Fourmilog: None Dare Call It Reason

Reading List: Wool

Monday, July 24, 2017 13:46

Howey, Hugh. Wool. New York: Simon & Schuster, [2011] 2013. ISBN 978-1-4767-3395-1.
Wool was originally self-published as a stand-alone novella. The series grew into a total of six novellas, collected into three books. This “Omnibus Edition” contains all three books, now designated “Volume 1 of the Silo Trilogy”. Two additional volumes in the series: Shift and Dust are respectively a prequel and sequel to the present work.

The Silo is the universe to its inhabitants. It consists of a cylinder whose top is level with the surrounding terrain and extends downward into the Earth for 144 levels, with a central spiral staircase connecting them. Transport among the levels is purely by foot traffic on the staircase, and most news and personal messages are carried by porters who constantly ascend and descend the stairs. Electronic messages can be sent, but are costly and rarely used. Levels are divided by functionality, and those who live in them essentially compose castes defined by occupation. Population is strictly controlled and static. Administration is at the top (as is usually the case), while the bottom levels are dedicated to the machines which produce power, circulate and purify the air, pump out ground water which would otherwise flood the structure, and drill for energy and mine resources required to sustain the community. Intermediate levels contain farms, hospitals and nurseries, schools, and the mysterious and secretive IT (never defined, but one assumes “Information Technology”, which many suspect is the real power behind the scenes [isn't it always?]). There is some mobility among levels and occupations, but many people live most of their lives within a few levels of where they were born, taking occasional rare (and exhausting) trips to the top levels for special occasions.

The most special of occasions is a “cleaning”. From time to time, some resident of the silo demands to leave or, more often, is deemed a threat to the community due to challenging the social order, delving too deeply into its origins, or expressing curiosity about what exists outside, and is condemned to leave the silo wearing a protective suit against the forbiddingly hostile environment outside, to clean the sensors which provide denizens their only view of the surroundings: a barren landscape with a ruined city in the distance. The suit invariably fails, and the cleaner's body joins those of others scattered along the landscape. Why do those condemned always clean? They always have, and it's expected they always will.

The silo's chief is the mayor, and order is enforced by the sheriff, to whom deputies in offices at levels throughout the silo report. The current sheriff's own wife was sent to cleaning just three years earlier, after becoming obsessed with what she believed to be a grand deception by IT and eventually breaking down in public. Sheriff Holston's own obsession grows until he confronts the same fate.

This is a claustrophobic, dystopian novel in which the reader begins as mystified with what is going on and why as are the residents of the silo, at least those who dare to be curious. As the story progresses, much of which follows the career of a new sheriff appointed from the depths of the silo, we piece together, along with the characters, what is happening and how it came to be and, with them, glimpse a larger world and its disturbing history. The writing is superb and evocative of the curious world in which the characters find themselves.

Spoiler warning: Plot and/or ending details follow.  
There are numerous mysteries in this story, many of which are explained as the narrative progresses, but there's one central enigma which is never addressed. I haven't read the prequel nor the sequel, and perhaps they deal with it, but this book was written first as a stand-alone, and read as one, it leaves this reader puzzled.

The silo has abundant energy produced from oil wells drilled from the lower levels, sufficient to provide artificial lighting throughout including enough to grow crops on the farm levels. There is heavy machinery: pumps, generators, air circulation and purification systems, advanced computer technology in IT, and the infrastructure to maintain all of this along with a logistics, maintenance, and spares operation to keep it all running. And, despite all of this, there's no elevator! The only way to move people and goods among the levels is to manually carry them up and down the circular staircase. Now, I can understand how important this is to the plot of the novel, but it would really help if the reader were given a clue why this is and how it came to be. My guess is that it was part of the design of the society: to impose a stratification and reinforce its structure like the rule of a monastic community (indeed, we later discover the silo is regulated according to a book of Order). I get it—if there's an elevator, much of the plot goes away, but it would be nice to have a clue why there isn't one, when it would be the first thing anybody with the technology to build something like the silo would design into what amounts to a 144 storey building.

Spoilers end here.  

