Once upon a time my gaming used to drive my reading. That is, whenever I would come across a really good game - you know, one that really fired off those neurons - I would inevitably find myself running to the local library (for you Millennials, that was the Amazon.com of the pre-internet age ) or the bookstore to find a book that matched the subject matter of the game I was currently enjoying. Heck, if you take a look at my bookshelves you can almost track what I was playing back then! Such a gaming-reading connection seemed to happen a lot back in the good ol' days of gaming. Sadly, not so much today.
However, you might have noticed that as of late I have been playing a lot of Wargame: AirLand Battle and, now, Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm (you haven't seen anything on that...yet!). Clearly, I am enjoying gaming's rediscovery of the epic standoff that was the Cold War. No surprise: the very first serious wargame I ever played was a SSI title called Reforger '88, a game that explored the opening act of World War III in Europe. In fact, it was that game, along with other gems like NATO Commander and Theater: Europe, that awakened me to the larger world of international politics, something that would lead to my two degrees in political science. So, yeah, I will always be fond of this period, particularly the end of the Cold War circa 1975-1988.
Because I have been having so much fun fighting WWIII on my PC, I decided to delve back into the world of Cold-War-Gone-Hot fiction. And while I did pick up some classics of that period to re-read yet one more time - classic titles like Team Yankee and Red Phoenix - I really was in the mood for something new. Truth is, I didn't expect to find anything fresh as the Cold War is now over and, sadly, vanishing from memory, but I am happy to say that I was wrong! I had forgotten to take into consideration the effect e-readers are having on the world of publishing. Not only does there seem to be a lot of authors out there who yearn to revisit The War That Never Was (great book, by the way), but there also seems to be an effort underway to take some of the out of print classics of that period and start converting them into e-book format. Jolly good times!
One of those old classics, from circa 1984, is James Rouch's Hard Target (The Zone). I had never heard of The Zone series until I came across a description of it on the Wargame: AirLand Battle forums (no surprise!) where people were swapping their favorite Cold War fiction. Seeing how this was one of those books that has recently made the jump from out of print to e-book format, I decided to download the book and give this new (to me, anyway) series a spin.
One of the things that is clever about this series is the interesting twist Rouch puts on his yarn of World War III. Unlike other authors who approached the subject with a sober political scientist mentality, Rouch takes the idea of World War III in Europe down a kind of science fiction route. That is, he posits the wonderfully cynical (and believable) idea that in an effort to save the skins of the rest of Europe, NATO and the Warsaw Pact agree to limit the fighting to a large swath of West Germany. This area is known as "The Zone", a moniker that immediately conjures up memories of Stalker's and Roadside Picnic's "Zones." And like those other zones of horror, Rouch's Zone is equally nightmarish: an area of continual combat, one blasted by gunpowder, nukes, chemical and biological weaponry. What is more, like the Strugatsky brothers' Zone, this one is a lifelong curse for any who enter it because even if a soldier manages to survive the combat, his inevitable contamination from the NBC environment is sure to truncate his life, as well as making him an outcast from society for evermore. Yeah, that is dark.
Hard Target's plot will, of course, unfold within this nightmarish reality, particularly around one of the many post-apocalyptic refugee enclaves situated in The Zone where the Soviets are suspected of having placed, against the rules of war, an elite tank salvage unit, one tasked with refitting enough Soviet armor to enable a successful counter-attack in coming months. Simply, it must be destroyed if NATO is to be able to keep the Reds from winning a portion of The Zone.
Tasked with this mission is a joint American - British strike force specially created just for the assignment. As you might have guessed, it is your basic Dirty Dozen set-up as this unit seems to have managed to get the strangest men possible. The leader of the unit is an American, Major Revell, a competent officer who gets all the worst jobs imaginable because he knows how to put his nose to the grindstone and get the work done no matter what. Oh, and he is also a letch who can't help but to keep imagining himself having sex with every woman he comes across. There is also the horribly disfigured but eminently capable British Sergeant Hyde, a man who keeps fighting because...that is all he is good for anymore; he has become as much a weapon of war as his rifle. Then there are the lesser characters, like the American Corporal Dooley, who has a gutter mouth, two big fists, and a lot of guts. Or the British sniper Clarence, a man who had lost his entire family to the war and, as a result, has become a stone cold killer out of a sense of revenge. You get the idea by now, I'm sure.
This motley crew, which initially has a lot of friction because of the differing nationalities, has to learn to work together to cross The Zone's many military dangers and infiltrate the refugee camp without being detected (NATO troops are no more allowed in refugee camps than Pact soldiers). Then, of course, they need to actually locate the hidden Soviet repair facility...and find a way of destroying it without getting killed in the process.
What results is a classic covert op, one that even manages to enlist some East German deserters who are looking for a means of escape from the camp. As you might have guessed, when the camp is finally located, the sneaking stops and the fireworks begin! It is in combat where Rouch really shows a deft hand by creating believably brutal scenes of combat where anything can happen, and any character is vulnerable to death's hand. Good stuff!
So What's Not to Like?
Hemingway once remarked that the best way to create memorable characters is to have them speak as a real person would - e.g., a sailor character who swears as much as a real sailor. Unfortunately, Rouch has taken this advice to heart a bit too much. The motley soldiers in this yarn are quite the bunch of repulsive individuals, both in word and deed. I understand that Rouch is trying to portray believably gritty and, at times, beastly soldiers, but I have my limits. Vulgarities, copious sexual references (especially after the strike forces commandeers a whore house), racism, flatulence(!) and more served to make the characters more loathsome than believable for me, something that limited my desire to cheer these guys on. What is more, seeing how much time Rouch spent developing the characters in vulgar ways, it is telling that with the exception of the few characters I mentioned above, the rest came across as faceless extras. We need more personality and less vulgarity, Rouch!
The other issue is one of price versus length. This book, the first in the series, is priced reasonably at $2.99, but the rest shoot up to $9.99! Now, I might be able to swallow this price point if these were 300-500 page epics, but the truth is that most of The Zone titles are little more than novellas, running in at around 160 pages or less. $10 for a short e-book novella is crazy, especially when used paperbacks are still available for far less than that. I would consider continuing with this series BUT for that issue.
All in all, Hard Target (The Zone) was a fun, breezy and, yes, brutal and vulgar look at World War III from the point of view of the grunts who have to fight it. In many ways, it reminded me of David Drake's Hammer Slammer's sci-fi series. As a gamer, I would recommend it as suitable reading material after a session of Wargame: ALB or Flashpoint Campaigns: Red Storm. However, if you are looking for a WWIII read and haven't tried some of the classics of that period, there are better books with which to feed your Red Menace imagination.