Thriller

Austen, Jane and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Philadelphia: Quirk Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-59474-334-4.
Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is the quintessential British Regency era novel of manners. Originally published in 1813, it has been endlessly adapted to the stage, film, and television, and has been a staple of English literature classes from the Victorian era through post-post-modern de-deconstructionist decadence. What generations of litterateurs missed, however, is its fundamental shortcoming: there aren't any zombies in it! That's where the present volume comes in.

This work preserves 85% of Jane Austen's original text and names her as the primary author (hey, if you can't have a dead author in a zombie novel, where can you?), but enhances the original story with “ultraviolent zombie mayhem” seamlessly woven into the narrative. Now, some may consider this a travesty and desecration of a literary masterwork, but look at this way: if F-14s are cool and tyrannosaurs are cool, imagine how cool tyrannosaurs in F-14s would be? Adopting this Calvinist approach allows one to properly appreciate what has been done here.

The novel is set in an early 19th century England afflicted for five and fifty years with the “strange plague” that causes the dead to rise and stagger across the countryside alone or in packs, seeking to kill and devour the succulent brains of the living. Any scratch inflicted by one of these creatures (variously referred to as “unmentionables”, “sorry stricken”, “manky dreadfuls”, “Satan's armies”, “undead”, or simply “zombies”) can infect the living with the grievous affliction and transform them into another compulsive cranium cruncher. The five Bennet sisters have been sent by their father to be trained in the deadly arts by masters in China and have returned a formidable fighting force, sworn by blood oath to the Crown to defend Hertfordshire against the zombie peril until the time of their marriage. There is nothing their loquacious and rather ditzy mother wants more than to see her five daughters find suitable matches, and she fears their celebrated combat credentials and lack of fortune will deter the wealthy and refined suitors she imagines for them. The central story is the contentious relations and blossoming romance between Elizabeth Bennet and Fitzwilliam Darcy, a high-born zombie killer extraordinaire whose stand-offish manner is initially interpreted as arrogance and disdain for the humble Bennets. Can such fierce and proud killers find love and embark upon a life fighting alongside one another in monster murdering matrimony?

The following brief extracts give a sense of what you're getting into when you pick up this book. None are really plot spoilers, but I've put them into a spoiler block nonetheless because some folks might want to encounter these passages in context to fully enjoy the roller coaster ride between the refined and the riotous.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • From a corner of the room, Mr. Darcy watched Elizabeth and her sisters work their way outward, beheading zombie after zombie as they went. He knew of only one other woman in Great Britain who wielded a dagger with such skill, such grace, and deadly accuracy.

    By the time the girls reached the walls of the assembly hall, the last of the unmentionables lay still.

    Apart from the attack, the evening altogether passed off pleasantly for the whole family. Mrs. Bennet had seen her eldest daughter much admired by the Netherfield party. … (Chapter 3)

  • Elizabeth, to whom Jane very soon communicated the chief of all this, heard it in silent indignation. Her heart was divided between concern for her sister, and thoughts of going immediately to town and dispensing the lot of them.

    “My dear Jane!” exclaimed Elizabeth, “you are too good. Your sweetness and disinterestedness are really angelic; you wish to think all the world respectable, and are hurt if I speak of killing anybody for any reason! …” (Chapter 24)

  • But why Mr. Darcy came so often to the Parsonage, it was more difficult to understand. It could not be for society, as he frequently sat there ten minutes together without opening his lips; and when he did speak, it seemed the effect of necessity rather than choice. He seldom appeared really animated, even at the sight of Mrs. Collins gnawing upon her own hand. What remained of Charlotte would liked to have believed this change the effect of love, and the object of that love her friend Eliza. She watched him whenever they were at Rosings, and whenever he came to Hunsford; but without much success, for her thoughts often wandered to other subjects, such as the warm, succulent sensation of biting into a fresh brain. …

    In her kind schemes for Elizabeth, she sometimes planned her marrying Colonel Fitzwilliam. He was beyond comparison the most pleasant man; he certainly admired her, and his situation in life was most eligible; but to counterbalance these advantages, Mr. Darcy had a considerably larger head, and thus, more brains to feast upon. (Chapter 32)

  • “When they all removed to Brighton, therefore, you had no reason, I suppose, to believe them fond of each other?”

    “Not the slightest. I can remember no symptom of affection on either side, other than her carving his name into her midriff with a dagger; but this was customary with Lydia. …” (Chapter 47)

  • He scarcely needed an invitation to stay for supper; and before he went away, an engagement was formed, chiefly through his own and Mrs. Bennet's means, for his coming next morning to shoot the first autumn zombies with her husband. (Chapter 55)
  • You may as well call it impertinence. It was very little else. The fact is, you were sick of civility, of deference, of officious attention. You were disgusted with the women who were always speaking, and looking, and thinking for your approbation alone. I roused, and interested you because I was so unlike them. I knew the joy of standing over a vanquished foe; of painting my face and arms with their blood, yet warm, and screaming to the heavens—begging, nay daring, God to send me more enemies to kill. The gentle ladies who so assiduously courted you knew nothing of this joy, and therefore, could never offer you true happiness. … (Chapter 60)
Spoilers end here.  

The novel concludes with zombies still stalking England; all attempts to find a serum, including Lady Catherine's, having failed, and without hope for a negotiated end to hostilities. Successful diplomacy requires not only good will but brains. Zombies do not have brains; they eat them. So life goes on, and those who find married bliss must undertake to instruct their progeny in the deadly arts which defend the best parts of life from the darkness.

The book includes a “Reader's Discussion Guide” ideal for classroom and book club exploration of themes raised in the novel. For example:

10. Some scholars believe that the zombies were a last-minute addition to the novel, requested by the publisher in a shameless attempt to boost sales. Others argue that the hordes of living dead are integral to Jane Austen's plot and social commentary. What do you think? Can you imagine what this novel might be without the violent zombie mayhem?
Beats me.

Of course this is going to be made into a movie—patience! A comic book edition, set of postcards, and a 2011 wall calendar ideal for holiday giving are already available—go merchandising! Here is a chart which will help you sort out the relationships among the many characters in both Jane Austen's original novel and this one.

While this is a parody, whilst reading it I couldn't help but recall Herman Kahn's parable of the lions in New York City. Humans are almost infinitely adaptable and can come to consider almost any situation normal once they've gotten used to it. In this novel zombies are something one lives with as one of the afflictions of mortal life like tuberculosis and crabgrass, and it is perfectly normal for young ladies to become warriors because that's what circumstances require. It gives one pause to think how many things we've all come to consider unremarkable in our own lives might be deemed bizarre and/or repellent from the perspective of those of another epoch or observing from a different cultural perspective.

May 2010 Permalink

Beck, Glenn. The Overton Window. New York: Threshold Editions, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-8430-1.
I have no idea who is actually responsible for what in the authorship of this novel. Glenn Beck is listed as the principal author, but the title page says “with contributions from Kevin Balfe, Emily Bestler, and Jack Henderson”. I have cited the book as it appears on the cover and in most mentions of it, as a work by Glenn Beck. Certainly, regardless of who originated, edited, and assembled the words into the present work, it would not have been published nor have instantaneously vaulted to the top of the bestseller lists had it not been associated with the high profile radio and television commentator to whom it is attributed. Heck, he may have written the whole thing himself and generously given credit to his editors and fact checkers—it does, indeed, read like a first attempt by an aspiring thriller author.

It isn't at all bad. Beck (et al., or whatever) tend to be a bit preachy and the first half of the novel goes pretty slow. It's only after you cross the 50 yard line that you discover there's more to the story than you thought, that things and characters are not what they seemed to be, and that the choices facing the protagonist, Noah Gardner, are more complicated than you might have thought.

The novel has been given effusive cover blurbs by masters of the genre Brad Thor and Vince Flynn. Still, I'd expect those page-turner craftsmen to have better modulated the tension in a story than we find here. A perfectly crafted thriller is like a roller coaster, with fear-inducing rises and terrifying plunges, but this is more like a lecture on constitutional government whilst riding on a Disneyland ride where most of the characters are animatronic robots there to illustrate the author's message. The characters just don't feel right. How plausible is it that a life-long advocate of liberty and conspiracy theorist would become bestest buddy with an undercover FBI agent who blackmailed him into co-operating in a sting operation less than 24 hours before? Or that a son who was tortured almost to death at the behest (and in the presence of) his father could plausibly be accepted as a minion in the father's nefarious undertaking? For the rest, we're going to have to go behind the spoiler curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
In chapter 30, Noah is said to have been kept unconscious for an entire weekend with a “fentanyl patch”. But fentanyl patches are used as an analgesic, not an anæsthetic. Although the drug was once used as a general anæsthetic, it was administered intravenously in this application, not via a transdermal patch.

The nuclear bomb “model” (which turns out to be the real thing) is supposed to have been purloined from a cruise missile which went missing during transport, and is said to weigh “eighty or one hundred pounds”. But the W-80 and W-84 cruise missile warheads weighed 290 and 388 pounds respectively. There is no way the weight of the physics package of these weapons could be reduced to such an extent while remaining functional.

The Mark 8 atomic bomb which comes on the scene in chapter 43 makes no sense at all. Where did it come from? Why was a bomb, of which only 40 were ever produced and removed from service in 1957, carefully maintained in secret and off the books for more than fifty years? Any why would the terrorists want two bombs, when the second would simply be vaporised when they set off the first? Perhaps I've missed something, but it's kind of like you're reading a spy thriller and in the middle of a gunfight a unicorn wanders through the middle and everybody stops shooting until it passes, whereupon they continue the battle as if nothing happened.

Spoilers end here.  

Apart from plausibility of the characters and quibbles, both of which I'm more than willing to excuse in a gripping thriller, the real disappointment here is that the novel ends about two hundred chapters before anything is actually resolved. This is a chronicle of the opening skirmish in a cataclysmic, protracted conflict between partisans of individual liberty and forces seeking to impose global governance by an élite. When you put the book down, you'll have met the players and understand their motives and resources, but it isn't even like the first volume of a trilogy where, regardless of how much remains to happen, there is usually at least the conclusion of a subplot. Now, you're not left with a cliffhanger, but neither is there any form of closure to the story. I suppose one has no option but to wait for the inevitable sequel, but I doubt I'll be reading it.

This is not an awful book; it's enjoyable on its own terms and its citations of real-world events may be enlightening to readers inattentive to the shrinking perimeter of liberty in this increasingly tyrannical world (the afterword provides resources for those inclined to explore further). But despite their praise for it, Vince Flynn and Brad Thor it's not.

June 2010 Permalink

Beck, Glenn with Jack Henderson. The Eye of Moloch. New York: Threshold Editions, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4516-3584-3.
I have a terrible record of reading a book, saying I don't intend to read the inevitable sequel, and then once again, finding my bandaged finger wabbling back to the Fire. This novel is a sequel to The Overton Window (June 2010) which I found to be a respectable but less than gripping thriller with an unsatisfying conclusion. The present volume continues the story, but still leaves much up in the air at its end. As a sequel to The Overton Window, it assumes the reader has previously read that book; little or no effort is made to bring readers who start here up to speed, and they will find themselves without any idea who the principal characters are, the circumstances they find themselves in, and why they are acting as they do.

The grand plot to use public relations to manipulate the U.S. population into welcoming the imposition of tyranny by a small group of insiders is proceeding. Noah Gardner, son of one of the key players in the conspiracy and former worker in its inner circle, has switched sides and now supports the small band called Founders' Keepers, which, led by Molly Ross, strives to bring the message of the country's founding principles to the citizens before the situation reaches the state of outright revolt. But the regime views any form of dissent as a threat, and has escalated the conflict into overt violence, deploying private contractors, high-tech weapons, and intrusive and ubiquitous surveillance, so well proven in overseas wars, against its domestic opponents.

As the U.S. crumbles, fringe groups of all kinds begin to organise and pursue their own agendas. The conspirators play them against one another, seeking to let them do the dirty work, while creating an environment of fear of “domestic terrorists” which will make the general population welcome the further erosion of liberty. With the news media completely aligned with the regime and the Internet beginning to succumb to filtering and censorship, there seems little hope of getting the truth out to the people.

Molly Ross seizes upon a bold stroke which will expose the extent to which the central planners intend to deliver Americans into serfdom. Certainly if Americans were aware of how their every act was monitored, correlated, and used to control them, they would rise up. But this requires a complicated plan which puts the resources of her small group and courageous allies on the line.

Like its predecessor, this book, taken as a pure thriller, doesn't come up to the standard set by the masters of the genre. There are many characters with complex back-stories and interactions, and at times it's difficult to remember who's who and what side they're currently on. The one thing which is very effective is that throughout the novel we encounter references to weapons, surveillance technologies, domestic government programs which trample upon the rights of citizens, media bias and overt propaganda, and other horrors which sketch how liberty is shrinking in the face of a centralised, coercive, and lawless state. Then in the afterword, most of these programs are documented as already existing in the U.S., complete with citations to source documents on the Web. But then one wonders: in 2013 the U.S. National Security Agency has been revealed as spying on U.S. citizens in ways just as extreme as the surveillance Molly hoped to expose here, and only a small percentage of the population seems to care.

Perhaps what works best is that the novel evokes a society near that tipping point where, in the words of Claire Wolfe, “It's too late to work within the system, but too early to shoot the bastards.” We have many novels and manifestos of political turnaround before liberty is totally lost, and huge stacks of post-apocalyptic fiction set after the evil and corrupt system has collapsed under its own weight, but this is one of the few novels you'll read set in that difficult in-between time. The thing about a tipping point is that individuals, small groups, and ideas can have a disproportionate influence on outcomes, whereas near equilibrium the system is difficult to perturb. This book invites the reader to ask, in a situation as described, which side they would choose, and what would they do, and risk, for what they believe.

December 2013 Permalink

Berenson, Alex. The Silent Man. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2009. ISBN 978-0-399-15538-3.
This is a compelling page-turner in which the nightmare scenario of “loose nukes” falling into the hands of jihadi terrorists raises the risk of a nuclear detonation on U.S. soil. Only intrepid CIA agent (and loose cannon—heroes in books like this never seem to be of the tethered cannon variety) John Wells can put the pieces together before disaster strikes and possibly provokes consequences even worse than a nuclear blast.

The author has come up with a very clever scenario to get around many of the obvious objections to most plots of this kind. The characters of the malefactors are believable, and the suspense as the story unfolds is palpable; this is a book I did not want to either put down or have come to an end too quickly. Still, I have some major quibbles with the details, which I'll describe in the spoiler block below (I don't consider anything discussed a major plot spoiler, but better safe than sorry).

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
There are number of factual goofs (or invocations of artistic license, if you prefer). The Russian nuclear warheads stolen by the terrorists are said to be from SS-26 Iskander tactical missiles. Yet according to both the Russian military and NATO, this missile uses only conventional warheads. The warheads are said to have been returned for refurbishing due to damage from the missile's corrosive liquid fuel, but the Iskander is, in fact, a solid fuel missile

The premise of constructing an improvised gun assembly nuclear weapon from material from the secondary of a thermonuclear warhead seems highly implausible to me. (They couldn't use the fissile material from the primary because it is plutonium, which would predetonate in a gun design, and they can't fire the implosion mechanism of the primary without the permissive action link code, without which the implosion system will misfire, resulting in no nuclear yield.) Anyway, the terrorists plan to use highly enriched U-235 from the secondary in their gun bomb. The problem is that, unless I'm mistaken or the Russians use a very odd design in their bombs, there is no reason for a fusion secondary to contain anywhere near a critical mass of U-235 or, for that matter, any U-235 at all. In a Teller-Ulam design the only fissile material in the secondary is the uranium or plutonium “spark plug” used to heat the lithium deuteride fuel to a temperature where fusion can begin, but, even if U-235 is used, the quantity is much less than that required for a gun assembly bomb.

Even if the terrorists did manage to obtain sufficient U-235, I'm far from certain the bomb would have worked. They planned to use a gun assembly with a Russian SPG-9 recoilless rifle propelling the projectile into the target. They weld the tube of the bazooka directly to the steel tamper surrounding the target. But that won't work! The SPG-9 projectile is ejected from the tube by a small charge, but its rocket motor, which accelerates it to full velocity, does not ignite until the projectile is about twenty metres from the tube. So the projectile in the bomb would be accelerated only by the initial charge, which wouldn't impart anything like the velocity needed to avoid predetonation. Finally, the terrorists have no initiator: they just hope background radiation will generate a neutron to get things going. But if they aren't lucky, the whole assembly will be blown apart by the explosive charge of the SPG-9 round before nuclear detonation begins.

Now, if you don't know these details, or you're willing to ignore them (as I was), they don't in any way detract from what is a gripping story. There's no question that a small group of terrorists who came into possession of a sufficient quantity of highly enriched uranium could construct a simple gun bomb which would have a high probability of working on the first try. It's just that the scenario in the novel doesn't explain how they obtained a sufficient quantity, nor does it describe a weapon design which is likely to work.

Spoilers end here.  

May 2009 Permalink

Birmingham, John. Without Warning. New York: Del Rey, 2009. ISBN 978-0-345-50289-6.
One of the most common counsels offered to authors by agents and editors is to choose a genre and remain within it. A book which spans two or more of the usual categories runs the risk of “falling into the crack”, with reviewers not certain how to approach it and, on the marketing side, retailers unsure of where in the store it should be displayed. This is advice which the author of this work either never received or laughingly disdained. The present volume combines a political/military techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy tradition with alternative history as practiced by Harry Turtledove, but wait—there's more, relativistic arm-waving apocalyptic science fiction in the vein of the late Michael Crichton. This is an ambitious combination, and one which the author totally bungles in this lame book, which is a complete waste of paper, ink, time, and money.

The premise is promising. What would happen if there were no United States (something we may, after all, effectively find out over the next few years, if not in the manner posited here)? In particular, wind the clock back to just before the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and assume the U.S. vanished—what would the world look like in the aftermath? You ask, “what do you mean by the U.S. vanishing?” Well, you see, an interdimensional portal opens between a fifth dimensional braneworld which disgorges 500,000 flying saucers which spread out over North America, from which tens of millions of 10 metre tall purple and green centipedes emerge to hunt down and devour every human being in the United States and most of Canada and Mexico, leaving intact only the airheads in western Washington State and Hawaii and the yahoos in Alaska. No—not really—in fact what is proposed here is even more preposterously implausible than the saucers and centipedes, and is never explained in the text. It is simply an absurd plot device which defies about as many laws of physics as rules of thumb for authors of thrillers.

So the U.S. goes away, and mayhem erupts all around the world. The story is told by tracking with closeups of various people in the Middle East, Europe, on the high seas, Cuba, and the surviving remnant of the U.S. The way things play out isn't implausible, but since the precipitating event is absurd on the face of it, it's difficult to care much about the consequences as described here. I mean, here we have a book in which Bill Gates has a cameo rôle providing a high-security communications device which is competently implemented and works properly the first time—bring on the saucers and giant centipedes!

As the pages dwindle toward the end, it seems like nothing is being resolved. Then you turn the last page and discover that you've been left in mid-air and are expected to buy After America next year to find out how it all comes out. Yeah, right—fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, not gonna happen!

Apart from the idiotic premise, transgenred plot, and side-splitting goofs like the mention of “UCLA's Berkeley campus” (p. 21), the novel drips with gratuitous obscenity. Look, one expects soldiers and sailors to cuss, and having them speak that way conveys a certain authenticity. But here, almost everybody, from mild-mannered city engineers to urbane politicians seem unable to utter two sentences without dropping one or more F-bombs. Aside from the absurdity of the plot, this makes the reading experience coarsening. Perhaps that is how people actually speak in this post-Enlightenment age; if so, I do not wish to soil my recreational reading by being reminded of it.

If we end up in the kind of post-apocalyptic world described here, we'll probably have to turn to our libraries once the hoard of toilet paper in the basement runs out. I know which book will be first on the list.

March 2009 Permalink

Boykin, William G. and Tom Morrisey. Kiloton Threat. Nashville: B&H Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8054-4954-9.
William G. Boykin retired from the U.S. Army in 2007 with the rank of Lieutenant General, having been a founding member of Delta Force and served with that special operations unit from 1978 through 1993, then as Commanding General of the U.S. Army Special Forces Command. He also served as Deputy Director of Special Activities in the CIA and Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence. When it comes to special operations, this is somebody who knows what he's talking about.

Something distinctly odd is going on in Iran—their nuclear weapons-related and missile development sites seem be blowing up on a regular basis for no apparent reason, and there are suspicions that shadowy forces may be in play to try to block Iran's becoming a nuclear armed power with the ability to deliver weapons with ballistic missiles. Had the U.S. decided to pursue such a campaign during the Bush administration, General Boykin would have been one of the people around the table planning the operations, so in this tale of operations in an Iran at the nuclear threshold he brings an encyclopedic knowledge not just of the special operations community but of the contending powers in Iran and the military capability at their disposal. The result is a thriller which may not have the kind of rock-em sock-em action of a Vince Flynn or Brad Thor novel, but exudes an authenticity comparable to a police procedural written by a thirty year veteran of the force.

In this novel, Iran has completed its long-sought goal to acquire nuclear weapons and intelligence indicates its intention to launch a preemptive strike against Israel, with the potential to provoke a regional if not global nuclear conflict. A senior figure in Iran's nuclear program has communicated his intent to defect and deliver the details necessary to avert the attack before it is launched, and CIA agent Blake Kershaw is paired with an Iranian émigré who can guide him through the country and provide access to the community in which the official resides. The mission goes horribly wrong (something with which author Boykin has direct personal experience, having been operations officer for the botched Iranian hostage rescue operation in 1980), and while Kershaw manages to get the defector out of the country, he leaves behind a person he solemnly promised to get out and is forced, from a sense of honour, to return to an Iran buzzing like a beehive whacked with a baseball bat, without official sanction, to rescue that person, then act independently to put an end to the threat.

There are a few copy editing goofs, but nothing that detracts from the story. The only factual errors I noted were the assertion that Ahmadinejad used the Quds Force “in much the same way as Hitler used the Waffen-SS” (the Waffen-SS was a multinational military force; the Allgemeine SS is the closest parallel to the Quds Force) and that a Cessna Caravan's “turboprop spun up to starting speed and caught with a ragged roar” (like all turboprops, there's only a smooth rising whine as the engine spools up; I've flown on these planes, and there's no “ragged roar”). Boykin and co-author Morrisey are committed Christians and express their faith on several occasions in the novel; radical secularists may find this irritating, but I didn't find it intrusive.

I have no idea whether the recent apparent kinetic energy transients at strategic sites in Iran are the work of special operators infiltrated into that country and, if so, who they're working for. But if they are, this book by the fellow all of the U.S. Army black ops people reported to just a few years ago provides excellent insights on how it might be done.

December 2011 Permalink

Bracken, Matthew. Enemies Foreign and Domestic. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, [2003] 2008. ISBN 978-0-9728310-1-7.
This is one of those books, like John Ross's Unintended Consequences and Vince Flynn's Term Limits in which a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism committed by the Federal Government of the United States finally pushes liberty-loving citizens to exercise “their right, … their duty, to throw off such Government” even if doing so requires the tree of liberty to be refreshed “with the blood of patriots and tyrants”.

In this novel a massacre at a football stadium which occurs under highly dubious circumstances serves as the pretext for a draconian ban on semiautomatic weapons, with immediate confiscation and harsh penalties for non-compliance. This is a step too far for a diverse collection of individuals who believe the Second Amendment to be the ultimate bastion against tyranny, and a government which abridges it to be illegitimate by that very act. Individually, they begin to take action, and what amounts to a low grade civil war begins to break out in the Tidewater region of Virgina, with government provocateurs from a rogue federal agency of jackbooted thugs (as opposed to the jackbooted thugs of other agencies which are “just following orders”) perpetrating their own atrocities, which are then used to justify even more restrictions on the individual right to bear arms, including a ban on telescopic sights (dubbed “sniper rifles”), transportation of weapons in automobiles, and random vehicle stop checkpoints searching for and confiscating firearms.

As the situation spirals increasingly out of control, entrepreneurial jackbooted thugs exploit it to gain power and funding for themselves, and the individuals resisting them come into contact with one another and begin to put the pieces together and understand who is responsible and why a federal law enforcement agency is committing domestic terrorism. Then it's payback time.

This novel is just superbly written. It contains a wealth of detail, all of it carefully researched and accurate. I only noted a couple of typos and factual goofs. The characters are complex, realistically flawed, and develop as the story unfolds. This is a thriller, not a political tract, and it will keep you turning the pages until the very end, while thinking about what you would do when liberty is on the line.

Excerpts from the book are available online at the author's Web site.

December 2009 Permalink

Bracken, Matthew. Domestic Enemies. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2006. ISBN 978-0-9728310-2-4.
This is the second novel in the author's “Enemies” trilogy, which began with Enemies Foreign and Domestic (EFAD) (December 2009). In After America (August 2011) Mark Steyn argues that if present trends continue (and that's the way to bet), within the lives of those now entering the workforce in the United States (or, at least attempting to do so, given the parlous state of the economy) what their parents called the “American dream” will have been extinguished and turned into a nightmare along the lines of Latin American authoritarian states: bifurcation of the society into a small, wealthy élite within their walled and gated communities and impoverished masses living in squalor and gang-ruled “no go” zones where civil society has collapsed.

This book picks up the story six years after the conclusion of EFAD. Ranya Bardiwell has foolishly attempted to return to the United States and been apprehended and sent to a detention and labour camp, her son taken from her at birth. When she manages to escape from the camp, she tracks down her son as having been given for adoption to the family of an FBI agent in New Mexico, and following the trail she becomes embroiled in the seething political storm of Nuevo Mexico, where separatist forces have taken power and seized upon the weakness of the Washington regime to advance their agenda of rolling back the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and creating a nation of “Aztlan” from the territories ceded by Mexico in that treaty.

As the story progresses, we see the endpoint of the reconquista in New Mexico, Los Angeles, and San Diego, and how opportunistic players on all sides seek to exploit the chaos and plunder the dwindling wealth of the dying empire for themselves. I'm not going to get into the plot or characters because almost anything I say would be a spoiler and this story does not deserve to be spoilt—it should be savoured. I consider it to be completely plausible—in the aftermath of a financial collapse and breakdown of central authority, the consequences of mass illegal immigration, “diversity”, and “multiculturalism” could, and indeed will likely lead to the kind of outcome sketched here. I found only one technical quibble in the entire novel (a turbine-powered plane “coughing and belching before catching”), but that's just worth a chuckle and doesn't detract in any way from the story. This the first thriller I recall reading in which a precocious five year old plays a central part in the story in a perfectly believable way, and told from his own perspective.

This book is perfectly accessible if read stand-alone, but I strongly recommend reading EFAD first—it not only sets the stage for the mid-collapse America in which this story plays out, but also provides the back story for Ranya Bardiwell and Bob Bullard who figure so prominently here.

Extended excerpts of this and the author's other novels are available online at the author's Web site.

March 2012 Permalink

Bracken, Matthew. Foreign Enemies and Traitors. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2009. ISBN 978-0-9728310-3-1.
This is the third novel in the author's “Enemies” trilogy, which began with Enemies Foreign and Domestic (December 2009), and continued with Domestic Enemies (March 2012). Here, we pick up the story three years after the conclusion of the second volume. Phil Carson, who we last encountered escaping from the tottering U.S. on a sailboat after his involvement in a low-intensity civil war in Virginia, is returning to the ambiguously independent Republic of Texas, smuggling contraband no longer available in the de-industrialised and bankrupt former superpower, when he is caught in a freak December hurricane in the Gulf of Mexico and shipwrecked on the coast of Mississippi.

This is not the America he left. The South is effectively under martial law, administered by General Marcus Aurelius Mirabeau; east Texas has declared its independence; the Southwest has split off as Aztlan and secured autonomy in the new Constitution; the East and upper Midwest remain under the control of the ever more obviously socialist regime in Washington; and the American redoubt states in the inland northwest are the last vestige of liberty. The former United States have not only been devastated by economic collapse and civil strife stemming from the attempt to ban and confiscate weapons, but then ravaged by three disastrous hurricanes and two earthquakes on the New Madrid fault. It's as if God had turned his back on the United States of America—say “no” to Him three times, and that may happen.

Carson, a Vietnam special forces veteran, uses his skills at survival, evasion, and escape, as well as his native cunning, to escape (albeit very painfully) to Tennessee, which is in the midst of a civil war. Residents, rejecting attempts to disarm them (which would place them at risk of annihilation at the hands of the “golden horde” escaping devastated urban areas and ravaging everything in their path), are now confronted with foreign mercenaries from such exemplars of human rights and rule of law as Kazakhstan and Nigeria, brought in because U.S. troops have been found too squeamish when it come to firing on their compatriots: Kazakhstani cavalry—not so much. (In the book, these savages are referred to as “Kazaks”. “Kazakhstani” is correct, but as an abbreviation I think “Kazakh” [the name of their language] would be better.)

Carson, and the insurgents with whom he makes contact in Tennessee, come across incontrovertible evidence of an atrocity committed by Kazakhstani mercenaries, at the direction of the highest levels of what remains of the U.S. government. In a world with the media under the thumb of the regime and the free Internet a thing of the past, getting this information out requires the boldest of initiatives, and recruiting not just career NCOs, the backbone of the military, but also senior officers with the access to carry out the mission. After finishing this book, you may lose some sleep pondering the question, “At what point is a military coup the best achievable outcome?”.

This is a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the “Enemies” trilogy. Unlike the previous volumes, there are a number of lengthy passages, usually couched as one character filling in another about events of which they were unaware, which sketch the back story. These are nowhere near as long as Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010), (which didn't bother me in the least—I thought it brilliant all of the three times I've read it), but they do ask the reader to kick back from the action and review how we got here and what was happening offstage. Despite the effort to make this book work as a stand-alone novel, I'd recommend reading the trilogy in series—if you don't you'll miss the interactions between the characters, how they came to be here, and why the fate of the odious Bob Bullard is more than justified.

Extended excerpts of this and the author's other novels are available online at the author's Web site.

September 2012 Permalink

Bracken, Matthew. Castigo Cay. Orange Park, FL: Steelcutter Publishing, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9728310-4-8.
Dan Kilmer wasn't cut out to be a college man. Disappointing his father, after high school he enlisted in the Marine Corps, becoming a sniper who, in multiple tours in the sandbox, had sent numerous murderous miscreants to their reward. Upon leaving the service, he found that the skills he had acquired had little value in the civilian world. After a disastrous semester trying to adjust to college life, he went to work for his rich uncle, who had retired and was refurbishing a sixty foot steel hulled schooner with a dream of cruising the world and escaping the deteriorating economy and increasing tyranny of the United States. Fate intervened, and after his uncle's death Dan found himself owner and skipper of the now seaworthy craft.

Some time later, Kilmer is cruising the Caribbean with his Venezuelan girlfriend Cori Vargas and crew members Tran Hung and Victor Aleman. The schooner Rebel Yell is hauled out for scraping off barnacles while waiting for a treasure hunting gig which Kilmer fears may not come off, leaving him desperately short of funds. Cori desperately wants to get to Miami, where she believes she can turn her looks and charm into a broadcast career. Impatient, she jumps ship and departs on the mega-yacht Topaz, owned by shadowy green energy crony capitalist Richard Prechter.

After her departure, another yatero informs Dan that Prechter has a dark reputation and that there are rumours of other women who boarded his yacht disappearing under suspicious circumstances. Kilmer made a solemn promise to Cori's father that he would protect her, and he takes his promises very seriously, so he undertakes to track Prechter to a decadent and totalitarian Florida, and then pursue him to Castigo Cay in the Bahamas where a horrible fate awaits Cori. Kilmer, captured in a desperate rescue attempt, has little other than his wits to confront Prechter and his armed crew as time runs out for Cori and another woman abducted by Prechter.

While set in a future in which the United States has continued to spiral down into a third world stratified authoritarian state, this is not a “big picture” tale like the author's Enemies trilogy (1, 2, 3). Instead, it is a story related in close-up, told in the first person, by an honourable and resourceful protagonist with few material resources pitted against the kind of depraved sociopath who flourishes as states devolve into looting and enslavement of their people.

This is a thriller that works, and the description of the culture shock that awaits one who left the U.S. when it was still semi-free and returns, even covertly, today will resonate with those who got out while they could.

Extended excerpts of this and the author's other novels are available online at the author's Web site.

February 2014 Permalink

Brooks, Max. World War Z. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0-307-34661-2.
Few would have believed in the early years of the twenty-first century, as people busied themselves with their various concerns and little affairs, while their “leaders” occupied themselves with “crises” such as shortages of petroleum, mountains of bad debt, and ManBearPig, that in rural China a virus had mutated, replicating and spreading among the human population like creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water, slowly at first, with early outbreaks covered up to avoid bad publicity before the Chicom Olympics, soon thereafter to explode into a global contagion that would remake the world, rewrite human history, and sweep away all of the prewar concerns of mankind as trivialities while eliminating forever the infinite complacency humans had of their empire over matter and dominion over nature.

This book is an oral history of the Zombie War, told in the words of those who survived, fought, and ultimately won it. Written just ten years after victory was declared in China, with hotspots around the globe remaining to be cleared, it is a story of how cultures around the globe came to terms with a genuine existential threat, and how people and societies rise to a challenge inconceivable to a prewar mentality. Reading much like Studs Terkel's The Good War, the individual voices, including civilians, soldiers, researchers, and military and political leaders trace how unthinkable circumstances require unthinkable responses, and how ordinary people react under extraordinary stress. The emergence of the Holy Russian Empire, the evacuation and eventual reconquest of Japan, the rise of Cuba to a global financial power, the climactic end of the Second Chinese Revolution, and the enigma of the fate of North Korea are told in the words of eyewitnesses and participants.

Now, folks, this a zombie book, so if you're someone inclined to ask, “How, precisely, does this work?”, or to question the biological feasibility of the dead surviving in the depths of the ocean or freezing in the arctic winter and reanimating come spring, you're going to have trouble with this story. Suspending your disbelief and accepting the basic premise is the price of admission, but if you're willing to pay it, this is an enjoyable, unsettling, and ultimately rewarding read—even inspiring in its own strange way. It is a narrative of an apocalyptic epoch which works, and is about ten times better than Stephen King's The Stand. The author is a recognised global authority on the zombie peril.

(Yes, the first paragraph of these remarks is paraphrased from this; I thought it appropriate.)

May 2008 Permalink

Brown, Dan. Inferno. New York: Doubleday, 2013. ISBN 978-0-385-53785-8.
This thriller is a perfect companion to Robert Zubrin's nonfiction Merchants of Despair (April 2013). Both are deeply steeped in the culture of Malthusian anti-humanism and the radical prescriptions of those who consider our species a cancer on the planet. In this novel, art historian and expert in symbology Robert Langdon awakens in a hospital bed with no memory of events since walking across the Harvard campus. He is startled to learn he is in Florence, Italy with a grazing gunshot wound to the scalp, and the target of a murderous pursuer whose motives are a mystery to him.

Langdon and the doctor who first treated him and then rescued him from a subsequent attack begin to dig into the mystery. Langdon, recovering from retrograde amnesia, finds reality mixing with visions reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, whose imagery and symbols come to dominate their quest to figure out what is going on. Meanwhile, a shadowy international security group which was working with a renowned genetic engineer begins to suspect that they may have become involved in a plot with potentially catastrophic consequences. As the mysteries are investigated, the threads interweave into a complex skein, hidden motives are revealed, and loyalties shift.

There were several times whilst reading this novel that I expected I'd be dismissing it here as having an “idiot plot”—that the whole narrative didn't make any sense except as a vehicle to introduce the scenery and action (as is the case in far too many action movies). But the author is far too clever for that (which is why his books have become such a sensation). Every time you're sure something is nonsense, there's another twist of the plot which explains it. At the end, I had only one serious quibble with the entire plot. Discussing this is a hideous spoiler for the entire novel, so I'm going to take it behind the curtain. Please don't read this unless you've already read the novel or are certain you don't intend to.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The vector virus created by Zobrist, as described on p. 438, causes a randomly selected one third of the human population to become sterile. But how can a virus act randomly? If the virus is inserted into the human germ-line, it will be faithfully copied into all offspring with the precision of human DNA replication, so variation in the viral genome, once incorporated into the germ-line, is not possible. The only other way the virus could affect only a third of the population is that there is some other genetic property which enables the virus to render the organism carrying it sterile. But if that is the case, and the genetic property be heritable, only those who lacked the variation(s) which allowed the virus to sterilise them would reproduce, and in a couple of generations the virus, while still incorporated in the human genome, would have no effect on the rate of growth of the human population: “life finds a way”.

