from other serialized web-fics that have a deserved reputation for often leaving War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged in their dust where length is concerned. The more substantive wartime portion takes up over 86% of the words written in the story. What’s left is a series of short infodumps.

Here’s what happens. In an utterly ruined Eurasia, everything from the Channel-bordering regions of France returning to British semi-rule as crown dependencies to the US annexing the Russian Far East as “Western Alaska”, with it later becoming a state, occurs. There’s both a “Russia” and a “Soviet Union.” The remnants of Germany are divided into many Morgenthau Plan-style restricted microstates. All this is told in blocks of exposition that somehow feel even flatter than the wartime ones. Which is a shame because there’s both comparison to another alternate history (in this specific case) and a huge amount of lost potential.

The world that develops is one where the US builds lots of superweapons the author clearly likes, adopts a full-on might makes right policy, has the path cleared for cakewalks despite its historical postwar advantages and lack of historical rivals, and uses them frequently against totally ineffectual opponents who exist purely to serve as live-fire targets. This is very much like The Big One, except it lacks the utter audacity and, in something you’d never have hear me say earlier, literary skill of that series.

Instead of using the power of Mary Sue project management to get the superweapons into service without breaking the bank, postwar AANW just has the US continue to run what amounts to a total war economy, falling victim to the “nine women can have a baby in a month” fallacy of funding always equaling results. Instead of having immortal manipulators with catlike eyes provide unrealistic policy continuity, postwar AANW just has a lazy unshakeable consensus emerge. Even after the US destroys several German cities with space weapons after their uprising had been conventionally suppressed, the result is not a “you kicked them when they were down” backlash similar to the real one (however fair or not) over the atomic bombings of Japan, but rather the even more hawkish party gaining support.

What should be an audacious, massive divergence that could easily serve as the foundation for a distinctive work instead is summarized in only around two dozen pages worth of actual text. This is a shame because the premise of a superweapon-obsessed US that never truly left the wartime era (and its ugliness and excesses) behind could make for a great “AH as a setting” story. It could be a highbrow book about generational change, with the upheaval making the historical 1960s look tame. It could be a thriller as the nation with a bazooka suddenly faces problems requiring daggers.

Instead it’s just the outline of an even more biased late Tom Clancy novel mixed with map trinkets. Instead of being made into a potentially tasty meal, the ingredients were just placed in a bowl and left there, next to other bowls full of uncooked flour, eggs, and spices.

Looking Back At The World War III Timelines

So there were a few World War III timelines on alternatehistory.com , with my first one being Lions Will Fight Bears. Now, my story about them has already been told-at the time I hated them, now I think they’re uninteresting. As for their actual quality, well. They’re better than the likes of Stroock and Dragon’s Fury, and more nominally accurate than soft-WW3s like Ian Slater.

Trying to review them, as opposed to their triple-copycat New Deal Coalition Retained, proved to be tricky. I think it’s because, well, I’ll put it this way. Seeing something adopted into a totally different paradigm than its normal setting is inherently interesting. Just seeing double-xeroxed knockoffs of Hackett/Bond is not.

What I think I can say about them is this. First, they were written in a pseudo-textbook style that exacerbated any technical flaws and wasn’t really that interesting otherwise. This is an issue with almost all internet AH, and it’s what I’ve compared to a race car. If you’re going to have a kitbashed spaceframe chassis, a single cramped seat and no amenities, it’d better be fast. But regardless of its speed, that type of car is just easier to build.

The second part is that they were written in what was, with hindsight, an awkward transitional period between the “eagle” and “sparrow” styles. This I think led to the worst of both. You had authors with comparably little direct knowledge making slip-ups iffily. For instance, one contemporary Iran war TL had the IRIAF putting up a much bigger fight and being much more capable than it likely would have been but didn’t have forcing Hormuz as that big a deal-the opposite of the general consensus.

[Aside: Proper wargaming is great for avoiding these. I’m actually a little iffy mentioning Command because I’ve worked on it, but it’s worked. You can see how tough it is to push through a strait full of mines and smartly used anti-shipping defenses, and you can also see the Phantoms falling en masse while only getting the occasional lucky win. In my opinion, one of the best uses for wargaming/simulation is getting the general feel of the conflict, and avoiding stuff like that]

However, you also had these less knowledgeable authors being often co-opted by those who were more knowledgeable but also more biased (not just nationalist bias but stuff like HEAT Age veterans treating RPGs as superweapons in ways that more recent veterans have never done so) The result frequently felt awkward. Leaving aside any personal bias on my part and just looking at the works in their own terms still feels awkward.

