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.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Book Review: Afterwar, by Lilith Saintcrow

After finishing the novel Afterwar, I still can’t make up my mind whether the story occurs in an alternate history past or the near future.  While I’ll leave that up for you to decide, I will tell you the warning it delivers – when and wherever it is situated – is both timely and important.

 And that's why I’ve given it space on this blog.

Afterwar, as the name implies, occurs at the end of a conflict, in this case, as the Second American Civil War is winding down.  The Federal forces, after 10 years in exile on the west coast have driven out a brutal fascist government led by a dictatorial president, who possesses certain parallels to the incumbent of the Oval Office. We meet our protagonists, Swann’s Riders, a group of irregulars attached to the Federal armies as they liberate a concentration camp. We also met our primary antagonist, is the camp’s second-in-command, at the same time. It's not a spoiler to say both their paths will cross but not quite meet until the novel's conclusion.

Even though the war might’ve ended, there are still many pieces to pick up, and Saintcrow takes us through a well-crafted vision of a post-war America, which she conducts us through in brisk style, but at the same time sparing us no details or horrors. Both protagonists and antagonists have complete and satisfying arcs and Saintcrow demonstrates some very fine storytelling here.

The book seems timelier than ever before as America seems as politically and culturally divided as it was just before it lurched into the Civil War in 1861. Certainly some of the rhetoric is far from encouraging. 

For all of these reasons and much, more, this book is highly recommended.

(Note: I had planned on reading Afterwar and reviewing it in this space months ago.  I only published it some hours before I saw the Trump tweet. Sometimes I wish that fiction didn't imitate reality so well.)

What’s Next?


I’ll be reviewing the next novel in S.M. Stirling’s alternate World War One series, Theatre of Spies. After that, I’ll also be looking at 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.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Book Review: Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel


Airborn is a novel of high adventure set in an alternate Edwardian era where heavier-than-air travel never quite got off the ground. Instead, giant airships have become the primary method of transport, plying the air routes around the world.  

Our chief protagonist, Matt Cruse, is cabin boy aboard the airship Aurora, the same ship his father once sailed upon before he met his untimely demise. For a novel of just over 320 pages (in paperback), author Oppel takes great care in both character development and in building the world they inhabit.

While serving as a lookout during a cross of the Pacificus (read: Pacific Ocean), Matt spots a battered balloon drifting nearby. It is brought aboard with its sole passenger an elderly man clinging to life. He later dies, but not before he and his diary reveal tantalizing clues about strange winged creatures.

Flash forward one year later. Matt is still serving as a cabin boy on the Aurora, after narrowly losing out to a much-deserved promotion to the son the airship line’s owner. In true heroic fashion, Matt tries to keep above it for the most part and Oppel plays this internal struggle quite well. One of the late-arriving passengers is a young woman whom Matt immediately develops a connection with her and her priggish chaperone (a bit of a cliché here).

Our course now firmly set, the plot moves forward to a climax involving dastardly air pirates, a mysterious island (what novel would be without that?) the resolution of the mystery of the winged creatures, young love, and much daring-do.

Airborn has many touches right of Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, Edgar Rice Burroughs and later authors such as Michael Moorcock and should satisfy every reader.  And although classified as a “young adult” (see my comments below), I highly recommend Airborn for all ages. 

If you haven't made your acquaintance with this novel, it's past time you do.

Sidebar:

A funny thing happened on the way to this book review.

I found Airborn sitting on the shelves of my local thrift shop; since knowing the book was set in an alternate world and thus fit into the scope of this blog, I picked it up and took it to the cashier.  

The cashier looked at the book and sniffed at me, “That’s young adult fiction!”


I looked back at her, the hint of a Clint Eastwood glare in my eyes. Yeah, I got that. Just ring me through already. 

There is still a remarkable bias towards so-called “young adult fiction.” That the bias exists is something of a head-scratcher; after all the category occupies a growing space on the shelves of most bookstores, particularly in the SF and Fantasy sections, prime examples being the Harry Potter and The Hunger Games series, both of which are best sellers and major motion picture franchises.  Of the books in the SF category, many do fall into the alternate-history genre, in particular, the more specialized steampunk sub-genre. Much of this success can be attributed to readership among young adults; however, one doubts they would have become the successes they are without their adult readership.

Funny indeed.

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.