Further, let's assume the virus could, somehow, randomly sterilise a third of the human population, that natural selection could not render it ineffective, and science found no way to reverse it or was restrained from pursuing a remedy by policy makers. Well, then, you'd have a world in which some fraction of couples could have children and the balance could not. (The distribution depends upon whether the virus affects the fertility of males, females, or both.) Society adapts to such circumstances. Would not the fertile majority increase their fertility to meet market demand for adoption by infertile couples?

Spoilers end here.  

This is a fine thriller, meticulously researched, which will send you off to look up the many works of art and architectural wonders which appear in it, and may plant an itch to visit Florence and Venice. I'm sure it will make an excellent movie, as is sure to happen after the success of cinematic adaptations of the author's previous Robert Langdon novels.

May 2013 Permalink

Card, Orson Scott. Empire. New York: Tor, 2006. ISBN 0-765-31611-0.
I first heard of this novel in an Instapundit podcast interview with the author, with whom I was familiar, having read and admired Ender's Game when it first appeared in 1977 as a novelette in Analog (it was later expanded and published as a novel in 1985) and several of his books since then. I'd always pigeonholed him as a science fictioneer, so I was somewhat surprised to learn that his latest effort was a techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy vein, with the flabbergasting premise of a near future American civil war pitting the conservative “red states” against the liberal “blue states”. The interview, which largely stayed away from the book, was interesting and since I'd never felt let down by any of Card's previous work (although none of it that I'd read seemed to come up to the level of Ender's Game, but then I've read only a fraction of his prolific output), I decided to give it a try.
Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The story is set in the very near future: a Republican president detested by the left and reviled in the media is in the White House, the Republican nomination for his successor is a toss-up, and a ruthless woman is the Democratic front-runner. In fact, unless this is an alternative universe with a different calendar, we can identify the year as 2008, since that's the only presidential election year on which June 13th falls on a Friday until 2036, by which date it's unlikely Bill O'Reilly will still be on the air.

The book starts out with a bang and proceeds as a tautly-plotted, edge of the seat thriller which I found more compelling than any of Clancy's recent doorstop specials. Then, halfway through chapter 11, things go all weird. It's like the author was holding his breath and chanting the mantra “no science fiction—no science fiction” and then just couldn't take it any more, explosively exhaled, drew a deep breath, and furiously started pounding the keys. (This is not, in fact, what happened, but we don't find that out until the end material, which I'll describe below.) Anyway, everything is developing as a near-future thriller combined with a “who do you trust” story of intrigue, and then suddenly, on p. 157, our heroes run into two-legged robotic Star Wars-like imperial walkers on the streets of Manhattan and, before long, storm troopers in space helmets and body armour, death rays that shoot down fighter jets, and later, “hovercycles”—yikes.

We eventually end up at a Bond villain redoubt in Washington State built by a mad collectivist billionaire clearly patterned on George Soros, for a final battle in which a small band of former Special Ops heroes take on all of the villains and their futuristic weaponry by grit and guile. If you like this kind of stuff, you'll probably like this. The author lost me with the imperial walkers, and it has nothing to do with my last name, or my anarchist proclivities.

May we do a little physics here? Let's take a closer look at the lair of the evil genius, hidden under a reservoir formed by a boondoggle hydroelectric dam “near Highway 12 between Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier” (p. 350). We're told (p. 282) that the entry to the facility is hidden beneath the surface of the lake formed in a canyon behind a dam, and access to it is provided by pumping water from the lake to another, smaller lake in an adjacent canyon. The smaller lake is said to be two miles long, and exposing the entrance to the rebels' headquarters causes the water to rise fifteen feet in that lake. The width of the smaller lake is never given, but most of the natural lakes in that region seem to be long and skinny, so let's guess it's only a tenth as wide as it is long, or about 300 yards wide. The smaller lake is said to be above the lake which conceals the entrance, so to expose the door would require pumping a chunk of water we can roughly estimate (assuming the canyon is rectangular) at 2 miles by 300 yards by fifteen feet. Transforming all of these imperial (there's that word again!) measures into something comprehensible, we can compute the volume of water as about 4 million cubic metres or, as the boots on the ground would probably put it, about a billion gallons. This is a lot of water.

A cubic metre of water weighs 1000 kg, or a metric ton, so in order to expose the door, the villains would have to pump 4 billion kilograms of water uphill at least 15 feet (because the smaller lake is sufficiently above the facility to allow it to be flooded [p. 308] it would almost certainly be much more, but let's be conservative)—call it 5 metres. Now the energy required to raise this quantity of water 5 metres against the Earth's gravitation is just the product of the mass (4 billion kilograms), the distance (5 metres), and gravitational acceleration of 9.8 m/s, which works out to about 200 billion joules, or 54 megawatt-hours. If the height difference were double our estimate, double these numbers. Now to pump all of that water uphill in, say, half an hour (which seems longer than the interval in which it happens on pp. 288–308) will require about 100 megawatts of power, and that's assuming the pumps are 100% efficient and there are no frictional losses in the pipes. Where does the power come from? It can't come from the hydroelectric dam, since in order to generate the power to pump the water, you'd need to run a comparable amount of water through the dam's turbines (less because the drop would be greater, but then you have to figure in the efficiency of the turbines and generators, which is about 80%), and we've already been told that dumping the water over the dam would flood communities in the valley floor. If they could store the energy from letting the water back into the lower lake, then they could re-use it (less losses) to pump it back uphill again, but there's no way to store anything like that kind of energy—in fact, pumping water uphill and releasing it through turbines is the only practical way to store large quantities of electricity, and once the water is in the lower lake, there's no place to put the power. We've already established that there are no heavy duty power lines running to the area, as that would be immediately suspicious (of course, it's also suspicious that there aren't high tension lines running from what's supposed to be a hydroelectric dam, but that's another matter). And if the evil genius had invented a way to efficiently store and release power on that scale, he wouldn't need to start a civil war—he could just about buy the government with the proceeds from such an invention.

Spoilers end here.  
Call me picky—“You're picky!”—feel better now?—but I just cannot let this go unremarked. On p. 248, one character likens another to Hari Seldon in Isaac Asimov's Foundation novels. But it's spelt “Hari Selden”, and it's not a typo because the name is given the same wrong way three times on the same page! Now I'd excuse such a goof by a thriller scribbler recalling science fiction he'd read as a kid, but this guy is a distinguished science fiction writer who has won the Hugo Awardfour times, and this book is published by Tor Books, the pre-eminent specialist science fiction press; don't they have an editor on staff who's familiar with one of the universally acknowledged classics of the genre and winner of the unique Hugo for Best All-Time Series?

One becomes accustomed to low expectations for science fiction novel cover art, but expects a slightly higher standard for techno-thrillers. The image on the dust jacket has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with any scene in the book. It looks like a re-mix of several thriller covers chosen at random.

It is only on p. 341, in the afterword, that we learn this novel was commissioned as part of a project to create an “entertainment franchise”, and on p. 349, in the acknowledgements, that this is, in fact, the scenario of a video game already under development when the author joined the team. Frankly, it shows. As befits the founding document of an “entertainment franchise” the story ends setting the stage for the sequel, although at least to this reader, the plot for the first third of that work seems transparently obvious, but then Card is a master of the gob smack switcheroo, as the present work demonstrates. In any case, what we have here appears to be Volume One of a series of alternative future political/military novels like Allen Drury's Advise and Consent series. While that novel won a Pulitzer Prize, the sequels rapidly degenerated into shrill right-wing screeds. In Empire Card is reasonably even-handed, although his heterodox personal views are apparent. I hope the inevitable sequels come up to that standard, but I doubt I'll be reading them.

January 2007 Permalink

Casey, Doug and John Hunt. Speculator. Charlottesville, VA: HighGround Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63158-047-5.
Doug Casey has been a leading voice for sound money, individual liberty, and rolling back coercive and intrusive government since the 1970s. Unlike some more utopian advocates of free markets and free people, Casey has always taken a thoroughly pragmatic approach in his recommendations. If governments are bent on debasing their paper money, how can individual investors protect themselves from erosion of their hard-earned assets and, ideally, profit from the situation? If governments are intent on reducing their citizens to serfdom, how can those who see what is coming not only avoid that fate by getting assets out of the grasp of those who would confiscate them, but also protect themselves by obtaining one or more additional nationalities and being ready to pull up stakes in favour of better alternatives around the world. His 1976 book, The International Man, is a classic (although now dated) about the practical steps people can take to escape before it's too late from countries in the fast lane on the road to serfdom. I credit this book, which I read around 1978, with much of the trajectory my life has followed since. (The forbidding prices quoted for used copies of The International Man are regrettable but an indication of the wisdom therein; it has become a collector's item.)

Over his entire career, Casey has always been provocative, seeing opportunities well before they come onto the radar of mainstream analysts and making recommendations that seem crazy until, several years later, they pay off. Recently, he has been advising young people seeking fortune and adventure to go to Africa instead of college. Now, in collaboration with medical doctor and novelist John Hunt, he has written a thriller about a young man, Charles Knight, who heeds that advice. Knight dropped out of high school and was never tempted by college once he discovered he could learn far more about what he wanted to know on his own in libraries than by spending endless tedious hours in boring classrooms listening to uninspiring and often ignorant teachers drone on endlessly in instruction aimed at the slowest students in the class, admixed with indoctrination in the repellent ideology of the collectivist slavers.

Charles has taken a flyer in a gold mining stock called B-F Explorations, traded on the Vancouver Stock Exchange, the closest thing to the Wild West that exists in financial markets today. Many stocks listed in Vancouver are “exploration companies”, which means in practice they've secured mineral rights on some basis (often conditional upon meeting various milestones) to a piece of property, usually located in some remote, God-forsaken, and dangerous part of the world, which may or may not (the latter being the way to bet) contain gold and, if it does, might have sufficient concentration and ease of extraction that mining it will be profitable at the anticipated price of gold when it is eventually developed. Often, the assets of one of these companies will be nothing more than a limited-term lease on a piece of land which geologists believe may contain subterranean rock formations similar to those in which gold has been found elsewhere. These so-called “junior mining companies” are the longest of long shots, and their stocks often sell for pennies a share. Investors burned by these stocks warn, “A junior mining company takes your money and their dream, and turns it into your dream and their money.”

Why, then, do people buy these stocks? Every now and then one of these exploration companies happens upon a deposit of gold which is profitable to exploit, and when that occurs the return to investors can be enormous: a hundred to one or more. First, the exploration company will undertake drilling to establish whether gold is present and, if so, the size and grade of the ore body. As promising assay results are published, the stock may begin to move up in the market, attracting “momentum investors” who chase rising trends. The exit strategy for a junior gold stock is almost always to be acquired by one of the “majors”—the large gold mining companies with the financial, human, and infrastructure resources required to develop the find into a working mine. As large, easily-mined gold resources have largely already been exploited, the major miners must always be on the lookout for new properties to replace their existing mines as they are depleted. A major, after evaluating results from preliminary drilling by the exploration company, will often negotiate a contract which allows it to perform its own evaluation of the find which, if it confirms the early results, will be the basis for the acquisition of the junior company, whose shareholders will receive stock in the major worth many times their original investment.

Mark Twain is reputed to have said, “A gold mine is a hole in the ground with a liar at its entrance.” Everybody in the gold business—explorers, major miners, and wise investors—knows that the only results which can be relied upon are those which are independently verified by reputable observers who follow the entire chain from drilling to laboratory analysis, with evaluation by trusted resource geologists of inferences made from the drilling results.

Charles Knight had bought 15,000 shares of B-F stock on a tip from a broker in Vancouver for pennies per share, and seen it climb to more than $150 per share. His modest investment had grown to a paper profit of more than two million dollars which, if rumours about the extent of the discovery proved to be true, might increase to far more than that. Having taken a flyer, he decided to catch a flight to Africa and see the site with his own eyes. The B-F exploration concession is located in the fictional West African country of Gondwana (where Liberia appears on the map in the real world; author John Hunt has done charitable medical work in that country). Gondwana has experienced the violence so common in sub-Saharan Africa, but, largely due to exhaustion, is relatively stable and safe (by African standards) at present. Charles and other investors are regaled by company personnel with descriptions of the potential of the find, a new kind of gold deposit where nanoparticles of gold are deposited in a limestone matrix. The gold, while invisible to the human eye and even through a light microscope, can be detected chemically and should be easy to separate when mining begins. Estimates of the size of the deposit range from huge to stupendous: perhaps as large as three times the world's annual production of gold. If this proves to be the case, B-F stock is cheap even at its current elevated price.

Charles is neither a geologist nor a chemist, but something seems “off” to him—maybe it was the “nano”—like “cyber”, it's like a sticker on the prospectus warning investors “bullshit inside”. He makes the acquaintance of Xander Winn, a Dutch resource investor, true international man, and permanent tourist, who has seen it all before and shares, based upon his experience, the disquiet that Charles perceived by instinct. Together, they decide to investigate further and quickly find themselves engaged in a dangerous endeavour where not only are the financial stakes high but their very lives may be at risk. But with risk comes opportunity.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Charles has come into the sights of an IRS agent named Sabina Heidel, whose raw ambition is tempered by neither morality nor the law. As she begins to dig into his activities and plans for his B-F investment, she comes to see him as a trophy which will launch her career in government. Sabina is the mirror image of Charles: as he is learning how to become productive, she is mastering the art of extracting the fruits of the labour of others and gain power over their lives by deception, manipulation, and intimidation.

Along with the adventure and high-stakes financial operations, Charles learns a great deal about how the world really works, and how in a time when coercive governments and their funny money and confiscatory taxation have made most traditional investments a sucker's game, it is the speculator with an anarcho-capitalist outlook on the world who is best equipped to win. Charles also discovers that when governments and corporations employ coercion, violence, and fraud, what constitutes ethical behaviour on the part of an individual confronted with them is not necessarily easy to ascertain. While history demonstrates how easy it can be to start a war in Africa, Charles and Xander find themselves, almost alone, faced with the task of preventing one.

For those contemplating a life of adventure in Africa, the authors provide an unvarnished look at what one is getting into. There is opportunity there, but also rain, mud, bugs, endemic corruption, heat, tropical diseases, roads which can demolish all but the most robust vehicles, poverty, the occasional charismatic murderous warlord, mercenaries, but also many good and honest people, wealth just waiting to be created, and freedom from the soul-crushing welfare/warfare/nanny state which “developed” countries have allowed to metastasise within their borders. But it's never been easy for those seeking opportunity, adventure, riches, and even love; the rewards await the ambitious and intrepid.

I found this book not only a page-turning thriller, but also one of the most inspiring books I've read in some time. In many ways it reminds me of The Fountainhead, but is more satisfying because unlike Howard Roark in Ayn Rand's novel, whose principles were already in place from the first page, Charles Knight grows into his as the story unfolds, both from his own experiences and wisdom imparted by those he encounters. The description of the junior gold mining sector and the financial operations associated with speculation is absolutely accurate, informed by Doug Casey's lifetime of experience in the industry, and the education in free market principles and the virtues of entrepreneurship and speculation is an excellent starting point for those indoctrinated in collectivism who've never before encountered this viewpoint.

This is the first in what is planned to be a six volume series featuring Charles Knight, who, as he progresses through life, applies what he has learned to new situations, and continues to grow from his adventures. I eagerly anticipate the next episode.

Here is a Lew Rockwell interview with Doug Casey about the novel and the opportunities in Africa for the young and ambitious. The interview contains minor spoilers for this novel and forthcoming books in the series.

October 2016 Permalink

Casey, Doug and John Hunt. Drug Lord. Charlottesville, VA: HighGround Books, 2017. ISBN 978-1-947449-07-7.
This is the second novel in the authors' “High Ground” series, chronicling the exploits of Charles Knight, an entrepreneur and adventurer determined to live his life according to his own moral code, constrained as little as possible by the rules and regulations of coercive and corrupt governments. The first novel, Speculator (October 2016), follows Charles's adventures in Africa as an investor in a junior gold exploration company which just might have made the discovery of the century, and in the financial markets as he seeks to profit from what he's learned digging into the details. Charles comes onto the radar of ambitious government agents seeking to advance their careers by collecting his scalp.

Charles ends up escaping with his freedom and ethics intact, but with much of his fortune forfeit. He decides he's had enough of “the land of the free” and sets out on his sailboat to explore the world and sample the pleasures and opportunities it holds for one who thinks for himself. Having survived several attempts on his life and prevented a war in Africa in the previous novel, seven years later he returns to a really dangerous place, Washington DC, populated by the Morlocks of Mordor.

Charles has an idea for a new business. The crony capitalism of the U.S. pharmaceutical-regulatory complex has inflated the price of widely-used prescription drugs to many times that paid outside the U.S., where these drugs, whose patents have expired under legal regimes less easily manipulated than that of the U.S., are manufactured in a chemically-identical form by thoroughly professional generic drug producers. Charles understands, as fully as any engineer, that wherever there is nonlinearity the possibility for gain exists, and when that nonlinearity is the result of the action of coercive government, the potential profits from circumventing its grasp on the throat of the free market can be very large, indeed.

When Charles's boat docked in the U.S., he had an undeclared cargo: a large number of those little blue pills much in demand by men of a certain age, purchased for pennies from a factory in India through a cut-out in Africa he met on his previous adventure. He has the product, and a supplier able to obtain much more. Now, all he needs is distribution. He must venture into the dark underside of DC to make the connections that can get the product to the customers, and persuade potential partners that they can make much more and far more safely by distributing his products (which don't fall under the purview of the Drug Enforcement Agency, and to which local cops not only don't pay much attention, but may be potential customers).

Meanwhile, Charles's uncle Maurice, who has been managing what was left of his fortune during his absence, has made an investment in a start-up pharmaceutical company, Visioryme, whose first product, VR-210, or Sybillene, is threading its way through the FDA regulatory gauntlet toward approval for use as an antidepressant. Sybillene works through a novel neurochemical pathway, and promises to be an effective treatment for clinical depression while avoiding the many deleterious side effects of other drugs. In fact, Sybillene doesn't appear to have any side effects at all—or hardly any—there's that one curious thing that happened in animal testing, but not wishing to commit corporate seppuku, Visioryme hasn't mentioned it to the regulators or even their major investor, Charles.

Charles pursues his two pharmaceutical ventures in parallel: one in the DC ghetto and Africa; the other in the tidy suburban office park where Visioryme is headquartered. The first business begins to prosper, and Charles must turn his ingenuity to solving the problems attendant to any burgeoning enterprise: supply, transportation, relations with competitors (who, in this sector of the economy, not only are often armed but inclined to shoot first), expanding the product offerings, growing the distribution channels, and dealing with all of the money that's coming in, entirely in cash, without coming onto the radar of any of the organs of the slavers and their pervasive snooper-state.

Meanwhile, Sybillene finally obtains FDA approval, and Visioryme begins to take off and ramp up production. Charles's connections in Africa help the company obtain the supplies of bamboo required in production of the drug. It seems like he now has two successful ventures, on the dark and light sides, respectively, of the pharmaceutical business (which is dark and which is light depending on your view of the FDA).

Then, curious reports start to come in about doctors prescribing Sybillene off-label in large doses to their well-heeled patients. Off-label prescription is completely legal and not uncommon, but one wonders what's going on. Then there's the talk Charles is picking up from his other venture of demand for a new drug on the street: Sybillene, which goes under names such as Fey, Vatic, Augur, Covfefe, and most commonly, Naked Emperor. Charles's lead distributor reports, “It helps people see lies for what they are, and liars too. I dunno. I never tried it. Lots of people are asking though. Society types. Lawyers, businessmen, doctors, even cops.” It appears that Sybillene, or Naked Emperor, taken in a high dose, is a powerful nootropic which doesn't so much increase intelligence as, the opposite of most psychoactive drugs, allows the user to think more clearly, and see through the deception that pollutes the intellectual landscape of a modern, “developed”, society.

In that fœtid city by the Potomac, the threat posed by such clear thinking dwarfs that of other “controlled substances” which merely turn their users into zombies. Those atop an empire built on deceit, deficits, and debt cannot run the risk of a growing fraction of the population beginning to see through the funny money, Ponzi financing, Potemkin military, manipulation of public opinion, erosion of the natural rights of citizens, and the sham which is replacing the last vestiges of consensual government. Perforce, Sybillene must become Public Enemy Number One, and if a bit of lying and even murder is required, well, that's the price of preserving the government's ability to lie and murder.

Suddenly, Charles is involved in two illegal pharmaceutical ventures. As any wise entrepreneur would immediately ask himself, “might there be synergies?”

Thus begins a compelling, instructive, and inspiring tale of entrepreneurship and morality confronted with dark forces constrained by no limits whatsoever. We encounter friends and foes from the first novel, as once again Charles finds himself on point position defending those in the enterprises he has created. As I said in my review of Speculator, this book reminds me of Ayn Rand's The Fountainhead, but it is even more effective because Charles Knight is not a super-hero but rather a person with a strong sense of right and wrong who is making up his life as he goes along and learning from the experiences he has: good and bad, success and failure. Charles Knight, even without Naked Emperor, has that gift of seeing things precisely as they are, unobscured by the fog, cant, spin, and lies which are the principal products of the city in which it is set.

These novels are not just page-turning thrillers, they're simultaneously an introductory course in becoming an international man (or woman), transcending the lies of the increasingly obsolescent nation-state, and finding the liberty that comes from seizing control of one's own destiny. They may be the most powerful fictional recruiting tool for the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist world view since the works of Ayn Rand and L. Neil Smith. Speculator was my fiction book of the year for 2016, and this sequel is in the running for 2017.

August 2017 Permalink

Chiles, Patrick. Perigee. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4699-5713-5.
A few years into the future, while NASA bumbles along in its bureaucratic haze and still can't launch humans into space, a commercial “new space” company, Polaris AeroSpace Lines, has taken the next step beyond suborbital tourist hops into space for the well-heeled, and begun both scheduled and charter service in aerospace planes equipped with a combined-cycle powerplant which allows them to fly anywhere on the globe, operating at Mach 10, making multiple skips off the atmosphere, and delivering up to 30 passengers and cargo to any destination in around 90 minutes. Passengers are treated to a level of service and coddling which exceeds first class, breathtaking views from above the atmosphere along the way, and apart from the steep ticket prices, no downside apart from the zero-g toilet.

In this thriller, something goes horribly wrong during a flight from Denver to Singapore chartered by a coarse and demanding Australian media mogul, and the crew and passengers find themselves not on course for their destination but rather trapped in Earth orbit with no propellant and hence no prospect of getting back until long after their life support will be exhausted. Polaris immediately begins to mount a rescue mission based upon an orbital spacecraft they have under development, but as events play out clues begin to emerge that a series of problems are not systems failures but perhaps evidence of something much darker, in which those on the front lines trying to get their people back do not know who they can trust. Eventually, Polaris has no option but to partner with insurgent individuals in the “old space” world to attempt an improvised rescue mission.

This is a very interesting book, in that it does not read like a space thriller so much as one of the classic aviation dramas such as The High and the Mighty. We have the cast of characters: a crusty mechanic, heroic commander, hot-shot first officer, resourceful flight attendant with unexpected talents, demanding passengers, visionary company president, weaselly subordinate, and square-jawed NASA types. It all works very well, and as long as you don't spend too much time thinking about mass fractions, specific impulse, orbital mechanics, and thermal protection systems, is an enjoyable read, and provides a glimpse of a plausible future for commercial space flight (point to point hypersonic service) which is little discussed among the new space community. For those who do care about the details, they follow. Be warned—some of these are major plot spoilers, so if you're planning to read the novel it's best to give them a pass until you've finished the book.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  

  • In chapter 26 we are told that the spaceplane's electricity is produced by fuel cells. This doesn't make any sense for a suborbital craft. We're also told that it is equipped with an APU and batteries with eight hours of capacity. For a plane which can fly to its destination in 90 minutes, why would you also include a fuel cell? The APU can supply power for normal operation, and in case it fails, the batteries have plenty of capacity to get you back on the ground. Also, you'd have to carry liquid hydrogen to power the fuel cells. This would require a bulky tank and make ramp operations and logistics a nightmare.
  • Not a quibble, but rather a belly laugh in chapter 28: I had not before heard the aging International Space Station called “Cattlecar Galactica”.
  • In chapter 31, when the rescue mission is about to launch, we're told that if the launch window is missed, on the next attempt the stricken craft will be “several hundred miles farther downrange”. In fact, the problem is that on the next orbit, due to the Earth's rotation, the plane of the craft's orbit will have shifted with respect to that of the launch site, and consequently the rescue mission will have to perform a plane change as part of its trajectory. This is hideously costly in terms of fuel, and it is unlikely in the extreme the rescue mission would be able to accomplish it. All existing rendezvous missions, if they miss their launch window, must wait until the next day when the launch site once again aligns with the orbital plane of the destination.
  • In chapter 47, as passenger Magrath begins to lose it, “Sweat began to bead up on his bald head and float away.” But in weightlessness, surface tension dominates all other forces and the sweat would cling and spread out over the 'strine's pate. There is nothing to make it float away.
  • In chapter 54 and subsequently, Shuttle “rescue balls” are used to transfer passengers from the crippled spaceplane to the space station. These were said to have been kept on the station since early in the program. In fact, while NASA did develop a prototype of the Personal Rescue Enclosure, they were never flown on any Shuttle mission nor launched to the station.
  • The orbital mechanics make absolutely no sense at all. One would expect a suborbital flight between Denver and Singapore to closely follow a great circle route between those airports (with possible deviations due to noise abatement and other considerations). Since most of the flight would be outside the atmosphere, weather and winds aloft would not be a major consideration. But if flight 501 had followed such a route and have continued to boost into orbit, it would have found itself in a high-inclination retrograde orbit around the Earth: going the opposite direction to the International Space Station. Getting from such an orbit to match orbits with the ISS would require more change in velocity (delta-v) than an orbital launch from the Earth, and no spacecraft in orbit would have remotely that capability. The European service vehicle already docked at the station would only have enough propellant for a destructive re-entry.

    We're told then that the flight path would be to the east, over Europe. but why would one remotely choose such a path, especially if a goal of the flight was to set records? It would be a longer flight, and much more demanding of propellant to do it in one skip as planned. But, OK, let's assume that for some reason they did decide to go the long way around. Now, for the rescue to be plausible, we have to assume two further ridiculously improbable things: first, that the inclination of the orbit resulting from the engine runaway on the flight to Singapore would match that of the station, and second, that the moment of launch just happened to be precisely when Denver was aligned with the plane of the station's orbit. Since there is no reason that the launch would have been scheduled to meet these exacting criteria, the likelihood that the spaceplane would be in an orbit reachable from the station without a large and impossible to accomplish plane change (here, I am referring to a change in the orbital plane, not catching a connecting flight) is negligible.

Spoilers end here.  

The author's career has been in the airline industry, and this shows in the authenticity of the depiction of airline operations. Notwithstanding the natters above behind the spoiler shield, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and raced through it trying to guess how it would come out.

August 2012 Permalink

Chiles, Patrick. Farside. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2015. ASIN B010WAE080.
Several years after the events chronicled in Perigee (August 2012), Arthur Hammond's Polaris AeroSpace Lines is operating routine point-to-point suborbital passenger and freight service with its Clippers, has expanded into orbital service with Block II Clippers, and is on the threshold of opening up service to the Moon with its “cycler” spacecraft which loop continuously between the Earth and Moon. Clippers rendezvous with the cyclers as they approach the Earth, transferring crew, passengers, cargo, and consumables. Initial flights will be limited to lunar orbit, but landing missions are envisioned for the future.

In the first orbital mission, chartered to perform resource exploration from lunar orbit, cycler Shepard is planning to enter orbit with a burn which will, by the necessities of orbital mechanics, have to occur on the far side of the Moon, out of radio contact with the Earth. At Polaris mission control in Denver, there is the usual tension as the clock ticks down toward the time when Shepard is expected to emerge from behind the Moon, safely in orbit. (If the burn did not occur, the ship would appear before this time, still on a trajectory which would return it to the Earth.) When the acquisition of signal time comes and goes with no reply to calls and no telemetry, tension gives way to anxiety. Did Shepard burn too long and crash on the far side of the Moon? Did its engine explode and destroy the ship? Did some type of total system failure completely disable its communications?

On board Shepard, Captain Simon Poole is struggling to survive after the disastrous events which occurred just moments after the start of the lunar orbit insertion burn. Having taken refuge in the small airlock after the expandable habitation module has deflated, he has only meagre emergency rations to sustain him until a rescue mission might reach him. And no way to signal Earth that he is alive.

What seems a terrible situation rapidly gets worse and more enigmatic when an arrogant agent from Homeland Security barges into Polaris and demands information about the passenger and cargo manifest for the flight, Hammond is visited at home by an unlikely caller, and a jarhead/special operator type named Quinn shows them some darker than black intelligence about their ship and “invites” them to NORAD headquarters to be briefed in on an above top secret project.

So begins a nearish future techno-thriller in which the situations are realistic, the characters interesting, the perils harrowing, and the stakes could not be higher. The technologies are all plausible extrapolations of those available at present, with no magic. Government agencies behave as they do in the real world, which is to say with usually good intentions leavened with mediocrity, incompetence, scheming ambition, envy, and counter-productive secrecy and arrogance. This novel is not going to be nominated for any awards by the social justice warriors who have infiltrated the science fiction writer and fan communities: the author understands precisely who the enemies of civilisation and human destiny are, forthrightly embodies them in his villains, and explains why seemingly incompatible ideologies make common cause against the values which have built the modern world. The story is one of problem solving, adventure, survival, improvisation, and includes one of the most unusual episodes of space combat in all of science fiction. It would make a terrific movie.

For the most part, the author gets the details right. There are a few outright goofs, such as seeing the Earth from the lunar far side (where it is always below the horizon—that's why it's the far side); some errors in orbital mechanics which will grate on players of Kerbal Space Program; the deployed B-1B bomber is Mach 1.25, not Mach 2; and I don't think there's any way the ships in the story could have had sufficient delta-v to rendezvous with a comet so far out the plane of the ecliptic. But I'm not going to belabour these quibbles in what is a rip-roaring read. There is a glossary of aerospace terms and acronyms at the end. Also included is a teaser chapter for a forthcoming novel which I can't wait to read.

October 2015 Permalink

Clancy, Tom. Red Rabbit. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2002. ISBN 0-399-14870-1.

October 2002 Permalink

Clancy, Tom and Steve Pieczenik. Net Force. New York: Berkley, 1999. ISBN 978-0-425-16172-2.
One of the riskiest of marketing strategies is that of “brand expansion”: you have a hugely successful product whose brand name is near-universally known and conveys an image of quality, customer satisfaction, and market leadership. But there's a problem—the very success of the brand has led to its saturating the market, either by commanding a dominant market share or inability to produce additional volume. A vendor in such a position may opt to try to “expand” the brand, leveraging its name recognition by applying it to other products, for example a budget line aimed at less well-heeled customers, a line of products related to the original (Watermelon-Mango Coke), or a completely unrelated product (Volvo dog food). This sometimes works, and works well, but more often it fails at a great cost not only to the new product (but then a large majority of all new products fail, including those of the largest companies with the most extensive market research capabilities), but also to the value of the original brand. If a brand which has become almost synonymous with its project category (Coke, Xerox, Band-Aid) becomes seen as a marketing gimmick cynically applied to induce consumers to buy products which have not earned and are not worthy of the reputation of the original brand, both the value of that brand and the estimation of its owner fall in eyes of potential customers.

Tom Clancy, who in the 1980s and 1990s was the undisputed master of the techno/political/military thriller embarked upon his own program of brand expansion, lending his name to several series of books and video games written by others and marketed under his name, leading the naïve reader to believe they were Clancy's work or at least done under his supervision and comparable to the standard of his own fiction. For example, the present book, first in the “Net Force” series, bears the complete title Tom Clancy's Net Force, an above-the-title blurb, “From the #1 New York Times Bestselling Author”, and the byline, “Created by Tom Clancy and Steve Pieczenik”. “Created”, eh…but who actually, you know, wrote the book? Well, that would be a gentleman named Steve Perry, whose name appears in the Acknowledgments in the sentence, “We'd like to thank Steve Perry for his creative ideas and his invaluable contributions to the preparation of the manuscript.”. Well yes, I suppose writing it is, indeed, an invaluable contribution to the preparation of a manuscript!

Regardless of how a novel is branded, marketed, or produced, however, the measure of its merit is what's between the covers. So how does this book measure up to the standard of Clancy's own work? I bought this book when it first came out in 1999 as an “airplane book”, but never got around to reading it. I was aware of the nature of this book at the time, having read one of the similarly-produced “Op-Center” novels, so my expectations were not high, but then neither is the level of cognition I expect to devote to a book read on an airplane, even in the pre-2001 era when air travel was not the Hell of torture, extortion, and humiliation it has become today. Anyway, I read something else on that long-forgotten trip, and the present book sat on my shelf slowly yellowing around the edges until I was about to depart on a trip in June 2009. Whilst looking for an airplane book for this trip, I happened across it and, noting that it had been published almost exactly ten years before, was set in the year 2010, and focused upon the evolution of the Internet and human-computer interaction, I thought it would be amusing to compare the vision of Clancy et alii for the next decade to the actual world in which we're living.

Well, I read it—the whole thing, in fact, on the outbound leg of what was supposed to be a short trip—you know you're having a really bad airline experience when due to thunderstorms and fog you end up in a different country than one on the ticket. My reaction? From the perspective of the present day, this is a very silly, stupid, and poorly written novel. But the greater problem is that from the perspective of 1999 this is a very silly, stupid, and poorly written novel. The technology of the 2010 in the story is not only grossly different from what we have at present, it doesn't make any sense at all to anybody with the most rudimentary knowledge of how computers, the Internet, or for that matter human beings behave. It's as if the author(s) had some kind of half-baked idea of “cyberspace” as conceived by William Gibson and mixed it up with a too-literal interpretation of the phrase “information superhighway”, ending up with car and motorcycle chases where virtual vehicles are careening down the fibrebahn dodging lumbering 18-wheeled packets of bulk data. I'm not making this up—the author(s) are (p. 247), and asking you to believe it!

The need for suspension of disbelief is not suspended from the first page to the last, and the price seems to ratchet up with every chapter. At the outset, we are asked to believe that by “gearing up” with a holographic VR (virtual reality) visor, an individual not only sees three dimensional real time imagery with the full fidelity of human vision, but also experiences touch, temperature, humidity, smell, and acceleration. Now how precisely does that work, particularly the last which appears to be at variance with some work by Professor Einstein? Oh, and this VR gear is available at an affordable price to all computer users, including high school kids in their bedrooms, and individuals can easily create their own virtual reality environments with some simple programming. There is techno-babble enough here for another dozen seasons of “24”. On p. 349, in the 38th of 40 chapters, and completely unrelated to the plot, we learn “The systems were also ugly-looking—lean-mean-GI-green—but when it came to this kind of hardware, pretty was as pretty did. These were state-of-the-art 900 MHz machines, with the new FireEye bioneuro chips, massive amounts of fiberlight memory, and fourteen hours of active battery power if the local plugs didn't work.” 900 Mhz—imagine! (There are many even more egregious examples, but I'll leave it at this in the interest of brevity and so as not to induce nausea.)

But that's not all! Teenage super-hackers, naturally, speak in their own dialect, like (p. 140):

“Hey, Jimmy Joe. How's the flow?”
“Dee eff eff, Tyrone.” This stood for DFF—data flowin' fine.
“Listen, I talked to Jay Gee. He needs our help.”
“Nopraw,” Tyrone said. “Somebody is poppin' strands.”
“Tell me somethin' I don't compro, bro. Somebody is always poppin' strands.”
“Yeah, affirm, but this is different. There's a C-1 grammer [sic] looking to rass the whole web.”
“Nofeek?”
“Nofeek.”

If you want to warm up your suspension of disbelief to take on this twaddle, imagine Tom Clancy voluntarily lending his name and reputation to it. And, hey, if you like this kind of stuff, there are nine more books in the series to read!

June 2009 Permalink

Crichton, Michael. Prey. New York: HarperCollins, 2002. ISBN 0-06-621412-2.

January 2003 Permalink

Crichton, Michael. State of Fear. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN 0-06-621413-0.
Ever since I read his 2003 Commonwealth Club speech, I've admired Michael Crichton's outspoken defence of rationality against the junk science, elitist politics, and immoral anti-human policies of present-day Big Environmentalism. In State of Fear, he enlists his talent as a techno-thriller writer in the cause, debunking the bogus fear-mongering of the political/legal/media/academic complex which is increasingly turning the United States into a nation of safety-obsessed sheeple, easily manipulated by the elite which constructs the fact-free virtual reality they inhabit. To the extent this book causes people to look behind the green curtain of environmentalism, it will no doubt do a world of good. Scientific integrity is something which matters a great deal to Crichton—when's the last time you read a thriller which included dozens of citations of peer-reviewed scientific papers, charts based on public domain climate data, a list of data sources for independent investigation, a twenty page annotated bibliography, and an explicit statement of the author's point of view on the issues discussed in the novel?

