March 2009

Birmingham, John. Without Warning. New York: Del Rey, 2009. ISBN 978-0-345-50289-6.
One of the most common counsels offered to authors by agents and editors is to choose a genre and remain within it. A book which spans two or more of the usual categories runs the risk of “falling into the crack”, with reviewers not certain how to approach it and, on the marketing side, retailers unsure of where in the store it should be displayed. This is advice which the author of this work either never received or laughingly disdained. The present volume combines a political/military techno-thriller in the Tom Clancy tradition with alternative history as practiced by Harry Turtledove, but wait—there's more, relativistic arm-waving apocalyptic science fiction in the vein of the late Michael Crichton. This is an ambitious combination, and one which the author totally bungles in this lame book, which is a complete waste of paper, ink, time, and money.

The premise is promising. What would happen if there were no United States (something we may, after all, effectively find out over the next few years, if not in the manner posited here)? In particular, wind the clock back to just before the start of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and assume the U.S. vanished—what would the world look like in the aftermath? You ask, “what do you mean by the U.S. vanishing?” Well, you see, an interdimensional portal opens between a fifth dimensional braneworld which disgorges 500,000 flying saucers which spread out over North America, from which tens of millions of 10 metre tall purple and green centipedes emerge to hunt down and devour every human being in the United States and most of Canada and Mexico, leaving intact only the airheads in western Washington State and Hawaii and the yahoos in Alaska. No—not really—in fact what is proposed here is even more preposterously implausible than the saucers and centipedes, and is never explained in the text. It is simply an absurd plot device which defies about as many laws of physics as rules of thumb for authors of thrillers.

So the U.S. goes away, and mayhem erupts all around the world. The story is told by tracking with closeups of various people in the Middle East, Europe, on the high seas, Cuba, and the surviving remnant of the U.S. The way things play out isn't implausible, but since the precipitating event is absurd on the face of it, it's difficult to care much about the consequences as described here. I mean, here we have a book in which Bill Gates has a cameo rôle providing a high-security communications device which is competently implemented and works properly the first time—bring on the saucers and giant centipedes!

As the pages dwindle toward the end, it seems like nothing is being resolved. Then you turn the last page and discover that you've been left in mid-air and are expected to buy After America next year to find out how it all comes out. Yeah, right—fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, not gonna happen!

Apart from the idiotic premise, transgenred plot, and side-splitting goofs like the mention of “UCLA's Berkeley campus” (p. 21), the novel drips with gratuitous obscenity. Look, one expects soldiers and sailors to cuss, and having them speak that way conveys a certain authenticity. But here, almost everybody, from mild-mannered city engineers to urbane politicians seem unable to utter two sentences without dropping one or more F-bombs. Aside from the absurdity of the plot, this makes the reading experience coarsening. Perhaps that is how people actually speak in this post-Enlightenment age; if so, I do not wish to soil my recreational reading by being reminded of it.

If we end up in the kind of post-apocalyptic world described here, we'll probably have to turn to our libraries once the hoard of toilet paper in the basement runs out. I know which book will be first on the list.

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Wilczek, Frank. The Lightness of Being. New York: Basic Books, 2008. ISBN 978-0-465-00321-1.
For much of its history as a science, physics has been about mass and how it behaves in response to various forces, but until very recently physics had little to say about the origin of mass: it was simply a given. Some Greek natural philosophers explained it as being made up of identical atoms, but then just assumed that the atoms somehow had their own intrinsic mass. Newton endowed all matter with mass, but considered its origin beyond the scope of observation and experiment and thus outside the purview of science. As the structure of the atom was patiently worked out in the twentieth century, it became clear that the overwhelming majority of the mass of atoms resides in a nucleus which makes up a minuscule fraction of its volume, later that the nucleus is composed of protons and neutrons, and still later that those particles were made up of quarks and gluons, but still physicists were left with no explanation for why these particles had the masses they did or, for that matter, any mass at all.

