June 2012

McCarry, Charles. Ark. New York: Open Road, 2011. ISBN 978-1-4532-5820-0.

All right, I suppose some readers will wish me to expand somewhat on the capsule review in the first paragraph, but it really does say it all. The author is a veteran and bestselling author of spy fiction (and former deep cover CIA agent) who is best known for his Paul Christopher novels. Here he turns his hand to science fiction and promptly trips over his cloak and inflicts a savage dagger wound on the reader.

The premise is that since the Earth's core has been found to rotate faster than the outer parts of the planet (a “discovery” found, subsequent to the novel's publication, to have been in error by six orders of magnitude), the enormous kinetic energy of the core is periodically dissipated by being coupled to the mantle and crust, resulting in a “hyperquake” in which the Earth's crust would be displaced not metres on a localised basis, but kilometres and globally. This is said to explain at least some of the mass extinctions in the fossil record.

Henry Peel, an intuitive super-genius who has become the world's first trillionaire based upon his invention of room temperature superconductivity and practical fusion power, but who lives incognito, protected by his ex-special forces “chaps”, sees this coming (in a vision, just like his inventions), and decides to use his insight and wealth to do something about it. And now I draw the curtain, since this botched novel isn't worth carefully crafting non-spoiler prose to describe the multitudinous absurdities with which it is festooned.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
For no reason apparent in the text, Henry recruits the protagonist and narrator, a somewhat ditzy female novelist (at one point she invites a stalker to her hide-out apartment because she forgets the reason she moved there in the first place). This character makes occasional off-the-wall suggestions which Henry, for some reason, finds profound, and becomes a member of Henry's inner circle and eventually closer still.

Henry decides that the way to survive the coming extinction event is to build a spacecraft which can cruise the solar system for generations, tended by a crew that reproduces itself, and carrying a cargo of genetically enhanced (oops!—never mind—Henry changes his mind and goes with showroom stock H. sap genome) embryos which can be decanted to establish colonies on the planets and moons and eventually repopulate the Earth. To this end, he invents:

  • A single stage to orbit reusable spaceplane powered by a new kind of engine which does not emit a rocket plume
  • A space drive which “would somehow draw its fuel from the charged particles in the solar wind”
  • Artificial gravity, based upon diamagnetism

Whenever an invention is needed to dig this plot out of a hole, Henry just has a vision and out it pops. Edison be damned—for Henry it's 100% inspiration and hold the perspiration!

He builds this enormous infrastructure in Mongolia, just across the border from China, having somehow obtained a free hand to do so while preserving his own off-the-radar privacy.

Sub-plots come and go with wild abandon. You think something's going to be significant, and then it just sputters out or vanishes as if it never happened. What the heck is with that circle of a dozen missiles in Mongolia, anyway? And you could take out the entire history and absurdly implausible coincidence of the narrator's meeting her rapist without any impact on the plot. And don't you think a trillionaire would have somebody on staff who could obtain a restraining order against the perp and hire gumshoes to keep an eye on his whereabouts?

Fundamentally, people and institutions do not behave the way they do in this story. How plausible is it that a trillionaire, building a vast multinational infrastructure for space migration, would be able to live off the radar in New York City, without any of the governments of the jurisdictions in which he was operating taking notice of his activities? Or that the media would promptly forget a juicy celebrity scandal involving said trillionaire because a bunch of earthquakes happened? Or that once the impending end of human civilisation became public that everybody would get bored with it and move on to other distractions? This whole novel reads like one of my B-list dreams: disconnected, abstracted from reality, and filled with themes that fade in and out without any sense of continuity. I suppose one could look at it as a kind of end-times love story, but who cares about love stories involving characters who are unsympathetic and implausible?

Spoilers end here.  

