Ah, yes, you are calmly saying to yourself. This is another of the team-writing efforts which bring the excitement of war into your homes without the need for television or the blu-ray machine. All you need for this to work is a pair of reading eyes and an imagination. Except. . . The opening title is, “Personal Chronicle: Looking Back to 2014”. Because I have a memory like an elephant, I remember reading Looking Backward: 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy which was, appropriately enough, considered political science fiction (later rewritten as Looking Backward from the Year 2000 by Mack Reynolds which is more economic science fiction). But, if the premise of such books is they are an historical account written in the future about events that have yet to take place, we should properly label Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War by Larry Bond and Jim DeFelice (Tor-Forge, 2013) military SF. Except, to my innocent eye, the technology on display is substantially what we have now, so it lacks the key feature which is supposed to underpin the genre. There’s no new technology. Since this is an extrapolation of what might happen if China goes through a period of drought and civil unrest because it no longer has agricultural autarchy, perhaps this should be considered an alternate history novel (albeit this is also considered a subset of science fiction). Such books are predicated on a “what if”. . . what if Spain had assumed dominance in Europe after the assassination of Queen Elizabeth (Pavane by Keith Roberts), what if the South had won the Civil War (Bring the Jubilee by Ward Moore), and so on. This produces a fork in the timeline and a chance to suggest how history might have changed.
The Red Dragon Rising series of which this is the fourth and presumed last in the series, has economic chaos not only in China, but also the US where petrol is more than $14 a gallon during a new recession following the bursting of another bubble. The Europeans have comparable economic problems as a result of collapsing world markets. The essentially pragmatic Chinese decide the rice bowl of Vietnam will potentially keep a lid on their political problems. Anticipating little resistance, the Chinese mobilise and cross the border. The primary series characters are President George Greene, Mara Duncan (CIA), Major Zeus Murphy (Army), Josh MacArthur (civilian scientist), Dirk Silas (US Navy) and Jing Yo (Chinese assassin). Essentially, the basis of the tetralogy has covert US military support for the Vietnamese Government while the basis of a cease fire is sought. Conveniently, Josh MacArthur has evidence of a Chinese atrocity which faked the casus belli so he has to be smuggled out of the war zone, while on land and at sea, Chinese progress is frustrated. Adding to US difficulty is a rebellious Congress threatening impeachment for fighting a war without approval.
The delivery vehicle is written to a very precise formula. In saying this, I’m not making an adverse criticism. Every book designed to fit into a genre must, of necessity, match reader expectations. So this is beautifully crafted individual action scenes against the big picture context. Although Zeus Murphy proves indestructible in a series of engagements, most of the military descriptions have a high-adrenaline quality showing American heroism at its most inspiring. Fortunately, although out gunned and less well trained, the Vietnamese are also allowed to do quite well while a multinational group of CIA operatives do what’s necessary to break Chinese morale north of the border. If we look beyond the natural desire of American authors to show national pride in their military personnel and hardware, there’s a nice balance struck between the human emotions of those involved and the rigours of war. People do care for each other and bond under difficult circumstances. For the most part, this feels credible. If there’s a false note, it lies in the journey taken by Jing Yo. Throughout the series, he trails after Josh MacArthur and, in this final book, finally catches up with him. I think my favourite sequences are at sea. I was born close to the mouth of a strategic river which came in for heavy bombing during World War II. Both my father and uncle served in the Royal Navy so I grew up with oral histories of their experiences. So reinforced by fairly extensive reading of naval fiction when I was young, I find the tactics of this form of fighting fascinating. Again, the US destroyer proves remarkably unsinkable but I forgive this pandering to national pride. At the end of the book, the Chinese must be vanquished. The big picture of how we get there is more important than individual losses in credibility. As a commentary on some aspects of Chinese culture, this feels plausible. So I remain something of a fan of Larry Bond and his various co-writers. Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War is top-class military fiction (with science fiction overtones).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
Many moons ago, when the world was younger and more naive, there was a vogue for disaster movies. The format is routine and predictable. The first part of the film is a gentle introduction to the cast of those who will be “at risk” when the catastrophe hits. In most of the scenarios, we get a cross-section of humanity from the families with cute kids or difficult teens, to the random mixture of single adults (some of whom will bond during the catastrophe), and a littering of grizzled oldsters who must be around to offer sage advice, to offer words of encouragement, and to die and provoke floods of emotion from their usually estranged children. Then the disaster hits and we watch all the character arcs play out in their life and death consequences. Looking back to the first publication of Red Phoenix by Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin (now available as an ebook in a Kindle edition) in 1990, we see exactly the same plotting strategy. We have everyone relevant introduced in the first section of the book then, as they say, all Hell breaks loose.
