Saturday, 17 February 2018

Interstellar War

This is a big musing of mine recently, and I thought it might help to get it down on paper as it were. One of the things that people can usually handwave or sidestep in science fiction epics is the concept of interstellar war. In some series it can make sense, but in others, not so much. When fighting aliens it tends to be a given, we want the same real-estate, they find us objectionable on religious/philosophical grounds, ect. With fighting other humans the same does not necessarily hold true.

Sure we might fight over the same resources, but absent some major justification why bother? Sure an independent space power would be capable of colonizing or utilizing its resources better than one being forced into a subservient position? Or even a single system star nation would be able to happily exist on its own systems resources. Why assemble a large expensive space fleet for an invasion of another? What is the benefit?

This is especially true if you assume all star systems would necessarily be self sufficient after their establishment. They would have not only their whole planet but their whole solar system to mine for resources. If a star system is going to be self sufficient on resources for thousands of years, by bother troubling another?

There are some answers to this.

Much like the aforementioned aliens, humanity might clash for political or religious reasons. Even at interstellar distances mankind might be petty enough over doctrinal opinions or political differences to be willing to go to war. We have certainly done so on Earth. If rather than a united whole humanity begins the colonization of other star systems as fractious alliances of petty nation states why wouldn't this happen one has to ask?

One reason I personally believe would be probable for mankind to engage in such wasteful wars amongst the stars is the issue of control. The desire of say, Earth to hold its wayward colonies under its sway. Perhaps two neighboring systems become covetous of the others superiority in easily accessible resources. Maybe one system is located on better ground for a hyperspace highway and the other system wants better access to that trade?

The possibilities are legion, and I daresay that rather than Gene Roddenberry's utopian ideals of the future with humanity as one big happy family, we would find ourselves finding reasons (petty or great) to fight one another. This is perhaps why war stories, even in space, remain popular. Humankind fighting and exploring why humans fight is going to be a popular topic of fiction for a long time yet.

Despite how horrible, cruel, and oft times pointless war is, we still enjoy reading about it. Sanitized of the blood, bodies, broken homes and families, it is an exciting prospect to read about. That being said, some authors do manage to drive the agony of war home, and those authors should be extolled for that. War is a strange phenomenon, as we find it both glorious and revolting. War among the stars with weapons far more powerful than those we have today it logically follows, would be more so.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Anglo-American Nazi War

Years ago now, I stumbled across the website while looking up alternate history on the web after reading about S.M. Stirlings Draka series. Little did I know then that I would stumble upon a series that has captivated the minds of many since its author under the username Calbear first penned it back in 2009. That story is, The Anglo-American Nazi War, available under the title Festung Europa, on Amazon it is the definitive edition of the story by author Jon Kacer.

The story takes place during World War II, and the point of divergence is the Nazis not engaging in North Africa and the fall of Stalingrad in 1942. This causes Stalin, in one of his brutal rages, to liquidate not only his main generals (Zhukov among them) but also most of Stavka. Stripped of much of their planning staff, the Russian operations of 1943 are disasters, and Stalin soon suffers a "fatal heart attack" and the Soviet Union falls into civil war. Into this vacuum the Nazis pour, and crush all resistance inflicting a crippling peace on the Russians, allowing them to turn their attention to the war with the West.

The Western Allies, now facing some 200 battle hardened divisions of Nazi troops, understandably balk at an immediate invasion of Europe. Instead, a brutally increasing air war peters into stalemate by 1947. From there both sides, seeing little opportunity to hurt each other, have an informal "truce" where no air attacks will take place, but there is no peace either, and the "Warm War" begins.

Unlike other "Nazi Cold War" scenarios (such as Fatherland or A Kill in the Morning) the Allied doctrine of Unconditional Surrender remains in place and so the truce is rather informal. The active combat remains limited to anti-submarine warfare in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Then of course, the Nazis being Nazis, decide to reignite the conflict by launching one of the most spectacular(ly ill advised) operations in military history kicking off the war again in 1954.

From there the story follows the operational history of the war, only rarely dealing with the battles themselves when they serve to illustrate a particular strategic/doctrinal point about the combatants.