In this compelling book, Nobel Physics laureate and extraordinarily gifted writer Frank Wilczek describes how one of the greatest intellectual edifices ever created by the human mind: the drably named “standard model” of particle physics, combined with what is almost certainly the largest scientific computation ever performed to date (teraflop massively parallel computers running for several months on a single problem), has finally produced a highly plausible explanation for the origin of the mass of normal matter (ourselves and everything we have observed in the universe), or at least about 95% of it—these matters, and matter itself, always seems to have some more complexity to tease out.

And what's the answer? Well, the origin of mass is the vacuum, and its interaction with fields which fill all of the space in the universe. The quantum vacuum is a highly dynamic medium, seething with fluctuations and ephemeral virtual particles which come and go in instants which make even the speed of present-day computers look like geological time. The interaction of this vacuum with massless quarks produces, through processes explained so lucidly here, around 95% of the mass of the nucleus of atoms, and hence what you see when stepping on the bathroom scale. Hey, if you aren't happy with that number, just remember that 95% of it is just due to the boiling of the quantum vacuum. Or, you could go on a diet.

This spectacular success of the standard model, along with its record over the last three decades in withstanding every experimental test to which it has been put, inspires confidence that, as far as it goes, it's on the right track. But just as the standard model was consolidating this triumph, astronomers produced powerful evidence that everything it explains: atoms, ourselves, planets, stars, and galaxies—everything we observe and the basis of all sciences from antiquity to the present—makes up less than 5% of the total mass of the universe. This discovery, and the conundrum of how the standard model can be reconciled with the equally-tested yet entirely mathematically incompatible theory of gravitation, general relativity, leads the author into speculation on what may lie ahead, how what we presently know (or think we know) may be a piece in a larger puzzle, and how experimental tests expected within the next decade may provide clues and open the door to these larger theories. All such speculation is clearly labeled, but it is proffered in keeping with what he calls the Jesuit Credo, “It is more blessed to ask forgiveness than permission.”

This is a book for the intelligent layman, and a superb twenty page glossary is provided for terms used in the text with which the reader may be unfamiliar. In fact, the glossary is worth reading in its own right, as it expands on many subjects and provides technical details absent in the main text. The end notes are also excellent and shouldn't be missed. One of the best things about this book, in my estimation, is what is missing from it. Unlike so many physicists writing for a popular audience, Wilczek feels no need whatsoever to recap the foundations of twentieth century science. He assumes, and I believe wisely, that somebody who picks up a book on the origin of mass by a Nobel Prize winner probably already knows the basics of special relativity and quantum theory and doesn't need to endure a hundred pages recounting them for the five hundredth time before getting to the interesting stuff. For the reader who has wandered in without this background knowledge, the glossary will help, and also direct the reader to introductory popular books and texts on the various topics.

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Pipes. Richard. Communism: A History. New York: Doubleday, [2001] 2003. ISBN 978-0-8129-6864-4.
This slim volume (just 175 pages) provides, for its size, the best portrait I have encountered of the origins of communist theory, the history of how various societies attempted to implement it in the twentieth century, and the tragic consequences of those grand scale social experiments and their aftermath. The author, a retired professor of history at Harvard University, is one of the most eminent Western scholars of Russian and Soviet history. The book examines communism as an ideal, a program, and its embodiment in political regimes in various countries. Based on the ideals of human equality and subordination of the individual to the collective which date at least back to Plato, communism, first set out as a program of action by Marx and Engels, proved itself almost infinitely malleable in the hands of subsequent theorists and political leaders, rebounding from each self-evident failure (any one of which should, in a rational world, have sufficed to falsify a theory which proclaims itself “scientific”), morphing into yet another infallible and inevitable theory of history. In the words of the immortal Bullwinkle J. Moose, “This time for sure!”

