Questions from Gary Oswald
Counter factual and Alternate History discussion and fiction is a relatively tight-knit online community. Sea Lion Press has always had the aim of providing a platform for Alternate History Fiction, discussion and essays but it can't fill every niche and there are other platforms doing slightly different things. As a result a lot of our members and writers are involved in other forms of Fiction and historical discussion either with a counter factual focus or not. So over the next few Months I'll be interviewing various members of this online community about their non Sea Lion Press projects to shine a bit of a light on the rest of this community.
Hello Colin! So first of all thanks for agreeing to talk to us. So you've been blogging in various places for over five years talking about genre fiction, wargaming and history. What to do you think are the main advantages and disadvantages of the blog format as a place to host analysis and reviews?
There are a lot of advantages and very few disadvantages. I think the only real disadvantage is that, compared to forums or social media groups, a blog can’t “latch on” to something bigger directly. But since you can always link to it, provided you don’t go overboard, even that isn’t too big a problem.
The positives are, well, this sounds like it could be selfish but it’s a personal space with full control. I love that there’s no pressure or anything else to be anything but what I want. I’ve changed the formats and reviews on Fuldapocalypse a lot with no hard feelings. So it’s been a very good experience.
So what are your plans for the future of the Fuldapocalypse blog?
Writing what I like to write. If that sounds loose and vague, it's because it is.
How long have you had been reading counter factual fiction?
I've been reading it for some time (at least since the late 2000s), and it's kind of risen and fallen. I've gone from online stuff and a few Turtledove books to actively seeking it out to trying other things to actively seeking it out again.
What got you interested in the genre?
I just like the "what if" concept, I guess. Hard to really explain.
What do you think have been the biggest changes in the AH fiction writing and reading community during the time you've been active in it?
I think the biggest has been that the increase in online/self-publishing has bolstered it, similar to how it’s rejuvenated other niche genres, including “men’s adventure”. Otherwise, I haven’t seen that many big changes, which hasn’t surprised me.
You've been openly critical in the past about a lot of the culture of online AH communities in terms of prioritising historical accuracy over narrative and imaginative concepts. To what extent do you think this problem is also represented in self published AH fiction?
Well, to be honest, knowing what I’ve read of that (not very much in the grand scheme of things) and knowing about the dangers of trying to judge too much from too small a sample size, I wouldn’t feel comfortable making a bold comment on that.
Your current main blog, Fuldapocalypse, started as focused on reviewing WW3 fiction, though it's quickly diversified. What exactly interests you in that particular setting?
A part of it because I was born the year the USSR collapsed and it feels different to me. Another part of it was that I got into wargaming, where there truly is a disproportionate ratio of conventional World War III to other conflicts.
And as I’ve looked and seen how small the genre really is, it’s become fascinating as a way to see how a small niche develops. For instance, what I thought was an ever-present cliché of the Soviets invading Iceland has happened only in Red Storm Rising itself and in wargaming. I recently counted and found only two high-profile books where the war actually stays conventional from start to finish. It’s just one of those books was… Red Storm Rising. So it’s fascinating in that way too.
And in a larger sense what do you think are the advantages, if any, of AH settings for military fiction and thrillers?
You can set up any situation you want with any faction you want and any weapon you want, and you can use “it’s alternate history” as a justification. This is why I love the Kirov series in spite of its length and clunkiness, because it definitely takes advantage of it.
So Wargaming is obviously a thing that real Militaries do, that a lot of games try to simulate and that people like to write up scenarios about. What about it appeals to you?
Part of it is the "gaming" part and just running it as a game, but another part of it is an ability to create and simulate unusual situations-including, yes, alternate historical ones.
And do you think a background in Wargaming is a useful thing to have, just in terms of things to keep in mind, while writing Military fiction or do you think it can be more of a detriment?
If you had asked me this question several years ago, I'd have called wargaming detrimental. Now, I think it helps, if anything. First, not really many authors actually use it. It's just Larry Bond and a few comparative obscurities. Second, well, one of my wake-up calls was how ill-researched a lot of thrillers were. Third, comparing the parts of the Kirov series that did obviously rely on wargame playthroughs to ones that didn't was almost a lab study. I strangely found the action in the outright wargamed parts to be better.
So at the very least, a heavily wargamed book is going to be distinct. It'll likely be more accurate, at least in a rivet-counting way. And if done well enough-which it has been-it can add to a good "feel" of what the fighting is like (ie, if it's a close battle or a squash), which in my opinion is more important than strict "plausibility".
What attracts you to a piece of fiction as something you might potentially want to review?
If it appeals to me. I’ve grown to have a very broad taste in fiction, so I have to give a vague-sounding answer like that. Sometimes it’s in a genre I like, sometimes it’s a genre that I want to check out, and sometimes I just take a chance.
Of all the books you've reviewed, which ones have you enjoyed the most and that you would recommend to someone new to the genre?
For World War III, Team Yankee and Red Army are my recommendations. That they’re very different in terms of tone only makes me recommend both more. Red Army has the Soviets win and works hard to avoid excess rivet-counting, while Team Yankee was one of the books that made me go “So you can make a book with the WW3 stereotypes that’s nonetheless actually good.”
And in terms of the broader genre of Military Fiction, what would you recommend for a new reader?
Well, the honest truth is that I tend to not like historical military fiction, be it grounded or pulpy. I don't have anything against it, it's just a "not for me" kind of deal. If it's serious and grounded, I figure I might as well read nonfiction. If it's pulpy and over the top, I figure I might as well read something something similar that isn't tied to a historical conflict. So I can't really recommend that much.
For technothrillers and what I call the "Big War Thriller" with lots of viewpoint characters on all levels, I can recommend Tin Soldiers by Michael Farmer and Raven One by Kevin Miller as the two best post-1991 examples. They're evenhanded, flow well, and can challenge the American protagonists conventionally with only a few gimmicks.
What do you think are the strengths and weaknesses of the military fiction genre as a whole?
Military fiction can refer to everything from Herman Melville's White-Jacket (realistically mundane and drudgerous) to Jerry Ahern's Survivalist (veteran survives nuclear World War III, immediately kills a bunch of crazy bikers in an over the top way, and it gets more out-there after that, including an arc plot involving the dead body of Adolph Hitler). So I can't really say there's one thing across the entire genre. I guess I could say it suffers from the issue of "it can be realistic or exciting, but it's much harder to be both", but that can apply to other genres too.
Now that you are yourself a published writer with Sea Lion Press (having written The Smithtown Unit and its sequel) and have seen the other side of things has that changed the way you act as a reviewer?
I’ve said before that being a critic hasn’t helped me with being a better writer, but being a writer has helped me be a better critic. It’s given me a huge appreciation for the effort it takes to write any kind of book, and knowing I’ve been in the other side’s shoes has pushed me to be more thoughtful in my critiques.
What advice would you give to a new writer of Military fiction based on your reading in terms of traps to avoid and targets to hit?
Don’t really try to follow any litmus tests, make sure the tone is consistent for what you want to write, and don’t worry too much about “plausibility”.