Book Review: Michoud Assembly Facility

“Michoud Assembly Facility” by Cindy Donze MantoIn March, 1763, King Louis XV of France made a land grant of 140 square kilometres to Gilbert Antoine St Maxent, the richest man in Louisiana Territory and commander of the militia. The grant required St Maxent to build a road across the swampy property, develop a plantation, and reserve all the trees in forested areas for the use of the French navy. When the Spanish took over the territory five years later, St Maxent changed his first names to “Gilberto Antonio” and retained title to the sprawling estate. In the decades that followed, the property changed hands and nations several times, eventually, now part of the United States, being purchased by another French immigrant, Antoine Michoud, who had left France after the fall of Napoleon, who his father had served as an official.

Michoud rapidly established himself as a prosperous businessman in bustling New Orleans, and after purchasing the large tract of land set about buying pieces which had been sold off by previous owners, re-assembling most of the original French land grant into one of the largest private land holdings in the United States. The property was mostly used as a sugar plantation, although territory and rights were ceded over the years for construction of a lighthouse, railroads, and telegraph and telephone lines. Much of the land remained undeveloped, and like other parts of southern Louisiana was a swamp or, as they now say, “wetlands”.

The land remained in the Michoud family until 1910, when it was sold in its entirety for US$410,000 in cash (around US$11 million today) to a developer who promptly defaulted, leading to another series of changes of ownership and dodgy plans for the land, which most people continued to refer to as the Michoud Tract. At the start of World War II, the U.S. government bought a large parcel, initially intended for construction of Liberty ships. Those plans quickly fell through, but eventually a huge plant was erected on the site which, starting in 1943, began to manufacture components for cargo aircraft, lifeboats, and components which were used in the Manhattan Project’s isotope separation plants in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.

At the end of the war, the plant was declared surplus but, a few years later, with the outbreak of the Korean War, it was re-purposed to manufacture engines for Army tanks. It continued in that role until 1954 when it was placed on standby and, in 1958, once again declared surplus. There things stood until mid-1961 when NASA, charged by the new Kennedy administration to “put a man on the Moon” was faced with the need to build rockets in sizes and quantities never before imagined, and to do so on a tight schedule, racing against the Soviet Union.

In June, 1961, Wernher von Braun, director of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, responsible for designing and building those giant boosters, visited the then-idle Michoud Ordnance Plant and declared it ideal for NASA’s requirements. It had 43 acres (17 hectares) under one roof, the air conditioning required for precision work in the Louisiana climate, and was ready to occupy. Most critically, it was located adjacent to navigable waters which would allow the enormous rocket stages, far too big to be shipped by road, rail, or air, to be transported on barges to and from Huntsville for testing and Cape Canaveral in Florida to be launched.

In September 1961 NASA officially took over the facility, renaming it “Michoud Operations”, to be managed by NASA Marshall as the manufacturing site for the rockets they designed. Work quickly got underway to set up manufacturing of the first stage of the Saturn I and 1B rockets and prepare to build the much larger first stage of the Saturn V Moon rocket. Before long, new buildings dedicated to assembly and test of the new rockets, occupied both by NASA and its contractors, began to spring up around the original plant. In 1965, the installation was renamed the Michoud Assembly Facility, which name it bears to this day.

With the end of the Apollo program, it looked like Michoud might once again be headed for white elephant status, but the design selected for the Space Shuttle included a very large External Tank comparable in size to the first stage of the Saturn V which would be discarded on every flight. Michoud’s fabrication and assembly facilities, and its access to shipping by barge were ideal for this component of the Shuttle, and a total of 135 tanks built at Michoud were launched on Shuttle missions between 1981 and 2011.

The retirement of the Space Shuttle once again put the future of Michoud in doubt. It was originally tapped to build the core stage of the Constellation program’s Ares V booster, which was similar in size and construction to the Shuttle External Tank. The cancellation of Constellation in 2010 brought that to a halt, but then Congress and NASA rode to the rescue with the absurd-as-a-rocket but excellent-as-a-jobs-program Space Launch System (SLS), whose centre core stage also resembles the External Tank and Ares V. SLS first stage fabrication is presently underway at Michoud. Perhaps when the schedule-slipping, bugget-busting SLS is retired after a few flights (if, in fact, it ever flies at all), bringing to a close the era of giant taxpayer-funded throwaway rockets, the Michoud facility can be repurposed to more productive endeavours.

This book is largely a history of Michoud in photos and captions, with text introducing chapters on each phase of the facility’s history. All of the photos are in black and white, and are well-reproduced. In the Kindle edition many can be expanded to show more detail. There are a number of copy-editing and factual errors in the text and captions, but not too many to distract or mislead the reader. The unidentified “visitors” shown touring the Michoud facility in July 1967 (chapter 3, Kindle location 392) are actually the Apollo 7 crew, Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, and Walter Cunningham, who would fly on a Michoud-built Saturn 1B in October 1968.

For a book of just 130 pages, most of which are black and white photographs, the hardcover is hideously expensive (US$29 at this writing). The Kindle edition is still pricey (US$13 list price), but may be read for free by Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Manto, Cindy Donze. Michoud Assembly Facility. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2014. ISBN 978-1-5316-6969-0.

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Book Review: Five Million Watts

“Five Million Watts” by Fenton WoodThis is the second short novel/novella (123 pages) in the author’s Yankee Republic series. I described the first, Pirates of the Electromagnetic Waves, as “utterly charming”, and this sequel turns it all the way up to “enchanting”. As with the first book, you’re reading along thinking this is a somewhat nerdy young adult story, then something happens or is mentioned in passing and suddenly, “Whoa—I didn’t see that coming!”, and you realise the Yankee Republic is a strange and enchanted place, and that, as in the work of Philip K. Dick, there is a lot more going on than you suspected, and much more to be discovered in future adventures.

This tale begins several years after the events of the first book. Philo Hergenschmidt (the only character from Pirates to appear here) has grown up, graduated from Virginia Tech, and after a series of jobs keeping antiquated equipment at rural radio stations on the air, arrives in the Republic’s storied metropolis of Iburakon to seek opportunity, adventure, and who knows what else. (If you’re curious where the name of the city came from, here’s a hint, but be aware it may be a minor spoiler.) Things get weird from the very start when he stops at an information kiosk and encounters a disembodied mechanical head who says it has a message for him. The message is just an address, and when he goes there he meets a very curious character who goes by a variety of names ranging from Viridios to Mr Green, surrounded by a collection of keyboard instruments including electronic synthesisers with strange designs.

Viridios suggests Philo aim for the very top and seek employment at legendary AM station 2XG, a broadcasting pioneer that went on the air in 1921, before broadcasting was regulated, and which in 1936 increased its power to five million watts. When other stations’ maximum power was restricted to 50,000 watts, 2XG was grandfathered and allowed to continue to operate at 100 times more, enough to cover the continent far beyond the borders of the Yankee Republic into the mysterious lands of the West.

