December 2015

Ferri, Jean-Yves and Didier Conrad. Astérix: Le Papyrus de César. Vanves, France: Editions Albert René, 2015. ISBN 978-2-86497-271-6.
The publication of Julius Cæsar's Commentarii de Bello Gallico (Commentaries on the Gallic War) (August 2007) made a sensation in Rome and amplified the already exalted reputation of Cæsar. Unknown before now, the original manuscript included a chapter which candidly recounted the Roman army's failure to conquer the Gauls of Armorique, home of the fierce warrior Astérix, his inseparable companion Obélix, and the rest of the villagers whose adventures have been chronicled in the thirty-five volumes preceding this one. On the advice of his editor, Bonus Promoplus, Cæsar agrees to remove the chapter chronicling his one reverse from the document which has come down the centuries to us.

Unfortunately for Promoplus, one of his scribes, Bigdata, flees with a copy of the suppressed chapter and delivers it to Doublepolémix, notorious Gallic activist and colporteur sans frontières, who makes the journey to the village of the irréductibles in Armorique.

The Roman Empire, always eager to exploit new technology, has moved beyond the slow diffusion of news by scrolls to newsmongers like Rézowifix, embracing wireless communication. A network of Urgent Delivery Pigeons, operated by pigeon masters like Antivirus, is able to quickly transmit short messages anywhere in the Empire. Unfortunately, like the Internet protocol, messages do not always arrive at the destination nor in the sequence sent….

When news of the missing manuscript reaches Rome, Prompolus mounts an expedition to Gaul to recover it before it can damage the reputation of Cæsar and his own career. With battle imminent, the Gauls resort to Druid technology to back up the manuscript. The story unfolds with the actions, twists, and turns one expects from Astérix, and a satisfying conclusion.

This album is, at this writing, the number one best-selling book at Amazon.fr.

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Suprynowicz, Vin. The Miskatonic Manuscript. Pahrump, NV: Mountain Media, 2015. ASIN: B0197R4TGW. ISBN 978-0-9670259-5-7.
The author is a veteran newspaperman and was arguably the most libertarian writer in the mainstream media during his long career with the Las Vegas Review-Journal (a collection of his essays has been published as Send In The Waco Killers). He earlier turned his hand to fiction in 2005's The Black Arrow (May 2005), a delightful libertarian superhero fantasy. In The Testament of James (February 2015) we met Matthew Hunter, owner of a used book shop in Providence, Rhode Island, and Chantal Stevens, a woman with military combat experience who has come to help out in the shop and, over time, becomes romantically involved with Matthew. Since their last adventure, Matthew and Chantal, their reputation (or notoriety) as players in the international rare books game bolstered by the Testament of James, have gone on to discover a Conan Doyle manuscript for a missing Sherlock Holmes adventure, which sold at auction for more than a million dollars.

The present book begins with the sentencing of Windsor Annesley, scion of a prominent Providence family and president of the Church of Cthulhu, which regards the use of consciousness-expanding plant substances as its sacraments, who has been railroaded in a “War on Drugs” prosecution, to three consecutive life sentences without possibility of parole. Annesley, unbowed and defiant, responds,

You are at war with us? Then we are at war with you. A condition of war has existed, and will continue to exist, until you surrender without condition, or until every drug judge, including you, … and every drug prosecutor, and every drug cop is dead. So have I said it. So shall it be.

Shortly after the sentencing, Windsor Annesley's younger brother, Worthington (“Worthy”) meets with Matthew and the bookstore crew (including, of course, the feline contingent) to discuss a rumoured H. P. Lovecraft notebook, “The Miskatonic Manuscript”, which Lovecraft alluded to in correspondence but which has never been found. At the time, Lovecraft was visiting Worthy's great-uncle, Henry Annesley, who was conducting curious experiments aimed at seeing things beyond the range of human perception. It was right after this period that Lovecraft wrote his breakthrough story “From Beyond”. Worthy suspects that the story was based upon Henry Annesley's experiments, which may have opened a technological path to the other worlds described in Lovecraft's fiction and explored by Church of Cthulhu members through their sacraments.

After discussing the odd career of Lovecraft, Worthy offers a handsome finder's fee to Matthew for the notebook. Matthew accepts. The game, on the leisurely time scale of the rare book world, is afoot. And finally, the manuscript is located.

