Friday, 7 December 2012

The Kildaran

-Adam Gaffen and Richard Evans, based on a universe by John Ringo

It is rather curious that while I normally like John Ringo’s writing, Ghost was the only book of his that I couldn't really get into. By around CH7 of the first part of the novel, my sense of the absurd was overpowering my suspension of disbelief and I gave up. But then I read Book Two and found myself hooked. The Paladin of Shadows series is politically incorrect, strongly short, very much like James Bond. Mike Harmon, former SEAL, is just what every man wants to be.

The series is set in an alternate universe of sorts, where a tribe of families – the Kilder – live in a mountain settlement in Georgia (the country, not the state). In Book Two, Mike accidentally becomes their leader and starts training them up as proper warriors. This expands rapidly through the next three books, with the families eventually serving as a Special Operations force closely allied to the US military, battling terrorists, insurgents, criminals...and saving the world on more than one occasion. John doesn’t sugar-coat anything; the villains are very evil, the barbaric habits and customs of certain cultures are illustrated, along with the result of criminal activities like drug trafficking and sexual slavery.

Part of the charm of the series lies in the Kilder themselves. At first, they appear to be just another tribe in a barbaric and deeply corrupt country. As the series continues to expand, however, they reveal surprising depths – and their origins, drawn from a lost tribe of Vikings. (This isn't entirely impossible. There are suggestions that Romans, captured in Persia, eventually ended up in China.) Some of their customs are thoroughly odd, but just right to appeal to the readers. One example is a form of ‘bride price,’ with the bride selling her virginity to Mike for her dowry. And even that has deeper implications...

One of the most important characters in the series is Katrina, a young girl who Mike rescued right back at the start of Book Two. Unsurprisingly, she fell in love with him; surprisingly, Mike didn't move in on her at once. Katrina set her sights on becoming the Kildaran, the wife of the KIldar, and was working towards it when John Ringo put the series on hiatus.

Adam Gaffen and Richard Evens, however, have continued the series with The Kildaran. With Mike settling into a kind of domestic life in the village, complete with harem, Katrina finally makes her move, convincing him to marry her. In the meantime – because it wouldn't be the same without a B-Plot – several nukes have gone missing in Russia and one of them might be on the way to the village. Another seems to be heading for Moscow...which is a problem, because Mike and Putin have clashed once before and Putin wants him dead.

As Mike allows his relationship with Katrina to grow and develop, the teams scramble to hunt down the nukes before they can be deployed, unaware that a deadly shadow from the past has returned to take revenge on Mike – and one of his most trusted allies.

I wrote two books set in one of John Ringo’s universes, but Adam and Richard took on a much harder task, using John Ringo’s characters. I can offer no higher praise than to say that all of the characters sound right, very much like their original versions. Even the ones who have grown up over the novel (and previous books) show very definite links to the past, particularly Katya. It is a rare fan fiction writer who manages to mimic the original style so well, but this book definitely succeeds.

Like the books written by John Ringo in this universe, the novel is delightfully and outrageously over the top. Beautiful women, cool gadgets, villains who thoroughly deserve every bad thing that happens to them, a complete lack of political correctness...

What more do you want?

The Kildaran can be downloaded for free from

Or you can visit the author’s blog -

And you can download the first five books from

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Admiral Who? - Luke Sky Wachter


Humans love having someone to blame for their problems. Admiral Battenberg of the Riyal Navy was hounded from office for having a German name in 1914. Stalin lopped off the heads of officers he blamed for disasters suffered by the Red Army during World War Two, as did Saddam. The whole idea of a scapegoat in times of trouble is as old as humanity itself. Someone has to be the fall guy.

In the universe of Admiral Who, the Montagne family launched an attempted coup against the government – and lost. Naturally, everyone on the wrong side (the one that lost) who managed to survive was treated as a pariah from that moment onwards. Jason Montagne grew up knowing that his sole role in life was to serve as Parliament commanded, with execution waiting in the wings if he showed any signs of political ambition. (Not too unlike a British Royal, only we hound them with reporters instead.) His latest position – which is supposed to be purely honorary – is nominal commander of a fleet in deep space. Real power is firmly in the hands of the Imperial Admiral in command...

...Until the Imperials withdraw, taking with them the best and brightest of the fleet – and leaving Jason in command. Jason, who knows nothing about deep space operations, let alone combat. Jason, who will be executed for returning home with a fleet, even one that seems on the verge of mutiny. Jason, who seems thoroughly screwed.

Jason is far from a perfect hero, which is part of his charm. He blunders from crisis to crisis – mutinous crews, an invading enemy – somehow managing to stay ahead of absolute disaster. His ignorance is both his strength and weakness; at one point, he gives a very famous sword to a girl he rescued, only to discover that she was furious with him. It turns out that giving a girl a sword, in her culture, is a proposal of marriage. And to add to the problem, there was more than a hint of accidental coercion in his actions...which makes Jason look like a dishonourable prat rather than someone who made a honest mistake.

He is helped by an Engineer who may be more than a little insane (and utterly devoted to the Lucky Clover, the ship Jason commands) and a crew that seems rather split on the issue of following him. Some just want to go home, others fear what he could do with an entire starship and plot to kill him.

As the story progresses, Jason finds himself growing into his role – even if everyone does keep asking the same question. “Admiral WHO?”

