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.

Soviet Planned Rates Of Advance

This covers a variety of ideal/aimed for Soviet advance rates, citing translated primary sources when possible. The actual ability to meet these rates in practice would depend greatly on circumstances. All figures are in kilometers per day.

_ _ _ _ _ _

Late 1940-mid 1950s (conventional): 25-35 infantry, 40-50 tank armies [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

Late 1950s (nuclear): 45-60 [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

1960s (nuclear) 60-70 [Front Offensive Operation, 1974]

Late 1960s (conventional): 35-40 [Front Offensive Operation With Conventional Weapons, 1969]

1970s-80s (Europe): 40-60, 30 (Southwest Theater, Mountainous) [Voroshilov Lectures, Front Offensive Operation, 1977 ,  Heavy OPFOR Operational]

1970s-80s (China, other weaker opponent): 70-100 [Voroshilov Lectures]

1990s-2000s (conventional, GENFORCE-Mobile): 30-40 (optimistic), 20-30 (optimistic, poor terrain) 15-20 (modest) [Generic Enemy: Mobile Forces]

Review: The Third World War, August 1985

The Third World War: August 1985

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John Hackett’s Third World War was, even more than Red Storm Rising, the book that started off the subgenre this blog was founded on. Thus I figured making it my first review of 2020 was an appropriate milestone.

This is incredibly hard to review. I was initially very dismissive of this book when I read it. And in an isolated “spherical cow” sense, I still feel that way.

Compared to Team Yankee, Red Army, Chieftains, and even RSR itself, it offers very little in terms of literary quality. It’s dated (there’s a reference to Abrams as “XM1s”, which is kind of like calling T-64s “Object 432s”). It’s a mixture of straight “pseudo-history” and clunky, sometimes dubiously written vignettes, all stuffed together awkardly. It has, with the Birmingham-Minsk “trade”, one of the worst examples of plotnukes ever. The whole thing is a political lobbying document in the shape of a novel.

And yet, this is perhaps the most context-affected book I’ve ever read. To someone like me who treated the Heavy OPFOR Tactical as casual reading and has seen many, many primary sources, it’s not novel in any way. To someone of that time period, especially someone who wasn’t an analyst, it definitely would be. The nature of this book makes its novelty even more essential than normal, due to its shortcomings.

Hackett’s Third World War has a few interesting scenes, like the chapter detailing how the general public saw the war. It deserves credit for being the first out of the gate. While I originally thought that it was a bad influence on later books of its type, a more thorough reading of the “big war thriller” subgrene reveals that it really wasn’t.

That being said, to a modern audience, it’s still really nothing more than an even more dated version of The War That Never Was, with all the baggage you might expect from it. It’s a very important historical piece and is worth a read for that alone, but it hasn’t aged well.

Review: Dragon’s Fury

Dragon’s Fury

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Jeff Head’s Dragon’s Fury is a very interesting book, and I mean this without any snark. Viewed in one light, it’s just a clunky 800-page self-published book with robotic prose, a “Heroic Eagleland vs. the Alliance Of Evil” (which somehow includes India) plot,  and a lot of axe-grinding, the kind that would seemingly be just forgettable.

But viewed in another light, it’s weirdly impressive how many technothriller cliches it has. They’re all there, even contradictory ones. Take something with…

  • The bloat and diversion into domestic politics for the sake of soapboxing of later Tom Clancy. (Although Dragon’s Fury’s politics make Executive Orders’ seem restrained, tasteful, and left-wing in comparison)
  • The sci-fi excesses of Dale Brown at his most out-there (there’s a battle in Dragon’s Fury featuring space battleships).
  • The “look out, it’s the MacGuffin superweapon” theme of many technothrillers, especially post-1991 ones.
  • Similarly, the “a thousand viewpoint characters and a million technical descriptions” style common to the genre.
  • The robotic “play by play” battle description of books like The War That Never Was.

All these come together into something worse than the sum of their parts. The bloating and tangling keep it from being a  breezy “51% book”, turning it instead into a total clunkfest. The sci-fi and superweapon components aren’t crazy-fun like Blaine McCracken taking one of his periodic trips into outer space, just out-of-place. The battles get uninteresting very fast, especially given the “show everything in every theater” aspect of it. The big, detailed descriptions don’t work in a setting that isn’t grounded.