The story is a compelling page-turner, but like other recent Crichton efforts, requires somewhat more suspension of disbelief than I'm comfortable with. I don't disagree with the scientific message—I applaud it—but I found myself less than satisfied with how the thing worked as a thriller. As in Prey (January 2003), the characters often seemed to do things which simply weren't the way real people would actually behave. It is plausible that James Bond like secret agent John Kenner would entrust a raid on an eco-terrorist camp to a millionaire's administrative assistant and a lawyer who'd never fired a gun, or that he'd include these two, along with an actor who played a U.S. president on television, sent to spy for the bad guys, on an expedition to avert a horrific terrorist strike? These nave, well-intentioned, but clueless characters provide convenient foils for Crichton's scientific arguments and come to deliciously appropriate ends, at least in one case, but all the time you can't help but thinking they're just story devices who don't really belong there. The villains' grand schemes also make this engineer's reality detector go bzzzt! In each case, they're trying to do something on an unprecedented scale, involving unconfirmed theories and huge uncertainties in real-world data, and counting on it working the very first time, with no prior prototyping or reduced-scale tests. In the real world, heroics wouldn't be necessary—you could just sit back and wait for something to go wrong, as it always does in such circumstances.

January 2005 Permalink

Crichton, Michael. Next. New York: HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN 0-06-087298-5.
Several of the essays in Freeman Dyson's The Scientist as Rebel (June 2007) predict that “the next Big Thing” and a central theme of the present century will be the discovery of the fine-grained details of biology and the emergence of technologies which can achieve essentially anything which is possible with the materials and processes of life. This, Dyson believes, will have an impact on the lives of humans and the destiny of humanity and the biosphere which dwarf those of any of the technological revolutions of the twentieth century.

In this gripping novel, page-turner past master (and medical doctor) Michael Crichton provides a glimpse of a near-term future in which these technologies are coming up to speed. It's going to be a wild and wooly world once genes start jumping around among metazoan species with all the promiscuity of prokaryotic party time, and Crichton weaves this into a story which is simultaneously entertaining, funny, and cautionary. His trademark short chapters (averaging just a little over four pages) are like potato chips to the reader—just one more, you think, when you know you ought to have gotten to sleep an hour ago.

For much of the book, the story seems like a collection of independent short stories interleaved with one another. As the pages dwindle, you begin to wonder, “How the heck is he going to pull all this together?” But that's what master story tellers do, and he succeeds delightfully. One episode in this book describes what is perhaps the worst backseat passenger on a road trip in all of English fiction; you'll know what I'm talking about when you get to it. The author has a great deal of well-deserved fun at the expense of the legacy media: it's payback time for all of those agenda-driven attack reviews of State of Fear (January 2005).

I came across two amusing typos: at the bottom of p. 184, I'm pretty sure “A transgender higher primate” is supposed to be “A transgenic higher primate”, and on p. 428 in the bibliography, I'm certain that the title of Sheldon Krimsky's book is Science in the Private Interest, not “Science in the Primate Interest”—what a difference a letter can make!

In an Author's Note at the end, Crichton presents one of the most succinct and clearly argued cases I've encountered why the patenting of genes is not just destructive of scientific inquiry and medical progress, but also something which even vehement supporters of intellectual property in inventions and artistic creations can oppose without being inconsistent.

July 2007 Permalink

Crichton, Michael. Timeline. New York: Ballantine Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0345-46826-0.
Sometimes books, even those I'm sure I'll love, end up sitting on my bookshelf for a long time before I get to them. This novel, originally published in 1999, not only sat on my bookshelf for almost a decade, it went to Africa and back in 2001 before I finally opened it last week and predictably devoured it in a few days.

Crichton is a master storyteller, and this may be the best of the many of his books I've read. I frequently remark that Crichton's work often reads like a novelisation of a screenplay, where you can almost see the storyboards for each chapter as you read it, and that's certainly the case here. This story just begs to be made into a great movie. Regrettably, it was subsequently made into an awful one. So skip the movie and enjoy the book, which is superb.

There's a price of admission, which is accepting some high octane quantum flapdoodle which enables an eccentric billionaire (where would stories like this be without eccentric billionaires?) to secretly develop a time machine which can send people back to historical events, all toward the end of creating perfectly authentic theme parks on historical sites researched through time travel and reconstructed as tourist attractions. (I'm not sure that's the business plan I would come up with if I had a time machine, but it's the premise it takes to make the story work.)

But something goes wrong, and somebody finds himself trapped in 14th century France, and an intrepid band of historians must go back into that world to rescue their team leader. This sets the stage for adventures in the middle ages, based on the recent historical view that the period was not a Dark Age but rather a time of intellectual, technological, and cultural ferment. The story is both an adventurous romp and a story of personal growth which makes one ask the question, “In which epoch would I prosper best?”.

Aside from the necessary suspension of disbelief and speculation about life in the 14th century (about which there remain many uncertainties), there are a few goofs. For example, in the chapter titled “26:12:01” (you'll understand the significance when you read the book), one character discovers that once dark-adapted he can see well by starlight. “Probably because there was no air pollution, he thought. He remembered reading that in earlier centuries, people could see the planet Venus during the day as we can now see the moon. Of course, that had been impossible for hundreds of years.” Nonsense—at times near maximum elongation, anybody who has a reasonably clear sky and knows where to look can spot Venus in broad daylight. I've seen it on several occasions, including from the driveway of my house in Switzerland and 20 kilometres from downtown San Francisco. But none of these detract from the fact that this is a terrific tale which will keep you turning the pages until the very satisfying end.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The explanation for how the transmitted people are reassembled at the destination in the next to last chapter of the “Black Rock” section (these chapters have neither titles nor numbers) seems to me to miss a more clever approach which would not affect the story in any way (as the explanation never figures in subsequent events). Instead of invoking other histories in the multiverse which are able to reconstitute the time travellers (which raises all kinds of questions about identity and continuity of consciousness), why not simply argue that unitarity is preserved only across the multiverse as a whole, and that when the quantum state of the transmitted object is destroyed in this universe, it is necessarily reassembled intact in the destination universe, because failure to do so would violate unitarity and destroy the deterministic evolution of the wave function?

This is consistent with arguments for what happens to quantum states which fall into a black hole or wormhole (on the assumption that the interior is another universe in the multiverse), and also fits nicely with the David Deutsch's view of the multiverse and my own ideas toward a general theory of paranormal phenomena.

Spoilers end here.  

September 2008 Permalink

Drury, Allen. Come Nineveh, Come Tyre. New York: Avon, 1973. ISBN 978-0-380-00126-2.
This novel is one of the two alternative conclusions the author wrote for the series which began with his Pulitzer Prize winning Advise and Consent. As the series progressed, Drury became increasingly over the top (some would say around the bend) in skewering the media, academia, and the Washington liberal establishment of the 1960s and 1970 with wickedly ironic satire apt to make the skulls of contemporary bien pensants explode.

The story is set in a time in which the U.S. is involved in two protracted and broadly unpopular foreign wars, one seemingly winding down, the other an ongoing quagmire, both launched by a deeply despised president derided by the media and opposition as a warmonger. Due to a set of unexpected twists and turns in an electoral campaign like no other, a peace candidate emerges as the nominee of his party—a candidate with no foreign policy experience but supreme self-confidence, committed to engaging America's adversaries directly in one-on-one diplomacy, certain the outstanding conflicts can be thus resolved and, with multilateral good will, world peace finally achieved. This eloquent, charismatic, almost messianic candidate mobilises the support of a new generation, previously disengaged from politics, who not only throw their youthful vigour behind his campaign but enter the political arena themselves and support candidates aligned with the presidential standard bearer. Around the world, the candidate is praised as heralding a new era in America. The media enlist themselves on his side in an unprecedented manner, passing, not just on editorial pages but in supposedly objective news coverage, from artful bias to open partisanship. Worrisome connections between the candidate and radicals unwilling to renounce past violent acts, anti-American demagogues, and groups which resort to thuggish tactics against opponents and critics do not figure in the media's adulatory coverage of their chosen one. The media find themselves easily intimidated by even veiled threats of violence, and quietly self-censor criticism of those who oppose liberty for fear of “offending.” The candidate, inspiring the nation with hope for peace and change for the better, wins a decisive victory, sweeping in strong majorities in both the House and Senate, including many liberal freshmen aligned with the president-elect and owing their seats to the coattails of his victory. Bear in mind that this novel was published in 1973!

This is the story of what happens after the candidate of peace, change, and hope takes office, gives a stunningly eloquent, visionary, and bold inaugural address, and basks in worldwide adulation while everything goes swimmingly—for about twelve hours. Afterward, well, things don't, and a cataclysmic set of events are set into motion which threaten to change the U.S. in ways other than were hoped by those who elected the new man.

Now, this book was published three and a half decades ago, and much has changed in the intervening time, which doubtless explains why all of the books in the series are now long out of print. But considering the précis above, and how prophetic many of its elements were of the present situation in the U.S., maybe there's some wisdom here relevant to the changes underway there. Certainly one hopes that used booksellers aren't getting a lot of orders for this volume from buyers in Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang, and Tehran. I had not read this book since its initial publication (when, despite almost universal disdain from the liberal media, it sold almost 200,000 copies in hardcover), and found in re-reading it that the story, while obviously outdated in some regards (the enemy of yore, the Soviet Bear, is no more, but who knows where Russia's headed?), especially as regards the now-legacy media, stands up better than I remembered it from the first reading. The embrace of media content regulation by a “liberal” administration is especially chilling at a time when talk of re-imposing the “Fairness Doctrine” and enforcing “network neutrality” is afoot in Washington.

All editions of this book are out of print, but used copies of the mass-market paperback are presently available for little more than the shipping cost. Get yours before the bad guys clean out the shelves!

December 2008 Permalink

Eggers, Dave. The Circle. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. ISBN 978-0-345-80729-8.
There have been a number of novels, many in recent years, which explore the possibility of human society being taken over by intelligent machines. Some depict the struggle between humans and machines, others envision a dystopian future in which the machines have triumphed, and a few explore the possibility that machines might create a “new operating system” for humanity which works better than the dysfunctional social and political systems extant today. This novel goes off in a different direction: what might happen, without artificial intelligence, but in an era of exponentially growing computer power and data storage capacity, if an industry leading company with tendrils extending into every aspect of personal interaction and commerce worldwide, decided, with all the best intentions, “What the heck? Let's be evil!”

Mae Holland had done everything society had told her to do. One of only twelve of the 81 graduates of her central California high school to go on to college, she'd been accepted by a prestigious college and graduated with a degree in psychology and massive student loans she had no prospect of paying off. She'd ended up moving back in with her parents and taking a menial cubicle job at the local utility company, working for a creepy boss. In frustration and desperation, Mae reaches out to her former college roommate, Annie, who has risen to an exalted position at the hottest technology company on the globe: The Circle. The Circle had started by creating the Unified Operating System, which combined all aspects of users' interactions—social media, mail, payments, user names—into a unique and verified identity called TruYou. (Wonder where they got that idea?)

Before long, anonymity on the Internet was a thing of the past as merchants and others recognised the value of knowing their customers and of information collected across their activity on all sites. The Circle and its associated businesses supplanted existing sites such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter, and with the tight integration provided by TruYou, created new kinds of interconnection and interaction not possible when information was Balkanised among separate sites. With the end of anonymity, spam and fraudulent schemes evaporated, and with all posters personally accountable, discussions became civil and trolls slunk back under the bridge.

With an effective monopoly on electronic communication and commercial transactions (if everybody uses TruYou to pay, what option does a merchant have but to accept it and pay The Circle's fees?), The Circle was assured a large, recurring, and growing revenue stream. With the established businesses generating so much cash, The Circle invested heavily in research and development of new technologies: everything from sustainable housing, access to DNA databases, crime prevention, to space applications.

Mae's initial job was far more mundane. In Customer Experience, she was more or less working in a call centre, except her communications with customers were over The Circle's message services. The work was nothing like that at the utility company, however. Her work was monitored in real time, with a satisfaction score computed from follow-ups surveys by clients. To advance, a score near 100 was required, and Mae had to follow-up any scores less than that to satisfy the customer and obtain a perfect score. On a second screen, internal “zing” messages informed her of activity on the campus, and she was expected to respond and contribute.

As she advances within the organisation, Mae begins to comprehend the scope of The Circle's ambitions. One of the founders unveils a plan to make always-on cameras and microphones available at very low cost, which people can install around the world. All the feeds will be accessible in real time and archived forever. A new slogan is unveiled: “All that happens must be known.

At a party, Mae meets a mysterious character, Kalden, who appears to have access to parts of The Circle's campus unknown to her associates and yet doesn't show up in the company's exhaustive employee social networks. Her encounters and interactions with him become increasingly mysterious.

Mae moves up, and is chosen to participate to a greater extent in the social networks, and to rate products and ideas. All of this activity contributes to her participation rank, computed and displayed in real time. She swallows a sensor which will track her health and vital signs in real time, display them on a wrist bracelet, and upload them for analysis and early warning diagnosis.

Eventually, she volunteers to “go transparent”: wear a body camera and microphone every waking moment, and act as a window into The Circle for the general public. The company had pushed transparency for politicians, and now was ready to deploy it much more widely.

Secrets Are Lies
Sharing Is Caring
Privacy Is Theft

To Mae's family and few remaining friends outside The Circle, this all seems increasingly bizarre: as if the fastest growing and most prestigious high technology company in the world has become a kind of grotesque cult which consumes the lives of its followers and aspires to become universal. Mae loves her sense of being connected, the interaction with a worldwide public, and thinks it is just wonderful. The Circle internally tests and begins to roll out a system of direct participatory democracy to replace existing political institutions. Mae is there to report it. A plan to put an end to most crime is unveiled: Mae is there.

The Circle is closing. Mae is contacted by her mysterious acquaintance, and presented with a moral dilemma: she has become a central actor on the stage of a world which is on the verge of changing, forever.

This is a superbly written story which I found both realistic and chilling. You don't need artificial intelligence or malevolent machines to create an eternal totalitarian nightmare. All it takes a few years' growth and wider deployment of technologies which exist today, combined with good intentions, boundless ambition, and fuzzy thinking. And the latter three commodities are abundant among today's technology powerhouses.

Lest you think the technologies which underlie this novel are fantasy or far in the future, they were discussed in detail in David Brin's 1999 The Transparent Society and my 1994 “Unicard” and 2003 “The Digital Imprimatur”. All that has changed is that the massive computing, communication, and data storage infrastructure envisioned in those works now exists or will within a few years.

What should you fear most? Probably the millennials who will read this and think, “Wow! This will be great.” “Democracy is mandatory here!

May 2016 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Prayers for the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2006. ISBN 0-7432-7289-7.
The year is 2040. The former United States have fissioned into the coast-to-coast Islamic Republic in the north and the Bible Belt from Texas eastward to the Atlantic, with the anything-goes Nevada Free State acting as a broker between them, pressure relief valve, and window to the outside world. The collapse of the old decadent order was triggered by the nuclear destruction of New York and Washington, and the radioactive poisoning of Mecca by a dirty bomb in 2015, confessed to by an agent of the Mossad, who revealed a plot to set the Islamic world and the West against one another. In the aftermath, a wave of Islamic conversion swept the West, led by the glitterati and opinion leaders, with hold-outs fleeing to the Bible Belt, which co-exists with the Islamic Republic in a state of low intensity warfare. China has become the world's sole superpower, with Russia, reaping the benefit of refugees from overrun Israel, the high-technology centre.

This novel is set in the Islamic Republic, largely in the capital of Seattle (no surprise—even pre-transition, that's where the airheads seem to accrete, and whence bad ideas and flawed technologies seep out to despoil the heartland). The society sketched is believably rich and ambiguous: Muslims are divided into “modern”, “moderate”, and “fundamentalist” communities which more or less co-exist, like the secular, religious, and orthodox communities in present-day Israel. Many Catholics have remained in the Islamic Republic, reduced to dhimmitude and limited in their career aspirations, but largely left alone as long as they keep to themselves. The Southwest, with its largely Catholic hispanic population, is a zone of relative personal liberty within the Islamic Republic, much like Kish Island in Iran. Power in the Islamic Republic, as in Iran, is under constant contention among national security, religious police, the military, fanatic “fedayeen”, and civil authority, whose scheming against one another leaves cracks in which the clever can find a modicum of freedom.

But the historical events upon which the Islamic Republic is founded may not be what they seem, and the protagonists, the adopted but estranged son and daughter of the shadowy head of state security, must untangle decades of intrigue and misdirection to find the truth and make it public. There are some thoughtful and authentic touches in the world sketched in this novel: San Francisco has become a hotbed of extremist fundamentalism, which might seem odd until you reflect that moonbat collectivism and environmentalism share much of the same desire to make the individual submit to externally imposed virtue which suffuses radical Islam. Properly packaged and marketed, Islam can be highly attractive to disillusioned leftists, as the conversion of Carlos “the Jackal” from fanatic Marxist to “revolutionary Islam” demonstrates.

There are a few goofs. Authors who include nuclear weapons in their stories really ought seek the advice of somebody who knows about them, or at least research them in the Nuclear Weapons FAQ. The “fissionable fuel rods from a new Tajik reactor…made from a rare isotope, supposedly much more powerful than plutonium” on p. 212, purportedly used to fabricate a five megaton bomb, is the purest nonsense in about every way imaginable. First of all, there are no isotopes, rare or otherwise, which are better than highly enriched uranium (HEU) or plutonium for fission weapons. Second, there's no way you could possibly make a five megaton fission bomb, regardless of the isotope you used—to get such a yield you'd need so much fission fuel that it would be much more than a critical mass and predetonate, which would ruin your whole day. The highest yield fission bomb ever built was Ted Taylor's Mk 18F Super Oralloy Bomb (SOB), which contained about four critical masses of U-235, and depended upon the very low neutron background of HEU to permit implosion assembly before predetonation. The SOB had a yield of about 500 kt; with all the short half-life junk in fuel rods, there's no way you could possibly approach that yield, not to speak of something ten times as great. If you need high yield, tritium boosting or a full-fledged two stage Teller-Ulam fusion design is the only way to go. The author also shares the common misconception in thrillers that radiation is something like an infectuous disease which permanently contaminates everything it touches. Unfortunately, this fallacy plays a significant part in the story.

Still, this is a well-crafted page-turner which, like the best alternative history, is not only entertaining but will make you think. The blogosphere has been chattering about this book (that's where I came across it), and they're justified in recommending it. The Web site for the book, complete with Flash animation and an annoying sound track, includes background information and the author's own blog with links to various reviews.

March 2006 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Sins of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-3765-6.
Here we have the eagerly awaited sequel to the author's compelling thriller Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006), now billed as the second volume in the eventual Assassin Trilogy. The book in the middle of a trilogy is often the most difficult to write. Readers are already acquainted with the setting, scenario, and many of the main characters, and aren't engaged by the novelty of discovering something entirely new. The plot usually involves ramifying the events of the first installment, while further developing characters and introducing new ones, but the reader knows at the outset that, while there may be subplots which are resolved, the book will end with the true climax of the story reserved for the final volume. These considerations tend to box in an author, and pulling off a volume two which is satisfying even when you know you're probably going to have to wait another two years to see how it all comes out is a demanding task, and one which Robert Ferrigno accomplishes magnificently in this novel.

Set three years after Prayers, the former United States remains divided into a coast-to-coast Islamic Republic, with the Christian fundamentalist Bible Belt in Texas and the old South, Mormon Territories and the Nevada Free State in the West, and the independent Nuevo Florida in the southeast, with low intensity warfare and intrigue at the borders. Both northern and southern frontiers are under pressure from green technology secular Canada and the expansionist Aztlán Empire, which is chipping away at the former U.S. southwest.

Something is up in the Bible Belt, and retired Fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps returns to his old haunts in the Belt to find out what's going on and prevent a potentially destabilising discovery from shifting the balance of power on the continent. He is accompanied by one of the most unlikely secret agents ever, whose story of self-discovery and growth is a delightful theme throughout. This may be a dystopian future, but it is populated by genuine heroes and villains, all of whom are believable human beings whose character and lives have made them who they are. There are foul and despicable characters to be sure, but also those you're inclined to initially dismiss as evil but discover through their honour and courage to be good people making the best of bad circumstances.

This novel is substantially more “science fiction-y” than Prayers—a number of technological prodigies figure in the tale, some of which strike this reader as implausible for a world less than forty years from the present, absent a technological singularity (which has not happened in this timeline), and especially with the former United States and Europe having turned into technological backwaters. I am not, however, going to engage in my usual quibbling: most of the items in question are central to the plot and mysteries the reader discovers as the story unfolds, and simply to cite them would be major spoilers. Even if I put them inside a spoiler warning, you'd be tempted to read them anyway, which would detract from your enjoyment of the book, which I don't want to do, given how much I enjoyed it. I will say that one particular character has what may be potentially the most itchy bioenhancement in all of modern fiction, and perhaps that contributes to his extravagantly foul disposition. In addition to the science fictional aspects, the supernatural appears to enter the story on several occasions—or maybe not—we'll have to wait until the next book to know for sure.

One thing you don't want to do is to read this book before first reading Prayers for the Assassin. There is sufficient background information mentioned in passing for the story to be comprehensible and enjoyable stand-alone, but if you don't understand the character and history of Redbeard, the dynamics of the various power centres in the Islamic Republic, or the fragile social equilibrium among the various communities within it, you'll miss a great deal of the richness of this future history. Fortunately, a mass market paperback edition of the first volume is now available.

You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

March 2008 Permalink

Ferrigno, Robert. Heart of the Assassin. New York: Scribner, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-3767-0.
This novel completes the author's Assassin Trilogy, which began with Prayers for the Assassin (March 2006) and continued with Sins of the Assassin (March 2008). This is one of those trilogies in which you really want to read the books in order. While there is some effort to provide context for readers who start in the middle, you'll miss so much of the background of the scenario and the development and previous interactions of characters that you'll miss a great deal of what's going on. If you're unfamiliar with the world in which these stories are set, please see my comments on the earlier books in the series.

As this novel opens, a crisis is brewing as a heavily armed and increasingly expansionist Aztlán is ready to exploit the disunity of the Islamic Republic and the Bible Belt, most of whose military forces are arrayed against one another, to continue to nibble away at both. Visionaries on both sides imagine a reunification of the two monotheistic parts of what were once the United States, while the Old One and his mega-Machiavellian daughter Baby work their dark plots in the background. Former fedayeen shadow warrior Rakkim Epps finds himself on missions to the darkest part of the Republic, New Fallujah (the former San Francisco), and to the radioactive remains of Washington D.C., seeking a relic which might have the power to unite the nation once again.

Having read and tremendously enjoyed the first two books of the trilogy, I was very much looking forward to this novel, but having now read it, I consider it a disappointment. As the trilogy has progressed, the author seems to have become ever more willing to invent whatever technology he needs at the moment to advance the plot, whether or not it is plausible or consistent with the rest of the world he has created, and to admit the supernatural into a story which started out set in a world of gritty reality. I spent the first 270 pages making increasingly strenuous efforts to suspend disbelief, but then when one of the characters uses a medical oxygen tank as a flamethrower, I “lost it” and started laughing out loud at each of the absurdities in the pages that followed: “DNA knives” that melt into a person's forearm, holodeck hotel rooms with faithful all-senses stimulation and simulated lifeforms, a ghost, miraculous religious relics, etc., etc. The first two books made the reader think about what it would be like if a post-apocalyptic Great Awakening reorganised the U.S. around Islamic and Christian fundamentalism. In this book, all of that is swept into the background, and it's all about the characters (who one ceases to care much about, as they become increasingly comic book like) and a political plot so preposterous it makes Dan Brown's novels seem like nonfiction.

If you've read the first two novels and want to discover how it all comes out, you will find all of the threads resolved in this book. For me, there were just too many “Oh come on, now!” moments for the result to be truly satisfying.

A podcast interview with the author is available. You can read the first chapter of this book online at the author's Web site.

October 2009 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Transfer of Power. New York: Pocket Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-671-02320-1.
No one would have believed in the last years of the twentieth century that Islamic terrorists could make a successful strike on a high-profile symbol of U.S. power. Viewed from a decade later, this novel, the first featuring counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp (who sometimes makes Jack Bauer seem like a bureaucrat), is astonishingly prescient. It is an almost perfect thriller—one of the most difficult to put down books I've read in quite some time. Apart from the action, which is abundant, the author has a pitch-perfect sense of the venality and fecklessness of politicians and skewers them with a gusto reminiscent of the early novels of Allen Drury.

I was completely unaware of this author and his hugely popular books (six of which, to date, have made the New York Times bestseller list) until I heard an extended interview (transcript; audio parts 1, 2, 3) with the author, after which I immediately ordered this book. It did not disappoint, and I shall be reading more in the series.

I don't read thrillers in a hyper-critical mode unless they transgress to such an extent that I begin to exclaim “oh, come on”. Still, this novel is carefully researched, and the only goof I noticed is in the Epilogue on p. 545 where “A KH-12 Keyhole satellite was moved into geosynchronous orbit over the city of Sao Paulo and began recording phone conversations”. The KH-12 (a somewhat ambiguous designation for an upgrade of the KH-11 reconnaissance satellite) operates in low Earth orbit, not geosynchronous orbit, and is an imaging satellite, not a signals intelligence satellite equipped to intercept communications. The mass market edition I read includes a teaser for Protect and Defend, the eighth novel in the series. This excerpt contains major spoilers for the earlier books, and if you're one of those people (like me) who likes to follow the books in a series in order, give it a miss.

April 2009 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. The Third Option. New York: Pocket Books, 2000. ISBN 978-0-671-04732-0.
This is the second novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. Unlike the previous episode, Transfer of Power (April 2009), which involved a high-profile terrorist strike, this is much more of a grudge match conducted in the shadows, with Rapp as much prey as hunter and uncertain of whom he can trust. Flynn demonstrates he can pull off this kind of ambiguous espionage story as well as the flash-bang variety, and while closing the present story in a satisfying way sets the stage for the next round of intrigue without resorting to a cliffhanger.

Rapp's character becomes increasingly complex as the saga unfolds, and while often conflicted he is mission-oriented and has no difficulty understanding his job description. Here he's reluctantly describing it to a congressman who has insisted he be taken into confidence (p. 296):

“… I'm what you might call a counterterrorism specialist.”

“Okay … and what, may I ask, does a counterterrorism specialist do?”

Rapp was not well versed in trying to spin what he did, so he just blurted out the hard, cold truth. “I kill terrorists.”

“Say again?”

“I hunt them down, and I kill them.”

No nuance for Mr. Mitch!

This is a superbly crafted thriller which will make you hunger for the next. Fortunately, there are seven sequels already published and more on the way. See my comments on the first installment for additional details and a link to an interview with the author. The montage on the cover of the paperback edition I read uses a biohazard sign (☣) as its background—I have no idea why—neither disease nor biological weapons figure in the story in any way. Yes, I've been reading a lot of thrillers recently—summer's comin' and 'tis the season for light and breezy reading. I'll reserve Quantum Field Theory in a Nutshell for the dwindling daylight of autumn, if you don't mind.

June 2009 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Separation of Power. New York: Pocket Books, [2001] 2009. ISBN 978-1-4391-3573-0.
Golly, these books go down smoothly, and swiftly too! This is the third novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. It continues the “story arc” begun in the second novel, The Third Option (June 2009), and picks up just two weeks after the conclusion of that story. While not leaving the reader with a cliffhanger, that book left many things to be resolved, and this novel sorts them out, administering summary justice to the malefactors behind the scenes.

The subject matter seems drawn from current and recent headlines: North Korean nukes, “shock and awe” air strikes in Iraq, special forces missions to search for Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, and intrigue in the Middle East. What makes this exceptional is that this book was originally published in 2001—before! It holds up very well when read eight years later although, of course, subsequent events sadly didn't go the way the story envisaged.

There are a few goofs: copy editors relying on the spelling checker instead of close proofing allowed a couple of places where “sight” appeared where “site” was intended, and a few other homonym flubs. I'm also extremely dubious that weapons with the properties described would have been considered operational without having been tested. And the premise of the final raid seems a little more like a video game than the circumstances of the first two novels. As one who learnt a foreign language in adulthood, I can testify that it is extraordinarily difficult to speak without an obvious accent. Is it plausible that Mitch can impersonate a figure that the top-tier security troops guarding the bunker have seen on television many times?

Still, the story works, and it's a page turner. The character of Mitch Rapp continues to darken in this novel. He becomes ever more explicitly an assassin, and notwithstanding however much his targets “need killin'”, it's unsettling to think of agents of coercive government sent to eliminate people those in power deem inconvenient, and difficult to consider the eliminator a hero. But that isn't going to keep me from reading the next in the series in a month or two.

See my comments on the first installment for additional details about the series and a link to an interview with the author.

August 2009 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Executive Power. New York: Pocket Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7434-5396-7.
This is the fourth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. At the end of the third novel, Separation of Power (August 2009), Rapp's identity was outed by a self-righteous and opportunistic congressman (who gets what's coming to him), and soon-to-be-married Rapp prepares to settle down at a desk job in the CIA's counterterrorism centre. But it's hard to keep a man of action down, and when political perfidy blows the cover on a hostage rescue operation in the Philippines, resulting in the death of two Navy SEALs, Rapp gets involved in the follow-up reprisal operation in a much more direct manner than anybody expected, and winds up with a non-life-threatening but extremely embarrassing and difficult to explain injury (hint, he spends most of the balance of the book standing up). Rapp has no hesitation in taking on terror masters single-handed, but he finds himself utterly unprepared for the withering scorn unleashed against him by the two women in his life: bride and boss.

Rapp soon finds himself on the trail of a person much like himself: an assassin who works in the shadows and leaves almost no traces of evidence. This malefactor, motivated by the desire for a political outcome just as sincere as Rapp's wish to protect his nation, is manipulating (or being manipulated by?) a rogue Saudi billionaire bent on provoking mayhem in the Middle East. The ever meddlesome chief of the Mossad is swept into the scheme, and events spiral toward the brink as Rapp tries to figure out what is really going on. The conclusion gets Rapp involved up close and personal, the way he likes it, and comes to a satisfying end.

This is the first of the Mitch Rapp novels to be written after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. Other than a few oblique references to those events, little in the worldview of the series has changed. Flynn's attention to detail continues to shine in this story. About the only unrealistic thing is imagining the U.S. government as actually being serious and competent in taking the battle to terrorists. See my comments on the first installment for additional details about the series and a link to an interview with the author.

September 2009 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Term Limits. New York: Pocket Books, 1997. ISBN 978-0-671-02318-8.
This was the author's first novel, which he initially self-published and marketed through bookshops in his native Minnesota after failing to place it with any of the major New York publishers. There have to be a lot of editors (What's the collective noun for a bunch of editors? A rejection slip of editors? A red pencil of editors?) who wrote the dozens of rejection letters he received, as Flynn's books now routinely make the New York Times bestseller list and have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Unlike many writers who take a number of books, published or unpublished, to master their craft (Jerry Pournelle counsels aspiring writers to expect to throw away their first million words), Flynn showed himself to be a grandmaster at the art of the thriller in his very first outing. In fact, I found this book to be even more of a compulsive page-turner than the subsequent Mitch Rapp novels (but that's to be expected, since as the series progresses there's more character development and scene-setting)—the trade paperback edition is 612 pages long and I finished it in four days.

The story takes place in the same world as the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series, and introduces many of the characters of those books such as Thomas Stansfield, Irene Kennedy, Jack Warch, Scott Coleman, and Congressman Michael O'Rourke, but Rapp makes no appearance in it. The premise is simple: a group of retired Special Forces operatives who have spent their careers making foreign enemies of their country pay for their misdeeds concludes that the most pernicious enemies of the republic are the venal politicians spending the country into bankruptcy and ignoring the threats to its existence and decides to take, shall we say, direct action, much along the lines of Unintended Consequences (December 2003), but as a pure thriller without the political baggage of that novel.

Flynn's attention to detail is evident in this first novel, although there are a few lapses. This is to be expected, as his “brain trust” of fan/insiders had yet to discover his work and lend their expertise to vetting the gnarly details. For example, on p. 552, a KH-11 satellite is said to be “on station” and remains so for an extended period. KH-11s are in low Earth orbit, and cannot be on station anywhere. And they're operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, not the National Security Administration. Flynn seems to be very fond of the word “transponder”, and uses it in contexts where it's clear a receiver is intended. These and other minor goofs detract in no way from the story, which grips you and doesn't let go until the last page. Although this book is not at all a prerequisite to enjoying the Mitch Rapp series, in retrospect I wish I'd read it before Transfer of Power (April 2009) to better appreciate the history which formed the relationships among the secondary characters.

November 2009 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Memorial Day. New York: Pocket Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7434-5398-1.
In this, the fifth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series the author returns from the more introspective view of the conflicting loyalties and priorities of the CIA's most effective loose cannon in previous novels to pen a rip-roaring edge-of-the-seat thriller which will keep you turning pages until the very last. I packed this as an “airplane book” and devoured the whole 574 page brick in less than 48 hours after I opened it on the train to the airport. Flynn is a grand master of the “just one more chapter before I go to sleep” thriller, and this is the most compelling of his novels I've read to date.

Without giving away any more than the back cover blurb, the premise is a nuclear terrorist attack on Washington, and the details of the detection of such a threat and the response to it are so precise that a U.S. government inquiry was launched into how Flynn got his information (answer—he has lots of fans in the alphabet soup agencies within a megaton or so of the Reflecting Pool). While the earlier novels in the Mitch Rapp chronicle are best read in order, you can pick this one up and enjoy it stand-alone: sure, you'll miss some of the nuances of the backgrounds and interactions among the characters, but the focus here is on crisis, mystery, taking expedient action to prevent a catastrophic outcome, and the tension between those committed to defending their nation and those committed to protecting the liberties which make that nation worthy of being defended.

As with most novels in which nuclear terrorism figures, I have some quibbles with the details, but I'm not going to natter upon them within a spoiler warning block because they made absolutely no difference to my enjoyment of this yarn. This is a thriller by a master of the genre at the height of his powers, which has not been dated in any way by the passing of years since its publication. Enjoy!

December 2009 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Consent to Kill. New York: Pocket Books, 2005. ISBN 978-1-4165-0501-3.
This is the sixth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. In the aftermath of Memorial Day (December 2009), a Saudi billionaire takes out a contract on Mitch Rapp, who he blames for the death of his son. Working through a cut-out, an assassin (one of the most interesting and frightening villains in the Vince Flynn yarns I've read so far—kind of an evil James Bond) is recruited to eliminate Rapp, ideally making it look like an accident to avoid further retribution. The assassin is conflicted, on the one hand respecting Rapp, but on the other excited by the challenge of going after the hardest target of all and ending his career with not just a crowning victory but a financial reward large enough to get out of the game.

Things do not go as planned, and the result is a relentless grudge match as Rapp pursues his attackers like Nemesis. This is a close-up, personal story rather than a high concept thriller like Memorial Day, and is more morality play than an edge of the seat page-turner. Once again, Flynn takes the opportunity to skewer politicians who'd rather excuse murderers than risk bad press. Although events and characters from earlier novels figure in this story, you can enjoy this one without having read any of the others.

Vince Flynn is acclaimed for the attention to detail in his novels, due not only to his own extensive research but a “brain trust” of Washington insider fans who “brief him in” on how things work there. That said, this book struck me as rather more sloppy than the others I've read, fumbling not super-geeky minutiæ but items I'd expect any editor with a sharp red pencil to finger. Below are some examples; while none are major plot spoilers, I've put them in a spoiler block just in case, but also for readers who'd like to see if they can spot them for themselves when they read the novel, then come back here and compare notes.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
I'll cite these by chapter number, because I read the Kindle edition, which doesn't use conventional page numbers.

Chapter 53: “The sun was falling in the east, shooting golden streaks of light and shadows across the fields.” Even in CIA safe houses where weird drug-augmented interrogations are performed, the sun still sets in the west.

Chapter 63: “The presidential suite at the Hotel Baur Au Lac [sic] was secured for one night at a cost of 5,000 Swiss francs. … The suite consisted of three bedrooms, two separate living rooms, and a verandah that overlooked Lake Geneva.” Even the poshest of hotels in Zürich do not overlook Lake Geneva, seeing as it's on the other end of the country, more than 200 kilometres away! I presume he intended the Zürichsee. And you don't capitalise “au”.