Overall, this book is a wonderful blend of comedy and space opera, very much like the early pulp science-fiction stories. If you liked the Stainless Steel Rat books, you’ll like this one. It is well worth a read.

Admiral Who can be downloaded from Amazon Kindle.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Dark Mirror (Star Trek: The Next Generation)


-Dianne Dune

“It is easier for the civilised man to play the barbarian than vice versa.”

Star Trek has often been a hit-or-miss show for me. Some episodes had great ideas, some were corny and often puerile. But one of the most interesting shows was Mirror, Mirror, when Captain Kirk and three of his crew were tossed into an alternate universe where the Federation had been replaced by an Empire (and Spock had a goatee). Sadly, Captain Picard’s crew never visited the original alternate universe and when Deep Space Nine came around, the evil counterpart to the Federation had been destroyed. Tedious and boring, said I.

Dark Mirror is one of the few STING novels I have bothered to reread; it is also one of the best. While on very deep space patrol, the USS Enterprise is kidnapped into an alternate universe as the final step before the Empire jumps across the universal barriers and invades the Federation. The crew of the Enterprise find themselves unable, at first, to understand what is going on, until they discover that they have been covertly boarded by a counterpart from the ISS Enterprise. They have to board the Imperial Starship to learn how to build their own ‘inversion device’ that will allow them to return home, all the while avoiding the evil machinations of Mirror Troi.

The Next Generation was known for its rather...pollyanish view of the universe, where Captain Picard can give a speech and convince old hatreds to magically fade away into the ether. Where Dark Mirror shines is in its portrayal of an alternate crew, one that rose to high-ranking positions in an empire of stunning brutality and ruthlessness. Mirror Riker is a backstabbing cunning loon looking out for his chance to off his Captain and take command of the Enterprise for himself. Mirror Troi is a mind-raping security officer who prowls through unwary thoughts for any hint of betrayal (makes you wonder how the people she talked to in OTL felt about the empathy.) Mirror Worf, his homeworld crushed beneath the Empire’s boot, is a broken shadow of the honourable warrior we know. Mirror Beverly Crusher is Mirror Picard’s ‘Captain’s Woman.’

Sometimes, this can be quite striking. Captain Picard and Mirror Picard seem to be opposite personalities, but there are moments when it is clear that they are the same person. They share an abiding love for the Enterprise that overpowers all other loves, as Mirror Beverly points out to Captain Picard (while convinced that he is her Captain.) Mirror Picard is also responsible, it seems, for murdering Beverly’s husband to get his hands on her, and her son. (Who seems to want to kill him.) Other characters are more pronounced inversions; Barclay, a semi-coherent engineering officer in Captain Picard’s crew, is the head of Mirror Picard’s security detail.

Service to the Empire is no bed of roses. Senior officers know that they could be assassinated at any moment, or replaced by security for no reason. Junior officers and crewmen are at the mercy of their superiors. All of them carry agonise devices for immediate punishment if they screw up, longer punishments involve sessions in the Agony Booth. It is not a safe place to live or work.

Dark Mirror also takes a look at the history of the Mirror Universe, one that differs from the Deep Space Nine version and is considerably better. There, there was no Khan – and therefore no Eugenics Wars. Instead, there was a bitter Third World War which ended with the Empire determined never to run close to the brink of extinction again. The human race roared out into the galaxy, making common cause with the Vulcans (themselves different from their original universe versions) and exterminating or enslaving everyone else. Mirror Picard’s early career is a dark inversion of the first season of TNG, with mass slaughter and outright genocide instead of noble speeches and high ideals.

Captain Picard claims, towards the end of the book, that the Empire is simply expanding too far, too fast, and that it will eventually collapse like a house of cards. His counterpart seems aware of it too, hence the plan to invade the Federation and escape the coming chaos.

On the downside, there are odd moments in this book. The most jarring is Riker and Worf going to the holodeck to enjoy some opera in the midst of crisis. This isn't exactly badly written, with some amusing comments on the long-term effects of opera fighting in the Klingon Empire, but it is odd.

Overall, however, this is one of the best characters-meet-evil counterparts stories out there, something that rarely happens in TV. It is certainly a better version of the trope than the Deep Space Nine series and those written by Captain Kirk.

The Story of Martha (Doctor Who)

One of the persistent jokes from British radio plays in the 1960s was ‘let’s see them do this on television,’ after describing an impossible feat like one person standing on a second person’s shoulders and then pulling the first person up beside him. A problem with any SF show from that era, like Doctor Who, was that special effects were very limited. It was often impossible to perform the acts that the plot needed.

This does not really apply to books, of course. The Doctor Who New Adventures could be set anywhere, in any time period, without having to worry about the high cost of special effects – or, for that matter, the availability of specific actors. The Eighth Doctor could visit all seven previous Doctors, despite some of the actors being dead or significantly different from their Who-form. For that matter, a massive army of Daleks could fight it out in a civil war without breaking the BBC’s entire budget. The only real limits were the writer’s imagination.

And that, I think sums up why The Story of Martha is such a disappointment.

I never warmed up to Martha, mainly because she acted more like a lovesick puppy following the Doctor rather than as a person in her own right. (Mind you, this worked out fairly well in some episodes.) However, it is often difficult to create a complex character on a TV screen, so I hoped she would do better in a novel. There are some good points in her story, I will happily admit, but the whole idea is basically wasted.