And now things start to get weird—very weird—Lovecraft weird. A mysterious gadget arrives with instructions to plug it into a computer. Impossible crimes. Glowing orbs. Secret laboratories. Native American shamans. Vortices. Big hungry things with sharp teeth. Matthew and Chantal find themselves on an adventure as risky and lurid as those on the Golden Age pulp science fiction shelves of the bookstore.

Along with the adventure (in which a hero cat, Tabbyhunter, plays a key part), there are insightful quotes about the millennia humans have explored alternative realities through the use of plants placed on the Earth for that purpose by Nature's God, and the folly of those who would try to criminalise that human right through a coercive War on Drugs. The book concludes with a teaser for the next adventure, which I eagerly await. The full text of H. P. Lovecraft's “From Beyond” is included; if you've read the story before, you'll look at it an another light after reading this superb novel. End notes provide citations to items you might think fictional until you discover the extent to which we're living in the Crazy Years.

Drug warriors, law 'n order fundamentalists, prudes, and those whose consciousness has never dared to broach the terrifying “what if” there's something more than we usually see out there may find this novel offensive or even dangerous. Libertarians, the adventurous, and lovers of a great yarn will delight in it. The cover art is racy, even by the standards of pulp, but completely faithful to the story.

The link above is to the Kindle edition, which is available from Amazon. The hardcover, in a limited edition of 650 copies, numbered and signed by the author, is available from the publisher via AbeBooks.

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Ward, Jonathan H. Rocket Ranch. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International, 2015. ISBN 978-3-319-17788-5.
Many books have been written about Project Apollo, with a large number devoted to the lunar and Skylab missions, the Saturn booster rockets which launched them, the Apollo spacecraft, and the people involved in the program. But none of the Apollo missions could have left the Earth without the facilities at the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida where the launch vehicle and space hardware were integrated, checked out, fuelled, and launched. In many ways, those facilities were more elaborate and complicated than the booster and spacecraft, and were just as essential in achieving the record of success in Saturn and Apollo/Saturn launches. NASA's 1978 official history of KSC Apollo operations, Moonport (available on-line for free), is a highly recommended examination of the design decisions, architecture, management, and operation of the launch site, but it doesn't delve into the nitty-gritty of how the system actually worked.

The present book, subtitled “The Nuts and Bolts of the Apollo Moon Program at Kennedy Space Center” provides that detail. The author's research involved reviewing more than 1200 original documents and interviewing more than 70 people, most veterans of the Apollo era at KSC (many now elderly). One thread that ran through the interviews is that, to a man (and almost all are men), despite what they had done afterward, they recalled their work on Apollo, however exhausting the pace and formidable the challenges, as a high point in their careers. After completing his research, Ward realised he was looking at a 700 page book. His publisher counselled that such a massive tome would be forbidding to many readers. He decided to separate the description of the KSC hardware (this volume) and the operations leading up to a launch (described in the companion title, Countdown to a Moon Launch, which I will review in the future).

The Apollo/Saturn lunar flight vehicle was, at the time, the most complex machine ever built by humans. It contained three rocket stages (all built by different contractors), a control computer, and two separate spacecraft: the command/service modules and lunar module, each of which had their own rocket engines, control thrusters, guidance computers, and life support systems for the crew. From the moment this “stack” left the ground, everything had to work. While there were redundant systems in case of some in-flight failures, loss of any major component would mean the mission would be unsuccessful, even if the crew returned safely to Earth.

In order to guarantee this success, every component in the booster and spacecraft had to be tested and re-tested, from the time it arrived at KSC until the final countdown and launch. Nothing could be overlooked, and there were written procedures which were followed for everything, with documentation of each step and quality inspectors overseeing it all. The volume of paperwork was monumental (a common joke at the time was that no mission could launch until the paperwork weighed more than the vehicle on the launch pad), but the sheer complexity exceeded the capabilities of even the massive workforce and unlimited budget of Project Apollo. KSC responded by pioneering the use of computers to check out the spacecraft and launcher at every step in the assembly and launch process. Although a breakthrough at the time, the capacity of these computers is laughable today. The computer used to check out the Apollo spacecraft had 24,576 words of memory when it was installed in 1964, and programmers had to jump through hoops and resort to ever more clever tricks to shoehorn the test procedures into the limited memory. Eventually, after two years, approval was obtained to buy an additional 24,000 words of memory for the test computers, at a cost of almost half a million 2015 dollars.

