Saturday, 10 December 2011

A War of Choice: The British War In Iraq - Jack Fairweather


Let us admit it freely, as a civilised people should,

We have had no end of a lesson, which will do us no end of good.

So wrote a poet whose works are no longer studied in British schools, about a war that is now regarded as rather embarrassing. History teaches many lessons, but the main lesson it teaches is that those who refuse to learn from the past have to pay a price for the lessons in the future. Britain’s involvement in Iraq had a whole wealth of history to draw upon, with useful lessons that could have been used to ensure that the British covered themselves in glory during the occupation of Southern Iraq. But those lessons went unheeded and Britain’s involvement in the occupation became a disaster. Our American cousins learned from their screw-ups and managed to pull victory – of a sort – from the crushing jaws of a largely self-inflicted defeat. It pains me to admit that the British Government, Civil Service and Military proved unwilling to adapt to the situation on the ground in 2003. Our involvement in Iraq was a defeat fully comparable to the disaster at Singapore, in 1941. The long term consequences of the defeat may be just as disastrous.

A War of Choice is not the only overall look at the campaign in Basra and the collapse of British power. I have previously reviewed Ministry of Defeat, which presented a very bitter picture of the situation on the ground. This new book, however, has the insight granted by new sources that came into existence since the previous book. As such, it is a bitter pill to swallow, but one that must be read by all British citizens.

Britain’s involvement in modern-day Iraq stemmed from somewhat murky origins, but was primarily due to Prime Minister Tony Blair’s discovery that humanitarian missions (such as the stunning success in Sierra Leone) could be carried out by the British military. Blair, despite being a Labour PM, enjoys the record for committing modern British forces to war, with deployments to Bosnia, Afghanistan and even Iraq. His thinking tallied neatly with that of President Bush, who believed (correctly) that the sources of terrorism had to be dealt with overseas to prevent them coming home. Bush and Blair were unlikely partners, but Blair – desperate for British involvement and influence – effectively wrote his American partner a blank check. This had two major effects on the British war; the first was that concerns about the lack of post-war planning were ignored while the second – absurdly – was that the MOD was prohibited from buying supplies as it would cause political problems for Blair. This screw-up cost lives through bad or insufficient equipment.

No one (British or Iraqi) appeared to have genuinely believed that the US had no post-war plan. What little planning was done was utterly insufficient and largely based on wishful thinking. (This led to a bitter moment when Iraqis came to believe that the US wanted the post-war chaos.) While this was mainly an American fuck-up – and I use the term quite deliberately – Blair missed an opportunity to do the US a vast favour, or at least keep British forces out of the chaos. But it was not to be.

The decision to put British forces in Basra came fairly late during the planning for the war (originally, the UK would have invaded through Turkey, but the Turks torpedoed that plan.) While the capture of Basra was a well-executed campaign, the post-war occupation was poorly managed from the beginning. The forces assigned to hold Basra were utterly insufficient for the task at hand (at least partly because no one seemed to take a serious look at the requirements before the invasion) and the task of reconstructing the city faltered as the Coalition authority ordered that all Bathists were to be removed from office. As everyone who wanted to work in Iraq had to be a member of the party, this decision pushed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis out of work. It is clear that both American and British officers on the ground opposed this decision, but it was handed down regardless. This – again – was an American decision, yet Blair was in a position to countermand it in Basra. The opportunity to prevent chaos in the South was lost almost before anyone realised that it existed.

There are only two ways to win an insurgency. The first involves winning hearts and minds by providing security, opportunity and – eventually – a peaceful transfer of power. Malaysia, where a communist insurgency threatened to overwhelm the British-backed government, was a victory for the British military, which was able to win the hearts and minds of the population. The second way to win is effectively genocide. Saddam had crushed opposition in Basra’s living memory, while the USSR and the Turks had committed genocide to prevent future challenges to their rule. While the British military could look back on a long and generally successful series of counter-insurgency campaigns, the institutional memory of the army had lost the skills it required to conduct such a campaign and the political environment has changed beyond recognition. Put bluntly, the occupation force in Basra was not strong enough to either provide security or crush all opposition.

Why did Basra seem peaceful for so long? One response is obvious – it wasn’t. A second response is that power slipped, largely unnoticed, into the Shia militias. The UK simply couldn't provide anything like the resources required to protect the Iraqis who were willing to work with the Coalition, which meant that the Iraqi Police (for example) were either intimidated into submission or actually ‘semi-legal’ arms of the militias. The British forces on the ground had little appreciation of the scale of this problem, often stamping on Iraqi toes in the process – and therefore making a difficult job almost impossible.

To complicate matters still further, the Iraqi Government (backed by the Americans and heavily dominated by the Shia) had extensive ties with Shia militias in Basra. Known insurgent leaders were off-limits to British forces and extensive pressure was applied to prevent the occupation force from pushing an offensive to a successful conclusion. Promising operations against the Mahdi Army were called off, resulting in tactical successes, but strategic defeats. A rather jaded American CO once remarked that the Iraqis lost all the battles and won all the negotiations. He was talking about Fallujah, but he could just have easily been talking about Basra.

The curious factor about President Bush was that he had the vices of his virtues. He was loyal to his subordinates, even when they should have been unceremoniously sacked. Rumsfeld was able to remain in office despite bearing primary responsibility for extremely poor decisions that cost American lives. Blair, on the other hand, had little loyalty to his followers, but chose to avoid confronting the Iraq question directly, with the result that British policy drifted rather than being refocused. Bush learned from his mistakes; Blair chose to try to sweep them under the carpet. Blair was luckier than he deserved; I have little doubt that if he had been in opposition at the time, he would have been the leading antiwar speaker. Bush had principles; Blair showed none.

Blair was not the only British official who made serious errors of judgement. The military leadership at the MOD comes in for much-deserved bashing; Britain’s military leadership accepted commitments that the UK couldn't handle. In effect, the UK was fighting a war on two fronts – Iraq and Afghanistan – and was doing it with the results of years of poor procurement decisions, with the result that military kit was either unsuitable, or only available in insufficient numbers. Sometimes the results were farce. At other times, they were tragic.

Listing all the mistakes made by British forces in Iraq would take an entire book. I can only provide an overview. First, as noted above, the forces and equipment were simply insufficient for the task at hand. Second, clumsy decisions by people with little awareness of local realities were allowed to impede operations on the ground. Third, there were insufficient aid funds available for development projects in Basra that might have provided a source of employment (some elements of the British international aid program refused to cooperate, a decision that should be considered treason). Fourth, the command and control system in Iraq was hopelessly complicated. Fifth, there were far too few interpreters and a lack of resources to protect the lives and families of Iraqis who were willing to aid the Coalition forces. Sixth, British military units arrived without local knowledge and were rotated out by the time they had a grip on what was going on, a process that was endlessly repeated – forcing the same lessons to be learned and learned again. Seventh, and most disastrously, there was zero political will to come to grips with the problems and actually fix them. Domestic policy was driving military decisions. (This was an American problem as well, but the Americans had far greater resources to deploy to Iraq.) Pitt, Churchill and Thatcher would be turning in their graves.

The final years of the occupation starkly underlined the results of years of failure. Basra was effectively abandoned to the militias, who imposed their own version of Islamic Law on the population – at the same time as the Americans were turning the remainder of Iraq around. It was not a British operation, but an Iraqi-led offensive that broke (for a while, at least) the power of the militias. Blair and Brown claimed that Iraq had been a success. One wonders just what world they were living in. Whoever actually won the war, it wasn't the UK.

But the core problem, I feel, is one that has taken root in the West since the end of the Cold War. Military operations, we are told, are to be short, casualty-free (both friendly and enemy) and perfect. This is, put bluntly, nonsense. War is, by nature, a chancy process at the best of times, and deaths and defeats have to be expected. No battle plan ever survives contact with the enemy. There will be reverses, but a reverse does not mean that the war is lost. I shudder to think how the modern media would have reported Pearl Harbour, or Dunkirk, or even D-Day. The Japanese expansion into Asia would have been portrayed as an unstoppable juggernaut; no doubt the New York Times would have been insisting that the United States should surrender at once.

We have grown used to instant gratification. And yet we forget why we can enjoy a lifestyle that our ancestors would have regarded as heavenly.

The perception exists, rightly or wrongly, that a handful of casualties will make the West back off. The ultimate legacy of Blair’s war in Iraq will be measured in more casualties among British servicemen, men and women who will die when attacked because the military reputation of Britain has been shattered. I highly doubt that we could win a second Falklands War – an event that has been made more likely by recent remarks made by Hilary Clinton.

