Sunday, 25 February 2018

Why We Need Starship Troopers

In 1958 the United States under President Eisenhower decided to suspend US nuclear tests undergoing negotiations for all nuclear powers to suspend nuclear weapons testing. Former naval serviceman and science fiction author Robert Heinlein thought this was a terrible idea, and in his view when nuclear testing continued it proved that the West could not trust the Soviets. In a few weeks he penned what would become one of his most famous novels, Starship Troopers, and in it he "clarified" his military and political views. Since then it has been a science fiction classic and a staple of military science fiction.

However, it has also been controversial for some.

This point arises with the news that there is a planned Starship Troopers reboot in the pipeline. One that, apparently, intends to be more faithful to the original novel. In doing so though, this same publication asks, is Starship Troopers too controversial for the modern world to be adapted?

My answer is, absolutely not.

Saturday, 24 February 2018

The Peshawar Lancers

Alternate-history and science fiction are technically in the same category, though rarely do they go hand in hand. In this story though, we get some plausible alternate-history and science fiction! I present to you, one of S.M. Stirling's epics, The Peshawar Lancers!

The story is set in the early 21st century in 2025, some 148 years after a disastrous event known as "the Fall" where in 1878 a string of comets slammed into Earth, causing great destruction and a single great chunk of space rock hit the Atlantic Ocean, sending up enough dust and water vapor that it caused the sky to be clouded over, as well as sending out a great tsunami which sent waves far enough inland that they wrecked the Appalachians, Ireland, Iberia, and other places. In the aftermath there was a great reduction in global temperatures, especially in northern Europe and America, causing almost a little ice age. With famine imminent, many of the powers of Europe that could flee, chose to do so.

The government of Queen Victoria fled to India, and established the Angrezi Raj (or the British Empire in the British Raj) the French fled to Algeria, the Dutch to the East Indies, and the Russians fell back upon the vastness of their Asian empire, abandoning Europe to desolation and starvation. The northern hemisphere died, but the south survived.

Welcome to the world of the Peshawar Lancers.

The story follows the exploits of Athelstane King and his loyal friend and somewhat batman the trooper Narayan Singh as they square off against the machinations of a Russian Okhrana agent, Vladimir Ignatieff, intent on causing great mischief for the Raj and appeasing the dark god Chernobog who the Russians now worship. In this intrigue will be swept up Athelstane's sister Cassandra, the mysterious woman Yasmini, and many other odd hangers on who become embroiled in the drama.

This tale is told very purposefully in the style of older writers like Rudyard Kipling or even Robert E. Howard, evoking a mysterious world of adventure and intrigue at the edges of the settled world. In that sense it hearkens back to the era of empire and colonialism, or at least, a romanticized version of it.

Peshawar Lancers cuts right to the chase here, with action, intrigue, assassination, and cool schizo tech with a patchwork of old and new technology in world that has been vaguely frozen in time since "the Fall" set the clock back. You have coal burning trains and warships, rifles that wouldn't look out of place in 1900, and steam power being the biggest thing around. This creates some fun action scenes involving airships, trains, and horse riding across the desert to outwit the villains.

As a swashbuckling tale of adventure the characters are outlined well, and we see their motivations and ambitions behind their actions, but beyond the villains they're all good people to one extent or another. They're fun to follow around, if not for their dialogue for the action that accompanies them. Poor Athelstane is constantly running to keep ahead of one assassin or another. Amusingly at one point Athelstane reflects that he has seen so many types of assassins he has to wonder simply who will be next, and he wouldn't even bat an eye at how strange they were! In that vein he also has an oath of vengeance to carry out for when one assassin misses their target and hits a bystander. The action set pieces are just damn fun to read, and each is clever, ambitious, and they merely escalate as the plot goes on with the penultimate fight taking place in the skies and the hills!

Here we see Stirling at his best with some wonderful world building, great action scenes, and well fleshed out fun characters on an adventure. The history behind the world is explored (and thanks to a series of appendix at the back well fleshed out) with society being seen through the eyes of our characters, and as ever in alternate history this is, for me at least, fun! The world is three dimensional, with its problems, plagues, and idiosyncrasies. The Raj might be the most powerful nation on Earth, but its enemies are cunning, and we see that they have many enemies.

