Monday, 26 July 2010

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes

Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes
-Tamim Ansary

A writer I am very fond of once remarked that the level of toxicity in anything is directly proportional to the dose. One particular political disease that can be extremely dangerous is the willingness to either ignore the enemy’s statements or to take them at face value; in effect, accepting the enemy’s view of the world. This may be because the human mind is programmed to dislike contradictions and, when two different people have dynamically opposed visions of the world, tends to swing behind one or the other. If there is anything history teaches us, it is that it is important to pay attention to what someone else believes to be true, even if we regard it as arrant nonsense. They take it seriously.

Tamim Ansary (an Afghan-American) has attempted to write a short and fairly comprehensive history of the world, seen though Islamic eyes. Instead of concentrating on Rome, Napoleon and the struggles between Britain and France, Ansary looks at the development of the Islamic world from its birth to the present day. It is a fascinating and generally well-written piece of work (the author writes with a wry sense of humour), although it does have some flaws. It also starts with an interesting warning; not everything in the book might be objectively true (he says, so I give him points for honesty), but it is what Muslims believe to be true.

The early section of the book covers the development of the First Community, from the Prophet Muhammad to the four Rightly Guided Caliphs. The early Muslims found themselves the victims of persecution in Mecca (apparently, notes the author, this was because Muhammad’s opposition to the shines threatened the tourist trade) and had to flee to Medina, where they rapidly became powerful within the multicultural city. This alienated Mecca and a number of wars followed, which eventually resulted in the capture of Mecca and Islam’s triumph in Arabia. Although the author doesn’t make the point explicit, Islam had a fair chance at drawing the lesson ‘God helps those who help themselves’ from some of the battles, including disastrous defeats that occurred because some of the Muslims fled the battlefield, or stopped to loot.

History teetered on a knife-edge when Muhammad died, leaving behind an empire that had grown rapidly in the years since his conquest at Mecca, for there was no protocol for choosing a successor. Indeed, no one knew what being Muhammad’s successor actually meant! Was the successor simply the elected successor of Muhammad, or was he someone related to Muhammad, which suggested that Muhammad himself was somehow more than a man. The former view won out at first, but the latter view remained alive, eventually resulting in the split between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The latter believed that Ali (who was related to Muhammad and would be the fourth Caliph, eventually) was the divinely appointed successor to the Prophet and had been badly snubbed by the elections that eventually put Abu Bakr in power as the First Caliph. Unfortunately for Islam, this early glimmering of democracy faded and flickered out of existence.

The Caliphs found themselves ruling over an empire that was in the process of disintegration. Without Muhammad, the very question of what it meant to be a Muslim was up in the air, leaving some groups splitting away from the mainstream. Although Abu Bakr ruled well, he planted a very nasty seed in fertile soil and equated dissent or disagreement with treachery. The promise of loot from expansion spurred the vast expansion of the empire (the author has no truck with the suggestion that ‘jihad’ means internal struggle, noting that the cause of spreading Islam served as an excuse to loot) and the empire rapidly became too large to control effectively. By the time Ali finally got his chance at ruling Muhammad’s legacy, it was too late to save it from disaster as over-mighty subordinates made their own bid for power.

The next few centuries highlighted both religious wars and attempts to unite and codify Muhammad’s legacy, although those had begun during the First Community. Clerics collected, codified and fixed Islamic Law, believing that it could be finalised and used as a guide to living. They found themselves in competition with philosophers who believed that a more fluid and flexible approach to Islam – in effect, every Muslim would be his or her own final authority on what Allah wanted and didn’t want – and tried to convince the rulers to effectively separate mosque and state. (Although Islam has no Pope, it does have very respected and insular scholars who wielded great power.) Islamic Civilisation was still showing signs of an intellectual fire, but that fire was slowly being dampened by a dead mass of fixed rulings and a growing beaucatic caste. By then, there was no longer any pretence at ruling with the consent of the people; the various emperors (however named) and their courts were firmly in control. This in turn led to the ossification that slowly strangled the lifeblood out of the Islamic World.

Not unlike Imperial China, which suffered from similar problems, the Islamic World found itself under assault from outsiders. (Although the book doesn’t make this clear, Islam itself expanded into a power vacuum.) These assaults included the dreaded Mongols and the Crusaders. (The author suggests that the Crusades were an employment program for the younger noble youths of Christendom, which IIRC is untrue.) Islam regrouped under the Ottomans and eventually formed the Ottoman Empire, which endured until it chose the wrong side in the First World War. The Ottoman Empire saw one of the most determined attempts to break the straightjacket of history – the Young Turk movement – Islam has yet seen, which helped to reform Turkey. It also led to the Armenian Genocide, which the author insists did actually happen and was a cold-blooded attempt at mass murder.

By this point, Europe (and to a lesser extent America) had thoroughly impinged upon the Islamic world. The collapse of the Ottoman Empire opened the door for sweeping changes, including the mass migration of Jews to Palestine (later Israel) and the conquest of Arabia by the Saudis, who renamed it Saudi Arabia. The author is unusually sympathetic to the Jews and places blame far more evenly than most Islamic writers, blaming a rogue’s galley of Islamic leaders, the British, the Americans, the Russians, the French and last, but not least, the Palestinians themselves. One point the author neglects to make is that the Rule of Law did not exist in the Ottoman Empire or in its successor states, leaving it hard to tell who was actually in the right. The Jews bought land from those who owned it, not from those who lived and worked on it. Depending on how one looks at it, the land was either bought legally or stolen. There were no laws designed to cover the interests of those who worked on the land.

Odd as it may seem, this led to further mental ossification in the Middle East. Many Muslims spent the twentieth century trying to grapple with the problems facing the Islamic world, but many of the solutions were badly flawed. Attempts to go back to ‘pure’ Islam failed because no one had any idea of what ‘pure’ Islam was supposed to be. (The author is at pains to make clear that while Wahhabism represents itself as a return to ‘pure’ Islam; it is in fact just as much an innovation as those it rails against.) In a similarity to the USSR, the elites tasted the rewards of power and refused to give them up. Those who dared to suggest that democracy was the answer could be harassed and killed. This eventually led to a region that seemed largely incapable of taking responsibility for itself, choosing instead to blame the US and Israel for its woes. This attitude led to both 9/11 and an endless series of childlike displays of temper tantrums when the West failed to abase itself in front of Islamic superiority and give it what it wanted. The author does hold out some hope for change in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq and the shifts in power across the Middle East. This reviewer is less hopeful.

The book does have some flaws. Chief among them is the very limited discussion of Islam’s relationships with other religions. The treatment of Jews and Christians – an insistence that they convert or pay a tax – led to considerable trouble for the Islamic world. Intended as an incentive to convert, it gave the Muslims thousands of hypocrites who pretended to convert in order to escape harassment. Worse, it made the Muslims arrogant and confident in their superiority, a sin that is inevitably punished by the universe. The treatment of religions who were not ‘people of the book’ was often a great deal worse; the author concentrates on relatively enlightened or sensible Muslim rulers (like Ackbar of India) and ignores far darker souls.

Ansary also glosses over Islam’s experiences with slavery and racism. After a hopeful period during the rule of the Second Caliph where slavery nearly died (according to the author, at least), Islamic involvement with slavery rapidly mushroomed into an enterprise that dwarfed anything the West did. Islamic slave raids on Europe go unmentioned, apart from the creation of the Janissaries, who were both the guardians of empire and its slaves. The involvement of Arab slave traders in selling black Africans to the West also goes unmentioned, as does the racism epidemic through Middle Eastern society. In fact, the book almost completely ignores Islam’s expansion into Africa.