This book really should have been called Blair’s Betrayal. Blair betrayed the men he sent to war. The gallantry and incredible bravery of British soldiers was squandered by a man who knew nothing of war, history or the limitations of power, a man who wasn’t even savvy enough to extract anything for Britain from the disaster. He lives the high life, even now, while ex-soldiers have to eke out a life in a Britain that doesn't care. That will be his legacy – that of a knave and a fool.

Read this book. And don’t forget to ask Blair why he failed so badly if you ever meet him.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Invasion–Eric L. Harry


If you approach this book with any understanding of geopolitics, logistics, military technology and simple common sense, you will hit a point very quickly where you will have to declaim – loudly – that it simply couldn't happen like that. Harry’s novel is almost unique as it postulates a near-future (it was written pre-9/11) invasion of the Continental United States by China – a super-China that has invaded Japan, India, Australia, much of the Middle East and finally expanded into Cuba. Along the way, it has developed a working ABM system that has crippled orbital reconnaissance, given a very nasty bloody nose to the European Union, used nuclear weapons to crush Israel and just kept going. Suffice it to say that the logistical problems in invading the United States are monstrous even without the presence of American submarines and even the Chinese do not have the manpower to fight such a conventional war, a problem made worse by the decision to launch an invasion of Northern Florida rather than advancing up from Mexico. It simply could not have happened like that.

Reading more carefully, it is clear that Harry stacked the odds in favour of the Chinese. The United States spent eight years under a Democratic President who resisted all calls for intervention against China. Indeed, the US may be more advanced than the Chinese, but the Chinese have a massive superiority in numbers. This hypothetical President allowed the Chinese to take the Middle East without objecting, something that would do immense harm to the American economy. His replacement, an ex-movie star who reassembles Reagan, has to play with a very weak hand. America has lost control of the seas and the Chinese are coming.

Putting that aside – if you can – Invasion isn’t actually that bad a read, although some of it is suspiciously contrived. The American President’s daughter is an infantrywoman who fights to slow down the Chinese advance. (There are some remarkable insights into woman in the field.) Her mother had a relationship with one of the Chinese diplomats and her aunt had a child with the Chinese diplomat, a child who fights on the side of the Chinese Army. The American President’s lover is a spy for a group of coup-plotters in America, who believe that the time to go nuclear is now. Untangling the network of relationships and betrayals is a complex and difficult task.

Overall, Invasion is light entertainment – little else. If you can get over the impossible situation displayed in the book, you’ll enjoy it. It isn't, however, a conclusive story. I have a feeling that the author intended to write a sequel and never got around to it.

Three out of five.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Eleventh Day: The Ultimate Account of 9/11


Anthony Summers and Robbyn Swan

It is a commonplace problem, put bluntly, that hindsight is always clearer than foresight. This tends to lead to books and articles that claim that something was predicable and the people on the spot were stupid (or deliberately made mistakes) prior to the disaster. As attitudes go, it is far from helpful. The person on the spot will not view a future event as inevitable – and lacks the benefit of hindsight.

It is nearly a decade since 9/11, the day when the world changed once again, tossing our Western Civilisation into uncharted waters. 9/11 brought into plain view the ‘new world disorder,’ the Western existential crisis, the fallacies of Cold War-era thinking and the growing threat of Islamic terrorism. Nothing will ever been quite the same; to paraphrase someone I’ve forgotten, things aren’t what they used to be – but then they never were.

The Eleventh Day starts by recounting everything that took place on 9/11, starting with the terrorists boarding the planes and running through the confusion and shock that prevailed as air traffic controllers, the government and even the military struggled to cope with the chaos. The book pulls no punches in detailing how badly those in charge coped, making mistakes and errors that almost certainly cost lives. It then moves on to the desperate struggle to save people from the Twin Towers.

It rapidly dismisses most of the conspiracy theories centred around 9/11. The idea that ‘Bush did it,’ or ‘Bush let it happen’ has been prevalent, as have theories wondering if the Twin Towers were actually hit by missiles or some other form of covert operation, perhaps including explosives previously placed in the towers by military or intelligence-service engineers. The theories mostly don’t stand up to scrutiny, although it is possible to wonder if the CIA didn’t tell the FBI about the terrorists because the CIA intended to recruit them and may not have realised that they were on a strike mission. As always, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence and little has been presented.

The book then moves on to discus the intelligence failures that allowed the terrorists to get into position and strike without being intercepted. There were very definitely heart-breaking moments when the plot could have been stopped, but most of them became clear only with the benefit of hindsight. Certainly, no one could have reasonably connected the death of a prominent anti-Taliban fighter with a terrorist plot in New York. Part of the problem is that intelligence agencies soak in a great deal of crap – lies, nonsense and miscommunications – every day. Valid leads can sometimes be lost in the white noise.

A further problem lay in the political-legal framework established since the end of the Cold War. Congress loaded restrictions on the CIA that barred it, for example, from recruiting known terrorists (precisely how much notice the CIA paid to this instruction is a matter of conjecture). Furthermore, the FBI agents were concerned about following up tips about Middle Eastern men studying aircraft piloting for fear of being accused of racial profiling. The fact remains that the vast majority of suspects who might have been recruited by AQ are generally – publicly, at least – practicing Muslims. It is a fact that it is politically unacceptable to admit.

This was quite bad enough, but it got worse. AQ is/was a more trans-national organisation than most NGOs and corporations. It quite simply didn’t fit in with the terrorist groups of the Cold War; the IRA, for example, was focused on Ireland. The British didn’t have to invade Ireland to win the war; they already controlled Northern Ireland. It was possible to limit AQ’s dependence on other states, but it was never controlled by a single state or even based in a single state. And the one state that could be regarded as a base – Afghanistan – was so poorly governed that even if the Taliban had wanted to hand OBL over, they might not have been able to do it.

Pre-9/11, our networks and precedents were not set up to cope with anything like AQ. It was extremely difficult to track, let alone destroy. And even if we did, there was zero legal precedent to deal with them – unless we counted them as spies, who could be legally shot.

Finally, the book raises a disquieting question that has been largely buried since the attacks. Was a foreign government involved in 9/11? The book focuses on Saudi Arabia in particular, noting that the Saudis never cooperated with the US on tracking terrorism and were unprepared to stop their citizens donating money to terrorists until the terrorists came home in 2004. Given the strange nature of the Saudi Government, it is quite possible that the Saudis did fund AQ, if only to keep their own heads on their shoulders. And there was a great deal of jubilation in Saudi Arabia over 9/11.

Bush is roundly condemned for not focusing on this. The authors do not ask if he could actually have done anything. Saudi Arabia is the largest oil producer in the world. An American invasion of Saudi Arabia would cause a massive global oil shock. In that light, Bush’s decision to invade Iraq makes a great deal of sense; if Iraqi oil came online in great quantities, Saudi Arabia would be far less influential. The US would then be able to deal with it at leisure. Of course, accepting this means accepting that Bush wasn’t actually an idiot.

Overall, The Eleventh Day adds a great deal to our knowledge of 9/11, as well as usefully compiling already-known knowledge and dismissing numerous absurd theories. I doubt, however, if it is truly the final account of 9/11. Much remains to be discovered that may shed new light on the most tragic day of modern history.

Saturday, 29 October 2011

Alien Invasion: How to Defend Earth - Travis S. Taylor and Bob Boan


One thing that has always struck me about much of the scientific community (particularly the SETI community) is that they place a surprising amount of faith in alien benevolence. The concept, expounded by the late Carl Sagan among others, assumes that any alien race advanced enough to cross the gulf of space between their homeworld and Earth will have developed socially to the point where they will not pose a threat to the puny inhabitants of Earth. Like most assumptions, it is not based on any actual fact. There is no reason to assume either alien benevolence or hostility.

Even if ET doesn’t intend us direct harm, contact with him may have harmful effects on our own society. What if ET starts shipping in advanced technology so far beyond what we can produce that we literally cannot understand or duplicate it? We would – like the American Indians – become dependent upon outsiders to supply us with what we needed. What if ET ‘proved’ that God doesn’t exist, or that communism could actually work if we tried? Or, just like a charitable NGO, unaccountable to the people it aims to help, ET tried meddling in our society for our own good? You don’t need bad intentions to do a great deal of harm.