There are some light sci-fi elements included, from the asteroid impact, telepathic powers, and the general tech level of the world, the story is a toss up between steam punk and adventure, making it hard to nail down as a genre tale. That is just fine by me personally.

Basically, the story is an action adventure plot from humble start to dashing finish. We have some light political and spy drama, but it builds up to the action pieces. Whether that is fighting assassins on a moving train, or storming an town house with a gang of criminals, the action is fantastic! Sword fights, knife fights, gun fights, you name it they fight with it!

Personally I can't stress just how fun this novel is. The setting is unique, the characters are fun, and the world is such a grand invention you can't help but get lost in it! If you're looking for a good time, jump in and follow the adventures of the Peshawar Lancers.

Saturday, 17 February 2018

Interstellar War

This is a big musing of mine recently, and I thought it might help to get it down on paper as it were. One of the things that people can usually handwave or sidestep in science fiction epics is the concept of interstellar war. In some series it can make sense, but in others, not so much. When fighting aliens it tends to be a given, we want the same real-estate, they find us objectionable on religious/philosophical grounds, ect. With fighting other humans the same does not necessarily hold true.

Sure we might fight over the same resources, but absent some major justification why bother? Sure an independent space power would be capable of colonizing or utilizing its resources better than one being forced into a subservient position? Or even a single system star nation would be able to happily exist on its own systems resources. Why assemble a large expensive space fleet for an invasion of another? What is the benefit?

This is especially true if you assume all star systems would necessarily be self sufficient after their establishment. They would have not only their whole planet but their whole solar system to mine for resources. If a star system is going to be self sufficient on resources for thousands of years, by bother troubling another?

There are some answers to this.

Much like the aforementioned aliens, humanity might clash for political or religious reasons. Even at interstellar distances mankind might be petty enough over doctrinal opinions or political differences to be willing to go to war. We have certainly done so on Earth. If rather than a united whole humanity begins the colonization of other star systems as fractious alliances of petty nation states why wouldn't this happen one has to ask?

One reason I personally believe would be probable for mankind to engage in such wasteful wars amongst the stars is the issue of control. The desire of say, Earth to hold its wayward colonies under its sway. Perhaps two neighboring systems become covetous of the others superiority in easily accessible resources. Maybe one system is located on better ground for a hyperspace highway and the other system wants better access to that trade?

The possibilities are legion, and I daresay that rather than Gene Roddenberry's utopian ideals of the future with humanity as one big happy family, we would find ourselves finding reasons (petty or great) to fight one another. This is perhaps why war stories, even in space, remain popular. Humankind fighting and exploring why humans fight is going to be a popular topic of fiction for a long time yet.

Despite how horrible, cruel, and oft times pointless war is, we still enjoy reading about it. Sanitized of the blood, bodies, broken homes and families, it is an exciting prospect to read about. That being said, some authors do manage to drive the agony of war home, and those authors should be extolled for that. War is a strange phenomenon, as we find it both glorious and revolting. War among the stars with weapons far more powerful than those we have today it logically follows, would be more so.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Anglo-American Nazi War

Years ago now, I stumbled across the website while looking up alternate history on the web after reading about S.M. Stirlings Draka series. Little did I know then that I would stumble upon a series that has captivated the minds of many since its author under the username Calbear first penned it back in 2009. That story is, The Anglo-American Nazi War, available under the title Festung Europa, on Amazon it is the definitive edition of the story by author Jon Kacer.

The story takes place during World War II, and the point of divergence is the Nazis not engaging in North Africa and the fall of Stalingrad in 1942. This causes Stalin, in one of his brutal rages, to liquidate not only his main generals (Zhukov among them) but also most of Stavka. Stripped of much of their planning staff, the Russian operations of 1943 are disasters, and Stalin soon suffers a "fatal heart attack" and the Soviet Union falls into civil war. Into this vacuum the Nazis pour, and crush all resistance inflicting a crippling peace on the Russians, allowing them to turn their attention to the war with the West.