The author, much like David Weber, knows his stuff. To his credit he does not shy away from the horrors or heroism of war, and is quite frank with some of the brutal calculations the Allied commanders make, offering no moral comment, but simply recording it as what must be done to win. Heck, even commentators in the original story thread were horrified at what took place, even to the Nazis on occasion!

Aside from that, as I said, the author knows his stuff. Prospective weapons of war that were never used in our own WWII come to the fray here, and even weapons that were never used!

For instance, we have Allied adoption of helicopters, which frustrates some Nazi planning against paratroopers. You also have the M92 Chamberlain Heavy Tank which mounts an enormous 120mm gun. Though when faced with something as terrifying as the Nazi Panther Mk III with its sloped armor and 105mm gun, it seems less mind boggling. The many cool planes that contribute to the air war are too numerous to mention, but suffice to say they are used quite well. Combine that with numerous other clever uses of existing military weaponry, it makes for some fascinating "what if" reading.

The story also pulls no punches in describing just how depraved and barbaric the Nazi regime was. Even the short descriptions of the horrendous labor conditions for the slave workers across the Reich are chilling, and when one considers that this is a Reich that stretches from the Atlantic to the Urals, it is terrifying to contemplate (the story at one point estimates some 90 million killed by the Nazi extermination efforts in this time line).

Many of the excellent portrayals of action in the story, are thrilling, including one great moment showing the Free Poles going into action against the SS and kicking serious ass. This is very much a history book rather than a novel though, and should be treated as such. There are no view point characters, merely the fictional in universe author offering their perspective on the war and its history. As such it may be a "dry" piece for some, but if you are a student of history or an alternate history enthusiast, it is well worth the read.

That being said, I had a few quibbles with the story.

For one thing, while I acknowledge the premise of the story is probably more sound than many would argue, I question a few of the authors conclusions. The first is that even after the resumption of the "Hot War" the SS do not meaningfully upgrade their armored capabilities in response to Allied tank designs. There is no mention of a Panther Mk IV appearing, or any other type of new heavy tank. Armor design was the bread and butter of the Reich in vehicle manufacture, and I did expect something of a reaction by them. The Luftwaffe had some design upgrades as the war wore on, but perhaps this was simply an oversight by the author.

Another is how badly he treats Russia and the former USSR, brutalized and vassalized by Nazi invasion, and made to pay staggering tribute, they get the short end of the stick from 1941-1990 alas. This though, may be my reaction to just how terrible things turn out for poor Russia here.

I also question the viability of the "False Peak" strategy adopted by the Allies to draw the SS to destruction in the work. An interesting and remarkably effective strategy in this work, I think it perhaps works too well, as even the SS were not unadaptive robots and could probably have reached the conclusion that something was afoot with all these fake attacks. However, as both a strategic and narrative piece it works well so I can't complain too much.

All these aside, the work stands up. Mr. Kacer knows his history and his military minutia, and manages to present it in a compelling and fascinating way. I have re-read it many times as a result. As previously stated, the book is good, and if you enjoy this sort of thing I encourage you to check it out!

Thursday, 8 February 2018

Elon Musk and the State of Sci Fi

Recently Elon Musk launched his Falcon Heavy maiden flight, making a successful launch of a very powerful rocket which can put upwards of 60 tons in orbit at need. This is an exciting day for fans of space exploration, and it has in all likelihood given us the best image of 2018, with the first payload being his Tesla Roadster orbiting the Earth.

Now this raises some exciting prospects for future space exploration as a powerful new rocket is in place to bring payloads to the stars.

However, this news caused me to reflect on the state of space exploration and the state of science fiction in general. Back in 2004 Bush declared we would have a moon base by 2020, and there were excited discussions of using it as a stepping stone on a manned mission to Mars by 2030. Of course, since then, more practical issues have kept such dreams grounded. A great recession, an ever expanding war in the Middle East, the strategic pivot of the United States's military forces to the Pacific, ect. So it seems our dream of expansion off of our little blue marble are still born.

