Archive for June, 2008

The loudest movie never made

Monday, June 30th, 2008

One of the things that’s weird for a first-time author is to have people you’ve never even MET saying stuff about your book. Some throw rocks. Some throw roses. But every once in a while someone says something so totally on-point you feel like that they’ve read your mind. And understood exactly what you were trying to do.

Such a man is Dave Hutchinson, one of the illustrious editors of the Strange Pleasures anthologies (which are well worth checking out). On his blog, Dave writes that “if [THE MIRRORED HEAVENS] was a film it would be the loudest ever made, and it would make the most kinetic of Michael Bay’s movies look like Merchant-Ivory productions.” Be still my beating heart . . . nor does he stop there, going on to commend the book as having “a body-count that makes Neal Asher’s bloodiest book (and I’m an Asher fan) look like an average Saturday night out in Newcastle.”

Which is the single best soundbite yet.

He #$# rules.

Of course, he then accuses me of all sorts of serious stuff too:

While this is thick-ear stuff dialed up to eleven, Williams is also asking pertinent questions about memory, espionage, loyalty, the use of weapons, possibly even what it means to be human. The prose is…unsettling. Choppy. Terse. Stripped-down. A little unusual in places. The dialogue is off-kilter and occasionally very funny. The geopolitical background is nicely thought-out. There’s a point where several rugs are pulled out from under the reader which I didn’t see coming. It is enormously fucking complicated, and I lost track of who was screwing whom, and I’m going to have to read it again to get it straight in my head, which will not be a trial.  I finished The Mirrored Heavens and came out blinking into the sunlight slightly stunned. I found myself comparing it to Neal’s stuff, but really this is a different kind of horse. I can see this not being to everyone’s taste, but I liked it a lot.

And I can die now. My life is complete. If any artsy girls with dyed red hair are out there wearing powered armor, feel free to come on over and zap me.

Flunking the Fed (Part Deux)

Saturday, June 28th, 2008

In my post of yesterday, I made the statement that “[Fed chairman] Bernanke is clearly floundering amidst the crisis that [former chairman] Greenspan spent his career postponing.” At least one commenter has wondered why Greenspan did this, given his focus should have been on the overall economic health of the country. And I’m here to tell you why:

Because he was a chickenshit.

Oh, it wasn’t entirely his fault. As the commenter in question points out, there’s no doubt that Alan Greenspan succumbed to pressure from the Prez, thereby turning what should have been the culmination of a great career into a mockery of everything that career stood for. But Greenspan was just doing his utmost to prevent an economic downturn at all costs.  Costs that included the risk of an even greater economic downturn in the future.  Thus the lowering of interest rates to rock-bottom levels across the early part of this decade.  Thus the ignition of a housing boom that rapidly got out of hand.

But that nonetheless did what it was supposed to:  propel us out of the recession of 01/02.  And something that’s worth noting about that recession is this:  it was the first in American history where our leadership denied its existence throughout its existence.  It was only after it was safely in the rearview that the dreaded R word could be pronounced at the highest levels of state.  And I would argue that there’s a sense that we never truly recovered from it:  that the housing boom constituted, essentially, a false recovery.  All we did was create a mountain of debt that’s now threatening to suffocate us.

Yet before we rush to blame Bush and Greenspan, we should take a good, hard look in the mirror.  Because that’s where the ultimate culprit resides.  Because lately the American public’s relationship with that thing called Reality has been getting pretty dysfunctional.  Something our leaders are smart enough to see . . and cowardly enough to accommodate (and, I might add, greedy enough to exploit).  The American people don’t want to be in a recession.  So . . presto . . no recession!  It’s easy, see?  We just hit the magic button and keep printing more money and your homes keep increasing in value and you can keep on fucking borrowing and borrowing and keep on buying SUVs because we know the only thing that’s as unlimited as dollars is oil and besides daddy I mean Dick Cheney said the american way of life is non-negotiable and you wouldn’t want to see what kind of electoral temper tantrum I’m gonna unleash on any goddamn commie who tells me that it’s NOT . . .

But let’s not get carried away here.  Because Dick also said use your last ten bucks to buy THE MIRRORED HEAVENS.  There’s no better way to spend it.  Trust me on this.

Flunking the Fed

Friday, June 27th, 2008

Grim day yesterday, as oil rose into the stratosphere and stocks took it on the nose. Just to put things in perspective, we are now on track for the worst June on Wall Street since the Great Depression. What’s really scary here is that it’s not just oil prices that are driving this; the market was also reacting to clear signals that the credit crisis (which bankers were so eager to assure us was now behind us) remains in its early stages. Worse, Fed chairman Bernanke is clearly floundering amidst the crisis that Greenspan spent his entire career postponing. Barclays Capital warned its clients yesterday that central banks have flunked their “first major test in 30 years”, and that their pumping of money into the economy has given them “zero credibility . . .and the Fed has negative credibility, if that’s even possible.”