The Western Allies, now facing some 200 battle hardened divisions of Nazi troops, understandably balk at an immediate invasion of Europe. Instead, a brutally increasing air war peters into stalemate by 1947. From there both sides, seeing little opportunity to hurt each other, have an informal "truce" where no air attacks will take place, but there is no peace either, and the "Warm War" begins.

Unlike other "Nazi Cold War" scenarios (such as Fatherland or A Kill in the Morning) the Allied doctrine of Unconditional Surrender remains in place and so the truce is rather informal. The active combat remains limited to anti-submarine warfare in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Then of course, the Nazis being Nazis, decide to reignite the conflict by launching one of the most spectacular(ly ill advised) operations in military history kicking off the war again in 1954.

From there the story follows the operational history of the war, only rarely dealing with the battles themselves when they serve to illustrate a particular strategic/doctrinal point about the combatants.

The author, much like David Weber, knows his stuff. To his credit he does not shy away from the horrors or heroism of war, and is quite frank with some of the brutal calculations the Allied commanders make, offering no moral comment, but simply recording it as what must be done to win. Heck, even commentators in the original story thread were horrified at what took place, even to the Nazis on occasion!

Aside from that, as I said, the author knows his stuff. Prospective weapons of war that were never used in our own WWII come to the fray here, and even weapons that were never used!

For instance, we have Allied adoption of helicopters, which frustrates some Nazi planning against paratroopers. You also have the M92 Chamberlain Heavy Tank which mounts an enormous 120mm gun. Though when faced with something as terrifying as the Nazi Panther Mk III with its sloped armor and 105mm gun, it seems less mind boggling. The many cool planes that contribute to the air war are too numerous to mention, but suffice to say they are used quite well. Combine that with numerous other clever uses of existing military weaponry, it makes for some fascinating "what if" reading.

The story also pulls no punches in describing just how depraved and barbaric the Nazi regime was. Even the short descriptions of the horrendous labor conditions for the slave workers across the Reich are chilling, and when one considers that this is a Reich that stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals, it is terrifying to contemplate (the story at one point estimates some 90 million killed by the Nazi extermination efforts in this time line).

Many of the excellent portrayals of action in the story, are thrilling, including one great moment showing the Free Poles going into action against the SS and kicking serious ass. This is very much a history book rather than a novel though, and should be treated as such. There are no view point characters, merely the fictional in universe author offering their perspective on the war and its history. As such it may be a "dry" piece for some, but if you are a student of history or an alternate history enthusiast, it is well worth the read.

That being said, I had a few quibbles with the story.

For one thing, while I acknowledge the premise of the story is probably more sound than many would argue, I question a few of the authors conclusions. The first is that even after the resumption of the "Hot War" the SS do not meaningfully upgrade their armored capabilities in response to Allied tank designs. There is no mention of a Panther Mk IV appearing, or any other type of new heavy tank. Armor design was the bread and butter of the Reich in vehicle manufacture, and I did expect something of a reaction by them. The Luftwaffe had some design upgrades as the war wore on, but perhaps this was simply an oversight by the author.

Another is how badly he treats Russia and the former USSR, brutalized and vassalized by Nazi invasion, and made to pay staggering tribute, they get the short end of the stick from 1941-1990 alas. This though, may be my reaction to just how terrible things turn out for poor Russia here.

I also question the viability of the "False Peak" strategy adopted by the Allies to draw the SS to destruction in the work. An interesting and remarkably effective strategy in this work, I think it perhaps works too well, as even the SS were not unadaptive robots and could probably have reached the conclusion that something was afoot with all these fake attacks. However, as both a strategic and narrative piece it works well so I can't complain too much.

All these aside, the work stands up. Mr. Kacer knows his history and his military minutia, and manages to present it in a compelling and fascinating way. I have re-read it many times as a result. As previously stated, the book is good, and if you enjoy this sort of thing I encourage you to check it out!