The book says very little about how the role of women in Islam mutated from near equality (one of the most dangerous challenges to Ali’s rule came from Muhammad’s youngest wife) to a pattern of near-complete submission. It is actually sickening to realise that early Islam gave women far more rights than the preceding religions and then threw it all away. I suspect that it happened, in general terms, because the society became heavily authoritative and men were pushed into having authority over their women, if not over anyone else.

The problem in reviewing this book is that it is hard to know when to take it seriously. The author’s specific warning that he isn’t writing objective history so much as subjective history means that I cannot tell if he is telling the ‘subjective truth,’ or if he is either ignorant or trying to mislead us. For example, his story of the PLO and Arab Nationalist/Fascist leaders could hardly be considered objective. There are other points in this book where I am left wondering if this is merely a rosy view of history. A set of footnotes outlining objective truths, or at least subjective truths, would have been very helpful.

In conclusion, this book is interesting and very well written, but it is also a timely reminder of a fact that is rarely made clear. Someone may have a different opinion to you, a different sense of history, a different culture…but that doesn’t make it a valid point of view.

Monday, 19 July 2010

Hitler’s War (Harry Turtledove)

Hitler’s War

-Harry Turtledove

In the first few pages, Hitler’s War shows remarkable promise. In a new record for Turtledove, that promise is cast away within the first two chapters. I was a third of the way through it when I recognised an ugly truth. I was bored. I didn’t care what happened to the characters. I didn’t want them to live, or to die, or to make babies with their girls. I didn’t care about them in the slightest.

Hitler’s War is based around two promising PODs, rather than one. A famous Spanish Nationalist survives a plane crash that would have killed him. A famous German from Czechoslovakia is assassinated during the Munich Conference. I don’t see how the two of them interrelate, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Hitler takes the assassination as a chance to start a war with the Czechs. Apart from the moments of “I’m a naughty boy” from Hitler (more akin to Herr meets Hare than real life), it works fairly well. Hitler did want a war with the Czechs and was disappointed when Chamberlain surrendered and let him rape the country. At that point, one chapter in, the story disintegrates.

The Turtledove books that are well remembered focused on a tiny number of characters. The Guns of the South, Toxic Spell Dump and Ruled Britannia only had a small number of main characters. The only book with a vast cast of characters that worked out near-perfectly was How Few Remain. The longer sets of books, particularly the Great War books, dragged on and on and on, with so much repetition that one wonders if Turtledove was writing for someone with poor short-term memory problems. I still have a fond space in my heart for the WorldWar books, but even they were stretched too far. Turtledove is not so much interested in the story as what happens to the people caught up in events. Sometimes this works. It just doesn’t work very often and it really doesn’t work for Hitler’s War.

Turtledove offers us what should have been an interesting cast of characters. There’s a German Jewish girl in Germany. There are soldiers from all sides and nationalities (yes, ALL!) There’s an American woman stranded in Germany. There are Japanese and American soldiers in China. This would be more impressive if they didn’t all blur together after a while into one vast mass of…boring people. None of them rise up to be interesting, or good or bad or whatever. There are few glimpses of what is happening with the overall war. The characters just are.

He does show us intriguing glimpses of his research. Historically, the Poles did sell out the Czechs. At the same time, of course, they were caught between Hitler and Stalin. (This point does get made in the book.) Even so, they passed up their best chance to stop Hitler right there and then. There are moments when he shows the tactics of the alternate war. There are moments when he repeats himself, a problem so excessively bad in his early works that it has spawned derision among the AH community. The book needed an editor. I know someone I could recommend, if Turtledove were interested.

The alternate European War is decidedly odd, to say the least. Germany attacks Czechoslovakia after the peace talks break down. The Spanish Civil War is sidelined, with the nationalists attacking and capturing Gibraltar. The Poles stay neutral. The USSR sends ‘volunteer’ units to fight the Germans. The French launch a tiny offensive that gets nowhere fast. The UK declares war, but otherwise does little. The Czechs lose to Germany. The Germans attack France and bomb England. The Russians take the chance to press demands on Poland, bringing in the Germans on the Polish side (!). The Japanese stab the Russians in the back. The German offensive against France stalls against Paris and is driven back, where it will probably be resumed in the next book.

There’s only one problem with this scenario.

It’s utter nonsense.

The Germans in 1938 were FAR weaker than Turtledove suggests. They had shortages in pretty much every area, and weak in trained cadre. A war of almost any duration would have run the risk of burning through all their stock. They would be attacking a tough opponent dug into the second-strongest defence line in Europe, with tanks and a tough little air force of their own. (The Czechs produced plenty of excellent war machines for Germany after the West abandoned them.) Their tanks were inferior to Western designs. I won’t even go into what happened to the Japanese when they faced the Soviets in OTL. They got their butts soundly kicked.

Turtledove, despite being branded the Master of Alternate History, has a nasty habit of using OTL as a guide to ATL. It never works out very well. He seems to combine World War Two with World War One and failed at both. It would not have worked out that way.

If Hitler really did launch Case Green, there would be a good chance that the Czechs could hold him off themselves, without help. If the French Army came over the border with just a division or two, they’d brush through the tiny force Hitler left to the west, even if they had a McClellan in command. They’d realise pretty quickly that Hitler had been bluffing and keep moving onwards into Germany. The Germans would find themselves caught in a two-front war (three-front if the Poles jump in as well) and running out of supplies. Perhaps some kindly soul would shoot Hitler and put an end to the war, or perhaps Berlin would fall and the allies impose peace.

The really annoying part of this book is that a lot of intriguing ideas are tossed in and then out again. Hitler faces a coup launched by the German military and survives – what happened then? We never get told. How was he so much stronger than in OTL 1938? Chamberlain faces a no-confidence vote and survives, somehow. What happened? Why? There are few overall images of how the war is progressing. Turtledove glosses over vast sweeps of detail that could have transformed the book from an absurdity to an interesting read. In one sense, the book is too long. In another, it is too short. It doesn’t do justice to the vast sweep of ideas, nor does it justify them.

There comes a time, in the life of every best-selling author, when he becomes editor-proof. A Tom Clancy. Stephen King or JK Rowling (and yes, a Harry Turtledove) does not HAVE to listen to an editor when he or she is told that the book needs a rewrite. They can merely threaten to take their name to another publisher to get their way. Their books degenerate into masses of poorly researched and badly-written text, barely showing hints of the great genius they once allowed to flourish. And then they lose popularity and wonder why.

Sic Transit Gloria…

(People interested in a proper look at a WW2 in 1938 would be advised to check out -

Heritage/Legacy/Inheritance ‘Trilogy’ (Ian Douglas)

Heritage/Legacy/Inheritance ‘Trilogy’

Ian Douglas

Heritage Trilogy:

Semper Mars

Luna Marine

Europa Strike

Legacy Trilogy:

Star Corps


Star Marines

Inheritance Trilogy

Star Strike

Galactic Corps

Semper Human

Military SF has always exercised a fascination over me and I was pleased to come across all nine of these books relatively cheap. The story, which at least party counts as space opera as well as military SF, follows the development of the USMC through the early space age to an age where humans are effectively god-like creatures. The background is simple enough, yet very elaborate. As the human race probes into space, they encounter signs of alien life and alien threats, including one near-omnipotent race that is attempting to destroy every other race in the universe. All of this takes place against a background of human politics and social development.

The first trilogy focuses around the discovery of alien ruins on Mars, the Moon and Europa, with a war triggered on Earth by the discovery of workable alien technology. The second trilogy focuses on interstellar exhibitions and war against alien races, finally ending with the first confrontation with the ultimate threat. The third focuses on a terrifying war with said ultimate threat and the final destiny of the human race.

