Review: Eagle Rising

Eagle Rising

The Kirov series, of which Eagle Rising is the 47th (!) installment, is strange. If I’d read it three years ago, I’d probably have unfairly denounced it as the worst series of all time. In my more recent reviews, I’d sort of wavered from criticizing the individual books to admiring the ridiculous (in a good way!) plot and premise of the setting.

Now I have this weird feeling that’s settled. I unironically love the craziness and excess that the series gets into, while remaining just as critical of the many flaws of the individual books. I’ll take this flawed excess standout over a hundred “51% books” any day.

That being said, this book itself has essentially two set pieces spread out of over many pages and takes place in an entire arc with a forgone conclusion stated as early as the first book in the series. Whatever the author’s intention, the impression I got of this arc, with this particular WWIII having long since been established as ending in a nuclear fireball (hence the time travel and changing it in the first place…), was that it served mainly to show off wargaming set pieces.

The set pieces are a big Russo-NATO showdown in Eastern Europe and the shenanigans of the ship and its crew. The former is a strangely intriguing example of what happens when you rely on wargame simulations to an incredible and unprecedented degree. Besides the obvious issues with such a stilted de facto let’s play, there’s also problems when the simulations produce an undramatic (however realistic) result and there’s not much “cushion” of characterization or low-level danger to balance them. Another issue is that this particular conflict setup is not exactly undergamed.

The latter, a far more out there plot, involves the use of a time travel MacGuffin and some of the crew going onto an island and fighting a pack of wolves (it’s a bit of a long story). It also involves long scenes of clunky dialogue, which is less fun.

In a way, this book, with time travel shenanigans and wargame AARs, is its own series in a nutshell. Is this a good or bad thing? Well, it depends on what you want and/or like.

The Nature Of It All

This is the 300th post on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s fitting that it comes now, because well, I’m in what feels like a blog midlife crisis. I don’t want to overstate this, because the diversification of the blog, which I’ve talked about many times, means there’s no problem with supplying actual content. But there’s still a strange feeling in me.

See, there’s an increasing feeling in me that the well is running dry. I’ve said many, many times that there’s a lot fewer World War III books than I thought. And that’s only a little less true for “big war thrillers” in general. It’s a little weird knowing your views were distorted by a combination of one field where those tropes were common (wargaming) and an internet trend that, in hindsight, was no more significant or influential than a long-ago boomlet on Spacebattles of who-would-win matches involving lions (yes, this actually happened).

And yet, for the fiction of that type that actually exists, my initial wariness still often holds true. It’s still often a cross between conference rooms and paper-thin Steel Panthers Characters. Sturgeon’s Law still applies, and in any exposition-heavy format, I consider the “floor” to be lower than in a lowbrow action thriller. So I’m in the strange position of, regarding the supposed subject matter of this very blog, either having already read or having little desire to read a lot of the of “Icelandic” books I set it up to review. Not all-I still have some I want to read, and genres should never be discounted altogether. But a lot.

And what else that’s come to me is the sense that this kind of “big-war thriller” is just harder to write well than a conventional cheap thriller (I’m not saying it’s impossible, only harder). I’ve felt this way about alternate history, and think it’s also true here. You have to balance a good and reasonably accurate picture of the conflict/divergent setting with a good story and characters, and sometimes those are at cross purposes. It’s why, with my annoyance at there seemingly being too many “conventional WWIII” stories having long-subsided, I feel that there aren’t enough, and that there especially isn’t enough cross-pollination (which is understandable, but that’s a subject for another post).

So what I’ve been experiencing is something very much like the bittersweet feeling someone gets when they finally finish a long series that they enjoyed. I felt this way with the Survivalist. I felt this way with Blaine McCracken. I felt this way with video games and movies and TV shows that I liked. In all those cases I found later replacements (for the Survivalist, it’s responsible for getting me into an entire genre) but the feeling still remains.