Harsh words.  Maybe too harsh, given that it’s not just the Fed’s fault.  The stupidity of the much-vaunted stimulus packages passed by Congress and signed by the Prez this past spring is now manifest: at best that stimulus had no impact; at worst, it persuaded just a few more debt-stricken consumers to stagger to their local Circuit City for a TV they couldn’t afford.  We’ve been sleepwalking for so long; what’s ten more minutes after you’ve already hit the snooze button fifty times?  But unfortunately the scene now is like that at Arthur Dent’s house in Hitchhiker’s Guide:  the bulldozer is right outside the window, and it’s about to come crashing through.  Royal Bank of Scotland just issued a warning that the “chickens are about to come home to roost”, and that by September the markets will be in full, devastating retreat.  It’s hard to see how that scenario can be avoided now.

Meaning that the Fed will be confronted with the dilemma they’ve been so desperate to avoid for so long.  Raising interest rates offers the only hope of stemming the runaway inflation that rising oil and commodity prices are threatening to unleash.  But the impact on the long-deluded American consumer will be nothing short of catastrophic . .  and that’s a word that I fear we’re going to hear a lot more of in the weeks and months to come.

Going to market

Thursday, June 26th, 2008

Just got word from Bantam that they’ll be releasing THE MIRRORED HEAVENS as a mass-market paperback next spring! Which is, of course, fab news. And which will give those folks who haven’t read the book one last chance before the sequel hits bookshelves. Best of all, the mass-market edition will feature some “bonus material”: in all likelihood, character dossiers and excerpts from the glossary. (And it’ll have to be excerpts because the original glossary I wrote was about 20 pages long, and is unlikely to see the light of day, even on the website. Sigh.)

Meanwhile the trade-paperback version of the book continues to plow ahead, appearing on i09 last week in a very cool profile. Actually, to be precise: it was my interview in Rescued by Nerds that was being featured on io9. Special thanks to Mike and the whole team over at RBN; not only does their blog have the best name ever, but I was able to get in all sorts of cool soundbites, including Who Would Win If the Book’s Mechs Were to Go At It, Why Chapters Are So Boring, and Why Powered Armor Is Akin to Beef Stew.

All of which makes utter sense in context.

I think.

Space-Centric Warfare, Part Three: The Moon and the Libration Points

Tuesday, June 24th, 2008

Further out in space, the Americans held a considerable advantage: until the Zurich Treaty, they enjoyed a monopoly on the Earth’s only natural satellite. They also controlled L2 (the libration point behind the Moon), L1 (situated just in front of the Moon), as well as L5, at sixty degrees angle to the Moon. The Eurasians, by contrast, only controlled a single libration point, that of L4 (by virtue of the Russians having placed a “research station” there shortly after Olenkov came to power), and—in the wake of Zurich—a quarter of the Moon (though by 2110, the extent to which they had consolidated their foothold here was open to question).

Yet the actual significance of such dispositions was open to debate. Certainly the Americans had aggressively deployed resources to the Moon. Furthermore, in the years preceding Zurich, the hindmost libration point figured increasingly in their plans as the site of a reserve fleet that could cover their Lunar assets. But some prominent figures in the U.S. military (none of them in SpaceCom, it should be noted) argued that the Moon was a dangerous diversion. They pointed out that, since it took even the fastest spacecraft two days to cross from the Earth into the Moon’s orbit, any attention devoted to Earth Beyond was by definition a waste of resources. Even the utility of the Moon as a directed-energy weapons platform seemed problematic to such strategists: why put them there when you could simply deploy them closer to Earth?

This private stance aligned with the Eurasians’ public one. For, denied most of the key points in the Cislunar regions, Russia and China instead concentrated their efforts on areas closer to home—or so they claimed. While the ongoing war of words between the two superpowers lies beyond the scope of this inquiry, it is worth noting that the Eurasian rhetoric made much of the American near-monopoly on the Moon and nearby points. Even after Zurich, the press in Moscow and Beijing accused the United States of seeking to conquer the Solar System, or—with perhaps less hyperbole—of harnessing the resources of the Moon in order to dominate the Earth.

Yet, such rhetoric aside, there was much evidence to believe that, in reality, the Eurasian military viewed Cislunar space as crucial. And not just because of the resource issue. Helium-3 and off-Earth minerals were important, yes—but the really critical thing about Cislunar space was that it represented the high ground in the invisible topography of the Earth-Moon system. The amount of energy required to get material to the Cislunar was far greater than the amount of energy required to get material to Earth from the Cislunar. And the policy of Olenkov in this regard—to build up L4 as one of the greatest fortresses of all time—was thus matched by his successors: even post-Zurich, they studded their own slice of the Moon with bases. Yet what kind of combat might transpire on the Lunar surface—or among the libration points—remained unclear.


