Book Review: The Tower of the Bear

“The Tower of the Bear” by Fenton WoodThis is the third short novel/novella (145 pages) in the author’s Yankee Republic series. I described the first, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves, as “utterly charming”, and the second, Five Million Watts, “enchanting”. In this volume, the protagonist, Philo Hergenschmidt, embarks upon a hero’s journey to locate a treasure dating from the origin of the Earth which may be the salvation of radio station 2XG and the key to accomplishing the unrealised dream of the wizard who built it, Zaros the Electromage.

Philo’s adventures take him into the frozen Arctic where he meets another Old One, to the depths of the Arctic Ocean in the fabulous submarine of the eccentric Captain Kolodziej, into the lair of a Really Old One where he almost seizes the prize he seeks, and then on an epic road trip. After the Partition of North America, the West, beyond the Mississippi, was ceded by the Republic to the various aboriginal tribes who lived there, and no Yankee dare enter this forbidden territory except to cross it on the Tyrant’s Road, which remained Yankee territory with travellers given free passage by the tribes—in theory. In fact, no white man was known to have ventured West on the Road in a century.... [Read More]


Book Review: Public Loneliness

“Public Loneliness” by Gerald BrennanThis is the second book in the author’s “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Each stand-alone story explores a space mission which did not take place, but could have, given the technology and political circumstances at the time. The first, Zero Phase, asks what might have happened had Apollo 13’s service module oxygen tank waited to explode until after the lunar module had landed on the Moon. The third, Island of Clouds, tells the story of a Venus fly-by mission using Apollo-derived hardware in 1972.

The present short book (120 pages in paperback edition) is the tale of a Soviet circumlunar mission piloted by Yuri Gagarin in October 1967, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik revolution and the tenth anniversary of the launch of Sputnik. As with all of the Altered Space stories, this could have happened: in the 1960s, the Soviet Union had two manned lunar programmes, each using entirely different hardware. The lunar landing project was based on the N1 rocket, a modified Soyuz spacecraft called the 7K-LOK, and the LK one-man lunar lander. The Zond project aimed at a manned lunar fly-by mission (the spacecraft would loop around the Moon and return to Earth on a “free return trajectory” without entering lunar orbit). Zond missions would launch on the Proton booster with a crew of one or two cosmonauts flying around the Moon in a spacecraft designated Soyuz 7K-L1, which was stripped down by removal of the orbital module (forcing the crew to endure the entire trip in the cramped launch/descent module) and equipped for the lunar mission by the addition of a high gain antenna, navigation system, and a heat shield capable of handling the velocity of entry from a lunar mission.... [Read More]


Book Review: Island of Clouds

“Island of Clouds” by Gerald BrennanThis is the third book, and the first full-length novel, in the author’s “Altered Space” series of alternative histories of the cold war space race. Each stand-alone story explores a space mission which did not take place, but could have, given the technology and political circumstances at the time. The first, Zero Phase, asks what might have happened had Apollo 13’s service module oxygen tank waited to explode until after the lunar module had landed on the Moon. The present book describes a manned Venus fly-by mission performed in 1972 using modified Apollo hardware launched by a single Saturn V.

“But, wait…”, you exclaim, ”that’s crazy!” Why would you put a crew of three at risk for a mission lasting a full year for just a few minutes of close-range fly-by of a planet whose surface is completely obscured by thick clouds? Far from Earth, any failure of their life support systems, spacecraft systems, a medical emergency, or any number of other mishaps could kill them; they’d be racking up a radiation dose from cosmic rays and solar particle emissions every day in the mission; and the inexorable laws of orbital mechanics would provide them no option to come home early if something went wrong.... [Read More]


Book Review: The Man in the High Castle

“The Man in the High Castle” by Philip K. DickThe year is 1962. Following the victory of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II, North America is divided into spheres of influence by the victors, with the west coast Pacific States of America controlled by Japan, the territory east of the Mississippi split north and south between what is still called the United States of America and the South, where slavery has been re-instituted, both puppet states of Germany. In between are the Rocky Mountain states, a buffer zone between the Japanese and German sectors with somewhat more freedom from domination by them.

The point of departure where this alternative history diverges from our timeline is in 1934, when Franklin D. Roosevelt is assassinated in Miami, Florida. (In our history, Roosevelt was uninjured in an assassination attempt in Miami in 1933 that killed the mayor of Chicago, Anton Cermak.) Roosevelt’s vice president, John Nance Garner, succeeds to the presidency and is re-elected in 1936. In 1940, the Republican party retakes the White House, with John W. Bricker elected president. Garner and Bricker pursue a policy of strict neutrality and isolation, which allows Germany, Japan, and Italy to divide up the most of the world and coerce other nations into becoming satellites or client states. Then, Japan and Germany mount simultaneous invasions of the east and west coasts of the U.S., resulting in a surrender in 1947 and the present division of the continent.... [Read More]


Book Review: The Dawn of the Iron Dragon

“The Dawn of the Iron Dragon” by Robert KroeseThis is the second volume in the Iron Dragon trilogy which began with The Dream of the Iron Dragon. At the end of the first book, the crew of the Andrea Luhman stranded on Earth in the middle ages faced a seemingly impossible challenge. They, and their Viking allies, could save humanity from extinction in a war in the distant future only by building a space program capable of launching a craft into Earth orbit starting with an infrastructure based upon wooden ships and edged weapons. Further, given what these accidental time travellers, the first in history, had learned about the nature of travel to the past in their adventures to date, all of this must be done in the deepest secrecy and without altering the history to be written in the future. Recorded history, they discovered, cannot be changed, and hence any attempt to do something which would leave evidence of a medieval space program or intervention of advanced technology in the affairs of the time, would be doomed to failure. These constraints placed almost impossible demands upon what was already a formidable challenge.