And so it feels this way for here. I’ve reviewed, judging by tags and discounting essay posts, about 28 “World War III” books. They range from good to bad, from rote to pulpy to clunky to outright bizarre. I’ve experienced a huge range. In many ways I’ve accomplished what I’ve set out to do. And while that sort of thing can bring about justifiable pride, it can also bring about a sense of understandable emptiness.

My feeling isn’t “what do I do now?”, since the answer (read and write about either other types of fiction or history/theory in general) is what I’ve been doing. Rather, it’s a simpler “So, that’s it? That’s all there was?”

Review: Red Hammer 1994

Red Hammer 1994

Robert Ratcliffe’s Red Hammer 1994 is a tale of an alternate nuclear World War III in the early 1990s. The feared regression to authoritarianism takes place in post-1991 Russia, and its leader proceeds to launch a nuclear strike on the west. Cue a big picture, wide-scope look at everything from bombers to silos to submarines to, yes, conference rooms.

The characters feel just like they’re just there to operate military equipment instead of being actual characters. The plot is basically “have a nuclear war that stays mainly counterforce and thus only mauls civilization instead of wrecking it totally, and show every part of it in set pieces”. The grounded and frequently realistic (at least technically) nature of the book is somewhat admirable, but works against it when questionable moments like a giant force of super-Spetsnaz in the continental US emerges-or for that matter, the basic plot happening at all. The ending is incredibly abrupt (and not in a plausible Dr. Strangelove way) and the most positive elements are some of the set pieces themselves.

This is what it is. If you like technical detail and want to see Herman Melville’s Story Of A Moderate Nuclear War, you’ll like this book. But if you want a solid narrative, this isn’t it.

Review: The Weekend Warriors

The Weekend Warriors

Reading James Burke’s The Weekend Warriors means I’ve now read all ten of the alternate history conventional World War III series I’d identified. So how is it?

Telling the story of National Guard soldiers and their families during a 198X Fuldapocalypse, Burke uses some plot devices I’ve thought would have worked, like using fictional unit designations. He also aims for characterization and doesn’t hesitate to show the duller parts of military life. The result is something that tries to be something fuller than just tanks exploding…

…With an emphasis on tries. A lot of the high-level military details are anachronistic and in some cases outright “off”. The most jarring example to me was how the Soviets would focus on NORTHAG (which would be true) and thus do nothing but special forces operations in the American sector at the beginning of the war (which would not be). The action suffers from the same rough prose as the rest of the work and sometimes devolves into listing armaments in full.

Because of this, it comes across as being like a somewhat worse Chieftains-a tale of a conventional World War III that’s ambitious, but erratic and unpolished in execution.

Alternate History World War IIIs

That there are significantly fewer “conventional World War III” books than I thought when I started this blog is something I’ve repeatedly said. But I recently decided to take a look and see just how many (or, to be honest, how few) World War IIIs fit the “tail of the elephant” category of what I first saw online. The criteria were as follows.

  • They obviously had to be mostly conventional World War IIIs.
  • They had to be commercialized, even if only in self-published form.
  • They’re listed by series and not author to prevent long individual series from skewing the results.
  • They had to be unambiguous alternate history. So the 1980s classics wouldn’t count because those are set in a then-contemporary time.
  • They had to take place after 1980. The “just after World War II” WW3s are a different kind of fiction in my eyes.

With that, I got the following rough list.

  • -Harvey Black’s “Effect” series
  • -William Stroock’s World War 1990 series
  • -The Bear’s Claws by Russell Phillips
  • -Northern Fury H Hour
  • -John Agnew’s Operation Zhukov
  • -Brad Smith’s World War III 1985
  • -Martin Archer’s War Breaks Out
  • -James Burke’s The Weekend Warriors
  • -John Schettler’s Kirov series.
  • -Mark Walker’s Dark War series

There’s obviously ones I missed, but still, only ten entries. Ten. For comparison, there’s easily more different authors on the “action hero” tag here (I counted around 17.) It feels both satisfying to see even a general number and a little weird to know that what you saw was something as narrow in scope as Worm fanfiction (even if understandably so).

