Reading List: The Athena Project
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 21:52
Reading List: The Five Stages of Collapse
Sunday, December 1, 2013 23:01
Reading List: The Racketeer
Wednesday, November 27, 2013 22:45
Reading List: Starship Century
Monday, November 25, 2013 23:35
Reading List: Flashback
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 22:41
Tuesday, December 3, 2013 21:52
- Thor, Brad.
The Athena Project.
New York: Pocket Books, 2010.
This is the tenth in the author's
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
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
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.
Sunday, December 1, 2013 23:01
- Orlov, Dmitry.
The Five Stages of Collapse.
Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 2013.
The author was born in Leningrad and emigrated to the United
States with his family in the mid-1970s at the age of 12.
He experienced the collapse of the Soviet Union and the
subsequent events in Russia on a series of extended visits
between the late 1980s and mid 1990s. In his 2008 book
Reinventing Collapse (April 2009)
he described the Soviet collapse and assessed the probability
of a collapse of the United States, concluding such a collapse
In the present book, he steps back from the specifics of the
collapse of overextended superpowers to examine the process
of collapse as it has played out in a multitude of human
societies since the beginning of civilisation. The author
argues that collapse occurs in five stages, with each stage
creating the preconditions for the next.
Orlov argues that our current globalised society is the product of
innovations at variance with ancestral human society which are not
sustainable: in particular the exponentially growing consumption of
a finite source of energy from fossil fuels and an economy based upon
exponentially growing levels of debt: government, corporate, and
individual. Exponential growth with finite resources cannot go
on forever, and what cannot go on forever is certain to eventually
end. He argues that we are already seeing the first symptoms of
the end of the order which began with the industrial revolution.
While each stage of collapse sows the seeds of the next, the
progression is not inevitable. In post-Soviet Russia, for example,
the collapse progressed into stage 3 (political collapse), but was
then arrested by the re-assertion of government authority. While the
Putin regime may have many bad aspects, it may produce better outcomes
for the Russian people than progression into a stage 4 or 5 collapse.
In each stage of collapse, there are societies and cultures which
are resilient against the collapse around them and ride it out.
In some cases, it's because they have survived many collapses
before and have evolved not to buy into the fragile institutions
which are tumbling down and in others it's older human forms of
organisation re-asserting themselves as newfangled innovations
founder. The author cites these collapse survivors:
- Financial collapse. Faith in “business as usual”
is lost. The future is no longer assumed to resemble the
past in any way that allows risk to be assessed and
financial assets to be guaranteed. Financial institutions
become insolvent; savings are wiped out and access to
capital is lost.
- Commercial collapse. Faith that “the market shall
provide” is lost. Money is devalued and/or becomes
scarce, commodities are hoarded, import and retail chains break
down and widespread shortages of survival necessities become
- Political collapse. Faith that “the government will take
care of you” is lost. As official attempts to
mitigate widespread loss of access to commercial sources of
survival necessities fail to make a difference, the political
establishment loses legitimacy and relevance.
- Social collapse. Faith that “your people will take
care of you” is lost, as social institutions, be they
charities or other groups that rush in to fill the power
vacuum, run out of resources or fail through internal
- Cultural collapse. Faith in the goodness of humanity is lost.
People lose their capacity for “kindness, generosity,
consideration, affection, honesty, hospitality, compassion,
charity.” Families disband and compete as individuals
for scarce resources, The new motto becomes “May you
die today so that I can die tomorrow.”
This is a simultaneously enlightening and infuriating book. While the
author has deep insights into how fragile our societies are and
how older forms of society emerge after they collapse, I think he
may make the error of assuming that we are living at the end of
history and that regression to the mean is the only possible outcome.
People at every stage of the development of society which brought us
to the present point doubtless argued the same. “When we've
cut down all the forests for firewood, what shall we do?” they
said, before the discovery of coal. “When the coal seams
are mined out, what will happen?” they said, before petroleum
was discovered to be a resource, not a nuisance seeping from the ground.
I agree with Orlov that our civilisation has been founded on
abundant cheap energy and resources, but there are several orders
of magnitude more energy and resources available for our taking in
the solar system, and we already have the technology, if not the
imagination and will, to employ them to enrich all of the people
of Earth and beyond.
If collapse be our destiny, I believe our epitaph will read “Lack
of imagination and courage”. Sadly, this may be the way to bet.
Had we not turned inward in the 1970s and squandered our wealth on a
futile military competition and petroleum, Earth would now be
receiving most of its energy from solar power satellites and
futurists would be projecting the date at which the population
off-planet exceeded the mudboots deep down in the gravity well. Collapse
is an option—let's hope we do not choose it.