The background is simple; The Master has wrapped the whole Earth in a paradox field, creating an alternate timeline where he has crushed the human race and is now planning to build a fleet of warships to invade the rest of the universe. Martha is travelling from place to place, trying to organise resistance and telling everyone about the Doctor, for reasons that are explained in the last episode. In the course of her travels, she tells three different stories of her life with the Doctor and escapes the Master’s goons, as well as encountering other aliens on Earth.

So why is this a wasted opportunity?

Let’s be clear on this; the Doctor has been visiting Earth for centuries. He has a network of friends and allies scattered across the planet, including Sarah Jane Smith (who guest-starred in an early Tenth Doctor Adventure.) Even if we limit the scope of the Doctor’s friends to the adventures of the Ninth Doctor onwards, there are still plenty of potential guest stars, ranging from Donna Noble to Jack’s Torchwood institute. Martha’s brother? What about Harriet Jones?

Actually, Harriet Jones might have been the best possible person to introduce. An interview with RTD made it clear that the Tenth Doctor’s decision to arrange for her dismissal as PM opened the gap for the Master to jump in and take over the world. Dealing with the consequences of that decision would have made a fitting plot for the story.

If I had written it, I would have brought back all the guest stars who are no longer with us, because no one really dies in a TV world. The Brigadier could have led resistance against the Master, along with UNIT; just imagine Martha fleeing while the remains of UNIT make a final stand against the Master’s flying servants. Or the hidden aliens on Earth who might have joined the fight. There was so much potential in this idea. Instead, we get three stories that really don’t blend together.

A fan should have written this book.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

Adrian Goldsworthy: An Overview


As a real – and by any standards a fairly significant figure in history – Julius Caesar must find it annoying that his name has been permanently associated with an frustratingly independent village in Gaul (France), let alone being permanently pestered by cartoon characters who indomitably resist the siren sound of Roman civilisation and display many of the weaknesses that ensured that the fall of Rome led to a new dark age. Alas, those of us born after Latin was taken out of the schools have our first introduction to Caesar and his era through the Asterix comic books. They are funny, witty and often entertaining (apart from the last one, which was ghastly) but they bear little resemblance to reality.

However, there has been a new outpouring of interest in ancient Rome and Adrian Goldsworthy, historian and novelist, is on the forefront of expanding a new generation’s horizons to admiration and understanding of the past. It says much about the failures to teach history in modern schools – or at least the schools I attended – that Goldsworthy manages to provide chronology and entertainment as well as education, and the schools provided nothing of the kind. If teachers were as capable as him, there would be more interest in history.

Goldsworthy’s first exploration of Rome is concentrated on the men who built, maintained and ultimately lost the Roman Empire. In the Name of Rome studies the Roman commanders in battle, ranging from Fabius (the delayer) to Belisarius, to whom I was first introduced through Eric Flint and David Drake’s six-book SF series. The book seeks to place their campaigns in context, explaining how they became prominent as wells as what tactics they used in their relentless pursuit of victory. And relentless the Romans certainly were; no other state could have carried on a global war after the staggering defeats the Romans absorbed in the Second Punic War. Famous names such as Pompey and Titus mingle with lesser-known Generals and Emperors, including Julian the Apostate and Belisarius.

One trait that does flow through the later days of Republican Rome is the jealous nature of its senior citizens. Many a Roman General found that he was to be used, praised and discarded by the Republic after he had served his purpose (to paraphrase Cicero’s statement about Octavian/Augustus). Scorpio was eventually hounded into exile; Pompey was regarded as a toothless fool as soon as he disbanded his legions and Caesar, faced with ruin by his jealous enemies back home, crossed the Rubicon and launched a civil war rather than submit to destruction. This trend tended to grow sharper even in the era of the Roman Empire, with successful Generals often forced into suicide or into campaigns of civil war.

One can quibble with the choice of featured Generals. Sulla, the first military officer to take power by force, isn't featured. Nor is Agrippa, Octavian’s trusty ally, while the inclusion of Julian is only explained by the writer’s desire to show just how far the Roman system had shrunk in the years between Octavian/Augustus and his era.

Overall, however, In the Name of Rome is an excellent introduction to Rome – and far more than just the primer it could be.

Goldsworthy’s second book, The Punic Wars, focuses on one of the best-known Roman wars, the (effectively) world war with Cartage. Here, Goldsworthy is up against tougher competition; I had actually read Nigel Bagnell’s volume on the conflict prior to discovering Goldsworthy’s volume. However, it provides a welcome introduction to one of the most significant conflicts of the ancient world.

This book was followed up by Caesar, a biography of Julius Caesar. I can honestly say that this biography is one of the best I have ever read, of anyone. Goldsworthy does far more than outline Caesar’s life; he places that life in context, while being very open about things that we simply do not know. This is important for several different reasons, the most important being that Ancient Rome was a very different society to anything currently existing today. Caesar, along with Pompey, Cato, Cicero and other names that resonate down the ages, was the product of a society many of us would find profoundly alien.

Goldsworthy does not stint in outlining what transformed Caesar from just another general to one of the greatest military and political leaders in history. Caesar was personable, devastatingly intelligent and capable of learning from his own mistakes. Goldsworthy outlines many of those mistakes for us, both to demonstrate what they meant for Caesar personally and how he learned from his experiences. More importantly, Goldsworthy dismisses the claim that Caesar had always aimed at revolution, at forging an Empire. Caesar was driven by ambition, yes (he would have been a very strange Roman if he had not been ambitious) but it is clear that he never sought the dictatorship purposefully. Instead, he was pushed into launching a civil war through political backstabbing that would otherwise have destroyed him.

