Friday, May 8, 2020

Reviewing HBO’s The Plot Against America

First, I’ll come out and say that I liked HBO’s  The Plot Against America.  The six-part miniseries based on Philip J. Roth’s 2004 alternate history novel of the same name, follows the life of a working-class Jewish family, the Levins, in Newark, New Jersey in the early 1940s as they witness the rise of Charles A.  Lindbergh to the Presidency of the United States of America.


The real Charles Lindbergh speaking at an America First Rally
The character of Charles Lindbergh is a very complex one. In our history, he was one of the leaders of the isolationist America First movement which sought to keep America out of the Second World War. It is also true he also travelled to Nazi Germany in 1938 and met with high-ranking officials of the Reich. He also upon numerous occasions had expressed anti-Semitic remarks. Historians have since come to see Lindbergh as a well-intentioned but bigoted Nazi sympathizer.  In the alternate history world, Roth and the creators of the miniseries, have not far to go in getting their man.


The Levins in an uncomfortable moment.
Like most Americans the Levins (who are modelled loosely on the author Roth’s own family),  both husband Herman (Morgan Spector) and wife Evelyn (Winona Ryder) find themselves curiously attracted to the great aviator Lindberg, because as he says on one of his stump speeches when he flies the Spirit of St. Louis to Newark, “It isn’t a choice between Lindberg and Roosevelt; it’s a choice between Lindberg and war.” 

It’s a theme that resonates enough to bring Lindberg, played by Ben Cole, into the White House.  The changes they see, the petty slights and discrimination is incremental at first and but then it begins to build: it’s almost like the story of the frog in the pot of water that is slowly brought to boil, by the time the Levins realize the trouble they’re in, it’s almost too late. 

The President and the Rabbi
The series features many strong performances by a strong cast. But one of the standout performances of the series by John Turturro who plays Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf, who sells his soul to get in good with the new administration. He conceives of a plan to resettle Jewish families. Curiously, he is blind to see the monumentality of his betrayal until he finds ultimately himself betrayed. 

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Herman’s nephew Alvin (Anthony Boyle), who joins the Canadian Army in violation of neutrality laws, only to come home wounded to a country that has changed. Although the story is told from the point of view of the extended Levin family, we still get telling glimpses of the changed world around them, with newsreel footage of Lindbergh shaking hands with Hitler in a secret meeting in Iceland, signing a non-aggression pact, which is a twisted fun-house version of the Roosevelt -Churchill meeting and the signing of the Atlantic Charter.

Without giving away too much, the ending is left in doubt, which is a departure from the source novel. It’s not too much to say that the show’s producers intended the series to be a reflection of the current situation in the United States, which has seen a resurgence of isolationism,  anti-Semitism and with the rise of the so-called alt-right, fascism. Perhaps recent years have stripped away the thin veneer and have revealed what had been lying there all along, under the surface. In the alternate history of the series, it takes a man like Charles Lindbergh to bring out the worst in people; in our world, all it took was the election of Donald Trump.

Alternate history in its best form, raises an interrogative mirror to our world  and allows us to not only ask what if, but also, if this goes on. The Plot Against America holds such a mirror to our uncertain times and allows us to ask not only these questions, but more. 

Highly recommended viewing.

What’s next?
I apologize with lateness of this blog post. Like many people with onset of COVID-19, I am now working from home.  I found have found it difficult to manage and deal with the circumstances around us.

Next month, I’ll be back with another post. Until that time, please look after each other and yourselves.

In the meantime, you can purchase Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Reviewing Michael Moorcock’s The Nomad of the Timestreams Trilogy

This month I am reviewing a long-time favourite series of mine, The Nomad of the Timestreams trilogy – The Warlord of the Air (1971), The Land Leviathan (1974), and The Steel Tsar (1980). These books were among my first exposure to the alternate history genre.

The primary protagonist of all three novels is one Captain Oswald Bastable, a Victorian soldier in the British Indian Army, circa 1902. In the opening novel, he’s sent to put down a rebellion in the north-east of India only be taken prisoner in an ambush only to escape into the Temple of the Future Buddha. There’s an earthquake, and suddenly Bastable is thrust forward into the year 1973. Only it’s not our 1973.  Neither the First World War or the Second World War, the Great Depression or the Cold War has happened. Instead the great European colonial powers, along with the the United States and Japan, continue to rule the globe. Upon being rescued by a British airship, his adventures only start. After a shorts stint as an air policeman, he gets involved with a motley band of anarchists and revolutionaries, many of whom we meet in different guises in the throughout of the series.  