If it had the same “political manifesto as told by an early, monotone text-to-speech device” prose but was half the length, and had only two or three of those technothriller staples instead of all five, I’d dismiss it as “forgettably bad.” However, by incorporating all of them, by somehow taking every military/technothriller plot device and using them so consistently poorly in a way that not even Patrick Robinson can manage, Dragon’s Fury manages to become something different. It manages to become unforgettably bad. That the book is an audacious, sweeping tale of a multi-year world war (in a time when many technothrillers were lowering their scope and/or stakes) just amplifies everything.

It’s not enjoyably bad. Even I had a hard time getting through this book. But it is indeed unforgettable in its ambition. It’s as if Florence Foster Jenkins tried not only singing but writing an epic Wagnerian opera accompanied by an unironic Portsmouth Symphony Orchestra. I’d put this book, alongside the previously mentioned Patrick Robinson novels, as an example of the depths the technothriller sunk to in the 2000s. Robinson’s works were the “conventional commercial publishing” side, and this is the “self-publishing” side.

Review: The Chosen One

The Chosen One

Walt Gragg’s The Red Line was one of the first books I reviewed on Fuldapocalypse-and how could I not, with it being a Russo-American World War III, the kind that was supposed to be the blog’s bread and butter? Now his second book, The Chosen One, is out. And I felt I had to review it.

So, an Algerian man somehow becomes recognized as the “Madhi”, gets a huge army, is able to unify most of the Middle East, equip said huge army, and launch a conventional World War III. It doesn’t take place in the Fulda Gap, but the book does have all the hallmarks of the “big-war thriller” that I had in mind when starting the blog.

It has tons of viewpoint characters from top to bottom, lots of battles, a focus on air, land, and sea (via a cruise missile strike on the American fleet), and the general tropes of the subgenre. So I can say I feel very comfortable in declaring this a World War III book.

A lot of the big-picture stuff doesn’t make much sense (even in a spherical cow lines on a map way), which I’d be more forgiving of if it wasn’t brought up repeatedly in conference room exposition scenes. It’s not quite at the level of The Red Line’s convoluted way to turn the clock back to the 1980s, but it’s still there in force.

There are a few too many viewpoint characters for the book’s own good, they’re not exactly the least stereotypical, and they make the pacing jumbled (the kind of thing I sadly expected). Part of this is a cutaway to the antagonist’s stereotypical childhood. I’ll just say that A: I was reminded of Life Of Brian, and B: you shouldn’t be reminded of Life of Brian in what’s supposed to be a serious story.

As for the actual action, it’s strange. The prose descriptions are ridiculously melodramatic (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, but still, given the tone, it clashes), but it also has more than its share of dry weapon over-description as well. There’s also anachronisms with the weapon names (which isn’t so bad if you don’t mind every enemy tank being an “M60” or “T-72”) and tactics (which is understandable but still a little out of date to see carrier aircraft flying at low altitude and having trouble hitting hardened shelters).

It’s not the absolute worst, but it’s still not what it could have been. The conclusion is also a stumbling point, which has a firefight inside an Egyptian pyramid (Ok?) that’s taken seriously and focused on while a big tank battle occurs elsewhere and is only mentioned in passing (not ok), and ends with a really, really blatant sequel hook.

This is a sort of oddball novelty-it has the roughness and er, “quirkiness” of some of the more uneven independent “big-war thrillers”, yet it’s a mainstream publication. And regrettably, its fundamentals just aren’t good enough to be more than an oddball novelty.

Review: Operation Zhukov

Operation Zhukov

It’s been a while. But John Agnew’s Operation Zhukov has brought me back. Back to the time when I started Fuldapocalypse.

So in an alternate 1992 with the USSR still going, the just-reunified Germany clashes with Poland, and it expands into a (conventional) Fuldapocalypse. And yes, there is a reference to the Fulda Gap, although most of the action follows British units farther north.

And this brought a weird feeling to me, a feeling of strange comfort and nostalgia. This is a book of constant clunky jumping around between paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters who exist purely to operate military equipment. This is a book of conference room and makeshift conference room infodumps. This is a book of clashes too grounded and technically “realistic” to be over the top fun but too detailed to be genuinely realistic (what fog of war?).

Because of all that, it’s a callback to the day where I was expecting to review books in a spectrum so narrow that I’d highlight the (in)accuracy of tank unit TO&Es to see how the book differed from the others in the pack. Here, I can say that it has more accurate T-80s in the GSFG arsenal and not the more commonly used but technically inaccurate T-72s. A similar pattern exists throughout the entire book-while there’s undeniably some issues somewhere in the “there’s this many roadwheels on this type of tank” type of description, I didn’t see any big red flags (no pun intended).