This book is written from a more pessimistic point of view. If aliens exist, they may be dangerous; they may be unrelentingly hostile, bent on conquest, or maybe they would just regard us as competition – not evil, in any human sense, but still extremely dangerous. It is a point of view anthemia to SETI.

I should note one point before we begin the formal review. This book is actually an updated version of An Introduction to Planetary Defence, written by the same authors in 2006. Although the book was very interesting, it suffered from a number of production (as opposed to content) flaws; it was expensive, didn’t offer value for money (I’d expect a hardback at the very least) and had a number of spelling and grammar mistakes. The electronic version was PDF-only, fitted with a password and DRM, awkward to use. This version, updated, is cheaper, with a blessed DRM-free electronic version.

This is one of many curious oversights. I disagree quite strongly with the idea of benevolent aliens coming to help us, yet Carl Sagan has been much more successful at promoting his ideas. The rather tedious Contact was mass-produced as a cheap paperback novel, with the result that people were less inclined to write dire reviews of it once they’d read it.

One of the problems with considering alien invasion in general (apart from the snigger-factor) is that all of our knowledge of aliens is purely theoretical. On the other hand, we can say some pretty definite things about aliens we might actually happen to encounter in the next 50 years. Barring a revolutionary development in drive technology (as suggested in Travis Taylor’s Warp Speed) the aliens will encounter us, not the other way around. They will logically be able to cross interstellar space and secure control over the high orbitals (Earth orbit). Even a race with an equal level of technology to our own – but driven by a determination to get into space – will be able to take the high orbitals.

The first chapter of the book discusses the probabilities of aliens existing and alien encounters, covering such fixed ideas as the Drake Equation and the Fermi Paradox. The authors provide a valuable discussion of both concepts, although they spend a considerable amount of time dismantling the latter. In my opinion, both are largely worthless – if only because we have no data. It would have been far simpler to note that there are hundreds of stars like Sol (the sun) within the Milky Way Galaxy – and the only one we have studied closely did produce an intelligent race, humanity. Simple extrapolation tells us that there could be many alien races near us.

Of course, we have very limited technical data on what is and isn’t possible. Based on human experience, societies can rise and stagnate (like Imperial China), before being replaced by another society. If Europe had been dominated by a single power when Columbus proposed his voyage of exploration to the Indies (and ran into America) it is quite possible that he would never have been permitted to sail. The breakthrough that became the industrial revolution might never have happened. Generally speaking, a hypothetical alien race would have to develop intelligence, develop technology, survive its technology (i.e. without nuclear war, blowing itself back into the Stone Age), reach into space and start crossing the interstellar gulf before it encountered us. That’s quite a few bottlenecks they’d have to surmount. What that does tend to imply is if they succeeded, they might be a powerful and aggressive race – just like the Europeans who arrived in the Americas.

One point the authors do make that puzzles the hell out of me is an assertion that the laws of physics may be different in other parts of the universe. (Chapter 1.6). If I understand it correctly, the laws will be identical everywhere (unless we postulate an encounter with an entirely different dimension with different physical laws). ET may well be more advanced than us, but his technology should be understandable, at least once we work out how it works. I don’t think that alien technology would be incompatible with our atmosphere.

It does raise the issue of what there might be to fight over if the aliens were genuinely alien. What if the aliens live in gas giants? Earth would be useless to them, except perhaps as a source of raw materials – and they could get those much more efficiently by mining the asteroids. We and the Jupiter-aliens would be ships that pass in the night. We might not even be able to communicate.

The chapter goes on to note that humans aren’t particularly good at preparing for a new threat. This is unfortunately true, although it reads oddly when compared to later statements regarding secrecy and classification. We need a threat to be present before we react to it. NATO is a good example of this; it was formed to withstand Russian threats to Europe. When we don’t see a threat coming, the results – as on 9/11 – can be disastrous. We are currently broadcasting our existence to the rest of the universe. Is that really such a good idea?

Even so, I seriously doubt that we could have a global ban on radio transmissions. It would be politically unacceptable.

Chapter Two discusses the human approach to war and how it might be shaped to face an alien invasion. A great deal of the material here is interesting, although it suffers from MEGO (My Eyes Glaze Over). This isn’t a section for someone who isn’t prepared to think hard about the material. In some ways, reading a good alien invasion novel – Footfall, for example – would provide a more usable primer in the use of space in dominating the Earth. The authors are entirely correct to suggest that we should have a plan for meeting the aliens. However, such a plan would have to be very generalised. We won’t know what’s coming until we meet it.

A problem that does appear is that the book discusses next-generation technologies like armoured combat suits (mecha) and orbital weapons. They do not exist at the moment, at least not in a workable form. What do we do if the aliens arrive tomorrow? Rumsfield’s doctrine – you go to war with the army you have, not the army you want – applies here, far more than anywhere else.

Chapter Three discusses alien motives – why would they want to invade Earth? Many of the reasons are drawn using pop culture examples, which is actually a very good idea. It helps put faces on abstract possibilities. Mind you, what if we did run into ‘Q’ (Star Trek)? Star Trek fans have endlessly debated Q’s actions in ‘Q Who.’ If Q hadn’t thrown the Enterprise into the path of the Borg, the Federation would have been unprepared for their arrival. Q handed out a painful lesson that was, ultimately, for humanity’s own good. What might Q-like aliens decree for us in the future?

This chapter can be fascinating, although in some respects it is let down by the examples cited. The Transformers universe can be great fun, but it isn’t particularly realistic.

Chapter Four is difficult to review, if only because I disagree quite heavily with the authors. The authors assert that there is no ‘need to know’ about an alien threat and cite Heinlein’s dictum that a ‘secret weapon must remain secret.’ The problem is that both examples – they include one from Independence Day as well – cut in different directions.

In The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress the rebels have a secret weapon – the super-intelligent computer that runs the lunar colony is on their side. The Professor (one of the leaders) states that Mycroft Holmes (the computer) must remain a secret, an advantage that the main baddie, the Warden, doesn’t know about. He is, from his point of view, quite right. Losing that advantage will make the rebellion a great deal harder.

The problem is that we, in the event of an alien encounter, will be playing the Warden.

Think about it. The Warden’s job is to suppress dissent and keep the colony working for Earth. He has an absolute ‘need to know’ about Mycroft Holmes; from his point of view, it’s a weapon in the hands of the enemy. Removing the computer will make his job easier; he has to find out about Mycroft.

The main advantage the aliens have, right now, is that no one knows they are coming. If they lose a UFO somewhere over CONUS, that secret is blown – we will know that there is a new threat, one that we need to prepare for, now. Except – if the authors of this book have their way, the secret will remain secret. There will be no warning.

Let’s assume that the aliens are hostile and intelligent. They know they’ve lost a craft. They may know where it is – they are unlikely to assume that it was destroyed beyond recognition. Their secret is out – how will they react? As I see it, they can bring the invasion plan forward and hit us before we can mobilise, they can back off and retreat into interstellar space, they can attempt to communicate with us – or they can continue with their original plan. But which one will they choose? And what was their original plan, anyway? We don’t know.

If we keep the UFO crash a secret, we are effectively preserving the alien secret and making it impossible for the rest of humanity to get ready before the aliens arrive. An American would call that treason, the rest of the world would call it a crime against humanity – and they’d be right. We are not talking about hiding a US-built secret weapon; we are talking about hiding the existence of an unknown enemy.

Let’s consider the argument from a different point of view. The latest Russian mobile radar/SAM launcher is supposed to be able to track stealth aircraft. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that it can provide perfect tracking of an F-22/F-117. And the Russians supply a few dozen of them to Iran. More through luck than skill, the CIA discovers this – and says nothing. When war starts with Iran in 2014 (or whenever) the early stage of the air campaign is an absolute disaster. Forty US stealth aircraft are shot out of the sky. What – exactly – do you think that the President, Congress, the Senate and the American public would say about the CIA when the truth came out? They’d be branding the CIA as traitors. They kept the enemy’s secret weapon a secret!

Independence Day actually illustrates this point quite nicely. The UFO crashed in 1947. If we assume that the invasion took place in 2000, the US had a priceless advantage and squandered it. The bare fact that there was an alien race out there would galvanise the space race and start generating weapons that could be used when the aliens finally show up. FIFTY YEARS of lead time was WASTED. If the example used in this book is accurate – the aliens, travelling near the speed of light, would only experience a few months while we experienced fifty years – they wouldn't even have a chance to realise that something had gone wrong!