Chapter 73: “Everyone on Mitch's team wore a transponder. Each agent's location was marked on the screen with a neon green dot and a number.” A neon dot would be red-orange, not green—how quickly people forget.

Chapter 78: “The 493 hp engine propelled the silver Mercedes down the Swiss autobahn at speeds sometimes approaching 150 mph. … The police were fine with fast driving, but not reckless.” There is no speed limit on German Autobahnen, but I can assure you that the Swiss police are anything but “fine” with people driving twice the speed limit of 120 km/h on their roads.

Spoilers end here.  
The conclusion is somewhat surprising. Whether we're beginning to see a flowering of compassion in Mitch Rapp or just a matter of professional courtesy is up to the reader to decide.

March 2010 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Act of Treason. New York: Pocket Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4165-4226-1.
This is the seventh novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. I packed this thriller as an “airplane book” on a recent trip. The novel was far more successful than the journey, which ended up as a 12 hour round trip from Switzerland to England and back when my onward flight was cancelled thanks to an unexpected belch from volcano Whatchamacallit. By the time I got home, I was already more than 350 pages into the 467 page paperback, and I finished it over the next two days. Like all Vince Flynn books, this is a page turner, although this time there's less action and more puzzling out of shadowy connections.

The book begins with a terrorist attack on the motorcade of a presidential candidate who, then trailing in the polls, is swept into office on a sympathy vote. Now, just before the inauguration of the new administration, Rapp captures the perpetrator of the attack and, as he and CIA director Irene Kennedy start to follow the trail of those who ordered the strike, begin to suspect what may be a plot that will shake the U.S. to its foundations and undermine the legitimacy of its government. Under a tight deadline as inauguration day approaches, Rapp and Kennedy have to find out the facts and take direct action to avert calamity.

Characters from earlier books in the series appear here, and references to events which occurred earlier in the timeline are made, but this book works perfectly fine as a stand-alone novel—you can pick up the Mitch Rapp saga here and miss little or nothing (although there will, inevitably, be spoilers for events in the earlier books).

May 2010 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Protect and Defend. New York: Pocket Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4165-0503-7.
This is the eighth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. I usually wait a month or two between reading installments in this thriller saga, but since I'd devoured the previous volume, Act of Treason, earlier this month on an airline trip which went seriously awry, I decided to bend the rules and read its successor on the second attempt to make the same trip. This time both the journey and the novel were entirely successful.

The story begins with Mitch Rapp cleaning up some unfinished business from Act of Treason, then transitions into an a thriller whose premises may play out in the headlines in the near future. When Iran's covert nuclear weapons facility is destroyed under mysterious circumstances, all of the players in the game, both in Iran and around the world, try to figure out what happened, who was responsible, and how they can turn events to their own advantage. Fanatic factions within the Iranian power structure see an opportunity to launch a proxy terror offensive against Israel and the United States, while those aware of the vulnerability of their country to retaliation for any attack upon those nations try to damp down the flames. The new U.S. president decides to use a back channel to approach the Iranian pragmatists with a deal to put an end to the decades-long standoff and reestablish formal relations between the nations, and dispatches the CIA director to a covert meeting with her peer, the chief of the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security. But word of the meeting makes its way to the radical factions in Iran, and things go horribly wrong. It is then up to Mitch Rapp and his small team, working against the clock, to puzzle out what happened, who is responsible, and how to respond.

If you haven't read the earlier Mitch Rapp novels, you'll miss some of the context, particularly in the events of the first few chapters, but this won't detract in any way from your enjoyment of the story. Personally, I'd read (and I'm reading) the novels in order, but they are sufficiently stand-alone (particularly after the first few) that there's no problem getting into the series at any point. Vince Flynn's novels are always about the action and the characters, not preachy policy polemics. Nonetheless, one gets a sense that the strategy presented here is how the author's brain trust would like to see a confident and unapologetic West address the Iranian conundrum.

May 2010 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Extreme Measures. New York: Pocket Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-4165-0504-4.
This is the ninth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series and is perhaps the most politically charged of the saga so far. When a high-ranking Taliban commander and liaison to al-Qaeda is captured in Afghanistan, CIA agent Mike Nash begins an interrogation with the aim of uncovering a sleeper cell planning terrorist attacks in the United States, but is constrained in his methods by a grandstanding senator who insists that the protections of the Geneva Convention be applied to this non-state murderer. Frustrated, Nash calls in Mitch Rapp for a covert and intense debrief of the prisoner, but things go horribly wrong and Rapp ends up in the lock-up of Bagram Air Base charged with violence not only against the prisoner but also a U.S. Air Force colonel (who is one of the great twits of all time—one wonders even with a service academy ring how such a jackass could attain that rank).

Rapp finds himself summoned before the Senate Judiciary Committee to answer the charges and endure the venting of pompous gasbags which constitutes the bulk of such proceedings. This time, however, Rapp isn't having any. He challenges the senators directly, starkly forcing them to choose between legalistic niceties and defeating rogue killers who do not play by the rules. Meanwhile, the sleeper cell is activated and puts into motion its plot to wreak terror on the political class in Washington. Deprived of information from the Taliban captive, the attack takes place, forcing politicians to realise that verbal virtuosity and grandstanding in front of cameras is no way to fight a war. Or, at least, for a moment until they forget once again, and as long as it is they who are personally threatened, not their constituents.

As Mitch Rapp becomes a senior figure and something of a Washington celebrity, Mike Nash is emerging as the conflicted CIA cowboy that Rapp was in the early books of the series. I suspect we'll see more and more of Nash in the future as Rapp recedes into the background.

July 2010 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Pursuit of Honor. New York: Pocket Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-9517-5.
This is the tenth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) saga, and the conclusion of the story which began in the previous volume, Extreme Measures (July 2010). In that book, a group of terrorists staged an attack in Washington D.C., with the ringleaders managing to disappear in the aftermath. In the present novel, it's time for payback, and Mitch Rapp and his team goes on the trail not only of the terrorists but also their enablers within the U.S. government.

The author says that you should be able to pick up and enjoy any of his novels without any previous context, but in my estimation you'll miss a great deal if you begin here without having read Extreme Measures. While an attempt is made (rather clumsily, it seemed to me) to brief the reader in on the events of the previous novel, those who start here will miss much of the character development of the terrorists Karim and Hakim, and the tension between Mitch Rapp and Mike Nash, whose curious parallels underlie the plot.

This is more a story of character development and conflict between personalities and visions than action, although it's far from devoid of the latter. There is some edgy political content in which I believe the author shows his contempt for certain factions and figures on the Washington scene, including “Senator ma'am”. The conclusion is satisfying although deliberately ambiguous in some regards. I appear to have been wrong in my review of Extreme Measures about where the author was taking Mike Nash, but then you never know.

This book may, in terms of the timeline, be the end of the Mitch Rapp series. Vince Flynn's forthcoming novel, American Assassin, is a “prequel”, chronicling Rapp's recruitment into the CIA, training, and deployment on his first missions. Still, it's difficult in the extreme to cork a loose cannon, so I suspect in the coming years we'll see further exploits by Mitch Rapp on the contemporary scene.

October 2010 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. American Assassin. New York: Atria Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-9518-2.
This is the eleventh novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. While the first ten books chronicled events in sequence, the present volume returns to Rapp's origins as an independent assassin for, but not of (officially, at least) the CIA. Here, we revisit the tragic events which predisposed him to take up his singular career, his recruitment by rising anti-terrorist “active measures” advocate Irene Kennedy, and his first encounters with covert operations mastermind Thomas Stansfield.

A central part of the story is Rapp's training at the hands of the eccentric, misanthropic, paranoid, crusty, profane, and deadly in the extreme Stan Hurley, to whom Rapp has to prove, in the most direct of ways, that he isn't a soft college boy recruited to do the hardest of jobs. While Hurley is an incidental character in the novels covering subsequent events, he is centre stage here, and Mitch Rapp fans will delight in getting to know him in depth, even if they might not be inclined to spend much time with the actual man if they encountered him in real life.

Following his training, Rapp deploys on his first mission and immediately demonstrates his inclination to be a loose cannon, taking advantage of opportunities as they present themselves and throwing carefully scripted and practiced plans out the window at the spur of the moment. This brings him into open conflict with Hurley, but elicits a growing admiration from Stansfield, who begins to perceive that he may have finally found a “natural”.

An ambitious mission led by Hurley to deny terrorists their financial lifeblood and bring their leaders out into the open goes horribly wrong in Beirut when Hurley and another operative are kidnapped in broad daylight and subjected to torture in one of the most harrowing scenes in all the literature of the thriller. Hurley, although getting on in years for a field operative, proves “tougher than nails” (you'll understand after you read the book) and a master at getting inside the heads of his abductors and messing with them, but ultimately it's up to Rapp, acting largely alone, adopting a persona utterly unlike his own, and risking everything on the hope of an opportunity, to come to the rescue.

I wasn't sure how well a Rapp novel set in the context of historical events (Beirut in the early 1990s) would work, but in this case Flynn pulls it off magnificently. If you want to read the Rapp novels in story line sequence, this is the place to start.

December 2010 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. Kill Shot. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4165-9520-5.
This is the twelfth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series, but chronologically is second in the saga, picking up a year after the events of American Assassin (December 2010). Mitch Rapp has hit his stride as the CIA's weapon of choice against the terror masters, operating alone with only the knowledge of a few people, dispatching his targets with head shots when they least expect it and, in doing so, beginning to sow terror among the terrorists.

Rapp is in Paris to take out the visiting Libyan oil minister, who has been a conduit for funding terrorist attacks, including the Pan Am Flight 103 bombing which killed Rapp's college sweetheart and set him on the trajectory toward his current career—this time it's personal. The hit goes horribly wrong, leaving a trail of bodies and hundreds of cartridge casings in a posh hotel, with the potential of a disastrous public relations blowback for the CIA, and Rapp's superiors looking at prospects ranging from congressional hearings at best to time in Club Fed. Based on how things went down, Rapp becomes persuaded that he was set up and does not know who he can trust and lies low, while his bosses fear the worst: that their assassin has gone rogue.

The profane and ruthless Stan Hurley, who trained Rapp and whose opinion of the “college boy” has matured from dislike to detestation and distrust, is dispatched to Paris to find out what happened, locate Rapp, and if necessary put an end to his career in the manner to which Hurley and his goons are accustomed.

This is a satisfying thriller with plenty of twists and turns, interesting and often complicated characters, and a thoroughly satisfying conclusion. We see, especially in the interrogation of “Victor”, how far Rapp has come from his first days with Hurley, and that the tension between the two may have at its roots the fact that they are becoming more and more alike, a prospect Rapp finds repellent. Unlike American Assassin, which is firmly anchored in the chaos of early 1990s Beirut, apart from a few details (such as mobile telephones being novel and uncommon), the present novel could be set at almost any time since 1990—historical events play no part in the story. It's best to read American Assassin first, as it provides the back story on the characters and will provide more insight into their motivations, but this book works perfectly well as a stand-alone thriller should you prefer to start here.

April 2012 Permalink

Flynn, Vince. The Last Man. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4165-9521-2.
This is the thirteenth novel in the Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) series. Unlike the two previous installments, American Assassin (December 2010) and Kill Shot (April 2012), this book is set in the present, as the U.S. is trying to extricate itself from the quagmire of Afghanistan and pay off locals to try to leave something in place after U.S. forces walk away from the debacle. Joe Rickman is the CIA's point man in Jalalabad, cutting deals with shady figures and running black operations. Without warning, the CIA safe house from which he operates is attacked, leaving its four guards dead. Rickman, the man who knows enough secrets from his long CIA career to endanger hundreds of agents and assets and roll up CIA networks and operations in dozens of countries, has vanished.

Mitch Rapp arrives on the scene to try to puzzle out what happened and locate Rickman before his abductors break him and he begins to spill the secrets. Rapp has little to go on, and encounters nothing but obstruction from the local police and staffers at the U.S. embassy in Kabul, all of whom Rapp treats with his accustomed tact:

“You're a bully and a piece of shit and you're the kind of guy who I actually enjoy killing. Normally, I don't put a lot of thought into the people I shoot, but you fall into a special category. I figure I'd be doing the human race a favor by ending your worthless life. Add to that the fact that I'm in a really bad mood. In fact I'm in such a shitty mood that putting a bullet in your head might be the only thing that could make me feel better.”

… “In the interest of fairness, though, I suppose I should give you a chance to convince me otherwise.” (p. 17)

Following a slim lead on Rickman, Rapp finds himself walking into a simultaneous ambush by both an adversary from his past and crooked Kabul cops. Rapp ends up injured and on the sidelines. Meanwhile, another CIA man in Afghanistan vanishes, and an ambitious FBI deputy director arrives on the scene with evidence of massive corruption in the CIA clandestine service. CIA director Irene Kennedy begins to believe that a coordinated operation must be trying to destroy her spook shop, one of such complexity that it is far beyond the capabilities of the Taliban, and turns her eyes toward “ally” Pakistan.

A shocking video is posted on jihadist Web site which makes getting to the bottom of the enigma an existential priority for the CIA. Rapp needs to get back into the game and start following the few leads that exist.

This is a well-crafted thriller that will keep you turning the pages. It is somewhat lighter on the action (although there is plenty) and leans more toward the genre of espionage fiction; I think Flynn has been evolving in that direction in the last several books. There are some delightful characters, good and evil. Although she only appears in a few chapters, you will remember four foot eleven inch Air Force Command Master Sergeant Shiela Sanchez long after you put down the novel.

There is a fundamental challenge in writing a novel about a CIA agent set in contemporary Afghanistan which the author struggles with here and never fully overcomes. The problem is that the CIA, following orders from its political bosses, is doing things that don't make any sense in places where the U.S. doesn't have any vital interests or reason to be present. Flynn has created a workable thriller around these constraints, but to this reader it just can't be as compelling as saving the country from the villains and threats portrayed in the earlier Mitch Rapp novels. Here, Rapp is doing his usual exploits, but in service of a mission which is pointless at best and in all likelihood counterproductive.

February 2013 Permalink

Forstchen, William R. One Second After. New York: Forge, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7653-1758-2.
Suppose, one fine spring day, with no warning or evident cause, the power went out. After a while, when it didn't come back on, you might try to telephone the power company, only to discover the phone completely dead. You pull out your mobile phone, and it too is kaput—nothing happens at all when you try to turn it on. You get the battery powered radio you keep in the basement in case of storms, and it too is dead; you swap in the batteries from the flashlight (which works) but that doesn't fix the radio. So, you decide to drive into town and see if anybody there knows what's going on. The car doesn't start. You set out on foot, only to discover when you get to the point along the lane where you can see the highway that it's full of immobile vehicles with their drivers wandering around on foot as in a daze.

What's happening—The Day the Earth Stood Still? Is there a saucer on the ground in Washington? Nobody knows: all forms of communication are down, all modes of transportation halted. You might think this yet another implausible scenario for a thriller, but what I've just described (in a form somewhat different than the novel) is pretty much what the sober-sided experts of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack sketch out in their April 2008 Critical National Infrastructures report and 2004 Executive Report as the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in space high above the continental United States. There would be no thermal, blast, or radiation effects on the ground (although somebody unlucky enough to be looking toward the location of the detonation the sky might suffer vision damage, particularly if it occurred at night), but a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created as prompt gamma rays from the nuclear detonation create free electrons in the upper atmosphere due to the Compton effect which spiral along the lines of force of Earth's magnetic field and emit an intense electric field pulse in three phases which reaches the ground and affects electrical and electronic equipment in a variety of ways, none good. As far as is known, the electromagnetic pulse is completely harmless to humans and other living organisms and would not even be perceived by them.

But it's Hell on electronics. The immediate (E1) pulse arrives at the speed of light everywhere within the line of sight of the detonation, and with a rise time of at most a few nanoseconds, gets into all kinds of electronics much faster than any form of transient protection can engage; this is what kills computer and communications gear and any other kind of electronics with exposed leads or antennas which the pulse can excite. The second phase (E2) pulse is much like the effects of a local lightning strike, and would not cause damage to equipment with proper lightning protection except that in many cases the protection mechanisms may have been damaged or disabled by the consequences of the E1 pulse (which has no counterpart in lightning, and hence lightning mitigation gear is not tested to withstand it). Finally, the E3 pulse arrives, lasting tens to hundreds of seconds, which behaves much like the fields created during a major solar/geomagnetic storm (although the EMP effect may be larger), inducing large currents in long distance electrical transmission lines and other extended conductive structures. The consequences of this kind of disruption are well documented from a number of incidents such as the 1989 geomagnetic storm which caused the collapse of the Quebec Hydro power distribution grid. But unlike a geomagnetic storm, the EMP E3 pulse can affect a much larger area, hit regions in latitudes rarely vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, and will have to be recovered from in an environment where electronics and communications are down due to the damage from the E1 and E2 pulses.

If you attribute much of the technological and economic progress of the last century and a half to the connection of the developed world by electrical, transportation, communication, and computational networks which intimately link all parts of the economy and interact with one another in complex and often non-obvious ways, you can think about the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon launched by a relatively crude missile (which need not be long range if fired, say, from a freighter outside the territorial waters of the target country) by imagining living in the 21st century, seeing the lights flicker and go out and hearing the air conditioner stop, and two minutes later you're living in 1860. None of this is fantasy—all of the EMP effects were documented in nuclear tests in the 1960s and hardening military gear against EMP has been an active area of research and development for decades: this book, which sits on my own shelf, was published 25 years ago. Little or no effort has been expended on hardening the civil infrastructure or commercial electronics against this threat.

This novel looks at what life might be like in the year following an EMP attack on the United States, seen through the microcosm of a medium sized college town in North Carolina where the protagonist is a history professor. Unlike many thrillers, the author superbly describes the sense of groping in the dark when communication is cut and rumours begin to fly, the realisation that with the transportation infrastructure down the ready food supply is measured in days (especially after the losses due to failure of refrigeration), and the consequences to those whose health depends upon medications produced at great distance and delivered on a just in time basis. It is far from a pretty picture, but given the premises of the story (about which I shall natter a bit below), entirely plausible in my opinion. This story has the heroes and stolid get-things-done people who come to the fore in times of crisis, but it also shows how thin the veneer of civilisation is when the food starts to run out and the usual social constraints and sanctions begin to fail. There's no triumphant ending: what is described is a disaster and the ensuing tragedy, with survival for some the best which can be made of the situation. The message is that this, or something like it although perhaps not so extreme, could happen, and that the time to take the relatively modest and inexpensive (at least compared to recent foreign military campaigns) steps to render an EMP attack less probable and, should one occur, to mitigate its impact on critical life-sustaining infrastructure and prepare for recovery from what damage does occur, is now, not the second after the power goes out—all across the continent.

This is a compelling page-turner, which I devoured in just a few days. I do believe the author overstates the total impact of an EMP attack. The scenario here is that essentially everything which incorporates solid state electronics or is plugged into the power grid is fried at the instant of the attack, and that only vacuum tube gear, vehicles without electronic ignition or fuel injection, and other museum pieces remain functional. All airliners en route fall from the sky when their electronics are hit by the pulse. But the EMP Commission report is relatively sanguine about equipment not connected to the power grid which doesn't have vulnerable antennas. They discuss aircraft at some length, and conclude that since all commercial and military aircraft are currently tested and certified to withstand direct lightning strikes, and all but the latest fly-by-wire planes use mechanical and hydraulic control linkages, they are unlikely to be affected by EMP. They may lose communication, and the collapse of the air traffic control system will pose major problems and doubtless lead to some tragedies, but all planes aloft raining from the sky doesn't seem to be in the cards. Automobiles and trucks were tested by the commission (see pp. 115–116 of the Critical Infrastructures report), and no damage whatsoever occurred to vehicles not running when subjected to a simulated pulse; some which were running stopped, but all but a few immediately restarted and none required more than routine garage repairs. Having the highways open and trucks on the road makes a huge difference in a disaster recovery scenario. But let me qualify these quibbles by noting that nobody knows what will actually happen: with non-nuclear EMP and other electromagnetic weapons a focus of current research, doubtless much of the information on vulnerability of various systems remains under the seal of secrecy. And besides, in a cataclysmic situation, it's usually the things you didn't think of which cause the most dire problems.

One language note: the author seems to believe that the word “of” is equivalent to “have” when used in a phrase such as “You should've” or “I'd have”—instead, he writes “You should of” and “I'd of”. At first I thought this was a dialect affectation of a single character, but it's used all over the place, by characters of all kinds of regional and cultural backgrounds. Now, this usage is grudgingly sanctioned (or at least acknowledged) by the descriptive Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (p. 679, item 2), but it just drives me nuts; if you consider the definitions of the individual words, what can “should of” possibly mean?

This novel focuses on the human story of people caught entirely by surprise trying to survive in a situation beyond their imagining one second before. If reading this book makes you ponder what steps you might take beforehand to protect your family in such a circumstance, James Wesley Rawles's Patriots (December 2008), which is being issued in a new, expanded edition in April 2009, is an excellent resource, as is Rawles's SurvivalBlog.

A podcast interview with William R. Forstchen about One Second After is available.

March 2009 Permalink

Forsyth, Frederick. The Fourth Protocol. New York: Bantam Books, 1985. ISBN 0-553-25113-9.

August 2001 Permalink

Frank, Pat [Harry Hart Frank]. Alas, Babylon. New York: Harper Perennial, [1959] 2005. ISBN 978-0-06-074187-7.
This novel, originally published in 1959, was one the first realistic fictional depictions of an all-out nuclear war and its aftermath. While there are some well-crafted thriller scenes about the origins and catastrophic events of a one day spasm war between the Soviet Union and the United States (the precise origins of which are not described in detail; the reader is led to conclude that it was an accident waiting to happen, much like the outbreak of World War I), the story is mostly set in Fort Repose, a small community on a river in the middle of Florida, in an epoch when Florida was still, despite some arrivals from the frozen north, very much part of the deep south.

Randy Bragg lives in the house built by his ancestors on River Road, with neighbours including long-time Floridians and recent arrivals. some of which were scandalised to discover one of their neighbours, the Henry family, were descended from slaves to whom Randy's grandfather had sold their land long before the first great Florida boom, when land was valued only by the citrus it could grow. Randy, nominally a lawyer, mostly lived on proceeds from his orchards, a trust established by his father, and occasional legal work, and was single, largely idle, and seemingly without direction. Then came The Day.

From the first detonations of Soviet bombs above cities and military bases around Fort Repose, the news from outside dwindled to brief bulletins from Civil Defense and what one of Randy's neighbours could glean from a short wave radio. As electrical power failed and batteries were exhausted, little was known of the fate of the nation and the world. At least, after The Day, there were no more visible nuclear detonations.

Suddenly Fort Repose found itself effectively in the 19th century. Gasoline supplies were limited to what people had in the tanks of their cars, and had to be husbanded for only the most essential purposes. Knowledge of how to hunt, trap, fish, and raise crops, chickens, and pigs became much more important than the fancy specialties of retirees in the area. Fortunately, by the luck of geography and weather, Fort Repose was spared serious fallout from the attack, and the very fact that the large cities surrounding it were directly targeted (and that it was not on a main highway) meant it would be spared invasion by the “golden horde” of starving urban and suburban refugees which figure in many post-apocalyptic stories. Still, cut off from the outside, “what you have is all you've got”, and people must face the reality that medical supplies, their only doctor, food the orchards cannot supply, and even commodities as fundamental as salt are limited. But people, especially rural people in the middle of the 20th century, are resourceful, and before long a barter market springs up in which honey, coffee, and whiskey prove much more valuable than gold or silver.

Wherever there are things of value and those who covet them, predators of the two footed variety will be manifest. While there is no mass invasion, highwaymen and thieves appear to prey upon those trying to eke out a living for their families. Randy Bragg, now responsible for three families living under his own roof and neighbours provided by his artesian water well, is forced to grow into a protector of these people and the community, eventually defending them from those who would destroy everything they have managed to salvage from the calamity.

They learn that all of Florida has been designated as one of the Contaminated Zones, and hence that no aid can be anticipated from what remains of the U.S. government. Eventually a cargo plane flies over and drops leaflets informing residents that at some time in the future aid may be forthcoming, “It was proof that the government of the United States still functioned. It was also useful as toilet paper. Next day, ten leaflets would buy an egg, and fifty a chicken. It was paper, and it was money.”

This is a tale of the old, weird, stiff-spined, rural America which could ultimately ride out what Herman Kahn called the “destruction of the A country” and keep on going. We hear little of the fate of those in the North, where with The Day occurring near mid-winter, the outcome for those who escaped the immediate attack would have been much more calamitous. Ultimately it is the resourcefulness, fundamental goodness, and growth of these people under extreme adversity which makes this tale of catastrophe ultimately one of hope.

The Kindle edition appears to have been created by scanning a print edition and processing it through an optical character recognition program. The result of this seems to have been run through a spelling checker, but not subjected to detailed copy editing. As a result, there are numerous scanning errors, some obvious, some humorous, and some real head scratchers. This classic work, from a major publisher, deserves better.

June 2015 Permalink

Furland, Gerald K. Transfer. Chattanooga, TN: Intech Media, 1999. ISBN 0-9675322-0-5.
This novel is set in the U.S. during the implementation of technology similar to that described in my 1994 Unicard paper. This is one of those self-published, print-on-demand jobs: better than most. It reads like the first volume of a trilogy of which the balance has yet to appear. The cover price of US$19.95 is outrageous; Amazon sell it for US$9.99. What is the difficulty these authors have correctly employing the possessive case?

March 2003 Permalink

Gabb, Sean. The Churchill Memorandum. Raleigh, NC: Lulu.com, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4467-2257-2.
This thriller is set in Britain in the year 1959 in an alternative history where World War II never happened: Hitler died in a traffic accident while celebrating his conquest of Prague, and Göring and the rest of his clique, opting to continue to enrich themselves at the expense of the nation rather than risk it all on war, came to an accommodation with Britain and France where Germany would not interfere with their empires in return for Germany's being given a free hand in Eastern Europe up to the Soviet border. With British prosperity growing and dominance of the seas unchallenged, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor and the Philippines, Britain was able to arrange a negotiated settlement under which the Royal Navy would guarantee freedom of the seas, Hawaii, and the west coast of the U.S.

The U.S., after a series of domestic economic and political calamities, has become an authoritarian, puritanical dictatorship under Harry Anslinger and his minions, and expatriates from his tyranny enrich the intellectual and economic life of Europe.

By 1959, the world situation has evolved into a more or less stable balance of powers much like Europe in the late 19th century, with Britain, Germany, the Soviet Union, and Japan all engaged in conflicts around the margin, but in an equilibrium where any one becoming too strong will bring forth an alliance among the others to restore the balance. Britain and Germany have developed fission bombs, but other than a single underground test each, have never used them and rely upon them for deterrence against each other and the massive armies of the Soviets. The U.S. is the breadbasket and natural resource supplier of the world, but otherwise turned inward and absent from the international stage.

In this climate, Britain is experiencing an age of prosperity unprecedented in its history. Magnetically levitated trains criss-cross the island, airships provide travel in style around the globe, and a return to the gold standard has rung in sound money not only at home but abroad. Britain and Germany have recently concluded a treaty to jointly open the space frontier.

Historian Anthony Markham, author of a recently published biography of Churchill, is not only the most prominent Churchill scholar but just about the only one—who would want to spend their career studying a marginal figure whose war-mongering, had it come to fruition, would have devastated Britain and the Continent, killed millions, destroyed the Empire, and impoverished people around the world? While researching his second volume on Churchill, he encounters a document in Churchill's handwriting which, if revealed, threatens to destabilise the fragile balance of power and return the world to the dark days of the 1930s, putting at risk all the progress made since then. Markham finds himself in the middle of a bewilderingly complicated tapestry of plots and players, including German spies, factions in the Tory party, expatriate Ayn Rand supporters, the British Communist party, Scotland Yard, the Indian independence movement, and more, where nothing is as it appears on the surface. Many British historical figures appear here, with those responsible for the decline of Britain in our universe skewered (or worse) from a libertarian perspective. Chapter 31 is a delightful tour d'horizon of the pernicious ideas which reduced Britain from global hegemon to its sorry state today.

I found that this book works both as a thriller and dark commentary of how bad ideas can do more damage to a society and nation than any weapon or external enemy, cleverly told from the perspective of a world where they didn't prevail. Readers unfamiliar with British political figures and their disastrous policies in the postwar era may need to brush up a bit to get the most out of this novel. The Abolition of Britain (November 2005) is an excellent place to start.

As alternative history, I found this less satisfying. Most works in the genre adhere to the rule that one changes a single historical event and then traces how the consequences of that change propagate and cascade through time. Had the only change been Hitler's dying in a car crash, this novel would conform to the rule, but that isn't what we have here. Although some subsequent events are consequences of Hitler's death, a number of other changes to history which (at least to this reader) don't follow in any way from it make major contributions to the plot. Now, a novelist is perfectly free to choose any premises he wishes—there are no black helicopters filled with agents of Anslinger's Bureau of Genre Enforcement poised to raid those who depart from the convention—but as a reader I found that having so many counterfactual antecedents made for an alternative world which was somewhat confusing until one eventually encountered the explanation for the discordant changes.

A well-produced Kindle edition is available.

May 2011 Permalink

Galt, John [pseud.]. The Day the Dollar Died. Florida: Self-published, 2011.
I have often remarked in this venue how fragile the infrastructure of the developed world is, and how what might seem to be a small disruption could cascade into a black swan event which could potentially result in the end of the world as we know it. It is not only physical events such as EMP attacks, cyber attacks on critical infrastructure, or natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes which can set off the downspiral, but also loss of confidence in the financial system in which all of the myriad transactions which make up the global division of labour on which our contemporary society depends. In a fiat money system, where currency has no intrinsic value and is accepted only on the confidence that it will be subsequently redeemable for other goods without massive depreciation, loss of that confidence can bring the system down almost overnight, and this has happened again and again in the sorry millennia-long history of paper money. As economist Herbert Stein observed, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop”. But, when pondering the many “unsustainable” trends we see all around us today, it's important to bear in mind that they can often go on for much longer, diverging more into the world of weird than you ever imagined before stopping, and that when they finally do stop the débâcle can be more sudden and breathtaking in its consequences than even excitable forecasters conceived.

In this gripping thriller, the author envisions the sudden loss in confidence of the purchasing power of the U.S. dollar and the ability of the U.S. government to make good on its obligations catalysing a meltdown of the international financial system and triggering dire consequences within the United States as an administration which believes “you never want a serious crisis to go to waste” exploits the calamity to begin “fundamentally transforming the United States of America”. The story is told in a curious way: by one first-person narrator and from the viewpoint of other people around the country recounted in third-person omniscient style. This is unusual, but I didn't find it jarring, and the story works.

The recounting of the aftermath of sudden economic collapse is compelling, and will probably make you rethink your own preparations for such a dire (yet, I believe, increasingly probable) event. The whole post-collapse scenario is a little too black helicopter for my taste: we're asked to simultaneously believe that a government which has bungled its way into an apocalyptic collapse of the international economic system (entirely plausible in my view) will be ruthlessly efficient in imposing its new order (nonsense—it will be as mindlessly incompetent as in everything else it attempts). But the picture painted of how citizens can be intimidated or co-opted into becoming collaborators rings true, and will give you pause as you think about your friends and neighbours as potential snitches working for the Man. I found it particularly delightful that the author envisions a concept similar to my 1994 dystopian piece, Unicard, as playing a part in the story.

At present, this book is available only in PDF format. I read it with Stanza on my iPad, which provides a reading experience equivalent to the Kindle and iBooks applications. The author says other electronic editions of this book will be forthcoming in the near future; when they're released they should be linked to the page cited above. The PDF edition is perfectly readable, however, so if this book interests you, there's no reason to wait. And, hey, it's free! As a self-published work, it's not surprising there are a number of typographical errors, although very few factual errors I noticed. That said, I've read novels published by major houses with substantially more copy editing goofs, and the errors here never confuse the reader nor get in the way of the narrative. For the author's other writings and audio podcasts, visit his Web site.

August 2011 Permalink

Grace, Tom. The Liberty Intrigue. Unknown: Dunlap Goddard, 2012. ISBN 978-0-965-60401-7.
This novel is a kind of parallel-universe account of the 2012 presidential election in the United States. Rather than the actual contest, featuring a GOP challenger who inspires the kind of enthusiasm as week-old left-over boiled broccoli, here an outsider, a Yooper engineer, Ross Egan, who has spent his adult life outside the U.S. and shared the Nobel Peace Prize for ending a bloody conflict in an African nation and helping to bring about an economic renaissance for its people, returns to the land of his birth and is persuaded to seek the presidency in a grass-roots, no-party bid.

Intrigue swirls around the contest from all sides. The incumbent and his foreign-born billionaire speculator backer launch an “operation chaos” intervention in open primary states intended to ensure no Republican arrives at the convention with a majority; a shadowy Internet group calling itself “WHO IS I” (based upon the grammar, I'd start with looking at those who frequent the Slashdot site) makes its presence known by a series of highly visible hack attacks and then sets itself up as an independent real-time fact-checker of the pronouncements of politicians. Opposition research turns up discrepancies in the origin of Egan's vast fortune, and a potentially devastating secret which can be sprung upon him in the last days of the campaign.

This just didn't work for me. The novel attempts to be a thriller but never actually manages to be thrilling. There are unexplained holes in the plot (Egan's energy invention is even more airy in its description than John Galt's motor) and characters often seem to act in ways that just aren't consistent with what we know of them and the circumstances in which they find themselves. Finally, the novel ends with the election, when the really interesting part would be what happens in its aftermath. All in all, if you're looking for a U.S. presidential election thriller and don't mind it being somewhat dated, I'd recommend Aaron Zelman and L. Neil Smith's Hope (March 2002) instead of this book.

I use “Unknown” as the publisher's domicile in the citation above because neither the book nor the contact page on the publisher's Web site provides this information. A WHOIS query on their domain name indicates it is hidden behind a front named “Domain Discreet Privacy Service” of Jacksonville, Florida. Way to go with the transparency and standing up in public for what you believe, guys!

July 2012 Permalink

Grisham, John. The Confession. New York: Doubleday, 2010. ISBN 978-0-385-52804-7.
Just days before the scheduled execution of Donté Drumm, a black former high school football star who confessed (during a highly dubious and protracted interrogation) to the murder of white cheerleader Nicole Yarber, a serial sex offender named Travis Boyette, recently released to a nearby halfway house, shows up in the office of Lutheran pastor Keith Schroeder and, claiming to be dying of an inoperable brain tumour, confesses to the murder and volunteers to go to Texas to take responsibility for the crime, reveal where he buried the victim's body (which was never found), and avert the execution of Donté. Schroeder is placed in a near-impossible dilemma: he has little trust in the word of Boyette, whose erratic behaviour is evident from the outset, and even less desire to commit a crime assisting Boyette in violating his parole by leaving the state to travel to Texas, but he knows that if what Boyette says is true and he fails to act, an innocent man is certain to be killed by the state.

Schroeder decides to do what he can to bring Boyette's confession to the attention of the authorities in Texas, and comes into direct contact with the ruthless efficiency of the Texas killing machine. This is a story with many twists, turns, surprises, and revelations, and there's little I can say about it without spoiling the plot, so I'll leave it at that. Grisham is clearly a passionate opponent of the death penalty, and this is as much an advocacy document as a thriller. The victim's family is portrayed in an almost cartoon-like fashion, exploiting an all-too-willing media with tears and anguish on demand, and the police, prosecutors, court system, and politicians as uniformly venal villains, while those on the other side are flawed, but on the side of right. Now, certainly, there are without doubt people just as bad and as good on the sides of the issue where Grisham places them, but I suspect that most people in those positions in the real world are conflicted and trying to do their best to obtain justice for all concerned.

Taken purely as a thriller, this novel works, but in my opinion it doesn't come up to the standard set by Grisham's early work. The arcana of the law and the legal system, which Grisham excels in working into his plots, barely figure here, with racial tensions, a media circus, and a Texas town divided into two camps taking centre stage.

A mass market paperback edition will be released in July, 2011. A Kindle edition is available, and substantially less expensive than the hardcover.

January 2011 Permalink

Grisham, John. The Litigators. New York: Bantam Books, [2011] 2012. ISBN 978-0-345-53688-4.
Every now and then you come across a novel where it's obvious, from the first few pages, that the author had an absolute blast telling the story, and when that's the case, the reader is generally in for a treat. This is certainly the case here.