The Three World War IIIs

After long since realizing how few conventional World War III stories there actually are out there, I nonetheless have a classification system for the very small genre, perhaps because there’s very few. They fall, perhaps fittingly, into three main categories.

Literary

“Literary” World War III includes Red Storm Rising, Team Yankee, Red Army, Northern Fury H-Hour, and even some more uneven ones like Chieftains and Arc Light. What these have in common is:

  • A “big picture” writing style featuring lots of viewpoint characters.
  • A sincere attempt at both narrative and at least nominal accuracy.

Not surprisingly, these are the rarest and hardest to do right. In fact, I think those above examples are most of the books that fall into that category.

Pulpy

“Pulpy” World War III is basically stuff like Ian Slater, Martin Archer and Joel Fulgham, as well as the shameless Wingman and Zone novels. These are distinguished by a lower-brow form of writing and/or not knowing/caring about accuracy. Some books may have aimed at being “literary” but ended up as pulpy in practice, while others (like anything by Mack Maloney) were knowingly that from the start.

“Wargamed”

“Wargamed” World War III, for lack of a better word, is the kind of story that, by virtue of me being exposed both with wargames themselves (which can over-represent WWIII, as I show in this Sea Lion Press post.) and internet alternate history (which lends itself to dry “TLs”) I thought was present much more than it actually was.

This is the stuff that follows in Hackett’s footprints. If characters exist at all, they’re either human cameras to illustrate aspects of the conflict or conference room speakers. Every order of battle is spelled out in exact detail.

Obviously there’s going to be edge cases of all sorts, but those are the three big categories.

Review: Opening Moves

Opening Moves

At the start of this blog, I thought that William Stroock’s World War 1990 was the worst World War III work of fiction I’d read. That is no longer the case. Colin Gee’s The Red Gambit: Opening Moves now holds, as of this post, that dubious “honor”.

Why have I made such a bold claim?

First, the prose is very poor and the book incredibly long and clunky. (And it’s just the beginning of a series!). This alone would have been enough for me to not recommend it. However, there’s more. Like Dragon’s Fury, it manages to stumble into seemingly all of the worst parts of the “big war thriller” (overdescription, characters that are too flat and too many at the same time, etc…) all at once. I mean, it has two conference room scenes in a row just at the beginning.

It also has the issue of being very close to World War II. This is one of the trickiest time periods to write a World War III in (for reasons of both military logic and storytelling) and it’s safe to say, especially given just how early Stalin attacks in-universe and how Japan allies with the Soviets (!), that Gee doesn’t do it right.

Although the biggest problem is how horrendously stereotyped everyone is. After reviewing Gee’s Atlantisch Crusaders, I kind of expected this, but that doesn’t make it any better. While terrible stereotypes don’t break a cheap thriller by themselves (if they did I’d have never read a single Casca book), this doesn’t present itself as a cheap thriller.

It presents itself as both a “crunchy” tale of military detail and as a sweeping war epic. For the former, the stereotypes, contrivances, and extreme premise counter whatever technically accurate rivet-counting details appeared. For the latter, the storytelling is just far too clunky for it to work.

Thus the stage is set for a truly gigantic mess. There’s stereotypical pulp, there’s overly rote “lines on a map” fiction, there are overlong big-picture doorstoopers, and then there’s this, which somehow manages to be all of the above.

 

The Iceland Scale And The Origins of Fuldapocalypse

Back in the day when I was convinced that everywhere was being overrun by bad World War III stories, I made the Iceland Scale as part of my backlash. Now with a sense that I got too angry about it, I figure I should post both the scale itself and commentary on how it did and didn’t hold up.

This is probably going to be the longest post yet on Fuldapocalypse, and it’s been a long time in coming. This is something that I wanted to look back on. Now, with a lot of time on my hands and the last review of a “World War III” book being months old, I think it’s as good a time as any.

I’ve been worrying about how to say what I want to. Regardless, I still think this should be told, for it influenced the formation of this blog.