Not only does 2XG broadcast with enormous power, it was also permitted to retain its original 15 kHz bandwidth, allowing high-fidelity broadcasting and even, since the 1950s, stereo (for compatible receivers). However, in order to retain its rights to the frequency and power, the station was required to stay on the air continuously, with any outage longer than 24 hours forfeiting its rights to hungry competitors.

The engineers who maintained this unique equipment were a breed apart, the pinnacle of broadcast engineering. Philo manages to secure a job as a junior technician, which means he’ll never get near the high power RF gear or antenna (all of which are one-off custom), but sets to work on routine maintenance of studio gear and patching up ancient tube gear when it breaks down. Meanwhile, he continues to visit Viridios and imbibe his tales of 2XG and the legendary Zaros the Electromage who designed its transmitter, the operation of which nobody completely understands today.

As he hears tales of the Old Religion, the gods of the spring and grain, and the time of the last ice age, Philo concludes Viridios is either the most magnificent liar he has ever encountered or—something else again.

Climate change is inexorably closing in on Iburakon. Each year is colder than the last, the growing season is shrinking, and it seems inevitable that before long the glaciers will resume their march from the north. Viridios is convinced that the only hope lies in music, performing a work rooted in that (very) Old Time Religion which caused a riot in its only public performance decades before, broadcast with the power of 2XG and performed with breakthrough electronic music instruments of his own devising.

Viridios is very odd, but also persuasive, and he has a history with 2XG. The concert is scheduled, and Philo sets to work restoring long-forgotten equipment from the station’s basement and building new instruments to Viridios’ specifications. It is a race against time, as the worst winter storm in memory threatens 2XG and forces Philo to confront one of his deepest fears.

Working on a project on the side, Philo discovers what may be the salvation of 2XG, but also as he looks deeper, possibly the door to a new universe. Once again, we have a satisfying, heroic, and imaginative story, suitable for readers of all ages, that leaves you hungry for more.

At present, only a Kindle edition is available. The book is not available under the Kindle Unlimited free rental programme, but is inexpensive to buy. Those eagerly awaiting the next opportunity to visit the Yankee Republic will look forward to the publication of volume 3, The Tower of the Bear, in October, 2019.

Wood, Fenton. Five Million Watts. Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2019. ASIN B07R6X973N.

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Book Review: The Case for Trump

“The case for Trump” by Victor Davis HansonThe election of Donald Trump as U.S. president in November 2016 was a singular event in the history of the country. Never before had anybody been elected to that office without any prior experience in either public office or the military. Trump, although running as a Republican, had no long-term affiliation with the party and had cultivated no support within its establishment, elected officials, or the traditional donors who support its candidates. He turned his back on the insider consultants and “experts” who had advised GOP candidate after candidate in their “defeat with dignity” at the hands of a ruthless Democrat party willing to burn any bridge to win. From well before he declared his candidacy he established a direct channel to a mass audience, bypassing media gatekeepers via Twitter and frequent appearances in all forms of media, who found him a reliable boost to their audience and clicks. He was willing to jettison the mumbling points of the cultured Beltway club and grab “third rail” issues of which they dared not speak such as mass immigration, predatory trade practices, futile foreign wars, and the exporting of jobs from the U.S. heartland to low-wage sweatshops overseas.

He entered a free-for-all primary campaign as one of seventeen major candidates, including present and former governors, senators, and other well-spoken and distinguished rivals and, one by one, knocked them out, despite resolute and sometimes dishonest bias by the media hosting debates, often through “verbal kill shots” which made his opponents the target of mockery and pinned sobriquets on them (“low energy Jeb”, “little Marco”, “lyin’ Ted”) they couldn’t shake. His campaign organisation, if one can dignify it with the term, was completely chaotic and his fund raising nothing like the finely-honed machines of establishment favourites like Jeb Bush, and yet his antics resulted in his getting billions of dollars worth of free media coverage even on outlets who detested and mocked him.

One by one, he picked off his primary opponents and handily won the Republican presidential nomination. This unleashed a phenomenon the likes of which had not been seen since the Goldwater insurgency of 1964, but far more virulent. Pillars of the Republican establishment and Conservatism, Inc. were on the verge of cardiac arrest, advancing fantasy scenarios to deny the nomination to its winner, publishing issues of their money-losing and subscription-shedding little magazines dedicated to opposing the choice of the party’s voters, and promoting insurgencies such as the candidacy of Egg McMuffin, whose bona fides as a man of the people were evidenced by his earlier stints with the CIA and Goldman Sachs.

Predictions that post-nomination, Trump would become “more presidential” were quickly falsified as the chaos compounded, the tweets came faster and funnier, and the mass rallies became ever more frequent and raucous. One thing that was obvious to anybody looking dispassionately at what was going on, without the boiling blood of hatred and disdain of the New York-Washington establishment, was that the candidate was having the time of his life and so were the people who attended the rallies. But still, all of the wise men of the coastal corridor knew what must happen. On the eve of the general election, polls put the probability of a Trump victory somewhere between 1 and 15 percent. The outlier was Nate Silver, who went out on a limb and went all the way up to 29% chance of Trump’s winning to the scorn of his fellow “progressives” and pollsters.

And yet, Trump won, and handily. Yes, he lost the popular vote, but that was simply due to the urban coastal vote for which he could not contend and wisely made no attempt to attract, knowing such an effort would be futile and a waste of his scarce resources (estimates are his campaign spent around half that of Clinton’s). This book by classicist, military historian, professor, and fifth-generation California farmer Victor Davis Hanson is an in-depth examination of, in the words of the defeated candidate, “what happened”. There is a great deal of wisdom here.

First of all, a warning to the prospective reader. If you read Dr Hanson’s columns regularly, you probably won’t find a lot here that’s new. This book is not one of those that’s obviously Frankenstitched together from previously published columns, but in assembling their content into chapters focussing on various themes, there’s been a lot of cut and paste, if not literally at the level of words, at least in terms of ideas. There is value in seeing it all presented in one package, but be prepared to say, from time to time, “Haven’t I’ve read this before?”

That caveat lector aside, this is a brilliant analysis of the Trump phenomenon. Hanson argues persuasively that it is very unlikely any of the other Republican contenders for the nomination could have won the general election. None of them were talking about the issues which resonated with the erstwhile “Reagan Democrat” voters who put Trump over the top in the so-called “blue wall” states, and it is doubtful any of them would have ignored their Beltway consultants and campaigned vigorously in states such as Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania which were key to Trump’s victory. Given that the Republican defeat which would likely have been the result of a Bush (again?), Rubio, or Cruz candidacy would have put the Clinton crime family back in power and likely tipped the Supreme Court toward the slaver agenda for a generation, that alone should give pause to “never Trump” Republicans.

How will it all end? Nobody knows, but Hanson provides a variety of perspectives drawn from everything from the Byzantine emperor Justinian’s battle against the deep state to the archetype of the rough-edged outsider brought in to do what the more civilised can’t or won’t—the tragic hero from Greek drama to Hollywood westerns. What is certain is that none of what Trump is attempting, whether it ends in success or failure, would be happening if any of his primary opponents or the Democrat in the general election had prevailed.