The Kindle edition is presented in a very unusual format. It is illustrated with drawings, some of which are animated—not full motion, but perspectives change, foregrounds and backgrounds shift, and light sources move around. The drawings do not always correspond to descriptions in the text. The illustrations appear to have been adapted from a graphic novel based upon the book. The Kindle edition is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

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Reading List: Out of the Blue

Saturday, July 22, 2017 22:27

Cowie, Ian, Dim Jones, and Chris Long, eds. Out of the Blue. Farnborough, UK, 2011. ISBN 978-0-9570928-0-8.
Flying an aircraft has long been described by those who do it for a living as hours of boredom punctuated by moments of stark terror. The ratio of terror to boredom depends upon the equipment and mission the pilot is flying, and tends to be much higher as these approach the ragged edge, as is the case for military aviation in high-performance aircraft. This book collects ninety anecdotes from pilots in the Royal Air Force, most dating from the Cold War era, illustrating that you never know for sure what is going to happen when you strap into an airplane and take to the skies, and that any lapse in attention to detail, situational awareness, or resistance to showing off may be swiftly rewarded not only with stark terror but costly, unpleasant, and career-limiting consequences. All of the stories are true (or at least those relating them say they are—with pilots you never know for sure), and most are just a few pages. You can pick the book up at any point; except for a few two-parters, the chapters are unrelated to one another. This is thus an ideal “bathroom book”, or way to fill a few minutes' downtime in a high distraction environment.

Because most of the flying takes place in Britain and in NATO deployments in Germany and other countries in northern Europe, foul weather plays a part in many of these adventures. Those who fly in places like Spain and California seldom find themselves watching the fuel gauge count down toward zero while divert field after divert field goes RED weather just as they arrive and begin their approach—that happens all the time in the RAF.

Other excitement comes from momentary lapses of judgment or excessive enthusiasm, such as finding yourself at 70,000 feet over Germany in a Lightning whose two engines have flamed out after passing the plane's service ceiling of 54,000 feet. While in this case the intrepid aeronaut got away without a scratch (writing up the altimeter as reading much too high), other incidents ended up in ejecting from aircraft soon to litter the countryside with flaming debris. Then there's ejecting from a perfectly good Hunter after a spurious fire warning light and the Flight Commander wingman ordering an ejection after observing “lots of smoke” which turned out, after the fact, to be just hydraulic fluid automatically dumped after a precautionary engine shutdown.

Sometimes you didn't do anything wrong and still end up in a spot of bother. There's the crew of a Victor which, shortly after departing RAF Gan in the Maldive Islands had a hydraulic system failure. No big thing—the Victor has two completely independent hydraulic systems, so there wasn't any great worry as the plane turned around to return to Gan. But when the second hydraulic system then proceeded to fail, there was worry aplenty, because that meant there was no nose-wheel steering and a total of eight applications of the brakes before residual pressure in the system was exhausted. Then came the call from Gan: a series of squalls were crossing the atoll, with crosswinds approaching the Victor's limit and heavy rain on the runway. On landing, a gust of wind caught the drag parachute and sent the bomber veering off the edge of the runway, and without nose-wheel steering, nothing could be done to counteract it. The Victor ended up ploughing a furrow in the base's just-refurbished golf course before coming to a stop. Any landing you walk away from…. The two hydraulic systems were determined to have failed from completely independent and unrelated causes, something that “just can't happen”—until it happens to you.

Then there's RAF pilot Alan Pollock, who, upset at the RAF's opting in 1968 not to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its founding, decided to mount his own celebration of the milestone. He flew his Hunter at high subsonic speed and low altitude down the Thames, twisting and turning with the river, and circling the Houses of Parliament as Big Ben struck noon. He then proceeded up the Thames and, approaching Tower Bridge, became the first and so far only pilot to fly between the two spans of the London landmark. This concluded his RAF career: he was given a medical discharge, which avoided a court martial that would have likely have sparked public support for his unauthorised aerial tattoo. His first-hand recollection of the exploit appears here.

Other stories recount how a tiny blob of grease where it didn't belong turned a Hunter into rubble in Cornwall, the strange tale of the world's only turbine powered biplane, the British pub on the Italian base at Decimomannu, Sardinia: “The Pig and Tapeworm”, and working as an engineer on the Shackleton maritime patrol aircraft: “Along the way, you will gain the satisfaction of ensuring the continued airworthiness of a bona fide museum piece, so old that the pointed bit is at the back, and so slow that birds collide with the trailing edge of the wing.” There's nothing profound here, but it's a lot of fun.