Here’s the scale itself:

BACKGROUND

-If the Soviets start the war: 1 Iceland
-If the Soviets do so in a way that, to the average reader, makes little sense: 3 Icelands.
-If there’s at least one chapter of “intrigue” leading to the shocking result that yes, in a WW3 book, WW3 starts: 5 Icelands per chapter/update.
-If NATO starts the war: -10000 Icelands

-If the third-person narrator delivers an infodump about forces deployed: 50 Icelands per infodump.
-If there’s a scene where a bunch of generals and leaders stand in a conference room and deliver a joint infodump about forces deployed: 600 Icelands per infodump.
-If the central and obvious protagonist is introduced prior to the fighting started: -20 Icelands

-If the war takes place in the 1970s or earlier: -100 Icelands
-If the war takes place in the 1980s: 1 Iceland
-If the war takes place in the 1990s or beyond, with a surviving/restored USSR: -5 Icelands

CONDUCT OF THE WAR

-If NATO wins: 1 Iceland
-If the USSR wins: -500 Icelands
-If the war ends in a nuclear apocalypse: -200 Icelands

-If the war remains conventional throughout: 1 Iceland
-If nuclear weapons are occasionally used in anger, but the war stays largely conventional: 150 Icelands

-If the Soviets invade Iceland: 1000 Icelands
-If the Soviets invade any part of the United States proper: 15000 Icelands

-If the battles focus around tanks or aircraft: 1 Iceland per battle
-If the battles focus around ships or submarines: 1 Iceland per battle
-if the battles involve gritty, close infantry firefights: -10 Icelands per battle

-If any part of the story takes place in Germany: 100 Icelands
-If any part of the story takes place in the Atlantic Ocean: 200 Icelands
-If any part of the story takes place in a theater other than the two mentioned above: -50 Icelands

CHARACTERIZATION

-If there is one central, total viewpoint character: -25 Icelands.
-Likewise, if the number of viewpoint characters numbers:
-2-5: 10 Icelands
-5-10: 50 Icelands
->10: 1000 Icelands
-If there are no “characters” in a traditional literary sense at all: 500 Icelands.

-If a character’s physical appearance is described: -10 Icelands
-If a character is given an infodump to serve as their sole form of development: 100 Icelands

-If a weapons system is described in more detail than the basic terms (ie, M1A1, T-80BV rather than M1/Abrams or T-80): 15 Icelands
-If a weapons system is given more description or development than a character: 100 Icelands

-If any characters are in a position of utter powerlessness-(civilians, routed soldiers): -25 Icelands
-If any Soviet characters exist as mustache-twirling puppy kickers: 10 Icelands
-If any NATO characters exist as mustache-twirling puppy kickers: -100 Icelands

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

So how did this come into being?

At the time I had read far fewer “cheap thrillers” in general and my exposure came in three places:

  • Wargames, where World War IIIs are over-represented compared to other types of fiction. (A study of scenario locations in Steel Panthers MBT had about 27% of them being “World War III” in some form, a ratio that is definitely not true of fiction in general).
  • Red Storm Rising itself and a few of the knockoffs, particularly Harvey Black and Brad Smith.
  • A boomlet of conventional World War III TLs/stories on alternatehistory.com.

In hindsight, the knockoff triple-xeroxed fanfiction of Hackett (or Clancy/Bond, or Coyle, or Peters, or Red Dawn) that appeared on AH really wasn’t that good, bad, or representative. It’s like trying to see what crime fiction is like by reading the entries in the Law and Order section of fanfiction.net.

But it’s what I was reading at the time.

What holds up?

I’d say the supervillain Soviets and longer weapons descriptions. That’s pretty much it for just cheap thrillers in general. For technothrillers, the conference room scenes are probably the biggest.

And there are “Icelandic” stories out there. There just aren’t that many. Instead of looking at overbearing cliches, I was accidentally focusing on a very small, very niche type of writing. I was the blind man touching one part of the elephant.

And what doesn’t?