Like some latter-day Flying Dutchman, Oswald Bastable is fated to cross from timeline to timeline finding only war but never peace. We next find Bastable in The Land Leviathan, in another 1902, where society has all but collapsed after a devastating global war. After another series of adventures, Bastable finds himself at the side of the “Black Attila,” an African leader set to conquer the world.  For me, this is probably the strongest of three books, although the story of Bastable himself actually the slimmest, if only in page count. In many ways, it reminds me of the later works of H.G. Wells, in particular The War in the Air (1902) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933), in his distrust of technology and the blind faith in that progress that most of us still have.

The books are connected by the conceit that author Moorcock is actually relating a true story though his grandfather and then much later, himself.  This adds an extra layer to the story and a dash of whimsy.  And frankly, a part of me would love to believe the stories were true. 

Together the trilogy is both a criticism of imperialism, race, and of our blind faith in technology and utopia.  All of these concerns are as valid today as they were back when the books were first published. Definitely worth an online hunt.

Finally…

I’m writing this blog in my second week of working from home, like so many of us are.  The COVID-19 coronavirus, which seemed like a blip on the horizon last month for so many of us is now a daily reality.  I sadly believe that things will get worse before they get better.  But an important thing to remember is that things will get better and the current situation indeed will pass. How the situation will pass is in large part, how we respond as a species in the coming months. I would like to believe that we would emerge as more caring and connected, not only for each other but for the world around us.

Until that time, stay safe and look after yourselves and each other. I’ll be back next month. 

In the meantime, you can purchase Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Book Review: S.M. Stirling’s Theatre of Spies

Theatre of Spies is the second book in S.M. Stirling’s alternate history of the Great War, which continues the adventures  of American super-spy Luz O’Malley Arostegui, and her companion, technical wizard Ciara Whelan. 

It’s late 1916 and Teddy Roosevelt is President and America is now at war (Spoilers ahead). Imperial Germany has launched a deadly gas attack on the Entente Powers, all but destroying France and crippling England. America’s eastern seaboard would’ve fallen to similar fate, if not for the intervention of Arostegui, an agent for America’s spy agency the Black Chamber, and her friend Whelan, who is now an agent in her own right. Now word has leaked out that the Germans have developed another potentially war-winning weapon, one that the Entente must have at all costs, if only to maintain the precarious balance.

Astroegui and Whelan manoeuvre through a series of masterfully-plotted adventures ending in a satisfying climax. They travel through a deiselpunk paradise of technology given the full-steam ahead signal both by Roosevelt and the pressures of war. Let it not be said that Stirling does not have a sense of humour. Pop culture references abound from James Bond movies, to Hogan’s Heroes, and Young Frankenstein.

Stirling is a masterful storyteller, doing what any mature writer does, showing, not telling. By giving his protagonists and antagonists – and us – an opportunity to walk through such a richly-detailed universe, which is a real treat. Stirling is a past master of the alt-history genre, having first cut his teeth in the Draka series, and then moving forward from strength to strength to strength.

Highly recommended. Definitely looking forward to the next instalment.

Update:


In a previous post, I had written that scientists have recently speculated that they had found evidence of matter leaking in from a neighbouring universe via “Cold Spots” in the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB), possibly as a result of a collision between bubble universes sometime in our very distant prehistory. 

The concept of a bubble universe may fly in the face of the generally accepted theory of a flat universe, but a key piece of data retrieved from the European Space Agency’s Planck space telescope suggests that we be in fact living inside a bubble universe of our own, prompting a paper from Nature Astronomy warning a “cosmological crisis.” Reviewing the most recently published data, the paper suggests that Plank, whose mission was to map CMB, may have also recorded a phenomena known as “gravitational lensing,” were gravitational fields are bent, distorted and warped.  According to the data, the CMB is being gravitationally lensed much more than expected. One possible explanation for this seeming curvature in spacetime is that the universe is itself closed. In fact, according to the paper, there is a high level of confidence to this, on the order of 99%.