Internally, the story follows a set of families with a long history of being involved with the Marines. This actually strikes me as odd; one of the main heroes of the Marines (and his two descendents from the later series) is portrayed as signing up against the will of his family. His descendents have the same problem. They may be soldiers, but they also seem to have an uncanny knack for marrying people who don’t approve of the military. The characters in the story may not have precisely identical histories, but they rhyme.

The author shows considerable imagination and an eye for technological development, fully the equal – in that regard – of David Weber or Peter F. Hamilton. Parts of the series can be read as speculation as to how training methods will improve as technology advances, other parts can be read as warnings about the dangers of technology without social development. For this alone, the series is well worth reading.

What is considerably less impressive are the politics. It may made sense, in the first book, to have the French portrayed as sanctimonious idiots, the UN as a deeply corrupt organisation and the Muslims as fanatical foes of liberty. It makes little sense for the same attitudes to be present in a post-scarcity society. The warriors go in and take land; the diplomats give it away freely, unheeding of the human cost. One would figure, after Earth had been bombarded, that no one would be talking of peace with a race that didn’t even bother to paint itself as a victim, but idiots on Earth try right up until the end. Grr.

It’s well worth a read, but there are times when you will want to throw the book right across the room.

The Turner Diaries (Andrew MacDonald)

The Turner Diaries

(Andrew MacDonald)

In hopes of forestalling the inevitable chorus of condemnation from the Left, I shall say one thing right from the start. The Turner Diaries is one of the most disturbing and unpleasant books I have ever read. I only read it the first time around because people were telling me that I shouldn't read it. (I followed this logic with The Satanic Verses as well, which is even less readable and vastly overrated.) I recently reread the book and I cannot say that it improved.

The Turner Diaries is set in the very near future (from when the book was published) and covers a race war within an unrecognisable version of the United States. The ‘hero’ of the book, a member of an organisation known only as the Organisation (imaginative, I'm sure), finds himself arrested for possessing illegal guns, weeks after the private possession of all handguns has been prohibited. This search nets so many people that the Government – referred throughout as The System – is forced to let most of them go, including Turner. Turner and his cell – the Organisation functions on a similar pattern to the IRA – launch a terrorist campaign against the System. The System finds itself unable to fight back effectively, although Turner notes that time is in fact on its side.

The System is very much the nightmare of the Far Right. It is controlled by the Jews (portrayed in very unflattering terms), and enforced by the Blacks, who are portrayed in even more unflattering terms. (Basically, every Black man in the story is a rapist dope-fiend one step removed from the jungle.) The System is backed up by a massive propaganda outlet, which sees to it that hardly anyone dares offer resistance, for fear of being branded a racist. Most of white America has been emasculated by the System and cannot fight back effectively. Turner’s voice drips contempt for them, an attitude that flows through the entire book.

Turner himself comes across as a strange combination of traits. On one hand, he is a racist and probably a sexist. On the other, he is capable of extreme bravery, love (he falls in love with one of his cell mates) and devotion to his cause. This is noted by his superiors and he finds himself inducted into The Order (an SS-like group existing within the Organisation, but unknown to the majority of its members) and charged with defending the white race at all costs. This also gets him into considerable trouble; during the course of the war, Turner accidentally exposes himself to the System and gets arrested for his pains. The Order takes a very dim view of such failure.

Luckily for Turner, they are remarkably forgiving for such an organisation. The Order ‘merely’ promises him a chance to redeem himself and sends him back to work. The action moves to California, where the Organisation is finally ready to make a move towards the endgame, the overthrow of the System itself. Turner becomes a very important personage within the Organisation as the group comes out into the open, taking over California and eventually expanding up against the System (and ethnically cleansing the occupied zone of every last Black, Jew and Race Traitor.) In the nuclear stand-off that follows, Turner is finally offered his chance to redeem himself by flying a nuclear-armed plane into the Pentagon, decapitating the System (and killing himself in the process.) The Organisation, as the epilogue makes clear, uses this opportunity to take over America, Europe and then the world. After slaughtering every last non-white in existence, they all lived happily ever after.

(Except for Turner, who’s dead.)

What can one say about such a book?

The writer, and I say this without regard for his politics or his worldview, was an evil genius who could have gone far, had he chosen to write more mainstream books. Turner comes across as a surprisingly well drawn and likeable character (indeed, almost sympathetic); it takes thought and reflection to realise just how warped his worldview truly is, or just what kind of monster he was. Turner is a man who could be kind and loving at one point, and utterly sadistic the next. His particular brand of evil is justified quite extensively; Turner, one feels, believes that the ends always justify the means. He thinks nothing of fighting fire with fire. It is clear that the ends of the Organisation (and the Order) are actually very similar to the System, with the only real difference being the people in charge.

I have believed for quite some time that if you read a book, you have to accept the underlying premise. (There’s no point in reading a book about dragons if you cannot accept that dragons exist, at least in the book.) The underlying premise of The Turner Diaries is a dark and sinister one, the more so for being presented in a manner that almost requires one to accept it. Turner defines himself against a background of social decay, degeneration and hopelessness – the more so because of the rising tide of violence and anarchy. The stereotypes within the book only enhance that effect, the more so because all stereotypes tend to contain a hint of truth. There is nothing particularly subtle about the message, but it is chillingly easy to get sucked under into the miasma. The book was a hit with its intended readership and it is easy to understand why.

The book also reveals the underlying hypocritical nature of those who share Turner’s belief system. Turner believes, firmly, in the right to keep and bear arms, yet he is unwilling to extend that right to anyone who doesn’t agree with him on all points. Turner believes in protecting women – there are several incidents in the book where he intervenes to protect white women on the verge of being raped by black men – but it is protection on his terms. The concept of female equality is dismissed; women in Turner’s world, even his lover, are required to be seen and not heard. The Madonna/Whore syndrome is a large part of Turner’s mindset and it shows. Don’t even mention gays, liberals or mixed-race couples. The latter, in particular, come in for special bashing. Towards the end of the book, they are all gleefully wiped out, exposing the true nature of Turner’s belief system. Like all fascist and communist groups, The Organisation cannot tolerate any other group’s mere existence. Compromise, even with Conservatives, is impossible. It is a world where George W. Bush and Barrack Obama would end up hanging together from a lamppost, while Hilary would be firmly bitch-slapped and sent back to the kitchen.

I believe (from old and probably unreliable memory) that some groups saw The Turner Diaries as a guidebook to the inevitable race war. (Which, for some strange reason, has not materialised.) Unfortunately for them, much about the war described in The Turner Diaries doesn't make sense. The System is brutally incompetent and weighed down by its own insane social policies (one assumes that the National Guards have been disbanded, as there is no mention of them within the book) and the Organisation is far too good at keeping it off balance. In reality, I suspect that the cities would be fairly easy to control, but the countryside would become a seething mass of discontent.

The author (purely by accident, I suspect) does make one good point, although he plays it up so much that it is hard to recognise that there is an important point underneath. The word ‘racist’ has been grossly overused, to the point where people are afraid to bring charges against ethnic minorities (or pay attention to the less savoury aspects of such groups) because they find themselves accused of being racist. In reality, this means that forced marriages and poor treatment of women is ignored; in the book, a white girl can be forced to allow a black guy to have sex with her...or be branded a racist. The word is so badly devalued that it is now effectively meaningless, used only as a magic talisman to keep away the evil. (I shall hear no evil, cries the liberal, blocking his ears to the screams of the victims.)