How does this effect sci-fi you ask? Simple. If our current prediction of a moon base by 2020 isn't feasible, how likely is it we can see a manned mission to Mars by 2030? The excellent film (and novel) The Martian posited a functional Mars base by 2035. How do our sci-fi timelines stack up in hindsight and even foresight if our own generation seems as earthbound as that of the 1950s?

Truthfully it seems that many of the optimistic musings on interstellar travel by 2100 seem naive now, and many a science fiction author seems himself sad to realize that their thoughts that the technology would advance quickly enough to provide some realism to their sci-fi are groundless.

Perhaps only the first book of The Expanse is correct and we will be limited to only our own solar system for the foreseeable future. Or perhaps, as some say, we will never leave our little blue rock because it lacks practicability.

I disagree with the naysayers personally, but I think that our long absence from the stars may have an influence on predictions of interstellar travel that was not so present in those starry eyed science fiction writers of the 1900s.

We can see some of that in the depictions of a battered overpopulated Earth depicted in The Expanse, or even Avatar and its story telling. Predictions of environmental catastrophe and overpopulation seem to haunt our otherwise hopeful depictions of the future. Rather than great vistas of alien worlds, we struggle amidst bleak hellscapes akin to Blade Runner and lament the dying Earth. Has a positive portrayal of the future lost its charm?

I doubt it, and if anything Elon Musk's recent launch has spurred excitement amongst the "hard" science fiction fans, and will hopefully spur some hopeful attitudes amongst the more "soft" science fiction writers too.

Whatever the case may be though, this proves that humanity is still reaching towards the stars, and we continue to have a practical, as well as literary, future in those heavens yet. Let us all look to the sky with wonder!

Monday, 5 February 2018

Mistborn The Original Trilogy

Well readers nne of my reading highlights of 2017 was finally re-reading the Mistborn trilogy, something I hadn't done in well over five years. I personally feel lucky because I got to purchase it in a boxed set and so didn't have to wait a few years between releases and wonder what was going on. This time around I was able to read it with a detailed set of annotations Brandon provides for the series giving you some insights into his writing process and some minor details on the world you don't see in the main novels.

Re-reading it I felt transported back into an original fantasy world and was able to remind myself that Brandon Sanderson is one of the greatest fantasy authors of the 21st Century.

Why you ask? Well that is because the Mistborn trilogy is (in my opinion readers) one of the greatest pieces of fantasy fiction ever written!

The series set in a world very much not our own, a world called Scadrial. Ash falls from the sky covering the land in a perpetual gray, the vegetation is brown, and life is hard. In it we are introduced to the Final Empire ruled over by the Lord Ruler who is the temporal and immortal god emperor of this realm that encompasses all humanity. The nobility rule over vast estates of slave skaa workers who are the property of the empire, and a fanatical Steel Ministry, with its fearsome Steel Inquisitors, enforces orthodoxy and compliance throughout the empire.

In this world though, there are those individuals who can control the Metallic Arts, or Allomancy, and are born with an innate ability to burn one of the ten metals and use its effects. Then there are those rare individuals who can burn all ten, and these we come to know as Mistborn.

As a warning, there are spoilers below the cut, so continue at your own risk!!

From Pintrest

Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Safehold Series

As I previously mentioned in my Armageddon Reef review, David Weber, in the early 2000s, began work on his latest science fiction series, the Safehold series back in 2007. He followed up very quickly with the sequel By Schism Rent Asunder in 2008. New installments were prompt and yearly, all the way up to the most recent book, At the Sign of Triumph where presently a break is had in the series.

The series began with the tagline "The science fiction decade of the decade begins here." A lofty goal for any author, but if there was someone who could pull off such a lofty goal it would be David Weber. Does he deliver though?

As a small introduction to the series, we go some 300 years into the future where humanity has spread to the stars, only to suddenly and horrifically discover that we are not alone. The genocidal alien race the Gbaba slams into humanity with all the force of an interstellar avalanche and one by one wipes out mankind's colonies until only Earth is left facing the invaders. Soon, Earth too dies.