We have to see this against the actual history of the political situations in both North and South Korea. The Republic south of the border has been through multiple incarnations with variations on the theme of an unruly population led by the students and unions, authoritarian rulership from a political elite, and a military trying to maintain some normality but feeling obliged to intervene when the politicians were making too big a mess. This book is probably set during the Sixth Republic which began in 1987 and it runs a scenario in which the North provokes more civil disorder in the South to destabilise the new Government, the US Government gets railroaded into a bad decision on Korean sanctions, and the Department of Defence and other interested parties try to recover the political situation. Exploiting this period of confusion, the North prepares to launch a secretly planned invasion. This is based on tunnels which will allow troops to cross under the DMZ with their armoured and support vehicles, with an air force recently reinforced with newer Russian aircraft offering air cover.
So we watch the fictional Sixth Republic Government overreact to student protests and, with votes in protectionism, the US politicians put in the fix to use the threat of sanctions to force the Republic to reform and become more democratic. Meanwhile, we catch up with a platoon of soldiers on the front line and watch US pilots in training. North of the border, key troops are slowly being moved into place as supplies of fuel and materiel are prepared. To avoid detection, these preparations are spread over weeks and months. Everything is slowly building to the obvious launch of the invasion as the US military stalls the withdrawal apparently mandated by the Act steamrollered through Congress and the House. A faction in the South’s military tries to stage a coup but key troop movements are spotted by the Americans and the rebellion fails. Again the South’s Government overreacts by purging all the officers whose loyalty is doubted. This leaves everything ready for the North’s launch of the attack over Christmas when the American forces are least likely to be able to respond quickly. To add a little chaos into the mix, commando units from the North infiltrate and kill many before being picked off. This sets American and South Korean forces back, as was intended, but a setback is not military defeat. The defenders begin to pick up the pieces as Russia and China decide how to react.
The stock characters are the rookie lieutenant getting his first combat experience and the seasoned pilot who has the cruise ship intense romantic experience under fire with an American civilian logistics officer, newly arrived in Korea. Of the land, air and sea theatres of war, I found sea the most interesting because what happens in international waters is more politically uncertain. This is not to disparage the land or air combat descriptions. They are also taut and exciting. But the naval engagements are much more finely balanced as a convoy moves reinforcements from Japan or a battle group moves north, and the Russians try to rebalance the North’s defensive capabilities. Overall, the prose is Spartan in style with short, punchy paragraphs wasting no time in pushing the action forward. It’s very efficient. As to the balance of the book, I understand why the primary focus of the book is American. Obviously, the two writers must spend their time showing how well their national forces react under pressure. The appeal to jingoistic military fiction readers must necessarily pander to their prejudices if sales to to be maximised. As an outsider, I would have preferred more insight into the debates in Russia and China. Although China is always somewhat opaque and so difficult to predict, I’m not so sure their wait-and-see posture is wholly credible. The Russian response is more interesting, but not put into a proper geopolitical context. The Japanese get no mention despite the non-aggression status imposed on them by the Americans, a burden which has been a considerable political difficulty for the US forces with bases in Japan.
So Red Phoenix is an exciting read with plenty of action to satisfy the military fiction fans. The North Koreans remain as incomprehensible as ever albeit with the predictable paranoia, while the US political scene gets a brief examination under pressure. The elliptical style travels well through time, reading as well today as it would have done twenty years ago so I can unhesitating recommend this little piece of historical military fiction as we wait to see how all sides come out of the “disaster” scenes in the various theatres of war.
For a review of another book by Larry Bond, see
Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War (with Jim DeFelice).
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.