I believe that Victor Davis Hanson is one of those rare people who have what I call the “Orwell gift”. Like George Orwell, he has the ability to look at the facts, evaluate them, and draw conclusions without any preconceived notions or filtering through an ideology. What is certain is that with the election of Donald Trump in 2016 the U.S. dodged a bullet. Whether that election will be seen as a turning point which reversed the decades-long slide toward tyranny by the administrative state, destruction of the middle class, replacement of the electorate by imported voters dependent upon the state, erosion of political and economic sovereignty in favour of undemocratic global governance, and the eventual financial and moral bankruptcy which are the inevitable result of all of these, or just a pause before the deluge, is yet to be seen. Hanson’s book is an excellent, dispassionate, well-reasoned, and thoroughly documented view of where things stand today.

Hanson, Victor Davis. The Case for Trump. New York: Basic Books, 2019. ISBN 978-1-5416-7354-0.

Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author discussing the book.

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This Week’s Book Review – The Iron Orchard

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘The Iron Orchard’ accessible to new generation of readers

By MARK LARDAS

Jun 1,, 2019

“The Iron Orchard: A Novel,” by Tom Pendleton, Texas Christian University Press, 2019, 384 pages, $32.50

Jim McNeely is from the wrong side of the tracks. His father died when Jim was a child. Jim’s dark complexion leads classmates to nickname him a name matching that of Huck Finn’s raft companion.

“The Iron Orchard: A Novel,” by Tom Pendleton, follows Jim McNeely.

Jim is forced from his hometown after his high school graduation after daring to love a girl far above his status. The Depression is at its height. Possessing only his strength and native wit, Jim takes a job with Bison Oil, in barren Central Texas. The job is hard. Jim is a member of a drill crew. His team leader hates Jim, as does the gang’s top hand, a mountain of a man. The two are determined to drive Jim out of the company.

Jim has to succeed. Friends like Dent Paxton and Ort Cooley help Jim stick it out. Eventually, he becomes his gang’s top hand. A quick learner, he acquires skills to run a drilling outfit. He strikes out on his own, starting his own drilling company, becoming an independent wildcatter.

He acquires a wife, and a loyal team of employees. Through square dealing and hard work, he builds a reputation as a successful oilman, and achieves success undreamed of in youth. But his desire to succeed beyond his hometown’s imagining leads him on a pursuit of wealth causing him to betray his principles. Eventually, his empire collapses. Failure is followed by redemption, when Jim returns to his roots in drilling one final well.

“The Iron Orchard,” was originally published in 1966. “Tom Pendleton” is a pseudonym used by Edmund Pendleton Van Zandt Jr., an oilman. Van Zandt wrote about what he knew. Over his career he was a roughneck, a Marine officer (in World War II), a lawyer, banker, and longtime employee of Gulf Oil Company. He wrote “The Iron Orchard” after retirement.

The 2019 republication of this minor classic coincides with the release of a movie version of the novel. Almost forgotten today, republication makes “The Iron Orchard” accessible to a new generation of readers. It is a timeless classic.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Planetary: Earth

“Planetary: Earth”, Dawn Witzke, ed.This is the fourth book in the publisher’s Planetary Anthology series. Each volume contain stories set on, or figuring in the plot, the named planet. Previous collections have featured Mercury, Venus, and Mars. This installment contains stories related in some way to Earth, although in several none of the action occurs on that planet.

Back the day (1930s through 1980s) monthly science fiction magazines were a major venue for the genre and the primary path for aspiring authors to break into print. Sold on newsstands for the price of a few comic books, they were the way generations of young readers (including this one) discovered the limitless universe of science fiction. A typical issue might contain five or six short stories, a longer piece (novella or novelette), and a multi-month serialisation of a novel, usually by an established author known to the readers. For example, Frank Herbert’s Dune was serialised in two long runs in Analog in 1963 and 1965 before its hardcover publication in 1965. In addition, there were often book reviews, a column about science fact (Fantasy and Science Fiction published a monthly science column by Isaac Asimov which ran from 1958 until shortly before his death in 1992—a total of 399 in all), a lively letters to the editor section, and an editorial. All of the major science fiction monthlies welcomed unsolicited manuscripts from unpublished authors, and each issue was likely to contain one or two stories from the “slush pile” which the editor decided made the cut for the magazine. Most of the outstanding authors of the era broke into the field this way, and some editors such as John W. Campbell of Astounding (later Analog) invested much time and effort in mentoring promising talents and developing them into a reliable stable of writers to fill the pages of their magazines.

By the 1990s, monthly science fiction magazines were in decline, and the explosion of science fiction novel publication had reduced the market for short fiction. By the year 2000, only three remained in the U.S., and their circulations continued to erode. Various attempts to revive a medium for short fiction have been tried, including Web magazines. This collection is an example of another genre: the original anthology. While most anthologies published in book form in the heyday of the magazines had previously been published in the magazines (authors usually only sold the magazine “first North American serial rights” and retained the right to subsequently sell the story to the publisher of an anthology), original anthologies contain never-before-published stories, usually collected around a theme such as the planet Earth here.

I got this book (I say “got” as opposed to “bought” because the Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers and I “borrowed” it as one of the ten titles I can check out for reading at a given time) because it contained the short story, “The Hidden Conquest”, by Hans G. Schantz, author of the superb Hidden Truth series of novels (1, 2, 3) and Ratburger.org member, which was said to be a revealing prequel to the story in the books. It is, and it is excellent, although you probably won’t appreciate how much of a reveal it is unless you’ve read the books, especially 2018’s The Brave and the Bold.

The rest of the stories are…uneven: about what you’d expect from a science fiction magazine in the 1950s or ’60s. Some are gimmick stories, others are shoot-em-up action tales, while still others are just disappointing and probably should have remained in the slush pile or returned to their authors with a note attached to the rejection slip offering a few suggestions and encouragement to try again. Copy editing is sloppy, complete with a sprinkling of idiot “its/it’s” plus the obligatory “pulled hard on the reigns” “miniscule”, and take your “breathe” away.

But hey, if you got it from Kindle Unlimited, you can hardly say you didn’t get your money’s worth, and you’re perfectly free to borrow it, read the Hans Schantz story, and return it same day. I would not pay the US$4 to buy the Kindle edition outright, and fifteen bucks for a paperback is right out.

Witzke, Dawn, ed. Planetary: Earth. Narara, NSW, Australia: Superversive Press, 2018. ISBN 978-1-925645-24-8.

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This Week’s Book Review – Painting War

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Painting War’ a fascinating, meticulously researched work

By MARK LARDAS

May 25, 2019

“Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II,” by Kathleen Broome Williams, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 312 pages, $29.95

George Plante was a commercial artist before World War II. From Scotland, he was in London illustrating advertisements when World War II started. He wanted to serve his country.

“Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II,” a biography by Kathleen Broome Williams, tells what happened next.

Plante discovers that the RAF, the Navy and even the Army were uninterested in him in the spring of 1940. A navy recruiter suggested Plante volunteer for service as a radio operator aboard merchant ships. Wartime requirement tripled the needed number of radio operators. Plante applied, went through training, and served from 1941 through 1943 as a radio operator in the North Atlantic.