There is a vast difference between a secret weapon and a secret enemy. Can you imagine the US undertaking the build-up it did for the Cold War if the USSR didn’t exist? Or if the US Government constantly assured the population that the USSR didn’t exist, or was of no defence significance? Now, if the US did build a secret weapon to use against the aliens, that does need to be kept a secret (unless it might deter the aliens from attacking) – but keeping the aliens a secret is doing their work for them.

I disagree with the authors, almost completely. If there is an alien threat, the entire world has an absolute ‘need-to-know.’ Why? Because we would not be caught unawares when the aliens arrived. Military reserves would be called up, aircraft would be distributed around the various countries, civil defence precautions could be implemented, diplomatic teams would be prepared for contact, military alliances could be activated…hell, we’d look a great deal more intimidating to any alien threat if we were clearly ready for them.

There’s also the political issue. The aliens may well be playing from a sophisticated political and military playbook; we can hardly hope to run into rampaging berserkers. If it turned out that the US had warning of the aliens and didn’t provide any warning, NATO would shatter and the aliens would have ample opportunity to turn the world against the US. Alliances can stand a great many things, but they cannot stand outright betrayal – and that would be exactly what had happened.

The authors appear to believe that it is an all-or-nothing situation; full disclosure or complete secrecy. That isn’t necessary. There are certain details that no one outside government has a ‘need-to-know’. The location of the crashed ship should be classified, the exact level of success in understanding and duplicating alien technology should be classified, military plans to resist the invaders should be classified…

Chapter five discusses how we have handled alien contact in the past – or what passes for alien contact. The early parts of the chapter focus on the UFO craze, before blurring into generalised thoughts about alien encounters. I doubt that we could choose who shows up to say hello to planet Earth. Much of the advice is very good, although limited. A study of the Spanish invasion of Mexico and the lessons it offers for our preparations would not have gone amiss. What it doesn’t offer is a specialised plan; ET is coming, what do we do?

The final chapter discusses ways to prepare for alien encounter. The authors suggest that a ‘Sixth Column’ – a classified study and preparation program – be created to meet the possible threat. They point out, correctly, that lack of a prior plan can lead to disaster. However, many of the objections they raise to disclosure are somewhat disingenuous. For example, they assert that any sharing of technology would grant it to rogue nations. I doubt that that is possible, at least not within a meaningful timeframe. Having a complete set of plans for the F-22 would not allow North Korea to build its own. It took them decades to produce nukes.

Obviously, some manner of global cooperation is required. NATO has served well when it came to meeting threats that all its members agreed were threats. An alliance against an alien threat might reasonably include the G22 states, providing enough economic, political and military power to deter rogue nations from acting up. Why, you might ask, would the Chinese or Russians cooperate? Answer; they’re just as threatened by ET as everyone else.

One of the main problems with the Sixth Column’s position is funding. Developing advanced weapons in total secrecy is likely to cost a LOT of money. It’s hard enough to convince governments in these days of economic belt-tightening to pay for equipment to meet threats that are clearly seen; why would anyone expect the government to pour billons of dollars into a black project without it turning into a political football? And what if there is no clear proof of an alien threat? That is one good reason for disclosure – to frighten governments enough to get them to unlock the purse strings and push money into the military.

There are ways to make some preparations on a limited budget. Have biohazard teams (prepared for immediate deployment to a biological attack) trained to deal with a UFO crash. Have diplomatic teams study alien contact as a theoretical exercise. Have the laws and regulations governing commercial space travel abolished, allowing the covert development of a space force that might pass unnoticed. There are many others, which need careful thought.

I enjoyed reading this textbook, honestly. However, there are some curious oversights.

There is no serious literature review. OK, there hasn’t been an alien invasion and there are no serious studies of past invasions. However, there are a considerable number of novels published concerning alien invasion – and the authors barely touch upon this subject. They prefer to concentrate on movies and television shows. This isn’t a bad idea, in some respects, but it is very limited.

In my opinion (I have been reading SF since I was 7) there are three alien invasion novels that must be read by anyone seriously interested in the possibilities. The War of the Worlds (HG Wells), Footfall (Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle) and Operation Thunder Child (Nick Pope). The War of the Worlds was the first novel concerning alien invasion. Footfall was hard science-fiction, without any ‘magic’ technology. Operation Thunder Child touches upon government and military responses to alien encounter and invasion. These books are not mentioned by the authors, even though they are vitally important for any serious study of the genre.

Following on, there are many others. The Alien Years explores the problems in dealing with far more advanced aliens. A Matter for Men and its sequels consider an alien terraforming of Earth. The Kraken Wakes considers contact and war with aliens we never see, hiding within the ocean deeps. The Midwich Cuckoos considers the dangers of a very stealthy and insidious alien invasion. Even Out of the Dark offers useful thoughts on how alien invasion might play out.

A second oversight – potentially more serious – is that there isn’t much information that might be useful at once. What should a USAF officer do when confronted with a crashed UFO? He’d be better briefed if he read Operation Thunder Child. What should we do if we detect an alien mothership heading towards Earth? Footfall offers some helpful suggestions. This book should have included a provisional SOP for possible encounters.

I enjoyed reading this book. Ignore most of my quibbles; this book is a daring and worthwhile read. However, this book has its flaws – and we should not be blind to them. It could cost us…everything.

What lessons can we draw from the past?

  • Unity is important. We must present a united front to the aliens. The Aztec Empire included subject nations that fought beside the Spanish, helping to overthrow the Aztecs.
  • ET may play with a different political/diplomatic guidebook. Learn as fast as we can. We may end up having to accept their version of the law.
  • Learn how to overcome alien tech advantages and duplicate their technology. The Aztecs had a habit of ritual warfare rather than serious warfare – and it cost them. The Native Americans never managed to duplicate European technology to any great extent.

Any others?

Implied Spaces - Walter Jon Williams


I have what I tend to think of as a shit list of authors. Generally, it consists of authors who come up with great ideas and then fail to execute them properly – while making me pay full price for a copy of their books. One of the many reasons why the Baen Free Library and Free Samples is such a great idea is that even if I don’t like the samples, I haven’t actually spent any money on the book and don’t feel inclined to bash the author, publisher or anyone else.

Walter Jon Williams has been on my shit list for quite some time, after I paid for a complete set of his Dread Empire Falls books. They were badly written, poorly conceived and completely failed to live up to the promise suggested by the back covers. It was only because I saw Implied Spaces in the library that I decided to buy it and read it. I am pleased (and astonished) to report that it is actually a very good book, reminding me of A Fire Upon the Deep and other far future yarns.

It is several thousand years in the future and humanity has passed through the singularity. Under the benevolent oversight of eleven powerful AIs, humanity has solved most of its ills and has spread out over countless star systems. Most of the human race enjoys living in artificial universes, where they can indulge themselves to the full. Others set out on STL trips across the universe, looking for new worlds to explore.

But all is not well in this paradise. A shadowy figure has launched a plan to take over the world and impose his own order on paradise. A desperate war ensures between the shadowy figure – who has subverted one of the AIs – and the loyalists. The war is a strange mixture of very high-tech and theories that would be understandable today. Much of it is strange and confusing at first glance, yet it makes a certain kind of sense. In a nod to Peter F. Hamilton’s work, backed up copies of dead people can be revived, allowing the dead to live on. One of the enemy’s nastier tricks is an infection that ensures that all who rise from the dead are his devoted loyalists. One gets the feeling that the only thing preventing humanity from being destroyed or enslaved by the AIs are the safeguards built into them, which ironically prevent the AIs from evolving to the point where they can simply out-evolve the enemy.

The villain actually raises a very good point in his megalomania. If there is nothing to strive for, what purpose is there to life? It is not an argument I have much sympathy with, I admit. The people who starve to death each day on our world would love to live in a post-scarcity world. His conception – that the universe is the creation of the Inept, an incompetent God – suggests a greater purpose to life. I do agree with the hero though, in some ways. What are they going to do – seek recompense from God?

In some ways, the ending is too simplistic for my tastes, but it fits in neatly with the rest of the book. The epilogue is actually – although this is not made clear – a note of the price of backsliding into barbarism, as a make-believe world of swords and sorcery becomes real and the mighty civilisation that birthed it nothing more than myths and legends. I’d like to see a sequel at some point.

Those who enjoyed John Ringo’s There Will Be Dragons may note some similar themes, but the story is very different. There are problems with presenting a post-singularity world to modern-day readers, a problem faced by other authors, yet Williams does very well. It really required an appendix too.