The book is also one of the best histories of the final years of Republican Rome, a state that had been rotting away since the moment the Gracchi brothers were killed. Much of the final crisis that killed republicanism was caused by problems we might feel an uneasy kinship with today; a suffering poor, over-mighty politicians and a complete inability to come to grips with the true cause of the problem. At heart, Rome remained a city even when it was at the heart of an Empire. It is not surprising that the Republic suffered countless upheavals before the arrival of the first Emperor, Augustus Caesar.

Following Caesar, Goldsworthy moves forward several hundred years to chart the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. The Fall of the West is a largely chronographic account of Rome’s gradual decline, punctuated by heartbreaking moments when the Empire seemed capable of recovery. Goldsworthy attempts to puncture the myths that barbarians destroyed the Empire; simply put, the Empire fell because it had lost the energy that bound it together. It is difficult to imagine the Roman Republic, or the early Empire, suffering from the same malaise. However, the civil wars that brought down the Republic had their echo in the infighting within the Roman Empire, with one 50-year period suffering from 60 different claimants to the Imperial Throne.

Asimov once noted (roughly phrased) that ‘a strong emperor is only strong if he allows no strong subordinates. A strong general will seek to overthrow the emperor and take his place. Weak generals will lose battles and wars; an Emperor-General will be so tied up with fighting that he won’t be able to stabilise the Empire.’ This was true of the Roman Empire in its later years. The career of Julian the Apostate, for example, nicely illustrated this trend. When a subordinate, Julian was constantly threatened with execution by the Emperor; when Emperor himself, he had to divert his attention to campaigning and not to governing the Empire.

What did this do to the Empire? Troops fought civil wars instead of defending the borders. The Empire’s capital was often where the Emperor was instead of Rome. The bureaucracy expanded rapidly, often outside the requirements of the empire or indeed of its ability to fund it. There was a general loss of competence that eventually doomed the Empire to fall apart. Ironically, one might make the case that the consequences would be less disastrous if the fall took place much earlier. The Roman Empire might have become a handful of major states that would be far stronger than their later followers.

Having studied the fall of the Roman Empire, Goldsworthy then looks back at one of the most famous love stories in history – Antony and Cleopatra. The book focuses on Antony as he climbs his way up into Caesar’s confidence and how Cleopatra managed to assert herself in Egypt. It is clear that the martial customs of the Egyptians rulers probably played some part in their decline; brothers would marry sisters, fathers would marry daughters. Still, Cleopatra was something special by their standards; if history tells us true, Cleopatra was the first of her line to genuinely care about her position as more than a source of wealth or power. Indeed, she was the first to speak Egyptian!

Cleopatra’s life was dominated by the struggle for power – and later the struggle to keep the favour of a powerful Roman. Her famed meeting with Julius Caesar was a last-ditch attempt to turn the tide in her favour. It seems likely that she did seek to seduce Caesar; quite simply, she had nothing else left. Goldsworthy casts doubt on just how far Caesar allowed himself to be seduced. At first, he was very canny with what he gave her; later, when she was in a better position, he was willing to give her more. He also gave her a son, Caesarion.

Antony’s character, as painted by Goldsworthy, isn't quite what legend suggests. Antony was born to power, ran up huge debts, and was basically lazy. Caesar rarely chose to employ him on the battlefield (despite a reputation for military skill echoing down the years) and in some ways Antony was a dangerous man to leave behind when Caesar gave chase to Pompey. Not because of disloyalty – there is no suggestion that Antony was ever disloyal – but because Antony was not particularly subtle in wielding power. He made enemies, including Cicero (who would later be killed at Antony’s instructions.) However, he did manage to bring Caesar reinforcements that turned the tide and led to Pompey’s final defeat.

Like Cleopatra, he was in Rome when Caesar was assassinated. The plotters saw fit to lure him away before they struck, assuming that the burly Antony’s first reaction would be to fight. Unlike Cleopatra (who could not play any role in politics, at least in Rome) Antony was rapidly drawn into the political infighting between the remaining plotters, Caesar’s loyalists and – most surprisingly of all – Octavian/Augustus Caesar. Following the path of treachery and deceit is confusing, I must say, but that was probably true of the people at the time too. Eventually, Octavian and Antony (with the forgotten Lepidus) formed the Second Triumvirate, which asserted its power with a purge that rivalled one carried out by Stalin. Cicero was murdered, along with many others.

Antony’s relationship with Cleopatra takes on centre stage as Antony moves into the middle east and prepares to wage war on Persia. Cleopatra seduced him, deliberately approaching him in a manner she believed he would find attractive. It is easy to blame Cleopatra for this (the Romans certainly did) but she had little choice. One thing the book makes clear is that Cleopatra’s position was insecure; the Romans could bolster her throne, or tear her down with ease. As Rome needed Egypt’s crops for the invasion of Persia, Rome had a strong vested interest in keeping Egypt under control. Cleopatra needed Antony more than Antony needed her.

