Sunday, October 09, 2011

Book Review: Apocalypse Dawn by Mel Odom

I got "Apocalypse Dawn" as a Kindle Freebie. It's written by Mel Odom and published by Tyndale House. This review originally started as a few notes and one-liners I made about some inaccuracies I came across while reading Apocalypse Dawn. Then I started adding comments, and came across some more inaccuracies, and it sort of snowballed. I recognize it's a fiction book. I've read a lot of fiction books. Some authors go to great pains to research and get real world details right. Others seem to make up the real world details as they go along.

This will not go down as one of my favorite books. Many of the characters were two dimensional. The dialog, especially surrounding believer/non-believer discussions, was largely formulaic. There are two types of characters in this book: the "pretty good Christian" who didn't have strong enough faith to be Raptured, and the non-Christian, who reacts violently to any discussion even remotely Christian.

I didn't start reading this book with the intention of writing a review. I figured it would be a quick read. It started out fine. I could tell the author had no military experience, and seemed to be taking some artistic license which wasn't a big deal at the time. When I reached the point where a helicopter copilot is mentioned to be a Sargent, I started to wonder if the author did his military research by watching GI Joe cartoons. That's when I started taking notes, and doing some really basic research to see how easy it would have been for the author to get a few details correct if he'd taken the time. I used very basic sources for my research: mostly Wikipedia. And I used for one reference.

Please don't read any malice toward Mel Odom into this review. It's mostly a collection of my notes and comments as I read the book. I don't know Mel Odom. I hadn't heard of him until I read this book. For some reason, our culture is unable to draw a line between disagreement and dislike. I personally like many people I happen to disagree with. I have no reason not to personally like Mel Odom. This review is a critique only of this book, so any cracks I happen to make should be taken ONLY as sarcasm and not as an attack or insult on the author. I'm confident I haven't said anything in this review I wouldn't be comfortable discussing with Mel Odom in person should the opportunity ever arise. I've talked to people who wrote very harsh reviews of books, then encountered the author and felt very bad about the review. I try to keep in mind the author is a real person, and try to evaluate the author's work honestly. I enjoy sarcasm, so I add some of that. But I try not to be harsh.

I've read books by authors that did extensive research prior to and during writing. I've also read books like this one, where the author seemed to wing it. I don't think winging it does the Christian fiction market any favors. All it does is give the impression that authors are lazy, but since the book is somehow "Christian" we have to give it a pass. I don't believe writing for the "Christian" market is an excuse to be lazy or produce a low quality work, although many "Christian" products seem to aim for the latter. It's like saying "We're Christian, so we don't have to work as hard or be as good, since Christians will buy our stuff because it's Christian. Oh, by the way, we'll evangelize just in case a non-believer picks up the book, then he can get saved by our pre-school "Jesus loves me, this I know..." message.

Authors such as Randy Singer and Randy Alcorn are most definitely Christian authors, but their work is done either in areas they are Subject Matter Experts (SME) in (Law, in Singer's case), or in which they conduct extensive research (Alcorn). Randy Alcorn spent tons of time with journalists and homicide detectives, and created multi-dimensional, believable characters. In this book, I didn't get the feeling that Mel Odom is an SME or has done any research into many of the subjects he writes about, including theology and eschatology.

When you write any kind of military fiction, you have to assume military people are going to read it. We love military fiction. And if you don't do your research into the military, those military people who pick your book up are not going to be impressed. They will not be able to enjoy your work because of those glaring inaccuracies.

When I read Tom Clancy's "Red Storm Rising", I found a detail he got wrong. He wrote about a missile hitting the USS Nimitz after getting through the CIWS (Close In Weapons System). I was a CIWS tech in the Navy. Clancy's description of that scenario was wrong. I assumed Clancy knew enough to understand how it would really work, but took some artistic license to get the scenario he needed. You've got to figure how small a percentage of former CIWS techs read that book and caught that detail, compared to Odom using an enlisted Marine as a helicopter copilot. That goes beyond license. That's a glaring inaccuracy. I'd gather a significant percentage of his potential audience knows only officers can be pilots in our current military. Some enlisted, such as crew chiefs, can taxi planes, but not fly them.