Overall, the book showcases the promise – and terrors – of singularity. It is definitely worth a read. A couple more like this and I may even take him off my shit list.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Last Light - Alex Scarrow

Last Light

-Alex Scarrow

Last Light is a book that should have worked and indeed works better than might be expected.  I do have problems with part of the storyline, but I will get to that further on in the review.

It is roughly 2005 (the book got dated very quickly, as it refers to UK forces in Iraq) and terrorists have pulled off a series of strikes that cripple global oil production and distribution.  Through the eyes of a British family, the UK PM and an assassin working for the bad guys, we see the disastrous effects this has on the world.  The Middle East becomes consumed by riots that force the remaining Western forces to hunker down and prepare for withdrawal, while the rapid spread of panic in Britain leads to massive riots and a general collapse of society, something that would have been less believable prior to the 2011 London Riots.

The father of the British family was a prepper (as in survivalist).  He actually did the research that predicted the oil shortage prior to the book’s opening.  His soon to be ex-wife doesn’t believe him, nor does his teenage daughter and son.  As the story unfolds, the father finds himself trapped in Iraq with the British Army, while the mother is forced to make her way home slowly through dangerous streets and the daughter and son are forced to hunker down at home and pray for the end of the crisis.  The PM, meanwhile, loses all control of his country, despite a declaration of martial law and suchlike.  And the assassin is after the daughter…

There is a major weakness in the book which pretty much shattered my suspension of disbelief.  The bad guys behind the plot are a consortium of powerful families that had existed prior to the American Revolution, an idea right out of 100 Bullets.  It would have been easy to believe Islamic terrorists launching the strike, but not a conspiracy of people whose power depends on a stable world.  If this wasn’t bad enough, the assassin is sent after the daughter because she glimpsed one of the bad guys – with the effect that the conspiracy’s own incompetence helped uncover its existence.  What – realistically – is a half-memory from years ago going to do to them?

Past that, the book is sometimes repetitive, but chilling.  The fighting in Iraq is bad, but its worse in Britain.  Both the mother and daughter narrowly avoid being raped more than once – others are not so lucky – and the police and the military are nowhere in evidence.  And there are deaths, including some surprising characters.  The book glides over the multitude of characters – and social attitudes – that weave their way through the crisis.  Some become angels and risk their lives helping others; others fall to darkness and loot, rape and burn at will.  Like most post-apocalyptic novels, there’s no happy ending.  Its bittersweet at best.

I think that the author exaggerates the crisis to some degree.  Yes, a sudden and major cut-off of oil and food would be devastating.  However, the British government seems to have been attacked with crazy-stupid gas.  Instead of making immediate preparations for martial law, the PM appeals to the Dunkirk sprit that saved Britain before.  The government should have responded decisively, instead of an attitude that ranges from denial to wishy-washy reluctance to bite the bullet and crackdown harshly. 

First, don’t announce anything until nightfall – say, around 2300.  Second, call up all police and military reservists.  Hell, call up anyone with military experience.  There’s supposed to be a plan to do just that.  Get their families packed off to secure military bases so the soldiers don’t have to worry about them.  Send troops to the media centres and make sure that they toe the line – no public broadcast until 2300.  Get armed troops out to food storage warehouses, hospitals and other locations that need to be secured.  Set up detention camps for prisoners.  There’s going to be a lot of them.

At 2300, announce the curfew and heavy fuel rationing.  No public sales of petrol to anyone.  Armed police on the streets, particularly in the inner cities, backed up by AFVs if possible.  Take over the media completely; take down the internet and mobile phone networks.  There will be trouble in the rowdier areas; stamp on it hard.  Thugs and looters to be arrested if possible; shot down if not.  Prisoners go to the detention camps.  Areas of heavy rioting to receive a higher police/military presence.  Any peaceful community leaders told to appeal for calm, or else.  Any known agitators/radical imams/whatever to be rounded up before they can do anything. 

Address the nation the following morning.  The priority is to make it clear that the government is in control and that food will be delivered.  Don’t lie – be honest and admit that the country is in for hard times.  And make it clear that rioting will be met with a heavy response.  Food will be rationed; any attempt at hoarding will be heavily punished.

Over the next few weeks, start reopening farms and throw out the EU regulations that killed so many small farms.  The intention is to feed the entire country internally if possible, before running out of food.  Gently relax the security if possible...

None of this will make the government popular, but it is doable and much of the country would survive.

Overall, this book is worth at least one read.  Maybe not a keeper though.

Friday, 26 August 2011

The Dark Path (Doctor Who) - David A. McIntee

The Dark Path (Doctor Who)

-David A. McIntee

A good superhero origin story should be a combination of factors.  It should show us how to be better people while grounding us in the real human world.  Captain America, or Spiderman, or Superman all have origin stories that show them making the decision to be good people, even if their lives are touched by the fantastic.  A hero who lacks that grounding is, at best, an antihero.  At worst he’s a supervillain himself.  Far too many superhero origin stories turn into trite moral lessons.

On the other hand, there is something to be said for a good supervillain origin story.  It should show how weaknesses (pride, or suchlike) bring down a man and turn him into a villain.  Hal Jordan’s transformation into an evil monster was well done; blinded by rage and loss, Hal turned into a monster who destroyed the Green Lantern Corps.  DC Comics, by using a cheap plot device to retcon the whole of Hal’s fall, ruined what was one of their most promising stories.  The most compelling villains have always been the ones who were once good people, and fell.  They were responsible for their own failings and defeats.

I had heard of The Dark Path before RTD gave the Master, the greatest Doctor Who villain, an origin story of sorts.  I found his version unsatisfactory.  The Master could not have been driven mad by a constant drumming in his head, if only because none of the pre-RTD incarnations of the Master referred to it, even during their most dramatic moments.  And then the Master’s appearance in The End of Time was, at best, erratic.  By making the Master the victim of someone far darker, the whole ethos of the Master was cheapened.  He could not be termed responsible for his own actions, let alone his fall into depravity.  And let’s face it – at one point, the Master had to be someone the Doctor liked.

Compared to the RTD-Master, The Dark Path is a work of genius.

Set during the era of the Second Doctor (although tied into the backstory created for the Seventh Doctor New Adventures), the story focuses around a lost colony of the Terran Empire (presumably no connection to the Great and Bountiful Human Empire of the Ninth Doctor).  The Imperials have been studying the DarkHeart, a faded neutron star. These Imperials seem frozen in time from an era when the Empire was still in its glory, and are determined to destroy all real and imagined enemies of the Empire -- including a fleet of Veltrochni ships that happen to pass through the system.  The Veltrochni are unwilling to take this lying down and start launching a mission of revenge, interrupted by the appearance of a cruiser from the Federation (which replaced the Terran Empire).  This rather Star Trek-like plot is interrupted by the arrival of the Doctor and a mysterious man called Koschei.  Koschei, who is clearly a Time Lord in his own right, seems just like the Doctor, complete with TARDIS and a companion, the young Ailla.

Glossing over parts of the plot, the DarkHeart can be used to rewrite entire sections of time and space.  This allows the Imperials to use it to change the DNA of non-human crew on the Federation ship into human DNA (causing no end of confusion) and threaten to turn the Federation into a human paradise.  Sadly, Ailla is killed in the fighting and Koschei vows to attempt to restore her, using the DarkHeart to rewrite history.  He starts helping the Imperials to control the DarkHeart, planning to betray them all the while, once he gets what he wants from the affair.  The Doctor, once he realises what is going on, tries to stop him.

But what Koschei doesn’t know is that Ailla isn't human either.  The Time Lords didn't exactly trust Koschei and gave him a Time Lord supervisor, disguised as a human.  She didn't die at all, merely regenerated.  Having already compromised himself when he started on his mad quest to restore his friend, Koschei goes mad.  The Master has been born.

"What's happened to you?" the Doctor asked, genuinely worried for his friend.

 "My people mistrust me; I kill one of my best friends who was sent to me by the other; and both betray me. I have found myself, Doctor, and I am the stronger for it."

Overall, the Doctor and the Master push everyone else out of the spotlight.  The author captures them both very well; indeed, you can almost hear the actors speaking their lines.  In a written version of Human Nature/The Family of Blood, there is a clear difference between Koschei - a neutral observer who's obviously Delgado but suavely efficient – and the Master, of whom we all know.  One could nitpick the scene where the Master becomes the Master, yet it beats the RTD version by miles.  Jamie and Victoria come across, at first, as a bit wooden, but eventually they sound more like their actor counterparts.  Victoria, though, does get influenced by Koschei – a rather droll reminder of Jo Grant’s first encounter with the Master.

