Doktor Bizarro's Bookshelf of Horrors

Storm Dragon: C: Literary Shipwreck

Welcome to another session in sampling the literary torments that conjured from the bowels of your used bookstores. When you walk into a used bookstore, I am certain you will notice several types of tomes that outnumber the others. For instance, there are the bodice-ripper romance novels favored by bored middle aged women, still nostalgic for years of raging hormones. The male counterpart of this wretched prole-feed goes generally includes geopolitical and military thrillers of all kinds. While Robert Ludlum, John Le Carre, and Tom Clancy tend to be the more well known (and capable) writers, there are several obscure names.

Some of these obscure names are actually multiple writers under the same pen name, further adding to the confusion. As a result, continuity between these poorly-written travesties becomes even more of a trainwreck. Likewise, geopolitics changes in unexpected ways, so today's near-future or current events thriller is tomorrow's pathetic chaff. Our underwhelming specimen for today is one such example, which we shall send to Davy Jones' locker faster than a barrage of Exocet missiles can.

Today's experiment is a relic from a more innocent era, the Nineties. Back after the collapse of the Soviet Union and before 9/11, the Americans desperately sought a new enemy. Since the title is "Storm Dragon" by James Cobb, you receive no points from guessing that it refers to China. The alternative title for this toilet paper is the far more generic "Sea Strike," but where's the fun in that? So much for an innovating and interesting name for your novel.

This tome is a neocon wank-fest from start to finish. The premise is that China collapses into civil war in 2006 between democratic rebels to the south and the communist People's Liberation Army (PLA) to the north. The war was stalemated until Taiwan steps in, turning the tide with superior technology and spies waiting deep within the PLA for decades. The North starts getting desperate, and flaunting their nuclear arsenal and making arrangements to use it. The rebels and Taiwan don't have enough nukes to deter such a strike, so guess who steps in?

That's right, the USA. Specifically, a stealth destroyer called the "Cunningham" with its commanding officer, Amanda Garrett. Instead of a male Tom Clancy clone, we get a female one. Perhaps they could force Sean Connery to dress in drag for a movie adaptation, as his accent would might the story tolerable (although I would not get my hopes on even that working). The main character has very little personality, aside from being a woman commanding a ship. While militaries were once exclusively male-dominated, nothing says "social progress" like a female character lacking personality just as much as any Jack Ryan clone.

Then there's the crew members, who have "personalities" have less dimensions than a Mobius strip. The one that gets fleshed out the most is a chopper pilot Arkady, Amanda's "love interest" (or whatever comes close to one). While I'd make some remark about that being against military regulations, that is never used for any kind of drama or conflict in the novel. It seems more like "war buddies with benefits," although that implies either characterization so subtle I missed it or just lazy writing.

The novel starts off with the Cunningham doing recon, trying to figure out what is going on. As the Taiwanese show up and start mopping the floor with the PLA, causing them to get worried about the PLA sticking its finger towards the big red button. The US government's main concern is how the residual fallout would blanket their Asian allies and the Pacific, as opposed to exploiting the regime change for all it's worth. Who would doubt that the US government only cares for peace and stability around the world, right?

The first two thirds of the novel have little to do with the titular "Storm Dragon." Here's the short version: Amanda hangs out off the coastline, and gets into a few scrapes with torpedo boats and coastal defenders. The disjointed narration jumps between Amanda, the US President, a diplomatic meeting in Manila with spies everywhere, and random battlefield scenes showing the democratic rebels being awesome against the PLA. Eventually, some Chinese submarines slip out and Amanda sinks one. Turns out, they were sent to escort a fleet of boomers, missile subs, sent to glass Taiwan. We cut to some random Japanese officer we've never seen before (and never will see again), cheerfully sinking a sub full of nukes. There's still one boomer missing, and Amanda's fretting about it. So she and Arkady screw each other senseless until the idea hits her. Her crude mammalian brain suddenly is stimulated enough to think clearly, implying that fornication boosts cognitive processes. Or more likely, it was just an excuse for random sex.

