Monday, 2 November 2020

Hard Target - The Zone #1

Author: James Rouch
Ebook Publisher:  Speaking Volumes
Ebook Date: Jul. 2012
File size/Pages: 513KB / 158pp
First Published: New English Library, 1980

"For two years The Zone has been alive with death, ravaged by war beyond sanity, raped with fire and poison."

So goes the blurb on the back of Hard Target: The Zone #1 by James Rouch. An alternative timeline novel where the fall of the Berlin Wall never happened and a Third World War has developed between NATO and the Soviet Union. 

There isn't a lot of information available about the author. His is (was?) British, lives in the west of England. The Zone series and three other war fiction novels appear to be his only books to date. He became a literary agent and had his own company website at one time, but that no longer exists and I can't find anything else.

Written in 1980 at the height of the late era Cold War when President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher - best of chums across the Atlantic - were battling tooth and nail with Leonid Brezhnev, the Russian leader. The 'Ruskies' had invaded Afghanistan in 1979. There was even a videogame issued by Atari called 'Missile Command' in which you could play at thermonuclear war. Nuclear warfare was just the twitch of a finger on a big red button away from reality.

Playing on this atmosphere, Rouch's series of books, running up to ten installments by 1990 I believe, pit the combined NATO forces of a group of American and British soldiers together into numerous missions in the ravaged wasteland now called The Zone. 

Hard Target takes place two years after the outbreak of WWIII. There isn't any supporting history to explain the current fictional political situation, or the evolution of the contaminated land that most of the action takes place in. Rouch relies upon segments of the book that take the form of reports to HQ, or messages to the Team, to give a little back-story. However, he does cheekily recommend that the reader might want to locate some reference sources such as, "Pawns of Politics; A study of the refugee problem inside The Zone."

In Hard Target, NATO headquarters requires the destruction of a technical support battalion within the northern sector of The Zone. This outfit is supplying one of the finest Workshops in the area and is servicing and repairing a significant number of Russian armoured vehicles. It has become a thorn in the side of the allied war effort. 

A joint mission by British and American soldiers, utilisng hover personnel carriers of the British (see front cover of the paperbacks pictured) and crack US Marines is tasked to infiltrate the last known location of the Workshop and put it out of action. Amongst the party of several hover vehicles are Sergeant Hyde and his crew of the carrier 'Iron Cow', who are ordered to  team up with U.S. Major Revell and his marines. As a team, they penertrate a part of The Zone that is rife with minefields, gunships and refugee camps full of double-dealing locals who have either refused to leave the area or are so poor they cannot leave.

Navigating The Zone is a treacherous business, and not every transport will make it to the target. Along the way they meet up with a group of former East German deserters, with whom they form a tentative partnership to cause as much damage as possible. This leads them to the site of the Workshop where they have to pull together to come up with a feasible plan of action.

Hyde and Revell are abley supported by their teams, full of gung-ho sexually frustrated killers, deadly snipers, talented hover-pilots and explosives experts. The clash between the nationalities is written large, and a lot of the book is taken up with banter and barely concealed antagonism within the squad. At first it was a little off-putting, but as the plot developed it became less noticeable.

Hard Target is unashamedly anti-Soviet. There is no point of view from a Russian perspective, no supporting characters who favour 'The Reds'. Everyone is determined to kill or maim as many communists as possible. It's a case of 'the only good Russian is a dead Russian'. Once you resign yourself to this fact, you'll enjoy the book more for what it is. If you think this will upset your sense of political correctness - then best not bother, it's not the book for you.

I wasn't sure I was going to like Hard Target after the first 50 or so pages, but once I'd let myself simply enjoy this entertaining bit of hokum, I settled down to a very good bit of trash fiction. I've heard some complaints that the dialogue of the American characters isn't up to scratch - and I have to agree that Rouch doesn't quite pull it off. This can have the effect of pulling you out of the story. I let myself enjoy the ride and it didn't spoil it that much in the end.

There is a very neat little touch in the paperback versions of the books I own. Each volume has a technical description of the armoured vehicle depicted on the cover. Although the machines may be ficticious, it adds a unique bit of atmosphere. Because the original artwork is missing from ebook versions they won't feature on your kindle/nook/etc.

I'm pleased to say that all of the books this series are available in ebook, and at a reasonbly cheap price (at least on Amazon UK). I'm sure you could find cheaper in used bookshops on an individual basis, however you might not be able to find all of them, especially the higher numbered ones.

Recommended WWIII trash fiction - very good if you can allow its' faults to slide.

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