The supporting cast come across very well.  I rather enjoyed some of the banter on the Federation starship and their struggles to understand what was going on around them.  I do have a nitpick – if the crew were transformed into humans, why didn't their memories change as well – but that’s largely harmless.  We have appearances from a dozen races created for Doctor Who over the years, all fun.

Overall, this isn't the best ‘Origin of the Master’ story – that honour goes to a piece of fan fiction, The Naming of Things ( – that I have read, but it is pretty fun – and far better than RTD’s version.

Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Mission of Honor (David Weber)

Mission of Honor

-David Weber

David Weber is one of my favourite authors. And yet, he seems to be going through a very bad patch. First, he started to write the Safehold books, which have started to drag (and the good guys have so many advantages that it’s hard to see how they can lose). And then there was Out of the Dark, which ended with a Deus Ex Machina that came right out of left field. And now…there is Mission of Honor. Like the books I mentioned, it is a frustrating mix of utter brilliance combined with heavy-duty dragging.

The second war between Manticore and Haven has come to a pause, following the savage Battle of Manticore in At All Costs. However, the SKM is on the verge of a confrontation with the Solarian League, the galaxy’s 7000pound gorilla – and totally unaware that an insidious agenda for galactic domination is finally ready to come into the light. As Honor sets off on her peace mission to Haven, Manticore becomes the first target in a new and deadly war…

Now, I may as well get my first gripe out of the way. This book should really have been titled Meetings of Honor. I think that at least half of the book consists of meetings between various key players, all repeating the same conclusions over and over again. Some of those meetings are clearly very important – particularly the ones on Old Earth – but others seem to be there more as a shout-out to various characters from earlier in the series. A second part of the book consists of peace talks on Haven…again, most of them could be addressed in two-three paragraphs. We don’t read Weber for his meetings.

This has its odd aspect as Honor comes across as a bit-player in her own series. We see more of the bad guys and the newly-good guys (Haven’s Committee of Public Safety was replaced by a far better government in Ashes of Victory) than we do of Honor. And for much of her time, Honor seems content to waffle on at the peace conference, rather than simply dictating an acceptable peace.

The second problem is that the events in the book are telescoped. As I understand it, Weber’s original concept was to have the war against the Alignment (which has plans to create a new era of human genetic engineering) several years down the line, after Honor’s death and her children reach adulthood. Instead, he altered this plan – and while it keeps his lead character alive, it also creates an impression that the universe is simply too big to explore. We get what is, effectively, a secret history of the original war, something that is often difficult to believe.

Even so, Weber’s combat scenes are as good as ever, even though he keeps giving the readers massive information dumps. The utterly outclassed Solarian League Navy’s encounter with the RMN is very well detailed. So, too, is the sneak attack launched by the Alignment, although its codename is an utterly groaning pun. (Oyster Bay…)

Overall, this may well be the weakest book in the series, serving more to put an end to one war and start another, rather than exploring Honor’s life and career. I find it harder to get excited about the next book than I did before reading this one – and that is a crying shame.

Friday, 3 June 2011

A State of Disobedience - Tom Kratman

A State of Disobedience

-Tom Kratman

Oddly enough, I only discovered and read this book by accident. I’d seen the preview chapters, but I hadn’t intended to read the whole novel until I was forwarded a copy by a friend. I read the entire book and discovered that I enjoyed it. Score one for Jim Baen’s liberal philosophy on electronic books.

It is roughly 2014 (for some reason, the book’s blurb claims that it is actually set much later in the century). The American Government has won the war on terror. American troops are garrisoning parts of the Middle East and oil supplies have been secured. Unfortunately, in doing so, the government has assumed vast powers over everything from internal security to the economy. And, with the election of the unscrupulous and power-hungry Wilhelmina Rottemeyer (a thinly-veiled Hilary Clinton), the tools designed to fight terrorism are turned against the American people.

Passing new laws against ‘Emotional Terrorism,’ the government starts to clamp down on freedom of expression, culminating in attacks on anti-abortion protesters. In hopes of providing a salutary example to other protesters, federal agents arrange for the massacre of protesters in Texas, ending with a siege uncomfortably reminiscent of Waco. Unluckily for the government, they are besieging a mission operated by the brother of Governor Juanita Seguin, who – eventually – is forced to send the Texan National Guard to intervene. They are too late, however, to prevent a bloody slaughter.

Fuelled by a burning desire for freedom and revenge, Texas separates itself from the federal government. The President, however, cannot allow them to leave the union, knowing that it would break both the country and her personally. The military is prepared for an invasion of Texas, despite considerable doubts as to the wisdom of siding with the President. As the odd war rages on, the President’s grip on power – and events – begins to weaken, until she goes too far. Her power collapses, threatening the integrity of the entire country – and she is assassinated by one of her victims.

The book’s main weak point is that it takes too long to get to the interesting sections – the start of the war itself. Once the crisis has well and truly begun, it picks up speed rapidly, with both sides preparing their forces and plans of campaign. The characters don’t just focus on the military, but also the economical, propaganda and logistical side of the conflict, giving the book a sense of realism lacking in many other books. The military options make sense and the viewpoint characters are realistic. Mind you, the federal agent in command of one of the operations clearly didn’t even study the left-wing version of World War One. Walking up to a defended building in the open is just asking to get mown down.

Using abortion as the trigger event is something of a gutsy move, although I can see how it could be spun by the bad guys and used to justify a very disproportionate response. Personally, as an outside observer of American politics, I am not particularly impressed by either the right or the left’s response to abortion. Both sides engage in too much wishful thinking and hypocrisy. I have a feeling that there is room for both sides to find a compromise, although the loudest voices on both sides would doubtless be horrified at any concessions. That actually illustrates one of the book’s points quite nicely. Politics are becoming so poisonous that losing becomes actively dangerous to one’s future.

The book does have a missed opportunity, for President Rottemeyer is unquestionably evil, with no redeeming values at all. She will do anything to maintain her power. This is something of a pity as the book’s point could have been made quite nicely by using her as a tragic figure of sorts, a true believer in social engineering who convinces herself – every time – that the ends justify her means. The outside observer, on the other hand, would see her sliding down a slippery slope to hell. He would get to see why the President and those who share her beliefs are so badly wrong. Instead, we have a woman who murdered a man standing in her way, organised her husband’s jailing and is quite happy to wade through blood to get what she wants.

Another interesting point about this book is the issue of moral choice. Rottemeyer herself has no morals – she even continues her desperate attempt to cling onto power in the wake of her lover’s resignation and departure. Other characters make hard choices right from the start. Father Montoya risks (and loses) his life by giving sanctuary to a priest who would challenge the government’s version of events. The Governor risks her entire state by standing up to the federal government. Some soldiers and pilots make the decision to resign or go on strike rather than fight the Texans; even General McCreavy, the President’s lesbian lover, eventually leaves her rather than stay by her side. Sometimes this seems more than a little arbitrary; the USAF’s refusal to support Rottemeyer is necessary for the plot, but the soldiers and marines remain faithful until much later.

There are absolutely no shades of grey in this book, although there is some unintentional irony. Liberals are bad and are either true believers who refuse to see the chaos they leave in their wake, or are total hypocrites whose inner feelings are effectively fascist. Conservatives are good guys, always. The bad guys do stupid things for no sensible reason. The list of proposed amendments to the constitution at the end would offend pretty much everyone in the USA.

I confess that that leaves me a little puzzled, if only because the more extreme factions on the American Right wouldn't create a better world than President Rottemeyer and her followers. There isn’t much of a difference between fascism and communism when it comes to the bottom line. They both insist on massive state control of everything. And even though they would find it offensive, I don’t see any real moral difference between those who would insist on multiculturalism and those who wish to ban homosexuality.

Overall, it is hard to rate this book. Some sections are truly excellent. Other sections read very weakly. But it is definitely worth at least one read and serious consideration.  For a first novel (Kratman has written several more since, including three Posleen books) it isn't bad at all.

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Molon Labe - ‘Boston T. Party’

Molon Labe

-‘Boston T. Party’
There’s no way of getting around this – Molon Labe is a very poorly written book.