Here is a
talk by the author,
as rambling as this book, about the issues discussed therein.
- Financial collapse: Iceland
- Commercial collapse: The Russian Mafia
- Political collapse: The Pashtun
- Social collapse: The Roma
- Cultural collapse: The Ik
Wednesday, November 27, 2013 22:45
- Grisham, John.
New York: Doubleday, 2012.
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
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
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
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
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.
Monday, November 25, 2013 23:35
- Benford, James and Gregory Benford, eds.
Reno, NV: Lucky Bat Books, 2013.
“Is this the century when we begin to build starships?”
So begins the book, produced in conjunction with the
Symposium held in May of 2013 at the University of California San
Diego. Now, in a sense, we built and launched starships in the
last century. Indeed, at this writing, eight objects
launched from Earth are on
These are the two
spacecraft, the two
Pluto flyby spacecraft, and its inert upper stage and two
spin-down masses. But these objects are not aimed at any particular
stars; they're simply flying outward from the solar system following whatever
trajectory they were on when they completed their missions, and even
if they were aimed at the nearest stars, it would take them tens of
thousands of years to get there, by which time their
sources would be long exhausted and they would be inert space junk.
As long as they are built and launched by beings like humans (all bets
are off should we pass the baton to immortal machines), starships or
interstellar probes will probably need to complete their mission
within the time scale of a human lifetime to be interesting. One can
imagine multi-generation colony ships (and they are discussed here),
but such ships are unlikely to be launched without confidence the
destination is habitable, which can only be obtained by direct
investigation by robotic probes launched previously. The closest star
is around 4.3 light years from Earth. This is a daunting distance.
To cross it in a human-scale time (say, within the career of a
research scientist), you'd need to accelerate your probe to something
on the order of 1/10 the speed of light. At this speed, each kilogram
of the probe would have a kinetic energy of around 100 kilotons of
TNT. A colony ship with a dry mass of 1,000 tonnes would, travelling
at a tenth of the speed of light, have kinetic energy which, at
a cost of USD 0.10 per kilowatt-hour, would be worth USD 12.5
trillion, which is impressive even by U.S. budget deficit standards.
But you can't transmit energy to a spacecraft with 100% efficiency
(the power cord is a killer!), and so the cost of a realistic
mission might be ten times this.
Is it then, silly, to talk about starships? Well, not so fast. Ever
since the Enlightenment, the
per capita has been rising rapidly. When
I was a kid, millionaires were exotic creatures, while today people
who bought houses in coastal California in the 1970s are all
millionaires. Now it's billionaires who are the movers and shakers,
and some of them are using their wealth to try to reduce the cost
of access to space. (Yes, currency depreciation has accounted for a
substantial part of the millionaire to billionaire transition, but the
scope of what one can accomplish with a billion dollar grubstake today
is still much greater than with a million dollars fifty years ago.)
If this growth continues, might it not be possible that before this
century is out there will be trillionaires who, perhaps in a consortium,
have the ambition to expand the human presence to other stars?
This book collects contributions from those who have thought in
great detail about the challenges of travel to the stars, both in
nuts and bolts hardware and economic calculations and in science
fictional explorations of what it will mean for the individuals
involved and the societies which attempt that giant leap. There
are any number of “Aha!” moments here.
Freeman Dyson points out that the void between the stars is
not as empty as many imagine it to be, but filled with
objects which may extend so far as to overlap the clouds of
neighbouring stars. Dyson imagines engineered organisms which
could render these bodies habitable to (perhaps engineered) humans,
which would expand toward the stars much like the Polynesians
in the Pacific: from island to island, with a population which would
dwarf both in numbers and productivity that of the inner system
rock where they originated.
We will not go to the stars with rockets like we use today. The most
rudimentary working of the numbers shows how absurd that would be.
nuclear thermal rockets, a technology developed and tested
in the 1960s and 1970s, are more than adequate to develop a solar
system wide economy which could support interstellar missions. Many
different approaches to building starships are explored here: some
defy the constraints of the
by keeping the power source in the solar system, as in
“sailships” driven by laser or microwave radiation.
A chapter explores “exotic propulsion”, beyond our
present understanding of physics, which might change the game.
(And before you dismiss such speculations, recall that according
to the consensus model of cosmology, around 95% of the universe is
made up of “dark matter” and “dark energy” whose
nature is entirely unknown. Might it be possible that a
could be discovered which works against these pervasive media just as
a submarine's propeller acts upon the ocean?)