The paperback is currently out of print, but used copies are available at reasonable cost. The Kindle edition is available, and is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

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Reading List: Hitler in Hell

Thursday, July 20, 2017 20:49

van Creveld, Martin. Hitler in Hell. Kouvola, Finland: Castalia House, 2017. ASIN B0738YPW2M.
Martin van Creveld is an Israeli military theorist and historian, professor emeritus at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of seventeen books of military history and strategy, including The Transformation of War, which has been hailed as one of the most significant recent works on strategy. In this volume he turns to fiction, penning the memoirs of the late, unlamented Adolf Hitler from his current domicile in Hell, “the place to which the victors assign their dead opponents.” In the interest of concision, in the following discussion I will use “Hitler” to mean the fictional Hitler in this work.

Hitler finds Hell more boring than hellish—“in some ways it reminds me of Landsberg Prison”. There is no torture or torment, just a never-changing artificial light and routine in which nothing ever happens. A great disappointment is that neither Eva Braun nor Blondi is there to accompany him. As to the latter, apparently all dogs go to heaven. Rudolf Hess is there, however, and with that 1941 contretemps over the flight to Scotland put behind them, has resumed helping Hitler with his research and writing as he did during the former's 1924 imprisonment. Hell has broadband!—Hitler is even able to access the “Black Internetz” and read, listen to, and watch everything up to the present day. (That sounds pretty good—my own personal idea of Hell would be an Internet connection which only allows you to read Wikipedia.)

Hitler tells the story of his life: from childhood, his days as a struggling artist in Vienna and Munich, the experience of the Great War, his political awakening in the postwar years, rise to power, implementation of his domestic and foreign policies, and the war and final collapse of Nazi Germany. These events, and the people involved in them, are often described from the viewpoint of the present day, with parallels drawn to more recent history and figures.

What makes this book work so well is that van Creveld's Hitler makes plausible arguments supporting decisions which many historians argue were irrational or destructive: going to war over Poland, allowing the British evacuation from Dunkirk, attacking the Soviet Union while Britain remained undefeated in the West, declaring war on the U.S. after Pearl Harbor, forbidding an orderly retreat from Stalingrad, failing to commit armour to counter the Normandy landings, and fighting to the bitter end, regardless of the consequences to Germany and the German people. Each decision is justified with arguments which are plausible when viewed from what is known of Hitler's world view, the information available to him at the time, and the constraints under which he was operating.

Much is made of those constraints. Although embracing totalitarianism (“My only regret is that, not having enough time, we did not make it more totalitarian still”), he sees himself surrounded by timid and tradition-bound military commanders and largely corrupt and self-serving senior political officials, yet compelled to try to act through them, as even a dictator can only dictate, then hope others implement his wishes. “Since then, I have often wondered whether, far from being too ruthless, I had been too soft and easygoing.” Many apparent blunders are attributed to lack of contemporary information, sometimes due to poor intelligence, but often simply by not having the historians' advantage of omniscient hindsight.

This could have been a parody, but in the hands of a distinguished historian like the author, who has been thinking about Hitler for many years (he wrote his 1971 Ph.D. thesis on Hitler's Balkan strategy in World War II), it provides a serious look at how Hitler's policies and actions, far from being irrational or a madman's delusions, may make perfect sense when one starts from the witches' brew of bad ideas and ignorance which the real Hitler's actual written and spoken words abundantly demonstrate. The fictional Hitler illustrates this in many passages, including this particularly chilling one where, after dismissing those who claim he was unaware of the extermination camps, says “I particularly needed to prevent the resurgence of Jewry by exterminating every last Jewish man, woman, and child I could. Do you say they were innocent? Bedbugs are innocent! They do what nature has destined them to, no more, no less. But is that any reason to spare them?” Looking backward, he observes that notwithstanding the utter defeat of the Third Reich, the liberal democracies that vanquished it have implemented many of his policies in the areas of government supervision of the economy, consumer protection, public health (including anti-smoking policies), environmentalism, shaping the public discourse (then, propaganda, now political correctness), and implementing a ubiquitous surveillance state of which the Gestapo never dreamed.

In an afterword, van Creveld explains that, after on several occasions having started to write a biography of Hitler and then set the project aside, concluding he had nothing to add to existing works, in 2015 it occurred to him that the one perspective which did not exist was Hitler's own, and that the fictional device of a memoir from Hell, drawing parallels between historical and contemporary events, would provide a vehicle to explore the reasoning which led to the decisions Hitler made. The author concludes, “…my goal was not to set forth my own ideas. Instead, I tried to understand Hitler's actions, views, and thoughts as I think he, observing the past and the present from Hell, would have explained them. So let the reader judge how whether I have succeeded in this objective.” In the opinion of this reader, he has succeeded, and brilliantly.