It does not require an application of logic and reason to realise that, seen in the cold light of day, that Turner’s world is not only warped, but unrealistic. If the Jews are as all-powerful as Turner suggests, why exactly have they been getting the short end of the stick for so long? The book claims that the ‘great one’ (Hitler) led the charge that crippled Jewish power for years, but Jews have been persecuted since time out of mind. That’s a little odd for the secret rulers of the world. Hitler was hardly the first anti-Semite to gain power and he wasn't the last. And then there’s the version of black men...there isn’t a single redeeming character (good or bad) in the book, with one exception. A conservative member of the Organisation refuses to carry out an attack that would have resulted in civilian deaths...and, for this, is put to death by Turner and his men.

Turner’s world is not ours. Let’s be grateful.

It's hard to give the book any rating. On one hand, I am impressed with the author’s skill at creating a book that conveyed his message so well. (People who say that this is easy have never tried it.) On the other hand, his message is profoundly disturbing and dishonest, not least because it bears little relationship to reality. If you want to read a book about noble patriots taking on the might of a corrupt American government, read Unintended Consequences or A State of Disobedience instead. At least they have characters you can root for.

The Lost Regiment Series (William R. Forstchen)

The Lost Regiment
-William R. Forstchen

The first thing you need to understand about the Lost Regiment series is that it’s a series to extreme. None of the books make sense unless read in strict chronological order. While some of the books are better than others, they must be read in order.

The basic plot of the books is simple. A Union Regiment from the US civil war is swept through a portal built by an alien race to a planet a long way from Earth. Luckily for the regiment, there are other humans here, unluckily, there are also three tribes – or hordes – of alien human-eaters. The whole plot of eight books is concentrated round wars between the humans and the aliens.

The setting is very neat. The Lost Regiment arrives near Rus, which was founded by descendents of Russians who arrived though the ‘gate of light’. This is a feudal system with boyars and a Tsar, but the Americans start to introduce their ideas and their technology – centuries ahead of the Rus tech – to the system. Then the Regiment meets a member of the Tugar Horde and learns the sick truth – the humans of Rus are preyed upon by the horde, who eat them alive. Once you get over the problems with genetic compatibility, it’s a good setting.
Naturally, the regiment prepares to fight. The Rus revolt against their lords in their main city and join the Americans. There is a massive battle with the Turgars, including viewpoints from both sides, and finally the horde is defeated and nearly wiped out. And that’s all in the first book.

The next three books introduce both limited political elements and a new horde. The new republic (pun not intended) has absorbed the rest of Rus. In a parallel to the US reconstruction era, the Americans have been forced to accept the involvement in local politics of the remaining boyars, most of whom are a dead hand. Meanwhile, a human renegade has been arming the Cathas (descendent of a Carthaginian fleet) and using them, under the Merki horde, to attack the Roum. The first part of that war is a masterpiece of strategic planning. Books three and four are far more limited tactically, although we see much more horde politics and the introduction of Tamuka, a character we all love to hate. His crusade against the humans leads to the murder of the horde leader, who he’s sworn to guard, and ends with a surprising side-switch by the remains of the Tugars from book one.

The final four books expose the fledgling republic to its greatest challenge. The Bantag horde, already larger than the others, receives a new leader and messiah from a world as advanced as our present day. For the first time, the humans are outmatched technologically by the horde, facing tanks, aircraft and other tricks – as well as a whole new art of using them. After much daring-do, the republic lures the horde into a mutual destruction trap, and convinces them to agree to a permanent peace.

So, what are my thoughts about these novels? Unlike the WorldWar books, the aliens here are fairly imaginative and well-defined. The hordes do have a surprise (on the lines of Rouke’s drift) when they bump into the human forces for the first real battle, but then they learn and adept. The first horde was primitive, but if they used their weapons right, it did not matter. The tactical action is superb. The viewpoints are wide enough so that we get a good idea of what’s happening everywhere. One thing that’s not well defined is the ESP that some of the aliens have. What is it and what can it do?

On the other hand, I don’t buy the massive technological advances made in ten years of fighting. It’s just too quick, how could one person, who is even less equipped than the Regiment, convince an entire Horde to change their ways? Even with the myth of a messiah, it’s a stretch.
Speaking of that guy, he’s probably the only character in a novel to regress in character development. In his first two books, he’s the foe you love to hate (such as Doctor Who’s Master), but in his last, he’s just a tactical moron like Hitler.

The series is well-worth a read, but be sure to read them in order, or you’ll get hopelessly confused.

#1 Rally Cry
#2 Union Forever
#3 Terrible Swift Sword
#4 Fateful Lightning
#5 Battle Hymn
#6 Never Sound Retreat
#7 A Band of Brothers
#8 Men of War (The final book in the series, or so I thought)
#9 Down to the Sea

The Magician's Apprentice (Trudi Canavan)

The Magician's Apprentice
(Trudi Canavan)

Can an author actually plagiarise herself?

The Magician's Apprentice is set a few hundred years before Trudi Canavan’s remarkably good Black Magician series, and covers the founding of the Magician’s Guild. (Magicians in the Guild’s universe are basically energy-manipulators, capable of healing and fighting.) It follows the life of Tessia – a natural magician – as she discovers her magic powers, develops her skills and is finally plunged into war.

It reads like a considerably inferior version of the original books. Tessia has the same basic background as the first heroine and sounds very similar, at least to my reading eyes. She has an interesting relationship with her master and a predicable relationship with one of her fellow apprentices. The other characters aren’t much better defined; they just didn’t grab my attention the way that some of the characters from the first series did. The addition of a feminist subplot and bursts of political commentary only detract from the original plotline, although it isn’t that much of a problem. The book rarely becomes exciting.

The magicians are also stupid, not a term I use lightly. The tactics in the book consist largely of two sides blasting away at each other, rather than any attempt to use subtle tactics against the opposing side. There are some interesting developments of magic – the good guys cooperate, the bay guys cannot – but a halfway competent sniper, using a bow and arrow, could have wiped out both sides in an afternoon. One of the apprentices shows more military skill than his masters and is rebuked for it, rather than being applauded. Large parts of the war scenes consist of arguments about how to proceed and trailing the enemy magicians across the land. And, when the end comes, the enemy caves far too rapidly.

The book does have some entertaining moments, to be fair, but overall it’s not worth more than two stars.

WorldWar (Harry Turtledove)

-Harry Turtledove

-In the Balance
-Tilting the Balance
-Upsetting the Balance
-Striking the Balance

Looking back at the WorldWar books, I am struck with a burst of nostalgia for the time when I was a teenager and the series was new. WorldWar was my first introduction to Alternate History – although the series is hardly pure AH – and it still has a special place in my heart. Turtledove has actually pushed the overall series a little too far (a common complaint with Turtledove’s longer works), but I still admire the sheer chutzpah involved in writing the series. The level of research is impressive.

1942 – And the world is at war. (It’s not made clear exactly when the series takes place, but based on the text my guess is that the story starts just before the Battle of Midway.) America, Russia and Britain are at war against Germany, Italy and Japan. The war is spreading across the planet…and then the real enemy arrives. The Race, an alien race of humanoid child-sized lizards, has arrived to claim Earth for the Empire. Yes, folks; its War of the Worlds meets World War Two.

The Race themselves are one of Turtledove’s more endearing creations. Unlike humanity, their development is achingly slow – they expect to find Earth still locked in the Middle Ages when they arrive – and they ‘only’ possess technology loosely akin to what we have today. Because they have effectively stagnated, they have no real experience in fighting enemies with their own technological level and none of their warriors have much in the way of imagination, at least at first. On the other hand, their technology is advanced enough to allow them a chance to learn from their mistakes – although there are some odd oversights – and they bring a far more civilised approach to the war than some of the human forces.