One gets the sense that the author hadn't read enough science fiction to fully grasp the genre. It's fine to posit a counterfactual and build the story from that point. But you can't just make stuff up with wild abandon whenever you want, no less claim that it “came in a vision” to an inventor who has no background in the field. Further, the characters (even if they are aliens utterly unlike anything in the human experience, which is not the case here) have to behave in ways consistent with their properties and context.

In a podcast interview with the author, he said that the publisher of his spy fiction declined to publish this novel because it was so different from his existing œuvre. Well, you could say that, but I suspect the publisher was being kind to a valued author in not specifying that the difference was not in genre but rather the quality of the work.


Pournelle, Jerry. A Step Farther Out. Studio City, CA: Chaos Manor Press, [1979, 1994] 2011. ASIN B004XTKFWW.
This book is a collection of essays originally published in Galaxy magazine between 1974 and 1978. They were originally collected into a book published in 1979, which was republished in 1994 with a new preface and notes from the author. This electronic edition includes all the material from the 1994 book plus a new preface which places the essays in the context of their time and the contemporary world.

I suspect that many readers of these remarks may be inclined to exclaim “Whatever possessed you to read a bunch of thirty-year-old columns from a science fiction magazine which itself disappeared from the scene in 1980?” I reply, “Because the wisdom in these explorations of science, technology, and the human prospect is just as relevant today as it was when I first read them in the original book, and taken together they limn the lost three decades of technological progress which have so blighted our lives.” Pournelle not only envisioned what was possible as humanity expanded its horizons from the Earth to become a spacefaring species drawing upon the resources of the solar system which dwarf those about which the “only one Earth” crowd fret, he also foresaw the constraint which would prevent us from today living in a perfectly achievable world, starting from the 1970s, with fusion, space power satellites, ocean thermal energy conversion, and innovative sources of natural gas providing energy; a robust private space infrastructure with low cost transport to Earth orbit; settlements on the Moon and Mars; exploration of the asteroids with an aim to exploit their resources; and compounded growth of technology which would not only permit human survival but “survival with style”—not only for those in the developed countries, but for all the ten billion who will inhabit this planet by the middle of the present century.

What could possibly go wrong? Well, Pournelle nails that as well. Recall whilst reading the following paragraph that it was written in 1978.

[…] Merely continue as we are now: innovative technology discouraged by taxes, environmental impact statements, reports, lawsuits, commission hearings, delays, delays, delays; space research not carried out, never officially abandoned but delayed, stretched-out, budgets cut and work confined to the studies without hardware; solving the energy crisis by conservation, with fusion research cut to the bone and beyond, continued at level-of-effort but never to a practical reactor; fission plants never officially banned, but no provision made for waste disposal or storage so that no new plants are built and the operating plants slowly are phased out; riots at nuclear power plant construction sites; legal hearings, lawyers, lawyers, lawyers…

Can you not imagine the dream being lost? Can you not imagine the nation slowly learning to “do without”, making “Smaller is Better” the national slogan, fussing over insulating attics and devoting attention to windmills; production falling, standards of living falling, until one day we discover the investments needed to go to space would be truly costly, would require cuts in essentials like food —

A world slowly settling into satisfaction with less, until there are no resources to invest in That Buck Rogers Stuff?

I can imagine that.

As can we all, as now we are living it. And yet, and yet…. One consequence of the Three Lost Decades is that the technological vision and optimistic roadmap of the future presented in these essays is just as relevant to our predicament today as when they were originally published, simply because with a few exceptions we haven't done a thing to achieve them. Indeed, today we have fewer resources with which to pursue them, having squandered our patrimony on consumption, armies of rent-seekers, and placed generations yet unborn in debt to fund our avarice. But for those who look beyond the noise of the headlines and the platitudes of politicians whose time horizon is limited to the next election, here is a roadmap for a true step farther out, in which the problems we perceive as intractable are not “managed” or “coped with”, but rather solved, just as free people have always done when unconstrained to apply their intellect, passion, and resources toward making their fortunes and, incidentally, creating wealth for all.