When I was growing up in the aftermath of World War II, my peers and I were heavily into military thrillers where the more frequent exhortations from our brave boys as sten guns blazed was, “Die, you Kraut bastard!” Having missed out on the real fighting, we all wanted a sense of what it felt like to be on the winning side in the war — not that you would have known we’d won from the wreckage around us. We then moved on to US campaigns in Korea and later Vietnam where the cake recipe was, “Spread raw agent orange thinly and apply heat.” British books looked sideways as our boys shouted, “Die, you Mau Mau terrorist (or colonial upstart if that makes you feel better)!” More recently, I’ve dipped into military SF where we’ve regressed to ray guns blazing and, “Die, you alien bastard!” Today sees me picking up an American contemporary military thriller (actually set in 2013 but this is irrelevant as to genre) where we see, “Die you Islamic motherfucker so I can piss on your body and hold Koran-burning clambake sessions without having to fear retaliation.” Or, to translate this into English, the majority of books about war are jingoistic and show the virtues of an aggressive foreign policy backed up by victorious military force. Since the victorious party in this novel favours the doctrine of American exceptionalism, it seems its mission in the world is to lead it into the ways of democracy. If this does not work by example, the country is allowed to export its own brand of democratic republicanism by the threat or exercise of its military superiority. In this, it’s not bound by any national or international laws. By virtue of its exalted status, it’s allowed to intervene simply because it always upholds “good” against “evil” in the practical and not the abstract senses of these words.
This rumination is provoked by Exit Plan by Larry Bond and Chris Carlson (Tor, 2012) which is the third book featuring Jerry Mitchell after Dangerous Ground and Cold Choices. It takes us into the difficult political situation surrounding Iran’s alleged attempts to develop atomic weapons. At this point I have to slightly backtrack on the tone of the opening paragraph. Although we readers all know the Americans will emerge from the different types of combat situation with maximum casualties among the enemy and minimal wounds shared among the SEALs and naval personnel driving the submarine, this is actually a rather more interesting book than I was expecting. OK so I admit I started reading this with zero expectations, so something even vaguely readable was going to make me feel better. But there’s actually something rather more politically acute going on here.
Let’s very briefly canvass a scenario. Despite the best efforts of the British and American governments to find evidence of WMD in Iraq after their successful demolition of Saddam Hussein’s armies, they were eventually forced to admit none had been found. In other words, Saddam Hussein was shown to have been lying about his scientists’ ability to build a bomb. Now suppose instead of putting troops on the ground, the Americans had simply bombed the suspected sites. This gives Iraq a casus belli. Under international law, it could legitimately launch retaliatory attacks. Saddam Hussein could also claim Iraq had developed the bomb and there would be no evidence to show he was lying. As the victim of American aggression, Iraq also becomes a lightning rod attracting other allies who want to attack the infidels. Now let’s transfer this to the current Iranian situation. With America overextended, there’s no way it would commit ground troops in a war against the larger and better organised military forces of Iran. But if Iran was to pretend it had developed a nuclear deice, Israel might be provoked into an air assault and that might be the way to unite Arab forces into an assault on Israeli territory.
So this all comes down to the credibility of the evidence Iran can produce and whether Israel will act. The plot to fabricate that evidence actually turns out to be reasonably convincing. There are only two problems. The first is that, for years, the Western and Israeli intelligence services have been saying Iran cannot solve the centrifuge problem and so cannot make a bomb in the foreseeable future. For the experts to suddenly change their minds is going to require a big push. The second is that there’s an Iranian who does not want to see the country plunged into a war. The question is whether the relevant evidence can be transmitted to America. This triggers what should be a reasonably routine extraction by a US submarine and a team of navy SEALs except, as is always the case in these high pressure situations, the minisub malfunctions dumping the survivors on Iranian soil. Now they have to keep the very pregnant lady and her husband safe as the Iranian secret service slowly realise they may be losing control of the plot.
We now need to be completely honest. There’s not an incident described here that I have not seen in a film or read in a book. Yet there’s a wealth of information about the different equipment used and tactics employed, and this did make events more interesting. The way the odds keep building against the Americans is done well and there’s tension as the different options for escape are explored and then discarded. While the SEALs are fighting on the ground, the political situation also grows more complicated and there’s quite a surprising development which I will not spoil for you. I’m not sure it would ever come to this but, if it did, it would be a major step forward in international relations, producing a very pragmatic outcome and saying something hopeful about morality in policy-making.
This is very professionally put together package. The politics and military elements feel credible and it’s useful to see the situation develop from both US and Iranian perspectives. Even though you know they are going to lose, the Iranians actually do well — just not quite well enough. Indeed, it’s remarkable that Larry Bond, an American author (and his co-writer), should be prepared to show some of the “enemy” in a relatively sympathetic light — they are not mere cannon fodder. So I find myself actually recommending a military thriller. I have not read any other recent military thrillers so cannot say whether this is typical of the standard but, taken on its own, Exit Plan is worth reading.
For a review of another book by Larry Bond, see
Red Dragon Rising: Blood of War (with Jim DeFelice)
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.