It was the most dangerous period of the war to serve in the Merchant Marine. Plante’s ships, tankers, were twice torpedoed and sunk (the second sinking occurred while he was on leave awaiting the birth of a child). Plante spent his spare time between watches painting. His artwork came to the attention of the British Information Service. The BIS’s role was shaping American public opinion in Britain’s favor before American entry into World War II. The BIS wanted Plante’s artwork and Plante for propaganda purposes. The America-loving Plante made a great interview subject.

After Plante’s second tanker sank, Ian Fleming recruited Plante into the Political Warfare Executive. Plante finished the war in the Mediterranean illustrating propaganda leaflets and newsletters. The material was parachuted into the Balkans and Occupied Italy. Plante’s activities remained classified for years.

Once the war ended he returned to life as an adman, enjoying a successful career. He retired to the United States, settling in Hilton Head.

Kathleen Williams, a professional historian, was also Plante’s stepdaughter. She grew up entertained by her stepfather’s amusing stories of his wartime experiences, but in the universal manner of children, thought them just stories. After his death, realizing their significance, she set about writing a serious biography of his life. The result, “Painting War,” is both a fascinating and meticulously researched work. It also shows that sometimes the best history comes from the stories you grew up hearing.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Noir Fatale

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Noir Fatale’ a collection of short stories linked by the theme

By MARK LARDAS

May 18, 2019

“Noir Fatale: The Dark Side of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell, Baen, 2019, $25

Cherchez la femme — look for the woman. The phrase defines one sub-genre of noir mystery fiction.

“Noir Fatale: The Dark Side of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” edited by Larry Correia and Kacey Ezell, explore that sub-genre in science fiction and fantasy.

The book is an anthology, a collection of short stories linked by the theme. All are original, written for this collection. The authors are an all-star cast. Besides stories written by the two editors, Baen regulars David Weber, Griffin Barber, Sarah Hoyt, Mike Massa, and Robert Buettner contributed, as did Steve Diamond, Laurell Kaye Hamilton, Alistair Kimble, Patrick M. Tracy, Christopher L. Smith and Michael Ferguson. Hickley Correia, Larry Correia’s daughter kicks in a story too. Its quality testifies to heredity rather than nepotism justifying its inclusion. It’s a marvelous short piece set in Tokyo incorporating Japanese mythology.

Marvelous is a good word to describe all of the stories in the book. They’re split between science fiction and fantasy. Even within those categories the stories are diverse. There’s hard science fiction (in one story literally vacuum-hard), alternate history, and space opera. Fantasy includes urban fantasy, classic fantasy, and mixtures in between.

Weber’s story is set in his Honorverse, during the time of the People’s Republic of Haven. Larry Correia adds a story to his Hard Magic setting.

A broad range of story styles is presented, too. Some, such as Smith and Ferguson’s “Ain’t No Sunshine,” Kimble’s “A String of Pearls, and Hoyt’s “Honey Fall” are classic noir, whether set in the 1930s through 1950s or set in the far future. Others are like Barber’s “A Women in Red” and Tracy’s “Worth the Scars of Dying” are dark fantasy tales. World War II forms the setting for Massa’s “Three Kates” is equally dark.

Yet there are delightfully light tales in the mix as well. These include Hamilton’s urban fantasy “Sweet Seduction,” and Buettner’s “The Frost Queen” an unexpected love story.

“Noir Fatale” is a book that will charm both noir fans, and general science fiction and fantasy readers. Correia and Ezell have created a captivating mix of stories.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: Churchill: Walking with Destiny

“Churchill” by Andrew RobertsAt the point that Andrew Roberts sat down to write a new biography of Winston Churchill, there were a total of 1009 biographies of the man in print, examining every aspect of his life from a multitude of viewpoints. Works include the encyclopedic three-volume The Last Lion by William Manchester and Paul Reid, and Roy Jenkins’ single-volume Churchill: A Biography, which concentrates on Churchill’s political career. Such books may seem to many readers to say just about everything about Churchill there is to be said from the abundant documentation available for his life. What could a new biography possibly add to the story?

As the author demonstrates in this magnificent and weighty book (1152 pages, 982 of main text), a great deal. Earlier Churchill biographers laboured under the constraint that many of Churchill’s papers from World War II and the postwar era remained under the seal of official secrecy. These included the extensive notes taken by King George VI during his weekly meetings with the Prime Minister during the war and recorded in his personal diary. The classified documents were made public only fifty years after the end of the war, and the King’s wartime diaries were made available to the author by special permission granted by the King’s daughter, Queen Elizabeth II.

The royal diaries are an invaluable source on Churchill’s candid thinking as the war progressed. As a firm believer in constitutional monarchy, Churchill withheld nothing in his discussions with the King. Even the deepest secrets, such as the breaking of the German codes, the information obtained from decrypted messages, and atomic secrets, which were shared with only a few of the most senior and trusted government officials, were discussed in detail with the King. Further, while Churchill was constantly on stage trying to hold the Grand Alliance together, encourage Britons to stay in the fight, and advance his geopolitical goals which were often at variance with even the Americans, with the King he was brutally honest about Britain’s situation and what he was trying to accomplish. Oddly, perhaps the best insight into Churchill’s mind as the war progressed comes not from his own six-volume history of the war, but rather the pen of the King, writing only to himself. In addition, sources such as verbatim notes of the war cabinet, diaries of the Soviet ambassador to the U.K. during the 1930s through the war, and other recently-disclosed sources resulted in, as the author describes it, there being something new on almost every page.

The biography is written in an entirely conventional manner: the author eschews fancy stylistic tricks in favour of an almost purely chronological recounting of Churchill’s life, flipping back and forth from personal life, British politics, the world stage and Churchill’s part in the events of both the Great War and World War II, and his career as an author and shaper of opinion.

Winston Churchill was an English aristocrat, but not a member of the nobility. A direct descendant of John Churchill, the 1st Duke of Marlborough, his father, Lord Randolph Churchill, was the third son of the 7th Duke of Marlborough. As only the first son inherits the title, although Randolph bore the honorific “Lord”, he was a commoner and his children, including first-born Winston, received no title. Lord Randolph was elected to the House of Commons in 1874, the year of Winston’s birth, and would serve until his death in 1895, having been Chancellor of the Exchequer, Leader of the House of Commons, and Secretary of State for India. His death, aged just forty-five (rumoured at the time to be from syphilis, but now attributed to a brain tumour, as his other symptoms were inconsistent with syphilis), along with the premature deaths of three aunts and uncles at early ages, convinced the young Winston his own life might be short and that if he wanted to accomplish great things, he had no time to waste.

In terms of his subsequent career, his father’s early death might have been an unappreciated turning point in Winston Churchill’s life. Had his father retired from the House of Commons prior to his death, he would almost certainly have been granted a peerage in return for his long service. When he subsequently died, Winston, as eldest son, would have inherited the title and hence not been entitled to serve in the House of Commons. It is thus likely that had his father not died while still an MP, the son would never have had the political career he did nor have become prime minister in 1940.