The first problem is very obvious right from the start. The entire book is written in present tense (apart from the faked news interviews and articles). This gets irritating very quickly. The second problem is that there are a number of pure howlers in the text and background material. The third problem is that the book suffers from what I tend to think of as overacting. You can get away with this if you’re writing satire or parody. You can't if you’re writing a thriller or political tract. The fourth is that the book jumps around a LOT. All of this is something of a shame as the book has a fairly original plot concept, which deserved much better execution.

Anyway, in an alternate 2011 (the book can be dated as the author made references to real events in his book) the Libertarian Party is launching an attempt to create a Free State within the United States. The basic concept is fairly simple – Libertarian Party members are moving to Wyoming and setting up residence there, tipping the state’s demographics to the point where they constitute a majority. This allows them to rewrite the state’s legal system to suit themselves. All of this takes place against a background of chaos, as the United States seems to have gone mad. Government agencies such as the FBI, ATF and IRS have started cracking down really hard on innocent Americans, provoking resistance and an unofficial program of political assassination. This convinces many thousands of Americans to start migrating to Wyoming, the last bastion of American freedom.

Ah, I thought; now we will see a battle when the Feds invade the Free State. No, actually; the book sort-of grinds to a half when the Free State steals a handful of nukes and uses them to deter the Feds from invading. The ending shows most of American shading into darkness, with Wyoming growing in power as companies move there to escape excessive government regulation.

Truthfully, I'm not sure where to begin.

The good first, such as it is – the author successfully touches on many important issues for contemporary America. There is an insight into the Fully Informed Juries campaign which is well worth study, although perhaps not from this book. There are insights into the mindset created by massive bureaucratic entities (hint; the amount of common sense in a bureaucracy is inversely proportional to the size of the entity) and how laws can be used and abused in the name of public safety. There is an important digression on the current state of American education and how – insanely – pro-public education people are attempting to bring every child into the system, even though the system has been falling apart for years. And yes, there are gun rights. Lots of gun rights. One of the more positive parts of the book is that it slams both main American political parties, rather than the more usual ‘Republicans Good, Democrats Dumb.’

The bad...

Well, at the state of the book, the author makes a very unflattering prediction of Hilary Clinton’s future. I have no love for Hilary, but it is not only absurd, and wrong – it dates the book and probably opens the author to a lawsuit.

More seriously, there is a curious contradiction in the author’s libertarianism. Now, I am no expert on the subject, but it strikes me that libertarianism is basically ‘do what you want, provided that non-consenting people are not harmed.’ It sounds great, but the author takes a strong stance against drug and alcohol use. He also slams homosexuality as, like the two former ‘vices,’ as being bad for one’s heath. That’s a new one on me. If the author is referring to physical health, the smart homosexuals can avoid STDs with ease; if he is referring to mental health...well, it might have something to do with the fact that homosexuals do face discrimination, even by accident. Even so, it is a new one on me.

The book might have made sense if it had been focused on a more basic Unintended Consequences-style conflict. The author, however, brings in claims of a centuries-long satanic conspiracy to enslave the world, as well as the – slightly – newer ‘Evil UN’ trope. The UN has a grand plan to register all the world’s firearms. It doesn't seem to occur to the author that that task is completely impossible – how do they intend to do it in Iraq, or Somalia, or Afghanistan? .

And then there’s the theory about the decline of American education, which is apparently descended from the Prussian system designed to dampen down individual thought. It would have surprised anyone from 1945 – the German army was, man for man, the most innovative in the world. I don’t blame the author for not dwelling on this much – the Germans who developed this to its greatest extent were the Nazis.

And then there’s the author’s claim that the cause of World War Two was that Britain lost its bottle in 1936. There is a certain amount of truth in this, but then the author goes on to claim that this never happened in America. It did – after the American Civil War, the North lost all enthusiasm for actually standing up for the rights of Black Americans. The result was Jim Crow and, irony of ironies, the first gun control laws, written to disarm the blacks! The author bemoans gun control laws, yet doesn't seem to recognise the irony.

The problem with political tracts is that they are often written to prove that the author’s bright idea will work in practice. I’m not particularly convinced that this idea will work, partly because of the poor execution. The overacting – many characters regularly declaim in a manner recognisable to readers of Ayn Rand – doesn’t help, nor does the absurdity. To cite one example, when the ‘evil liberals’ have the bright idea of shipping in their fellow liberals to shift the demographic balance again, the good guys have the bright idea of tax breaks for everyone who carries a gun in public. This scares the liberals out of the state – seemingly unaware that they live in a world where guns are far from the only things that kill people. And then there’s the author’s avocation of shunning to get rid of nosy federal agents – sure, shun the agents, but deliberately arranging for their kids to be bullied? The author lost whatever was left of me there – not much by then – and that doesn't include the stupidity of encouraging bullying in a country where guns are easy to obtain.

IMHO, the book tried to be too many things. It wanted to be a story of freedom and an age of libertarian harmony, but it also wanted to be the next Unintended Consequences or Enemies Foreign and Domestic.

In short, cool idea, but very poor execution.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Dragon’s Fury (Jeff Head)

Dragon’s Fury (Jeff Head)

This book really needed an editor. The lack of competent editing took it from a ‘very good’ to ‘good, with some reservations.’ It’s probably worth noting that anyone who didn’t like The Third World War (a manuscript I wrote) is going to have a heart attack a few chapters into this book, so make sure that you’re sitting somewhere comfortable before you open the ebook or buy the paper copy. Confusingly, Dragon’s Fury is really five books and one complete hardcopy, but as the ebook is free online, you might want to read it first.

Anyway…in the early years of the 20th Century, the world is at war again. This time it’s the Chinese, allied with the Indians and Iran, which has somehow generated an ideology that has allowed it to appeal to most of the Islamic world. The Chinese have developed a radical new superweapon that can be deployed against American ships, with the net result of a series of heavy disasters, recurring terrorist attacks and atrocities for the Americans. If you read without knowing any of the technological and practical background, you’ll enjoy seeing a war on a scale that makes the Second World War look like nothing, but it was hard for me to suspend my disbelief as the story just kept expanding. A Chinese invasion of Alaska? Maybe possible, but on top of all their other commitments?

A problem I have noted before with American writers is that they have a tendency to make two basic errors; they treat the world as monopoler and regard, furthermore, that pole as the will of the United States. The story does have a handful of sympathetic enemy characters, but much of the story boils down to ‘US versus Pure Evil,’ with the addition of a supporting cast of worthless liberals and slimy Frenchmen (or at least the French government). The American characters are all brave, noble and true, from the Marty Sue President to the street children made good in the fires of war, with the exception of the worthless liberals mentioned above.

The writer shows no lack of imagination when outlining his war. What he lacks is a sense of perspective. One of the most irritating parts of the book, completely irrelevant to the overall story, is a tangent in which abortion is proved to be fundamentally wrong…just because someone manages to come up with proof that a baby in the womb, from the earliest days, has a soul. Or something like that; I lost track of the technobabble and I suspect that the author had the same problem. Regardless, somehow this translates into a perfect solution to the entire abortion debate, rather than merely adding yet another layer to the debate. Abortion makes me sick on a very basic level, but this solution fails to address any of the new problems and old ones with a new face – what would Mr Head say to a raped girl carrying her attacker’s baby? I have a suspicion that it wouldn’t be something helpful. Quite what this has to do with the Third World War is beyond me…

(There’s also a second jarring point in the whole abortion of an abortion arc. A self-righteous Christian researcher blocks research into foetal tissue that leads, eventually, to banning abortion. Logically, by the time the considerably smarter researcher breaks through the political blocks and proves abortion immoral, plenty of other babies will have been aborted – deaths caused, if accidentally, by the self-righteous moron. And yet the guy is completely unaware of this and congratulates himself on his approach to the whole issue. No one else even points it out to him.)

It’s not the only jarring moment in the book. Jeff Head references, as far as I can tell, himself – or another of his books, the non-fictional Stand at Kalmath Falls. This may be meant as an in-joke, but the references are neither cute nor funny. Time and time again, he belabours the same points, sometimes to good effect, but mostly as annoying as Turtledove’s endless repetition. I enjoy a good Clinton-bash as much as the next right-winger, but endlessly repeating the same points time and time again doesn’t help. Clinton’s fundamental problem was that he was a man unsuited to the times and unable to grasp the nettle in time to prevent growing problems, several of which exploded in the face of his successor. I am not actually convinced that there was anything actually malign about him.

