Saturday, 31 March 2018

The Shadow Campaigns

For a few years now, I'd been seeing a series of books by the impressively named Django Wexler, sitting on the shelves at my local bookstore. Due to an already insanely long reading list, and not quite enough money to justify purchasing it, I held off on purchasing a copy of his books for a while, but I finally picked up the first three installments of the Shadow Campaigns series.

Let me say I have not been disappointed!

It is essentially, in my humble opinion, flintlock fantasy done right. Django Wexler's research and depth of description is impressive. The way he fleshes out his characters and builds them up is excellent. The locations, the tactics, and the magic is fascinating and exciting. Napoleonic Era warfare intermingled with some impressive magic and intrigue that spans a continent. To say it is thrilling is an understatement!

The Shadow Campaigns starts out with the novel The Thousand Names which I must admit is what attracted me to the series in the first place. I saw this title and was immediately intrigued and picked it up to leaf through the first few chapters. I was sucked in by Wexler's attention to detail, interesting descriptions, and subtle world building.

Our story opens at old dilapidated Fort Valor, where the Vordan Colonials have retreated after a religious uprising by a band of fanatics known as the "Redeemers" who have chased out the old Prince of Khandar and established a theocratic state, and intend to chase the foreigners out once and for all.

Tuesday, 20 March 2018

Self Driven Madness

In something I predicted personally a while ago, but can't help but chuckle at now (I have a dark sense of humor sometimes ok?), Uber has suspended its self driving car program after a pedestrian was killed by a car in Arizona. It seems the woman was jaywalking when she was struck, which may explain why there was no warning when she was hit. Needless to say, jaywalking is a problem for human drivers, much less for an automaton in its infancy.

Now personally, I think self-driving cars are the future, to such an extent that the personal ownership of cars may be an oddity for our children and descendants. However, I do not think the future is now. The technology is fairly new and in its infancy. There are many new steps and tests that must be taken before it can be said that these vehicles are reliably safe, what with many previous accidents having been in the news. This, in my opinion, means that it will be a few more years before this technology is used on the larger scale, and well into the future before we see self driving cars as a day to day reality.

However, imagine in the future, not owning a car but being able to access one whenever you need it. You sit at home, but need to go somewhere and so call not a cab, but a car company who send a car from a garage which picks you up and can either stay with you at your destination or return to a garage only to come fetch you again later.

Imagine if you will then, not having the need to own a car personally but subscribing to a company which will send you one when you call. Parking garages might be temporary hangers for streams of vehicles that are simply waiting between calls to shuttle people back and forth to destinations as needed. This has the potential to unclog the roads as street parking might be a thing of the past, driveways and big garage additions might not be a factor in planning new houses.

This might cut down on cars on the road, and if these are electric cars in the future they might not even need gas stations as electric cars don't need to run as far. Personal vehicle ownership might then only be a thing for those who live in the country, and even then why might some towns not have these great garages to curry to self driving cars that their denizens might like but not personally need.

I can think of a few advantages, but even a few disadvantages. Cutting down on personal car ownership might be a net positive, but it could also limit the mobility some currently enjoy otherwise. If they still run on fossil fuels, and not be a positive for the environment, and these "holding garages" might be nightmares when it comes to urban planning on how to locate them or where they could be best placed to help cities grow. Hell, the skill of driving might eventually fade from the general urban populace!

All of this of course is idle speculation on how the future might work out. Currently though, I think its clear these technologies are in their infancy and have some ways to go. They will be the future I think, and how they change the future will be interesting to see.

Friday, 16 March 2018

Wages of Deficit

I have in the past noted that Donald Trump is a compulsive liar. He lies about the most inane things and is almost ridiculously blase about it. The most recent, which hits close to home and may have a direct impact on my country, is his claims regarding the trade deficit with Canada. The reports seem to indicate that Trump not only made up a spurious fact regarding his own nation's trade deficit with mine, but that he simply did not know, or care to know, what the actual state of affairs was. This despite now for over two years making broad sweeping statements at rallies, on Twitter, and in interviews, regarding the supposed "unfairness" of foreign trade with the United States.

While I have made no secret of my dislike for Donald Trump as an individual, I must ask, how can Trump expect international observers to take him seriously? How can foreign leaders expect Trump to negotiate in good faith with them?

The simple answer is, they can't. Trump will not, and does not, work in good faith either with members of his own administration or international leaders who are his allies. The man seems incapable of either being honest, or even doing rudimentary research into the effects of his own policies, or the ground which they are supposed to stand on when debated by policy makers.

What is baffling, utterly baffling, about this recent exchange, is that the lie makes no sense. In no circumstances does it even seem reasonable. Its not compelling fodder for a political campaign, it isn't a reasonable position to remain in ignorance of, and it isn't even a clever negotiating tactic considering how easy it is to disprove. He just bluntly said this to a foreign leader, and his countries closest neighbor and ally, and had it easily disproved.

He then waffled on whether he was wrong by stating that "almost all" countries have a trade deficit with the US, even though that specific statement was wrong. This isn't the first time Trump has made this claim, but it was the first time he was so bluntly called on it while talking to the head of state of the nation he's been misrepresenting like this.

The short term damage is repairable, as a new blunder from the Trump White House happens nearly weekly, but in terms of renegotiating NAFTA as he wants in the long term, it is iffy any other leader will see him as negotiating in good faith or reasonably. He's just sacked his Secretary of State, has been caught totally making something up and blithely continued with it, and seems utterly unwilling to compromise on his mistake. That is not a recipe for creating a sense of good will or confidence with any of the NAFTA partners, who may be better served simply waiting out any attempts at negotiation he proposes.