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. The ISBN of the original 1979 paperback edition is 978-0-441-78584-1. The formatting in the Kindle edition is imperfect, but entirely readable. As is often the case with Kindle documents, “images and tables hardest hit”: some of the tables take a bit of head-scratching to figure out, as the Kindle (or at least the iPad application which I use) particularly mangles multi-column tables. (I mean, what's with that, anyway? LaTeX got this perfectly right thirty years ago, and in a manner even beginners could use; and this was pure public domain software anybody could adopt. Sigh—three lost decades….) Formatting quibbles aside, I'm as glad I bought and read this book as I was when I first bought it and read it all those years ago. If you want to experience not just what the future could have been, then, but what it can be, now, here is an excellent place to start.

The author's Web site is an essential resource for those interested in these big ideas, grand ambitions, and the destiny of humankind and its descendents.


Savage, Michael [Michael Alan Weiner]. Abuse of Power. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-312-55301-2.
The author, a popular talk radio host who is also a Ph.D. in nutritional ethnomedicine and has published numerous books under his own name, is best known for his political works, four of which have made the New York Times bestseller list including one which reached the top of that list. This is his first foray into the fictional thriller genre, adopting a style reminiscent of Rudy Rucker's transrealism, in which the author, or a character closely modelled upon him or her, is the protagonist in the story. In this novel, Jack Hatfield is a San Francisco-based journalist dedicated to digging out the truth and getting it to the public by whatever means available, immersed in the quirky North Beach culture of San Francisco, and banned in Britain for daring to transgress the speech codes of that once-free nation. Sound familiar?

While on a routine ride-along with a friend from the San Francisco Police Department bomb squad, Hatfield finds himself in the middle of a carjacking gone horribly wrong, where the evidence of his own eyes and of witnesses at the scene contradicts the soothing narrative issued by the authorities and swallowed whole by the legacy media. As Hatfield starts to dig beneath the surface, he discovers a trail of murders which seem to point to a cover-up by a shadowy but well-funded and ruthlessly efficient organisation whose motives remain opaque. This leads him on a trail which takes him to various points around the world and finally back to San Francisco, where only he and his small circle of friends can expose and thwart a plot aimed at regime change in the country which fancied itself the regime changer for the rest of the world.

Inevitably, I have some technical quibbles.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
  • On p. 25, it is assumed that a cellular mobile telephone can communicate with a like unit without going through the cellular network (which, in this case, is blocked by a police jammer) if it is in line of sight and close enough to the other telephone. This is not the case; even if it were technologically possible, how would the Phone Company charge you for the call?
  • On p. 144 a terrorist mole is granted a G-2 visa to work at a foreign consulate in the U.S. In fact, a G-2 visa is granted only to individuals travelling to the U.S. to attend meetings of international organisations. The individual in question would have required an A-1 or A-2 diplomatic visa to enter the U.S.
  • On p. 149 Jack takes out a Remington shotgun loaded with 12-gauge rounds, and just two paragraphs later lays “the rifle across his forearm”. A shotgun is not a rifle.
  • This is not a quibble but a high-five. The shortened URL in the decrypted message on p. 257 points precisely where the novel says it does.
  • When will thriller authors sit down and read The Effects of Nuclear Weapons? On p. 355 we're faced with the prospect of a “satchel nuke” being detonated atop one of the towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and told:
    There would have been thousands of deaths within days, tens of thousands within weeks, over a million within a month—many of those among people who would have been needed to keep the infrastructure from collapsing. Doctors, police, workers at power plants and sewage centers. [sic (sentence fragment)] The environment would have become so toxic that rescue workers couldn't have gotten into the area, and poisoned food and water would have added exponentially to the death toll. Airdrops of fresh supplies would have led to riots, more death. Silicon Valley would have been ravaged, all but destroying the U.S. computer industry.
    Nonsense—a plausible satchel nuke of a size which Sara (admittedly a well-trained woman) could carry in a backpack would be something like the U.S. SADM, which weighed around 68 kg, more than most in-shape women. The most common version of this weapon was based upon the W54 warhead, which had a variable yield from 10 tons to 1 kiloton. Assuming the maximum one kiloton yield, a detonation would certainly demolish the Golden Gate Bridge and cause extensive damage to unreinforced structures around the Bay, but the radiation effects wouldn't be remotely as severe as asserted; there would be some casualties to those downwind and in the fallout zone, but these would be more likely in the hundreds and over one or more decades after the detonation. The fact that the detonation occurred at the top of a tower taller than those used in most surface detonations at the Nevada Test Site and above water would further reduce fallout. Silicon Valley, which is almost 100 km south of the detonation site, would be entirely unaffected apart from Twitter outages due to #OMG tweets. The whole subplot about the “hydrazine-based rocket fuel” tanker crossing the bridge is silly: hydrazine is nasty stuff to be sure, but first of all it is a hypergolic liquid rocket fuel, not an “experimental solid rocket fuel”. (Duh—if it were solid, why would you transport it in a tanker?) But apart from that, hydrazine is one of those molecules whose atoms really don't like being so close to one another, and given the slightest excuse will re-arrange themselves into a less strained configuration. Being inside a nuclear fireball is an excellent excuse to do so, hence the closer the tanker happened to be to the detonation, the less likely the dispersal of its contents would cause casualties for those downwind.
Spoilers end here.  