The series does have some remarkable technological visions and ideas, some of which should be available any day now, but overall, the politics, the limited characterisation (particularly of the Chinese) and the tangents take down the score. It’s worth a read, but maybe not as a permanent fixture on my bookcase.

Monday, 4 April 2011

The Horse at the Gates - DC Alden

The Horse at the Gates

-DC Alden

Some years ago, my friend Tom Kratman published a book called Caliphate, set one hundred years in Europe’s future. The demographic nightmare has finally come true; Europe is dominated by an Islamic Caliphate, where pretty much everyone apart from the ruling class has a shitty life. It isn’t much better in America, where the United States has become the New American Empire, freedom and democracy are things of the past and people live in fear of the knock on the door at midnight. Caliphate is actually broken into two sections; an adventure story set within the Caliphate itself and a look at the slow collapse of Europe, seen through the eyes of a young and foolish German girl.

In my opinion, at least, the latter part of the book is actually far more harrowing than the section set in the future Europe. The Caliphate is just too different from our present day – so, in a lesser sense, is the New American Empire – to be considered real. The segments set in the near future, however, are linked closely to our modern-day world. The surroundings are known and the effect is terrifying. So, too, are the mental blocks caused by political correctness, the dull inability to admit what is going on – and the horrified realisation when something finally breaks through and the character is confronted by inescapable reality.

The Horse at the Gates is, if anything, much less optimistic than Caliphate. In some ways, it is actually more harrowing because it is set in near-future Britain, one that is both instantly recognisable and warped beyond recognition. The story chronicles the final days of independence and the collapse of law and authority, heralding a slow collapse into darkness. Islam means ‘submission to God’. It may darkly amuse you to realise that when Islamists use the word ‘Islam,’ they mean ‘submission to them.’

In the near future, terrorists have detonated a nuclear bomb in Pakistan, forcing thousands of refugees to flee to the west. The EU insists that of thousands are allowed to settle in Britain while millions more languish in refugee camps in Egypt, desperate for the chance to enter the promised land of Europe. Worse, the EU is on the verge of signing the Treaty of Cairo, which would admit Egypt to the EU and allow a new flood of migrants to enter the country. Conditions in the refugee centres in Britain are nightmarish, something that troubled Prime Minister Gabriel Bryce is forced to confront.

Steeling himself, Bryce prepares to announce draconian changes to Britain's immigration policy, but darker figures are already on the move. Tariq Saeed, senior Cabinet Minister and architect of the chaos, has ambitions to become the first ruler of an Islamic Europe. With skill and patience, he wove his net – and Bryce acts too late. A car bomb destroys Downing Street, wiping out most of the Cabinet. To the north of London a simultaneous explosion levels the Luton Central Mosque, triggering a national crisis whose repercussions ripple across the continent.

(I have a case of sour grapes here. I used the same plot device in my first attempt at writing a novel.)

In London, Danny Whelan – an ex-soldier – finds himself caught in a nightmare. Pre-selected and groomed as an unwitting scapegoat, Danny's past links to a banned far right organisation have implicated him in both the Luton and Downing Street outrages. Leaving everything he knows behind he goes on the run, finding refuge with a retired politician who plans to use Danny for his own ends, a new terror campaign that will divide the population and plunge the country into a bloody civil war. Danny escapes, only to walk into a trap and find himself offered up as a scapegoat as the country abases itself before Islam.

Bryce awakes from the destruction of Ten Downing Street, only to find himself a prisoner in a mental hospital. Realising that he was never meant to recover and fearing for his life, Bryce is forced to escape the facility and embark on a hazardous journey, one that leads him to an uncertain future across the Atlantic Ocean. Behind him, the country finally comes apart – Saeed has won.

The Horse at the Gates touched on many contemporary issues and themes. The looming fear of political Islam, the gagging effect of political correctness, the demonisation of people with legitimate concerns as racists and bigots (google Gordon Brown and Gillian Duffy for an excellent real-life example), the reluctance of the government to tackle extremism and barbaric cultural behaviours, the spread of CCTV, ID cards and government oversight, the transfer of regional power to the European Union and – perhaps most important of all – the growing culture of political corruption. Can anyone doubt, after the expenses scandal, that MPs live on a different planet to the rest of us?

And the overall effect is chilling. The characters are well-drawn and comprehensible, even if both Danny and Bryce give up far too easily. Why doesn’t Bryce take the chance of going to a military base and making contact with the British Army? Why doesn’t Danny take the opportunity to fight back against his tormentors? The general air of despair and decay running through the novel is alarming, with scenes specifically drawn to show just how far Europe and Britain have fallen.

Alden’s Britain is not a good place to live, for anyone. There are more and more people out of work as the economy slowly collapses. The non-Muslim population lives in fear as events such as Remembrance Day are cancelled for fear of offending people and military graveyards are vandalised. The population is either accommodating itself to the new world order – tiny details like the near-impossibility of finding non-Halal meat in supermarkets rub the point in – or trying to escape. There aren’t many places to go, for the decay is everywhere. America – unlike in Caliphate – is suffering from its own social decay. At the end of the book, social collapse seems a matter of months away…

It would be nice to say that this would never come to pass. Alden’s last book – Invasion – was fun, yet utterly implausible. The Horse at the Gates seems horrifyingly possible.

There will be people who will point and laugh at the author and call him a racist, a bigot or worse. They will claim that it is a feeble book, full of ridiculous notions and feeble verbiage. Perhaps they should consider just how many unthinkable events have taken place in world history, or how many absurdities people have believed, or just how tiny – relatively speaking – the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, or the Nazi Party, actually was. A tiny minority can take control and force people to dance to their tune. Maybe the vast majority of Muslims are not our enemies, but those that are have devoted themselves to our destruction. And let us not forget people like George Galloway, who serve to enable terrorism and the cultural barbarities that breed terrorism and the nihilistic hopelessness that sends so many to embrace their deaths.

What we in the West seldom realise is that, to our enemies, words are just another weapon of war. Hitler’s Big Lie is alive and well. There are many little lies as well – ‘if you don’t like certain cultural practices, you are a racist’ – and each of them adds another strand to the straightjacket enfolding the western mind. We are too quick to believe what our enemies say and take it for granted that their interpretation of a word means the same as our own. Let us not forget – as Finland, Hungry and Czechoslovakia were taught – that when the Soviet Union said that it was fighting for Peace, it meant the peace of the grave. And when we use political correctness to draw a veil over the more repugnant aspects of other cultures, we do ourselves no favours. The problem with turning the other cheek is that it just gives the other guy a chance to slap it too.

The Horse at the Gates is well worth a read. And the West is well worth fighting for.

Let’s try not to forget that, shall we? Our political elites already have.

Friday, 1 April 2011

The General's President - John Dalmas

The General's President
-John Dalmas

At last the generals were going to get their kind of President. At least that's what they thought...
The stock market crash of 1994 made 1929 look like a minor market adjustment...the rioters of the '90s made the Wobblies look like country-club Republicans...the Vice President of the U.S. resigns in a cloud of scandal - and when the military hints that they may let the lynch mobs through anyway, the President resigns as well. But the President must first propose a new chief executive to succeed him - one approved by the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thus the generals get to pick a President. Imagine their surprise when the President they pick turns out to be his own man...

The plot of this book reassembled Executive Orders (Tom Clancy), although it predates that by some years. The basic plot is similar; the United States is having a large financial and social crisis. Because of the extremity of the crisis Congress decides to allow the president complete authority. Shortly thereafter the president resigns and a new, non-political man becomes president. He then goes on, throughout the rest of the book, to exercise his new dictatorial powers to re-engineer all aspects of American government.

Underneath all of this is a plot by the Soviet government to attack the United States with new technology that allows them to do things like change the weather or cause earthquakes. The Soviet-United States conflict seems to be very secondary to the book. Other conflicts in the book (South Africa, the Archons) also seem to be secondary. So much so that the resolution of the conflict seems like an afterthought rather than a climax in the book. In essence, Dalmas appears to have picked up ideas, tossed them around, and put them down again.

I was rather expecting a military coup from the blurb at the back, but no, that never even comes close to happening.

I encountered the book pretty much by accident. It’s not a bad read in most places. It suffers from having too many different ideas in the plot – soviet movements, aliens, and power generation technology – to do it justice. Coving only the American aspects of the crisis would have made the book simpler and more together. Much of the book consists of transcripts from speeches the new president makes to various organizations outlining the new plan, which can be distracting.

It’s full of interesting ideas. Some you might agree with, others you might hate, but it would make an interesting study-book on changes to government.