David Zinc appeared to have it all. A Harvard Law graduate, senior associate at Chicago mega-firm Rogan Rothberg working in international bond finance, earning US$300,000 a year, with a good shot of making partner (where the real gravy train pulls into the station); he had the house, the car, and a beautiful wife pursuing her Ph.D. in art history. And then one grim Chicago morning, heading to the office for another exhausting day doing work he detested with colleagues he loathed, enriching partners he considered odious (and knowing that, if he eventually joined their ranks, the process of getting there would have made him just the same), he snapped. Suddenly, as the elevator ascended, he realised as clearly as anything he'd ever known in his life, “I cannot do this any more”.

And so, he just walked away, found a nearby bar that was open before eight in the morning, and decided to have breakfast. A Bloody Mary would do just fine, thanks, and then another and another. After an all day bender, blowing off a client meeting and infuriating his boss, texting his worried wife that all was well despite the frantic calls to her from the office asking where he was, he hails a taxi not sure where he wants to go, then, spotting an advertisement on the side of a bus, tells the driver to take him to the law offices of Finley & Figg, Attorneys.

This firm was somewhat different than the one he'd walked out of earlier that day. Oscar Finley and Wally Figg described their partnership as a “boutique firm”, but their stock in trade was quicky no-fault divorces, wills, drunk driving, and that mainstay of ground floor lawyering, personal accident cases. The firm's modest office was located near a busy intersection which provided an ongoing source of business, and the office was home to a dog named AC (for Ambulance Chaser), whose keen ears could pick up the sound of a siren even before a lawyer could hear it.

Staggering into the office, David offers his services as a new associate and, by soused bravado more than Harvard Law credentials, persuades the partners that the kid has potential, whereupon they sign him up. David quickly discovers an entire world of lawyering they don't teach at Harvard: where lawyers carry handguns in their briefcases along with legal pads, and with good reason; where making the rounds of prospective clients involves visiting emergency rooms and funeral homes, and where dissatisfied clients express their frustration in ways that go well beyond drafting a stern memorandum.

Soon, the firm stumbles onto what may be a once in a lifetime bonanza: a cholesterol drug called Krayoxx (no relation to Vioxx—none at all) which seems to cause those who take it to drop dead with heart attacks and strokes. This vaults the three-lawyer firm into the high-rolling world of mass tort litigation, with players with their own private jets and golf courses. Finley & Figg ends up at the pointy end of the spear in the litigation, which doesn't precisely go as they had hoped.

I'd like to quote one of the funniest paragraphs I've read in some time, but as there are minor spoilers in it, I'll put it behind the curtain. This is the kind of writing you'll be treated to in this novel.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
While Wally doodled on a legal pad as if he were heavily medicated, Oscar did most of the talking. “So, either we get rid of these cases and face financial ruin, or we march into federal court three weeks from Monday with a case that no lawyer in his right mind would try before a jury, a case with no liability, no experts, no decent facts, a client who's crazy half the time and stoned the other half, a client whose dead husband weighed 320 pounds and basically ate himself to death, a veritable platoon of highly paid and very skilled lawyers on the other side with an unlimited budget and experts from the finest hospitals in the country, a judge who strongly favors the other side, a judge who doesn't like us at all because he thinks we're inexperienced and incompetent, and, well, what else? What am I leaving out here, David?”

“We have no cash for litigation expenses,” David said, but only to complete the checklist.

Spoilers end here.  

This story is not just funny, but also a tale of how a lawyer, in diving off the big law rat race into the gnarly world of retail practice rediscovers his soul and that there are actually noble and worthy aspects of the law. The characters are complex and interact in believable ways, and the story unfolds as such matters might well do in the real world. There is quite a bit in common between this novel and The King of Torts (March 2004), but while that is a tragedy of hubris and nemesis, this is a tale of redemption.

July 2012 Permalink

Grisham, John. The Racketeer. New York: Doubleday, 2012. ISBN 978-0-345-53057-8.
Malcolm Bannister was living the life of a retail lawyer in a Virginia town, doing real estate transactions, wills, and the other routine work which occupies a three partner firm, paying the bills but never striking it rich. A law school classmate contacts him and lets him know there's a potentially large commission available for negotiating the purchase of a hunting lodge in rural Virginia for an anonymous client. Bannister doesn't like the smell of the transaction, especially after a number of odd twists and turns during the negotiation, but bills must be paid, and this fee will go a long way toward that goal. Without any warning, during a civic function, costumed goons arrest him and perp-walk him before previously-arranged state media. He, based upon his holding funds in escrow for a real estate transaction, is accused of “money laundering” and indicted as part of a RICO prosecution of a Washington influence peddler. Railroaded through the “justice system” by an ambitious federal prosecutor and sentenced by a vindictive judge, he finds himself imprisoned for ten years at a “Club Fed” facility along with other nonviolent “criminals”.

Five years into his sentence, he has become the librarian and “jailhouse lawyer” of the prison, filing motions on behalf of his fellow inmates and, on occasion, seeing injustices in their convictions reversed. He has lost everything else: his wife has divorced him and remarried, and his law licence has been revoked; he has little hope of resuming his career after release.

A jailhouse lawyer hears many things from his “clients”: some boastful, others bogus, but some revealing secrets which those holding them think might help to get them out. When a federal judge is murdered, Bannister knows, from his contacts in prison, precisely who committed the crime and leverages his position to obtain his own release, disappearance into witness protection, and immunity from prosecution for earlier acts. The FBI, under pressure to solve the case and with no other leads, is persuaded by what Bannister has to offer and takes him up on the deal.

A jailhouse lawyer, wrongly convicted on a bogus charge by a despotic regime has a great deal of time to ponder how he has been wronged, identify those responsible, and slowly and surely draw his plans against them.

This is one of the best revenge novels I've read, and it's particularly appropriate since it takes down the tyrannical regime which incarcerates a larger percentage of its population than any serious country and shows how a clever individual can always outwit the bumbling collectivist leviathan as long as he refuses to engage it on level terrain but always exploits agility against the saurian brain reaction time of the state.

The only goof I noticed is that on a flight from Puerto Rico to Atlanta, passengers are required to go through passport control. As this is a domestic flight from a U.S. territory to the U.S. mainland, no passport check should be required (although in the age of Heimatsicherheitsdienst, one never knows).

I wouldn't call this a libertarian novel, as the author accepts the coercive structure of the state as a given, but it's a delightful tale of somebody who has been wronged by that foul criminal enterprise obtaining pay-back by wit and guile.

November 2013 Permalink

Guiteras, Daniel. Launch On Need. Unknown: T-Cell Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-615-37221-1.
An almost universal convention of the alternative history genre is that there is a single point of departure (which I call “the veer”) where an event or fact in the narrative differs from that in the historical record, whence the rest of the story plays out with the same logic and plausibility as what actually happened in our timeline. When this is done well, it makes for engaging and thought-provoking fiction, as there are few things which so engage the cognitive veneer of our ancient brains as asking “what if?” This book is a superb exemplar of this genre, which works both as a thriller and an exploration of how the Space Shuttle program might have coped with the damage to orbiter Columbia due to foam shed from the bipod ramp of the external tank during its launch on STS-107.

Here, the veer is imagining NASA remained the kind of “can do”, “whatever it takes” organisation that it was in the early days of space flight through the rescue of Apollo 13 instead of the sclerotic bureaucracy it had become in the Shuttle era (and remains today). Dismissing evidence of damage to Columbia's thermal protection system (TPS) due to a foam strike, and not even seeking imagery from spy satellites, NASA's passive “managers” sighed and said “nothing could be done anyway” and allowed the crew to complete their mission and die during re-entry.

This needn't have happened. The Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) explored whether a rescue mission (PDF, scroll down to page 173), mounted as soon as possible after the possible damage to Columbia's TPS was detected, might have been able to rescue the crew before the expendables aboard Columbia were exhausted. Their conclusion? A rescue mission was possible, but only at the cost of cutting corners on safety margins and assuming nothing went wrong in the process of bringing the rescue shuttle, Atlantis, to the pad and launching her.

In this novel, the author takes great care to respect the dead, only referring to members of Columbia's crew by their crew positions such as “commander” or “mission specialist”, and invents names for those in NASA involved in the management of the actual mission. He draws upon the CAIB-envisioned rescue mission, including tables and graphics from their report, while humanising their dry prose with views of events as they unfold by fallible humans living them.

You knew this was coming, didn't you? You were waiting for it—confess! So here we go, into the quibbles. Some of these are substantial spoilers, so be warned.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Page numbers in the items below are from the Kindle edition, in which page numbers and their correspondence to print editions tend to be somewhat fluid. Consequently, depending upon how you arrive there, the page number in your edition may differ by ±1 page.

On p. 2, Brown “knew E208 was a high-resolution video camera…” which “By T-plus-240 seconds … had run through 1,000 feet of film.”
Video cameras do not use film. The confusion between video and film persists for several subsequent chapters.
On p. 5 the fifth Space Shuttle orbiter constructed is referred to as “Endeavor”.
In fact, this ship's name is properly spelled “Endeavour”, named after the Royal Navy research ship.
On p. 28 “…the crew members spent an additional 3,500 hundred hours studying and training…”
That's forty years—I think not.
On p. 55 Kalpana Chawla is described as a “female Indian astronaut.”
While Chawla was born in India, she became a U.S. citizen in 1990 and presumably relinquished her Indian citizenship in the process of naturalisation.
On p. 57 “Both [STS-107] astronauts selected for this EVA have previous spacewalk experience…”.
In fact, none of the STS-107 astronauts had ever performed an EVA.
On p. 65 “Normally, when spacewalks were part of the mission plan, the entire cabin of the orbiter was decompressed at least 24 hours prior to the start of the spacewalk.”
Are you crazy! EVA crewmembers pre-breathe pure oxygen in the cabin, then adapt to the low pressure of the spacesuit in the airlock, but the Shuttle cabin is never depressurised. If it were what would the other crewmembers breathe—Fireball XL5 oxygen pills?
On p. 75 the EVA astronaut looks out from Columbia's airlock and sees Cape Horn.
But the mission has been launched into an inclination of 39 degrees, so Cape Horn (55°59' S) should be out of sight to the South. Here is the view from Columbia's altitude on a pass over South America at the latitude of Cape Horn.
On p. 221 the countdown clock is said to have been “stuck on nine minutes zero seconds for the past three hours and twenty-seven minutes.”
The T−9 minute hold is never remotely that long. It's usually on the order of 10 to 20 minutes. If there were a reason for such a long hold, it would have been performed much earlier in the count. In any case, given the short launch window for the rendezvous, there'd be no reason for a long planned hold, and an unplanned hold would have resulted in a scrub of the mission until the next alignment with the plane of Columbia's orbit.
On p. 271 the crew of Atlantis open the payload bay doors shortly before the rendezvous with Columbia.
This makes no sense. Shuttles have to open their payload bay doors shortly after achieving orbit so that the radiators can discard heat. Atlantis would have opened its payload bay doors on the first orbit, not 24 hours later whilst approaching Columbia.
On p. 299 the consequences of blowing the crew ingress/egress hatch with the pyrotechnics is discussed.
There is no reason to consider doing this. From the inception of the shuttle program, the orbiter hatch has been able to be opened from the inside. The crew need only depressurise the orbiter and then operate the hatch opening mechanism.
On p. 332 “Standing by for communications blackout.”
The communications blackout is a staple of spaceflight drama but, in the shuttle era described in this novel, a thing of the past. While communications from the ground are blocked by plasma during reentry, communications from the shuttle routed through the TDRSS satellites are available throughout reentry except for brief periods when the orbiter's antennas are not aimed at the relay satellite overhead.
On p. 349 an Aegis guided missile cruiser shoots down the abandoned Columbia.
Where do I start? A space shuttle orbiter weighs about 100 tonnes. An SM-3 has a kinetic kill energy of around 130 megajoules, which is impressive, but is likely to pass through the structure of the shuttle, dispersing some debris, but leaving most of the mass behind. But let's suppose Columbia were dispersed into her component parts. Well, then the massive parts, such as the three main engines, would remain in orbit even longer, freed of the high-drag encumbrance of the rest of the structure, and come down hot and hard at random places around the globe. Probably, they'd splash in the ocean, but maybe they wouldn't—we'll never know.
Spoilers end here.  

While it's fun to spot and research goofs like these, I found they did not detract in any way from enjoyment of the novel, which is a perfectly plausible alternative history of Columbia's last mission.

February 2012 Permalink

Harris, Robert. Fatherland. New York: Harper, [1992] 1995. ISBN 0-061-00662-9.

June 2002 Permalink

Harris, Robert. Archangel. London: Arrow Books, 1999. ISBN 0-09-928241-0.
A U.S. edition is also in print.

February 2003 Permalink

Hickam, Homer H., Jr. Back to the Moon. New York: Island Books, 1999. ISBN 978-0-440-23538-5.
Jerry Pournelle advises aspiring novelists to plan to throw away their first million words before mastering the craft and beginning to sell. (Not that writing a million words to the best of your ability and failing to sell them guarantees success, to be sure. It's just that most novelists who eventually become successful have a million words of unsold manuscripts in the trunk in the attic by the time they break into print and become well known.) When lightning strikes and an author comes from nowhere to bestseller celebrity overnight, there is a strong temptation, not only for the author but also for the publisher, to dig out those unsold manuscripts, perhaps polish them up a bit, and rush them to market to capitalise upon the author's newfound name recognition. Pournelle writes, “My standard advice to beginning writers is that if you do hit it big, the biggest favor you can do your readers is to burn your trunk; but in fact most writers don't, and some have made quite a bit of money off selling what couldn't be sold before they got famous.”

Here, I believe, we have an example of what happens when an author does not follow that sage advice. Homer Hickam's Rocket Boys (July 2005), a memoir of his childhood in West Virginia coal country at the dawn of the space age, burst onto the scene in 1998, rapidly climbed the New York Times bestseller list, and was made into the 1999 film October Sky. Unknown NASA engineer Hickam was suddenly a hot literary property, and pressure to “sell the trunk” was undoubtedly intense. Out of the trunk, onto the press, into the bookshops—and here we have it, still in print a decade later.

The author joined NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in 1981 as an aerospace engineer and worked on a variety of projects involving the Space Shuttle, including training astronauts for a number of demanding EVA missions. In the Author's Note, he observes that, while initially excited to work on the first reusable manned spacecraft, he, like many NASA engineers, eventually became frustrated with going in circles around the Earth and wished that NASA could once again send crews to explore as they had in the days of Apollo. He says, “I often found myself lurking in the techno-thriller or science fiction area of bookstores looking unsuccessfully for a novel about a realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon. I never found it. One day it occurred to me that if I wanted to read such a book, I would have to write it myself.”

Well, here it is. And if you're looking for a thriller about a “realistic spacecraft, maybe even the shuttle, going back to the moon”, sadly, you still haven't found it. Now, the odd thing is that this book is actually quite well written—not up to the standard of Rocket Boys, but hardly the work of a beginner. It is tightly plotted, the characters are interesting and develop as the story progresses, and the author deftly balances multiple plot lines with frequent “how are they going to get out of this?” cliffhangers, pulling it all together at the end. These are things you'd expect an engineer to have difficulty mastering as a novelist. You'd figure, however, that somebody with almost two decades of experience going to work every day at NASA and with daily contacts with Shuttle engineers and astronauts would get the technical details right, or at least make them plausible. Instead, what we have is a collection of laugh-out-loud howlers for any reader even vaguely acquainted with space flight. Not far into the book (say, fifty or sixty pages, or about a hundred “oh come on”s), I realised I was reading the literary equivalent of the Die Hard 2 movie, which the Wall Street Journal's reviewer dubbed “aviation for airheads”. The present work, “spaceflight for space cases”, is much the same: it works quite well as a thriller as long as you know absolutely nothing about the technical aspects of what's going on. It's filled with NASA jargon and acronyms (mostly used correctly) which lend it a feeling of authenticity much like Tom Clancy's early books. However, Clancy (for the most part), gets the details right: he doesn't, for example, have a submarine suddenly jump out of the water, fly at Mach 5 through the stratosphere, land on a grass runway in a remote valley in the Himalayas, then debark an assault team composed of amateurs who had never before fired a gun.

Shall we go behind the spoiler curtain and take a peek at a selection of the most egregious and side splitting howlers in this yarn?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • Apollo 17 landed in the Taurus-Littrow region, not “Frau [sic] Mauro”. Apollo 14 landed at Fra Mauro.
  • In the description of the launch control centre, it is stated that Houston will assume control “the moment Columbia lifted a millimeter off the Cape Canaveral pad”. In fact, Houston assumes control once the launch pad tower has been cleared.
  • During the description of the launch, the ingress team sees the crew access arm start to retract and exclaims “Automatic launch sequence! We've got to go!”. In fact, the ingress team leaves the pad before the T−9 minute hold, and the crew access arm retracts well before the automatic sequence starts at T−31 seconds.
  • There are cameras located all over the launch complex which feed into the launch control centre. Disabling the camera in the white room would still leave dozens of other cameras active which would pick up the hijinks underway at the pad.
  • NASA human spaceflight hardware is manufactured and prepared for flight under the scrutiny of an army of inspectors who verify every aspect of the production process. Just how could infiltrators manage to embed payload in the base of the shuttle's external tank in the manufacturing plant at Michoud, and how could this extra cargo not be detected anywhere downstream? If the cargo was of any substantial size, the tank would fail fit tests on the launch platform, and certainly some pad rat would have said “that's not right” just looking at it.
  • Severing the data cable between the launch pad and the firing room would certainly cause the onboard automatic sequencer to halt the countdown. Even though the sequencer controls the launch process, it remains sensitive to a cutoff signal from the control centre, and loss of communications would cause it to abort the launch sequence. Further, the fact that the shuttle hatch was not closed would have caused the auto-sequencer to stop due to a cabin pressure alarm. And the hatch through which one boards the shuttle is not an “airlock”.
  • The description of the entire terminal countdown and launch process suffers from the time dilation common in bad movie thrillers: where several minutes of furious activity occur as the bomb counts down the last ten seconds.
  • The intended crew of the shuttle remains trapped in the pad elevator when the shuttle lifts off. They are described as having temporary hearing loss due to the noise. In fact, their innards would have been emulsified by the acoustic energy of the solid rocket boosters, then cremated and their ashes scattered by the booster plume.
  • The shuttle is said to have entered a 550 mile orbit with the external tank (ET) still attached. This is impossible; the highest orbit ever achieved by the shuttle was around 385 miles on the Hubble deployment and service missions, and this was a maximum-performance effort. Not only could the shuttle not reach 550 miles on the main engines, the orbital maneuvering system (OMS) would not have the velocity change capability (delta-V) required to circularise the orbit at this altitude with the ET still attached. And by the way, who modified the shuttle computer ascent software to change the launch trajectory and bypass ET jettison, and who loaded the modified software into the general purpose computers, and why was the modified software not detected by the launch control centre's pre-launch validation of the software load?
  • If you're planning a burn to get on a trans-lunar injection trajectory, you want to do it in as low an Earth orbit as possible in order to get the maximum assist to the burn. An orbit as low as used by the later Apollo missions probably wouldn't work due to the drag of having the ET attached, but there's no reason you'd want to go as high as 550 miles; that's just wasting energy.
  • The “Big Dog” and “Little Dog” engines are supposed to have been launched on an Indian rocket, with the mission being camouflaged as a failed communication satellite launch. But, whatever the magical properties of Big Dog, a storable propellant rocket (which it must be, since it's been parked in orbit for months waiting for the shuttle to arrive) with sufficient delta-V to boost the entire shuttle onto a trans-lunar trajectory, enter lunar orbit, and then leave lunar orbit to return to Earth would require a massive amount of fuel, be physically very large, and hence require a heavy lift launcher which (in addition to the Indians not possessing one) would not be used for a communications satellite mission. The Saturn S-IV B stage which propelled Apollo to the Moon was 17.8 metres long, 6.6 metres in diameter, and massed 119,000 kg fully fueled, and it was boosting a stack less massive than a space shuttle, and used only for trans-lunar injection, not lunar orbit entry and exit, and it used higher performance hydrogen and oxygen fuel. Big Dog would not be a bolt-in replacement engine for the shuttle, but rather a massive rocket stage which could hardly be disguised as a communications satellite.
  • On the proposed “rescue” mission by Endeavour, commander Grant proposes dropping the space station node in the cargo bay in a “parking orbit”, whence the next shuttle mission could capture it and move it to the Space Station. But in order to rendezvous with Columbia, Endeavour would have to launch into its 28.7 degree inclination orbit, leaving the space station node there. The shuttle OMS does not remotely have the delta-V for a plane change to the 51 degree orbit of the station, so there is no way the node could be delivered to the station.
  • A first-time astronaut is a “rookie”, not “rooky”. A rook is a kind of crow or a chess piece.
  • Removing a space shuttle main engine (SSME) is a complicated and lengthy procedure on the ground, requiring special tools and workstands. It is completely impossible that this could be done in orbit, especially by two people with no EVA experience, working in a part of the shuttle where there are no handgrips or restraints for EVA work, and where the shuttle's arm (remote manipulator system) cannot reach. The same goes for attaching Big Dog as a replacement.
  • As Endeavour closes in, her commander worries that “[t]oo much RCS propellant had been used to sneak up on Columbia”. But it's the orbital maneuvering system (OMS), not the reaction control system (RCS) which is used in rendezvous orbit-change maneuvers.
  • It's “Chernobyl” (Чорнобиль), not “Chernoble”.
  • Why, on a mission where all the margins are stretched razor-thin, would you bring along a spare lunar lander when you couldn't possibly know you'd need it?
  • Olivia Grant flies from Moscow to Alma-Ata on a “TU-144 transport”. The TU-144 supersonic transport was retired from service in 1978 after only 55 scheduled passenger flights. Even if somebody put a TU-144 back into service, it certainly wouldn't take six hours for the flight.
  • Vice President Vanderheld says, “France, for one, has spent trillions on thermonuclear energy. Fusion energy would destroy that investment overnight.” But fusion is thermonuclear energy!
  • When the tethered landing craft is dropped on the Moon from the shuttle, its forward velocity will be 3,700 miles per hour, the same as the shuttle's. The only way for it to “hit the lunar surface at under a hundred miles per hour” would be for the shuttle to cancel its entire orbital velocity before dropping the lander and then, in order to avoid crashing into the lunar surface, do a second burn as it was falling to restore its orbital velocity. Imparting such a delta-V to the entire shuttle would require a massive burn, for which there would be no reason to have provided the fuel in the mission plan. Also, at the moment the shuttle started the burn to cancel its orbital velocity, the tether would string out behind the shuttle, not remain at its altitude above the Moon.
  • The Apollo 17 lunar module Challenger's descent stage is said to have made a quick landing and hence have “at least half its propellant left”. Nonsense—while Cernan and Schmitt didn't land on fumes like Apollo 11 (and, to a lesser extent, Apollo 14), no Apollo mission landed with the tanks anywhere near half-full. In any case, unless I'm mistaken, residual descent engine propellant was dumped shortly after landing; this was certainly done on Apollo 11 (you can hear the confirmation on my re-mix of the Apollo 11 landing as heard in the Eagle's cabin), and I've never heard if it not being done on later missions.
  • Jack connects an improvised plug to the “electronic port used to command the descent engine” on Challenger. But there were no such “ports”—connections between the ascent and descent stages were hard-wired in a bundle which was cut in two places by a pyrotechnic “guillotine” when the ascent stage separated. The connections to the descent engine would be a mass of chopped cables which would take a medusa of space Barney clips and unavailable information to connect to.
  • Even if there were fuel and oxidiser left in the tanks of the descent stage, the helium used to pressure-feed the propellants to the engine would have been long gone. And the hypergolic combustion wouldn't make a “plume of orange and scarlet” (look at the Apollo 17 liftoff video), and without a guidance system for the descent engine, there would be no chance of entering lunar orbit.
  • The tether is supposed to be used to generate electrical power after the last fuel cell fails. But this is done far from the Earth, where the gradient in the Earth's magnetic field across the length of the tether would be much too small to generate the required power.
  • Using the tether as an aerodynamic brake at reentry is absurd. The tether would have to dissipate the entire energy of a space shuttle decelerating from Mach 36 to Mach 25. Even if the tether did not immediately burn away (which it would), it would not have the drag to accomplish this in the time available before the shuttle hit the atmosphere (with the payload bay doors still open!). And the time between the tethered satellite entering the atmosphere and the shuttle hitting the stony blue would be a matter of seconds, far too little to close the payload bay doors.
  • “The space agency had gotten out of the operations business and moved into the forefront of research and development, handing over its scientific and engineering knowledge to American commercial space operators.” Now here we have an actually prophetic passage. Let's hope it comes to pass!
  • “[W]hen the sun goes down into the sea, just as it sinks out of sight, its rays flash up through the water. If you look fast, you'll see it—a green flash.” Well, no—actually the green flash is due to atmospheric refraction and has nothing to do with water.

Apart from these particulars (and they are just a selection from a much larger assortment in the novel), the entire story suffers from what I'll call the “Tom Swift, let's go!” fallacy of science fiction predating the golden age of the 1930s. The assumption throughout this book is that people can design fantastically complicated hardware which interfaces with existing systems, put it into service by people with no training on the actual hardware and no experience in the demanding environment in which it will be used, cope with unexpected reverses on the fly, always having the requisite resources to surmount the difficulties, and succeed in the end. Actually, I'm being unfair to Tom Swift in identifying such fiction with that character. The original Tom Swift novels always had him testing his inventions extensively before putting them into service, and modifying them based upon the test results. Not here: everything is not only good to go on the first shot, it is able to overcome disasters because the necessary hardware has always providentially been brought along.

Spoilers end here.  
If you've trudged through the spoiler block at my side, you may be exasperated and wondering why I'd spend so much time flensing such a bad novel. Well, it's because I'd hoped for so much and was sorely disappointed. Had the author not said the goal was to be “realistic”, I'd have put it down after the first fifty pages or so and, under the rules of engagement of this chronicle, you'd have never seen it here. Had it been presented as a “spaceflight fantasy”, I might have finished it and remarked about how well the story was told; hey, I give my highest recommendation to a story about a trip to the Moon launched from a 900 foot long cannon!

I'll confess: I've been wanting to write a back to the Moon novel myself for at least thirty years. My scenario was very different (and I hereby place it into the public domain for scribblers more talented and sedulous than I to exploit): a signal is detected originating from the Moon with a complex encoding originating at a site where no known probe has landed. The message is a number: "365", "364", 363",… decrementing every day. Now what it would it take to go there and find out what was sending it before the countdown reaches zero? The story was to be full of standing in line to file forms to get rocket stages and capsules out of museums, back channel discussions between Soviet and U.S. space officials, and eventual co-operation on a cobbled together mission which would end up discovering…but then you'd have to have read the story. (Yes, much of this has been done in movies, but they all postdate this treatment.)

Since I'll probably never write that story, I'd hoped this novel would fill the niche, and I'm disappointed it didn't. If you know nothing about spaceflight and don't care about the details, this is a well-crafted thriller, which accounts for its many five star reviews at Amazon. If you care about technical plausibility, you can take this as either one of those books to hurl into the fireplace to warm you up on a cold winter evening or else as a laugh riot to enjoy for what it is and pass on to others looking for a diversion from the uncompromising physics of the real world.

Successful novelists, burn the trunk!

April 2010 Permalink

Hunter, Stephen. Soft Target. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-3870-0.
This has to be among the worst nightmares of those few functionaries tasked with the “anti-terrorist” mission in the West who are not complacent seat-warmers counting the days until their retirement or figuring out how to advance their careers or gain additional power over the citizens whose taxes fund their generous salaries and benefits. On the Friday after Thanksgiving, a group of Somali militants infiltrate and stage a hostage-taking raid on “America, the Mall” in a suburb of Minneapolis (having nothing to do, of course, with another mega-mall in the vicinity). Implausibly, given the apparent provenance of the perpetrators, they manage to penetrate the mall's SCADA system and impose a full lock-down, preventing escape and diverting surveillance cameras for their own use.

This happens on the watch of Douglas Obobo, commandant of the Minnesota State Police, the son of a Kenyan graduate student and a U.S. anthropologist who, after graduating from Harvard Law School, had artfully played the affirmative action card and traded upon his glibness to hop from job to job, rising in the hierarchy without ever actually accomplishing anything. Obobo views this as a once in a lifetime opportunity to demonstrate how his brand of conciliation and leading from behind can defuse a high-profile confrontation, and thwarts efforts of those under his command to even prepare backup plans should negotiations with the hostage takers fail.

Meanwhile, the FBI tries to glean evidence of how the mall's security systems were bypassed and how the attackers were armed and infiltrated, and comes across clues which suggest a very different spin on the motivation of the attack—one which senior law enforcement personnel may have to seek the assistance of their grandchildren to explain. Marine veteran Ray Cruz finds himself the man on the inside, Die Hard style, and must rely upon his own resources to take down the perpetrator of the atrocities.

I have a few quibbles. These are minor, and constitute only marginal spoilers, but I'll put them behind the curtain to avoid peeving the easily irritated.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • On p. 97, FBI sniper Dave McElroy fires at Ray Cruz, who he takes to be one of the terrorists. Firing down from the roof into the mall, he fails to correct for the angle of the shot (which requires one to hold low compared to a horizontal shot, since the distance over which the acceleration of gravity acts is reduced as the cosine of the angle of the shot). I find it very difficult to believe that a trained FBI sniper would make such an error, even under the pressure of combat. Hunters in mountain country routinely make this correction.
  • On p. 116 the garbage bag containing Reed Hobart's head is said to weigh four pounds. The mass of an average adult human head is around 5 kg, or around 11 pounds. Since Hobart has been described as a well-fed person with a “big head” (p. 112), he is unlikely to be a four pound pinhead. I'd put this down to the ever-green problem of converting between republican and imperial units.
  • Nikki Swagger's television call sign switches back and forth between WUFF and WUSS throughout the book. I really like the idea of a WUSS-TV, especially in Minneapolis.
  • On p. 251, as the lawyers are handing out business cards to escapees from the mall, the telephone area code on the cards is 309, which is in Illinois. Although I grant that it's more likely such bipedal intestinal parasites would inhabit that state than nice Minnesota, is it plausible they could have gotten to the scene in time?
Spoilers end here.  

Had, say, 200 of the 1000 patrons of the mall taken hostage availed themselves of Minnesota's concealed carry law, and had the mall not abridged citizens' God-given right to self-defence, the 16 terrorists would have been taken down in the first 90 seconds after their initial assault. Further, had the would-be terrorists known that one in five of their intended victims were packing, do you think they would have tried it? Just sayin'.

This is an excellent thriller, which puts into stark contrast just how vulnerable disarmed populations are in the places they gather in everyday life, and how absurd the humiliating security theatre is at barn doors where the horses have fled more than a decade ago. It is in many ways deeply cynical, but that cynicism is well-justified by the reality of the society in which the story is set.

A podcast interview with the author is available.

May 2012 Permalink

Imholt, Timothy James. Nuclear Assault. Unknown: Zwicky Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-6156915-8-9.
I am not going to fret about spoilers in this review. This book is so awful that nobody should read it, and avoiding spoilers is like worrying about getting a dog turd dirty when you pick it up with toilet paper to throw it in the loo.

I acquired this book based on an Amazon suggestion of “Customers who Viewed this Item Also Viewed” and especially because, at the time I encountered it, the Kindle edition was free (it is no longer, as of this writing). Well, I'm always a sucker for free stuff, so I figured, “How bad can it be?” and downloaded it. How wrong I was—even for free, this botched attempt at a novel is overpriced.

Apart from the story, which is absurd, the author has not begun to master the basics of English composition. If I had taken a chapter or two from this novel and submitted it as a short story in my 10th grade English class, I would have received a failing grade, and deservedly so. Scarcely a page in this 224 page novel is unmarred by errors of orthography, grammar, or punctuation. The author appears to have invented his own way of expressing quotes. The following is a partial list of words in the text which are either misspelled or for which homonyms are incorrectly used:

Americans OK advice affected an arrival assess attack bathe become breathe chaperone closed continuous counsel enemy's feet first foul from had hangar harm's hero holding host hostilely intelligence it's its let's morale nights not ordnance overheard pus rarefied scientists sent sights sure the their them they times were

When you come across an instance of “where” being used in place of “were”, you might put it down to the kind of fat finger we all commit from time to time, plus sloppy proofreading. But when it happens 13 times in 224 pages, you begin to suspect the author might not really comprehend the difference between the two.

All of the characters, from special forces troops, emergency room nurses, senior military commanders, the President of the United States, to Iranian nuclear scientists speak in precisely the same dialect of fractured grammar laced with malaprops. The author has his own eccentric idea of what words should be capitalised, and applies them inconsistently. Each chapter concludes with a “news flash” and “economic news flash”, also in bizarro dialect, with the latter demonstrating the author as illiterate in economics as he is in the English language.

Then, in the last line of the novel, the reader is kicked in the teeth with something totally out of the blue.

I'd like to call this book “eminently forgettable”, but I doubt I'll forget it soon. I have read a number of manuscripts by aspiring writers (as a savage copy editor and fact checker, authors occasionally invite me to have at their work, in confidence, before sending it for publication), but this is, by far, the worst I have encountered in my entire life. You may ask why I persisted in reading beyond the first couple of chapters. It's kind of like driving past a terrible accident on the highway—do you really not slow down and look? Besides, I only review books I've finished, and I looked forward to this review as the only fun I could derive from this novel, and writing this wave-off a public service for others who might stumble upon this piece of…fiction and be inclined to pick it up.

September 2012 Permalink

Jenne, Mike. Blue Gemini. New York: Yucca Publishing, 2015. ISBN 978-1-63158-047-5.
It is the late 1960s, and the Apollo project is racing toward the Moon. The U.S. Air Force has not abandoned its manned space flight ambitions, and is proceeding with its Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, nominally to explore the missions military astronauts can perform in an orbiting space station, but in reality a large manned reconnaissance satellite. Behind the curtain of secrecy and under the cover of the blandly named “Aerospace Support Project”, the Air Force was simultaneously proceeding with a much more provocative project: Blue Gemini. Using the Titan II booster and a modified version of the two-man spacecraft from NASA's recently-concluded Gemini program, its mission was to launch on short notice, rendezvous with and inspect uncooperative targets (think Soviet military satellites), and optionally attach a package to them which, on command from the ground, could destroy the satellite, de-orbit it, or throw it out of control. All of this would have to be done covertly, without alerting the Soviets to the intrusion.

Inconclusive evidence and fears that the Soviets, in response to the U.S. ballistic missile submarine capability, were preparing to place nuclear weapons in orbit, ready to rain down onto the U.S. upon command, even if the Soviet missile and bomber forces were destroyed, gave Blue Gemini a high priority. Operating out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, flight hardware for the Gemini-I interceptor spacecraft, Titan II missiles modified for man-rating, and a launching site on Johnston Island in the Pacific were all being prepared, and three flight crews were in training.

Scott Ourecky had always dreamed of flying. In college, he enrolled in Air Force ROTC, underwent primary flight training, and joined the Air Force upon graduation. Once in uniform, his talent for engineering and mathematics caused him to advance, but his applications for flight training were repeatedly rejected, and he had resigned himself to a technical career in advanced weapon development, most recently at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida. There he is recruited to work part-time on the thorny technical problems of a hush-hush project: Blue Gemini.

Ourecky settles in and undertakes the formidable challenges faced by the mission. (NASA's Gemini rendezvous targets were cooperative: they had transponders and flashing beacons which made them easier to locate, and missions could be planned so that rendezvous would be accomplished when communications with ground controllers would be available. In Blue Gemini the crew would be largely on their own, with only brief communication passes available.) Finally, after an incident brought on by the pressure and grueling pace of training, he finds himself in the right seat of the simulator, paired with hot-shot pilot Drew Carson (who views non-pilots as lesser beings, and would rather be in Vietnam adding combat missions to his service record rather than sitting in a simulator in Ohio on a black program which will probably never be disclosed).

As the story progresses, crisis after crisis must be dealt with, all against a deadline which, if not met, will mean the almost-certain cancellation of the project.

This is fiction: no Gemini interceptor program ever existed (although one of the missions for which the Space Shuttle was designed was essentially the same: a one orbit inspection or snatch-and-return of a hostile satellite). But the remarkable thing about this novel is that, unlike many thrillers, the author gets just about everything absolutely right. This does not stop with the technical details of the Gemini and Titan hardware, but also Pentagon politics, inter-service rivalry, the interaction of military projects with political forces, and the dynamics of the relations between pilots, engineers, and project administrators. It works as a thriller, as a story with characters who develop in interesting ways, and there are no jarring goofs to distract you from the narrative. (Well, hardly any: the turbine engines of a C-130 do not “cough to life”.)

There are numerous subplots and characters involved in them, and when this book comes to an end, they're just left hanging in mid-air. That's because this is the first of a multi-volume work in progress. The second novel, Blue Darker than Black, picks up where the first ends. The third, Pale Blue, is scheduled to be published in August 2016.