A lot. First, the invasion of Iceland itself isn’t a staple even in World War III stories. It appeared in wargaming and Red Storm Rising. And really not that much else, even in that narrow niche.

A few instances had stories that were “Icelandic” but not necessarily bad. Team Yankee checks most of the Iceland boxes on paper, but is a smoothly flowing story that’s the exact opposite of the cumbersome “boom boom goes the tank” I’d seen on the internet.

But most of it was simply not “Icelandic” at all. And this includes almost all of the cheap thrillers that were actually written. Nukes aren’t handwaved away, they’re incorporated into the story in some fashion. As a look at the number of “Action Hero” and “Special Forces” tags on this blog shows, shooter fiction with an unambiguous main character leaves “big war thrillers” in its dust. By a gigantic margin.

Why is the “They invade the US” score so high?

This is probably the most personally biased score of them all. It’s not overly representative or even prominent in a few specific pieces the way Iceland was (the exception being Red Dawn). Rather, seeing rote rivet-counting descriptions of Soviet invasions of the continental US flared up one of my frustrations with internet alternate history.

I should note that this is one of the least connected to actual commercial fiction. It could not be further from the special forces raid in Northern Fury (a more workable scenario) or the invasion in the early Survivalist (something that didn’t involve rivet counting).

So why this? Well, internet alternate history has, as it’s grown, sort of shifted in a questionable way. The idea behind simply writing in ways that aren’t conventional narratives was so that writers, unencumbered by the need for plots/characterizations, could fill in a lot of details.

As the community diluted, this became a way to avoid detail, done by people who cared less about “plausibility”. The analogy I’d use is, of all things, car racing. A race car is not a practical car for everyday driving, and the people involved know it. But then people start building race cars. They have one seat and no amenities, but the focus is on that one seat and the shape and not how fast they can go. But at the same time there’s just enough residual race car focus to dull the edges. The cars aren’t in goofy novelty shapes, they’re just race cars that look like race cars but with engines that a stock 1992 Camry could outpace.

As AH’s own wiki states about fictional election results lists, “No offense, but very few people are impressed by your ability to make up fake percentages. For extra cliché points, present them through Wikiboxes. “

Likewise, seeing lists and lists of orders of battle and recitations for something I knew was both implausible and unsuitable for its genre prompted an overreaction in me. I say overreaction because it’s like treating fanfiction that ignores the genre of its base work in favor of sleaze and/or sloppiness as something unique or distinctly bad. Once you know the context, it’s unsurprising and arguably uninteresting.

I guess another analogy is like vs. debates tiering, where it’s something nominally “crunchy”, a field that can bring often unjustified aggravation quickly, and where studying the context of how something that should be technical became lowbrow is a lot more interesting than seeing the end result of questionable infodumps.

Does the Iceland Scale have any retroactive value?

It’s basically one of those fanfic “litmus tests” you see floating around on the internet. After all, the place that motivated it was essentially a fanfiction board, only with “history” as the setting .

And well, especially after writing creative fiction, and especially after seeing much more, I don’t really think so. I’ve been a litmus test skeptic because this kind of fiction tends to have the execution be important. It’s entirely possible to have what should be a rote “shoot the terrorist” premise but succeed with good execution. Likewise, take a “Clive Cussler’s” book that has on paper a goofy premise but is just dull.

Team Yankee has a lot of “Icelandic” elements on paper but is well-done. Even Red Army has a parade of viewpoint characters-and it’s also done well. Northern Fury H-Hour would probably rank very high given that it’s an explicit homage, and its execution was also done effectively.

I mean, this has been a little unpleasant for me to think about, which is why I’ve been holding off on writing this post or something like it for a long time. I got too caught up in board drama (which is a staple of AH.com), and it’s kind of a sign of how narrow-minded I was. As I’ve repeatedly said, the diversification of Fuldapocalypse was something genuinely good in a lot of ways.

Some time ago, I made this silly graphic to show how much my horizons were broadened. It’s true.

fuldapocalypseexpectation

What lessons do you think there are from the Iceland Scale?