For other world leaders, it should simply be taken as Gospel that Trump has no clue what he is talking about, and that his representatives don't even represent his views to the world. The unfortunate effect this may have on his foreign policy remains to be seen, but I can only repeat something I have said before, Donald Trump cannot be trusted.

Monday, 5 March 2018


I have blogged about the work of S.M. Stirling before, and indeed much of his work deserves high praise. He has many well known series and novels including the Draka, and the Peshawar Lancers, which are all exciting and epic sci-fi romps. As I have said before though, Stirling excels at world building, but sometimes there are only so many ways you can build a world when we already have one without going totally alternate history. What is a man to do?

The answer of course, is simple, you build a portal to another world!

That is exactly the plot of his 2003 novel, Conquistador.

Starting in 1946 we follow a young John Wolfe VI as he is living in Oakland California, convalescing from his time serving in the Pacific Theater of WWII after getting some Japanese lead free of charge on Okinawa. Suddenly, while tinkering with a radio he is repairing, he opens a portal to another world. He steps out and finds a North America where no European has ever set foot. Thinking of this rich and unexplored world, he rounds up some buddies to explore.

Meanwhile in 2009 Oakland, Fish and Game wardens Tom Christiansen and Roy Tully are attempting to solve the mystery of how so many smugglers are getting their hands on the pelts of endangered species. Only to be drawn into a complex conspiracy involving two worlds and a pretty and (very literally) otherworldly special agent. 

The story kicks off very quickly as our two hapless Game Wardens try to unravel the mystery they are presented with and young Adrienne Rolfe, the granddaughter of this modern day conquistador and a plot to control this gate from inside her home country that John Rolfe has founded, the Commonwealth of New Virginia.

I'll say this, the book hits the ground running with action, intrigue, suspense, and surprises and doesn't stop until a brief interlude in the middle. Stirling is on his game here and he runs the gambit from a crime drama procedural to describing battles with small unit tactics with varying things like P90s to flintlock muskets and bow and arrows, combining that with history and a nature documentary. It shows an impressive array of knowledge and a commendable depth of research. Frankly that level of detail, which doesn't clutter up the plot, should be applauded.

That Stirling also sets the scenes so well, describing sweeping vistas of untarnished nature and the habits of wildlife never seen in our world, is impressive. The alternate patterns of animals, the different geography, and the sweeping beauty of a world largely untouched by man is amazing and paints some stunning views of a world we don't know.

Now it is funny because it is an alternate history in a few ways. The first is how John Rolfe VI is descended from the John Rolfe of Pocahontas fame. In our timeline his lineage died out with his sons' only daughter, here the family lives on if slightly unremarkably until 1946 when Rolfe finds this new world. 

This new world on the other hand is a total alternate history having changed so much from our own it is unrecognizable! In this world Alexander the Great and his Macedonian Empire live on as Alexander dies in 280 BC, rather than in 323 BC as in our own time period. In his prime he has conquered what would be the Roman Empire, turned back the nomads of the east, and settled his people as far west as Spain. His successors manage to keep the Empire running until it bursts in about 300 AD. That though changes the world as we know it, it is a Greek influenced Europe (trapped in the late medieval period) with numerous "barbarian" cultures floating around the periphery and cultures displaced the world over, with Indo-Iranian peoples in Manchuria! No Christianity, no Islam, and certainly nothing compared to the world we know. Then with trade with the East open the post-Macedonian kingdoms have no need to go gallivanting off across the Atlantic. 

All this of course, so the Old World never meets the New.

In its place has popped up one of Stirling's more eccentric societies. The Commonwealth of New Virginia is founded by men who have old school ideas of society and morality, and a very settler mindset. If you've ever read the book Guns, Germs, and Steel you'll have a very good idea of why things go wrong for the Natives rather quickly and how these settlers move in to fill the void.

It is essentially and "oligarchic aristocracy" where the nobility (in the form of the Thirty Families) control most everything, they have their associates (basically their tenants) and there are freeholders and collaterals who are direct members of the family, or are directly in the thrall of the families themselves. 

The families themselves are made up the original members who settled this new world, those who came first, and later those who provided significant capital or settler populations to help boost the Commonwealth. Many of these are people with good reasons not to be caught on FirstSide (or our world), fleeing Nazis, Pied Noirs, Rhodesians, Russian communists, Serbian war criminals, and Afrikaners. All people with very different world views than what would be acceptable today.

Society is almost stuck in the 1950s in culture, dress, and attitude, with a firm agrarian basis. Cheerfully irreverent towards displacing the natives and taking their land, and rather intolerant regarding outsiders.

This comes as a great shock to the characters who end up there from FirstSide who don't want to be there, making them distinctly uncomfortable. Many people who get close to the gate against their will are kidnapped and brought to New Virginia by force. Which is how they have a small population of precisely twenty-seven black people.

All of this is delicious window dressing though for an exciting story about how some people want to change a bit of this, by force. There are thrilling car chases, skirmishes, encounters with hostile Native bands in running Wild West style fights, and references to top notch old movies. It's a geeks dream book really.

Other than one or two parts where the world building takes over the story with description, it grabs you and doesn't let go, from page one to the epilogue it is mostly exploration and daring fights. 

Like I said earlier, Stirling did his homework, and I really don't want to spoil all of that for you. It is sadly underrepresented in discussions regarding his work, and really should be celebrated for how unique it is. I highly recommend it to anyone who likes Stirling's work, and anyone who enjoys action, crime, adventure, and alternate history will love this. It has something everyone can enjoy from numerous genres.

Definitely worth a read!