Suddenly, humanity finds its control over its own world sorely threatened. The Lizards have landed across the world. Some areas are crushed quickly and brutally – China, for example – and others find themselves under savage attack. Through a complex and shifting number of viewpoint characters, we see the war as it rages across the surface of the entire planet. A German Panzer commander leads his men against hopeless odds. A British bomber crew struggle valiantly to survive in skies no longer owned by the human race. A Russian female pilot wages an airborne greaulla war against the invaders. A Chinese woman struggles to find a new purpose in a world gone insane. And many – many – more. There are more characters in the story than I can reasonably list here.

And all of them play out against a historical background of real characters. The great men of World War Two all play their role on the new stage. Molotov is a viewpoint character, but others – from Hitler himself to Skorzeny and Mao – all appear from time to time. Turtledove, perhaps wisely, doesn’t spend too much time with them, yet their presence is felt, even if at a distance.

The story itself tends to follow the characters rather than the overall war. (I sometimes found this irritating.) Turtledove’s characters grow and develop. The German Panzer commander eventually finds himself questioning the very basis of the Third Reich and committing what some would see as treason against his masters. The Chinese woman, introduced to us as little more than a peasant, grows into a communist leader and a solid core of resistance to the aliens. And don’t get too attached to any of the characters either. Some of them, including the ones you least suspect, get killed off in the course of the story. Others end up where you would least expect – and this is true of the Lizards too. They are much more than simple one-D invaders.
Turtledove avoids the clinch of all of humanity uniting against the invaders. Human suspicions and fears play their role. None of the Allies are keen to work with the Nazis and vice versa. The Jewish collaboration with the Lizards rings true. They had the choice between working for the Lizards or being exterminated by the Nazis. It wasn't much of a choice. It’s worth noting that most of Turtledove’s characters, being from the 1940s, have 1940s attitudes. Racism and sexism is part of their nature – and part of the story is about how they overcome it.

The Lizards also force forward human science. The race to make the atomic bomb is pushed into high gear by the alien nukes – they nuke Berlin and Washington in the opening days of the book – and all of the major powers are struggling to make their own nuclear weapons. Turtledove does use a lucky moment in the story to get some of the ‘explosive-metal’ into the hands of human nations, but it generally works. That said, I am not convinced that developing a weapon would occur as quickly as Turtledove portrays it. Building the first nukes was a complicated process even in untouched and staggeringly wealthy America. Could the feat be repeated while the country was being invaded by the Lizards? Other developments include rockets, jet engines, radars and much else besides.

Having praised the series to the skies, I do have some issues with it. The first problem is that it tends to run on too long. A few fewer viewpoint characters might have led to a tighter story. (Sometimes, Turtledove slips into narrator mode and narrates on the character’s flaws and blind spots, which is more than a little irritating.) A second problem is that it’s hard to see just what is going on with the overall war. A third problem lies in the Lizard technology. They’re not as advanced as they should be.

They have command of space, yet it never seems to occur to them that they could drop things on Earth from orbit (Project Thor-style kinetic weapons) or even that they could bombard the planet with asteroids. (To be fair to Turtledove, he does say in the later books that their star systems have no asteroids and are generally tidier places than the Sol System.) They have fusion power, but no lasers. Their imagination is lamentably non-existent. Did they never have any disasters that would suggest possible military applications?

Overall, these books are well worth a read.

THE TULORIAD (John Ringo/Tom Kratman)

John Ringo & Tom Kratman

Tom Kratman’s greatest work.

I’ve partly given up reading and reviewing ARC (Advance Reader Copy) editions of books, even from my favourite authors. I had an embarrassing problem when I fairly hated a book produced by – well, I won’t mention the name, except that it wasn’t Kratman – because the politics were badly wrong, used more for political axe-grinding than any serious studies of the issues involved. I was surprised and relieved when I picked a copy up from the local library and discovered that most of the offending sections had been cut down. I therefore reserve the right to disown this review and swear blind that I never read it.

The Tuloriad focuses around an interesting question; do Posleen (the centaur-like aliens from John Ringo’s Legacy of the Aldenata series) have souls? It didn’t seem a question that could reasonably be answered in the original books; the Posleen were an enemy that had to be fought – and destroyed – to save the human race. Neither surrender nor co-existence was an option. The Posleen considered humans a food source and little more. Tom Kratman’s additions to the Posleen canon included slightly more humanized Posleen. Some Posleen, a handful of survivors from the final desperate battle of Hell’s Farie, are sent out on a quest by unknown aliens to explore their own past, discovering secrets that much of the rest of the galaxy would prefer to remain hidden.

In the meantime, a group of human religious representatives (including Christians, one Jew (a living starship), Jain, Buddhists and Muslims) sets out on a voyage of their own, to find and attempt to convert the Posleen to their respective religions. (I’d be expecting blood on the bulkheads pretty quickly, but…) Their flight leads them to encounter the searching Posleen, who have uncovered disturbing secrets about their own history, and to discover how swiftly religious faith becomes dogma and leads to holy war.

I called this Tom Kratman’s greatest work and I meant it. The Posleen come across as largely alien, but still creatures that can be understood. There are interesting digressions on how human religion could be applied to the Posleen (How could a Posleen have four wives? Aren’t they all, effectively speaking, homosexuals? One point that isn’t mentioned is that ‘eat of my body’ has a whole other meaning for aliens that think nothing of using other races, and themselves, as a food supply.)

And I was left with a feeling of pity. Not just for the Posleen, but the other playthings of the Aldenata, the Indowy and Darhel. The Indowy are condemned to eternal slavery because they cannot fight or defend themselves. The Darhel must mount the tiger and hold permanent control of every other known race, or they will be destroyed, either by their gene-engineered rage or by their outraged subject races. Tom makes the apt point that the Aldenata didn’t mean to cause such havoc, but their good intentions led their playthings right into hell. He draws the comparison between the Aldenata and the various western aid agencies in Africa – who have had their own series of blunders that cost thousands of lives – although I would add the thought that the Aldenata had powers no aid agency could match.

I suppose the argument could be had both ways. Does one interfere, knowing that it will disrupt development, or does one wash one’s hands of it and watch the blood flow? If I can interfere, should I? What right does a Saddam-like person have to bully his own people? If I can stop him, should I? Am I guilty if I do nothing?


There are two minor points worth mentioning about the post-war world. One Tom notes is that the Catholic Church now practices polygamy, with an Islam-style system of four wives for each man. It’s a practical solution to the problem faced by the world, but it may have long-term implications.

As a general rule, the ratio of male-female births is roughly equal. My own family is two-two. I know others who have a higher proportion of one sex, but the general rule still holds. The long-term implications of polygamy remains that at some point, unless something further happens to reduce the number of men, the balance of men and women will be roughly equal, again. How long will this take? It’s hard to make any predictions, as birth rates depend on a number of factors, but I’d say somewhere between thirty to fifty years.

Now what?

When Muhammad allowed his Companions to take four wives, it was a reaction (as in the book) to the deaths of so many men and the number of widows left behind without means of support. I suspect he might have had it as a very temporary solution. It stayed around until today, with rich Muslims seeking to have four (or more, the madmen) wives, while poorer Muslims ended up with one, if that. One of the problems affecting the Middle East is that poorer men cannot come up with a dowry and therefore have to delay getting married, or never get married at all. This adds to their sexual frustration and may have a baleful impact on the whole area.

This is going to affect the book’s Europe as well in the coming years. Sexual frustration is not a force to take lightly. In this case, it will not be felt by men who are effectively powerless, but men who have military experience and the ability to obtain weapons (and, of course, free of the inshallah mentality that dominates the Middle East). If it is no longer possible for each man to have four wives, or even to get one wife, there will be violence. This situation, I believe, has actually occurred in Africa as old customs break down under the influx of well-meaning idiots from the West. This is an extreme situation, and perhaps unlikely, but it needs to be born in mind.