April 2016 Permalink

Jenne, Mike. Blue Darker than Black. New York: Yucca Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63158-066-6.
This is the second novel in the series which began with Blue Gemini (April 2016). It continues the story of a covert U.S. Air Force manned space program in the late 1960s and early 1970s, using modified versions of NASA's two-man Gemini spacecraft and Titan II booster to secretly launch missions to rendezvous with, inspect, and, if necessary, destroy Soviet reconnaissance satellites and rumoured nuclear-armed orbital battle stations.

As the story begins in 1969, the crew who flew the first successful missions in the previous novel, Drew Carson and Scott Ourecky, are still the backbone of the program. Another crew was in training, but having difficulty coming up to the standard set by the proven flight crew. A time-critical mission puts Carson and Ourecky back into the capsule again, and they execute another flawless mission despite inter-service conflict between its Navy sponsor and the Air Force who executed it.

Meanwhile, the intrigue of the previous novel is playing out in the background. The Soviets know that something odd is going on at the innocuously named “Aerospace Support Project” at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, and are cultivating sources to penetrate the project, while counter-intelligence is running down leads to try to thwart them. Soviet plans for the orbital battle station progress from fantastic conceptions to bending metal.

Another mission sends the crew back into space just as Ourecky's wife is expecting their firstborn. When it's time to come home, a malfunction puts at risk their chances of returning to Earth alive. A clever trick allows them to work around the difficulty and fire their retrorockets, but the delay diverts their landing point from the intended field in the U.S. to a secret contingency site in Haiti. Now the emergency landing team we met in Blue Gemini comes to the fore. With one of the most secret of U.S. programs dropping its spacecraft and crew, who are privy to all of its secrets, into one of the most primitive, corrupt, and authoritarian countries in the Western Hemisphere, the stakes could not be higher. It all falls on the shoulders of Matthew Henson, who has to coordinate resources to get the spacecraft and injured crew out, evading voodoo priests, the Tonton Macoutes, and the Haitian military. Henson is nothing if not resourceful, and Carson and Ourecky, the latter barely alive, make it back to their home base.

Meanwhile, work on the Soviet battle station progresses. High-stakes spycraft inside the USSR provides a clouded window on the program. Carson and Ourecky, once he recovers sufficiently, are sent on a “dog and pony show” to pitch their program at the top secret level to Air Force base commanders around the country. Finally, they return to flight status and continue to fly missions against Soviet assets.

But Blue Gemini is not the only above top secret manned space program in the U.S. The Navy is in the game too, and when a solar flare erupts, their program, crew, and potentially anybody living under the ground track of the orbiting nuclear reactor is at risk. Once more, Blue Gemini must launch, this time with a tropical storm closing in on the launch site. It's all about improvisation, and Ourecky, once the multiple-time reject for Air Force flight school, proves himself a master of it. He returns to Earth a hero (in secret), only to find himself confronted with an even greater challenge.

This novel, as the second in what is expected to be a trilogy, suffers from the problem of developing numerous characters and subplots without ever resolving them which afflicts so many novels in the middle. Notwithstanding that, it works as a thriller, and it's interesting to see characters we met before in isolation begin to encounter one another. Blue Gemini was almost flawless in its technical detail. There are more goofs here, some pretty basic (for example, the latitude of Dallas, Texas is given incorrectly), and one which substantially affects the plot (the effect of solar flares on the radiation flux in low Earth orbit). Still, by the standard of techno-thrillers, the author did an excellent job in making it authentic.

The third novel in the series, Pale Blue, is scheduled to be published at the end of August 2016. I'm looking forward to reading it.

August 2016 Permalink

Jenne, Mike. Pale Blue. New York: Yucca Publishing, 2016. ISBN 978-1-63158-084-0.
This is the final novel in the trilogy which began with Blue Gemini (April 2016) and continued in Blue Darker than Black (August 2016). After the harrowing rescue mission which concluded the second book, Drew Carson and Scott Ourecky, astronauts of the U.S. Air Force's covert Blue Gemini project, a manned satellite interceptor based upon NASA's Project Gemini spacecraft, hope for a long stand-down before what is slated to be the final mission in the project, whose future is uncertain due to funding issues, inter-service rivalry, the damage to its Pacific island launch site due to a recent tropical storm, and the upcoming 1972 presidential election.

Meanwhile, in the Soviet Union, progress continues on the Krepost project: a manned space station equipped for surveillance and armed with a nuclear warhead which can be de-orbited and dropped on any target along the station's ground track. General Rustam Abdirov, a survivor of the Nedelin disaster in 1960, is pushing the project to completion through his deputy, Gregor Yohzin, and believes it may hold the key to breaking what Abdirov sees as the stalemate of the Cold War. Yohzin is increasingly worried about Abdirov's stability and the risks posed by the project, and has been covertly passing information to U.S. intelligence.

As information from Yohzin's espionage reaches Blue Gemini headquarters, Carson and Ourecky are summoned back and plans drawn up to intercept the orbital station before a crew can be launched to it, after which destroying it would not only be hazardous, but could provoke a superpower confrontation. On the Soviet side, nothing is proceeding as planned, and the interception mission must twist and turn based upon limited and shifting information.

About half way through the book, and after some big surprises, the Krepost crisis is resolved. The reader might be inclined, then, to wonder “what next?” What follows is a war story, set in the final days of the Vietnam conflict, and for quite a while it seems incongruous and unrelated to all that has gone before. I have remarked in reviews of the earlier books of the trilogy that the author is keeping a large number of characters and sub-plots in the air, and wondered whether and how he was going to bring it all together. Well, in the last five chapters he does it, magnificently, and ties everything up with a bow on the top, ending what has been a rewarding thriller in a moving, human conclusion.

There are a few goofs. Launch windows to inclined Earth orbits occur every day; in case of a launch delay, there is no need for a long wait before the next launch attempt (chapter 4). Attempting to solve a difficult problem, “the variables refused to remain constant”—that's why they're called variables (chapter 10)! Beaujolais is red, not white, wine (chapter 16). A character claims to have seen a hundred stars in the Pleiades from space with the unaided eye. This is impossible: while the cluster contains around 1000 stars, only 14 are bright enough to be seen with the best human vision under the darkest skies. Observing from space is slightly better than from the Earth's surface, but in this case the observer would have been looking through a spacecraft window, which would attenuate light more than the Earth's atmosphere (chapter 25). MIT's Draper Laboratory did not design the Gemini on-board computer; it was developed by the IBM Federal Systems Division (chapter 26).

The trilogy is a big, sprawling techno-thriller with interesting and complicated characters and includes space flight, derring do in remote and dangerous places, military and political intrigue in both the U.S. and Soviet Union, espionage, and a look at how the stresses of military life and participation in black programs make the lives of those involved in them difficult. Although the space program which is the centrepiece of the story is fictional, the attention to detail is exacting: had it existed, this is probably how it would have been done. I have one big quibble with a central part of the premise, which I will discuss behind the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The rationale for the Blue Gemini program which caused it to be funded is largely as a defence against a feared Soviet “orbital bombardment system”: one or more satellites which, placed in orbits which regularly overfly the U.S. and allies, could be commanded to deorbit and deliver nuclear warheads to any location below. It is the development of such a weapon, its deployment, and a mission to respond to the threat which form the core of the plot of this novel.

But an orbital bombardment system isn't a very useful weapon, and doesn't make much sense, especially in the context of the late 1960s to early '70s in which this story is set. The Krepost of the novel was armed with a single high-yield weapon, and operated in a low Earth orbit at an inclination of 51°. The weapon was equipped with only a retrorocket and heat shield, and would have little cross-range (ability to hit targets lateral to its orbital path). This would mean that in order to hit a specific target, the orbital station would have to wait up to a day for the Earth to rotate so the target was aligned with the station's orbital plane. And this would allow bombardment of only a single target with one warhead. Keeping the station ready for use would require a constant series of crew ferry and freighter launches, all to maintain just one bomb on alert. By comparison, by 1972, the Soviet Union had on the order of a thousand warheads mounted on ICBMs, which required no space launch logistics to maintain, and could reach targets anywhere within half an hour of the launch order being given. Finally, a space station in low Earth orbit is pretty much a sitting duck for countermeasures. It is easy to track from the ground, and has limited maneuvering capability. Even guns in space do not much mitigate the threat from a variety of anti-satellite weapons, including Blue Gemini.

While the drawbacks of orbital deployment of nuclear weapons caused the U.S. and Soviet Union to eschew them in favour of more economical and secure platforms such as silo-based missiles and ballistic missile submarines, their appearance here does not make this “what if?” thriller any less effective or thrilling. This was the peak of the Cold War, and both adversaries explored many ideas which, in retrospect, appear to have made little sense. A hypothetical Soviet nuclear-armed orbital battle station is no less crazy than Project Pluto in the U.S.

Spoilers end here.  
This trilogy is one long story which spans three books. The second and third novels begin with brief summaries of prior events, but these are intended mostly for readers who have forgotten where the previous volume left off. If you don't read the three books in order, you'll miss a great deal of the character and plot development which makes the entire story so rewarding. More than 1600 pages may seem a large investment in a fictional account of a Cold War space program that never happened, but the technical authenticity; realistic portrayal of military aerospace projects and the interaction of pilots, managers, engineers, and politicians; and complicated and memorable characters made it more than worthwhile to this reader.

February 2017 Permalink

King, Stephen. 11/22/63. New York: Scribner, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4516-2728-2.
I gave up on Stephen King in the early 1990s. I had become weary of what seemed to me self-indulgent doorstops of novels which could have been improved by a sharp-pencilled editor cutting them by one third to one half, but weren't because what editor would dare strike words by such a celebrated (and profitable to the publisher) author? I never made it through either Gerald's Game or Insomnia and after that I stopped trying. Recently I heard good things from several sources I respect about the present work and, despite its formidable length (850 pages in hardcover), decided to give it a try (especially since I've always been a fan of time travel fiction and purported fact) to see if, a decade and a half later, King still “has it”.

The title is the date of the assassination of the U.S. president John F. Kennedy: November the 22nd of 1963 (written in the quaint American way). In the novel, Jake Epping, a school teacher in Maine, happens to come across a splice in time or wormhole or whatever you choose to call it which allows bidirectional travel between his world in 2011 and September of 1958. Persuaded by the person who discovered the inexplicable transtemporal portal and revealed it to him, Jake takes upon himself the mission of returning to the past and living there until November of 1963 with the goal of averting the assassination and preventing the pernicious sequelæ which he believed to have originated in that calamity.

Upon arrival in the past, he discovers from other lesser wrongs he seeks to right that while the past can be changed, it doesn't like to be changed and pushes back—it is mutable but “obdurate”. As he lives his life in that lost and largely forgotten country which was the U.S. in the middle of the 20th century, he discovers how much has been lost compared to our times, and also how far we have come from commonplace and unperceived injustices and assaults upon the senses and health of that epoch. Still, with a few rare exceptions, King forgoes the smug “look at how much better we are than those rubes” tone that so many contemporary authors adopt when describing the 1950s; you get the sense that King has a deep affection for the era in which he (and I) grew up, and it's apparent here.

I'm going to go behind the curtain now to discuss some of the details of the novel and the (remarkably few) quibbles I have with it. I don't consider any of these “big spoilers”, but others may dissent, so I'd rather err on the side of caution lest some irritated time traveller come back and….

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
As I got into the novel, I was afraid I'd end up hurling it across the room (well, not actually, since I was reading the Kindle edition and I'm rather fond of my iPad) because the model of time travel employed just didn't make any sense. But before long, I began to have a deeper respect for what King was doing, and by the end of the book I came to appreciate that what he'd created was largely compatible with the past/future multiverse picture presented in David Deutsch's The Fabric of Reality and my own concept of conscious yet constrained multiverse navigation in “Notes toward a General Theory of Paranormal Phenomena”.

If this gets made into a movie or miniseries (and that's the way to bet), I'll bet that scene on p. 178 where the playground roundy-round slowly spins with no kids in sight on a windless day makes the cut—brrrrr.

A few minutes' reflection will yield several ways that Jake, given access to the Internet in 2011 and the properties of the time portal, could have accumulated unlimited funds to use in the past without taking the risks he did. I'll avert my eyes here; removing the constraints he found himself under would torpedo a large part of the plot.

On p. 457 et seq. Jake refers to an “omnidirectional microphone” when what is meant is a “directional” or “parabolic” microphone.

On p. 506 the author states that during the Cuban missile crisis “American missile bases and the Strategic Air Command had gone to DEFCON-4 for the first time in history.” This makes the common error in popular fiction that a higher number indicates a greater alert condition or closeness to war. In fact, it goes the other way: DEFCON 5 corresponds to peacetime—the lowest state of readiness, while DEFCON 1 means nuclear war is imminent. During the Cuban missile crisis, SAC was ordered to DEFCON 2 while the balance of the military was at DEFCON 3.

On p. 635, the righthand man of the dictator of Haiti is identified as Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, boss of the tonton macoute. But Baby Doc was born in 1951, and at the time would have been twelve years old, unlikely to wield such powers.

If the ending doesn't make your eyes mist up, you're probably, like the protagonist, “not a crying [person]”.

Spoilers end here.  

There is a poignant sense of the momentum of events in the past here which I have not felt in any time travel fiction since Michael Moorcock's masterpiece Behold The Man.

Bottom line? King's still got it.

January 2012 Permalink

Klavan, Andrew. Empire of Lies. New York: Harcourt, 2008. ISBN 978-0-15-101223-7.
One perfect October Saturday afternoon, Jason Harrow, successful businessman, happily married father of three, committed Christian whose religion informs his moral sense, is sharing a lazy day with his family when the phone rings and sets into a motion an inexorable sequence of events which forces him to confront his dark past, when he was none of those things. Drawn from his prosperous life in the Midwest to the seamy world of Manhattan, he finds himself enmeshed in an almost hallucinatory web of evil and deceit which makes him doubt his own perception of reality, fearing that the dementia which consumed his mother is beginning to manifest itself in him, and that his moral sense is nothing but a veneer over the dark passions of his past.

This is a thriller that thrills. Although the story is unusual for these days in having a Christian protagonist who is not a caricature, this is no Left Behind hymn-singing tract; in fact, the language and situations are quite rough and unsuitable for the less than mature. The author, two of whose earlier books have been adapted into the films True Crime and Don't Say a Word, has a great deal of fun at the expense of the legacy media, political correctness, and obese, dissipated, staccato-speaking actors who—once portrayed—dashing—spacefarers. If you fall into any of those categories, you may be intensely irritated by this book, but otherwise you'll probably, like me, devour it in a few sittings. I just finished it this perfect October Saturday afternoon, and it's one of the most satisfying thrillers I've read in years.

A spoiler-free podcast interview with the author is available.

October 2008 Permalink

Lewis, Sinclair. It Can't Happen Here. New York: Signet, [1935] 1993. ISBN 0-451-52582-5.
Just when you need it, this classic goes out of print. Second-hand copies at reasonable prices are available from the link above or through abebooks.com. I wonder to what extent this novel might have motivated Heinlein to write For Us, The Living (February 2004) a few years later. There are interesting parallels between Lewis's authoritarian dystopia and the 1944–1950 dictatorial interregnum in Heinlein's novel. Further, one of the utopian reformers Lewis mocks is Upton Sinclair, of whom Heinlein was a committed follower at the time, devoting much of the latter part of For Us, The Living to an exposition of Sinclair's economic system.

March 2004 Permalink

MacKinnon, Douglas. America's Last Days. New York: Leisure Books, 2007. ISBN 0-8439-5802-2.
There are some books which are perfect for curling up with in front of a fireplace. Then there are those which are best used, ripped apart, for kindling; this is one of the latter. The premise of the novel is that the “Sagebrush Rebellion” gets deadly serious when a secretive group funded by a billionaire nutcase CEO of a major defence contractor plots the secession of two Western U.S. states to re-found a republic on the principles of the Founders, by threatening the U.S. with catastrophe unless the government accedes to their demands. Kind of like the Free State Project, but with nukes.

To liken the characters, dialogue, and plotting of this story to a comic book would be to disparage the comics, some of which, though certainly not all, far surpass this embarrassingly amateurish effort. Although the author's biography states him to have been a former White House and Pentagon “official” (he declines to state in which capacity), he appears to have done his research on how senior government and corporate executives behave and speak from watching reruns of “24”.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Ask yourself, is it plausible that the CEO of a billion dollar defence contractor would suggest, in an audience consisting not only of other CEOs, but a senior Pentagon staffer and an analyst for the CIA, that a Presidential candidate should be assassinated? Or that the director of the FBI would tell a foreign national in the employ of the arch-villain that the FBI was about to torture one of her colleagues?
Spoilers end here.  
I'm not going to bother with the numerous typos and factual errors—any number of acronyms appear to have been rendered phonetically based upon a flawed memory. The whole book is one big howler, and picking at details is like brushing flies off a decomposing elephant carcass. The writing is formulaic: like beginners' stories in a fiction workshop, each character is introduced with a little paragraph which fingerpaints the cardboard cut-out we're about to meet. Talented writers, or even writers with less talent but more experience, weave what background we need to know seamlessly into the narrative. There is a great deal of gratuitous obscenity, much of which is uttered in contexts where I would expect decorum to prevail. After dragging along for 331 pages devoid of character development and with little action, the whole thing gets wrapped up in the the final six preposterously implausible pages. Perhaps, given the content, it's for the best that there is plenty of white space; the average chapter in this mass market paperback is less than five pages in length.

As evidence of the literary erudition and refinement of the political and media elite in the United States, this book bears laudatory blurbs from Larry King, James Carville, Bob Dole, Dee Dee Myers, and Tom Brokaw.

August 2007 Permalink

Mahoney, Bob. Damned to Heaven. Austin, TX: 1st World Publishing, 2003. ISBN 978-0-9718562-8-8.
This may be the geekiest space thriller ever written. The author has worked as a spaceflight instructor at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston for more than a decade, training astronauts and flight controllers in the details of orbital operations. He was Lead Instructor for the first Shuttle-Mir mission. He knows his stuff, and this book, which bristles with as many acronyms and NASA jargon as a Shuttle flight plan, gets the details right and only takes liberty with the facts where necessary to advance the plot. Indeed, it seems the author is on an “expanded mission” of his NASA career as an instructor to ensure that not only those he's paid to teach, but all readers of the novel know their stuff as well—he even distinguishes acronyms pronounced letter-by-letter (such as E.V.A.) and those spoken as words (like OMS), and provides pronunciation guides for the latter.

For a first time novelist, the author writes quite well, and there are only a few typographical and factual errors. Since the dialogue is largely air to ground transmissions or proceedings of NASA mission management meetings, it comes across as stilted, but is entirely authentic—that's how they talk. Character description is rudimentary, and character development as the story progresses almost nonexistent, but then most of the characters are career civil servants who have made it to the higher echelons of an intensely politically correct and meritocratic bureaucracy where mavericks or those even remotely interesting are ground down or else cut off and jettisoned. Again, not the usual dramatis personæ of a thriller, but pretty accurate.

So what about the story? A space shuttle bound for the International Space Station suffers damage to its thermal protection system which makes it impossible to reenter safely, and the crew takes refuge on the still incomplete Station, stretching its life support resources to the limit. A series of mishaps, which may seem implausible all taken together, but every one of which has actually occurred in U.S. and Soviet space operations over the last two decades, eliminates all of the rescue alternatives but one last, desperate Hail Mary option, which a flight director embraces, not out of boldness, but because there is no other way to save the crew. Trying to thwart the rescue is a malevolent force high in the NASA management hierarchy, bent on destroying the existing human spaceflight program in order that a better replacement may be born. (The latter might have seemed preposterous when the novel was published in 2003, but looking just at the results of NASA senior management decisions in the ensuing years, it's hard to distinguish the outcomes from those of having deliberate wreckers at the helm.)

The author had just about finished the novel when the Columbia accident occurred in February 2003. Had Columbia been on a mission to the Space Station, and had the damage to its thermal protection system been detected (which is probable, as it would have been visible as the shuttle approached the station), then the scenario here, or at least the first part, would have likely occurred. The author made a few changes to the novel post-Columbia; they are detailed in notes at the end.

As a thriller, this worked for me—I read the whole thing in three days and enjoyed the author's painting his characters into corner after corner and then letting them struggle to avert disaster due to the laws of nature, ambitious bureaucratic adversaries, and cluelessness and incompetence, in ascending order of peril to mission success and crew survival. I suspect many readers will consider this a bit much; recall that I used the word “geekiest” in the first sentence of these remarks. But unlike another thriller by a NASA engineer, I was never once tempted to hurl this one into the flame trench immediately before ignition.

If the events in this book had actually happened, and an official NASA historian had written an account of them some years later, it would probably read much like this book. That is quite an achievement, and the author has accomplished that rare feat of crafting a page-turner (at least for readers who consider “geeky” a compliment) which also gets the details right and crafts scenarios which are both surprising and plausible. My quibbles with the plot are not with the technical details but rather scepticism that the NASA of today could act as quickly as in the novel, even when faced with an existential threat to its human spaceflight program.

October 2010 Permalink

Mills, Kyle. The Survivor. New York: Pocket Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-8346-8.
Over the last fifteen years, CIA counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) has survived myriad adventures and attempts to take him out by terrorists, hostile governments, subversive forces within his own agency, and ambitious and unscrupulous Washington politicians looking to nail his scalp to their luxuriously appointed office walls, chronicled in the thirteen thrillers by his creator, Vince Flynn. Now, Rapp must confront one of the most formidable challenges any fictional character can face—outliving the author who invented him. With the death of Vince Flynn in 2013 from cancer, the future of the Mitch Rapp series was uncertain. Subsequently, Flynn's publisher announced that veteran thriller writer Kyle Mills, with fourteen novels already published, would be continuing the Mitch Rapp franchise. This is the first novel in the series by Mills. Although the cover has Flynn's name in much larger type than Mills', the latter is the sole author.

In this installment of the Rapp saga, Mills opted to dive right in just days after the events in the conclusion of the previous novel, The Last Man (February 2013). The CIA is still reeling from its genius black operations mastermind, Joseph Rickman, having gone rogue, faked his own kidnapping, and threatened to reveal decades of the CIA's secrets, including deep cover agents in place around the world and operations in progress, potentially crippling the CIA and opening up enough cans of worms to sustain the congressional committee surrender-poultry for a decade. With the immediate Rickman problem dealt with in the previous novel, the CIA is dismayed to learn that the ever-clever Rickman is himself a survivor, and continues to wreak his havoc on the agency from beyond the grave, using an almost impenetrable maze of digital and human cut-outs devised by his wily mind.

Not only is the CIA at risk of embarrassment and exposure of its most valuable covert assets, an ambitious spymaster in Pakistan sees the Rickman intelligence trove as not only a way to destroy the CIA's influence in his country and around the world, but the means to co-opt its network for his own ends, providing his path to slither to the top of the seething snake-mountain which is Pakistani politics, and, with control over his country's nuclear arsenal and the CIA's covert resources, become a player on the regional, if not world scale.

Following Rickman's twisty cyber trail as additional disclosure bombshells drop on the CIA, Rapp and his ailing but still prickly mentor Stan Hurley must make an uneasy but unavoidable alliance with Louis Gould, the murderer of Rapp's wife and unborn child, who almost killed him in the previous novel, in order to penetrate the armed Swiss compound (which has me green with envy and scribbling notes) of Leo Obrecht, rogue private banker implicated in the Rickman operation and its Pakistani connections.

The action takes Rapp and his team to a remote location in Russia, and finally to a diplomatic banquet in Islamabad where Rapp reminds an American politician which fork to use, and how.

Mitch Rapp has survived. I haven't read any of Kyle Mills' other work, so I don't know whether it's a matter of his already aligning with Vince Flynn's style or, as a professional author, adopting it along with Flynn's worldview, but had I not known this was the work of a different author, I'd never have guessed. I enjoyed this story and look forward to further Mitch Rapp adventures by Kyle Mills.

July 2017 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. Patriots. Philadelphia: Clearwater Press, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4257-3407-7.

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, design a building, conn a ship, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve an equation, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein

In this compelling novel, which is essentially a fictionalised survival manual, the author tracks a small group of people who have banded together to ride out total societal collapse in the United States, prepared themselves, and are eventually forced by circumstances to do all of these things and more. I do not have high expectations for self-published works by first-time authors, but I started to read this book whilst scanning documents for one of my other projects and found it so compelling that the excellent book I was currently reading (a review of which will appear here shortly) was set aside as I scarfed up this book in a few days.

Our modern, technological civilisation has very much a “just in time” structure: interrupt electrical power and water supplies and sewage treatment fail in short order. Disrupt the fuel supply (in any number of ways), and provision of food to urban centres fails in less than a week, with food riots and looting the most likely outcome. As we head into what appears to be an economic spot of bother, it's worth considering just how bad it may get, and how well you and yours are prepared to ride out the turbulence. This book, which one hopes profoundly exaggerates the severity of what is to come, is an excellent way to inventory your own preparations and skills for a possible worst case scenario. For a sense of the author's perspective, and for a wealth of background information only alluded to in passing in the book, visit the author's SurvivalBlog.com site.

Sploosh, splash, inky squirt! Ahhhh…, it's Apostrophe Squid trying to get my attention. What is it about self-published authors who manifest encyclopedic knowledge across domains as diverse as nutrition, military tactics, medicine, economics, agriculture, weapons and ballistics, communications security, automobile and aviation mechanics, and many more difficult to master fields, yet who stumble over the humble apostrophe like their combat bootlaces were tied together? Our present author can tell you how to modify a common amateur radio transceiver to communicate on the unmonitored fringes of the Citizens' Band and how to make your own improvised Claymore mines, but can't seem to form the possessive of a standard plural English noun, and hence writes “Citizen's Band” and the equivalent in all instances. (Just how useful would a “Citizen's Band” radio be, with only one citizen transmitting and receiving on it?)

Despite the punctuational abuse and the rather awkward commingling of a fictional survival scenario with a catalogue of preparedness advice and sources of things you'll need when the supply chain breaks, I found this a compulsive page-turner. It will certainly make you recalibrate your ability to ride out that bad day when you go to check the news and find there's no Internet, and think again about just how much food you should store in the basement and (more importantly), how skilled you are in preparing what you cached many years ago, not to mention what you'll do when that supply is exhausted.

December 2008 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. Survivors. New York: Atria Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4391-7280-3.
This novel is frequently described as a sequel to the author's Patriots (December 2008), but in fact is set in the same time period and broadens the scope from a small group of scrupulously prepared families coping with a “grid down” societal collapse in an isolated and defensible retreat to people all around the U.S. and the globe in a wide variety of states of readiness dealing with the day to day exigencies after a hyperinflationary blow-off destroys paper money worldwide and leads to a breakdown in the just-in-time economy upon which life in the developed world has become dependent.

The novel tracks a variety of people in different circumstances: an Army captain mustered out of active duty in Afghanistan, an oil man seeking to ride out the calamity doing what he knows best, a gang leader seeing the collapse of the old order as the opportunity of a lifetime, and ordinary people forced to summon extraordinary resources from within themselves when confronted with circumstances nobody imagined plausible. Their stories illustrate how even a small degree of preparation (most importantly, the knowledge and skills you possess, not the goods and gear you own [although the latter should not be neglected—without a source of clean water, in 72 hours you're a refugee, and as Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle wrote in Lucifer's Hammer, “No place is more than two meals from a revolution”]) can make all the difference when all the rules change overnight.

Rawles is that rarest of authors: a know-it-all who actually knows it all—embedded in this story, which can be read simply as a periapocalyptic thriller, is a wealth of information for those who wish to make their own preparations for such discontinuities in their own future light cones. You'll want to read this book with a browser window open to look up terms and references to gear dropped in the text (acronyms are defined in the glossary at the end, but you're on your own in researching products).

Some mylar-thin thinkers welcome societal collapse; they imagine it will sweep away the dysfunction and corruption that surrounds us today and usher in a more honourable and moral order. Well, that may be the ultimate result (or maybe it won't: a dark age has its own momentum, and once a culture has not only forgotten what it knew, but forgotten what it has forgotten, recovery can take as long or longer than it took to initially discover what has been lost). Societal collapse, whatever the cause, will be horrific for those who endure it, many of whom will not survive and end their days in misery and terror. Civilisation is a thin veneer on the red in tooth and claw heritage of our species, and the predators among us will be the first to exploit the opportunity that a breakdown in order presents.

This novel presents a ruthlessly realistic picture of what societal collapse looks like to those living it. In a way, it is airbrushed—we see the carnage in the major metropolitan areas only from a distance. But for those looking at the seemingly endless list of “unsustainable” trends underway at present and wise enough to note that something which is unsustainable will, perforce, end, this book will help them think about the aftermath of that end and suggest preparations which may help riding it out and positioning themselves to prosper in the inevitable recovery.

January 2012 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. Founders. New York: Atria Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-7282-7.
This novel is the third in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008) and continued with Survivors (January 2012). These books are not a conventional trilogy, in that all describe events in the lives of their characters in roughly the same time period surrounding “the Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt crisis and hyperinflation. Many of the same characters appear in the volumes, but different episodes in their lives are described. This installment extends the story beyond the end of the previous books (taking into account the last chapter, well beyond), but most of the story occurs in the years surrounding the Crunch. In an introductory note, the author says the books can be read in any order, but I think the reader will miss a great deal if this is the first one read—most of the characters who appear here have an extensive back-story in the previous books, and you'll miss much of what motivates them and how they found themselves in their present circumstances if you start here.

Like the earlier novels, this is part thriller and part survival tutorial. I found the two components less well integrated here than before. The author seems prone to launching into a litany of survival gear and tactics, not to mention veering off into minutiæ of Christian doctrine, leaving the story and characters on hold. For example, in chapter 20:

The gear inside the field station CONEX included a pair of R-390A HF receivers, two Sherwood SE-3 synchronous detectors, four hardwired demodulators, a half dozen multiband scanners, several digital audio recorders, two spectrum analyzers, and seven laptop computers that were loaded with demodulators, digital recorders, and decryption/encryption software.

Does this really move the plot along? Is anybody other than a wealthy oilman likely to be able to put together such a rig for signal intelligence and traffic analysis? And if not, why do we need to know all of this, as opposed to simply describing it as a “radio monitoring post”? This is not a cherry-picked example; there are numerous other indulgences in gear geekdom.

The novel covers the epic journey, largely on foot, of Ken and Terry Layton from apocalyptic Crunch Chicago, where they waited too late to get out of Dodge toward the retreat their group had prepared in the American redoubt, and the development and exploits of an insurgency against the so-called “Provisional Government” headquartered in Fort Knox, Kentucky, which is a thinly-disguised front for subjugation of the U.S. to the United Nations and looting the population. (“Meet the new boss—same as the old boss!”) Other subplots update us on the lives of characters we've met before, and provide a view of how individuals and groups try to self-organise back into a lawful and moral civil society while crawling from the wreckage of corruption and afflicted by locusts with weapons.

We don't do stars on reviews here at Fourmilab—I'm a word guy—but I do occasionally indulge in sports metaphors. I consider the first two novels home runs: if you're remotely interested in the potential of societal collapse and the steps prudent people can take to protect themselves and those close to them from its sequelæ, they are must-reads. Let's call this novel a solid double bouncing between the left and centre fielders. If you've read the first two books, you'll certainly want to read this one. If you haven't, don't start here, but begin at the beginning. This novel winds up the story, but it does so in an abrupt way which I found somewhat unconvincing—it seemed like the author was approaching a word limit and had to close it out in however sketchy a manner.

There are a few quibbles, but aren't there always?

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  

  • In chapter 8 we're told that Malmstrom Air Force Base had a large inventory of JP-4 fuel. But this fuel, a 50–50 blend of kerosene and gasoline, was phased out by the U.S. Air Force in 1996 in favour of the less hazardous JP-8. It is unlikely that at least 16 years later an Air Force base would still have JP-4 in storage.
  • In chapter 11 we hear of the “UN's new headquarters in Brussels”. But, if the UN headquarters in New York had been destroyed, isn't is much more likely that the UN would fall back on the existing European headquarters in Geneva?
  • In chapter 17, Ken is “given a small bottle of flat black lacquer and a tiny brush from Durward's collection…”. But Durward was the farmer with whose family they passed the previous winter. I think either Carl or Graham was intended here.
  • In “President” Hutchings's speech in chapter 19, he states that more than 65 million people were killed by an influenza pandemic that swept the East and continues, “Without antibiotics available, the disease ran rampant until there were no more hosts to attack in the heavily populated regions.” Influenza is a viral disease, against which antibiotics are completely ineffectual. Of course, this may have been intended to highlight the cluelessness of Hutchings and how glibly the Provisional Government lied to its subjects.
  • In the glossary, CB radio is defined as a “VHF broadcasting band”. The citizens' band in the U.S. is in the 27 MHz range, which is considered in the HF band, and is not a broadcast service.
Spoilers end here.  

So, read the first two, and if you like them, by all means get this one. But don't start here.

October 2012 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. Expatriates. New York: Dutton, 2013. ISBN 978-0-525-95390-6.
This novel is the fourth in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008), then continued with Survivors (January 2012) and Founders (October 2012). These books are not a conventional multi-volume narrative, in that all describe events in the lives of their characters in roughly the same time period surrounding “the Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt crisis and hyperinflation. While the first three books in the series are best read in order, as there is substantial overlap in characters and events, this book, while describing contemporary events, works perfectly well as a stand-alone thriller and does not contain substantial spoilers for the first three novels.

The earlier books in the series were thrillers with a heavy dose of survival tutorial, including extended litanies of gear. The present volume leans more toward the thriller genre and is, consequently, more of a page-turner.

Peter and Rihannon Jeffords are Christian missionaries helping to run an orphanage in the Philippine Islands wishing nothing more than to get on with their lives and work when the withdrawal of U.S. forces in the Pacific due the economic collapse of the U.S. opens the way for a newly-installed jihadi government in Indonesia to start flexing its imperialist ambitions, looking enviously at Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, and ultimately the resource-rich and lightly populated “Top End” of Australia as their manifest destiny.

Meanwhile, Chuck Nolan, a Texan petroleum geologist specialising in explosive seismic exploration, working in the Northern Territory of Australia, is adjusting, along with native Australians, to the consequences of the Crunch. While not directly affected by the U.S. economic collapse, Australia's highly export-driven economy has been severely damaged by the contraction in world trade, and being dependent upon imported food and pharmaceuticals, hardships are everywhere and tragedies commonplace.

Back in the United States, Rihannon Jeffords' family, the Altmillers, are trying to carry on their independent hardware store business in Florida, coping with the collapse of the currency; the emergence of a barter economy and use of pre-1965 silver coins as a medium of exchange; the need for extraordinary security precautions at work and at home as the rule of law and civil society erode; and escalating worries about feral mobs of looters raiding ever wider from the chaos which was Orlando.

As the story develops, we exerience a harrowing sea voyage through hostile waters, asymmetrical warfare against a first world regional power, irregular resistance against an invader, and local communities self-organising defence against an urban “golden horde” ravaging the countryside. You will learn a great deal about partisan resistance strategies, decapitation of opposition forces, and why it is most unwise for effete urban populations to disarm those uncouth and disdained denizens of the boonies who, when an invader threatens, are both the first and ultimate lines of defence.

This book is meticulously researched with a wealth of local and technical details and only a few goofs and copy-editing errors. Like the earlier novels, the author dispels, often with spare prose or oblique references, the romantic notion that some “preppers” seem to have that the collapse of civilisation will be something like a camping trip they'll enjoy because they're “ready”. These happy would-be campers overlook the great die-off, the consequences of masses of people suddenly withdrawing from mood-altering drugs, roving bands of looters, the emergence of war-lords, and all of the other manifestations of the normal state of humanity over millennia which are suppressed only by our ever-so-fragile just in time technological society.

October 2013 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. Liberators. New York: Dutton, 2014. ISBN 978-0-525-95391-3.
This novel is the fifth in the series which began with Patriots (December 2008), then continued with Survivors (January 2012), Founders (October 2012), and Expatriates (October 2013), These books are not a conventional multi-volume narrative, in that all describe events in the lives of their characters in roughly the same time period surrounding “the Crunch”—a grid down societal collapse due to a debt crisis and hyperinflation. Taking place at the same time, you can read these books in any order, but if you haven't read the earlier novels you'll miss much of the back-story of the characters who appear here, which informs the parts they play in this episode.

