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Thursday, October 29, 2009

Reading List: The Year I Owned the Yankees

Lyle, [Albert] Sparky and David Fisher. The Year I Owned the Yankees. New York: Bantam Books, [1990] 1991. ISBN 978-0-553-28692-2.
“Sparky” Lyle was one of the preeminent baseball relief pitchers of the 1970s. In 1977, he became the first American League reliever to win the Cy Young Award. In this book, due to one of those bizarre tax-swap transactions of the 1980–90s, George Steinbrenner, “The Boss”, was forced to divest the New York Yankees to an unrelated owner. Well, who could be more unrelated than Sparky Lyle, so when the telephone rings while he and his wife are watching “Jeopardy”, the last thing he imagines is that he's about to be offered a no-cash leveraged buy-out of the Yankees. Based upon his extensive business experience, 238 career saves, and pioneering in sitting naked on teammates' birthday cakes, he says, “Why not?” and the game, and season, are afoot.

None of this ever happened: the subtitle is “A Baseball Fantasy”, but wouldn't it have been delightful if it had? There's the pitcher with a bionic arm, cellular phone gloves so coaches can call fielders to position them for batters (if they don't get the answering machine), the clubhouse at Yankee Stadium enhanced with a Mood Room for those who wish to mellow out and a Frustration Room for those inclined to smash and break things after bruising losses, and the pitching coach who performs an exorcism and conducts a seance manifesting the spirit of Cy Young who counsels the Yankee pitching staff “Never hang a curve to Babe Ruth”. Thank you, Cy! Then there's the Japanese pitcher who can read minds and the reliever who reinvents himself as “Mr. Cool” and rides in from the bullpen on a Harley with the stadium PA system playing “Leader of the Pack”.

This is a romp which, while the very quintessence of fantasy baseball, also embodies a great deal of inside baseball wisdom. It's also eerily prophetic, as sabermetrics, as practised by Billy Beane's Oakland A's years after this book was remaindered, plays a major part in the plot. And never neglect the ultimate loyalty of a fan to their team!

Sparky becomes the owner with a vow to be the anti-Boss, but discovers as the season progresses that the realities of corporate baseball in the 1990s mandate many of the policies which caused Steinbrenner to be so detested. In the end, he comes to appreciate that any boss, to do his or her job, must be, in part, The Boss. I wish I'd read that before I discovered it for myself.

This is a great book to treat yourself to while the current World Series involving the Yankees is contested. The book is out of print, but used paperback copies in readable condition are abundant and reasonably priced. Special thanks to the reader of this chronicle who recommended this book!

Posted at 23:25 Permalink

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Reading List: End the Fed

Paul, Ron. End the Fed. New York: Grand Central, 2000. ISBN 978-0-446-54919-6.
Imagine a company whose performance, measured over almost a century by the primary metric given in its charter, looked like this:

USD Purchasing Power 1913--2009

Now, would you be likely, were your own personal prosperity and that of all of those around you on the line, to entrust your financial future to their wisdom and demonstrated track record? Well, if you live in the United States, or your finances are engaged in any way in that economy (whether as an investor, creditor, or trade partner), you are, because this is the chart of the purchasing power of the United States Dollar since it began to be managed by the Federal Reserve System in 1913. Helluva record, don't you think?

Now, if you know anything about basic economics (which puts you several rungs up the ladder from most present-day politicians and members of the chattering classes), you'll recall that inflation is not defined as rising prices but rather an increase in the supply of money. It's just as if you were at an auction and you gave all of the bidders 10% more money: the selling price of the item would be 10% greater, not because it had appreciated in value but simply because the bidders had more to spend on acquiring it. And what is, fundamentally, the function of the Federal Reserve System? Well, that would be to implement an “elastic currency”, decoupled from real-world measures of value, with the goal of smoothing out the business cycle. Looking at this shorn of all the bafflegab, the mission statement is to create paper money out of thin air in order to fund government programs which the legislature lacks the spine to fund from taxation or debt, and to permit banks to profit by extending credit well beyond the limits of prudence, knowing they're backed up by the “lender of last resort” when things go South. The Federal Reserve System is nothing other than an engine of inflation (money creation), and it's hardly a surprise that the dollars it issues have lost more than 95% of their value in the years since its foundation.

