In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the end of the U.S.-Soviet confrontation created both a problem and a challenge to "future war" novelists: how do you create believable scenarios in which America and her allies fight against possible real-world enemies? After all, with the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the scaling back of U.S. forces in Europe, a Red Storm Rising-class World War III novel was obsolete. But at the same time, the military-fiction genre was still very viable...as long as writers came up with credible adversaries to cause havoc in the world.
Vortex, Larry Bond and Patrick Larkin's second collaborative effort, is set in early 1990s South Africa before the white minority relinquished its death-grip on power. It paints a dark scenario of a desperate Boer-dominated government using its military and police to destabilize neighboring "black" African nations and fight a Marxist-leaning African National Congress and its armed guerrillas.
Vortex starts out, as many techno-thrillers often do, with a seemingly isolated event. In the prologue, a team of South African Army commandos and a black ANC turncoat execute a raid on an ANC safe house/headquarters in Gawamba, Zimbabwe. Led by Capt. Rolf Bekker, the South African commandos wipe out an ANC guerrilla cell and capture a safe full of documents (which they photograph and leave apparently undiscovered), then return to their base without serious loss.
In Bond's alternate history, years of sanctions and diplomatic isolation have failed to end apartheid and white rule of the Union of South Africa. Instead, the Boers (descendants of South Africa's original Dutch settlers) who dominate the government have become more repressive and paranoid. For their part, the ANC's leaders have grown weary of waiting for the West to press for change by peaceful means, and Marxist hard-liners have come up with a campaign code named Broken Covenant. Its goal: to win by force what years of negotiations and international condemnation have not...the end of white rule and the establishment of a black-dominated government. And by the end of the novel, South Africa's internal strife becomes a conflict pitting Anglo-American forces against various opponents, including Cuban Army units sent by Fidel Castro.
Bond's depiction of a war in South Africa now seems a bit of a stretch, but given that he was a former naval intelligence officer (and designer of the Harpoon war game), perhaps his research into apartheid-era South African affairs gave him insights that most of his readers didn't have. At times the depiction of the South African "bad guys" reminds one of Hitler's Third Reich, especially when Bond and Larkin write about the more die-hard racist government ministers; Karl Vorster, a South African Hitler-like figure and Marius van der Heijden, deputy minister of Law and Order, who seems to have studied under Reichsfuhrer Heinrich Himmler, so extreme are his racist views. But as in many World War II novels, there are "good" South Africans who, when push comes to shove, find the courage to rise against the injustices that they have previously defended.
Of course, it helps to have a little mix of romance, youthful rebellion and a healthy dose of American firepower, and as in Red Phoenix, American weaponry and military units play a huge role in Vortex's plot. In some ways, it's formulaic and the reader knows things will have a rosy ending, but in other ways Vortex is fascinating. Readers will be surprised to know how puritanical the Boer society was (a friend of mine who visited South Africa in the late '70s said Playboy-style magazines were not sold there) and how tense relations used to be between the Dutch- and English-descended whites. The officers with English surnames are often distrusted by their Boer counterparts and are often more critical of apartheid than is healthy for their careers. But just as there are "good Germans" in WWII fact and fiction, there are also "good Boers" who join forces with American and British troops to end the bloody conflict that threatens to end their country's very existence.