Young, from a distinguished family, wealthy (by the standards of the average Briton, but not compared to the landed aristocracy or titans of industry and finance), ambitious, and seeking novelty and adventures to the point of recklessness, the young Churchill believed he was meant to accomplish great things in however many years Providence might grant him on Earth. In 1891, at the age of just 16, he confided to a friend,

I can see vast changes coming over a now peaceful world, great upheavals, terrible struggles; wars such as one cannot imagine; and I tell you London will be in danger — London will be attacked and I shall be very prominent in the defence of London. … This country will be subjected, somehow, to a tremendous invasion, by what means I do not know, but I tell you I shall be in command of the defences of London and I shall save London and England from disaster. … I repeat — London will be in danger and in the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the capital and save the Empire.

He was, thus, from an early age, not one likely to be daunted by the challenges he assumed when, almost five decades later at an age (66) when many of his contemporaries retired, he faced a situation uncannily similar to that he imagined in boyhood.

Churchill’s formal education ended at age 20 with his graduation from the military academy at Sandhurst and commissioning as a second lieutenant in the cavalry. A voracious reader, he educated himself in history, science, politics, philosophy, literature, and the classics, while ever expanding his mastery of the English language, both written and spoken. Seeking action, and finding no war in which he could participate as a British officer, he managed to persuade a London newspaper to hire him as a war correspondent and set off to cover an insurrection in Cuba against its Spanish rulers. His dispatches were well received, earning five guineas per article, and he continued to file dispatches as a war correspondent even while on active duty with British forces. By 1901, he was the highest-paid war correspondent in the world, having earned the equivalent of £1 million today from his columns, books, and lectures.

He subsequently saw action in India and the Sudan, participating in the last great cavalry charge of the British army in the Battle of Omdurman, which he described along with the rest of the Mahdist War in his book, The River War. In October 1899, funded by the Morning Post, he set out for South Africa to cover the Second Boer War. Covering the conflict, he was taken prisoner and held in a camp until, in December 1899, he escaped and crossed 300 miles of enemy territory to reach Portugese East Africa. He later returned to South Africa as a cavalry lieutenant, participating in the Siege of Ladysmith and capture of Pretoria, continuing to file dispatches with the Morning Post which were later collected into a book.

Upon his return to Britain, Churchill found that his wartime exploits and writing had made him a celebrity. Eleven Conservative associations approached him to run for Parliament, and he chose to run in Oldham, narrowly winning. His victory was part of a massive landslide by the Unionist coalition, which won 402 seats versus 268 for the opposition. As the author notes,

Before the new MP had even taken his seat, he had fought in four wars, published five books,… written 215 newspaper and magazine articles, participated in the greatest cavalry charge in half a century and made a spectacular escape from prison.

This was not a man likely to disappear into the mass of back-benchers and not rock the boat.

Churchill’s views on specific issues over his long career defy those who seek to put him in one ideological box or another, either to cite him in favour of their views or vilify him as an enemy of all that is (now considered) right and proper. For example, Churchill was often denounced as a bloodthirsty warmonger, but in 1901, in just his second speech in the House of Commons, he rose to oppose a bill proposed by the Secretary of War, a member of his own party, which would have expanded the army by 50%. He argued,

A European war cannot be anything but a cruel, heart-rending struggle which, if we are ever to enjoy the bitter fruits of victory, must demand, perhaps for several years, the whole manhood of the nation, the entire suspension of peaceful industries, and the concentrating to one end of every vital energy in the community. … A European war can only end in the ruin of the vanquished and the scarcely less fatal commercial dislocation and exhaustion of the conquerors. Democracy is more vindictive than Cabinets. The wars of peoples will be more terrible than those of kings.

Bear in mind, this was a full thirteen years before the outbreak of the Great War, which many politicians and military men expected to be short, decisive, and affordable in blood and treasure.

Churchill, the resolute opponent of Bolshevism, who coined the term “Cold War”, was the same person who said, after Stalin’s annexation of Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia in 1939, “In essence, the Soviet’s Government’s latest actions in the Baltic correspond to British interests, for they diminish Hitler’s potential Lebensraum. If the Baltic countries have to lose their independence, it is better for them to be brought into the Soviet state system than the German one.”

Churchill, the champion of free trade and free markets, was also the one who said, in March 1943,

You must rank me and my colleagues as strong partisans of national compulsory insurance for all classes for all purposes from the cradle to the grave. … [Everyone must work] whether they come from the ancient aristocracy, or the ordinary type of pub-crawler. … We must establish on broad and solid foundations a National Health Service.

And yet, just two years later, contesting the first parliamentary elections after victory in Europe, he argued,

No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.

Among all of the apparent contradictions and twists and turns of policy and politics there were three great invariant principles guiding Churchill’s every action. He believed that the British Empire was the greatest force for civilisation, peace, and prosperity in the world. He opposed tyranny in all of its manifestations and believed it must not be allowed to consolidate its power. And he believed in the wisdom of the people expressed through the democratic institutions of parliamentary government within a constitutional monarchy, even when the people rejected him and the policies he advocated.

Today, there is an almost reflexive cringe among bien pensants at any intimation that colonialism might have been a good thing, both for the colonial power and its colonies. In a paragraph drafted with such dry irony it might go right past some readers, and reminiscent of the “What have the Romans done for us?” scene in Life of Brian, the author notes,

Today, of course, we know imperialism and colonialism to be evil and exploitative concepts, but Churchill’s first-hand experience of the British Raj did not strike him that way. He admired the way the British had brought internal peace for the first time in Indian history, as well as railways, vast irrigation projects, mass education, newspapers, the possibilities for extensive international trade, standardized units of exchange, bridges, roads, aqueducts, docks, universities, an uncorrupt legal system, medical advances, anti-famine coordination, the English language as the first national lingua franca, telegraphic communication and military protection from the Russian, French, Afghan, Afridi and other outside threats, while also abolishing suttee (the practice of burning widows on funeral pyres), thugee (the ritualized murder of travellers) and other abuses. For Churchill this was not the sinister and paternalist oppression we now know it to have been.

This is a splendid in-depth treatment of the life, times, and contemporaries of Winston Churchill, drawing upon a multitude of sources, some never before available to any biographer. The author does not attempt to persuade you of any particular view of Churchill’s career. Here you see his many blunders (some tragic and costly) as well as the triumphs and prescient insights which made him a voice in the wilderness when so many others were stumbling blindly toward calamity. The very magnitude of Churchill’s work and accomplishments would intimidate many would-be biographers: as a writer and orator he published thirty-seven books totalling 6.1 million words (more than Shakespeare and Dickens put together) and won the Nobel Prize in Literature for 1953, plus another five million words of public speeches. Even professional historians might balk at taking on a figure who, as a historian alone, had, at the time of his death, sold more history books than any historian who ever lived.

Andrew Roberts steps up to this challenge and delivers a work which makes a major contribution to understanding Churchill and will almost certainly become the starting point for those wishing to explore the life of this complicated figure whose life and works are deeply intertwined with the history of the twentieth century and whose legacy shaped the world in which we live today. This is far from a dry historical narrative: Churchill was a master of verbal repartee and story-telling, and there are a multitude of examples, many of which will have you laughing out loud at his wit and wisdom.