Mind blown yet? So let’s draw a few concluding links to set our heads really spinning. If our universe is in fact a gigantic bubble and Cold Spots in the CMB represent matter leaking in from neighbouring universes, is it possible to travel between universes through such a Cold Spot? Have people or other beings done it, accidentally or on purpose?  Are there Type V universe-spanning civilizations out there, such as the one in H. Beam Piper’s Paratime series, that have turned these Cold Spots into portals and have mastered how to transit them? 

I don’t know about you, but my mind is sufficiently blown now. I’m going to have a drink. If you don’t see me in this space next month, it’s quite possible I’ve fallen through a Cold Spot. 

What's Next?
Next month, hopefully now that the ruckus of the move to a new apartment and the setting of my new job continues, I’ll be reviewing The British Lion, a novel of Britain under Nazi occupation, by Tony Schumacher. 

In the meantime, you can purchase Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

First Season Review: For All Mankind

First things first.  I am going to say I loved For All Mankind.  That gets my biases out of the way, once and for all. As a work of alternate history, the series, whose first season has finished streaming on Apple TV +  is an emphatic, positive retelling of that early heroic age of manned spaceflight.

The series opens in June 1969, with people around the world glued to their flickering television screens to watch Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov step onto the lunar soil and plant the hammer-and-sickle flag and proudly claim the moon for the “Marxist-Leninist way of life.” Impossibly, the Soviets have beaten Apollo 11 to the moon by a few short weeks. Instead of sending the Americans reeling in panic, showrunner Ronald D. Moore -  producer of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica  -  has President Richard Nixon upping the ante and the space program’s budget by setting the sights on the establishment of the first lunar base. And so, the “race for the base” is on. 


Apollo 11 makes its historical landing – albeit with some complications.  From there on things get different, with the goal of all subsequent Apollo flights to find water on the moon to sustain the base.  In reaction to a female Soviet female cosmonaut making a lunar landing, Nixon orders a crash program to find and train suitable female U.S. astronauts.  The plot, which is tight, moves along briskly with enough moments that provide for suitable gasps and clenched teeth. It’s all very plausible stuff.

Moore and crew do an excellent job in blending fictional characters with well-developed story arcs with historical personalities. Some reviewers have complained about this at length and note many historical players appear to have been given short shrift. To my mind, they don’t seem to get it. This is first and foremost, a work of alternate history.  Historical figures such as Wernher von Braun, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong are well represented. Actor Chris Bauer, for example, does a standout job portraying Deke Slayton, who in our history was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts but due to heart problem, only flew much later on the Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. As a space enthusiast, I commend Moore and his team for getting so many important details right.  


An N-1 booster shortly before
failure, June 27, 1972
An important question that many people who have watched the series are asking is when does the point of divergence from our history occur?  In our history, the Soviet N-1 booster which was to carry Leonov to the moon never made it off the pad, past a few disastrously short test flights, the last of which occurred in 1974.  Although the design process began in 1961, around the same time as JFK’s announcement to land a man on the moon and return him by the end of the decade, the N-1 project was plagued by poor funding and competing priorities. The project only seemed to gain any real impetus in 1964, by which time it was almost too late. Another problem was the fractured nature of Soviet space program which had multiple design bureaus competing against each other for scant funding and often not in best interests of the program. Finally, there was the health of Sergei Korolev, “Chief Designer” of the Soviet space program and chief backer of the moon program who died under routine surgery in 1966.

The only way I could see of Leonov getting to the moon is that the Soviet leadership took JFK seriously and funded Korolev’s N-1 project as far back as the U.S. President’s announcement. They would also have given Korolev total leadership on the project, so to rule out any competing visions. There is also the question of Korolev’s health, but we have a handy answer for that. Moore and the writers of For All Mankind have stated that in their history, Korolev survived the surgery and went on to work the kinks out of the N-1 in time to beat the Americans to the moon.

I highly recommend this series. This the new standard-bearer for alternate history on the small screen. This not only how the space race could’ve been, it’s how it should’ve been.  As of this writing, For All Mankind has been renewed for a second season.  Indeed, the post-credits scene in the season’s final episode ends things on a particularly triumphant note. I eagerly anticipate whatever direction the next season will take.  Mars, anyone?


What's Next?


It's been an eventful year-end around the old blog. I have a new job, for which I am exceedingly grateful for. I thank all of my readers for your continued support.

Next month I'll be reviewing the second book in S.M. Stirling’s alternate First World War series, Theater of Spies, which continues the adventures  of American super-spy Luz O’Malley Arostegui, and her companion, technical wizard Ciara Whelan. After that, I’ll be reviewing The British Lion, a novel of Britain under Nazi occupation, by Tony Schumacher. 