The missing sub is actually anchored in the Yangtze River near Shanghai, with an extension cord powering it. Operation Storm Dragon is launched, with the goal of destroying the last boomer. Of course, it all falls to them to accomplish the mission with little support from other air or sea assets. Even then, the Cummingham travels up the Yangtze towards Shanghai, precisely where its stealth systems do nothing against even antique artillery and human eyeballs. Arkady's chopper goes down, and he's barely rescued as they accomplish their mission. America saves the day, only with the help of the latest gizmos sold by the military industrial complex. Oh, and it turns out that Taiwan and the rebels were stringing the USA along, hoping they'd handle the PLA's nukes for them.

One of the most ironic parts of this tome is the era really shows. Technology is the main thing that helps the Americans achieve their goals, with intelligence gathering and the sailors themselves being secondary issues against some gadgets. In addition, many of the weapon systems included in this novel were canned without ever going into service. Even the money-hungry US defense contractors, who never pass up a chance for hawking more hardware, had a hard time convincing the Pentagon to keep shelling out the cash for some of them. For instance, remember the Comanche helicopter gunship and its naval variant, the Sea Comanche? Those got canned. Or how about those stealth ships? Good thing the US Navy scrapped its carrier battle-groups for gimmicky untested "stealth missile destroyers," eh? There's good reason for that never happening.

The stealth missile destroyer seems like a rather limited, over-specialized weapons platform compared with stuff that existed even in 1997 when this literary landmine was primed. Take, for instance, the fact that reconnaissance and stealth may be more suited to drones, submarines, and smaller electronic surveillance boats. And yes, the US Navy did have submarines and surface craft able to insert special forces and perform surgical strikes in coastal and littoral areas for years. For that matter, the US had UAVs and drones long for decades before this book was written. The stealth system, a combo of radar-absorbent material and a system pumping cold water to radiate away engine heat, is likewise less practical by itself than as features inserted into more conventional ships (along with improved hull design, better insulation, decoys, and the like).

A common flaw in military writing is that one branch (typically the writer's favorite) goes into war without the others in some contrived scenario, and hence gets to save the day. The point of combined arms doctrine, however, is that air, naval, ground, and intelligence assets are integrated together to ensure operational success. This often prevents the dramatic scenario of a single service determining the outcome of a mission. For example, if I have an army of commando-style zomborgs and a horde of shamble zomborgs, I will send the commando units to fight conventional troops (aiming to seize or neutralize strategic assets in the process), while the shamble zombie cyborgs target civilian populations to spread the nano-virus, make more of themselves, and tie down enemy reinforcements.

In "Storm Dragon," however, there's nary a word about other ships, let alone other service branches. For example, I imagine special forces units and naval aviation (in the form of many carrier-launched planes, rather than the Cummingham's single chopper) would also be deployed alongside Garrett's dinky love-boat. So much for the USAF having in-flight refueling capabilities that allow them to reach anywhere in the world, and keep scrambled craft in the air as long as needed. Of course, rationality doesn't apply in this world.

The political situation in the book is even more hilarious if you consider Taiwan's undermanned, scandal-filled military (ironically comprised by mainland Chinese intelligence several times) could pull a fast one over on both the USA and PRC simultaneously. Perhaps those are some reasons that the Nationalist Republic of China decided against retaking the mainland. But of course, no matter what conventional hardware your armies were duped into buying, it will not save you when the full might of the Zomborg Legion rises to claim the minds and bodies of mankind (and womankind, too). The Zomborg Legion does not discriminate, as there is neither sex nor gender amongst them. So prepare for assimilation, and hope you don't have to suffer through this plodding shipwreck of a thriller. If we find any more bad naval adventure books, we'll send them to the bottom and hope we can study the sea-life growing on their rusting metal carcasses after a few decades. I'm Doktor Bizarro, and this is the Bookshelf of Horrors, where your worst tomes are my favorite tortures.