Tom also mentions that feminism plays little role in the post-war world. I’m not convinced that that is true. There are some interesting points that should be made regarding feminism. There are really two different brands of feminism. One can be termed the ‘equal opportunities’ brand, in which men and women have equal opportunities and may the best one win. The other can be termed the ‘superior sex’ model, in which women are superior to men and deserve better treatment, and/or deserve compensation for centuries of mistreatment by men. The former kind is likely to flourish in the post-Posleen world; the latter is likely to die out almost completely.

Why? Men make, on the whole, better soldiers than women. This means that the dictates of cold survival will push as many men as possible into the front lines (hence the ratio of four women per man) and push as many women as possible into roles that free up another man for fighting. This generally happened in the UK during the Second World War; women manned the factories, worked the desks, etc. There were exceptions, of course, with men in jobs that couldn’t spare them, but generally WW2 saw women entering the working sphere in unprecedented numbers. The Nazis, by contrast, worked to keep women at home and had to use conscript labour, which didn’t work out too well for them.

The same dynamic will affect the post-Posleen world. The ratio of women to men is so lopsided that women will dominate every section of life apart from the Church (which may find itself ordaining female priests anyway) and the military, although women may take on non-combatant roles. The idea that women are the superior sex will not hold up in a situation where women dominate and are seen to dominate. However, it is far more likely that genuine equal opportunities will spread throughout society – the outcome, as normal, being up to the person in question.

One counter-argument is that reactionaries (a politically-loaded word, but I can think of no better one) might try to keep women in their place. It’s not going to happen when it is self-evident that women are doing the vast majority of the producing work, along with having babies, raising them and so on. The Arab states that disenfranchise women (one of the more irritating aspects of feminism is that it seems to ignore the treatment of women in the Middle East) do so because women do not play a large role in public life and can therefore be treated like dirt without nasty repercussions. It should be noted that no Arab state is a really functional economy and if someone figured out how to produce oil without the Middle East, they would fold faster than a falling house of cards. Can they drink oil?

I generally have little quarrel with Tom’s afterwords, but it’s worth making a point about this one. It is quite correct that the Spanish Inquisition causes far less damage and killed far less people than the Communist Terror in Russia and China, or Fascism did in Europe. (I am inclined to believe that both communism and fascism are religions; they have gods, prophets and holy wars. What more do they want?) They also didn’t have the technology the latter states did have. The Soviets had access to technology that would have made the Inquisitors shit their pants. They could establish a people-control state that was beyond the dreams of the Spanish Inquisition. What would the inquisitors have done if they had access to such power? Somehow, I doubt that they would have just let it slip through their hands.

And, of course, neither Imperial Spain, nor Communist Russia, nor Fascist Germany, nor Islamic Saudi Arabia actually developed a sustainable system. They all rotted away from the inside out. (With the possible exception of Germany, which was at war with almost the entire important world.) Too much religion is bad for any society.

Overall, this is a great thought-provoking book. Read it.

Final Impact (John Birmingham)

Final Impact (Axis of Time, Book 3)
-John Birmingham

All right, Mr Birmingham, where’s book 3? This is book 4! Fair warning, there are some spoilers here.

When last we saw our much-loved friends the MNF – Admiral Kolhammer, Julia Duffy, Captain Habali, Mike Judge – and their much-detested enemies – Himmler, Hitler, Yamamoto, etc – in Designated Targets, they were gearing up for a major conflict. Hitler’s desperate attempt to conquer Britain had failed. Yamamoto’s gamble to take Pearl Harbour had succeeded – amid bloodletting and atrocities that would have made more sense in a Paladin of Shadows book – and there were dozens of threads waiting to be resolved in Book 3. I cannot say that I spent a year desperately waiting for this book – only three authors get me THAT desperate – but I was looking forward to it.

I opened the book and I thought…where’s the action?

Actually, that’s not entirely fair. There is plenty of action in this book, but it’s not the action I was expecting.

Consider; at the end of DT, we were led to expect that there would be a major thrust against Pearl Harbour, spear-headed by the former JSDF ship, by the Allies. There would be a major political struggle against J. Egder Hoover (of FBI) fame. Dan and Julia would get married – and a romance was hinted at between Mike Judge and Karen Habibi. There was a team of future Russians operating within the USSR – and hints that the Russians had captured a ship from the future. We would FINALLY find out who was responsible for the racial rape-murder way back at the beginning…and the mystery of Sanction Five. And, and, and…

When Final Impact opens, all of these events have happened. Dan and Julia have not only married, but split up; Dan has gotten himself killed somewhere off-page in the two years gap between DT and FI. Pearl Harbour has been recaptured. The Japanese are FINALLY on the ropes. D-Day is underway, with a massive invasion of Europe, and the Russians are preparing to stab the Nazis in the back. It’s not a bad book, but it has a lot of small problems. I WANTED to see that battle, damn it!

Ok, I have written a trilogy myself – Second Chance – around a basically similar event, and I do understand some of the problems. In 1942, the US had very little that could actually be deployed; the fantasies of citizen soldiers not withstanding, men with guns and without training are not good soldiers. In 1944, particularly with future help, the US is almost drowning in war production and it becomes a battle of economies. There has to be something between those two periods, and I understand – without approving – the reason for jumping forward. DT no longer works as a book because FI does not conclude the trilogy. We need a Book 2.5.

(I also have a small case of sour grapes as some items here remind me far too much of Second Chance, although there are only limited solutions to the problem.)

In most cases, Birmingham does a fair job of touching on the effects of the ISOT. The treatment of Russia, however, borders on sheer mil-wank fantasy. It is VERY difficult, if not impossible, for the Russians to do as much as Birmingham suggests, the presence of the captured ship – which the MNF seems to let them get away with – notwithstanding. Consider, as Dale Cozort points out, the Soviets were actually VERY dependent upon western aid; just because the shipment of arms and ammunition was not critically important does not mean that the aid was unhelpful. The Russian industry – I forget if the term ‘hero project’ existed then – was very good at churning out thousands of crude (in industrial terms) tanks, but much less good at the finicky stuff. American radios kept the Russians talking to one another; American trucks kept the Red Army moving. American food kept the Russians feeding; American railway stock kept their network running. If the lend lease from the US is cut off – a POD in its own right – the Russians somehow have to gear up to alter production to replace what they were no longer getting from the US, which is not as easy as it sounds. Building items from the 1950s would take almost as long as the 6 years or so it would take to reach that date.

The knowledge from the future is less helpful than it seems. Birmingham shows us the USSR turning on everyone who would betray Stalin in the future, which would excite major paranoia among the upper soviets. Even without some kindly soul deciding to strike first, they would still have problems doing everything that they are shown doing. They would NOT waste resources – debateable, but understandable from their POV – on an aircraft carrier…and they would not make a jump for Japan. Taking Manchuria and even parts of China makes sense; trying to develop a blue water capability means nothing when they face a lethal threat from the west, Germany. Historically, the USSR did not attempt to build up a navy until their main land requirements were completed.

Q – What is a safe Russian border? A – One with a Russian soldier on each side.

Sadly, there seem to be far fewer links between the characters as they appeared in WOC and DT; so much of their development happens off-book. This happens to the extent that it is difficult to reconcile them - I liked Julia in the first two books; in FI, she’s a bitch. Nice as it is to see Karen and Mike married…what happened? We don’t know. I can’t see either Roosevelt or Churchill considering Stalin as anything other than an enemy, not after what happened in the first history. And Prince Harry…well, I may have firm anti-monarchist credentials, but I would have expected him to willingly disappear into the MNF, having a free opportunity to escape the Royal Family. (Heh, that little set of details REALLY needs to be explored; the post-war impact on the Royal Family and the British Empire.)

