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 their 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!

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 alternatehistory.com 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!