But that is not the end, as a last desperate attempt to save the human race, Operation Ark, is launched to find humanity a new home where they can hide in safety and one day rebuild, and take the fight to the Gbaba. However, the leaders of Operation Ark have slightly different plans and essentially brainwash the colonists into believing they are now, and always have been, denizens of the planet Safehold and were put there by God, and the leaders of Operation Ark are the archangels who watch over them by entrapping them in the Middle Ages. Suffice to say some members of the operation disagreed with this, and in doing so they get wiped out by an orbital bombardment, becoming demons in the worlds mythology. However, they have an ace in the hole, a cybernetic avatar of a dead naval officer named Nimue Alban who adopts the persona Merlin to break the grip of the ruling theocratic body of the planet, the Church of God Awaiting.

Merlin chooses the mercantile nation of Charis and makes their enemies his enemies, and in doing so plunges the world into a holy war in a struggle for its very soul.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Off Armageddon Reef

David Weber, as many may know, is well known in military science fiction circles as perhaps the preeminent science fiction writer of the 1990s and early 2000s. His works include the standard setting Honor Harrington series, and numerous stand alones such as Out of the Dark and The Apocalypse Troll while also writing numerous series of his own.

In the early 2000s he began work on his Safehold series, which promised to move away from Weber's usual fare of starships and space opera to the more nautical and landlubber area of wooden ships and iron men. Here he began what promised to be an exciting foray into a new world of cannon, swords and muskets. I, having only just finished book 10 of the Honor Harrington series at that point, eagerly dove in to see what he might have to offer in a field I was sure he would know much about.

The question is then, do we find boundless adventure and excitement Off Armageddon Reef?

Monday, 15 January 2018

Minimum Wage Ontario

One of the big topics of the New Year in Canada, or at least Ontario, is the rising minimum wage. Now as of last year the average minimum wage around the country was roughly 11.00$ on the whole, with only the province of Alberta and the territory of Nunavut having wages above 11$ at 13.60$ and 13.00$ respectively.

Ontario's minimum wage hike will be bringing minimum wage from 11.60 to an even 14.00 which means minimum wage workers will be earning about 1.90$ (rounding to 2$) extra in their paycheck. Then the next year it will rise to 15$ on the nose. This will make Ontario the highest paying province when it comes to minimum wage.

The question of course, is that a good thing?

You will find varying answers to this.

On one hand many people act as though this will destroy small businesses and send prices sky high in ways that are unimaginable. Some say that this will probably only inconvenience businesses slightly and make the workers richer. Personally, I think the truth is somewhere in the latter end of the conversation.

One of the most immediate effects it seems has been to bring Tim Hortons into conflict with the Labor Ministry in Ontario as they attempt to cut worker benefits to "compensate" for a pay raise. I have heard that rather than being the actions of a few "rogue managers" as Tim Horton's parent company Restaurant Brands International, claims, this is the norm across the board. It seems that this is taking place across Ontario as the company (or at the very least managers) gets greedy. Or perhaps, they're merely not as efficient at running their stores as they might otherwise have people believe.

This has been the biggest piece of news (especially with how quick the company is to do it) but with this pay hike being new, it might have made more sense for franchises to wait before pulling benefits. With other businesses though, the news seems to be taking longer to filter in as some companies seem to be hedging their bets. Undoubtedly this will raise labor costs (especially for small businesses) across the province. Indeed it seems that some have already complained that it will. Though it also comes with a litany of other advantages for employees across the board.

What we should really ask, is will this be good for the economy? Recent studies, done in 2015 and in 2016 have shown that, in all likelihood, yes it will. Job rates are probably not going to go down, and minimum wage workers will most likely be able to afford to do more with their purchasing power. Over the course of the wage raises this will mean that the average worker will be able to invest more in the economy, and productivity could even go up as workers are simply able to afford more. Which we should see as an overall boon.

Forecasting economic productivity though, is like reading so many tea leaves, and it is impossible to say for sure. Though I'm sure the average worker will be asking themselves, what could I do with even a few extra dollars from my wallet? Hopefully, that will be the question businesses ask as well.