These are kind of truisms, but…

  • Don’t get too caught up in any one fandom. While I think alternate history has some unique hangups, fandom drama is definitely not unique to it.
  • Don’t get caught up in something with small sample size, and always look for more perspective.
  • Broaden your literary horizons, even in the same basic genre.

When I wrote the Iceland Scale, I was convinced there were too many conventional WW3 stories out there. Now I feel there arguably aren’t enough. There’s certainly very few. A single very long series can outnumber the “conventional WWIII” genre, and a single prolific author can easily outpace the entire “big war thriller” type of book.  So upon seeing an “Icelandic” story, my thought is now less “Argh, another WWIII” and more “oh, it’s a niche story that probably isn’t for me”. So this horizon-broadening has been very positive. Not just for enjoyment, but for understanding.

How did this help lead to Fuldapocalypse?

Here’s how. Part of the reason for starting Fuldapocalypse was because I didn’t want to crowd out the Creative Corner. Of course, this ended up doing just that as my interests shifted, but that’s another story.

But another part of starting Fuldapocalypse came from me wanting to give these stories a more fair and critical shake. And I’ll say this flat out-I at first went about it the wrong way. My initial goal was “move past the board drama, look at ‘real’ published World War III books, and use a rigorous scale to see how they differed and what cliches they did and didn’t follow, so that your own emotion and opinions can mostly stay out of it”. It was trying to move towards a narrower slice of fiction, towards a more robotic litmus test.

Thankfully, it worked out. I soon grew tired with my self-imposed limitations and began, slowly at first, reading and reviewing stuff that wasn’t “Icelandic” at all. While it took a little while for me to throw off the shackles entirely, I did. And this is the reason why I made the post-instead of constantly obsessing over something, whatever its (lack of) quality, shouldn’t be obsessed over, this post can stand between whatever non-Icelandic works of fiction strike my fancy.

Front Defensive Operations

frontdefense

From the Heavy OPFOR Operational, here is a picture of a front-sized defensive operation. My first thought upon seeing it and counting the divisions, besides any political concerns, is – “Does NATO even have enough forces to break through it without a huge amount of technological superiority”?

This particular diagram is something of an idealized best case, as the front has both a second-echelon tank army to counterattack and several independent divisions as “combined arms reserves”. But still. I’d have to ask…

  • How much of a force multiplier are the initial belts (which were expected to be overrun?)
  • How much of the artillery and missile forces can survive and fire effectively on the attackers as they approach?
  • Most importantly, what’s the overall context?

 

 

Using Paratroopers

One of the biggest problems with using paratroopers besides the limit on airlift, and why they’ve just been high-readiness/at-least-theoretically higher skill infantry in real practice, is the cost-benefit with their operations. This is very tricky.

The Practical Reasons

Apart from situations where there just is no other way to move in quicker (ie, over bodies of water/other gaps), airborne landings, particularly on a very large scale, have faced the issue of either being unnecessarily risky and complicated for the task at hand or simply being too weak to accomplish anything (especially in a situation where everyone has a lot of heavy forces).

The impression I’ve gotten is that anything bigger than a company-sized landing force is dicey, and anything bigger than a battalion is really, really dicey. Yes, if everyone had giant Mi-26 sized helicopters and/or the landing forces had mechanized equipment of their own (ie, BMDs/Sheridans) it would help, but only somewhat.

The Literary Reasons

On the other hand, the literary reasons for big airborne operations are obvious. Just look at Band of Brothers, to say nothing of considerably more obscure works of fiction that range from Marching Through Georgia to Northern Fury H-Hour.

  • They’re big and dramatic all by themselves.
  • Because they’re often centered around (seemingly) important targets, it makes the actions of the protagonists look bigger.
  • Because airborne forces are inherently limited, it means drama can be maintained against a seemingly weaker opponent (a pretty extreme example of this is Marching Through Georgia, where the Draka are otherwise utterly superior to their opponents and paratroopers against a panzer force are the only way to have something even slightly even).