Leavening the technical articles are science fiction stories exploring
the transition from a planetary species to the stars. Science fiction
provides the dreams which are then turned into equations and
eventually hardware, and it has a place at this table. Indeed, many
of the scientists who spoke at the conference and authored chapters
in this book also write science fiction. We are far from being able
to build starships or even interstellar probes but, being human, we're
always looking beyond the horizon and not just imagining what's
there but figuring out how we'll go and see it for ourselves. To date, humans haven't
even learned how to live in space: our space stations are about
camping in space, with extensive support from the Earth.
We have no idea what it takes to create a self-sustaining closed
ecosystem (consider that around 90% of the cells in your body are not
human but rather symbiotic microbes: wouldn't you just hate it to be
half way to Alpha Centauri and discover you'd left some single-celled
critter behind?). If somebody waved a magic wand and handed us a
propulsion module that could take us to the nearest stars within a
human lifetime, there are many things we'd still need to know in order
to expect to survive the journey and establish ourselves when we
arrived. And, humans being humans, we'd go anyway, regardless.
Gotta love this species!
This is an excellent survey of current thinking about interstellar
missions. If you're interested in this subject, be sure to view the
video archive of the conference, which includes some
presentations which do not figure in this volume,
including the magnificent
Wednesday, November 20, 2013 22:41
- Simmons, Dan.
New York: Little, Brown, 2011.
In the fourth decade of the 21st century, all of the dire
consequences predicted when the U.S. veered onto a
“progressive” path in 2008 have come to pass.
Exponentially growing entitlement spending and debt, a
depreciating currency being steadily displaced as the
world's reserve currency, and an increasingly hollowed-out
military unable to shoulder the burdens it had previously
assumed in maintaining world stability all came to a head
on The Day It All Hit The Fan. What is left of the United
States (the Republic of Texas has opted to go it alone, while
the southwest has become Nuevo Mexico, seeking to expand
its territory in the ongoing
reconquista) has become a
run-down, has-been nation. China, joined at the hip to the
U.S. economy and financial system, collapsed along with the
U.S., and its territory and resources are being fought over
by superpowers Japan and India, with U.S. mercenaries employed
by both sides. Japan, holder of a large portion of the debt on
which the U.S. defaulted, has effectively foreclosed, sending
in Japanese “Advisors” who, from fortified Green Zone
compounds, are the ultimate authority in their regions.
Islamic powers, with nothing to fear from a neutered U.S., make
good on their vow to wipe Israel off the map, and the New
Global Caliphate is mobilising Islamic immigrant communities
around the world to advance its goal of global conquest.
With the present so grim, millions in the U.S. have become
users of the drug “flashback”, which allows those
who take it to relive earlier, happier times in their lives. While
not physically addictive, the contrast between the happy experiences
“under the flash” and the squalid present causes
many to spend whatever money they can put their hands on to
escape to the past.
Nick Bottom was a Denver police department detective in charge
of the investigation of the murder of the son of the Japanese
Advisor in charge of the region. The victim was working on a
documentary on the impact of flashback on U.S. society when, at
a wrap party for the film, he and his girlfriend were killed in
what amounted to a locked room mystery. Nick found lead after
lead evaporating in the mysterious doings of the Japanese, and
while involved in the investigation, his wife was killed in a
horrific automobile accident. This tipped him over the edge, and
he turned to flashback to re-live his life with her, eventually
costing him his job.
Five years later, out of the blue, the Japanese Advisor summons
him and offers to employ him to re-open the investigation of
his son's death. Since Nick interviewed all of the persons of
interest in the investigation, only he has the ability to relive
those interrogations under the flash, and thus is in a unique
position to discover something he missed while distracted with
the case load of a busy homicide cop.
This is a gritty gumshoe procedural set in an all-too-plausible
future. (OK, the flashback drug may seem to be a reach, but
researchers are already talking about
editing drugs, so who knows?) Nick
discovers that all of the mysteries that haunt him may be
related in some way, and has to venture into dangerous corners
of this new world to follow threads which might make sense of
all the puzzles.
This is one of those novels where, as the pages dwindle, you wonder
how the author is going to pull everything together and begin to
fear you may be headed for a cliffhanger setting the stage for a
sequel. But in the last few chapters all is revealed and resolved,
concluding a thoroughly satisfying yarn. If you'd like to see how
noir mystery, science fiction, and a dystopian future can be blended
into a page-turner, here's how it's done.