[UPDATE: (21 Jan 14) I've spoken to several Marine Corps helicopter pilots. They all confirm an E-5 would NEVER be sitting in the copilot seat on a CH-46.]

I can't speak to the Army organization, but I doubt a Ranger unit would be used as extensively as Mel Odom uses them on the front lines. I also believe Capt. Remington would not have that much authority and autonomy in real life. No way an O-3 in the U.S. military would be in that position. John T. Reed is a West Point Graduate and former Army Ranger. He has written extensively about those topics on his website. His article about Rangers is here.  Most of what I know about the Army Rangers comes from him, and Mel Odom’s story doesn’t match John T. Reed’s experiences.

I don't remember this much inaccuracy in the original Left Behind novels, although they weren't free from inaccuracies. In the first Left Behind book, Jerry Jenkins wrote that the pilot of Air Force One was selected from the civilian pilot pool. No, he's not. Air Force One pilots are from the Air Force. That's why the plane is called Air Force One: it's an Air Force asset, maintained and piloted by Air Force personnel. Also, from what I know about commercial airline pilots (a friend I've known since high school is one), they can't just change the type of plane they're certified on with one check ride. Also, casting a 757 as Air Force One was stupid (in the movies, it was a 737; even stupider). The original Air Force One was a 707, and during the Bush I administration, 747s went into service to be Air Force One. The 747 was selected because of its long range and capacity. A 757 (and 737) is not known for such things. But those are the largest inaccuracies I remember from Left Behind, and I don't plan to reread the series to look for more. I'm sure journalists or people with experience around the U.N. can point out more. The best I can rationalize that decision is the 747 was older than the 757, and to appear a little farther in the future, Jerry Jenkins decided to cast a newer plane in the role as Air Force One, even if it is smaller and has a shorter range.

On page 300, the following quote appears:
Recharging his weapon, Goose ran for the dropped RPG-7 and scooped it from the ground, praying to God that the weapon remained intact. "Good shooting, Stonewall," he said.

Mel Odom. Apocalypse Dawn (The Left Behind Apocalypse Series #1) (p. 300). Kindle Edition.
Since the U.S. Army isn't using phasers in this book, the proper term would be "Reloading his weapon..." as I understand it. Any former Army wish to comment? Do you recharge your weapons, or reload them? In the Navy, we reloaded them. In Army movies I've seen, they reload weapons.

When Mel Odom gives dates, times, and locations, for the spots in Turkey, he gives all distances in "Klicks". As I understand it, klick is slang for kilometer. While soldiers might use klick for distance over the radio, no formal designation for distance would read that way. I've never seen a map or chart delineated in "klicks". This gives the appearance of an author who wants to appear familiar and comfortable with military slang, but still shows he doesn't know how to use it correctly, and hasn't bothered to research it. Just like the "Recharging his weapon" quote. Also, being the U.S., we tend to think in miles rather than kilometers. I've noticed he uses "klicks" for everything, so it could just be his own affectation translated into his story. Here's another example of his use of Klicks:
"This is Danielle Vinchenzo of OneWorld NewsNet," the young woman said. "We're only a few miles-or klicks, as the soldiers of the United States Army Rangers would say-from the border separating Turkey from Syria.
Mel Odom. Apocalypse Dawn (The Left Behind Apocalypse Series #1) (p. 359). Kindle Edition.
It appears this author is equating "Klicks" with slang for "miles". I admit, it's possible somebody does that. In my experience, I've never seen it. I grew up in the military, spent time in high school Air Force ROTC and the Civil Air Patrol, I've served in the Navy, worked as a defense contractor, known lots of other current and former military from all branches, and I've NEVER heard "klicks" used that widely. Even the movies that don't bother getting a consultant to teach them how to wear a uniform or salute properly don't do that. I'm sure if "klicks" was in that widespread use in the Army, Clancy would have used it a lot more.This takes me back to my assumption that it's the author's personal affectation combined with a lack of research written into his story.