Acute observers of the economic scene have been warning about the risks of such a system for decades—it came onto my personal radar well before there was a human bootprint on the Moon. But somehow, despite dollar crises, oil shocks, gold and silver bubble markets, saving and loan collapse, dot.bomb, housing bubble, and all the rest, the wise money guys somehow kept all of the balls in the air—until they didn't. We are now in the early days of an extended period in which almost a century of bogus prosperity founded on paper (not to mention, new and improved pure zap electronic) money and debt which cannot ever be repaid will have to be unwound. This will be painful in the extreme, and the profligate borrowers who have been riding high whilst running up their credit cards will end up marked down, not only in the economic realm but in geopolitical power.

Nobody imagines today that it would be possible, as Alan Greenspan envisioned in the days he was a member of Ayn Rand's inner circle, to abolish the paper money machine and return to honest money (or, even better, as Hayek recommended, competing moneys, freely interchangeable in an open market). But then, nobody imagines that the present system could collapse, which it is in the process of doing. The US$ will continue its slide toward zero, perhaps with an inflection point in the second derivative as the consequences of “bailouts” and “stimuli” kick in. The Euro will first see risk premiums increase across sovereign debt issued by Eurozone nations, and then the weaker members drop out to avoid the collapse of their own economies. No currency union without political union has ever survived in the long term, and the Euro is no exception.

Will we finally come to our senses and abandon this statist paper in favour of the mellow glow of gold? This is devoutly to be wished, but I fear unlikely in my lifetime or even in those of the koi in my pond. As long as politicians can fiddle with the money in order to loot savers and investors to fund their patronage schemes and line their own pockets they will: it's been going on since Babylon, and it will probably go to the stars as we expand our dominion throughout the universe. One doesn't want to hope for total economic and societal collapse, but that appears to be the best bet for a return to honest and moral money. If that's your wish, I suppose you can be heartened that the present administration in the United States appears bent upon that outcome. Our other option is opting out with technology. We have the ability today to electronically implement Hayek's multiple currency system online. This has already been done by ventures such as e-gold, but The Man has, to date, effectively stomped upon them. It will probably take a prickly sovereign state player to make this work. Hello, Dubai!

Let me get back to this book. It is superb: read it and encourage all of your similarly-inclined friends to do the same. If they're coming in cold to these concepts, it may be a bit of a shock (“You mean, the government doesn't create money?”), but there's a bibliography at the end with three levels of reading lists to bring people up to speed. Long-term supporters of hard money will find this mostly a reinforcement of their views, but for those experiencing for the first time the consequences of rapidly depreciating dollars, this will be an eye-opening revelation of the ultimate cause, and the malignant institution which must be abolished to put an end to this most pernicious tax upon the most prudent of citizens.

Posted at 23:31 Permalink

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reading List: We Are Doomed

Derbyshire, John. We Are Doomed. New York: Crown Forum, 2009. ISBN 978-0-307-40958-4.
In this book, genial curmudgeon John Derbyshire, whose previous two books were popular treatments of the Riemann hypothesis and the history of algebra, argues that an authentically conservative outlook on life requires a relentlessly realistic pessimism about human nature, human institutions, and the human prospect. Such a pessimistic viewpoint immunises one from the kind of happy face optimism which breeds enthusiasm for breathtaking ideas and grand, ambitious schemes, which all of history testifies are doomed to failure and tragedy.

Adopting a pessimistic attitude is, Derbyshire says, not an effort to turn into a sourpuss (although see the photograph of the author on the dust jacket), but simply the consequence of removing the rose coloured glasses and looking at the world as it really is. To grind down the reader's optimism into a finely-figured speculum of gloom, a sequence of chapters surveys the Hellbound landscape of what passes for the modern world: “diversity”, politics, popular culture, education, economics, and third-rail topics such as achievement gaps between races and the assimilation of immigrants. The discussion is mostly centred on the United States, but in chapter 11, we take a tour d'horizon and find that things are, on the whole, as bad or worse everywhere else.