Regardless of the nature of the society in which the communist program is undertaken and the particular variant of the theory adopted, the consequences have proved remarkably consistent: emergence of an elite which rules through violence, repression, and fear; famine and economic stagnation; and collapse of the individual enterprise and innovation which are the ultimate engine of progress of all kinds. No better example of this is the comparison of North and South Korea on p. 152. Here are two countries which started out identically devastated by Japanese occupation in World War II and then by the Korean War, with identical ethnic makeup, which diverged in the subsequent decades to such an extent that famine killed around two million people in North Korea in the 1990s, at which time the GDP per capita in the North was around US$900 versus US$13,700 in the South. Male life expectancy at birth in the North was 48.9 years compared to 70.4 years in the South, with an infant mortality rate in the North more than ten times that of the South. This appalling human toll was modest compared to the famines and purges of the Soviet Union and Communist China, or the apocalyptic fate of Cambodia under Pol Pot. The Black Book of Communism puts the total death toll due to communism in the twentieth century as between 85 and 100 million, which is half again greater than that of both world wars combined. To those who say “One cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs”, the author answers, “Apart from the fact that human beings are not eggs, the trouble is that no omelette has emerged from the slaughter.” (p. 158)

So effective were communist states in their “big lie” propaganda, and so receptive were many Western intellectuals to its idealistic message, that many in the West were unaware of this human tragedy as it unfolded over the better part of a century. This book provides an excellent starting point for those unaware of the reality experienced by those living in the lands of communism and those for whom that epoch is distant, forgotten history, but who remain, like every generation, susceptible to idealistic messages and unaware of the suffering of those who attempted to put them into practice in the past.

Communism proved so compelling to intellectuals (and, repackaged, remains so) because it promised hope for a new way of living together and change to a rational world where the best and the brightest—intellectuals and experts—would build a better society, shorn of all the conflict and messiness which individual liberty unavoidably entails. The author describes this book as “an introduction to Communism and, at the same time, its obituary.” Maybe—let's hope so. But this book can serve an even more important purpose: as a cautionary tale of how the best of intentions can lead directly to the worst of outcomes. When, for example, one observes in the present-day politics of the United States the creation, deliberate exacerbation, and exploitation of crises to implement a political agenda; use of engineered financial collapse to advance political control over the economy and pauperise and render dependent upon the state classes of people who would otherwise oppose it; the creation, personalisation, and demonisation of enemies replacing substantive debate over policy; indoctrination of youth in collectivist dogma; and a number of other strategies right out of Lenin's playbook, one wonders if the influence of that evil mummy has truly been eradicated, and wishes that the message in this book were more widely known there and around the world.

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Post, David G. In Search of Jefferson's Moose. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-19-534289-5.
In 1787, while serving as Minister to France, Thomas Jefferson took time out from his diplomatic duties to arrange to have shipped from New Hampshire across the Atlantic Ocean the complete skeleton, skin, and antlers of a bull moose, which was displayed in his residence in Paris. Jefferson was involved in a dispute with the Comte de Buffon, who argued that the fauna of the New World were degenerate compared to those of Europe and Asia. Jefferson concluded that no verbal argument or scientific evidence would be as convincing of the “structure and majesty of American quadrupeds” as seeing a moose in the flesh (or at least the bone), so he ordered one up for display.

Jefferson was a passionate believer in the exceptionality of the New World and the prospects for building a self-governing republic in its expansive territory. If it took hauling a moose all the way to Paris to convince Europeans disdainful of the promise of his nascent nation, then so be it—bring on the moose! Among Jefferson's voluminous writings, perhaps none expressed these beliefs as strongly as his magisterial Notes on the State of Virginia. The present book, subtitled “Notes on the State of Cyberspace” takes Jefferson's work as a model and explores this new virtual place which has been built based upon a technology which simply sends packets of data from place to place around the world. The parallels between the largely unexplored North American continent of Jefferson's time and today's Internet are strong and striking, as the author illustrates with extensive quotations from Jefferson interleaved in the text (set in italics to distinguish them from the author's own words) which are as applicable to the Internet today as the land west of the Alleghenies in the late 18th century.