This book is presently available only in a Kindle edition; it is free for Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

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Little Wars by H. G. Wells

Thursday, July 20, 2017 12:25

In 1913, H. G. Wells essentially single-handedly invented the modern pastime of miniature wargaming, providing a (tin soldier) battle-tested set of rules which makes for exciting, well-balanced, and unpredictable games that can be played by two or more people in an afternoon and part of an evening. Interestingly, he avoids much of the baggage that burdens contemporary games such as icosahedral dice and indirect fire calculations, and strictly minimises the rôle of chance, using nothing fancier than a coin toss, and that only in rare circumstances.

This new public domain Web edition of Little Wars includes all of the photographs and marginal drawings from the 1913 first edition of the book. Some readers may find the marginal illustrations, which are mostly purely decorative, distracting, while others consider them charming. There's a check box at the top of the document that lets you hide them if you wish. Radical feminists of the dour and scornful persuasion should be sure to take their medication before reading the subtitle or the sixth paragraph of chapter II.

The book is published using XHTML 1.0 Strict with CSS3 and Unicode typography.

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Reading List: The Survivor

Sunday, July 9, 2017 22:09

Mills, Kyle. The Survivor. New York: Pocket Books, 2015. ISBN 978-1-4767-8346-8.
Over the last fifteen years, CIA counter-terrorism operative Mitch Rapp (warning—the article at this link contains minor spoilers) has survived myriad adventures and attempts to take him out by terrorists, hostile governments, subversive forces within his own agency, and ambitious and unscrupulous Washington politicians looking to nail his scalp to their luxuriously appointed office walls, chronicled in the thirteen thrillers by his creator, Vince Flynn. Now, Rapp must confront one of the most formidable challenges any fictional character can face—outliving the author who invented him. With the death of Vince Flynn in 2013 from cancer, the future of the Mitch Rapp series was uncertain. Subsequently, Flynn's publisher announced that veteran thriller writer Kyle Mills, with fourteen novels already published, would be continuing the Mitch Rapp franchise. This is the first novel in the series by Mills. Although the cover has Flynn's name in much larger type than Mills', the latter is the sole author.

In this installment of the Rapp saga, Mills opted to dive right in just days after the events in the conclusion of the previous novel, The Last Man (February 2013). The CIA is still reeling from its genius black operations mastermind, Joseph Rickman, having gone rogue, faked his own kidnapping, and threatened to reveal decades of the CIA's secrets, including deep cover agents in place around the world and operations in progress, potentially crippling the CIA and opening up enough cans of worms to sustain the congressional committee surrender-poultry for a decade. With the immediate Rickman problem dealt with in the previous novel, the CIA is dismayed to learn that the ever-clever Rickman is himself a survivor, and continues to wreak his havoc on the agency from beyond the grave, using an almost impenetrable maze of digital and human cut-outs devised by his wily mind.

Not only is the CIA at risk of embarrassment and exposure of its most valuable covert assets, an ambitious spymaster in Pakistan sees the Rickman intelligence trove as not only a way to destroy the CIA's influence in his country and around the world, but the means to co-opt its network for his own ends, providing his path to slither to the top of the seething snake-mountain which is Pakistani politics, and, with control over his country's nuclear arsenal and the CIA's covert resources, become a player on the regional, if not world scale.

Following Rickman's twisty cyber trail as additional disclosure bombshells drop on the CIA, Rapp and his ailing but still prickly mentor Stan Hurley must make an uneasy but unavoidable alliance with Louis Gould, the murderer of Rapp's wife and unborn child, who almost killed him in the previous novel, in order to penetrate the armed Swiss compound (which has me green with envy and scribbling notes) of Leo Obrecht, rogue private banker implicated in the Rickman operation and its Pakistani connections.

The action takes Rapp and his team to a remote location in Russia, and finally to a diplomatic banquet in Islamabad where Rapp reminds an American politician which fork to use, and how.

Mitch Rapp has survived. I haven't read any of Kyle Mills' other work, so I don't know whether it's a matter of his already aligning with Vince Flynn's style or, as a professional author, adopting it along with Flynn's worldview, but had I not known this was the work of a different author, I'd never have guessed. I enjoyed this story and look forward to further Mitch Rapp adventures by Kyle Mills.

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