In the conclusion the author, who is just a few years my senior, voices a thought which has been rattling around my own brain for some time: that those of our generation living in the West may be seen, in retrospect, as having had the good fortune to live in a golden age. We just missed the convulsive mass warfare of the 20th century (although not, of course, frequent brushfire conflicts in which you can be killed just as dead, terrorism, or the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War), lived through the greatest and most broadly-based expansion of economic prosperity in human history, accompanied by more progress in science, technology, and medicine than in all of the human experience prior to our generation. Further, we're probably going to hand in our dinner pails before the economic apocalypse made inevitable by the pyramid of paper money and bogus debt we created, mass human migrations, demographic collapse, and the ultimate eclipse of the tattered remnants of human liberty by the malignant state. Will people decades and centuries hence look back at the Boomer generation as the one that reaped all the benefits for themselves and passed on the bills and the adverse consequences to their descendants? That's the way to bet.

So what is to be done? How do we turn the ship around before we hit the iceberg? Don't look for any such chirpy suggestions here: it's all in the title—we are doomed! My own view is that we're in a race between a technological singularity and a new dark age of poverty, ignorance, subjugation to the state, and pervasive violence. Sharing the author's proclivity for pessimism, you can probably guess which I judge more probable. If you concur, you might want to read this book, which will appear in this chronicle in due time.

The book includes neither bibliography nor index. The lack of the former is particularly regrettable as a multitude of sources are cited in the text, many available online. It would be wonderful if the author posted a bibliography of clickable links (to online articles or purchase links for books cited) on his Web site, where there is a Web log of comments from readers and the author's responses.

Posted at 23:52 Permalink

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Reading List: The Nuclear Rocket

Dewar, James with Robert Bussard. The Nuclear Rocket. Burlington, Canada: Apogee Books, 2009. ISBN 978-1-894959-99-5.
Let me begin with a few comments about the author attribution of this book. I have cited it as given on the copyright page, but as James Dewar notes in his preface, the main text of the book is entirely his creation. He says of Robert Bussard, “I am deeply indebted to Bob's contributions and consequently list his name in the credit to this book”. Bussard himself contributes a five-page introduction in which he uses, inter alia, the adjectives “amazing”, “strange”, “remarkable”, “wonderful”, “visionary”, and “most odd” to describe the work, which he makes clear is entirely Dewar's. Consequently, I shall subsequently use “the author” to denote Dewar alone. Bussard died in 2007, two years before the publication of this book, so his introduction must have been based upon a manuscript. I leave to the reader to judge the propriety of posthumously naming as co-author a prominent individual who did not write a single word of the main text.

Unlike the author's earlier To the End of the Solar System (June 2008), which was a nuts and bolts history of the U.S. nuclear rocket program, this book, titled The Nuclear Rocket, quoting from Bussard's introduction, “…is not really about nuclear rocket propulsion or its applications to space flight…”. Indeed, although some of the nitty-gritty of nuclear rocket engines are discussed, the bulk of the book is an argument for a highly-specific long term plan to transform human access to space from an elitist government run program to a market-driven expansive program with the ultimate goal of providing access to space to all and opening the solar system to human expansion and eventual dominion. This is indeed ambitious and visionary, but of all of Bussard's adjectives, the one that sticks with me is “most odd”.

Dewar argues that the NERVA B-4 nuclear thermal rocket core, developed between 1960 and 1972, and successfully tested on several occasions, has the capability, once the “taboo” against using nuclear engines in the boost to low Earth orbit (LEO) is discarded, of revolutionising space transportation and so drastically reducing the cost per unit mass to orbit that it would effectively democratise access to space. In particular, he proposes a “Re-core” engine which, integrated with a liquid hydrogen tank and solid rocket boosters, would be air-launched from a large cargo aircraft such as a C-5, with the solid rockets boosting the nuclear engine to around 30 km where they would separate for recovery and the nuclear engine engaged. The nuclear rocket would continue to boost the payload to orbital insertion. Since the nuclear stage would not go critical until having reached the upper atmosphere, there would be no radioactivity risk to those handling the stage on the ground prior to launch or to the crew of the plane which deployed the rocket.