In the meantime, you can purchase Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Reviewing Season Four of The Man in the High Castle

Well, it’s over.

I’ve just finished binge-watching the fourth and final season of Amazon’s The Man in the High Castle. I will say (and there are spoilers ahead) that while it was a far from perfect season, the series’ show runners have managed to present us an ending, that while not entirely satisfying, at least manages to bring the series to a conclusion. 


John Smith in the multiverse.
The twined character arcs of antagonist Reichsmarschall John Smith and protagonist Juliana Crain – and it is important to think of them as that – move in different and telling directions.  When we last saw them at the close of Season Three, Juliana had just winked herself out of her own universe, nanoseconds after being shot by Smith.

Juliana lands smack-dab in what is later revealed to be our universe, narrowly missing being hit by a car driven by none other than Smith – who in our timeline, seems to be a rather nice guy. Juliana views her new surroundings with a mixture of relief and incredulity. The alternate version of Smith gives actor Rufus Sewell a chance to stretch even more so a character who has already proven to be very complex, engaging, and ultimately, damned. 

Meanwhile, in the Pacific States, we see that Trade Minister Tagomi has been assassinated even before the season began. How they handled this was very problematic for me. The alleged assassins were a black communist guerilla movement that did not exist before the start of this season, so the writers spend a lot of time and effort retconning them into the series in the first few episodes of the new season.  It would’ve been much better had they been introduced someplace in Season Three. That the Japanese Empire is also fighting for its life against communist forces in China is also a surprise, and likewise should have also been introduced, or even just hinted at, much earlier.

Part of the problem with The Man in the High Castle, while an ambitious and largely successful work, is that although it stuck fairly closely to its source material, the novel of the same name by Phillip K. Dick, for the first season, it lost its sense of direction after that.  In Season Two, the show’s writers began to search for new material and stories to tell.  Going into Season Three, the series brought in elements such as the Nebenwelt from Dick’s unpublished sequel. However, for a large part of Seasons Three and Four, this sense of rootlessness unfortunately, showed to the series’ determent. However, with even these criticisms, the series remains very worthwhile watching.

With that aside, probably the best part of the series has been the journey of John Smith and his rise and fall. We see in this season the original sin of John Smith, born out of simple expediency to save his young family. We see him gazing across the multiverse in envy of life he could’ve lived but at the same time, couldn’t have.

What's Next?


Currently I’m reading the second book in S.M. Stirling’s alternate First World War series, Theater of Spies, which continues the adventures  of American super-spy Luz O’Malley Arostegui, and her companion, technical wizard Ciara Whelan. I hope to have a review for you next month.  After that, I’ll be reviewing The British Lion, a novel of Britain under Nazi occupation, by Tony Schumacher. 

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Alternate History Makes it Big on the Small Screen


Fans of alternate history are in rare good fortune this year, with the premiere of a new genre streaming series, For All Mankind and the final season of The Man in the High Castle

For All Mankind tells the story of an alternate space race between the Soviet Union and the United States where the Soviets manage to successfully manage to land a cosmonaut on the moon, just months before Apollo 11. Instead of crushing the Americans, the renewed challenge only spurs them onward. Apollo 11 with its historical crew successfully lands on the moon – albeit with some minor complications. Instead of being hacked away after the moon landings as it was in our history, NASA's budget gets ramped up to beat the Reds.

Helmed by the producer of the reimagined Battlestar Galactica, Ronald D. Moore, For All Mankind is a reimagining of the Space Race, only bigger and bolder. As of this writing, the series has been greenlit for a second season. I’m currently watching the first season and I’m liking what I’m seeing. I’ll have a review for it coming up.

For All Mankind is available on Apple’s streaming platform, Apple TV+.





Of course, no discussion of alternate history on the small screen would not be complete without mentioning The Man in the High Castle, whose fourth and final season launches on Amazon Prime, in just a few days from now on November 15, 2019. This will be the season that wraps it all up. What will happen to Juliana Crain as she simply popped into thin air, nanoseconds after being shot in an impotent rage by Reichsmarshall John Smith? Will the Nazis succeed in dominating the multiverse? Questions, questions.

I am ardently looking forward to finding out and will have a review on this as soon as possible.