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Elon Musk and the State of Sci Fi

Recently Elon Musk launched his Falcon Heavy maiden flight, making a successful launch of a very powerful rocket which can put upwards of 60 tons in orbit at need. This is an exciting day for fans of space exploration, and it has in all likelihood given us the best image of 2018, with the first payload being his Tesla Roadster orbiting the Earth.

Now this raises some exciting prospects for future space exploration as a powerful new rocket is in place to bring payloads to the stars.

However, this news caused me to reflect on the state of space exploration and the state of science fiction in general. Back in 2004 Bush declared we would have a moon base by 2020, and there were excited discussions of using it as a stepping stone on a manned mission to Mars by 2030. Of course, since then, more practical issues have kept such dreams grounded. A great recession, an ever expanding war in the Middle East, the strategic pivot of the United States's military forces to the Pacific, ect. So it seems our dream of expansion off of our little blue marble are still born.

How does this effect sci-fi you ask? Simple. If our current prediction of a moon base by 2020 isn't feasible, how likely is it we can see a manned mission to Mars by 2030? The excellent film (and novel) The Martian posited a functional Mars base by 2035. How do our sci-fi timelines stack up in hindsight and even foresight if our own generation seems as earthbound as that of the 1950s?

Truthfully it seems that many of the optimistic musings on interstellar travel by 2100 seem naive now, and many a science fiction author seems himself sad to realize that their thoughts that the technology would advance quickly enough to provide some realism to their sci-fi are groundless.

Perhaps only the first book of The Expanse is correct and we will be limited to only our own solar system for the foreseeable future. Or perhaps, as some say, we will never leave our little blue rock because it lacks practicability.

I disagree with the naysayers personally, but I think that our long absence from the stars may have an influence on predictions of interstellar travel that was not so present in those starry eyed science fiction writers of the 1900s.

We can see some of that in the depictions of a battered overpopulated Earth depicted in The Expanse, or even Avatar and its story telling. Predictions of environmental catastrophe and overpopulation seem to haunt our otherwise hopeful depictions of the future. Rather than great vistas of alien worlds, we struggle amidst bleak hellscapes akin to Blade Runner and lament the dying Earth. Has a positive portrayal of the future lost its charm?

I doubt it, and if anything Elon Musk's recent launch has spurred excitement amongst the "hard" science fiction fans, and will hopefully spur some hopeful attitudes amongst the more "soft" science fiction writers too.

Whatever the case may be though, this proves that humanity is still reaching towards the stars, and we continue to have a practical, as well as literary, future in those heavens yet. Let us all look to the sky with wonder!

Monday, 5 February 2018

Mistborn The Original Trilogy

Well readers one of my reading highlights of 2017 was finally re-reading the Mistborn trilogy, something I hadn't done in well over five years. I personally feel lucky because I got to purchase it in a boxed set and so didn't have to wait a few years between releases and wonder what was going on. This time around I was able to read it with a detailed set of annotations Brandon provides for the series giving you some insights into his writing process and some minor details on the world you don't see in the main novels.

Re-reading it I felt transported back into an original fantasy world and was able to remind myself that Brandon Sanderson is one of the greatest fantasy authors of the 21st Century.

Why you ask? Well that is because the Mistborn trilogy is (in my opinion readers) one of the greatest pieces of fantasy fiction ever written!

The series set in a world very much not our own, a world called Scadrial. Ash falls from the sky covering the land in a perpetual gray, the vegetation is brown, and life is hard. In it we are introduced to the Final Empire ruled over by the Lord Ruler who is the temporal and immortal god emperor of this realm that encompasses all humanity. The nobility rule over vast estates of slave skaa workers who are the property of the empire, and a fanatical Steel Ministry, with its fearsome Steel Inquisitors, enforces orthodoxy and compliance throughout the empire.

In this world though, there are those individuals who can control the Metallic Arts, or Allomancy, and are born with an innate ability to burn one of the ten metals and use its effects. Then there are those rare individuals who can burn all ten, and these we come to know as Mistborn.

As a warning, there are spoilers below the cut, so continue at your own risk!!

From Pintrest