You've probably seen pictures of the KSC firing room during Apollo countdowns. The launch director looked out over a sea of around 450 consoles, each devoted to one aspect of the vehicle (for example, console BA25, “Second stage propellant utilization”), each manned by an engineer in a white shirt and narrow tie. These consoles were connected into audio “nets”, arranged in a hierarchy paralleling the management structure. For example, if the engineer at console BA25 observed something outside acceptable limits, he would report it on the second stage propulsion net. The second stage manager would then raise the issue on the launch vehicle net. If it was a no-go item, it would then be bumped up to the flight director loop where a hold would be placed on the countdown. If this wasn't complicated enough, most critical parameters were monitored by launch vehicle and spacecraft checkout computers, which could automatically halt the countdown if a parameter exceeded limits. Most of those hundreds of consoles had dozens of switches, indicator lights, meters, and sometimes video displays, and all of them had to be individually wired to patchboards which connected them to the control computers or, in some cases, directly to the launch hardware. And every one of those wires had to have a pull ticket for its installation, and inspection, and an individual test and re-test that it was functioning properly. Oh, and there were three firing rooms, identically equipped. During a launch, two would be active and staffed: one as a primary, the other as a backup.

The level of detail here is just fantastic and may be overwhelming if not taken in small doses. Did you know, for example, that in the base of the Saturn V launch platform there was an air conditioned room with the RCA 110A computer which checked out the booster? The Saturn V first stage engines were about 30 metres from this delicate machine. How did they keep it from being pulverised when the rocket lifted off? Springs.

Assembled vehicles were transported from the Vehicle Assembly Building to the launch pad by an enormous crawler. The crawler was operated by a crew of 14, including firemen stationed near the diesel engines. Originally, there was an automatic fire suppression system, but after it accidentally triggered and dumped a quarter ton of fire suppression powder into one of the engines during a test, it was replaced with firemen. How did they keep the launcher level as it climbed up the ramp to the pad? They had two pipes filled with mercury which ran diagonally across the crawler platform between each pair of corners. These connected to a sight glass which indicated to the operator if the platform wasn't level. Then the operator would adjust jacking cylinders on the corners to restore the platform to level—while it was rolling.

I can provide only a few glimpses of the wealth of fascinating minutæ on all aspects of KSC facilities and operations described here. Drawing on his more than 300 hours of interviews, the author frequently allows veterans of the program to speak in their own words, giving a sense of what it was like to be there, then, the rationale for why things were done the way they were, and to relate anecdotes about when things didn't go as planned.

It has been said that one of the most difficult things NASA did in Project Apollo was to make it look easy. Even space buffs who have devoured dozens of books about Apollo may be startled by the sheer magnitude of what was accomplished in designing, building, checking out, and operating the KSC facilities described in this book, especially considering in how few years it all was done and the primitive state of some of the technologies available at the time (particularly computers and electronics). This book and its companion volume are eye-openers, and only reinforce what a technological triumph Apollo was.

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Rawles, James Wesley. Land Of Promise. Moyie Springs, ID: Liberty Paradigm Press, 2015. ISBN 978-1-475605-60-0.
The author is the founder of the survivalblog.com Web site, a massive and essential resource for those interested in preparing for uncertain times. His nonfiction works, How to Survive the End of the World as We Know It (July 2011) and Tools for Survival (February 2015) are packed with practical information for people who wish to ride out natural disasters all the way to serious off-grid self-sufficiency. His series of five novels which began with Patriots (December 2008) illustrates the skills needed to survive by people in a variety of circumstances after an economic and societal collapse. The present book is the first of a new series of novels, unrelated to the first, providing a hopeful view of how free people might opt out of a world where totalitarianism and religious persecution is on the march.