Jefferson believed in building systems which could scale to arbitrary size without either losing their essential nature or becoming vulnerable to centralisation and the attendant loss of liberty and autonomy. And he believed that free individuals, living within such a system and with access to as much information as possible and the freedom to communicate without restrictions would self-organise to perpetuate, defend, and extend such a polity. While Europeans, notably Montesquieu, believed that self-governance was impossible in a society any larger than a city-state, and organised their national and imperial governments accordingly, Jefferson's 1784 plan for the government of new Western territory set forth an explicitly power law fractal architecture which, he believed, could scale arbitrarily large without depriving citizens of local control of matters which directly concerned them. This architecture is stunningly similar to that of the global Internet, and the bottom-up governance of the Internet to date (which Post explores in some detail) is about as Jeffersonian as one can imagine.

As the Internet has become a central part of global commerce and the flow of information in all forms, the eternal conflict between the decentralisers and champions of individual liberty (with confidence that free people will sort things out for themselves)—the Jeffersonians—and those who believe that only strong central authority and the vigorous enforcement of rules can prevent chaos—Hamiltonians—has emerged once again in the contemporary debate about “Internet governance”.

This is a work of analysis, not advocacy. The author, a law professor and regular contributor to The Volokh Conspiracy Web log, observes that, despite being initially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, the development of the Internet to date has been one of the most Jeffersonian processes in history, and has scaled from a handful of computers in 1969 to a global network with billions of users and a multitude of applications never imagined by its creators, and all through consensual decision making and contractual governance with nary a sovereign gun-wielder in sight. So perhaps before we look to “fix” the unquestioned problems and challenges of the Internet by turning the Hamiltonians loose upon it, we should listen well to the wisdom of Jefferson, who has much to say which is directly applicable to exploring, settling, and governing this new territory which technology has opened up. This book is a superb way to imbibe the wisdom of Jefferson, while learning the basics of the Internet architecture and how it, in many ways, parallels that of aspects of Jefferson's time. Jefferson even spoke to intellectual property issues which read like today's news, railing against a “rascal” using an abusive patent of a long-existing device to extort money from mill owners (p. 197), and creating and distributing “freeware” including a design for a uniquely efficient plough blade based upon Newton's Principia which he placed in the public domain, having “never thought of monopolizing by patent any useful idea which happened to offer itself to me” (p. 196).

So astonishing was Jefferson's intellect that as you read this book you'll discover that he has a great deal to say about this new frontier we're opening up today. Good grief—did you know that the Oxford English Dictionary even credits Jefferson with being the first person to use the words “authentication” and “indecipherable” (p. 124)? The author's lucid explanations, deft turns of phrase, and agile leaps between the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries are worthy of the forbidding standard set by the man so extensively quoted here. Law professors do love their footnotes, and this is almost two books in one: the focused main text and the more rambling but fascinating footnotes, some of which span several pages. There is also an extensive list of references and sources for all of the Jefferson quotations in the end notes.

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Niven, Larry and Jerry Pournelle. Escape from Hell. New York: Tor Books, 2009. ISBN 978-0-765-31632-5.
Every now and then you read a novel where you're absolutely certain as you turn the pages that the author(s) had an absolute blast writing it, and when that's the case the result is usually superbly entertaining. That is certainly true here. How could two past masters of science fiction and fantasy not delight in a scenario in which they can darn to heck anybody they wish, choosing the particular torment for each and every sinner?

In this sequel to the authors' 1976 novel Inferno, the protagonist of the original novel, science fiction writer Allen Carpenter, makes a second progress through Hell. This time, after an unfortunate incident on the Ice in the Tenth Circle, he starts out back in the Vestibule, resolved that this time he will escape from Hell himself and, as he progresses ever downward toward the exit described by Dante, to determine if it is possible for any damned soul to escape and to aid those willing to follow him.

Hell is for eternity, but that doesn't mean things don't change there. In the decades since Carpenter's first traverse, there have been many modifications in the landscape of the underworld. We meet many newly-damned souls as well as revisiting those encountered before. Carpenter recounts his story to Sylvia Plath, who as a suicide, has been damned as a tree in the Wood of the Suicides in the Seventh Circle and who, rescued by him, accompanies him downward to the exit. The ice cream stand in the Fiery Desert is a refreshing interlude from justice without mercy! The treatment of one particular traitor in the Ice is sure to prove controversial; the authors explain their reasoning for his being there in the Notes at the end. A theme which runs throughout is how Hell is a kind of Heaven to many of those who belong there and, having found their niche in Eternity, aren't willing to gamble it for the chance of salvation. I've had jobs like that—got better.