Was there love? It’s hard to say, Goldsworthy admits. There is no strong evidence for any men in Cleopatra’s life apart from Caesar and Antony (one assumes that Antony found the fact that Cleopatra’s other lover had been the most powerful man in the world very exciting.) Certainly, Antony kept her close, even when it produced a political backlash; they produced three children together. They may even have been married, although Goldsworthy states bluntly that the evidence is inconclusive (and Cleopatra’s children could not take a role in Rome.)

Antony’s failings as a general became clear in the ill-fated invasion of Persia. Antony blundered badly; his common touch was true, but his planning was almost non-existent. The defeat led to the final round of fighting between Antony and Octavian, resulting in Antony’s flight from the battleground and eventual suicide. Cleopatra followed him into death a few weeks later and Egypt was annexed as a Roman territory. It was so prosperous that anyone given control might become a threat to the new Roman Empire.

What can one make of Antony, as Goldsworthy paints him? He was indolent, in a sense; he rarely chose to act of his own accord. The one major time he did ended in disaster. He may have conceded the war with Octavian long before the fateful battle. The Romans claimed that Cleopatra had sapped his fighting spirit. Looking at his history, one might counter that Antony’s flaws had become clear before he met Cleopatra.

And Cleopatra? Goldsworthy outlines everything we know about her, painting a far more complex picture than we might expect from her portrayal in movies and fictions. She was someone who tried to keep her kingdom together with a very weak hand, and did far better than might be expected.

So, in conclusion, what can I say about Goldsworthy’s work? If you only want one author to introduce you to Rome, in all its glory, Goldsworthy is the man.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Battle:LA Reviewed

Battle: Los Angeles

I am not a great movie-goer. Nine times out of ten, I regret going physically, even with my significant other. I don’t like crowded rooms, overpriced popcorn and supercilious ushers who bitch about you taking food from outside into the cinema. Very few movies get me actually going into the cinema and, to my regret, they didn't include Battle: LA. I really should have known better this time.

The critics have panned the movie. It is apparently simplistic, bloody and unrepentant, something that they do not seem to expect from great movies. What can I say? Entertainment – and I go to be entertained – is a subjective measure. I happen to like some science-fiction movies and if some snob thinks I shouldn't...well, he can kindly take a sexual travel package.

Battle: LA has a fairly simple background. Massive asteroids have come down from outer space and landed in the oceans near human cities, including LA. These asteroids swiftly discourage an alien invasion force that advances inland, smashing through human resistance. Marines from Camp Pendleton scramble to repel the offensive and fight the aliens before they can overwhelm all of the state. In the heart of this action, a single Marine platoon is given a different mission. A police station in LA is being used to hide a group of civilians who cannot get out of the city. The Marines have three hours to rescue them before the USAF blows the shit out of LA.

In one sense, there is nothing particularly innovative about this movie. We’ve seen this kind of story before, without aliens. But what makes it work – and it does work – is how the movie concentrates on the small platoon without taking more than a handful of glimpses at the overall war. Independence Day operated on a bigger scale than Battle: LA and paid for it, not least through more clichĂ©s than Battle: LA allows.

The Marine platoon are all more real than many of their counterparts from Independence Day. There’s a green LT charged with leading his men into a desperate firefight, a sergeant who suffers from PTSD, green Marines on their first tour; one is planning to marry, one is waiting for a kid...and one who looks so young you’d think he should still be in school. Battle: LA makes the Marines real; they’re not picture-perfect figures from bad propaganda or monsters from other kinds of bad propaganda. And when some of them die, you can really feel the loss they leave in the team.

Battle: LA is not afraid to go back to the basic core themes of modern war. The film is a story of selfless heroism, courage under fire, teamwork, decency and sheer determination, without taking smug swipes at conservative values so often targeted by Hollywood. Nor does it indulge itself with suggestions that the Evil Government brought this fate on us or that the aliens are somehow better than us. It wisely does not pretend to be great art, but yours truly rates it as good art anyway. Few films are so effective in making their point.

It also grasps the confusing nature of war. Few non-soldiers ever realise just how quickly a situation can go from stable to desperate, when all of a sudden a situation has suddenly become lethal, bullets are pinging in around a soldier...and he has to make decisions in a split second. The leftists would have you believe otherwise, but almost all of the incidents of civilians being killed by Western troops at checkpoints happened because someone had to make a decision in a handful of seconds and fired on a car charging towards the checkpoint, a car that could have been loaded with high explosives. In some ways, I wonder if Battle: LA was not influenced by British sci-fi films and television programs. Throughout the first part of the movie, the aliens are half-seen, shadowy forces that push the Marines without ever quite coming into view. Watching the Marines overcome this and learn about their foe is one of the better parts of the movie.

There are two issues I would care to raise as a critic, however. The first is that it is implied that the aliens want our water. That’s nice, but there is plenty of ice floating around in space without pesky Earthlings sitting on top of it. Titan is a watery world; comets are known as dirty snowballs because they’re largely ice. The second blunder is a confident statement by a Marine that the aliens have no air force. This had me howling right from the start – they can get across interstellar space...of course they have a goddamned air force! The Marines should have noticed that from the start, instead of being surprised when the aliens suddenly turn out to have aircraft and support weapons.

The critics don’t like this movie. I do. Critics have no taste. <Evil Grin>.

Battle: LA is, first and foremost, a story of humans at war. And that is what makes it important.

I’d like to see a version of this story done for Afghanistan, but the PC thugs would probably kill it. On the other hand...

Dumb Blonde Female Reporter: But you invaded their country...surely they have a right to fight back?

