Tuesday, 13 March 2018

Reading Techno-thrillers In Reverse - by Colin Salt

Reading Techno-thrillers In Reverse

By Colin Salt.

So, I’ve been reading the classic techno-thriller pioneers. Red Storm Rising itself, Team Yankee, and the early works of Larry Bond. I was in two unusual positions. The first was a general cultural/generational difference-I have not served in the armed forces and was born in 1991, a year of rather extreme consequence for the Cold War. So I will freely admit to not having the same perspective that someone who actually lived through it would have.

The second is, I feel, is more pertinent, because it’s a cart-before-the-horse issue. Which is to say, for a variety of reasons, I experienced the later imitators of these classics first, and then read them. The majority of these follow-ons had issues. Many I could enjoy as “cheap thrillers” while still acknowledging their flaws, while some were just bad. The most important thing was that I was set up for what TVTropes calls the “Seinfeld is Unfunny” effect. This is where you’ve read/seen/played so much of what’s followed/copied/been influenced by something that when you finally encounter the original, it doesn’t seem so original.
So, from top to bottom, my impressions:

Team Yankee was a pleasant surprise. It does a lot right and manages to avoid the pitfalls that a lot of other techno-thrillers fall into. How much of this is from Coyle’s writing skill and how much of it is from the genre expectations not being solidified yet is unclear and probably unanswerable. I could nitpick and criticize Team Yankee, but that would be unfair to it. I was expecting a clunker and got a smooth-flowing narrative tale of tank action.

Then there was Red Storm Rising itself. This is tricky, simply because I find it nearly impossible to grade without context. It would be a decent enough thriller absent any other context, and Clancy and Bond cannot be faulted for their book being dated. Besides the understandable politics or technical details that were shown to be inaccurate speculation later, the very theme of the book would be more wondrous to a reader in the mid/late 1980s.

I feel that one of the reasons for the techno-thriller declining in prominence was that as “high-tech” weapons became routine and commonplace, they lost their novelty factor. For a post-Gulf War reader like me, cruise missiles and stealth aircraft are routine and normal. For someone in 1986, they would be fascinating. It’s this kind of thing that makes judging it difficult. It has my pet peeve of too many viewpoint characters and doesn’t flow as well as Team Yankee did, but its pioneer status means it’s hard for me to slam it. And for historical context and an example of how wargaming and writing can be intertwined, it’s definitely worth a read for that alone.

Now it’s time for me to talk about Larry Bond’s works. I’m saying this with a very heavy heart, because of how influential he’s been with wargaming. But as a prose writer, I found that he was both by far the biggest “if you’ve seen the imitators, the original doesn’t seem so original” of the three and the least skilled literately.

This was seeing someone who’s merely decent in isolation but was prominent and popular enough that the weaknesses of his style carried over to works that ranged from “slightly worse” to “much worse”. Bond covered the land, sea, and air theaters in detail and took one of the biggest-picture views. For stories that, for publishing reasons, had to be contained in one book, I found this an issue. Because the plots and actions kept getting in each other’s way, and that was something I was quite familiar with from  
the imitators.

But the bigger problem of Bond’s two novels I read (Cauldron and Red Phoenix) was that they both squandered their entire first acts on pointless political scenes. I do not mean (just) that the politics were unrealistic or poorly written. I use the term “pointless” because all they did was spend too many pages to set up the war that was obviously going to happen anyway. These were particularly egregious to the point where some of the imitators handled it better than Bond did.

So Bond’s success unquestionably helped lead to a feeling, whether by editors or the authors themselves, that you had to have more broad-front big picture tales with political intrigue, from DC to Dusseldorf to the Denmark Strait. When combined with the publisher’s need to fit entire conflicts into one book (frequently shorter than Bond’s as well) and far too many authors being out of their element in the political scene, this had a negative effect on the techno-thriller.

This is my own taste, but I prefer more slimmed-down, low-level, grounded at tank/platoon/fighter-level stories that leave the grand strategy, grand deployments, and political context in the background. That kind of story also goes a long way towards addressing some of the other plot and setting issues that wore down the classic technothriller. And if nothing else, it makes them flow better.
Of course, all of this is simply my individual opinion. I don’t mind differing literary tastes or counterarguments in the slightest.

 Colin Salt is a gamer and writer who authored the “Command Live: Black Gold Blitz” DLC scenario in Command: Modern Air Naval Operations

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