After reaching orbit, the payload and hydrogen tank would be separated, and the nuclear engine enclosed in a cocoon (much like an ICBM reentry vehicle) which would de-orbit and eventually land at sea in a region far from inhabited land. The cocoon, which would float after landing, would be recovered by a ship, placed in a radiation-proof cask, and returned to a reprocessing centre where the highly radioactive nuclear fuel core would be removed for reprocessing (the entire launch to orbit would consume only about 1% of the highly enriched uranium in the core, so recovering the remaining uranium and reusing it is essential to the economic viability of the scheme). Meanwhile, another never critical core would be inserted in the engine which, after inspection of the non-nuclear components, would be ready for another flight. If each engine were reused 100 times, and efficient fuel reprocessing were able to produce new cores economically, the cost for each 17,000 pound payload to LEO would be around US$108 per pound.

Payloads which reached LEO and needed to go beyond (for example, to geostationary orbit, the Moon, or the planets) would rendezvous with a different variant of the NERVA-derived engine, dubbed the “Re-use” stage, which is much like Von Braun's nuclear shuttle concept. This engine, like the original NERVA, would be designed for multiple missions, needing only inspection and refuelling with liquid hydrogen. A single Re-use stage might complete 30 round-trip missions before being disposed of in deep space (offering “free launches” for planetary science missions on its final trip into the darkness).

There is little doubt that something like this is technically feasible. After all, the nuclear rocket engine was extensively tested in the years prior to its cancellation in 1972, and NASA's massive resources of the epoch examined mission profiles (under the constraint that nuclear engines could be used only for departure from LEO, however, and without return to Earth) and found no show stoppers. Indeed, there is evidence that the nuclear engine was cancelled, in part, because it was performing so well that policy makers feared it would enable additional costly NASA missions post-Apollo. There are some technological issues: for example, the author implies that the recovered Re-core, once its hot core is extracted and a new pure uranium core installed, will not be radioactive and hence safe to handle without special precautions. But what about neutron activation of other components of the engine? An operating nuclear rocket creates one of the most extreme neutronic environments outside the detonation of a nuclear weapon. Would it be possible to choose materials for the non-core components of the engine which would be immune to this and, if not, how serious would the induced radioactivity be, especially if the engine were reused up to a hundred times? The book is silent on this and a number of other questions.

The initial breakthrough in space propulsion from the first generation nuclear engines is projected to lead to rapid progress in optimising them, with four generations of successively improved engines within a decade or so. This would eventually lead to the development of a heavy lifter able to orbit around 150,000 pounds of payload per flight at a cost (after development costs are amortised or expensed) of about US$87 per pound. This lifter would allow the construction of large space stations and the transport of people to them in “buses” with up to thirty passengers per mission. Beyond that, a nuclear single stage to orbit vehicle is examined, but there are a multitude of technological and policy questions to be resolved before that could be contemplated.

All of this, however, is not what the book is about. The author is a passionate believer in the proposition that opening the space frontier to all the people of Earth, not just a few elite civil servants, is essential to preserving peace, restoring the optimism of our species, and protecting the thin biosphere of this big rock we inhabit. And so he proposes a detailed structure for accomplishing these goals, beginning with “Democratization of Space Act” to be adopted by the U.S. Congress, and the creation of a “Nuclear Rocket Development and Operations Corporation” (NucRocCorp), which would be a kind of private/public partnership in which individuals could invest. This company could create divisions (in some cases competing with one another) and charter development projects. It would entirely control space nuclear propulsion, with oversight by U.S. government regulatory agencies, which would retain strict control over the fissile reactor cores.

As the initial program migrated to the heavy lifter, this structure would morph into a multinational (admitting only “good” nations, however) structure of bewildering (to this engineer) bureaucratic complexity which makes the United Nations look like the student council of Weemawee High. The lines of responsibility and power here are diffuse in the extreme. Let me simply cite “The Stockholder's Declaration” from p. 161:

Whoever invests in the NucRocCorp and subsequent Space Charter Authority should be required to sign a declaration that commits him or her to respect the purpose of the new regime, and conduct their personal lives in a manner that recognizes the rights of their fellow man (What about woman?—JW). They must be made aware that failure to do so could result in forfeiture of their investment.

Property rights, anybody? Thought police? Apart from the manifest baroque complexity of the proposed scheme, it entirely ignores Jerry Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy: regardless of its original mission, any bureaucracy will eventually be predominately populated by those seeking to advance the interests of the bureaucracy itself, not the purpose for which it was created. The structure proposed here, even if enacted (implausible in the extreme) and even if it worked as intended (vanishingly improbable), would inevitably be captured by the Iron Law and become something like, well, NASA.