But enough griping. If you read this without any knowledge of the underlying factors of WW2 – or you can suspend disbelief – you’ll enjoy it. I sometimes think that the book goes too far in illuminating what bad people the enemies are – and what nasty people twenty years of the jihad have made of the MNF – but that’s just me. John, it’s a good book, but we do need a section between DT and FI.

Days of Infamy (Harry Turtledove)

Days of Infamy
Harry Turtledove

I’ve read thousands of books in my life. I’ve even read The Satanic Verses. So why did I have such trouble with Days of Infamy? I like Turtledove, damnit!

Days of Infamy is set in 1941-42, after a Japanese invasion fleet has invaded pearl Harbour. I won’t go into details as to the MAJOR logistical problems that the Japanese would have faced in trying that in real life – others have done that – but I note that for the record. It's an interesting concept, but Turtledove is uncharacteristically dull in the exploration. This book was an active chore to get through.

The only change is in the beginning of the book is that Japanese Commander Genda persuades Admiral Yamamoto to convince the Army generals that an invasion force should accompany the task force. From there, about ¼ of the book covers the invasion; the rest covers the occupation from the POVs of many characters. Turtledove is good at that; in the course of the plot, he gives us a pilot who was shot down in the initial attack and is now a prisoner of war, a soldier who is also a POW, his estranged wife who has to live in an occupied city on Oahu, a surfer bum, and a Japanese family who have been living on the island for many years, as well as introducing two characters further on in the book who give us the viewpoint of Americans who will be involved – one assumes - in the eventual re-taking of the islands.

Turtledove is uncompromisingly brutal in its portrayal of the Japanese themselves – even if they seem a little repetitive. Rape is not shown, but its effects are; the Japanese are as unpleasant as they were in OTL. Me thinks that the occupation of Japan in ATL will be harsher and more brutal – a sequel in the making, perhaps?

It’s hard to say why I don’t like this book. It’s tedious – it could have been reduced to one volume and just had the liberation at the end of the book. While the characters are interesting they go through the same motions, all the time. Compared to Ruled Britannia, its drek.
Three out of five…

The Gatekeepers (Daniel Graham)

The Gatekeepers
-Daniel Graham

The Gatekeepers is not strictly alternate history, but with the recent disasters to the space program, it might as well be. The book is the story of the first attempt to create an independent company, which provides space services, including space transport through an experimental SSTO spacecraft and power supply though an solar power satellite. Rolf Bernard, our hero, has this chance, the last, best, chance, to place humanity in space, but there are powerful forces in the American government that want to stop him.

So Rolf comes up with a daring plan. Using experimental ‘Brilliant Peebles’ technology, Rolf decides to hold space access to ransom, charging governments and companies for access to space. Setting up shop in Australia, Rolf’s actions soon threaten the planet with global war….

This book, sadly, promises more than it delivers. The ending is dramatic, but leaves us hanging. We get hints that Rolf pulled final victory out of a stalemate, but we know nothing about what happens afterwards. We learn that a coalition of Arab nations is trying to sabotage Rolf, so that the ‘great Satan’ would be denied space access. We also see Israel painted as a hero nation with vast resources, although I personally doubt that Israel could have paid the money that they offered Rolf. It would be nice to think that Israel helped out because they too believed in the space dream, but even their representative freely admits that they are acting in their self-interest.

I also question Rolf’s claims to be a patriotic American citizen. He threatens America with complete and total ruin. Rolf’s outburst likening government to organized crime, an interesting comparison I have occasionally entertained myself, moves the political component from implicit to explicit.

We learn very little about the alternate world. We learn that Iran (and possibly Iraq) have Nuclear weapons and missiles. We learn that China, North Korea and Russia are still building nukes and that America is worried about the future.

The sub-plot, that of Rolf’s estranged wife, is completely superfluous. It’s unnecessary to the plot. My recommendation, read this book, but skip those chapters.

Without Warning (John Birmingham)

Without Warning
-John Birmingham

What if the United States went away?

John Birmingham, according to his own statements, was inspired to write Without Warning after hearing students claiming that the world would be a better place without the United States. I do wonder if he was inspired by a timeline from pre-2000 that had as its starting point the complete disappearance of all Americans, but I digress. Without Warning is a strange mixture of military adventure, alternate history and social-political commentary. It is very definitely a fascinating read.

It‘s 2003 – and the United States is on the verge of invading Iraq. American and British soldiers are gathering in Kuwait, protest marches are on the streets and people…are just getting on with their lives. Suddenly, everything changes; a mysterious energy dome has appeared over most of America, killing the entire population. America is not just gone, but utterly inaccessible. The Wave, as it becomes called in the book, is beyond explanation. Anyone who goes into it dies. 99% of America and parts of Canada, Mexico and Cuba are wiped out in a split second. The world has changed beyond belief.

Birmingham mingles a cast of fictional and real-life characters (including Tommy Franks and Linda Lingle) as they struggle to deal with a world turned upside down. An American reporter in Kuwait finds himself recording stories that no one will ever hear. A crew of smugglers find themselves caught up in the chaos, trying to find safe haven. A civil engineer in Seattle struggles to save what remains of the United States. The CO of Gitmo, right on the edge of the Wave, tries desperately to preserve some order as the world collapses into chaos. And an American intelligence agent, lost and alone in Paris, finds herself trying to escape the madness as the city falls into darkness. Birmingham‘s understanding of human nature is generally very good and, with one small exception, the cast responds in a believable manner. Very few of them, I do note, sit down to pray.

In a series of rapid-fire chapters, Birmingham charts out the course of the post-US world. Saddam sends his troops into Kuwait, intending to wipe out the remainder of the US presence in the Middle East, while Iran joins the fighting and engages US forces directly in the Gulf. The massive economic collapse across the world spurs on rioting and outright civil war in parts of Europe. Israel, faced with a world without America, launches a pre-emptive nuclear attack all along the Arabian Crescent. And the surviving Americans, lost and running out of supplies, find themselves dependent upon a wide range of nations for survival. It is not a cheerful world. By the end of the book, Russia is a resurgent power, China is collapsing into civil war, India and Pakistan are on the verge of a nuclear war and Europe is becoming a fascist state.

Yet the book is more character-driven than action driven. This is sometimes a good thing, yet there are areas I wish were explored more, such as the situation on the ground in a dozen different places. What is happening in the UK, for example, or inside Iraq or Iran? The war that erupts in the Middle East is seen only through a glass darkly – I wish, really, that there had been more chapters set there. Birmingham has learned his art far better than in the Axis of Time books, but the story is not without problems.

Birmingham also looks into the underlying reasons for the War on Terror – why we fight. We are up against a mindset that believes in a Manichean struggle between good and evil, with anything justified in the name of Allah. He exposes the western peace movement as largely composed of the fools and the blind; one of the characters blithely informs a POV character that they knew what happened to some Muslims at the hands of other Muslims, but America was worse. It is a logic that simply doesn‘t stand up to scrutiny. It is seductive only to those who wish to believe in peace and equality. It is the peace and equality of the grave. It‘s worth noting that the book suffers from two plausibility problems.

The first is simple; Puerto Rico and Alaska seem to be completely unmentioned, despite being untouched by the Wave. The second is more complex; I could buy a major period of civil unrest in France easily, but not outright civil war and certainly not what Birmingham portrays. (His logic isn‘t bad, but it doesn‘t apply to real life.) I know that the French seem to have a tradition of summer riots in Paris every year these days, but Birmingham takes it well over the top.

But leave those points; Without Warning remains an impressive and ambitious read.