Pissed-off Marine: Listen; these fuckers beat and kill women for going to school and wearing make-up, kill anyone who refuses to grow a beard, torture their captives purely for the hell of it and are intent on exterminating all other versions of their religion. You really want to live in a country where showing anything of your body would earn you a beating? Where your father would decide who you married? Where your male children might become catamites or suicide bombers while your daughters retreat into mental illness? Where your husband could rape you at any time and call it martial sex?

A bit later on, the dumb blonde could be kidnapped by the Taliban...

Hey, I think I have an idea here. Anyone want to write a movie script?

And if they can do this, why can't they do a Posleen movie?

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The Draka Series (SM Stirling)


As I have noted in previous reviews, lack of plausibility alone is not a good reason to dismiss an alternate history book. The best of the genre teach us about history and people as well as telling a good story. It is impossible to describe the Draka books as plausible, but they do teach us, if nothing else, just how lucky we are to live in such a decent world. The world of the Draka is the dark reflection of our own world.

The core idea behind the series is that refugees from British North America settle South Africa (captured in the war) instead of Canada. This tiny band of refugees (and assorted immigrants, including refugees from the Confederate States after the end of the American Civil War) grows into a great nation to rival the United States. But there is a major difference between the two nations, one that defines the struggle that eventually ends in book 3. The Draka are the ultimate Master Race, a bare 1% of the population. Everyone else in their territory is a serf, a slave by any other name.

I believe that Stirling based the Draka at least partly on the society of Ancient Sparta (which is a fascinating area of history and well worth some study.) The Draka themselves are trained savagely almost from birth, with those who are defective isolated from the rest of the race and forbidden to breed, until even the merest Draka is a deadly enemy. Their military has a large reserve of manpower to call upon, one that compensates for its numerical weakness by being a raving meritocracy. Skilled Draka soldiers get heavily promoted; incompetents face barrack room justice. They are deadlier than the most dangerous units of Nazi Germany. Women serve on the front lines as equals to the men. The Draka cannot afford to apply gender prejudice to their war-fighting.

The serfs, by contrast, live highly restricted lives. They are legally nothing more than property (shades of Ancient Rome) and can be treated as their masters please. While overt sadistic behaviour is supposed to be controlled by social disapproval, the truth is that the serfs are permanently at the mercy of the citizens. The lucky ones farm, or work in mass production workshops; those who dare to rebel are impaled or sent to death camps to be worked to death. Being a male-dominated society, the Draka have no qualms about their young men having sex with serf women. Unlike western culture, young women chase men, competing with slave girls who literally can't say no. (Women are forbidden from sleeping with slave men until reliable contraception is developed. Lesbian love affairs are very common among the Draka.)

Most of the serfs are deliberately kept ignorant of the world around them. The principle exception are the Janissaries, serfs armed and trained to serve as a bludgeon force for Draka expansion. They are the most atrocity-prone force in history – indeed, atrocities are keenly encouraged except when they might interfere with combat operations. You’d think that they would rebel, but they never do. The Draka have managed to keep a vast number of humans trapped in permanent bondage.

Stirling deserves credit for creating a truly strange culture, one that traps both slave and free population in its claws. There are ‘good’ Draka, including some characters that are more sympathetic than they should be, but even the ones who admit that there are flaws in their society are powerless to change it. Some of the serfs are effectively domesticated and don’t even think to question their position, others are all-too-aware that it could have been worse. One odd scene contrasts the treatment of a serf wench (serfs are referred to as wenches or bucks, further dehumanising them and separating them from the overlords) with the treatment of women in Afghanistan. I don’t see much difference between the two, really.

The first book in the Draka Series, Marching Through Georgia, introduces us to the Draka by sending them into war against Nazi Germany. This alternate Germany is led by Hitler and has already beaten Soviet Russia, becoming overextended in the process, allowing the Draka to stab them in the back by invading up from OTL’s Iran. In many ways, this is the best book of the series, with the neat small-unit action against the Germans.

Following on, Under the Yoke looks at an alternate France – occupied by the Draka, who are literally enslaving the entire population. By far the most harrowing of the books, it follows the lives of a handful of characters forced to watch helplessly as France is crushed below the feet of its new masters. There is limited ground for optimism as the Draka face the Alliance for Democracy, an American-led analogue of NATO, that is attempting to slip supplies to the resistance against the Draka. But the small victory they produce in no way impedes the assimilation of Europe.

The Stone Dogs takes a twist from the first two books in being spread out over several decades, as the Alliance and the Draka prepare for the final conflict. Both sides are developing superweapons and militarising space as fast as possible. The Draka are engaged in an effort to turn themselves into superhumans, while the Alliance concentrates on an antimatter-powered generation ship to take a small number of refugees to the nearest star. But rogue players on both sides trigger the final war. It probably is no great spoiler to note that the Draka win the war, bringing about the end of history. Some have claimed that Stirling cheats by allowing the Draka to win, but it is the logical end result of the series.

Drakon is a cross between a cross-time and time travel story, where one of the Draka superhumans is accidentally thrown across the timelines into our own universe. She is effectively a different form of life altogether from humanity and promptly starts trying to take over, opposed by a cop and a time-traveller from Samothrace, the world settled by the Alliance at the end of the previous book. The more interesting parts of the story are the bits set in the Draka home timeline, where we see the end result of the Final Society. The former serfs have been genetically engineered into servitude, turned into a race that is literally born and bred to serve the Draka. At first glance, their world seems idyllic, but it isn't long before the reader realises just how warped and evil they are.