On pp. 36–37, the author likens attempts to stretch chemical rocket technology to its limits to gold plating a nail when what is needed is a bigger hammer (nuclear rockets). But this book brings to my mind another epigram: “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” Dewar passionately supports nuclear rocket technology and believes that it is the way to open the solar system to human settlement. I entirely concur. But when it comes to assuming that boosting people up to a space station (p. 111):

And looking down on the bright Earth and into the black heavens might create a new perspective among Protestant, Roman Catholic, and Orthodox theologians, and perhaps lead to the end of the schism plaguing Christianity. The same might be said of the division between the Sunnis and Shiites in Islam, and the religions of the Near and Far East might benefit from a new perspective.

Call me cynical, but I'll wager this particular swing of the hammer is more likely to land on a thumb than the intended nail. Those who cherish individual freedom have often dreamt of a future in which the opening of access to space would, in the words of L. Neil Smith, extend the human prospect to “freedom, immortality, and the stars”—works for me. What is proposed here, if adopted, looks more like, after more than a third of a century of dithering, the space frontier being finally opened to the brave pioneers ready to homestead there, and when they arrive, the tax man and the all-pervasive regulatory state are already there, up and running. The nuclear rocket can expand the human presence throughout the solar system. Let's just hope that when humanity (or some risk-taking subset of it) takes that long-deferred step, it does not propagate the soft tyranny of present day terrestrial governance to worlds beyond.

Posted at 01:05 Permalink

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reading List: The Glass Giant of Palomar

Woodbury, David O. The Glass Giant of Palomar. New York: Dodd, Mead, [1939, 1948] 1953. LCCN 53000393.
I originally read this book when I was in junior high school—it was one of the few astronomy titles in the school's library. It's one of the grains of sand dropping on the pile which eventually provoked the avalanche that persuaded me I was living in the golden age of engineering and that I'd best spend my life making the most of it.

Seventy years after it was originally published (the 1948 and 1953 updates added only minor information on the final commissioning of the telescope and a collection of photos taken through it), this book still inspires respect for those who created the 200 inch Hale Telescope on Mount Palomar, and the engineering challenges they faced and overcame in achieving that milestone in astronomical instrumentation. The book is as much a biography of George Ellery Hale as it is a story of the giant telescope he brought into being. Hale was a world class scientist: he invented the spectroheliograph, discovered the magnetic fields of sunspots, founded the Astrophysical Journal and to a large extent the field of astrophysics itself, but he also excelled as a promoter and fund-raiser for grand-scale scientific instrumentation. The Yerkes, Mount Wilson, and Palomar observatories would, in all likelihood, not have existed were it not for Hale's indefatigable salesmanship. And this was an age when persuasiveness was all. With the exception of the road to the top of Palomar, all of the observatories and their equipment promoted by Hale were funded without a single penny of taxpayer money. For the Palomar 200 inch, he raised US$6 million in gold-backed 1930 dollars, which in present-day paper funny-money amounts to US$78 million.

It was a very different America which built the Palomar telescope. Not only was it never even thought of that money coercively taken from taxpayers would be diverted to pure science, anybody who wanted to contribute to the project, regardless of their academic credentials, was judged solely on their merits and given a position based upon their achievements. The chief optician who ground, polished, and figured the main mirror of the Palomar telescope (so perfectly that its potential would not be realised until recently thanks to adaptive optics) had a sixth grade education and was first employed at Mount Wilson as a truck driver. You can make of yourself what you have within yourself in America, so they say—so it was for Marcus Brown (p. 279). Milton Humason who, with Edwin Hubble, discovered the expansion of the universe, dropped out of school at the age of 14 and began his astronomical career driving supplies up Mount Wilson on mule trains. You can make of yourself what you have within yourself in America, or at least you could then. Now we go elsewhere.

Is there anything Russell W. Porter didn't do? Arctic explorer, founder of the hobby of amateur telescope making, engineer, architect…his footprints and brushstrokes are all over technological creativity in the first half of the twentieth century. And he is much in evidence here: recruited in 1927, he did the conceptual design for most of the buildings of the observatory, and his cutaway drawings of the mechanisms of the telescope demonstrate to those endowed with contemporary computer graphics tools that the eye of the artist is far more important than the technology of the moment.