What's Next?
Currently I’m reading the second book in S.M. Stirling’s alternate First World War series, Theater of Spies, which continues the adventures  of American super-spy Luz O’Malley Arostegui, and her companion, technical wizard Ciara Whelan. I hope to have a review for you next month.  After that, I’ll be reviewing The British Lion, a novel of Britain under Nazi occupation, by Tony Schumacher. 

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

The Case for Parallel Universes

If you’re a regular reader of this blog you must hopefully believe that deep down, parallel universes, somehow exist.  I do. Certainly, we’ve been aware of the possibility thanks to quantum theory. In 1952, physicist  Erwin Schrödinger first proposed the concept in a speech in Dublin.

Some Theory
Some years earlier Schrödinger had introduced his famed thought experiment, where a cat was locked into a box with a container of poison gas triggered by the decay of a radioactive element. According to the Copenhagen Interpretation, the cat is both dead and alive until the box is opened and the wave function collapses when an observation takes place (the observer effect).  However, the Many-Worlds Interpretation (MWI) holds that the cat is both dead and alive in equally real but separate parallel universes.  Basically for every decision that is made at quantum level, the universes branch out, until, as MWI predicts, we have an infinite number of divergent parallel worlds, existing at the same time, complete with their own alternate histories. Ultimately, MWI says that it’s impossible to communicate between the universes,  much less travel between them, which is sure to let down many SF fans.

Recently, some however slight physical evidence of parallel universes has come to light, raising the tantalizing possibility of travel between them.  In 2015, the European Space Agency’s orbiting Planck Telescope found what US researcher Dr. Ranga-Ram Chary described as a “Cold Spot” in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) – light lingering from the Big Bang, which might be indicative of matter from a neighbouring universe leaking into our own. As far-fetched as it may seem, the British Royal Astronomical Society does not rule this out, noting in April, 2017: “Another explanation could be that the Cold Spot is the remnant of a collision between our Universe and another ‘bubble’ universe during an early inflationary phase…” 

What if ?
What If and if… a Cold Spot  is indeed an indication of universes brushing up against each other? What if it is in fact, still happening?  Is it possible that more of these Cold Spots are in fact, all around us? And if matter – and presumably people -  can seep back and forth between universes in apparent violation of MWI, what are the implications? 

If these Cold Spots are more common than we think, is it possible that a person can transit through them?  I’ve talked about this possibility before in an earlier posting.  In 2018, in the United Kingdom, for example, someone was reported missing every 90 seconds. In that same year in the United States, it was reckoned that there were 90,000 people missing at any one timeIn our surveillance society, that would seem impossible. Many missing people are eventually found. But history is also full of individuals who have simply disappeared. Granted that most have vanished due to things like foul play, misadventure, or the simple deep personal wish to start over under a new name. But what if just one of those people unwittingly stepped into a Cold Spot and through the walls of reality?

Sideslipping 
The idea of an individual innocently minding their own business and stumbling across into a parallel world has long been a staple of the alternate-history genre.  Several novels, such as Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, have used this as a major or minor plot device.  Another novel, the not so well-known, Sideslip (1968), by Ted White and Dave van Arnam, has its protagonist, a hard-boiled but decidedly down on his heels New York private eye by the name of Ronald Archer ( a nod to Dashiell Hammett) transit from his world to a world that is not his own. It’s a world where the Second World War never happened thanks to the benevolent intervention of a race of alien overlords called the Angels.  With the action fast and furious, Archer becomes the unwelcome focus of attention of the surviving Nazis, Communists, and Technocrats, and eventually the Angels themselves as they engage in an all-out power play.  Although the book in paperback comes in at a slender 188 pages, White and van Arnam are both able to develop  Archer as the primary protagonist and make him more than just a two-fisted gunsel and build out the alternate universe he finds himself in, thanks to some tight plotting and world-building.

Sideslip is one of my perennial favourites.  You can try finding a copy online or your at local used bookshop. It's worth the hunt.

What’s Next?
Currently I’m reading the second book in S.M. Stirling’s alternate First World War series, Theater of Spies, which continues the adventures  of American super-spy Luz O’Malley Arostegui, and her companion, technical wizard Ciara Whelan. I hope to have a review for you next month.  After that, I’ll be reviewing The British Lion, a novel of Britain under Nazi occupation, by Tony Schumacher. 

(Note that in any inaccuracies in the science portion of this blog are my fault.)

In the meantime, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  Thanks.