2013. november 29., péntek

March to hell - Red Inferno: 1945

The final showdown between the West and the East is a recurring theme of alternate history novels and videogame scripts. The never materialized Third World War, the arms race and the amassed weapon stockpiles always kept the fantasy of military minded people occupied, and the chess boards with the red and blue figures were set up again and again. The better known examples are Tom Clancy’s classic Red Storm Rising or the Red Alert real-time strategy games. Robert Conroy’s less known but highly enjoyable Red Inferno: 1945 put this clash at the very beginning.


Plot quality

Adolf Hitler still draws a breath when the winners start to quarrel over the spoils, and the relatively unharmed countryside of Germany to the west of the Elbe are ravaged by a old-new war. The victory parade in Berlin never happened. And this is all the SPOILER you will get from me.

I have to give it to Robert Conroy, he described a plausible scenario about what events could have led to an all out war between the USSR and the Western Allies. The phases of the rapid escalation and the reasons behind them in Red Inferno are well articulated and easy to follow. Conroy clearly wanted to write an entertaining history novel and not a deep political thriller.

Entertaining factor

But what military hardware nerds are really interested at are the flow of battles and technical details of this major test of strength. I was kinda happy with the script of the war itself. The turns of events in the Red Inferno: 1945 are plenty. I didn't get a chance to be bored, the book makes a real good job at keeping your attention, right until to the explosive finish. Just keep up with dealing with all those horrors and the dark side of the human nature because a lot of ugliness awaits.

Artwork from http://alternativeforcesofwwii.devhub.com/


 On the other hand, veterans of Tom Clancy books or military history buffs might miss the deeper details about the technical aspects of this war. I had the feeling that Conroy's knowledge about the then military technology is a bit superficial, or the author chose to focus more on the human faces and experiences of the war consciously. The lack of finer technical details and comparison of the military hardware of the opposing sides can bother some. It's a great war story, but not a techno-thriller by modern means. Actually, it reminded me a bit at Larry Bond's Red Phoenix in that aspect, a bit simplistic, but the „casuals” will have a great reading nevertheless.

Hold that thought, the human characters. Cute and plastic they are, one of the love stories in the book is so clumsy and ackward that I have almost jumped to the conclusion that history novelists just haven't got the mindset for writing credible romances. Well, the other love story kinda works. I guess you just can't have it all. But this should be our greatest problem with the Red Inferno.

Picture from Wikimedia


It's more painful that the novel is short, you can finish it off in a weekend. This topic deserves two volumes at least. The Red Inferno: 1945 could have been a starting point of a whole „Conroyverse” with a unique timeline instead of an enjoyable quicky. So, you will get what you pay for, but Red Inferno – as happy ride it is - won't make you read itself over and again like the Tom Clancy classics do. A pity, Robert Conroy didn't give us a classic but more of a consume and forget piece. And, it's still worth it.


2013. november 21., csütörtök

Zipang - Ode to an extinct order, the Imperial Japanese Navy

Cover for the English edition on DVD. Wikimedia.
I have to admit that my knowledge at the anime world is very limited. Since the Akira, which I did not really comprehend I hadn’t watched another. But when I had stumbled upon the anima-series Zipang I was genuinely surprised how mature and intelligent work I was looking at. Cultural differences did not limit my understanding of this manga adaptation, and the 26 episodes had a great promise for quality entertainment. If you like history or big battleships, if you find astounding situations and how human-like characters handle them fascinating, you cannot go wrong with Zipang.

Zipang – for a different Japan

Plot quality

It's not the first time that science-fiction and alternate history writers toy around with time travel. One liked plot element is that high-tech military hardware appears in the distant past . Think about Confederate soldiers of the American Civil War with AK-47s or what if Napoleon had a B-52 bomber by Waterloo. Rest assured, nothing as stupid like the latter here. But after a Bermuda-triangle-like experience, one advanced warship of the Japanese Self-Defence Forces runs into an unknown armada, which set sail for a mission with crucial importance and historical significance.
This scene never ceases me to give the goosebumps. The Mirai on collision course with the biggest and meanest battleship ever built. At least the writers didn't make it a spaceship this time. No pun intented, Starblazer-fans.

The Aegis destroyer Mirai has enough firepower to sweep away waves of piston engined attack planes or  to destroy whole contemporary battle fleets. This might well sound like the Final Countdown movie from 1979, except the protagonists switched sides. So much for originality. But the way the storyline of Zipang builds up and showing what lesser known forces were at work then makes you think how different imperial and the post-war Japan could have been? The Pacific War is a goldmine for alternate history novels.

When these shoes are on the other foot. Classic dogfight scene from the movie The Final Countdown

Entertaining factor (SPOILER ALERT!)

Although I have to give a fair warning that Zipang isn’t a revisionist hymn for the Imperial Japan nor an Axis of Time-like historical cataclysm. What Zipang puts into a perspective is how historical and the made-up characters would act if they somehow receive a wake-up call (in that case, the appearance of the Mirai), a hindsight about the end of the line, and how they would struggle to trigger something different and less grim than the looming total defeat.