This is an enjoyable and promising debut for an author who is embarking upon the craft of the thriller, and none of the natters above (if you chose to read them) detracted from this reader's enjoyment of the story. Is it up to the standard of recent work from masters of the genre such as Vince Flynn or Brad Thor? No—but it's a good read and auspicious start; I will certainly give forthcoming novels from this author a try.


Hoover, Herbert. Freedom Betrayed. Edited by George H. Nash. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 2011. ISBN 978-0-8179-1234-5.
This book, begun in the days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, became the primary occupation of former U.S. president Herbert Hoover until his death in 1964. He originally referred to it as the “War Book” and titled subsequent draft manuscripts Lost Statesmanship, The Ordeal of the American People, and Freedom Betrayed, which was adopted for this edition. Over the two decades Hoover worked on the book, he and his staff came to refer to it as the “Magnum Opus”, and it is magnum indeed—more than 950 pages in this massive brick of a hardcover edition.

The work began as an attempt to document how, in Hoover's view, a series of diplomatic and strategic blunders committed during the Franklin Roosevelt administration had needlessly prompted Hitler's attack upon the Western democracies, forged a disastrous alliance with Stalin, and deliberately provoked Japan into attacking the U.S. and Britain in the Pacific. This was summarised by Hoover as “12 theses” in a 1946 memorandum to his research assistant (p. 830):

  1. War between Russia and Germany was inevitable.
  2. Hitler's attack on Western Democracies was only to brush them out of his way.
  3. There would have been no involvement of Western Democracies had they not gotten in his (Hitler's) way by guaranteeing Poland (March, 1939).
  4. Without prior agreement with Stalin this constituted the greatest blunder of British diplomatic history.
  5. There was no sincerity on either side of the Stalin-Hitler alliance of August, 1939.
  6. The United States or the Western Hemisphere were never in danger by Hitler.
  7. [This entry is missing in Hoover's typescript—ed.]
  8. This was even less so when Hitler determined to attack Stalin.
  9. Roosevelt, knowing this about November, 1940, had no remote warranty for putting the United States in war to “save Britain” and/or saving the United States from invasion.
  10. The use of the Navy for undeclared war on Germany was unconstitutional.
  11. There were secret military agreements with Britain probably as early of January, 1940.
  12. The Japanese war was deliberately provoked. …

…all right—eleven theses. As the years passed, Hoover expanded the scope of the project to include what he saw as the cynical selling-out of hundreds of millions of people in nations liberated from Axis occupation into Communist slavery, making a mockery of the principles espoused in the Atlantic Charter and reaffirmed on numerous occasions and endorsed by other members of the Allies, including the Soviet Union. Hoover puts the blame for this betrayal squarely at the feet of Roosevelt and Churchill, and documents how Soviet penetration of the senior levels of the Roosevelt administration promoted Stalin's agenda and led directly to the loss of China to Mao's forces and the Korean War.