At least he doesn't seem to use "clips" in the place of magazines (that would be battery charger- I couldn't resist). Using clip for magazine is a pet peeve my dad instilled in me. My dad was a Combat Arms instructor in the Air Force. He drilled it into my skull, if it has moving parts, it's a magazine. A clip is what you'd use to feed ammunition into a .50 cal because it clips the rounds together. The piece you eject out of an M-16 is a magazine, not a clip, because it has a spring. Although at times, I think my dad and I are the only people on earth who know that. Just like fewer than 12 people seem to know the United States is a republic, not a democracy.

Another inaccuracy (which is probably license, and isn't that bad) is a ship's captain instantaneously reassigning his chaplain to the Pentagon. I'm pretty sure a CO doesn't have the authority to decide in an instant that his chaplain needs to brief the Joint Chiefs. At a minimum, that would have to go through his chain of command, if not all the way through BUPERS. And at any stage, it could be denied. And I'm pretty sure no Joint Chief in his right mind in an emergency situation like that would agree to a visit from a ship's chaplain flying all the way from the Mediterranean.

It's also hard to believe an elite Ranger unit, commanded by an all-powerful O-3, would lug a Cray computer around. If the Army owns a Cray, it's most likely at the Pentagon or one of their larger bases. I doubt it's battlefield mobile.Why would they need a Cray, anyway? Microcomputers are very darn powerful. A couple Dell servers could handle all the processing a battlefield command post would need. In all the years I've worked in IT, I've only seen supercomputers in textbooks.

Permit me a little flippancy here, and you'll see where I'm going. This demonstrates an author apparently choosing military equipment from a random word generator without bothering to check basic characteristics of that equipment (like a portable, battlefield ready Cray supercomputer). The chaplain is flown off the U.S.S. Wasp in the eastern Mediterranean on a CH-53 to be taken to the Pentagon. I flippantly made a note in my book that I expected the author to write the character is flown directly from the eastern Mediterranean to the Pentagon on a cargo helicopter, but probably didn't bother to do enough research to know whether or not the Pentagon has a helicopter pad. In Chapter 32, on page 375, the chaplain appears back in the story. He flew from the eastern Med to Sigonella, Italy. I assume a CH-53 could make that flight. In Italy, he boarded a C-9 Skytrain for a flight to Dulles. At least he got that right. The C-9 Nightingale is the Air Force version, while the Skytrain is Navy. I see several issues with that choice of plane and Dulles as a destination. For one thing, the C-9 is a military aircraft. Why not land at a military base, like Andrews? In any case, Reagan is right next to the Pengagon. You could almost walk from there to the Pentagon, but there are shuttles and the Metro. Why Dulles? From Dulles, you have to contend with traffic on I-66 to get to the Pentagon, a fate worse than death.I imagine in the destruction following The Rapture written in the Left Behind franchise, I-66 would be far worse than normal.

Now, for our choice of aircraft, here's what Wikipedia ( has to say about the C-9:
Many of the Navy's C-9Bs have a higher maximum gross take-off weight (114,000 lb or 52,000 kg) and are fitted with auxiliary fuel tanks installed in the lower cargo hold to augment the aircraft's range to nearly 2,600 nautical miles (4,200 km) for overseas missions along with tail mounted infra-red (IR) scramblers to counter heat seeking missile threats in hostile environments.
Even with auxiliary fuel tanks, the plane's range is 2600 nautical miles (2900 miles). Last time I checked, the distance across the Atlantic was a lot longer than that. Add in the extra distance from Italy, and you have a huge hole in the plot. The book doesn't mention refueling stops (although in one sentence, it mentioned legs), and even then, it would be a waste when the military has planes capable of making the distance (C-5?). Or a commercial air flight could be chartered. This isn't exactly a top secret, sensitive mission. It's "Go forth, and tell the Joint Chiefs everybody was Raptured". There's no way 2 pilots would fly the entire flight without relief. The plane would have to stop somewhere for the pilots to either be replaced or to get some mandatory rest. I estimate if a C-9 were to fly from Italy to the DC area, it would need a minimum of 2 refueling stops. Possibly 3 or 4. That would add many hours to the flight time. There is no way you could leave Italy on a C-9 and make it to DC in 12-15 hours. From a purely mathematical perspective, you might be able to do one refueling stop, but no pilot in his right mind is going to fly the plane to it's utmost limit and land on fumes. I know in small planes, the FAA requires at least a 30 minute reserve on fuel when you land. I'm sure the military has a similar requirement. Anything can happen to your destination airfield, and you have to be prepared to NOT be able to land there. You could be deterred by weather, or a plane could crash, shutting down the airport. You have to maintain enough fuel to make it to an alternate location.