I'll not spoil the ending, but will close by observing that the authors have provided a teaser for a possible Paradiso somewhere down the road. Should that come to pass, I'll look forward to devouring it as I did this thoroughly rewarding yarn. I'll wager that if that work comes to pass, Pournelle's Iron Law of Bureaucracy will be found to apply as Below, so Above.

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Forstchen, William R. One Second After. New York: Forge, 2009. ISBN 978-0-7653-1758-2.
Suppose, one fine spring day, with no warning or evident cause, the power went out. After a while, when it didn't come back on, you might try to telephone the power company, only to discover the phone completely dead. You pull out your mobile phone, and it too is kaput—nothing happens at all when you try to turn it on. You get the battery powered radio you keep in the basement in case of storms, and it too is dead; you swap in the batteries from the flashlight (which works) but that doesn't fix the radio. So, you decide to drive into town and see if anybody there knows what's going on. The car doesn't start. You set out on foot, only to discover when you get to the point along the lane where you can see the highway that it's full of immobile vehicles with their drivers wandering around on foot as in a daze.

What's happening—The Day the Earth Stood Still? Is there a saucer on the ground in Washington? Nobody knows: all forms of communication are down, all modes of transportation halted. You might think this yet another implausible scenario for a thriller, but what I've just described (in a form somewhat different than the novel) is pretty much what the sober-sided experts of the Commission to Assess the Threat to the United States from Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP) Attack sketch out in their April 2008 Critical National Infrastructures report and 2004 Executive Report as the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon in space high above the continental United States. There would be no thermal, blast, or radiation effects on the ground (although somebody unlucky enough to be looking toward the location of the detonation the sky might suffer vision damage, particularly if it occurred at night), but a massive electromagnetic pulse (EMP) created as prompt gamma rays from the nuclear detonation create free electrons in the upper atmosphere due to the Compton effect which spiral along the lines of force of Earth's magnetic field and emit an intense electric field pulse in three phases which reaches the ground and affects electrical and electronic equipment in a variety of ways, none good. As far as is known, the electromagnetic pulse is completely harmless to humans and other living organisms and would not even be perceived by them.

But it's Hell on electronics. The immediate (E1) pulse arrives at the speed of light everywhere within the line of sight of the detonation, and with a rise time of at most a few nanoseconds, gets into all kinds of electronics much faster than any form of transient protection can engage; this is what kills computer and communications gear and any other kind of electronics with exposed leads or antennas which the pulse can excite. The second phase (E2) pulse is much like the effects of a local lightning strike, and would not cause damage to equipment with proper lightning protection except that in many cases the protection mechanisms may have been damaged or disabled by the consequences of the E1 pulse (which has no counterpart in lightning, and hence lightning mitigation gear is not tested to withstand it). Finally, the E3 pulse arrives, lasting tens to hundreds of seconds, which behaves much like the fields created during a major solar/geomagnetic storm (although the EMP effect may be larger), inducing large currents in long distance electrical transmission lines and other extended conductive structures. The consequences of this kind of disruption are well documented from a number of incidents such as the 1989 geomagnetic storm which caused the collapse of the Quebec Hydro power distribution grid. But unlike a geomagnetic storm, the EMP E3 pulse can affect a much larger area, hit regions in latitudes rarely vulnerable to geomagnetic storms, and will have to be recovered from in an environment where electronics and communications are down due to the damage from the E1 and E2 pulses.

If you attribute much of the technological and economic progress of the last century and a half to the connection of the developed world by electrical, transportation, communication, and computational networks which intimately link all parts of the economy and interact with one another in complex and often non-obvious ways, you can think about the consequences of the detonation of a single nuclear weapon launched by a relatively crude missile (which need not be long range if fired, say, from a freighter outside the territorial waters of the target country) by imagining living in the 21st century, seeing the lights flicker and go out and hearing the air conditioner stop, and two minutes later you're living in 1860. None of this is fantasy—all of the EMP effects were documented in nuclear tests in the 1960s and hardening military gear against EMP has been an active area of research and development for decades: this book, which sits on my own shelf, was published 25 years ago. Little or no effort has been expended on hardening the civil infrastructure or commercial electronics against this threat.