The Draka series introduced many of the tropes in alternate history, making the series more influential than most AH books out there. Massive armed airships, eternal empires and stable societies came from the Draka world. Stirling has a fair claim to being more influential than Harry Turtledove, even though Turtledove serves as most people’s introduction to AH.

Stirling does a good job of humanising the Draka (despite their evil) and of outlining his characters from the Alliance and Draka serfs. However, the same cannot be said for the Draka timeline itself. There are – thankfully – a number of issues with it, which have been outlined elsewhere. However, I will take a moment to mention a handful.

First and foremost, the Draka have an extraordinary run of luck, gestating down in Africa while the rest of the world runs along historical tracks. No one attacks the Draka; no one even seems to realise the threat they represent until the end of the alternate World War Two. States tend to react to threats, even potential threats from states that are historically friendly. The mere presence of the Draka should warp the geopolitical structure of their world. By 1850, perhaps earlier, states should be forming defensive alliances against them. The idea that Hitler would allow them to occupy Italy in 1941 is absurd. Hitler would know that they’d be a knife pointed at the heart of his world.

Second, the Draka are supremely competent, capable, and developed. They have weapons that are better than their opponents (Nazi Germany, the people who maintained technical supremacy until the end of WW2), better doctrine and even luck. Stirling does note that the Draka are historically weak in the pure sciences; instead of being ahead of the curve, they should be behind it. Their society is somehow able to make use of serf ingenuity without provoking serf revolts when the educated serfs realise how badly they’re screwed in the system. Soviet Russia couldn’t compete with the US; the Draka will be even less capable of staying in the race.

Third, the Draka expand far too quickly. Their population expands at awesomely high levels and they take large swaths of Africa which were historically lethal to Europeans until certain diseases were defeated. This rapidly becomes absurd – they leap forward and take Egypt during the Napoleonic Wars, and then refuse to leave...

Which leads neatly into the fourth point. Britain, the same state that banned the slave trade and did the most to stamp it out, tolerates the Draka treating their captive populations in ways that would make the worst of the CSA blanch. The Draka have extraordinary freedom right from the start.

Fifth, and most significant, the Draka are capable of holding literally millions of people in bondage and transplanting their society on top of occupied territories. This isn't the easiest thing to do even if one is prepared to be utterly ruthless...and yet the Draka steadily grind down two-thirds of the entire world. The communist bloc and, to some extent, Iran’s regime tried hard to keep the population down and the price they paid for it was losing the willing cooperation of people who benefited from their own work. And in the end they fell apart. The Russians talked about the ‘Soviet Man.’ The Drake actually created a new form of human life.

And yet, there is something about the Draka series that makes it compelling. Stirling set out to create an anti-America, a state and a world where all the freedoms we take for granted are stamped out of existence – and eventually become unthinkable. Just as the Alliance slowly lost sight of why it existed, of why they had to stand up to the Draka, the West lost sight of why the Soviet Union needed to be opposed, or why the Taliban had to be fought, or why it is so important to stand up for those who cannot stand up for themselves. Evil wins in the Draka series because no one tried to stop it until it was too late.

Which is really the point, isn't it?

Saturday, 18 February 2012

A Soldier's Duty (Theirs Not to Reason Why) - Jean Johnson


One of the persistent problems in writing military fiction is the temptation to make one’s main character a Mary Sue – basically, someone improbably perfect, as in the Flight Engineer or Starstrike books. Jean Johnson has fallen into this trap, to some degree, but she has a very good underlying reason for her main character’s supreme competence. Ia is a precognitive, perhaps the most powerful known to exist in the book’s universe. She is capable of seeing her own future in such detail that she can generally pick the most optimal course of action, creating the impression (to her superiors, who don’t know about her talent) that she is literally the near-perfect Marine.

Knowledge of the future is actually the core concept of the book, and I have to admit that it is pretty cool. Ia has visions of a future when society is almost completely destroyed in a few hundred years – and sets out on a one-woman mission to prevent it. So far, so good – her competence is well-explained. But she becomes irritatingly perfect very quickly, something that is at least partly noted within the book. There is little true dramatic tension because the outcome is already certain.

There are scenes where she engages in lecturing her superiors as to how the military works, which make her sound like a smart-ass, and scenes where she puts her fellow recruits in their place – sounding rather like an older veteran rather than an recruit. I don’t blame her fellows for getting annoyed with her – I would find her irritating as hell too. She also has friends in weird places who help her along her way, friends who aren’t particularly well explained.

In short, she’s a very thin character. I can understand why the author went that way, but it rather grates on me. Maybe it would have done better if told directly as a first-person novel, or through the eyes of one of her friends.

The universe isn't also well-defined either. If precognition exists – and she isn't the only one, with a notable historical example cited – why is she the only one with visions of disaster? Or, for that matter, why doesn't she start telling more and more people, or using her gift more widely. I could see several ways to build a commercial empire, or a stronger military machine if the threat was from outside human space.

In fact, wouldn't that make a cool story? She gets to the top and mounts a coup, convinced that military rule is the only thing that would save humanity. But it turns out that she’s actually making the threat worse...

