By Colin Salt
The Red Effect, Harvey Black
I’ve read too many Red Storm Rising-style World War III stories for my own good. Perhaps it’s my wargaming background where the hot Cold War (but not a nuclear hot Cold War) is a favored topic. So what this means is two things.
One is that I know the “quirks” and clichés of the subgenre by heart and am thus less forgiving of something I wouldn’t be otherwise. The other is that a story needs to be very good and distinctive in order to break out from the pack. Harvey Black’s The Red Effect doesn’t – quite – do so.
Written by a former British intelligence officer and Cold War veteran, The Red Effect sat unread in my kindle after a whimsical purchase of several other WW3 books. Deciding to read it as part of an SLP review, I dug in, and found it to be representative of the genre. Perhaps too representative.
To its credit, The Red Effect is not simply a list of units moving around on a map like a let’s play/AAR of a wargame. There is a character-focused plot, on British intelligence people in East Germany ferreting around, getting in and out of trouble, taking pictures, and coming to the conclusion that yes, in a World War III book, World War III will start. After the narrator tells it already. While at least a little immediate, direct, and gripping, it’s awkwardly wedged in around the other stuff in the book. The story of the clear main protagonist weaves around the stories and mini-plots of viewpoint characters on all sides of the upcoming war, infodumps, and historical events.
Not alternate historical events, historical events like the KAL shootdown, Stanislav Petrov false alarm, and the killing of Maj. Arthur Nicholson. Except the names are changed. So Brezhnev and Andropov become Baskov and Aleksandrov and kind of merged. Thatcher becomes “Harriet Willis” and Mitterand “Michaud”. In the Petrov case, it’s “Perov”. Really. When reviewing an alternate history book, it’s fair to point out the moments where it barely counts as alternate history. This is common to WW3 alt-history in particular. Whereas popular works of alternate history will take a divergence and use it to tell an allegorical story for a real historical event, and others will examine the consequence of that divergence, WW3 ones almost always take care to ensure that all the meticulously researched divisions and corps are in exactly the same places they were historically when the starting gun is fired. And The Red Effect is no different here.
The infodumps include two classic “Generals and other important people in a conference room” scenes, a bunch of narrator infodumps including the loving descriptions of a Scud missile and its TEL, and other, smaller ones. I counted around fifteen in the book overall. It’s just detail, detail, and more detail.
Eventually, after a long, long, long, series of plots and buildup events, the war finally starts in the last thirty pages of the book. However, in those thirty pages, Black manages to fit no fewer than nine different viewpoint characters, continuously jumping around between each of them in a way that disrupts the flow and momentum big time. The action scenes themselves are not dull in isolation, even if they have too many exact words for their own good (what fog of war?). But they fail to combine into a total whole.
When an author with legitimate expertise and experience with the subject at hand writes about something, it can manifest in a positive or negative way. In a positive way, the experience can lead to touches, a feeling of immediacy, of being there, of little details that make a big atmosphere. In a negative way, the experience can lead to overdetail as the author relates everything they know in a form that detracts rather than adds from the story.
Black provides a little of the former and a lot of the latter. Given that the intelligence protagonists are closest to his own experience, it’s no surprise that they feel the most engaging. Even there, and with everyone else, the latter rears its ugly head with the mountains and mountains of infodumps.
The entire story has the feeling of being a bowl of ingredients rather than a meal. Some of the ingredients are individually good, but they’re just thrown in together without ever gelling into a cohesive whole, and all the trope buttons are pushed. The prose even in the individual segments is not good enough to overcome the flaws. Which is a shame, as a tighter and more focused story could have been effective. Just staying with the intelligence photographers the whole time might have led to a competent thriller.
Instead, when it didn’t need to, The Red Effect checks all the boxes of bad Red Storm Rising imitations, squandering its prose to make a mediocre book.