Here the story cuts back and forth between the United States, where Megan LaCroix and her sister Malorie live on a farm in West Virginia with Megan's two boys, and Joshua Kim works in security at the National Security Agency where Megan is an analyst. When the Crunch hits, Joshua and the LaCroix sisters decide to team up to bug out to Joshua's childhood friend's place in Kentucky, where survival from the urban Golden Horde may be better assured. They confront the realities of a collapsing society, where the rule of law is supplanted by extractive tyrannies, and are forced to over-winter in a wilderness, living by their wits and modest preparations.

In Western Canada, the immediate impact of the Crunch was less severe because electrical power, largely hydroelectric, remained on. At the McGregor Ranch, in inland British Columbia (a harsh, northern continental climate nothing like that of Vancouver), the family and those who have taken refuge with them ride out the initial crisis only to be confronted with an occupation of Canada by a nominally United Nations force called UNPROFOR, which is effectively a French colonial force which, in alliance with effete urban eastern and francophone Canada, seeks to put down the fractious westerners and control the resource-rich land they inhabit.

This leads to an asymmetrical war of resistance, aided by the fact that when earlier faced with draconian gun registration and prohibition laws imposed by easterners, a large number of weapons in the west simply vanished, only to reappear when they were needed most. As was demonstrated in Vietnam and Algeria, French occupation forces can be tenacious and brutal, but are ultimately no match for an indigenous insurgency with the support of the local populace. A series of bold strikes against UNPROFOR assets eventually turns the tide.

But just when Canada seems ready to follow the U.S. out of the grip of tyranny, an emboldened China, already on the march in Africa, makes a move to seize western Canada's abundant natural resources. Under the cover of a UN resolution, a massive Chinese force, with armour and air support, occupies the western provinces. This is an adversary of an entirely different order than the French, and will require the resistance, supported by allies from the liberation struggle in the U.S., to audacious and heroic exploits, including one of the greatest acts of monkey-wrenching ever described in a thriller.

As this story has developed over the five novels, the author has matured into a first-rate thriller novelist. There is still plenty of information on gear, tactics, intelligence operations, and security, but the characters are interesting, well-developed, and the action scenes both plausible and exciting. In the present book, we encounter many characters we've met in previous volumes, with their paths crossing as events unfold. There is no triumphalism or glossing over the realities of insurgent warfare against a tyrannical occupying force. There is a great deal of misery and hardship, and sometimes tragedy can result when you've taken every precaution, made no mistake, but simply run out of luck.

Taken together, these five novels are an epic saga of survival in hard and brutal times, painted on a global canvas. Reading them, you will not only be inspired that you and your loved ones can survive such a breakdown in the current economic and social order, but you will also learn a great deal of the details of how to do so. This is not a survival manual, but attentive readers will find many things to research further for their own preparations for an uncertain future. An excellent place to begin that research is the author's own survivalblog.com Web site, whose massive archives you can spend months exploring.

November 2014 Permalink

Rawles, James Wesley. Land Of Promise. Moyie Springs, ID: Liberty Paradigm Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-475605-60-0.
The author is the founder of the survivalblog.com Web site, a massive and essential resource for those interested in preparing for uncertain times. His nonfiction works, How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It (July 2011) and Tools for Survival (February 2015) are packed with practical information for people who wish to ride out natural disasters all the way to serious off-grid self-sufficiency. His series of five novels which began with Patriots (December 2008) illustrates the skills needed to survive by people in a variety of circumstances after an economic and societal collapse. The present book is the first of a new series of novels, unrelated to the first, providing a hopeful view of how free people might opt out of a world where totalitarianism and religious persecution is on the march.

By the mid 21st century trends already evident today have continued along their disheartening trajectories. The world's major trading currencies have collapsed in the aftermath of runaway money creation, and the world now uses the NEuro, a replacement for the Euro which is issued only in electronic form, making tax avoidance extremely difficult. As for the United States, “The nation was saddled by trillions of NEuros in debt that would take several generations to repay, it was mired in bureaucracy and over-regulation, the nation had become a moral cesspool, and civil liberties were just a memory.”

A catastrophically infectious and lethal variant of Ebola has emerged in the Congo, killing 60% of the population of Africa (mostly in the sub-Saharan region) and reducing world population by 15%.

A “Thirdist” movement has swept the Islamic world, bringing Sunni and Shia into an uneasy alliance behind the recently-proclaimed Caliphate now calling itself the World Islamic State (WIS). In Western Europe, low fertility among the original population and large-scale immigration of more fecund Muslims is contributing to a demographic transition bringing some countries close to the tipping point of Islamic domination. The Roman Catholic church has signed the so-called “Quiet Minarets Agreement” with the WIS, which promised to refrain from advocating sharia law or political subjugation in Europe for 99 years. After that (or before, given the doctrine of taqiya in Islam), nobody knows what will happen.

In many countries around the world, Christians are beginning to feel themselves caught in a pincer movement between radical Islam on the one side and radical secularism/atheism on the other, with the more perspicacious among them beginning to think of getting out of societies becoming ever more actively hostile. Some majority Catholic countries have already declared themselves sanctuaries for their co-religionists, and other nations have done the same for Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians. Protestant Christians and Messianic Jews have no sanctuary, and are increasingly persecuted.

A small group of people working at a high-powered mergers and acquisitions firm in newly-independent Scotland begin to explore doing something about this. They sketch out a plan to approach the governments of South Sudan and Kenya, both of which have long-standing claims to the Ilemi Triangle, a barren territory of around 14,000 square kilometres (about ⅔ the size of Israel) with almost no indigenous population. With both claimants to the territory majority Christian countries, the planners hope to persuade them that jointly ceding the land for a new Christian nation will enable them to settle this troublesome dispute in a way which will increase the prestige of both. Further, developing the region into a prosperous land that can defend itself will shore up both countries against the advances of WIS and its allies.

With some trepidation, they approach Harry Heston, founder and boss of their firm, a self-made billionaire known for his Christian belief and libertarian views (he and his company got out of the United States to free Scotland while it was still possible). Heston, whose fortune was built on his instinctive ability to evaluate business plans, hears the pitch and decides to commit one billion NEuros from his own funds to the project, contingent on milestones being met, and to invite other wealthy business associates to participate.

So begins the story of founding the Ilemi Republic, not just a sanctuary for Christians and Messianic Jews, but a prototype 21st century libertarian society with “zero taxes, zero import duties, and zero license fees.” Defence will be by a citizen militia with a tiny professional cadre. The founders believe such a society will be a magnet to highly-productive and hard-working people from around the world weary of slaving more than half their lives to support the tyrants and bureaucrats which afflict them.

As the story unfolds, the reader is treated to what amounts to a worked example of setting up a new nation, encompassing diplomacy, economics, infrastructure, recruiting settlers, dealing equitably with the (very small) indigenous and nomadic population, money and banking, energy and transportation resources, keeping the domestic peace and defending the nation, and the minimalist government and the constitutional structure designed to keep it that way. The founders anticipate that their sanctuary nation will be subjected to the same international opprobrium and obstruction which Israel suffers (although the Ilemi Republic will not be surrounded by potential enemies), and plans must anticipate this.

You'll sometimes hear claims that Christian social conservatism and libertarianism are incompatible beliefs which will inevitably come into conflict with one another. In this novel the author argues that the kind of moral code by which devout Christians live is a prerequisite for the individual liberty and lack of state meddling so cherished by libertarians. The Ilemi Republic also finds itself the home of hard-edged, more secular libertarians, who get along with everybody else because they all agree on preserving their liberty and independence.

This is the first in a series of novels planned by the author which he calls the “Counter-Caliphate Chronicles”. I have long dreamed of a realistic story of establishing a libertarian refuge from encroaching tyranny, and even envisioned it as being situated in a lightly-populated region of Africa. The author has delivered that story, and I am eagerly anticipating seeing it develop in future novels.

December 2015 Permalink

Ross, John F. Unintended Consequences. St. Louis: Accurate Press, 1996. ISBN 1-888118-04-0.
I don't know about you, but when I hear the phrases “first novel” and “small press” applied to the same book, I'm apt to emit an involuntary groan, followed by a wince upon hearing said volume is more than 860 pages in length. John Ross has created the rarest of exceptions to this prejudice. This is a big, sprawling, complicated novel with a multitude of characters (real and fictional) and a plot which spans most of the 20th century, and it works. What's even more astonishing is that it describes an armed insurrection against the United States government which is almost plausible. The information age has changed warfare at the national level beyond recognition; Ross explores what civil war might look like in the 21st century. The book is virtually free of typographical errors and I only noted a few factual errors—few bestsellers from the largest publishers manifest such attention to detail. Some readers may find this novel intensely offensive—the philosophy, morality, and tolerance for violence may be deemed “out of the mainstream” and some of the characterisations in the last 200 pages may be taken as embodying racial stereotypes—you have been warned.

December 2003 Permalink

Savage, Michael [Michael Alan Weiner]. Abuse of Power. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-312-55301-2.
The author, a popular talk radio host who is also a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine and has published numerous books under his own name, is best known for his political works, four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list including one which reached the top of that list. This is his first foray into the fictional thriller genre, adopting a style reminiscent of Rudy Rucker's transrealism, in which the author, or a character closely modelled upon him or her, is the protagonist in the story. In this novel, Jack Hatfield is a San Francisco-based journalist dedicated to digging out the truth and getting it to the public by whatever means available, immersed in the quirky North Beach culture of San Francisco, and banned in Britain for daring to transgress the speech codes of that once-free nation. Sound familiar?

While on a routine ride-along with a friend from the San Francisco Police Department bomb squad, Hatfield finds himself in the middle of a carjacking gone horribly wrong, where the evidence of his own eyes and of witnesses at the scene contradicts the soothing narrative issued by the authorities and swallowed whole by the legacy media. As Hatfield starts to dig beneath the surface, he discovers a trail of murders which seem to point to a cover-up by a shadowy but well-funded and ruthlessly efficient organisation whose motives remain opaque. This leads him on a trail which takes him to various points around the world and finally back to San Francisco, where only he and his small circle of friends can expose and thwart a plot aimed at regime change in the country which fancied itself the regime changer for the rest of the world.

Inevitably, I have some technical quibbles.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • On p. 25, it is assumed that a cellular mobile telephone can communicate with a like unit without going through the cellular network (which, in this case, is blocked by a police jammer) if it is in line of sight and close enough to the other telephone. This is not the case; even if it were technologically possible, how would the Phone Company charge you for the call?
  • On p. 144 a terrorist mole is granted a G-2 visa to work at a foreign consulate in the U.S. In fact, a G-2 visa is granted only to individuals travelling to the U.S. to attend meetings of international organisations. The individual in question would have required an A-1 or A-2 diplomatic visa to enter the U.S.
  • On p. 149 Jack takes out a Remington shotgun loaded with 12-gauge rounds, and just two paragraphs later lays “the rifle across his forearm”. A shotgun is not a rifle.
  • This is not a quibble but a high-five. The shortened URL in the decrypted message on p. 257 points precisely where the novel says it does.
  • When will thriller authors sit down and read The Effects of Nuclear Weapons? On p. 355 we're faced with the prospect of a “satchel nuke” being detonated atop one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and told:
    There would have been thousands of deaths within days, tens of thousands within weeks, over a million within a month—many of those among people who would have been needed to keep the infrastructure from collapsing. Doctors, police, workers at power plants and sewage centers. [sic (sentence fragment)] The environment would have become so toxic that rescue workers couldn't have gotten into the area, and poisoned food and water would have added exponentially to the death toll. Airdrops of fresh supplies would have led to riots, more death. Silicon Valley would have been ravaged, all but destroying the U.S. computer industry.
    Nonsense—a plausible satchel nuke of a size which Sara (admittedly a well-trained woman) could carry in a backpack would be something like the U.S. SADM, which weighed around 68 kg, more than most in-shape women. The most common version of this weapon was based upon the W54 warhead, which had a variable yield from 10 tons to 1 kiloton. Assuming the maximum one kiloton yield, a detonation would certainly demolish the Golden Gate Bridge and cause extensive damage to unreinforced structures around the Bay, but the radiation effects wouldn't be remotely as severe as asserted; there would be some casualties to those downwind and in the fallout zone, but these would be more likely in the hundreds and over one or more decades after the detonation. The fact that the detonation occurred at the top of a tower taller than those used in most surface detonations at the Nevada Test Site and above water would further reduce fallout. Silicon Valley, which is almost 100 km south of the detonation site, would be entirely unaffected apart from Twitter outages due to #OMG tweets. The whole subplot about the “hydrazine-based rocket fuel” tanker crossing the bridge is silly: hydrazine is nasty stuff to be sure, but first of all it is a hypergolic liquid rocket fuel, not an “experimental solid rocket fuel”. (Duh—if it were solid, why would you transport it in a tanker?) But apart from that, hydrazine is one of those molecules whose atoms really don't like being so close to one another, and given the slightest excuse will re-arrange themselves into a less strained configuration. Being inside a nuclear fireball is an excellent excuse to do so, hence the closer the tanker happened to be to the detonation, the less likely the dispersal of its contents would cause casualties for those downwind.
Spoilers end here.  

This is an enjoyable and promising debut for an author who is embarking upon the craft of the thriller, and none of the natters above (if you chose to read them) detracted from this reader's enjoyment of the story. Is it up to the standard of recent work from masters of the genre such as Vince Flynn or Brad Thor? No—but it's a good read and auspicious start; I will certainly give forthcoming novels from this author a try.

June 2012 Permalink

Savage, Michael [Michael Alan Weiner]. A Time for War. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2013. ISBN 978-0-312-65162-6.
The author, a popular talk radio host who is also a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine and has published numerous books under his own name, is best known for his political works, four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list including one which reached the top of that list. This is his second foray into the fictional thriller genre, adopting a style reminiscent of Rudy Rucker's transrealism, in which the author, or a character closely modelled upon him or her, is the protagonist in the story. In this novel, Jack Hatfield is a San Francisco-based journalist dedicated to digging out the truth and getting it to the public by whatever means available, immersed in the quirky North Beach culture of San Francisco, and banned in Britain for daring to transgress the speech codes of that once-free nation. Sound familiar?

After saving his beloved San Francisco from an existential threat in the first novel, Abuse of Power (June 2012), Hatfield's profile on the national stage has become higher than ever, but that hasn't helped him get back into the media game, where his propensity for telling the truth without regard to political correctness or offending the perennially thin-skinned makes him radioactive to mainstream outlets. He manages to support himself as a free-lance investigative reporter, working from his boat in a Sausalito marina, producing and selling stories to venues willing to run them. When a Chinook helicopter goes down in a remote valley in Afghanistan killing all 39 on board and investigators attribute the crash to total failure of all electronics on board with no evidence of enemy action, Jack's ears perk up. When he later learns of an FBI vehicle performing a routine tail of a car from the Chinese consulate being disabled by “total electronic failure” he begins to get really interested. Then strange things begin to happen in Chinatown, prompting Jack to start looking for a China connection between these incidents.

Meanwhile, Dover Griffith, a junior analyst at the Office of Naval Intelligence, is making other connections. She recalled that a proposed wireless Internet broadband system developed by billionaire industrialist Richard Hawke's company had to be abandoned when it was discovered its signal could induce catastrophic electrical failure in aircraft electronics. (Clearly Savage is well-acquainted with the sorry history of LightSquared and GPS interference!) When she begins to follow the trail, she is hauled into her boss's office and informed she is being placed on “open-ended unpaid furlough”: civil service speak for being fired. Clearly Hawke has plenty of pull in high places and probably something to hide. Since Hatfield had been all over the story of interference caused by the broadband system and the political battle over whether to deploy it, she decides to fly to California and join forces with Hatfield to discover what is really going on. As they, along with Jack's associates, begin to peel away layer after layer of the enigma, they begin to suspect that something even more sinister may be underway.

This is a thoroughly satisfying thriller. There is a great deal of technical detail, all meticulously researched. There are a few dubious aspects of some of the gadgets, but that's pretty much a given in the thriller genre. What distinguishes these novels from other high-profile thrillers is that Jack Hatfield isn't a superhero in the sense of Vince Flynn's Mitch Rapp or Brad Thor's Scot Harvath: he is a largely washed-up journalist, divorced, living on a boat with a toy poodle, hanging out with a bunch of eccentric characters at an Italian restaurant in North Beach, who far from gunplay and derring-do, repairs watches for relaxation. This makes for a different kind of thriller, but one which is no less satisfying. I'm sure Jack Hatfield will be back, and I'm looking forward to the next outing.

You can read this novel as a stand-alone thriller without having first read Abuse of Power, but be warned that it contains major plot spoilers for the first novel; to fully enjoy them both, it's best to start there.

March 2013 Permalink

Suarez, Daniel. Daemon. New York: Signet, 2009. ISBN 978-0-451-22873-4.
Ever since “giant electronic brains” came into the public consciousness in the 1940s and '50s, “the computers taking over” has been a staple of science fiction, thrillers, and dystopian novels. To anybody who knows anything about computers, most of these have fallen in the spectrum from implausible to laughably bad, primarily because their authors didn't understand computers, and attributed to them anthropomorphic powers they don't possess, or assumed they had ways to influence events in the real world which they don't.

Here we have a novel that gets it right, is not just a thoughtful exploration of the interaction of computers, networks, and society, but a rip-roaring thriller as well, and, remarkably, is a first novel. In it, Matthew Sobol, a computer game designer who parleyed his genius for crafting virtual worlds in which large numbers of individuals and computer-generated characters interact (massively multiplayer online role-playing games) into a global enterprise, CyberStorm Entertainment, and a personal fortune in the hundreds of millions of dollars, tragically dies of brain cancer at the age of 34.

Shortly after Sobol's death, two CyberStorm employees die in bizarre circumstances which, when police detective Pete Sebeck begins to investigate them with the aid of itinerant computer consultant and dedicated gamer Jon Ross, lead them to suspect that they are murders orchestrated, for no immediately apparent motive, from beyond the grave by Sobol, and carried out by processes, daemons, running on Internet-connected computers without the knowledge of the systems' owners. When the FBI, called in due to their computer forensics resources, attempts to raid Sobol's mansion, things go beyond catastrophically wrong, and it appears they're up against an adversary which has resources and capabilities which are difficult to even quantify and potential consequences for society which cannot be bounded.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
Or maybe not. Before long evidence emerges that Sobol was the victim of a scam orchestrated by Sebeck and his mistress, conning Sobol, whose cognitive facilities were failing as his disease progressed, and setting up the Daemon as a hoax to make a fortune in the stock market as CyberStorm's stock collapsed. This neatly wraps up the narrative, which is just what the police, FBI, and NSA want, and Sebeck is quickly convicted and finds himself on death row for the murders he was accused of having orchestrated. Some involved in the investigation doubt that this ties up all the loose ends, but their superiors put the kibosh on going public with their fears for the time-tested reason of “avoiding public panic”.

Meanwhile, curious things are happening in the worlds of online gaming, offshore Internet gambling and pornography businesses, pillars of the finance sector, media outlets, prisons, and online contract manufacturing. The plague of spam comes to an end in a cataclysmic event which many people on the receiving end may find entirely justified. As analysts at NSA and elsewhere put the pieces together, they begin to comprehend what they're up against and put together an above top secret task force to infiltrate and subvert the Daemon's activities. But in this wired world, it is difficult to keep anything off the record, especially when confronted by an adversary which, distributed on computers around the world, reading all Web sites and RSS feeds, and with its own stream of revenue and human agents which it rewards handsomely, is able to exert its power anywhere. It's a bit like God, when you think about it, or maybe what Google would like to become.

What makes the Daemon, and this book, so devilishly clever is that, in the words of the NSA analyst on its trail, “The Daemon is not an Internet worm or a network exploit. It doesn't hack systems. It hacks society.” Indeed, the Daemon is essentially a role playing game engine connected to the real world, with the ability to reward those humans who do its bidding with real world money, power, and prestige, not virtual credits in a game. Consider how much time and money highly intelligent people with limited social skills currently spend on online multiplayer games. Now imagine if the very best of them were recruited to deploy their talents in the world outside their parents' basements, and be compensated with wealth, independence, and power over others. Do you think there would be a shortage of people to do the Daemon's bidding, even without the many forms of coercion it could bring to bear on those who were unwilling?

Ultimately this book is about a phase change in the structure of human society brought about by the emergence of universal high bandwidth connectivity and distributed autonomous agents interacting with humans on an individual basis. From a pure Darwinian standpoint, might such a system be able to act, react, and mobilise resources so quickly and efficiently that it would run rings around the strongly hierarchical, coercive, and low bandwidth forms of organisation which have characterised human society for thousands of years? And if so, what could the legacy society do to stop it, particularly once it has become completely dependent upon the technologies which now are subverting and supplanting it?

Spoilers end here.  
When I say the author gets it right, I'm not claiming the plot is actually plausible or that something like this could happen in the present or near future—there are numerous circumstances where a reader with business or engineering experience will be extremely sceptical that so many intricate things which have never before been tested on a full scale (or at all) could be expected to work the first time. After all, multi-player online games are not opened to the public before extensive play testing and revision based upon the results. But lighten up: this is a thriller, not a technological forecast, and the price of admission in suspension of disbelief is much the same as other more conventional thrillers. Where the book gets it right is that when discussing technical details, terminology is used correctly, descriptions are accurate, and speculative technologies at least have prototypes already demonstrated. Many books of this genre simply fall into the trap of Star Trek-like technobabble or endow their technological gadgets with capabilities nobody would have any idea how to implement today. In many stories in which technology figures prominently, technologically knowledgeable readers find themselves constantly put off by blunders which aren't germane to the plot but are simply indicative of ignorance or sloppiness on the part of the author; that doesn't happen here. One of the few goofs I noticed was in chapter 37 where one of the Daemon's minions receives “[a] new 3-D plan file … then opened it in AutoCAD. It took several seconds, even on his powerful Unix workstation.” In fact, AutoCAD has run only on Microsoft platforms for more than a decade, and that isn't likely to change. But he knows about AutoCAD, not to mention the Haas Mini Mill.

The novel concludes with a rock 'em, sock 'em action scene which is going to be awe inspiring when this book is made into a movie. Rumour is that Paramount Pictures has already optioned the story, and they'll be fools if they don't proceed with production for the big screen. At the end of the book the saga is far from over, but it ends at a logical point and doesn't leave you with a cliffhanger. Fortunately, the sequel, Freedom™, is already out in hardcover and is available in a Kindle edition.

August 2010 Permalink

Suarez, Daniel. Freedom™. New York: Signet, 2010. ISBN 978-0-451-23189-5.
You'll see this book described as the sequel to the author's breakthrough first novel Daemon (August 2010), but in fact this is the second half of a long novel which happened to be published in two volumes. As such, if you pick up this book without having read Daemon, you will have absolutely no idea what is going on, who the characters are, and why they are motivated to do the things they do. There is little or no effort to fill in the back story or bring the reader up to speed. So read Daemon first, then this book, ideally not too long afterward so the story will remain fresh in your mind. Since that's the way the author treats these two books, I'm going to take the same liberty and assume you've read my review of Daemon to establish the context for these remarks.

The last two decades have demonstrated, again and again, just how disruptive ubiquitous computing and broadband data networks can be to long-established and deeply entrenched industries such as book publishing and distribution, music recording and retailing, newspapers, legacy broadcast media, domestic customer service call centres, travel agencies, and a host of other businesses which have seen their traditional business models supplanted by something faster, more efficient, and with global reach. In this book the author explores the question of whether the fundamental governance and economic system of the last century may be next domino to fall, rendered impotent and obsolete and swept away by a fundamentally new way of doing things, impossible to imagine in the pre-wired world, based on the principles used in massively multiplayer online game engines and social networks.

Of course, governments and multinational corporations are not going to go gently into the night, and the Daemon (a distributed mesh networked game engine connected to the real world) and its minions on the “darknet” demonstrate the ruthlessness of a machine intelligence when threatened, which results in any number of scenes just begging to be brought to the big screen. In essence, the Daemon is creating a new operating system for humans, allowing them to interact in ways less rigid, more decentralised and resilient, and less hierarchical than the institutions they inherited from an era when goods and information travelled no faster than a horse.

In my estimation, this is a masterwork: the first compelling utopian/dystopian (depending on how you look at it, which is part of its genius) novel of the Internet era. It is as good, in its own way, as Looking Backward, Brave New World, or 1984, and it is a much more thrilling read than any of them. Like those classics, Suarez gets enough of the details right that you find yourself beginning to think that things might actually turn out something like this, and what kind of a world it would be to live in were that to happen.

Ray Kurzweil argues that The Singularity Is Near. In this novel, the author gets the reader to wonder whether it might not be a lot closer than Kurzweil envisions, and not require the kind of exponential increase in computing power he assumes to be the prerequisite. Might the singularity—a phase transition in the organisation of human society as profound as the discovery of agriculture—actually be about to happen in the next few years, not brought about by superhuman artificial intelligence but rather the synthesis of and interconnection of billions of human intelligences connected by a “social network” encompassing all of society? (And if you think sudden transitions like that can't happen, just ask anybody who used to own a record store or the boss of a major newspaper.) Would this be a utopian solution to a system increasingly perceived as unsustainable and inexorably crushing individuality and creativity, or would it be a descent into a potentially irreversible dark age in which humans would end up as peripherals in a vast computing grid using them to accomplish its own incomprehensible agenda? You'll probably close this book undecided on that question, and spend a good deal of time afterward pondering it. That is what makes this novel so great.

If the author can continue to rise to this standard in subsequent novels, we have a new grandmaster on the scene.

January 2011 Permalink

Suarez, Daniel. Kill Decision. New York: Signet, 2012. ISBN 978-0-451-41770-1.
A drone strike on a crowd of pilgrims at one of the holiest shrines of Shia Islam in Iraq inflames the world against the U.S., which denies its involvement. (“But who else is flying drones in Iraq?”, is the universal response.) Meanwhile, the U.S. is rocked by a series of mysterious bombings, killing businessmen on a golf course, computer vision specialists meeting in Silicon Valley, military contractors in a building near the Pentagon—all seemingly unrelated. A campaign is building to develop and deploy autonomous armed drones to “protect the homeland”.

Prof. Linda McKinney, doing research on weaver ants in Tanzania, seems far away from all this until she is saved from an explosion which destroys her camp by a mysterious group of special forces led by a man known only as “Odin”. She learns that her computer model of weaver ant colony behaviour has been stolen from her university's computer network by persons unknown who may be connected with the attacks, including the one she just escaped.

The fear is that her ant model could be used as the basis for “swarm intelligence” drones which could cooperate to be a formidable weapon. With each individual drone having only rudimentary capabilities, like an isolated ant, they could be mass-produced and shift the military balance of power in favour of whoever possessed the technology.

McKinney soon finds herself entangled in a black world where nothing is certain and she isn't even sure which side she's working for. Shocking discoveries indicate that the worst case she feared may be playing out, and she must decide where to place her allegiance.

This novel is a masterful addition to the very sparse genre of robot ant science fiction thrillers, and this time I'm not the villain! Suarez has that rare talent, as had Michael Crichton, of writing action scenes which just beg to be put on the big screen and stories where the screenplay just writes itself. Should Hollywood turn this into a film and not botch it, the result should be a treat. You will learn some things about ants which you probably didn't know (all correct, as far as I can determine), visit a locale in the U.S. which sounds like something out of a Bond film but actually exists, and meet two of the most curious members of a special operations team in all of fiction.

April 2014 Permalink

Suprynowicz, Vin. The Black Arrow. Las Vegas: Mountain Media, 2005. ISBN 0-9762516-0-4.
For more than a decade, Vin Suprynowicz's columns in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (collected in Send In The Waco Killers and The Ballad of Carl Drega) have chronicled the closing circle of individual freedom in the United States. You may find these books difficult to finish, not due to any fault in the writing, which is superb, but because reading of the treatment of citizens at the hands of a government as ignorant as it is imperious makes your blood boil. Here, however, in his first venture into fiction, the author has written a book which is difficult to put down.

The year is 2030, and every complacent person who asked rhetorically, “How much worse can it get?” has seen the question answered beyond their worst nightmares. What's left of the United States is fighting to put down the secessionist mountain states of New Columbia, and in the cities of the East, people are subject to random searches by jackbooted Lightning Squads, when they aren't shooting up clandestine nursery schools operated by anarchist parents who refuse to deliver their children into government indoctrination. This is the kind of situation which cries out for a superhero and, lo and behold, onto the stage steps The Black Arrow and his deadly serious but fun-loving band to set things right through the time-tested strategy of killing the bastards. The Black Arrow has a lot in common with Batman—actually maybe a tad too much. Like Batman, he's a rich and resourceful man with a mission (but no super powers), he operates in New York City, which is called “Gotham” in the novel, and he has a secret lair in a cavern deep beneath the city.

There is a modicum of libertarian background and philosophy, but it never gets in the way of the story. There is enough explicit violence and copulation for an R rated movie—kids and those with fragile sensibilities should give this one a miss. Some of the verbal imagery in the story is so vivid you can almost see it erupting from the page—this would make a tremendous comic book adaptation or screenplay for an alternative universe Hollywood where stories of liberty were welcome.

May 2005 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The Last Patriot. London: Pocket Books, 2008. ISBN 978-1-84739-195-7.
This is a page-turning thriller which requires somewhat more suspension of disbelief than the typical book of the genre. The story involves, inter alia, radical Islam, the assassination of Mohammed, the Barbary pirates, Thomas Jefferson, a lost first edition of Don Quixote, puzzle boxes, cryptography, car bombs, the French DST, the U.S. president, and a plan to undermine the foundations of one of the world's great religions.

If this seems to cross over into the territory of a Dan Brown novel or the National Treasure movies, it does, and like those entertainments, you'll enjoy the ride more if you don't look too closely at the details or ask questions like, “Why is the President of the United States, with the resources of the NSA at his disposal, unable to break a simple cylinder substitution cipher devised more than two centuries ago?”. Still, if you accept this book for what it is, it's a fun read; this would make an excellent “airplane book”, at least as long as you aren't flying to Saudi Arabia—the book is banned in that country.

A U.S. edition is available.

March 2010 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Foreign Influence. New York: Atria Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4165-8659-3.
Thanks to the inexorable working of Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy, government agencies, even those most central to the legitimate functions of government and essential to its survival and the safety of the citizenry, will inevitably become sclerotic and ineffective, serving their employees at the expense of the taxpayers. The only way to get things done is for government to outsource traditionally governmental functions to private sector contractors, and recent years have seen even military operations farmed out to private security companies.

With the intelligence community having become so dysfunctional and hamstrung by feel-good constraints upon their actions and fear of political retribution against operatives, it is only natural that intelligence work—both collection and covert operations—will move to the private sector, and in this novel, Scot Harvath has left government service to join the shadowy Carlton Group, providing innovative services to the Department of Defense. Freed of bureaucratic constraints, Harvath's inner klootzak (read the book) is fully unleashed. Less than halfway into the novel, here's Harvath reporting to his boss, Reed Carlton:

“So let me get this straight,” said the Old Man. “You trunked two Basque separatists, Tasered a madam and a bodyguard—after she kicked your tail—then bagged and dragged her to some French farmhouse where you threatened to disfigure her, then iceboarded a concierge, shot three hotel security guards, kidnapped the wife of one of Russia's wealthiest mobsters, are now sitting in a hotel in Marseille waiting for a callback from the man I sent you over there to apprehend. Is that about right?”
Never a dull moment with the Carlton Group on the job!

Aggressive action is called for, because Harvath finds himself on the trail of a time-sensitive plot to unleash terror attacks in Europe and the U.S., launched by an opaque conspiracy where nothing is as it appears to be. Is this a jihadist plot, or the first volley in an asymmetric warfare conflict launched by an adversary, or a terror network hijacked by another mysterious non-state actor with its own obscure agenda? As Harvath follows the threads, two wisecracking Chicago cops moonlighting to investigate a hit and run accident stumble upon a domestic sleeper cell about to be activated by the terror network. And as the action becomes intense, we make the acquaintance of an Athena Team, an all-babe special forces outfit which is expected to figure prominently in the next novel in the saga and will doubtless improve the prospects of these books being picked up by Hollywood. With the clock ticking, these diverse forces (and at least one you'll never see coming) unite to avert a disastrous attack on American soil. The story is nicely wrapped up at the end, but the larger mystery remains to be pursued in subsequent books.

I find Brad Thor's novels substantially more “edgy” than those of Vince Flynn or Tom Clancy—like Ian Fleming, he's willing to entertain the reader with eccentric characters and situations even if they strain the sense of authenticity. If you enjoy this kind of thing—and I do, very much—you'll find this an entertaining thriller, perfect “airplane book”, and look forward to the next in the series. A podcast interview with the author is available.

July 2010 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The Lions of Lucerne. New York: Pocket Books, 2002. ISBN 978-0-7434-3674-8.
This was the author's first published novel, which introduced Scot Harvath, the ex-Navy SEAL around whose exploits his subsequent thrillers have centred. In the present book, Harvath has been recruited into the Secret Service and is in charge of the U.S. president's advance team and security detail for a ski trip to Utah which goes disastrously wrong when an avalanche wipes out the entire Secret Service field team except for Harvath, leaving the president missing and his daughter grievously injured. This shock is compounded manyfold when evidence indicates that the president has been kidnapped in an elaborate plot, which is soon confirmed by an incontrovertible communication from the kidnappers.

If things weren't bad enough for the seriously battered Harvath, still suffering from a concussion and “sprained body”, he finds himself framed as the person who leaked the security arrangements to the kidnappers and for the murder of two people trying to bring evidence regarding the plot to the attention of the authorities.

Harvath decides the only way he can clear his name is to get to the bottom of the conspiracy and rescue the president himself and so, grasping at the only thread of evidence he has, travels incognito to Switzerland, where he begins to unravel the details of the plot, identify the conspirators, and discover where the president is being held and devise a plan to rescue him. You don't often come across a Swiss super-villain, but there's one here, complete with an Alpine redoubt worth of a Bond blackguard.

This is a first novel, and it shows. Thor's mastery of the craft of the thriller, both in storytelling and technical detail, has improved over the years. If I hadn't read two of the more recent books, I might have been inclined to give it up after this one, but knowing what's coming, I'll continue to enjoy books from this series. In the present story, we have a vast disparity between the means (an intricate and extremely risky plot to kidnap the U.S. president) and the ends (derailing the passage of an alternative energy bill like “cap and trade”), carried out by an international conspiracy so vast that its security would almost be certain to be quickly compromised, but which is, instead, revealed through a series of fantastically improbable coincidences. Scot Harvath is pursued by two independent teams of assassins who may be the worst shots in the entire corpus of bestselling thrillers. And the Swiss authorities simply letting somebody go who smuggled a gun into Switzerland, sprayed gunfire around a Swiss city (damaging a historical landmark in the process), and then broke into a secret Swiss military base doesn't sound like the Switzerland with which I'm acquainted.

Still, this is well deserving of the designation “thriller”, and it will keep you turning the pages. It only improves from here, but I'd start with one of the more recent novels.

October 2010 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Path of the Assassin. New York: Pocket Books, 2003. ISBN 978-0-7434-3676-2.
This, the second in the author's Scot Harvath saga, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010), starts with Agent Harvath, detached from the Secret Service and charged with cleaning up loose ends from events in the previous book, finding himself stalked and repeatedly preempted by a mysterious silver-eyed assassin who eliminates those linked to the plot he's investigating before they can be captured. Meanwhile, the Near East is careening toward war after a group calling itself the “Hand of God” commits atrocities upon Muslim holy sites, leaving a signature including the Star of David and the message “Terror for Terror”. Although the Israeli government denies any responsibility, there is substantial sympathy for these attacks within Israel, and before long reprisal attacks are mounted and raise tensions to the breaking point.

Intelligence indicates that the son of Abu Nidal has re-established his father's terrorist network and enlisted a broad coalition of Islamic barbarians in its cause. This is confirmed when a daring attack is mounted against a publicity stunt flight from the U.S. to Egypt which Harvath is charged to defeat.

And now it gets a little weird. We are expected to believe that, in just weeks or months, a public relations agent from Chicago, Meg Cassidy, whose spontaneous bravery brought down the hijackers in Cairo, could be trained to become a fully-qualified Special Forces operative, not only with the physical stamina which is found only in the best of the best, but also knowledge of a wide variety of weapons systems and technologies which veteran snake eaters spend years acquiring in the most demanding of conditions. This is as difficult to believe as the premise in G.I. Jane, and actually less so, since in that fantasy the woman in question actually wanted to become a commando.

This is a pretty good thriller, but you get the sense that Thor is still mastering the genre in this novel. He does realise that in the first novel he backed his protagonist into a corner by making him a Secret Service agent and works that out with the aid of a grateful president who appoints him to a much more loose cannon position in “Homeland Security”, which should make all of the dozens of lovers of liberty remaining in the United States shudder at that forbidding phrase.

