Books by Birnes, William J.

Scott, William B., Michael J. Coumatos, and William J. Birnes. Space Wars. New York: Forge, 2007. ISBN 0-765-31379-0.
I believe it was Jerry Pournelle who observed that a Special Forces operative in Afghanistan on horseback is, with his GPS target designator and satellite communications link to an F-16 above, the closest thing in our plane of existence to an angel of death. But, take away the space assets, and he's just a guy on a horse.

The increasing dependence of the U.S. military on space-based reconnaissance, signal intelligence, navigation and precision guidance, missile warning, and communications platforms has caused concern among strategic thinkers about the risk of an “asymmetrical attack” against them by an adversary. The technology needed to disable them is far less sophisticated and easier to acquire than the space assets, and the impact of their loss will disproportionately impact the U.S., which has fully integrated them into its operations. This novel, by a former chief wargamer of the U.S. Space Command (Coumatos), the editor-in-chief of Aviation Week and Space Technology (Scott), and co-author Birnes, uses a near-term fictional scenario set in 2010 to explore the vulnerabilities of military space and make the case for both active defence of these platforms and the ability to hold at risk the space-based assets of adversaries even if doing so gets the airheads all atwitter about “weapons in space” (as if a GPS constellation which lets you drop a bomb down somebody's chimney isn't a weapon). The idea, then, was to wrap the cautionary tale and policy advocacy in a Tom Clancy-style thriller which would reach a wider audience than a dull Pentagon briefing presentation.

The reality, however, as embodied in the present book, is simply a mess. I can't help but notice that the publisher, Forge, is an imprint of Tom Doherty Associates, best known for their Tor science fiction books. As I have observed earlier in comments about the recent novels by Orson Scott Card and Heinlein and Robinson, Doherty doesn't seem to pay much attention to copy editing and fact checking, and this book illustrates the problem is not just confined to the Tor brand. In fact, after this slapdash effort, I'm coming to look at Doherty as something like Que computer books in the 1980s—the name on the spine is enough to persuade me to leave it on the shelf.

Some of the following might be considered very mild spoilers, but I'm not going to put them in a spoiler warning since they don't really give away major plot elements or the ending, such as it is. The real spoiler is knowing how sloppy the whole thing is, and once you appreciate that, you won't want to waste your time on it anyway. First of all, the novel is explicitly set in the month of April 2010, and yet the “feel” and the technological details are much further out. Basically, the technologies in place three years from now are the same we have today, especially for military technologies which have long procurement times and glacial Pentagon deployment schedules. Yet we're supposed to believe than in less than thirty-six months from today, the Air Force will be operating a two-storey, 75,000 square foot floor space computer containing “an array of deeply stacked parallel nanoprocessing circuits”, with spoken natural language programming and query capability (pp. 80–81). On pp. 212–220 we're told of a super weapon inspired by Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan which, having started its development as a jammer for police radar, is able to seize control of enemy unmanned aerial vehicles. And so protean is this weapon, its very name changes at random from SPECTRE to SCEPTRE from paragraph to paragraph.

The mythical Blackstar spaceplane figures in the story, described as incoherently as in co-author Scott's original cover story in Aviation Week. On p. 226 we're told the orbiter burns “boron-based gel fuel and atmospheric oxygen”, then on the very next page we hear of the “aerospike rocket engines”. Well, where do we start? A rocket does not burn atmospheric oxygen, but carries its own oxidiser. An aerospike is a kind of rocket engine nozzle, entirely different from the supersonic combustion ramjet one would expect on an spaceplane which used atmospheric oxygen. Further, the advantage of an aerospike is that it is efficient both at low and high altitudes, but there's no reason to use one on an orbiter which is launched at high altitude from a mother ship. And then on p. 334, the “aerospike” restarts in orbit, which you'll probably agree is pretty difficult to do when you're burning “atmospheric oxygen”, which is famously scarce at orbital altitudes.

Techno-gibberish is everywhere, reminiscent in verisimilitude to the dialogue in the television torture fantasy “24”. For example, “Yo' Jaba! Got a match on our parallel port. I am waaay cool!” (p. 247). On p. 174 a Rooskie no-goodnik finds orbital elements for U.S. satellites from “the American ‘space catalog’ she had hacked into through a Texas university's server”. Why not just go to CelesTrak, where this information has been available worldwide since 1985? The laws of orbital mechanics here differ from those of Newton; on p. 381, a satellite in a circular orbit “14,674 miles above sea level” is said to be orbiting at “17,500 MPH”. In fact, at this altitude orbital velocity is 4.35 km/sec or 9730 statute miles per hour. And astronauts in low earth orbit who lose their electrical power quickly freeze solid, “victims of space's hostile, unforgiving cold”. Actually, in intense sunlight for half of every orbit and with the warm Earth filling half the sky, getting rid of heat is the problem in low orbit. On pp. 285–290, an air-launched cruise missile is used to launch a blimp. Why not just let it go and let the helium do the job all by itself? On the political front, we're supposed to think that a spittle-flecked mullah raving that he was the incarnation of the Twelfth Imam, in the presence of the Supreme Leader and President of Iran, would not only escape being thrown in the dungeon, but walk out of the meeting with a go-ahead to launch a nuclear-tipped missile at a target in Europe. And there is much, much more like this.

I suppose it should have been a tip-off that the foreword was written by George Noory, who hosts the Coast to Coast AM radio program originally founded by Art Bell. Co-author Birnes was also co-author of the hilariously preposterous The Day After Roswell, which claims that key technologies in the second half of the twentieth century, including stealth aircraft and integrated circuits, were based on reverse-engineered alien technologies from a flying saucer which crashed in New Mexico in 1947. As stories go, Roswell, Texas seems more plausible, and a lot more fun, than this book.

May 2007 Permalink