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.