One big flaw of the series is that it feels unfinished somehow. Like the writers were afraid of the potential of the plot and upsetting national feelings much on both sides of the Pacific. They had touched the plot maybe with too much care and sophistication, and then did not give Zipang a satisfying end.

Who are we? Soldiers of Japan or embassadors of an enlightened future ?


I felt Zipang like a drama of the other then Japan, which is not ultra-nationalist nor warmonger. It is very aware of its own precarious situation, but wants to shape its own future by everybody’s rules nevertheless. This is what makes Zipang particularly interesting for a history buff. The world war and „future” military hardware and tactics, their clashes are well worked out. Someone did watch for the details with enthusiasm.

A scene of the Manga-series. Available on http://manga.animea.net/


But as I tried to imply earlier you shouldn't watch Zipang for glorious Japanese troops armed with high-tech equipment or for a radical (and of course, fictional) rewriting of real-life historical events. Such works exist in the anime world, we might come back to them later. But those are meant strictly for a Japanese  niche audience, and it would be a bad move to introduce them in the West or in different regions of the Far East for that matter… 

Nope, The authors of Zipang wrote for two markets, and the animated version of the series are available in English (if you don't mind certain Japanese officers with a Texan accent), without the danger of upsetting the war winners and their need for feeling righteous much.


2013. november 13., szerda

Jar Jar Binks comes to conquer Earth - Harry Turtledove’s World War Series

What if Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds radio drama had become a reality, and alien species would have visited our planet with an imperialistic agenda? How could humanity stand up against a technologically much more advanced foe, and what changes did the opposing sides inflict on each other in an all out war? How would known and less known historical characters have acted in such an unprecedented situation? These are the major themes Harry Turtledove comes around in his World War saga.


 Alien invasion meets Vietnam war

In this alternate universe a completely unexpected event changes the course of known history. Global conflict escalates into interstellar when our alien conquerors, The Race arrived at the peak of World War Two, and they couldn’t have picked the wrongest day.

1. Plot quality

I think I don’t spoil the fun of the new readers much if I tell that factions of humanity at each other’s throat behave like hooligans when someone else tries to force a new authority upon them. Uneasy truces and staggering alliances come into being overnight, strange bedfellows try to stall the alien juggernaut all around the world with an eye on each other. Harry Turtledove tells his story through four quite long books, and the master did pretty good job at emplacing known and lesser know historical characters in this fictitious situation.

Maybe the biggest achievement of the author is that he emphasizes greatly what wartime and occupation means for the average Joe, when daily meals, electricity, fuel comes at premium. The sheer cumulative length of the books and Turtledove’s expressive descriptions can make the reader feel almost war-weary at the end.

2. Entertaining factor

The author takes his time. If someone is used to and expects a plot with stunning and abundant turn of events like in modern TV-series can be for a disappointment. These books do not want to stun us in every chapter and they require a longer attention-span. Overall, the plot is predictable in the long run, and my biggest problem with real life history interpretations is exactly this that their message is often the couldn’t have happened any other way. If we can set this aside,  HarryTurtledove can still entertain us for a long time, hilarious moments sparks through the flow of events occasionally.

The human and alien characters of World War Series are loveable or despisable, they feel human, and that is the point. The writer has the guts to kill some of them. It’s a war drama after all, if somebody dies it stays dead. No soap opera comebacks.

3. Homework

This is Turtledove excels. He really shows us this alternate history as a global conflict and chooses his characters accordingly. He does the picturing of  different cultures so well that I felt some of them more alien than The Race itself. Various people, depending on the weight of the oppressing boots on their necks do everything to survive, and accordingly to their own historical and cultural heritage they percept the alien invasion.

By the way, the aliens. Turtledove put a lot of effort in creating a different (with capital d) foe for humanity, with a dissimilar mindset and without our everyday urge for sex and domination. Yet, he provided them with enough human traits for us to sympathize with them sometimes.

I think it’s time for an explanation how a Star Wars character appeared in my title. The Race or the Lizards as humans call them strikes me visually as the slipping reptiloid from The Phantom Menace. Before somebody jumps to the conclusion that the invaders are more funny than menacing, I have to tell, they really give us a beating before it gets somehow better.

Another important thing that the World War Series are less of a science fiction when it comes to technology. Despite space travel, the Race war machine is not much different from today’s high-tech armies and military methods.

4. Endwords

I do not have regrets about reading through the four books, but sometimes I had to collect some strength for days to pick up the line again. Don’t worry in that case, we won’t forget anything important because Harry Turtledove is repetitive enough to keep us up to date about who is who and how he/she/ got there at the first place.

The four book saga does not end here, but will I go through the sequels (because there are) as well? Sooner or later, the Worldwar Series are reliable but not necessarily a stunning entertainment. The real question, is this good enough for you?

And who (else) can be that maniac human wall who trots out in his SS-uniform in the Kremlin? I just wish a cable channel picked the story up and made in into TV-series. Any road, the World War Series could be a proper present to a history buff for Christmas. It certainly helps to kill odd hours.

"Meet the author". This is the good man himself. Turtledove's alternate history works can fill a small library, so I'm pretty sure that we will meet him again on these pages.