December 2010 Permalink

Thor, Brad. State of the Union. New York: Pocket Books, 2004. ISBN 978-0-7434-3678-6.
This is the third in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). How refreshing to read a post-Cold War thriller in which the Russkies are threatening nuclear terror to reassert a strategy of global hegemony which only went underground with the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Whatever happened, anyway, to all of those suitcase nukes which multiple sources said went missing when the Soviet Union dissolved, and which some Soviet defectors claimed had been smuggled into caches in the U.S and Europe to be used as a last-ditch deterrent should war be imminent? Suppose a hard core of ex-Soviet military officers, with the implicit approval of the Russian government, were to attempt a “Hail Mary” pass to win the Cold War in one masterstroke?

I have nattered in reviews of previous novels in this series about Thor's gradually mastering the genre of the thriller. No more—with this one he's entirely up to speed, and it just gets better from here on. Not only are we treated to a Cold War scenario, the novel is written in the style of a period espionage novel in which nothing may be what it appears, and the reader, along with the principal characters, is entirely in the fog as to what is actually going on for the first quarter of the book.

Quibbles? Yes, I have a few. In his quest for authenticity, the author often pens prose which comes across like Hollywood product placement:

… The team was outfitted in black, fire-retardant Nomex fatigues, HellStorm tactical assault gloves, and First Choice body armor. Included with the cache laid out by the armorer, were several newly arrived futuristic .40-caliber Beretta CX4 Storm carbines, as well as Model 96 Beretta Vertex pistols, also in .40 caliber. There was something about being able to interchange their magazines that Harvath found very comforting.

A Picatinny rail system allowed him to outfit the CX4 Storm with an under-mounted laser sight and an above-mounted Leupold scope. …

Ka ching! Ka ching! Ka ching!

I have no idea if the author or publisher were paid for mentioning this most excellent gear for breaking things and killing bad guys, but that's how it reads.

But, hey, what's not to like about a novel which includes action scenes on a Russian nuclear powered icebreaker in the Arctic? Been there—done that!

February 2011 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Blowback. New York: Pocket Books, 2005. ISBN 978-1-4516-0828-1.
This is the fourth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel, Harvath is involved in a botched takedown attempt against an al-Qaeda operative which, repeated endlessly on cable news channels, brings him and his superiors into the crosshairs of ambitious former first lady and carpetbagging Senator Helen Remington Carmichael, who views exposing Harvath and those who ordered the operation as her ticket to second place on the next Democratic presidential ticket.

As wise people do when faced with the flounderings of a wounded yet still dangerous superpower, Harvath gets out of Dodge and soon finds himself on the trail of a plot, grounded in the arcane science of paleopathology and dating from Hannibal's crossing of the Alps, which threatens a genocide of non-believers in the Dar al-Harb and unification of the Ummah under a new caliphate. Scientists have been disappearing, and as Harvath follows the trail of the assassin, he discovers the sinister thread that ties their work, performed in isolation, together into a diabolical scheme.

Harvath teams up with a plucky lady paleopathologist (Harvath's female companions seem to adapt to commando missions as readily as Doctor Who's to multiverse displacement) and together they begin to follow the threads which lead to an horrific plot based on a weapon of mass destruction conceived in antiquity which has slumbered for millennia in an ice cavern.

What more could you ask for? Politics, diseases in antiquity, ice mummies, evil geniuses in Swiss mountain redoubts (heh!), glider assaults, mass murder with the chosen protected by mass marketing, and a helicopter assault on a terrorist icon in a Muslim country—works for me!

This is a thriller, and it delivers the thrills in abundance. But this is Fourmilab, and you expect the quibbles, don't you? So here we go, and without spoilers! The Super Vivat motor-gliders used to assault the mountaintop are said in chapter 72 to be capable of retracting the propeller into the nose of the fuselage and retracting and extending their landing gear. Neither is correct—the propeller can be feathered but not retracted, and the landing gear is fixed.

This is a page-turner, and it succeeds at its mission and will send you off to read the next in the series. The solution to the chaos in the Islamic world advanced here by the bad guys is, in fact, one I've been thinking about as less worse than most of the alternatives for more than decade. Could the “Arab Spring” give way to an “Ottoman Fall”? Let's talk Turkey.

May 2011 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Takedown. New York: Pocket Books, 2006. ISBN 978-1-4516-3615-4.
This is the fifth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this episode, Harvath, an agent for a covert branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, completes a snatch and exfiltration of a terrorist bombmaker granted political asylum in Canada, delivers him into custody in Manhattan, and plans to spend a lazy fourth of July holiday in the Big Apple with one of his closest friends, a Delta Force operative recently retired after a combat injury. Their bar-hopping agenda is rudely interrupted by an escalating series of terrorist attacks which culminate in bridge and tunnel bombings which, along with sniper and rocket-propelled grenade attacks on boat and air traffic, isolate Manhattan from the mainland and inflict massive civilian casualties.

As Harvath establishes contact with his superiors, he discovers he is the only operative in the city and, worse, that a sequence of inexplicable and extremely violent attacks on targets irrelevant to any known terrorist objective seems to indicate the attacks so far, however horrific, may be just a diversion and/or intended to facilitate a further agenda. Without support or hope of reinforcement from his own agency, he recruits a pick-up team of former special operators recovering from the physical and psychological consequences of combat injuries he met at the Veterans Affairs hospital New York as the attacks unfolded and starts to follow the trail of the terrorists loose in Manhattan. As the story develops, layer after layer of deception is revealed, not only on the part of the terrorists and the shadowy figures behind them and pulling their strings, but also within the U.S. government, reaching all the way to the White House. And if you thought you'd heard the last of the dinky infovore Troll and his giant Ovcharkas, he's back!

This is a well-crafted thriller and will keep you turning the pages. That said, I found it somewhat odd that a person with such a sense of honour and loyalty to his friends and brothers in arms as Harvath would so readily tolerate deception among his superiors which led directly to their deaths, regardless of the purported “national security” priorities. It is indicative of how rapidly the American Empire is sliding into the abyss that outrageous violations of human rights, the rule of law, and due process which occur in this story to give it that frisson of edginess that Thor seeks in his novels now seem tame compared to remote-controlled murder by missile of American citizens in nations with which the U.S. is not at war ordered by a secret committee on the sole authority of the president. Perhaps as the series progresses, we'll encounter triple zero agents—murder by mouse click.

As usual, I have a few quibbles.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • The president's press secretary does not write his speeches. This is the job of speechwriters, one or more of whom usually accompanies the president even on holiday. (Chapter 18)
  • The Surgeon General is not the president's personal physician. (Chapter 42)
  • If I were rappelling through a manhole several stories into the bowels of Manhattan, I think I'd use a high tensile strength tripod rather than the “high tinsel” tripod used in chapter 59. Now if the bad guy was way up in a Christmas tree….
  • In chapter 100, the Troll attaches a “lightweight silencer” to his custom-built rifle firing the .338 Lapua sniper round. Even if you managed to fit a suppressor to a rifle firing this round and it effectively muffled the sound of the muzzle blast (highly dubious), there would be no point in doing so because the bullet remains supersonic more than a kilometre from the muzzle (depending on altitude and temperature), and the shock wave from the bullet would easily be audible anywhere in Gibraltar. Living across the road from a rifle range, I'm acutely aware of the sound of supersonic bullets coming more or less in my direction, and these are just 5.56 and 7.62 NATO, not Lapua “reach out and whack someone” ammo.
Spoilers end here.  

November 2011 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The First Commandment. New York: Pocket Books, 2007. ISBN 978-1-4516-3566-9.
This is the sixth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In the aftermath of the shocking conclusion to the previous novel, Takedown (November 2011), Department of Homeland Security agent Scot Harvath discovers that he, personally, has become the target of a plot by person or persons unknown, aimed at individuals close to him in a series of attacks of Biblical proportions.

When he starts to follow the trail of evidence back to the source, he is told to stand down by no less than the president of the United States, who declines to specify a reason. Harvath is not a man easily dissuaded, especially when convinced that his loved ones and colleagues are in imminent danger simply due to their association with him, and he goes rogue, enlisting friends in the shadowy world of private security to dig into the mystery. This doesn't sit well with the president, who puts Harvath on a proscription list and dispatches a CIA “Omega Team” to deal with him. At one point a CIA agent and friend, to whom Harvath protests that he has every right to protect those close to him, responds “You don't have any rights. Jack Rutledge is the president of the United States. When he tells you to do something, you do it.” (At this point, I'd have preferred if Harvath decked the CIA goon and explained to him that his rights come from God, not the president of the United States, and that while a politician may try to infringe those rights, they remain inherent to every person. But maybe Harvath has been working so long for the slavers that he's forgotten that.)

As Harvath follows the murky threads, he comes across evidence which suggests a cover-up extending into the oval office, and is forced into an uneasy détente with his nemesis, the pint-sized supervillain known as the Troll, whose data mining prowess permits connecting the dots in an otherwise baffling situation. (People in Harvath's line of work tend not to lack for enemies, after all.)

I found this to be the best Brad Thor novel I've read so far—it's lighter on the action and gadgets and more concentrated on the mystery and the motivations of the malefactors. I prefer to read a series of novels in the order in which they describe the life of the protagonist. This book does contain sufficient background and context so that it will work as a stand-alone thriller, but if you haven't read the previous novels, you'll miss a lot of the complexity of Harvath's relationships with characters who appear here.

July 2012 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The Apostle. New York: Pocket Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-4165-8658-6.
This is the eighth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel covert operative Harvath has retired from government service and is enjoying an extended vacation in the Maine woods when he is summoned for an urgent meeting with recently-elected president Robert Alden. Alden informs Harvath that Julia Gallo, the daughter of fund-raiser and media baron Stephanie Gallo, to whom Alden owes a great deal of his recent electoral triumph, has been taken hostage in Afghanistan.

The Taliban have confirmed the hostage-taking and offered to exchange the younger Gallo for an al-Qaeda operative held in an Afghan prison. The Afghan government views putting this malefactor on trial as key to its legitimacy and will not countenance giving him up. Alden asks Harvath to go to Afghanistan, spring the terrorist from prison, and make the exchange, all beneath the radar to avoid damaging Alden's posture of being “tough on terror”. Harvath wonders why Alden is willing to undertake such risk for one hostage while so many others have fallen unremarked in Afghanistan, but accepts the mission.

Meanwhile, a junior Secret Service agent on the president's protection detail overhears a conversation between Stephanie Gallo and the president which indicates her power over him may be based in a dark secret which, if exposed, might end his presidency.

Most of the story is set in Afghanistan and the author has drawn upon his sources to craft a believable picture of that chaotic place. Perhaps acknowledging the shrinking presence of the U.S. on the world stage in the epoch in which the book was written, when Harvath calls in the cavalry, it might not be who you expect. The intrigue in Washington plays out in parallel.

This is a satisfying thriller which, unlike some of the earlier books in the series, works perfectly well if it's the first one you read. If you start here you'll miss details such as how Harvath met his girlfriend or came by his dog, but that's about it, and they play no part in the plot. There is the usual name-dropping of tactical gear which I used to find annoying but have now come to find somewhat charming and fun to look up whilst reading the novel.

September 2013 Permalink

Thor, Brad. The Athena Project. New York: Pocket Books, 2010. ISBN 978-1-4391-9297-9.
This is the tenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel Harvath has only a walk-on rôle, while centre stage is occupied by the all-woman Athena Team of special operators we first encountered in the previous novel in the series, Foreign Influence (July 2010). These women, recruited from top competitors in extreme sports, are not only formidable at shooting, fighting, parachuting, underwater operations, and the rest of the panoply of skills of their male counterparts, they are able to blend in more easily in many contexts than their burly, buzz-cut colleagues and, when necessary, use their feminine wiles to disarm (sometimes literally) the adversary.

Deployed on a mission to seize and exfiltrate an arms merchant involved in a terrorist attack on U.S. civilians in Europe, the team ends up in a James Bond style shoot-out and chase through the canals of Venice. Meanwhile, grisly evidence in the Paraguayan jungle indicates that persons unknown may have come into possession of a Nazi wonder weapon from the last days of World War II and are bent on using it with potentially disastrous consequences.

The Athena Team must insinuate themselves into an underground redoubt in Eastern Europe, discover its mysteries, and figure out the connections to the actors plotting mass destruction, then neutralise them.

I've enjoyed all the Brad Thor novels I've read so far, but this one, in my opinion, doesn't measure up to the standard of those earlier in the series. First of all, the fundamental premise of the super-weapon at the centre of the plot is physically absurd, and all the arm-waving in the world can't make it plausible. Also, as Larry Niven observed, any society which develops such a technology will quickly self-destruct (which doesn't mean it's impossible, but may explain why we do not observe intelligent aliens in the universe). I found the banter among the team members and with their male colleagues contrived and tedious: I don't think such consummate professionals would behave in such a manner, especially while on the clock. Attention to detail on the little things is excellent, although that Air Force base in the Florida panhandle is “Eglin”, not “Elgin” (p. 202).

This is a well-crafted thriller and enjoyable “airplane book”. Once you get past the implausibility of the super-weapon (as many readers who have only heard of such concepts in the popular press will), the story moves right along. It's substantially harder to tell a story involving a team of four equals (albeit with different talents) than one with a central character such as Scot Harvath, and I don't think the author completely pulls it off: the women are not sufficiently distinguished from one another and tend to blend together as team members rather than be identified with their individual characteristics.

December 2013 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Full Black. New York: Pocket Books, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4165-8662-3.
This is the eleventh in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Unlike the previous novel, The Athena Project (December 2013), in which Harvath played only an incidental part, here Harvath once again occupies centre stage. The author has also dialed back on some of the science-fictiony stuff which made Athena less than satisfying to me: this book is back in the groove of the geopolitical thriller we've come to expect from Thor.

A high-risk covert operation to infiltrate a terrorist cell operating in Uppsala, Sweden to identify who is calling the shots on terror attacks conducted by sleeper cells in the U.S. goes horribly wrong, and Harvath not only loses almost all of his team, but fails to capture the leaders of the cell. Meanwhile, a ruthless and carefully scripted hit is made on a Hollywood producer, killing two filmmakers which whom he is working on a documentary project: evidence points to the hired killers being Russian spetsnaz, which indicates whoever ordered the hit has both wealth and connections.

When a coordinated wave of terror attacks against soft targets in the U.S. is launched, Harvath, aided by his former nemesis turned ally Nicholas (“the troll”), must uncover the clues which link all of this together, working against time, as evidence suggests additional attacks are coming. This requires questioning the loyalty of previously-trusted people and investigating prominent figures generally considered above suspicion.

With the exception of chapter 32, which gets pretty deep into the weeds of political economy and reminded me a bit of John Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010) (thankfully, it is much shorter), the story moves right along and comes to a satisfying conclusion. The plot is in large part based upon the Chinese concept of “unrestricted warfare”, which is genuine (this is not a spoiler, as the author mentions it in the front material of the book).

March 2014 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Black List. New York: Pocket Books, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4391-9302-0.
This is the twelfth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Brad Thor has remarked in interviews that he strives to write thrillers which anticipate headlines which will break after their publication, and with this novel he hits a grand slam.

Scot Harvath is ambushed in Paris by professional killers who murder a member of his team. After narrowly escaping, he goes to ground and covertly travels to a remote region in Basque country where he has trusted friends. He is then attacked there, again by trained killers, and he has to conclude that the probability is high that the internal security of his employer, the Carlton Group, has been breached, perhaps from inside.

Meanwhile, his employer, Reed Carlton, is attacked at his secure compound by an assault team and barely escapes with his life. When Carlton tries to use his back channels to contact members of his organisation, they all appear to have gone dark. To Carlton, a career spook with tradecraft flowing in his veins, this indicates his entire organisation has been wiped out, for no apparent motive and by perpetrators unknown.

Harvath, Carlton, and the infovore dwarf Nicholas, operating independently, must begin to pick up the pieces to figure out what is going on, while staying under the radar of a pervasive surveillance state which employs every technological means to track them down and target them for summary extra-judicial elimination.

If you pick up this book and read it today, you might think it's based upon the revelations of Edward Snowden about the abuses of the NSA conducting warrantless surveillance on U.S. citizens. But it was published in 2012, a full year before the first of Snowden's disclosures. The picture of the total information awareness state here is, if anything, more benign than what we now know to be the case in reality. What is different is that when Harvath, Carlton, and Nicholas get to the bottom of the mystery, the reaction in high places is what one would hope for in a constitutional republic, as opposed to the “USA! USA! USA!” cheerleading or silence which has greeted the exposure of abuses by the NSA on the part of all too many people.

This is a prophetic thriller which demonstrates how the smallest compromises of privacy: credit card transactions, telephone call metadata, license plate readers, facial recognition, Web site accesses, search engine queries, etc. can be woven into a dossier on any person of interest which makes going dark to the snooper state equivalent to living technologically in 1950. This not just a cautionary tale for individuals who wish to preserve a wall of privacy around themselves from the state, but also a challenge for writers of thrillers. Just as mobile telephones would have wrecked the plots of innumerable mystery and suspense stories written before their existence, the emergence of the panopticon state will make it difficult for thriller writers to have both their heroes and villains operating in the dark. I am sure the author will rise to this challenge.

August 2014 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Hidden Order. New York: Pocket Books, 2013. ISBN 978-1-4767-1710-4.
This is the thirteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). Earlier novels have largely been in the mainstream of the “techno-thriller” genre, featuring missions in exotic locations confronting shadowy adversaries bent on inflicting great harm. The present book is a departure from this formula, being largely set in the United States and involving institutions considered pillars of the establishment such as the Federal Reserve System and the Central Intelligence Agency.

A CIA operative “accidentally” runs into a senior intelligence official of the Jordanian government in an airport lounge in Europe, who passes her disturbing evidence that members of a now-disbanded CIA team of which she was a member were involved in destabilising governments now gripped with “Arab Spring” uprisings and next may be setting their sights on Jordan.

Meanwhile, Scot Harvath, just returned from a harrowing mission on the high seas, is taken by his employer, Reed Carlton, to discreetly meet a new client: the Federal Reserve. The Carlton Group is struggling to recover from the devastating blow it took in the previous novel, Black List (August 2014), and its boss is willing to take on unconventional missions and new clients, especially ones “with a license to print their own money”. The chairman of the Federal Reserve has recently and unexpectedly died and the five principal candidates to replace him have all been kidnapped, almost simultaneously, across the United States. These people start turning up dead, in circumstances with symbolism dating back to the American revolution.

Investigation of the Jordanian allegations is shut down by the CIA hierarchy, and has to be pursued through back channels, involving retired people who know how the CIA really works. Evidence emerges of a black program that created weapons of frightful potential which may have gone even blacker and deeper under cover after being officially shut down.

Earlier Brad Thor novels were more along the “U-S-A! U-S-A!” line of most thrillers. Here, the author looks below the surface of highly dubious institutions (“The Federal Reserve is about as federal as Federal Express”) and evil that flourishes in the dark, especially when irrigated with abundant and unaccountable funds. Like many Americans, Scot Harvath knew little about the Federal Reserve other than it had something to do with money. Over the course of his investigations he, and the reader, will learn many disturbing things about its dodgy history and operations, all accurate as best I can determine.

The novel is as much police procedural as thriller, with Harvath teamed with a no-nonsense Boston Police Department detective, processing crime scenes and running down evidence. The story is set in an unspecified near future (the Aerion Supersonic Business Jet is in operation). All is eventually revealed in the end, with a resolution in the final chapter devoutly to be wished, albeit highly unlikely to occur in the cesspool of corruption which is real-world Washington. There is less action and fancy gear than in most Harvath novels, but interesting characters, an intricate mystery, and a good deal of information of which many readers may not be aware.

A short prelude to this novel, Free Fall, is available for free for the Kindle. It provides the background of the mission in progress in which we first encounter Scot Harvath in chapter 2 here. My guess is that this chapter was originally part of the manuscript and was cut for reasons of length and because it spent too much time on a matter peripheral to the main plot. It's interesting to read before you pick up Hidden Order, but if you skip it you'll miss nothing in the main story.

December 2014 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Act of War. New York: Pocket Books, 2014. ISBN 978-1-4767-1713-5.
This is the fourteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel the author returns to the techno-thriller genre and places his characters, this time backed by a newly-elected U.S. president who is actually interested in defending the country, in the position of figuring out a complicated yet potentially devastating attack mounted by a nation state adversary following the doctrine of unrestricted warfare, and covering its actions by operating through non-state parties apparently unrelated to the aggressor.

The trail goes through Pakistan, North Korea, and Nashville, Tennessee, with multiple parties trying to put together the pieces of the puzzle while the clock is ticking. Intelligence missions are launched into North Korea and the Arab Emirates to try to figure out what is going on. Finally, as the nature of the plot becomes clear, Nicholas (the Troll) brings the tools of Big Data to bear on the mystery to avert disaster.

This is a workmanlike thriller and a fine “airplane book”. There is less shoot-em-up action than in other novels in the series, and a part of the suspense is supposed to be the reader's trying to figure out, along with the characters, the nature of the impending attack. Unfortunately, at least for me, it was obvious well before the half way point in the story the answer to the puzzle, and knowing this was a substantial spoiler for the rest of the book. I've thought and written quite a bit about this scenario, so I may have been more attuned to the clues than the average reader.

The author invokes the tired canard about NASA's priorities having been redirected toward reinforcing Muslim self-esteem. This is irritating (because it's false), but plays no major part in the story. Still, it's a good read, and I'll be looking forward to the next book in the series.

May 2015 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Code of Conduct. New York: Atria Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-1715-9.
This is the fifteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). In this novel, the author “goes big”, with a thriller whose global implications are soundly grounded in genuine documents of the anti-human “progressive” fringe and endorsed, at least implicitly, by programmes of the United Nations.

A short video, recorded at a humanitarian medical clinic in the Congo, shows a massacre of patients and staff which seems to make no sense at all. The operator of the clinic retains the Carlton Group to investigate the attack on its facility, and senior operative Scot Harvath is dispatched to lead a team to find out what happened and why. Murphy's Law applies at all times and places, but Murphy seems to pull extra shifts in the Congo, and Harvath's team must overcome rebels, the elements, and a cast-iron humanitarian to complete its mission.

As pieces of evidence are assembled, it becomes clear that the Congo massacre was a side-show of a plot with global implications, orchestrated by a cabal of international élites and supported by bien pensants in un-elected senior administrative positions in governments. Having bought into the anti-human agenda, they are willing to implement a plan to “restore equilibrium” and “ensure sustainability” whatever the human toll.

This is less a shoot-'em-up action thriller (although there is some of that, to be sure), than the unmasking of a hideous plot and take-down of it once it is already unleashed. It is a thoroughly satisfying yarn, and many readers may not be aware of the extent to which the goals advocated by the villains have been openly stated by senior officials of both the U.S. government and international bodies.

This is not one of those thrillers where once the dust settles things are left pretty much as they were before. The world at the end of this book will have been profoundly changed from that at the start. It will be interesting to see how the author handles this in the next volume in the series.

For a high-profile summer thriller by a blockbuster author from a major publishing house (Atria is an imprint of Simon & Schuster), which debuted at number 3 on the New York Times Best Sellers list, there are a surprising number of copy editing and factual errors, even including the platinum standard, an idiot “It's” on p. 116. Something odd appears to have happened in formatting the Kindle edition (although I haven't confirmed that it doesn't also affect the print edition): a hyphen occasionally appears at the end of lines, separated by a space from the preceding word, where no hyphenation is appropriate, for example: “State - Department”.

July 2015 Permalink

Thor, Brad. Foreign Agent. New York: Atria Books, 2016. ISBN 978-1-4767-8935-4.
This is the sixteenth in the author's Scot Harvath series, which began with The Lions of Lucerne (October 2010). After the momentous events chronicled in Code of Conduct (July 2015) (which figure only very peripherally in this volume), Scot Harvath continues his work as a private operator for the Carlton Group, developing information and carrying out operations mostly against the moment's top-ranked existential threat to the imperium on the Potomac, ISIS. When a CIA base in Iraq is ambushed by a jihadi assault team, producing another coup for the ISIS social media operation, Harvath finds himself in the hot seat, since the team was operating on intelligence he had provided through one of his sources. When he goes to visit the informant, he finds him dead, the apparent victim of a professional hit. Harvath has found that never believing in coincidences is a key to survival in his line of work.

Aided by diminutive data miner Nicholas (known as The Troll before he became a good guy), Harvath begins to follow the trail from his murdered tipster back to those who might also be responsible for the ISIS attack in Iraq. Evidence begins to suggest that a more venerable adversary, the Russkies, might be involved. As the investigation proceeds, another high-profile hit is made, this time the assassination of a senior U.S. government official visiting a NATO ally. Once again, ISIS social media trumpets the attack with graphic video.

Meanwhile, back in the capital of the blundering empire, an ambitious senator with his eyes on the White House is embarrassing the CIA and executive branch with information he shouldn't have. Is there a mole in the intelligence community, and might that be connected to the terrorist attacks? Harvath follows the trail, using his innovative interrogation techniques and, in the process, encounters people whose trail he has crossed in earlier adventures.

This novel spans the genres of political intrigue, espionage procedural, and shoot-em-up thriller and does all of them well. In the end, the immediate problem is resolved, and the curtain opens for a dramatic new phase, driven by a president who is deadly serious about dealing with international terror, of U.S. strategy in the Near East and beyond. And that's where everything fell apart for this reader. In the epilogue, which occurs one month after the conclusion of the main story, the U.S. president orders a military operation which seems not only absurdly risky, but which I sincerely hope his senior military commanders, whose oath is to the U.S. Constitution, not the President, would refuse to carry out, as it would constitute an act of war against a sovereign state without either a congressional declaration of war or the post-constitutional “authorisation for the use of military force” which seems to have supplanted it. Further, the president threatens to unilaterally abrogate, without consultation with congress, a century-old treaty which is the foundation of the political structure of the Near East if Islam, its dominant religion, refuses to reform itself and renounce violence. This is backed up by a forged video blaming an airstrike on another nation.

In all of his adventures, Scot Harvath has come across as a good and moral man, trying to protect his country and do his job in a dangerous and deceptive world. After this experience, one wonders whether he's having any second thoughts about the people for whom he's working.

There are some serious issues underlying the story, in particular why players on the international stage who would, at first glance, appear to be natural adversaries, seem to be making common cause against the interests of the United States (to the extent anybody can figure out what those might be from its incoherent policy and fickle actions), and whether a clever but militarily weak actor might provoke the U.S. into doing its bidding by manipulating events and public opinion so as to send the bungling superpower stumbling toward the mastermind's adversary. These are well worth pondering in light of current events, but largely lost in the cartoon-like conclusion of the novel.

November 2016 Permalink

Walsh, Michael. Hostile Intent. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7860-2042-3.
Michael Walsh is a versatile and successful writer who has been a Moscow correspondent and music critic for Time magazine, written a novel which is a sequel to Casablanca, four books about classical music, and a screenplay for the Disney Channel which was the highest rated original movie on the channel at the time. Two of his books have been New York Times bestsellers, and his gangster novel And All the Saints won an American Book Award in 2004. This novel is the first of a projected series of five. The second, Early Warning, was released in September 2010.

In the present novel, the author turns to the genre of the contemporary thriller, adopting the template created by Tom Clancy, and used with such success by authors such as Vince Flynn and Brad Thor: a loner, conflicted agent working for a shadowy organisation, sent to do the dirty work on behalf of the highest levels of the government of the United States. In this case, the protagonist is known only as “Devlin” (although he assumes a new alias and persona every few chapters), whose parents were killed in a terrorist attack at the Rome airport in 1985 and has been raised as a covert instrument of national policy by a military man who has risen to become the head of the National Security Agency (NSA). Devlin works for the Central Security Service, a branch of the NSA which, in the novel, retains its original intent of being “Branch 4” of the armed forces, able to exploit information resources and execute covert operations outside the scope of conventional military actions.

The book begins with a gripping description of a Beslan-like school hostage attack in the United States in which Devlin is activated to take down the perpetrators. After achieving a mostly successful resolution, he begins to suspect that the entire event was simply a ruse to draw him into the open so that he could be taken down by his enemies. This supposition is confirmed, at least in his own justifiably paranoid mind, by further terrorist strikes in Los Angeles and London, which raise the stakes and further expose his identity and connections.

This is a story which starts strong but then sputters out as it unfolds. The original taut narrative of the school hostage crisis turns into a mush with a shadowy supervillain who is kind of an evil George Soros (well, I mean an even more evil George Soros), a feckless and inexperienced U.S. president (well, at least that could never happen!), and Devlin, the über paranoid loner suddenly betting everything on a chick he last met in a shoot-out in Paris.

Thrillers are supposed to thrill, but if set in the contemporary world or the near future (as is this book—the fall of Mugabe in Zimbabwe is mentioned, but everything is pretty much the same as the present), they're expected to be plausible as regards the technology used and the behaviour of the characters. It just doesn't do to have the hero, in a moment of crisis, when attacked by ten thousand AK-47 wielding fanatics from all directions, pull out his ATOMIC SPACE GUN and mow them down with a single burst.

But that's pretty much what happens here. I'll have to go behind the spoiler curtain to get into the details, so I'll either see you there or on the other side if you've decided to approach this novel freshly without my nattering over details.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • We are asked to believe that a sitting U.S. president would order two members of his Secret Service detail to commit a cold blooded murder in order to frame a senator and manipulate his reelection campaign, and that the agents would carry out the murder. This is simply absurd.
  • As the story develops we learn that the shadowy “Branch 4” for which Devlin believes he is working does not, in fact, exist, and that Devlin is its sole agent, run by the director of NSA. Now Devlin has back-door access to all U.S. intelligence assets and databases and uses them throughout. How plausible is it that he wouldn't have figured this out himself?
  • Some people have cell phones: Devlin has a Hell phone. In chapter 7 we're treated to a description of Devlin's Black Telephone, which is equipped with “advanced voice-recognition software”, a fingerprint scanner in the receiver, and a retinal scanner in the handset. “If any of these elements were not sequenced within five seconds, the phone would self-destruct in a fireball of shrapnel, killing any unauthorized person unlucky enough to have picked it up.” Would you trust a government-supplied telephone bomb to work with 100% reliability? What if your stack of dossiers topples over and knocks off the receiver?
  • In several places “logarithm” is used where “algorithm” is intended. Gadgetry is rife with urban legends such as the computer virus which causes a hard drive to melt.
  • In chapter 12 the phone rings and Devlin “spoke into a Blu-Ray mouthpiece as he answered”. Blu-ray is an optical disc storage format; Bluetooth is the wireless peripheral technology. Besides, would an operative obsessed with security to the level of paranoia use a wireless headset with dubious anti-eavesdropping measures?
  • The coup de grace of the series of terrorist attacks is supposed to be an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack against the United States, planned to knock out all electronics, communications, and electrical power in the eastern part of the country. The attack consists of detonating an ex-Soviet nuclear weapon raised to the upper atmosphere by a weather balloon launched from a ship off the East Coast. Where to begin? Well, first of all, at the maximum altitude reachable by a weather balloon, the mean free path of the gamma rays from the detonation through the atmosphere would be limited, as opposed to the unlimited propagation distance from an explosion in space well above the atmosphere. This would mean that any ionisation of atoms in the atmosphere would be a local phenomenon, which would reduce the intensity and scope of the generated pulse. Further, the electromagnetic pulse cannot propagate past the horizon, so even if a powerful pulse were generated at the altitude of a balloon, it wouldn't propagate far enough to cause a disaster all along the East Coast.
  • In the assault on Clairvaux Prison, is it conceivable that an experienced special forces operator would take the mother of a hostage and her young son along aboard the helicopter gunship leading the strike?
  • After the fight in the prison, archvillain Skorenzy drops through a trap door and escapes to a bolt-hole, and at the end of the novel is still at large and presumed to be continuing his evil schemes. But his lair is inside a French maximum security prison! How does he get away? Say what you like about the French military, when it comes to terrorists they're deadly serious, right up there with the Mossad. Would a prison that housed Carlos the Jackal have a tunnel which would allow Skorenzy to saunter out? Would French officials allow the man who blew up a part of Los Angeles and brought down the London Eye with a cruise missile free passage?
Spoilers end here.  
It's a tangled, muddled mess. It has its moments, but there isn't the building toward a climax and then the resolution one expects from a thriller. None of the characters are really admirable, and the author's policy preferences (with which I largely agree) are exhibited far too blatantly, as opposed to being woven into the plot. The author, accomplished in other genres, may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself.

September 2010 Permalink

Walsh, Michael. Early Warning. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2010. ISBN 978-0-7860-2043-0.
This is the second novel in the author's “Devlin” series of thrillers. When I read the first, Hostile Intent, I described it as a “tangled, muddled mess” and concluded that the author “may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself”. Well, I did go ahead and read the next book in the series, and I'm pleased to report that the versatile and accomplished author (see the review of Hostile Intent for a brief biography and summary of his other work) has indeed now mastered the genre and this novel is as tightly plotted, action packed, and bristling with detail as the work of Vince Flynn and Brad Thor.

In this novel, renegade billionaire Emanuel Skorzeny, after having escaped justice for the depredations he unleashed in the previous novel, has been reduced to hiding out in jurisdictions which have no extradition treaty with the United States. NSA covert agent “Devlin” is on his trail when a coordinated series of terrorist attacks strike New York City. Feckless U.S. President Jeb Tyler decides to leave New York's police Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU) to fend for itself to avoid the débâcle being laid at his feet, but allows Devlin to be sent in covertly to track down and take out the malefactors. Devlin assumes his “angel of death” persona and goes to work, eventually becoming also the guardian angel of the head of CTU, old school second generation Irish cop Francis Xavier Byrne.

Devlin and the CTU eventually help the perpetrators achieve the martyrdom to which they aspire, but not before massive damage is inflicted upon the city and one terrorist goal accomplished which may cause even more in the future. How this fits into Skorzeny's evil schemes still remains to be discovered, as the mastermind's plot seems to involve not only mayhem on the streets of Manhattan but also the Higgs boson.

The action and intrigue are leavened by excursions into cryptography (did you know about the Poe Cryptographic Challenge?), the music of Edward Elgar, and Devlin's developing relationship with the enigmatic Iranian expatriate “Maryam”. This is an entertaining and satisfying thriller, and I'm planning to read the next episode, Shock Warning, in due time.

January 2012 Permalink

Walsh, Michael. Shock Warning. New York: Pinnacle Books, 2011. ISBN 978-0-7860-2412-4.
This is the third novel in the author's “Devlin” series of thrillers. When I read the first, Hostile Intent (September 2010), I described it as a “tangled, muddled mess” and concluded that the author “may eventually master the thriller, but I doubt I'll read any of the sequels to find out for myself”. Well, I did eventually read the sequel, Early Warning (January 2012), which I enjoyed very much, and concluded that the author was well on the path to being a grandmaster of the techno-thriller genre.

Then we have this book, the conclusion to the Devlin trilogy. Here the author decides to “go large” and widen the arena from regional terrorist strikes to a global apocalyptic clash of civilisations end-times scenario. The result is an utter flop. First of all, this novel shouldn't be read by anybody who hasn't read the previous two books—you won't have the slightest idea who the characters are, the backstory which has brought them to their present points, or what motivates them to behave as they do. Or maybe I can simplify the last sentence to say “This novel shouldn't be read by anybody”—it's that bad.

There is little more I can say which would not be spoilers for either this book or the series, so let us draw the curtain.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
The key thing about a techno-thriller is that the technology should be plausible and that it should be thrilling. This novel fails by both criteria. The key conceit, that a laser operated by a co-opted employee of CERN on the Côte d'Azur could project lifelike holographic images of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Prophet Mohammed by bouncing them off the lunar ranging retroreflectors placed on the lunar surface is laugh-out-loud absurd. A moment's calculation of the energy required to return a visible signal to the Earth will result in howls of laughter, and that's before you consider that holograms don't work anything like the author presumes they do.

Our high-end NSA and special forces heroes communicate using a “double Playfair cipher”. This is a digraph substitution cipher which can be broken in milliseconds by modern computers.

Danny brings the MH-6H Little Bird “just a few feet off the high desert floor”, whereupon Devlin “rappelled down, hit the ground, and started running” if it were just a few feet, why didn't he just step off the chopper, or why didn't Danny land it?

Spoilers end here.  

I could go on and on, but I won't because I didn't care enough about this story to critique it in detail. There is a constant vertigo as the story line cuts back and forth among characters we've met in the first two novels, many of who play only peripheral roles in this story. There is an entire subplot about a manipulative contender for the U.S. presidency which fades out and goes nowhere. This is a techno-thriller in which the tech is absurd and the plot induces chuckles rather than thrills.

July 2013 Permalink