I'm not sure how many flights these days require refueling stops. Growing up in the military, I did a lot of flying. The only refueling stop I remember happened when I was 6 on the way to Germany. My dad flew over ahead of time to get on the waiting list for base housing. We remained at Tyndale AFB in Florida. Once my dad got housing, we flew over. We left from North Carolina on a 707 that had to stop in Newfoundland for refueling on the way to Frankfurt. Every other flight I made across the Atlantic was direct. In 1981, we flew on a C-5 from Ramstein to Dover, then back again. In 1984, I flew with my dad from Frankfurt to JFK and on to Buffalo. And back. In 1985, we left Frankfurt for good on a 767. Direct flight. In 1991, I traveled to Germany again. Direct flight from Dallas to Frankfurt. I'm just saying, other than a lack of research and personal experience in that which he writes, I don't get the point to using a C-9 for transatlantic flight.

[UPDATE: Since writing this review, I talked to a friend of mine who is an Air Force pilot. He believes a C-9 could be used for a flight from Italy to the D.C. area, but would need at least 2 refueling stops.]

I've done more research picking apart details in this book that bothered me than the author apparently did in writing it. Granted, there's no law or requirement for an author to do research for a fiction book. In some cases, there's no requirement to research a non-fiction book either. But as Mike Holmes says "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right the first time". Doing even a quick Wikipedia search on the equipment or units you're writing about will result in a better quality product. As I said earlier, if you write military fiction, you have to assume military people are going to read it. It helps to show a little courtesy that you care enough to render the military accurately. Not perfectly,. but accurately. Us former military do understand when authors didn't serve and can't know everything (we don't either), but at least get the high level details right. It's not just the military. Look at how Hollywood seems to think computers work.

I am impressed that at least one of his points on the Pentagon was accurate:
Frantic voices whispered up and down the hallways. The pamphlet also said that the corridors measured seventeen and one-half miles long. Yet the farthest distance between any two places in the five-sided building could be easily walked in seven minutes.
Mel Odom. Apocalypse Dawn (The Left Behind Apocalypse Series #1) (p. 387). Kindle Edition.
Wikipedia confirms this.
I'll only make a brief statement on the theology in this book. As I said, one of the two types of characters are "pretty good Christians". I hope I'm not inferring something that's not there, but it seems to me the message of the book points to a soteriology where your "Rapture Readiness" can drift in and out based on the strength of your faith and commitment at any given time. Many of the characters had been baptized at some point. I admit I was more comfortable with the soteriology in the original Left Behind books, where you were either saved or not saved, rather than "oh, my faith must have been weak at the moment the Rapture happened". That's terrifying.

To be fair, I decided to do some basic research on the author. Mel Odom's Amazon page lists 100 books. His Wikipedia page says he's written 140 books, since 1988. They all appear to be fiction, spanning quite a few genres. Some fantasy. He wrote a series about NCIS (turns out, I picked up one of those as a Kindle freebie; I'll review it eventually.) He wrote these Apocalypse Dawn Left Behind books. He has some children's fiction, Buffy the Vampire Slayer fiction, and lots of others. Quite a few books. Windows Calculator puts him at an average of 6 books a year. The part that scares me is, from what I know about writing, that doesn't leave much time for research. I've obviously never written a book, and I can't keep up with blogging regularly. I have to go on information from authors I've known and read. I reviewed Randy Alcorn's novelization of the movie "Courageous". I got a review copy from Tyndale House, the publisher of Apocalypse Dawn. I was listening to an interview with Randy on that book. He said he was once offered the opportunity to novelize another movie, but they wanted the book done in 30 days. He declined. He had 4 months to write Courageous, which barely gave him time to do the research he wanted to do. He also traveled to Georgia and spent time on set.

Although this isn’t one of my favorite stories, if you’re interested in it, you can purchase it though my affiliate linkAlthough this isn’t one of my favorite stories, if you’re interested in it, you can purchase it though my affiliate link:

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