This novel looks at what life might be like in the year following an EMP attack on the United States, seen through the microcosm of a medium sized college town in North Carolina where the protagonist is a history professor. Unlike many thrillers, the author superbly describes the sense of groping in the dark when communication is cut and rumours begin to fly, the realisation that with the transportation infrastructure down the ready food supply is measured in days (especially after the losses due to failure of refrigeration), and the consequences to those whose health depends upon medications produced at great distance and delivered on a just in time basis. It is far from a pretty picture, but given the premises of the story (about which I shall natter a bit below), entirely plausible in my opinion. This story has the heroes and stolid get-things-done people who come to the fore in times of crisis, but it also shows how thin the veneer of civilisation is when the food starts to run out and the usual social constraints and sanctions begin to fail. There's no triumphant ending: what is described is a disaster and the ensuing tragedy, with survival for some the best which can be made of the situation. The message is that this, or something like it although perhaps not so extreme, could happen, and that the time to take the relatively modest and inexpensive (at least compared to recent foreign military campaigns) steps to render an EMP attack less probable and, should one occur, to mitigate its impact on critical life-sustaining infrastructure and prepare for recovery from what damage does occur, is now, not the second after the power goes out—all across the continent.

This is a compelling page-turner, which I devoured in just a few days. I do believe the author overstates the total impact of an EMP attack. The scenario here is that essentially everything which incorporates solid state electronics or is plugged into the power grid is fried at the instant of the attack, and that only vacuum tube gear, vehicles without electronic ignition or fuel injection, and other museum pieces remain functional. All airliners en route fall from the sky when their electronics are hit by the pulse. But the EMP Commission report is relatively sanguine about equipment not connected to the power grid which doesn't have vulnerable antennas. They discuss aircraft at some length, and conclude that since all commercial and military aircraft are currently tested and certified to withstand direct lightning strikes, and all but the latest fly-by-wire planes use mechanical and hydraulic control linkages, they are unlikely to be affected by EMP. They may lose communication, and the collapse of the air traffic control system will pose major problems and doubtless lead to some tragedies, but all planes aloft raining from the sky doesn't seem to be in the cards. Automobiles and trucks were tested by the commission (see pp. 115–116 of the Critical Infrastructures report), and no damage whatsoever occurred to vehicles not running when subjected to a simulated pulse; some which were running stopped, but all but a few immediately restarted and none required more than routine garage repairs. Having the highways open and trucks on the road makes a huge difference in a disaster recovery scenario. But let me qualify these quibbles by noting that nobody knows what will actually happen: with non-nuclear EMP and other electromagnetic weapons a focus of current research, doubtless much of the information on vulnerability of various systems remains under the seal of secrecy. And besides, in a cataclysmic situation, it's usually the things you didn't think of which cause the most dire problems.

One language note: the author seems to believe that the word “of” is equivalent to “have” when used in a phrase such as “You should've” or “I'd have”—instead, he writes “You should of” and “I'd of”. At first I thought this was a dialect affectation of a single character, but it's used all over the place, by characters of all kinds of regional and cultural backgrounds. Now, this usage is grudgingly sanctioned (or at least acknowledged) by the descriptive Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (p. 679, item 2), but it just drives me nuts; if you consider the definitions of the individual words, what can “should of” possibly mean?

This novel focuses on the human story of people caught entirely by surprise trying to survive in a situation beyond their imagining one second before. If reading this book makes you ponder what steps you might take beforehand to protect your family in such a circumstance, James Wesley Rawles's Patriots (December 2008), which is being issued in a new, expanded edition in April 2009, is an excellent resource, as is Rawles's SurvivalBlog.

A podcast interview with William R. Forstchen about One Second After is available.

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