The truth is that there just isn't anything very original about this story – except perhaps for the core idea. And that alone can’t make the book work.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Green Lantern–The Movie


Yes, I know I’m a bit behind the times. I never go to the cinema without my fiancĂ©, but today I borrowed a DVD.

I never liked Hal Jordon. The movie manages to remind me why I don’t like him. Hal comes across as a bit of a jerk in the first few segments, although he does grow up pretty quickly with the end of everything bearing down on him.

But that’s just me. Back when I was younger, DC had Hal become weighed down by the loss of Coast City, steal a great deal of power from the Guardians, attempt to reshape reality itself in the hope of making a better world, die saving Earth and be resurrected as the Spectre. It was the only time I really liked Hal, but the Hal-Spectre series was trash and pretty quickly it was all ret-conned away. But I liked Kyle and Guy. They’re both flawed characters and far more interesting than Hal.

There are some cool special effects in this movie. And I liked the training scene when Hal is put through his paces by the corps. But...

First, the fear-entity is not one of the best enemies in the Green Lantern universe. It certainly isn't one that can be depicted on screen very well. There is a certain link between Fear and Will – Will overcomes Fear, logically Hal should have won by overcoming his fear. Instead, he dumps the fear-entity into the sun. Will that actually kill the entity?

Second, I rather liked the portrait of Sinestro, but the movie lost a chance to shine when Sinestro chose not to put on the yellow ring (at least at first). It could have made Sinestro into a tragic villain, corrupted by fear and I expected him to be the main enemy. But instead they stuck with the fear-entity. A bad choice, IMHO.

Third, the lanterns are supposed to be able to create anything they can imagine, right? Well, why don’t they? There are some cool special effects, but nothing really spectacular. Why not?

Overall? Don’t pay full price for this movie.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Himmler’s War - Robert Conroy


Writing alternate history (and period fiction) is a tricky task. There is always the temptation to bend details for the sake of a good story – and then there will be some humourless reader who will then write long posts on why it couldn't happen the way you suggested. I tend to judge the book on both its merits as a piece of alternate history and the writer’s skill in telling a story. A world where Hitler successfully invaded Britain might be implausible, but that doesn't mean that someone can't write a good story set in such a world.

Himmler’s War takes a look at what the world might have looked like if someone more rational than Hitler had been in control of Germany during the crucial years of 1944. A bombing run by an American bomber kills Hitler just after D-Day begins. Calling Himmler more rational than Hitler is rather tricky – but at least Himmler has the sense to actually listen to his generals. A few pages into the book and the story hangs together rather well. Conroy does a reasonable job with a vast cast of characters, showing their reactions to the war – and how they might react when confronted with different possibilities. One weakness shows itself clearly, here – many of his characters are very similar to his other characters from earlier books.

One character who does stand out is Harry Truman, who asserts himself in a manner that is quite historical. The situation in the US that makes it necessary, however, is a little harder to follow. FDR was certainly weaker than the American public knew at the time, but he wasn't senile.

Unfortunately, I find it difficult to follow the logic behind the course the war follows. Himmler would probably allow the German generals to run the war the way they wanted to run it – and yes, this would certainly cause huge problems for the Allies. It is quite likely that an increase in German production earlier than historically would make it more likely that the Germans would bleed the allies badly. However, there is little logic in the Soviets accepting a truce with Germany – let alone shipping hundreds of tanks to the Nazis. Stalin might well have accepted a truce with the Germans – a period of six months for the Red Army to catch its breath would have been very helpful – but I can't see him helping the Germans. The Red Army needed the supplies it was getting from the West and deliberately betraying the Allies would have been disastrous.

The problems get worse as the story continues. Historically, the German nuclear program was unable to produce a bomb. The idea that they can jump to building a working device – and then slipping it to Moscow to blow up Stalin – is implausible, to say the least. Conroy hand-waves desperately here, assuming that we won’t notice. At the end of the story, it seems that the West has managed to take all of Germany – with the Poles still under Russian domination. Quite why the Russians fell apart so quickly is beyond me. A case could be made that Moscow falling in 1942 would have crippled the USSR, but the situation was different in 1944.

There’s also the issue of international politics. It is true that both Britain and France had reservations about fighting to the bitter end. However, it is unlikely that either of them would have resorted to considering deals with Himmler. The French Communists might have risen against the Free French on Moscow’s command, but frankly I’m not convinced that that would have won them any friends.

Assuming that the POD works, what is likely to happen? The chances are that the Germans would certainly manage to stall the Allies for much longer, but their ability to take the offensive would be very limited. Why? The Allies (mainly the USAAF, but the RAF as well) had overwhelming air superiority. They could (and did) hammer the Germans from the air, despite German jet fighters that were (in theory) superior to anything the Allies had. (The Germans might have done better if they’d diverted resources to more propeller aircraft than jet fighters.) However, the war would have ended only a few months after OTL.

Why? Unlike the German program, the American nuclear program produced a working nuclear bomb. If Germany had held out a few months longer, the US would have started dropping atomic bombs on Germany. I assume that the German generals would have been smart enough to overthrow Himmler’s regime and surrender to the West. That would have opened up a whole new can of worms – a fitting place for a story.

The plotline of this story is familiar. It is very like Fox on the Line and Fox at the Front, which – IMHO – explored the possibilities far better. Overall, Himmler’s War is worth one read, if you can put your doubts aside. But it doesn't deserve more than that. The author’s 1901 was a much better read.