Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Soldier's Duty (Theirs Not to Reason Why) - Jean Johnson


One of the persistent problems in writing military fiction is the temptation to make one’s main character a Mary Sue – basically, someone improbably perfect, as in the Flight Engineer or Starstrike books. Jean Johnson has fallen into this trap, to some degree, but she has a very good underlying reason for her main character’s supreme competence. Ia is a precognitive, perhaps the most powerful known to exist in the book’s universe. She is capable of seeing her own future in such detail that she can generally pick the most optimal course of action, creating the impression (to her superiors, who don’t know about her talent) that she is literally the near-perfect Marine.

Knowledge of the future is actually the core concept of the book, and I have to admit that it is pretty cool. Ia has visions of a future when society is almost completely destroyed in a few hundred years – and sets out on a one-woman mission to prevent it. So far, so good – her competence is well-explained. But she becomes irritatingly perfect very quickly, something that is at least partly noted within the book. There is little true dramatic tension because the outcome is already certain.

There are scenes where she engages in lecturing her superiors as to how the military works, which make her sound like a smart-ass, and scenes where she puts her fellow recruits in their place – sounding rather like an older veteran rather than an recruit. I don’t blame her fellows for getting annoyed with her – I would find her irritating as hell too. She also has friends in weird places who help her along her way, friends who aren’t particularly well explained.

In short, she’s a very thin character. I can understand why the author went that way, but it rather grates on me. Maybe it would have done better if told directly as a first-person novel, or through the eyes of one of her friends.

The universe isn't also well-defined either. If precognition exists – and she isn't the only one, with a notable historical example cited – why is she the only one with visions of disaster? Or, for that matter, why doesn't she start telling more and more people, or using her gift more widely. I could see several ways to build a commercial empire, or a stronger military machine if the threat was from outside human space.

In fact, wouldn't that make a cool story? She gets to the top and mounts a coup, convinced that military rule is the only thing that would save humanity. But it turns out that she’s actually making the threat worse...

The truth is that there just isn't anything very original about this story – except perhaps for the core idea. And that alone can’t make the book work.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Green Lantern–The Movie


Yes, I know I’m a bit behind the times. I never go to the cinema without my fiancĂ©, but today I borrowed a DVD.

I never liked Hal Jordon. The movie manages to remind me why I don’t like him. Hal comes across as a bit of a jerk in the first few segments, although he does grow up pretty quickly with the end of everything bearing down on him.

But that’s just me. Back when I was younger, DC had Hal become weighed down by the loss of Coast City, steal a great deal of power from the Guardians, attempt to reshape reality itself in the hope of making a better world, die saving Earth and be resurrected as the Spectre. It was the only time I really liked Hal, but the Hal-Spectre series was trash and pretty quickly it was all ret-conned away. But I liked Kyle and Guy. They’re both flawed characters and far more interesting than Hal.

There are some cool special effects in this movie. And I liked the training scene when Hal is put through his paces by the corps. But...

First, the fear-entity is not one of the best enemies in the Green Lantern universe. It certainly isn't one that can be depicted on screen very well. There is a certain link between Fear and Will – Will overcomes Fear, logically Hal should have won by overcoming his fear. Instead, he dumps the fear-entity into the sun. Will that actually kill the entity?

Second, I rather liked the portrait of Sinestro, but the movie lost a chance to shine when Sinestro chose not to put on the yellow ring (at least at first). It could have made Sinestro into a tragic villain, corrupted by fear and I expected him to be the main enemy. But instead they stuck with the fear-entity. A bad choice, IMHO.

Third, the lanterns are supposed to be able to create anything they can imagine, right? Well, why don’t they? There are some cool special effects, but nothing really spectacular. Why not?

Overall? Don’t pay full price for this movie.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Himmler’s War - Robert Conroy


Writing alternate history (and period fiction) is a tricky task. There is always the temptation to bend details for the sake of a good story – and then there will be some humourless reader who will then write long posts on why it couldn't happen the way you suggested. I tend to judge the book on both its merits as a piece of alternate history and the writer’s skill in telling a story. A world where Hitler successfully invaded Britain might be implausible, but that doesn't mean that someone can't write a good story set in such a world.

Himmler’s War takes a look at what the world might have looked like if someone more rational than Hitler had been in control of Germany during the crucial years of 1944. A bombing run by an American bomber kills Hitler just after D-Day begins. Calling Himmler more rational than Hitler is rather tricky – but at least Himmler has the sense to actually listen to his generals. A few pages into the book and the story hangs together rather well. Conroy does a reasonable job with a vast cast of characters, showing their reactions to the war – and how they might react when confronted with different possibilities. One weakness shows itself clearly, here – many of his characters are very similar to his other characters from earlier books.

One character who does stand out is Harry Truman, who asserts himself in a manner that is quite historical. The situation in the US that makes it necessary, however, is a little harder to follow. FDR was certainly weaker than the American public knew at the time, but he wasn't senile.

Unfortunately, I find it difficult to follow the logic behind the course the war follows. Himmler would probably allow the German generals to run the war the way they wanted to run it – and yes, this would certainly cause huge problems for the Allies. It is quite likely that an increase in German production earlier than historically would make it more likely that the Germans would bleed the allies badly. However, there is little logic in the Soviets accepting a truce with Germany – let alone shipping hundreds of tanks to the Nazis. Stalin might well have accepted a truce with the Germans – a period of six months for the Red Army to catch its breath would have been very helpful – but I can't see him helping the Germans. The Red Army needed the supplies it was getting from the West and deliberately betraying the Allies would have been disastrous.

The problems get worse as the story continues. Historically, the German nuclear program was unable to produce a bomb. The idea that they can jump to building a working device – and then slipping it to Moscow to blow up Stalin – is implausible, to say the least. Conroy hand-waves desperately here, assuming that we won’t notice. At the end of the story, it seems that the West has managed to take all of Germany – with the Poles still under Russian domination. Quite why the Russians fell apart so quickly is beyond me. A case could be made that Moscow falling in 1942 would have crippled the USSR, but the situation was different in 1944.

There’s also the issue of international politics. It is true that both Britain and France had reservations about fighting to the bitter end. However, it is unlikely that either of them would have resorted to considering deals with Himmler. The French Communists might have risen against the Free French on Moscow’s command, but frankly I’m not convinced that that would have won them any friends.

Assuming that the POD works, what is likely to happen? The chances are that the Germans would certainly manage to stall the Allies for much longer, but their ability to take the offensive would be very limited. Why? The Allies (mainly the USAAF, but the RAF as well) had overwhelming air superiority. They could (and did) hammer the Germans from the air, despite German jet fighters that were (in theory) superior to anything the Allies had. (The Germans might have done better if they’d diverted resources to more propeller aircraft than jet fighters.) However, the war would have ended only a few months after OTL.

Why? Unlike the German program, the American nuclear program produced a working nuclear bomb. If Germany had held out a few months longer, the US would have started dropping atomic bombs on Germany. I assume that the German generals would have been smart enough to overthrow Himmler’s regime and surrender to the West. That would have opened up a whole new can of worms – a fitting place for a story.

The plotline of this story is familiar. It is very like Fox on the Line and Fox at the Front, which – IMHO – explored the possibilities far better. Overall, Himmler’s War is worth one read, if you can put your doubts aside. But it doesn't deserve more than that. The author’s 1901 was a much better read.