By the mid 21st century trends already evident today have continued along their disheartening trajectories. The world's major trading currencies have collapsed in the aftermath of runaway money creation, and the world now uses the NEuro, a replacement for the Euro which is issued only in electronic form, making tax avoidance extremely difficult. As for the United States, “The nation was saddled by trillions of NEuros in debt that would take several generations to repay, it was mired in bureaucracy and over-regulation, the nation had become a moral cesspool, and civil liberties were just a memory.”

A catastrophically infectious and lethal variant of Ebola has emerged in the Congo, killing 60% of the population of Africa (mostly in the sub-Saharan region) and reducing world population by 15%.

A “Thirdist” movement has swept the Islamic world, bringing Sunni and Shia into an uneasy alliance behind the recently-proclaimed Caliphate now calling itself the World Islamic State (WIS). In Western Europe, low fertility among the original population and large-scale immigration of more fecund Muslims is contributing to a demographic transition bringing some countries close to the tipping point of Islamic domination. The Roman Catholic church has signed the so-called “Quiet Minarets Agreement” with the WIS, which promised to refrain from advocating sharia law or political subjugation in Europe for 99 years. After that (or before, given the doctrine of taqiya in Islam), nobody knows what will happen.

In many countries around the world, Christians are beginning to feel themselves caught in a pincer movement between radical Islam on the one side and radical secularism/atheism on the other, with the more perspicacious among them beginning to think of getting out of societies becoming ever more actively hostile. Some majority Catholic countries have already declared themselves sanctuaries for their co-religionists, and other nations have done the same for Eastern Orthodox and Coptic Christians. Protestant Christians and Messianic Jews have no sanctuary, and are increasingly persecuted.

A small group of people working at a high-powered mergers and acquisitions firm in newly-independent Scotland begin to explore doing something about this. They sketch out a plan to approach the governments of South Sudan and Kenya, both of which have long-standing claims to the Ilemi Triangle, a barren territory of around 14,000 square kilometres (about ⅔ the size of Israel) with almost no indigenous population. With both claimants to the territory majority Christian countries, the planners hope to persuade them that jointly ceding the land for a new Christian nation will enable them to settle this troublesome dispute in a way which will increase the prestige of both. Further, developing the region into a prosperous land that can defend itself will shore up both countries against the advances of WIS and its allies.

With some trepidation, they approach Harry Heston, founder and boss of their firm, a self-made billionaire known for his Christian belief and libertarian views (he and his company got out of the United States to free Scotland while it was still possible). Heston, whose fortune was built on his instinctive ability to evaluate business plans, hears the pitch and decides to commit one billion NEuros from his own funds to the project, contingent on milestones being met, and to invite other wealthy business associates to participate.

So begins the story of founding the Ilemi Republic, not just a sanctuary for Christians and Messianic Jews, but a prototype 21st century libertarian society with “zero taxes, zero import duties, and zero license fees.” Defence will be by a citizen militia with a tiny professional cadre. The founders believe such a society will be a magnet to highly-productive and hard-working people from around the world weary of slaving more than half their lives to support the tyrants and bureaucrats which afflict them.

As the story unfolds, the reader is treated to what amounts to a worked example of setting up a new nation, encompassing diplomacy, economics, infrastructure, recruiting settlers, dealing equitably with the (very small) indigenous and nomadic population, money and banking, energy and transportation resources, keeping the domestic peace and defending the nation, and the minimalist government and the constitutional structure designed to keep it that way. The founders anticipate that their sanctuary nation will be subjected to the same international opprobrium and obstruction which Israel suffers (although the Ilemi Republic will not be surrounded by potential enemies), and plans must anticipate this.

You'll sometimes hear claims that Christian social conservatism and libertarianism are incompatible beliefs which will inevitably come into conflict with one another. In this novel the author argues that the kind of moral code by which devout Christians live is a prerequisite for the individual liberty and lack of state meddling so cherished by libertarians. The Ilemi Republic also finds itself the home of hard-edged, more secular libertarians, who get along with everybody else because they all agree on preserving their liberty and independence.

This is the first in a series of novels planned by the author which he calls the “Counter-Caliphate Chronicles”. I have long dreamed of a realistic story of establishing a libertarian refuge from encroaching tyranny, and even envisioned it as being situated in a lightly-populated region of Africa. The author has delivered that story, and I am eagerly anticipating seeing it develop in future novels.

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