The Stars and Stripes Series (Harry Harrison)

The Stars and Stripes Series
-Harry Harrison

Stars and Stripes Forever
Stars and Stripes in Peril
Stars and Stripes Triumphant

It is quite easy to see why Harry Harrison got published in the first place. His Stainless Steel Rat series remains one of my favorite comedy Science Fiction books, although the last one wasn't so good. His attempts at writing more serious novels have generally been flops, although there have sometimes been redeeming features that made up for tissue-thin plots and unexciting characters. Harrison is not cut out for writing serious novels and it shows.

And then there is the Stars and Stripes series.

I shall be blunt. The series is completely without a single redeeming point at all. The level of research demonstrated by Harrison is roughly on the same level as a primary schoolchild writing his first short story. The characterization is pretty much non-existent. The understanding of contemporary issues (in the United States, Confederate States, Britain and Ireland) is very limited. His grasp of military affairs...I‘m speechless.

Having vented my opinion, I shall now proceed to outline the plot. The Trent Affair, as in OTL, results in a major diplomatic crisis between the United States and Great Britain. On the verge of resolving the crisis, Prince Albert drops dead, ensuring that the hostile atmosphere is never dispelled. (To be fair to Harrison, this POD is actually a very good one.) Another crisis leads to an exchange of fire between the US border forces and British troops in Canada. Britain declares war and invades the United States. Though a major navigational mishap, Britain accidentally invades the CSA as well. The CSA offers an alliance between the two Americas to throw out the British. The Bold Noble Yankees evict the Murdering Pillaging Redcoats. Washington is burned by British troops (again). The British commit more blunders. Noble Valiant Americans liberate Oppressed French Canadians from British oppression. (Canada accepts US statehood.) The CSA agrees to return to the Union and free the slaves. Book one ends.

Book two opens with the Dastardly British launching yet another Cunning Invasion Plan. This time, they‘re building a road across Latin America for reasons that don‘t make sense even in the book. It ends with a completely implausible invasion of Ireland by the USA.

Book three opens with the British still having failed to learn their lesson (or improve their tactics, for that matter.) It ends with Britain being invaded by American forces, to the cheers of the grateful population. Oh, and the Americans invent tanks.

I‘m not sure where to begin when it comes to demolishing these books.

Let‘s start with the characters. There are no standard POV characters running through the book (Harrison must have made this deliberate because in some of his earlier work, he has actually mastered this.) Events are seen through the eyes of whoever was there at the time. If you happen to be American, you will probably love the descriptions of Americans mouthing politically correct platitudes and being Noble Valiant Etc. The British characters are...well, the kindest thing I can say about them is that they‘re stereotypes, twirling their moustaches as they tuck into roast beef and potatoes in very hot climates. Every character in the series would have to go through a lot of development before they could be called one-dimensional. General Lee is particularly annoying in this respect. He isn't the sober Virginia Gentleman of OTL, but someone who could give MacArthur a run for his money as an egoist. He‘s also given to quoting himself time and time again.

And then there‘s the slavery issue. The slaves get freed...WTF? Harrison, I suspect, didn't want to face up to the truth – that white Americans generally thought of blacks as an inferior race at the time, and accepting ‗nigger‘ equality would have been hard for them. Sure, Harrison is right – slavery was a great evil – yet dealing with it took more than just a civil war. And then there‘s Harrison‘s complete lack of understanding of 1860s Ireland. He took the politics of 1970 and pushed them into 1860s.

(Apparently, the Irish would be fine with being invaded by the US, provided the regiments involved were a mixture of Catholics and Protestants. This might be explained by the fact that the British have invented the Holocaust 150 years early and are apparently killing off the Irish as fast as they can.)

The military issue...well, one is left wondering how any semi-competent editor could have passed the book, because Harrison‘s mistakes know no bounds. American troops routinely perform operations that would have daunted their present-day descendents. (Sherman and Lee march several thousand miles in three days!) His descriptions of British units, weapons and tactics show very little research past stereotypes. There is no clear explanation as to how a British sailing fleet (!) could move right up to Washington and burn the city, when the city was VERY well defended. He loses track of what ships are where, or what has happened to them. He failed to study the weaknesses in the early American ironclads and allowed them to be portrayed as an invincible weapon.

And then there‘s the whole intelligence issue. The Americans (and Irish) gather intelligence in a manner that wouldn't work against the Keystone Cops. They blunder around blabbing their plans to all and sundry, their incompetence only matched by that of their British enemies – who are Evil and therefore must fail at every opportunity, despite the help of their foes – and...oh, I can‘t go on. Its intelligence gathering that makes the German infiltration program of 1940 look competent.

I could go on, but I'm not going to bother.

Don‘t buy this series. Just don‘t.

The Darkness Series (Harry Turtledove)

The Darkness Series
-Harry Turtledove

Into the Darkness (1999)
Darkness Descending (2000)
Through the Darkness (2001)
Rulers of the Darkness (2002)
Jaws of the Darkness (2003)
Out of the Darkness (2004)

The Darkness series can be summed up in one sentence; its World War Two fought out with magical weapons on a fantasy background.

I mean it. If you have any knowledge of World War Two, you will be able to predict the course of this book with complete accuracy. There are some minor changes, yet somehow none of them have effects that are different from World War Two. Everything from the Holocaust to the Battle of Stalingrad has its equivalent within the Darkness tomes. It‘s probably easier to think of the Darkness world as being based around a radically different tech base to our own, rather than straight-up magic. People do not get turned into frogs, nor are there curses (although there are suggestions of curses), teleportation and other standard fantasy fare. That said, there are little spells that work like standard magic spells, including one that disguises a person. The universe is not always consistent.

The Darkness world, in some respects, is quite like a fantasy world. Instead of aircraft, there are dragons; instead of submarines, there are massive fish; instead of tanks, there are behemoths. (The front covers of the UK editions of the books have very classical images of them.) Ships sail on ley lines and use them for power, as do the Darkness counterpart of railways. Military tactics are slightly warped because of these requirements – the lines, unlike our railways, are not built by humanity. Some of the places of power allow greater magical works to be performed. Magic sometimes works badly in isolated countries. The exact capabilities of the magic are never precisely determined.

The politics of the Darkness world are our own of 1940-45, seen through a glass darkly. There are some odd points – ‘Japan‘ is at war with ‘Russia,‘ ‘Britain‘ doesn‘t join the war until ‘Norway‘ is invaded – yet it is recognizably WW2. (One of the more annoying points is that most of the nations are fairly identical.) They are all aristocratic states – the hints of socialism never seem to take flight – and the rulers are all fairly typical standard fantasy types. There‘s the noble lord who carries on the fight after his nation is defeated and the spoilt brat of a princess who gets into bed – literally – with the invaders.

As is fairly typical for Turtledove, the story follows a vast array of characters as they make their way through the war. I really cannot list all of them now, although I do admit that Turtledove does a good job of leaving them all separate, with different identities. Their mere survival cannot be guaranteed either – quite a few of them die in the course the story, only to be replaced by their best friend as POV character. Don‘t get too attached to anyone.

My main gripe with the series is that it is FAR too close to WW2. This results in considerable logic-bending. Turtledove would, I feel, have been wiser to take the country he devised, think through the implications more carefully, and allow events to run on their own path. Instead, the promising hints of interesting and eccentric magic are pushed aside to ensure that events follow a WW2 timeline that makes little sense in their world. The past history of the Darkness world doesn't match up with OTL, yet we are expected to accept that it led to the same place. Turtledove shows plenty of imagination in this series, but so much of it is in the wrong place. The series does have its good and interesting moments, yet it offers little new for the discerning reader.