Roberts, Andrew. Churchill: Walking with Destiny. New York: Viking, 2018. ISBN 978-1-101-98099-6.

Here is an Uncommon Knowledge interview with the author about Churchill and this biography.

This is a lecture by Andrew Roberts on “The Importance of Churchill for Today” at Hillsdale College in March, 2019.

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This Week’s Book Review – A Most Dangerous Innocence

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears on Sunday, I post the previous week’s review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘A Most Dangerous Innocence’ a coming of age novel

By MARK LARDAS

May 12, 2019

“A Most Dangerous Innocence,” by Fiorella de Maria, Ignatius Press, 2019, 220 pages, $15.95

Judy Randall is the type of student to madden an educator. She’s smart (especially in mathematics) and creative. She’s also obsessive about her interests, uninterested in conforming, and determinedly goes her own way.

Judy is the central character of “A Most Dangerous Innocence,” by Fiorella de Maria. The novel is set in autumn 1939. Sixteen-year-old Judy is a student at Mulwith, an isolated Catholic girls’ boarding school on England’s Channel Coast.

World War II has begun. Judy wants to remain in London to help fight the Nazis. At 16, with her father’s permission, Judy could do war work. Her father wants Judy out of London where she will be safe. He’s sending her back to Mulwith to finish her education.

Judy’s opposition to the Nazi’s is steadfast, almost obsessive. Judy had a Jewish grandmother. While Judy is Catholic, by the Nazi racial laws, one Jewish grandparent makes you Jewish, regardless of religion. As Judy points out to her father, if she were in Germany or newly conquered Poland, Judy would have to wear a yellow Star of David.

Judy is considered a troublemaker at Mulwith, especially by the headmistress Miss Miller. Miller is as obsessive about conformity as Judy is about her own interests. Miller views Judy as disobedient and insolent. Miller is also anti-Semitic (she owns a copy of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”) and opposed to war with Germany.

Judy’s semester begins badly. Miller privately directs Judy to lose the footrace in the school games. Judy ignores Miller, winning the race. Thereafter, Judy decides Miller is out to get her. Judy also decides Miller is a Nazi spy and begins seeking proof of her thesis. Thing begin going very wrong.

Judy allies among the staff include the Petersons, husband-and-wife instructors, and the new mathematic instructor Harry Forbes. Yet, they find sheltering Judy from her follies more and more difficult.

With “A Most Dangerous Innocence” de Maria has written a marvelous and absorbing coming of age novel. De Maria’s portrait of Judy, on the cusp of becoming an adult in a difficult time, is engaging.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Taking Flight

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears, I post the review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Taking Flight’ explores the beginning of commercial aviation

By MARK LARDAS

May 5, 2019

Taking Flight: The Foundations of American Commercial Aviation, 1918-1938 by M. Houston Johnson V, Texas A&M University Press, 2019, 300 pages, $44.96

Today we go to the airport, hop a jet and fly anywhere in the nation secure we will arrive swiftly and safely. In 1919, commercial air travel fit Hobbes’s definition of a state of nature. It involved continual fear and danger of violent death, and was nasty, brutish and short.

“Taking Flight: The Foundations of American Commercial Aviation, 1918-1938” by M. Houston Johnson V, explores the beginnings of aviation’s transition to a safe, effective mode of transportation.

Its focus is the years between the end of World War I and the start of World War II. This period established the commercial aviation infrastructure still used today. The heart of the book examines establishing federal control of commercial aviation starting in 1921, in the Harding administration.

The most compelling reason for federal control of commercial aviation was it would soon be interstate commerce, a federal responsibility. The question was what form of federal control was appropriate? Did the government establish airways with local communities taking responsibility for airfields? This was the model followed for ships. The government developed the navigation lanes. Cities built ports and docks.

Another issue was how to foster commercial aviation. In Europe, governments subsidized or even owned airlines. This model ran counter to American sensibilities. In the United States there was a desire for privately-owned and operated airlines.

Johnson shows how the federal government answered those questions. The Department of Commerce set aviation policy from 1921 through 1925 until the Air Mail Act of 1924, and the Air Commerce Act of 1926 emerged. He also looks at the Air Mail hearings in 1934, and the use of the WPA in airfield construction.

The book’s unlikely hero turns out to be Herbert Hoover. As commerce secretary between 1921 and 1928, he created the foundation of today’s aviation transportation network. Airmail subsidies allowed the government to encourage privately-owned airlines without imposing government ownership. Hoover also oversaw creation of aircraft and pilot certification systems still used today.

“Taking Flight” is a fascinating look back at American aviation’s infancy. It shows how much went right, and what could have gone wrong.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: The Code Hunters

“The Code Hunters” by Jackson CoppleyA team of expert cavers exploring a challenging cave in New Mexico in search of a possible connection to Carlsbad Caverns tumble into a chamber deep underground containing something which just shouldn’t be there: a huge slab of metal, like titanium, twenty-four feet square and eight inches thick, set into the rock of the cave, bearing markings which resemble the pits and lands on an optical storage disc. No evidence for human presence in the cave prior to the discoverers is found, and dating confirms that the slab is at least ten thousand years old. There is no way an object that large could be brought through the cramped and twisting passages of the cave to the chamber where it was found.

Wealthy adventurer Nicholas Foxe, with degrees in archaeology and cryptography, gets wind of the discovery and pulls strings to get access to the cave, putting together a research program to try to understand the origin of the slab and decode its enigmatic inscription. But as news of the discovery reaches others, they begin to pursue their own priorities. A New Mexico senator sends his on-the-make assistant to find out what is going on and see how it might be exploited to his advantage. An ex-Army special forces operator makes stealthy plans. An MIT string theorist with a wide range of interests begins exploring unorthodox ideas about how the inscriptions might be encoded. A televangelist facing hard times sees the Tablet as the way back to the top of the heap. A wealthy Texan sees the potential in the slab for wealth beyond his abundant dreams of avarice. As the adventure unfolds, we encounter a panoply of fascinating characters: a World Health Organization scientist, an Italian violin maker with an eccentric theory of language and his autistic daughter, and a “just the facts” police inspector. As clues are teased from the enigma, we visit exotic locations and experience harrowing adventure, finally grasping the significance of a discovery that bears on the very origin of modern humans.

About now, you might be thinking “This sounds like a Dan Brown novel”, and in a sense you’d be right. But this is the kind of story Dan Brown would craft if he were a lot better author than he is: whereas Dan Brown books have become stereotypes of cardboard characters and fill-in-the-blanks plots with pseudo-scientific bafflegab stirred into the mix (see my review of Origin), this is a gripping tale filled with complex, quirky characters, unexpected plot twists, beautifully sketched locales, and a growing sense of wonder as the significance of the discovery is grasped. If anybody in Hollywood had any sense (yes, I know…) they would make this into a movie instead of doing another tedious Dan Brown sequel. This is subtitled “A Nicholas Foxe Adventure”: I sincerely hope there will be more to come.