From their ship’s computer, the exiled spacemen had a close approximation to all of human knowledge, so they were rich in bits. But when it came to it: materials, infrastructure, tools, sources of energy and motive power, and everything else, they had almost nothing. Even the simplest rocket capable of achieving Earth orbit has tens to hundreds of thousands of parts, most requiring precision manufacture, stringent control of material quality, and rigorous testing. Consider a humble machine screw. In the 9th century A.D. there weren’t any hardware stores. If you needed a screw, or ten thousand of them, to hold your rocket components together, you needed first to locate and mine the iron ore, then smelt the iron from the ore, refine it with high temperature and forced air (both of which require their own technologies, including machine screws) to achieve the desired carbon content, adding alloying metals such as nickel, chromium, cobalt, tungsten, and manganese, all of which have to be mined and refined first. Then the steel must be formed into the desired shape (requiring additional technologies), heat-treated, and then finally the threads must be cut into the blank, requiring machine tools made to sufficient precision that the screws will be interchangeable, with something to power the tools (all of which, of course, contain screws). And that’s just a screw. Thinking about a turbopump, regeneratively cooled combustion chamber, hydraulically-actuated gimbal mechanism, gyroscopes and accelerometers, or any of the myriad other components of even the simplest launcher are apt to induce despair.... [Read More]


Book Review: The Dream of the Iron Dragon

“The Dream of the Iron Dragon” by Robert KroeseThe cover tells you all you need to know about this book: Vikings!—spaceships! What could go wrong? From the standpoint of a rip-roaring science fiction adventure, absolutely nothing: this masterpiece is further confirmation that we’re living in a new Golden Age of science fiction, made possible by the intensely meritocratic world of independent publishing sweeping aside the politically-correct and social justice warrior converged legacy publishers and re-opening the doors of the genre to authors who spin yarns with heroic characters, challenging ideas, and red-blooded adventure just as in the works of the grandmasters of previous golden ages.

From the standpoint of the characters in this novel, a great many things go wrong, and there the story begins. In the twenty-third century, humans find themselves in a desperate struggle with the only other intelligent species they’d encountered, the Cho-ta’an. First contact was in 2125, when a human interstellar ship was destroyed by the Cho-ta’an while exploring the Tau Ceti system. Shortly thereafter, co-ordinated attacks began on human ships and settlements which indicated the Cho-ta’an possessed faster-than-light travel, which humans did not. Humans formed the Interstellar Defense League (IDL) to protect their interests and eventually discovered and captured a Cho-ta’an jumpgate, which allowed instantaneous travel across interstellar distances. The IDL was able to reverse-engineer the gate sufficiently to build their own copies, but did not understand how it worked—it was apparently based upon some kind of wormhole physics beyond their comprehension.... [Read More]


Book Review: An Inconvenient Presidency

“An Inconvenient Presidency” by Eric M. HamiltonThis novella (89 pages in the Kindle edition) is a delightful romp into alternative history and the multiverse. Al Gore was elected president in 2000 and immediately informed of a capability so secret he had never been told of it, even as Vice President. He was handed a gadget, the METTA, which allowed a limited kind of time travel. Should he, or the country, find itself in a catastrophic and seemingly unrecoverable situation, he could press its red button and be mentally transported back in time to a reset point, set just after his election, to give it another try. But, after the reset, he would retain all of his knowledge of the events which preceded it.

Haven’t you imagined going back in time and explaining to your younger self all of the things you’ve learned by trial and error and attendant bruises throughout your life? The shadowy Government Apperception Liberation Authority—GALA—has endowed presidents with this capability. This seems so bizarre the new president Gore pays little attention to it. But when an unanticipated and almost unimaginable event occurs, he presses the button.... [Read More]


Book Review: The Hidden Truth

“The Hidden Truth” by Hans G. SchantzThis is a masterpiece of alternative history techno-thriller science fiction. It is rich in detail, full of interesting characters who interact and develop as the story unfolds, sound in the technical details which intersect with our world, insightful about science, technology, economics, government and the agenda of the “progressive” movement, and plausible in its presentation of the vast, ruthless, and shadowy conspiracy which lies under the surface of its world. And, above all, it is charming—these are characters you’d like to meet, even some of the villains because you want understand what motivates them.

The protagonist and narrator is a high school junior (senior later in the tale), son of an electrical engineer who owns his own electrical contracting business, married to a chemist, daughter of one of the most wealthy and influential families in their region of Tennessee, against the wishes of her parents. (We never learn the narrator’s name until the last page of the novel, so I suppose it would be a spoiler if I mentioned it here, so I won’t, even if it makes this review somewhat awkward.) Our young narrator wants to become a scientist, and his father not only encourages him in his pursuit, but guides him toward learning on his own by reading the original works of great scientists who actually made fundamental discoveries rather than “suffering through the cleaned-up and dumbed-down version you get from your teachers and textbooks.” His world is not ours: Al Gore, who won the 2000 U.S. presidential election, was killed in the 2001-09-11 attacks on the White House and Capitol, and President Lieberman pushed through the “Preserving our Planet’s Future Act”, popularly known as the “Gore Tax”, in his memory, and its tax on carbon emissions is predictably shackling the economy.... [Read More]