I would probably have been frustrated with this book had I read it some time ago. Now, knowing that there are many individual authors who’ve written more books than the entirety of the “Conventional World War III” genre, I feel strangely nostalgic.

This kind of book isn’t crowding out any genre and isn’t setting any bad trends. This specific book isn’t badly made for what it is, not having any truly massive errors or truly gigantic bloat. Yes, I consider it a little flat, but “flat” isn’t the worst thing a book can be. Operation Zhukov can be summed up as the World War III version of Marine Force One, a “51% book” that fits its (in this case, narrow) genre with the most basic competence but doesn’t go above or beyond it.

A Thousand Words: Dr. Strangelove

Dr. Strangelove

Welcome to A Thousand Words, my attempt to expand Fuldapocalypse into visual media. Since this is a blog that’s technically about World War III, I figured I’d open it up by reviewing the movie that probably, more than any other, represents World War III in popular culture. This movie, obviously, is the Stanley Kubrick/Peter Sellers classic Dr. Strangelove.

The movie itself is excellent. I could complain about how some of the humor seems a little forced at times, but the positives vastly outweigh the negatives. It’s a classic for a reason.

What I find more intriguing is how utterly different Dr. Strangelove is from, say, Red Storm Rising. The entire plot centers around nuclear war, as opposed to the sidestepping most of the “WW3s” I knew did. It’s started by an American general, and there are only a few characters. Granted, some of this is the movie format at work, but still.

Review: Advance To Contact

Advance To Contact

advancetocontactcover

In the early stages of Fuldapocalypse, I reviewed Andy Farman’s Stand To, a World War III tale. Or rather, a sleazy spy tale that became a World War III tale that involved everything I thought I’d be seeing en masse on Fuldapocalypse, and then some. Lots of descriptions. Lots of viewpoint characters. Lots of meticulously described battles.

Now I’m in one of those full circle moods. I still had the remaining books in the series left unread, so I decided to return to that mostly untapped World War III vein and read the second Armageddon’s Song book, Advance to Contact.

Farman has had decades of legitimate expertise as a soldier and police officer, and indeed the infantry fighting scenes in this book sometimes actually work. The key word here is “sometimes”. Often they blur together (since the characters are so forgettable and interchangeable). Often Farman fills it with infodumps on the exact levels of equipment and/or author lectures on whatever topic is technically relevant. Often the viewpoints are yanked away and yanked back. Often they’re overdescribed to the point where it loses its focus. Still, I should give legitimate credit where credit is due. There’s one scene with doomed Belarusian soldiers where he actually writes well, doesn’t get too infodumpy, and keeps the ‘camera’ focused on them instead of jumping a continent away after a few paragraphs.

Another instance of deserved credit is that the plotting and pacing is a little better than in Stand To. The war is underway, so the goofy spy plot is less prominent and the viewpoint jumping merely at the level of “exaggerated technothriller” rather than the wrenching shifts of Stand To.

That being said, it still has most of the problems mentioned over a year ago in the review of Stand To. The times when details are gotten wrong (given the ridiculous amount of description) are annoying. Farman doesn’t focus on where he’s most skilled and comfortable but instead gives giant air/sea battles. There are bizarre events like B-2s being used as tankers and Tu-160s as special forces insertion craft. The dialogue for anyone not in the military is frequently awkward. And the pacing is just glacially slow.

Still, like with the first book, I couldn’t feel mad about this and frequently felt amused. This is an earnest series by a first-time fiction writer. It’s just that what could have been at least a rival to Chieftains with some more focus turned into this clunked-together technothriller kitchen sink.

How Many World War IIIs Are There?

So I diversified Fuldapocalypse because of a sense that I’d get burned out if I just tried to read Hackett/Red Storm Rising-style World War III novels. But there’s a bigger, much bigger issue. See, even if I had the endurance for reading them all, I’d face the issue of, no joke, outright running out of books in the genre to read.

Here’s the rough classification for what I meant.

  • The series must be a military action novel.
  • It must feature a large worldwide war, usually against Russia and/or China, that still stays (mostly) conventional.
  • It must be “big-picture”, have a lot of detail on units/formations and the like, often going from viewpoint character to viewpoint character.

I haven’t done (if it was even possible) a count. But going by a restrictive interpretation, I’d say I’d be running out of books, or at least scraping the bottom of the barrel pretty quickly. It’s a little surprising just how many books do not meet all three of those categories.

At least among traditional commercial presses, I’d be pretty comfortable saying there are probably less than 50 books of this type ever, and definitely less than a hundred. Even with indies, I’d have to amplify the numbers by reviewing every individual book in a series.