The author kindly let me read a pre-publication manuscript of this novel. The Kindle edition is free to Kindle Unlimited subscribers.

Coppley, Jackson. The Code Hunters. Chevy Chase, MD: Contour Press, 2019. ISBN 978-1-09-107011-0.

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This Week’s Book Review – Admiral Gorshkov

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) After my review appears, I post the review here on Sunday.

Book Review

‘Admiral Gorshkov’ a biography of the Soviet Navy’s architect

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 28, 2019

Admiral Gorshkov: The Man Who Challenged the U.S. Navy,” by Norman Polmar, Thomas A. Brooks, and George E. Feederoff, Naval Institute Press, 2019, 304 pages, $39.95

Historically, Russia has been a land power, with large armies and limited mobility. Yet during the 1960s and 1970s, during the Soviet era, it built an oceangoing navy to challenge the United States at sea.

“Admiral Gorshkov: The Man Who Challenged the U.S. Navy,” by Norman Polmar, Thomas A. Brooks, and George E. Feederoff, is a biography of the architect of that Soviet challenge.

Born in 1910, Sergei G. Gorshkov grew up in the new Soviet Union. He bypassed the university to enter the Frunze Naval Academy in 1927. When a Communist Party screening committee asked why, a then-teenaged Gorshkov replied, “I will be more useful serving in the Navy than doing anything else.”

As this book shows, he proved correct, rising to be the longest-serving commander of the Soviet navy and the longest-serving admiral to command the Soviet navies since its establishment by Peter the Great.

After a brief period as a navigation officer in the Black Sea, he spent his career before World War II, from 1932 through 1939 in the Pacific, where he rose to command of a destroyer brigade. Reassigned to command of a Black Sea cruiser brigade in June 1940, he spent World War II in the Black Sea, the one theater in which the Soviet Union could significantly challenge the Axis at sea. Gorschkov amassed a remarkable record of achievement during the war years, gaining the trust and friendship of Nikita Khrushchev, then a senior political officer.

Remaining in the navy at war’s end, his career took off after Khrushchev took charge of the Soviet Union in 1956. Gorshkov was given command of the Soviet navy and the freedom to rebuild it as he saw fit. During the next decade, he created a navy that threatened the supremacy of the United States navy — then the most powerful in world history. Gorshkov did this by creating a force balanced between submarines and surface ships, one providing a serious challenge within the limitations of Soviet resources and goals.

“Admiral Gorshkov” is a fascinating portrait of a man who was the U.S. navy’s most dangerous 20th century adversary.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Moon Tracks

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

Readers of all ages can enjoy ‘Moon Tracks’

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 16, 2019

“Moon Tracks,” by Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye, Baen, 2019, 256 pages, $24

What will life be like on the first lunar settlement?

“Moon Tracks,” a science fiction novel by Travis S. Taylor and Jody Lynn Nye, explores that question. A story around the first moon buggy race around the moon, it’s a sequel to “Moon Beam,” a novel about the Bright Sparks.

These teenagers star in a science-oriented reality video show produced on the moon at Armstrong City. At 7,000 people, it’s the largest lunar city. Led by Dr. Keegan Bright, the Sparks do science and engineering on the moon for an audience on Earth and moon.

Billionaire philanthropist Adrienne Reynolds-Ward has offered $1 million for the winners of an 11,000-kilometer race around the circumference of the moon by a crew of four racers. Twenty-six teams from Earth have entered racers. Of course, the Bright Sparks are entering the race.

They’re building Spark Xpress. Although the hometown team, and the best and brightest on the moon, their competitors are the best and brightest from Earth. The Sparks have to finish their entry to race it. Then they have to beat the other teams. While the race is to the swift, it’s also to the most reliable.

The teenage Sparks end up being too optimistic in their development schedule, and must make up lost time to complete Spark Xpress on time. They do this largely due to the newest Spark, Barbara Winton. Her talents at improvisation and organization, honed on the family’s farm get the Sparks past this challenge.

The race proves as challenging. The moon’s terrain is hostile and unforgiving. An additional obstacle is provided by TurnTables, a social media game, broadcasting music. Rare hard-to-find tracks are spotted along the course proving a Lorelei luring teams into misfortune. A real-life accident involving Dr. Bright forces the Sparks to mount a rescue, endangering race participation.

“Moon Tracks” is a young adult novel, but in the sense Heinlein defined how he wrote juvenile — write the best story you can with teenaged protagonists. Taylor and Nye have written an exciting story which readers of all ages can enjoy.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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This Week’s Book Review – Code Name: Lise

I write a weekly book review for the Daily News of Galveston County. (It is not the biggest daily newspaper in Texas, but it is the oldest.) My review normally appears Wednesdays. When it appears, I post the review here on the following Sunday.

Book Review

“Code Name: Lise” reads like a thriller and a romance, yet is solid history

By MARK LARDAS

Apr 9, 2019

“Code Name: Lise, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis, Gallery Books, 2019, 385 pages, $27

On July 16, 1940, Winston Churchill began an effort to “set Europe ablaze,” creating the Special Operations Executive to strike at Nazi Germany from within Occupied Europe — the nations conquered by Germany. One of the agents recruited to infiltrate into France was Odette Sampson, a married mother of three.

“Code Name: Lise, The True Story of the Woman Who Became WWII’s Most Highly Decorated Spy,” by Larry Loftis tells her story.

Sampson was born in France, but had moved to Britain between World War I and II after marrying an Englishman. She wanted to do her bit for Britain after France fell in June 1940, and offered her services. She thought she could be useful as a translator. Instead, as Loftis shows, the SOE saw her as a perfect agent to infiltrate into occupied France. They convinced her to do so, leaving her children with relatives in Britain.

Assigned to the SPINDLE network, she served in Southern France, then run by the German-friendly Vichy government. She was a courier, carrying messages, money, and munitions to other agents. Women could move more freely than men.

She proved competent, gaining the trust and admiration of the network’s leader, Peter Churchill. Danger brought the two together. Their relationship passed from admiration to love, although neither acted on their inclinations while active agents.

In turn, the SPINDLE network was being tracked by Hugo Bleicher, a sergeant in the Geheime Feldpolitzei. He proved outstanding at counterespionage, successfully turning one SPINDLE agent and rolling up the network. He captured Sampson and Churchill as they attempted to escape to Switzerland.

When captured, Sampson claimed she was married to Churchill and that he was related to the British Prime Minister. Both claims were false. The Germans believed it, and ultimately it kept the two from being executed due to their “hostage” value. They also were sheltered and fostered by Bleicher, an oddly humane counterspy.

Loftis follows the story from its origins through the end of the lives of the participants, well after the war’s end. “Code Name: Lise” reads like a thriller and a romance, yet is solid history.

Mark Lardas, an engineer, freelance writer, amateur historian, and model-maker, lives in League City. His website is marklardas.com.

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Book Review: The Powers of the Earth and Causes of Separation

“The Powers of the Earth”, by Travis J. I. Corcoran(Note: This is novel is the first of an envisioned four volume series titled Aristillus. It and the second book, Causes of Separation, published in May, 2018, together tell a single story which reaches a decisive moment just as the first book ends. Unusually, this will be a review of both novels, taken as a whole. If you like this kind of story at all, there’s no way you’ll not immediately plunge into the second book after setting down the first.)