This book has been out of print for decades, but used copies (often, sadly, de-accessioned by public libraries) are generally available at prices (unless you're worried about cosmetics and collectability) comparable to present-day hardbacks. It's as good a read today as it was in 1962.

Posted at 00:05 Permalink

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Reading List: Forbidden Science. Vol. 2

Vallee, Jacques. Forbidden Science. Vol. 2. San Francisco: Documatica Research, 2008. ISBN 978-0-615-24974-2.
This, the second volume of Jacques Vallee's journals, chronicles the years from 1970 through 1979. (I read the first volume, covering 1957–1969, before I began this list.) Early in the narrative (p. 153), Vallee becomes a U.S. citizen, but although surrendering his French passport, he never gives up his Gallic rationalism and scepticism, both of which serve him well in the increasingly weird Northern California scene in the Seventies. It was in those locust years that the seeds for the personal computing and Internet revolutions matured, and Vallee was at the nexus of this technological ferment, working on databases, Doug Englebart's Augmentation project, and later systems for conferencing and collaborative work across networks. By the end of the decade he, like many in Silicon Valley of the epoch, has become an entrepreneur, running a company based upon the conferencing technology he developed. (One amusing anecdote which indicates how far we've come since the 70s in mindset is when he pitches his conferencing system to General Electric who, at the time, had the largest commercial data network to support their timesharing service. They said they were afraid to implement anything which looked too much like a messaging system for fear of running afoul of the Post Office.)

If this were purely a personal narrative of the formative years of the Internet and personal computing, it would be a valuable book—I was there, then, and Vallee gets it absolutely right. A journal is, in many ways, better than a history because you experience the groping for solutions amidst confusion and ignorance which is the stuff of real life, not the narrative of an historian who knows how it all came out. But in addition to being a computer scientist, entrepreneur, and (later) venture capitalist, Vallee is also one of the preeminent researchers into the UFO and related paranormal phenomena (the character Claude Lacombe, played by François Truffaut in Steven Spielberg's 1977 movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind was based upon Vallee). As the 1970s progress, the author becomes increasingly convinced that the UFO phenomenon cannot be explained by extraterrestrials and spaceships, and that it is rooted in the same stratum of the human mind and the universe we inhabit which has given rise to folklore about little people and various occult and esoteric traditions. Later in the decade, he begins to suspect that at least some UFO activity is the work of deliberate manipulators bent on creating an irrational, anti-science worldview in the general populace, a hypothesis expounded in his 1979 book, Messengers of Deception, which remains controversial three decades after its publication.

The Bay Area in the Seventies was a kind of cosmic vortex of the weird, and along with Vallee we encounter many of the prominent figures of the time, including Uri Geller (who Vallee immediately dismisses as a charlatan), Doug Engelbart, J. Allen Hynek, Anton LaVey, Russell Targ, Hal Puthoff, Ingo Swann, Ira Einhorn, Tim Leary, Tom Bearden, Jack Sarfatti, Melvin Belli, and many more. Always on a relentlessly rational even keel, he observes with dismay as many of his colleagues disappear into drugs, cults, gullibility, pseudoscience, and fads as that dark decade takes its toll. In May 1979 he feels himself to be at “the end of an age that defied all conventions but failed miserably to set new standards” (p. 463). While this is certainly spot on in the social and cultural context in which he meant it, it is ironic that so many of the standards upon which the subsequent explosion of computer and networking technology are based were created in those years by engineers patiently toiling away in Silicon Valley amidst all the madness.

An introduction and retrospective at the end puts the work into perspective from the present day, and 25 pages of end notes expand upon items in the journals which may be obscure at this remove and provide source citations for events and works mentioned. You might wonder what possesses somebody to read more than five hundred pages of journal entries by somebody else which date from thirty to forty years ago. Well, I took the time, and I'm glad I did: it perfectly recreated the sense of the times and of the intellectual and technological challenges of the age. Trust me: if you're too young to remember the Seventies, it's far better to experience those years here than to have actually lived through them.

Posted at 17:23 Permalink

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Reading List: Heart of the Assassin

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.

Posted at 22:33 Permalink