The third was that well, the TLs constantly seemed like they were to maintain the formula, never really trying to step outside the lines. This is what inspired the Iceland Scale, and one can understand why reading the same thing with only minor technical tweaks and contrivances could make one frustrated. One example I can give is a Gorbachev heel turn, which to me felt “coming up with reasons for the Soviets to start the war instead of actually branching out and having NATO start it”. Or piling into Red Dawn knockoffs and treating them in an inappropriate rivet-counting way without seeing the literary issues this causes.

Still, they just feel, for lack of a better word, small. Small, and, in the words of the great Alexander Wallace, “sterile”. Thankfully, most of the works reviewed on Fuldapocalypse after its scope widening are not. It does feel a little disappointing to have something to influential be so middling and hard to review in hindsight, but that’s just the way it is. Not the best, not the worst, and not the most representative, but among the first I read.

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.

Review: Ward

Ward

The sequel to Spacebattles darling Worm, Ward arrived to much fanfare, to the point where the end of its author’s last web serial was overshadowed by antsy fans waiting for it to start. Now Ward itself has just finished.

When I started reading it, I saw that Wildbow’s literary issues didn’t change. The prose was too flat. The action likewise was too flat. The pacing had only two speeds: “Way too fast” and “Way too slow”. The descriptions are either overdetailed or underdetailed. I’d tried to follow all of his serials after Worm itself when they were written, and ended up just abandoning them.

Reading more of Ward, it has Worm’s problems, if not more. The structural issues mentioned above. The tendency to write into a corner and then ESCALATE out of it. The way the cosmology becomes ridiculous (you don’t include precognition as a power without good reason, much less two super-precogs, and that’s just one problem).

But really, Ward is a tragedy. I don’t mean inside the story itself, although it has plenty of dark moments. I mean that it’s dragged down by two big factors. The first is the legend of Worm bringing up unrealistic expectations (something Wildbow himself mentioned in his retrospective). The second is that its predecessor had just the right amount of factors to make it popular. Lightning was never going to strike twice.

One strange effect was that an improvement in the characterization actually doomed the serial. Worm’s fandom success hinged on Taylor, its protagonist, and her lack of what would normally be considered substance. Someone who was about 30% power fantasy of fighting back against the people who were just UNFAIR TO HER and 70% blank slate camera RPG protagonist created some strange incentives.

If you saw Worm as something that was more of a superhero RPG let’s play than anything else (which it comes across as), then the fanfiction boom made sense. Taylor’s bug power was just one “build” among others, and if the sole part of her character that filtered down was that wish fulfillment, then it’s easy to see why (combined with bandwagon inertia) why it got all the fanfiction it did on one small part of the internet.

So Victoria Dallon may have been an improved character, but the mystique was lost. Ward ended up as feeling to me like the kind of webfiction that, if you’re into it from the start (I wasn’t) you’d follow until it finished and then leave it behind.

 

 

 

Review: Worm

Worm

This is a weird story to be reviewing on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s a weird context. But Worm has been so crazy on Spacebattles to the point where the mods had to make a separate forum specifically for Worm fanfics.

Worm is a story about a teenage girl in a rough and tumble city who, after being shoved into a filthy locker by bullies, develops superpowers. Much, much, much more happens after that.

Worm has a lot going for it. It’s a superhero story that keeps the basic archetypes everyone knows and loves while shedding every last piece of baggage the big two comics have dragged over decades. The powers are interesting and distinct-for instance, the closest prominent figure you can find to the main character’s power set of insect control is a boss in Metal Gear Solid 3. There aren’t lazy “Superman” or “Batman” figures made with the minimum distinction. The characters are well developed and sympathetic in a truly dark world. It sounds very good……

 

……until it’s actually read. The fundamentals are ‘iffy’ enough that it becomes a slog. Especially early on, events happen and pass very quickly, not helped by the prose. But on the other side of the coin, the story as a whole is over one and a half million words long-longer than War and Peace and Atlas Shrugged combined. And I’ve found the prose to be simply dull.

In no small part because of this, every flaw in the worldbuilding comes up in a way that it wouldn’t in a better story. The biggest issue I’ve found is trying to have its cake and eat it too. Worm goes into a huge amount of in-universe detail to try and justify its common superhero-vs-supervillain tropes. To me the amount of raw effort required has the effect of making it seem less, rather than more plausible.

But I don’t want to be too hard on Worm-I can see its appeal, and consider it “not for me” rather than outright “bad”. It just didn’t really “click” for me, and I don’t want to read a million+ words of something that didn’t do that.