Around the year 2050, collectivists were firmly in power everywhere on Earth. Nations were subordinated to the United Nations, whose force of Peace Keepers (PKs) had absorbed all but elite special forces, and were known for being simultaneously brutal, corrupt, and incompetent. (Due to the equality laws, military units had to contain a quota of “Alternatively Abled Soldiers” who other troops had to wheel into combat.) The United States still existed as a country, but after decades of rule by two factions of the Democrat party: Populist and Internationalist, was mired in stagnation, bureaucracy, crumbling infrastructure, and on the verge of bankruptcy. The U.S. President, Themba Johnson, a former talk show host who combined cluelessness, a volatile temper, and vulpine cunning when it came to manipulating public opinion, is confronted with all of these problems and looking for a masterstroke to get beyond the next election.

Around 2050, when the collectivists entered the inevitable end game their policies lead to everywhere they are tried, with the Bureau of Sustainable Research (BuSuR) suppressing new technologies in every field and the Construction Jobs Preservation Act and Bureau of Industrial Planning banning anything which might increase productivity, a final grasp to loot the remaining seed corn resulted in the CEO Trials aimed at the few remaining successful companies, with expropriation of their assets and imprisonment of their leaders. CEO Mike Martin manages to escape from prison and link up with renegade physicist Ponnala (“Ponzie”) Srinivas, inventor of an anti-gravity drive he doesn’t want the slavers to control. Mike buys a rustbucket oceangoing cargo ship, equips it with the drive, an airtight compartment and life support, and flees Earth with a cargo of tunnel boring machines and water to exile on the Moon, in the crater Aristillus in Mare Imbrium on the lunar near side where, fortuitously, the impact of a metal-rich asteroid millions of years ago enriched the sub-surface with metals rare in the Moon’s crust.

Let me say a few words about the anti-gravity drive, which is very unusual and original, and whose properties play a significant role in the story. The drive works by coupling to the gravitational field of a massive body and then pushing against it, expending energy as it rises and gains gravitational potential energy. Momentum is conserved, as an equal and opposite force is exerted on the massive body against which it is pushing. The force vector is always along the line connecting the centre of mass of the massive body and the drive unit, directed away from the centre of mass. The force is proportional to the strength of the gravitational field in which the drive is operating, and hence stronger when pushing against a body like Earth as opposed to a less massive one like the Moon. The drive’s force diminishes with distance from the massive body as its gravitational field falls off with the inverse square law, and hence the drive generates essentially no force when in empty space far from a gravitating body. When used to brake a descent toward a massive body, the drive converts gravitational potential energy into electricity like the regenerative braking system of an electric vehicle: energy which can be stored for use when later leaving the body.

“Causes of Separation” by Travis J. I. CorcoranBecause the drive can only push outward radially, when used to, say, launch from the Earth to the Moon, it is much like Jules Verne’s giant cannon—the launch must occur at the latitude and longitude on Earth where the Moon will be directly overhead at the time the ship arrives at the Moon. In practice, the converted ships also carried auxiliary chemical rockets and reaction control thrusters for trajectory corrections and precision maneuvering which could not be accomplished with the anti-gravity drive.

By 2064, the lunar settlement, called Aristillus by its inhabitants, was thriving, with more than a hundred thousand residents, and growing at almost twenty percent a year. (Well, nobody knew for sure, because from the start the outlook shared by the settlers was aligned with Mike Martin’s anarcho-capitalist worldview. There was no government, no taxes, no ID cards, no business licenses, no regulations, no zoning [except covenants imposed by property owners on those who sub-leased property from them], no central bank, no paper money [an entrepreneur had found a vein of gold left by the ancient impactor and gone into business providing hard currency], no elections, no politicians, no forms to fill out, no police, and no army.) Some of these “features” of life on grey, regimented Earth were provided by private firms, while many of the others were found to be unnecessary altogether.

The community prospered as it grew. Like many frontier settlements, labour was in chronic short supply, and even augmented by robot rovers and machines (free of the yoke of BuSuR), there was work for anybody who wanted it and job offers awaiting new arrivals. A fleet of privately operated ships maintained a clandestine trade with Earth, bringing goods which couldn’t yet be produced on the Moon, atmosphere, water from the oceans (in converted tanker ships), and new immigrants who had sold their Earthly goods and quit the slave planet. Waves of immigrants from blood-soaked Nigeria and chaotic China established their own communities and neighbourhoods in the ever-growing network of tunnels beneath Aristillus.

The Moon has not just become a refuge for humans. When BuSuR put its boot on the neck of technology, it ordered the shutdown of a project to genetically “uplift” dogs to human intelligence and beyond, creating “Dogs” (the capital letter denoting the uplift) and all existing Dogs to be euthanised. Many were, but John (we never learn his last name), a former U.S. Special Forces operator, manages to rescue a colony of Dogs from one of the labs before the killers arrive and escape with them to Aristillus, where they have set up the Den and engage in their own priorities, including role-playing games, software development, and trading on the betting markets. Also rescued by John was Gamma, the first Artificial General Intelligence to be created, whose intelligence is above the human level but not (yet, anyway) intelligence runaway singularity-level transcendent. Gamma has established itself in its own facility in Sinus Lunicus on the other side of Mare Imbrium, and has little contact with the human or Dog settlers.

Inevitably, liberty produces prosperity, and prosperity eventually causes slavers to regard the free with envious eyes, and slowly and surely draw their plans against them.

This is the story of the first interplanetary conflict, and a rousing tale of liberty versus tyranny, frontier innovation against collectivised incompetence, and principles (there is even the intervention of a Vatican diplomat) confronting brutal expedience. There are delicious side-stories about the creation of fake news, scheming politicians, would-be politicians in a libertarian paradise, open source technology, treachery, redemption, and heroism. How do three distinct species: human, Dog, and AI work together without a top-down structure or subordinating one to another? Can the lunar colony protect itself without becoming what its settlers left Earth to escape?

Woven into the story is a look at how a libertarian society works (and sometimes doesn’t work) in practice. Aristillus is in no sense a utopia: it has plenty of rough edges and things to criticise. But people there are free, and they prefer it to the prison planet they escaped.

This is a wonderful, sprawling, action-packed story with interesting characters, complicated conflicts, and realistic treatment of what a small colony faces when confronted by a hostile planet of nine billion slaves. Think of this as Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress done better. There are generous tips of the hat to Heinlein and other science fiction in the book, but this is a very different story with an entirely different outcome, and truer to the principles of individualism and liberty. I devoured these books and give them my highest recommendation.  The Powers of the Earth won the 2018 Prometheus Award for best libertarian science fiction novel.

Corcoran, Travis J. I. The Powers of the Earth. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2017. ISBN 978-1-9733-1114-0.
Corcoran, Travis J. I. Causes of Separation. New Hampshire: Morlock Publishing, 2018. ISBN 978-1-9804-3744-4.

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