Formulaic movies. Shallow novels. Glitchy video games. Not the most promising material. Yet even these will have their fans. Some will have differences of opinion. Some, in between gales of laughter, will mumble: “So bad it’s good!” And some will grin shamefacedly and mutter about guilty pleasures. I have my fair share of works that fall into categories #1 and #2, but I am always short of examples to offer when the subject turns to guilty pleasures. And that is because, for me, they’re something of a contradiction in terms. A work of entertainment will succeed for me if it hits the right notes across several categories – in the case of books, these would be “story”, “characterisation”, “worldbuilding”, “themes” and “prose quality”. If I’m enjoying it, then that implies it must have at least some redeeming features. And if I can point to some place where it “objectively” does well, then there is no guilt.
My best example here is John Birmingham’s Weapons of Choice series (aka World War 2.0), a time travel/alternate history trilogy about a multinational fleet from the dystopic 2020s that gets hurled back to World War II, in the process inadvertently gutting the US fleet en route to the Battle of Midway. At first glance, the books are just trashy airport novels. The action is gory, the characters are paper-thin – to the point where a major character can die in between books – and the plotline is lubricated with a constant stream of Axis and Soviet atrocities, making it all the more satisfying when the Nazis do find themselves on the wrong end of cruise missiles. The author himself has been quoted as saying that the books “improve with altitude”. Yet for all this, I loved books 2 and 3, back during my student days – much more than I enjoyed many a more highbrow book. Surely this is the very definition of a guilty pleasure?
But that’s not the whole story. First, the latter two books in the series are good trashy airport novels. If the raison d’etre of an airport novel is to have a gripping plot, then those two deliver in spades – twists, turns, rising tension, thrilling finales. And second, the pulpy action is underpinned by some pretty intelligent thought experiments. When the modern coalition soldiers encounter their 1940s Allied counterparts, the racism, sexism and homophobia of the era come as a tremendous culture shock. Conversely, the “contemporaries” are at times, appalled by the ruthlessness their descendants have picked up in the course of fighting their shadowy war. The alternate history itself always struck me as well-thought out*, from the micro level (even given the blueprints, the Allies can’t build F-22s with a 1940s technological/industrial base, so what do they build instead? ) to the grand strategic decisions made by Roosevelt, Stalin, et al. So pulpy this series may be, but I feel no guilt about how much fun I had reading it. And I would even recommend it to readers who’d like a pulpy, action-packed pageturner with which to kill time. Say, while waiting for that flight?
* With the disclaimer that I am not an expert on WW2.
Next up: why Conan the Barbarian (the original movie) isn’t a guilty pleasure.