As such, this is a massive work of historical revisionism which flies in the face of the mainstream narrative of the origins of World War II and the postwar period. But, far from the rantings of a crank, this is the work of a former President of the United States, who, in his career as an engineer and humanitarian work after World War I lived in or travelled extensively through all of the countries involved in the subsequent conflict and had high-level meetings with their governments. (Hoover was the only U.S. president to meet with Hitler; the contemporary notes from his 1938 meeting appear here starting on p. 837.) Further, it is a scholarly examination of the period, with extensive citations and excerpts of original sources. Hoover's work in food relief in the aftermath of World War II provided additional entrée to governments in that period and an on-the-ground view of the situation as communism tightened its grip on Eastern Europe and sought to expand into Asia.

The amount of folly chronicled here is astonishing, and the extent of the human suffering it engendered is difficult to comprehend. Indeed, Hoover's “just the facts” academic style may leave you wishing he expressed more visceral anger at all the horrible things that happened which did not have to. But then Hoover was an engineer, and we engineers don't do visceral all that well. Now, Hoover was far from immune from blunders: his predecessor in the Oval Office called him “wonder boy” for his enthusiasm for grand progressive schemes, and Hoover's mis-handling of the aftermath of the 1929 stock market crash turned what might have been a short and deep recession into the First Great Depression and set the stage for the New Deal. Yet here, I think Hoover the historian pretty much gets it right, and when reading these words, last revised in 1963, one gets the sense that the verdict of history has reinforced the evidence Hoover presents here, even though his view remains anathema in an academy almost entirely in the thrall of slavers.

In the last months of his life, Hoover worked furiously to ready the manuscript for publication; he viewed it as a large part of his life's work and his final contribution to the history of the epoch. After his death, the Hoover Foundation did not proceed to publish the document for reasons which are now impossible to determine, since none of the people involved are now alive. One can speculate that they did not wish to embroil the just-deceased founder of their institution in what was sure to be a firestorm of controversy as he contradicted the smug consensus view of progressive historians of the time, but nobody really knows (and the editor, recruited by the successor of that foundation to prepare the work for publication, either did not have access to that aspect of the story or opted not to pursue it). In any case, the editor's work was massive: sorting through thousands of documents and dozens of drafts of the work, trying to discern the author's intent from pencilled-in marginal notes, tracking down citations and verifying quoted material, and writing an introduction of more than a hundred pages explaining the origins of the work, its historical context, and the methodology used to prepare this edition; the editing is a serious work of scholarship in its own right.

If you're acquainted with the period, you're unlikely to learn any new facts here, although Hoover's first-hand impressions of countries and leaders are often insightful. In the decades after Hoover's death, many documents which were under seal of official secrecy have become available, and very few of them contradict the picture presented here. (As a former president with many military and diplomatic contacts, Hoover doubtless had access to some of this material on a private basis, but he never violated these confidences in this work.) What you will learn from reading this book is that a set of facts can be interpreted in more than one way, and that if one looks at the events from 1932 through 1962 through the eyes of an observer who was, like Hoover, fundamentally a pacifist, humanitarian, and champion of liberty, you may end up with a very different impression than that in the mainstream history books. What the conventional wisdom deems a noble battle against evil can, from a different perspective, be seen as a preventable tragedy which not only consigned entire nations to slavery for decades, but sowed the seeds of tyranny in the U.S. as the welfare/warfare state consolidated itself upon the ashes of limited government and individual liberty.