A Theory of Space-Centric Warfare: Part Two (Earth Orbits)

Tuesday, June 17th, 2008

(For Part One of this essay, click here.)

Of all orbits, the geostationary are the most valuable, with the rest of the geosynchronous orbits running a close second. Across the 21st century, they had thus become quite crowded. For obvious reasons, they were particularly ideal for surveillance; accordingly, each superpower placed numerous satellites above the homeland of the other. Satellites deployed into “the geo” had other uses as well; they could serve as weapons-platforms against those in other orbits, and played an important role in communications networks.

Yet geo orbits presented planners with a complication that gradually became evident as the number of vehicles overhead increased in tandem with rising international tension set in motion by the Second Cold War. For such satellites were especially vulnerable to the ever-present possibility that an apparently harmless communications satellite would be utilized as a space-mine. A single nuclear blast could thus damage or disrupt adjacent enemy assets, provided the aggressive power was willing to trade off the loss of his own in the vicinity. (And, while less dramatic than nukes, a point-blank strike with space-to-space missiles or a KE kill vehicle was also an option.)

Nor was this problem limited to one of deception, since it was inevitable that both powers would place overt weapons above each other’s homelands. While this could be accepted as inevitable in the continually shifting satellite configurations that characterized the lower orbits, it was quite clear that a plethora of Eurasian and U.S. weapons permanently parked adjacent to each other in the most strategic orbit of all was inherently destabilizing. The most serious pre-Zurich incident between the superpowers—that of the Mauritian stand-off—thus paradoxically resulted in decreased tensions, once each side had moved to neutralize all potentially hostile geosynchronous/geostationary satellites above its own territory. But, with the polarization of geosynchronous “territory”, the ability of each side to defend its geosynchronous position in depth—and the premium placed on a side’s ability to penetrate the other’s—became critically important.

At the time of Marshal Olenkov’s death, the poster-child of this development was the PanAsian command-satellite Roaming Tundra. A colossus hardened against both EMP blast and directed energy weapons, itself bristling with firepower, this craft was believed by U.S. intelligence to house key space-based Eurasian battle management computers, as well as a cadre of Russian and Chinese commanders. A whole grid of defense networks surrounded it, including directed-energy platforms, hunter-killer satellites and minefields of tiny micro-satellites. The U.S. geo featured a similar arrangement, centered upon three smaller stations.

But when it came to the lower orbits, matters were far more ambiguous. Planners experienced considerable difficulty formulating a set of general principles that might address how combat was likely to unfold across these regions. And with good reason. A myriad different orbital levels and inclinations (including those that led across the poles) meant that thousands of satellites were continually changing position relative to each other. Of course, the position of any one satellite was entirely predictable—unless one of them fired motors to change its orbit.

Such motors were rarely ignited, however. Not only were the precise maneuvering capabilities of any given battle-sat a closely guarded secret but, also, a maneuver for any purpose other than the correction of orbital decay tended to make everyone nervous. And (needless to say) everyone was nervous enough already, for sweeping above their heads was a dizzying array of military hardware: full-scale SkyMechs, smaller directed energy platforms, mirror satellites to reflect both space-based and ground-based lasers toward their target, kinetic energy kill vehicles, manned space-stations of every size and description, and devices that added to the general tension by virtue of their purpose being not entirely clear. It seemed likely that conflict here would be as chaotic as the disposition of forces; studying the issue, generals exhaled deeply and braced themselves for the mother of all free-for-alls.


Here to stay

Monday, June 16th, 2008

Some fascinating glimpses across the last several days into the heart of the U.S. war effort in Iraq: the gigantic, permanent bases from which we maintain our precarious hold on the cities. “Permanent” is, of course, a loaded word. They’ve been called that in legislation and in funding, but the Iraqis are (understandably) starting to get a little nervous about their implications.

As should everybody else. It’s funny to see the candidates debate how long we’re going to be remaining in Iraq when all the evidence points to that decision already having been made. Consider the facts, touched on by Fabius Maximus and laid bare in this expose from Tom Engelhart: there are 106 bases (of all sizes) in Iraq right now, and the largest of these, Camp Anaconda, boasts an air base so huge it’s comparable to Heathrow in volume of traffic. Supposedly those 106 bases are being consolidated into what the Pentagon has referred to as “enduring” bases. There’s a great map of the biggest ones here. God only knows if they’ll last for the entirety of McCain’s hundred years, but it certainly looks like they’re designed to. Much to the delight of the contractors hired to build them.

Which may be insane from the perspective of the U.S. budget. But it certainly fits in with the overall direction of our Iraq adventure. It doesn’t even matter if we lose the cities:  we’re not planning on leaving. Not in the age of peak oil. Not with Iran capable of filling any power vacuum we leave behind. The politicians squabble, and the public yawns, but the military understands the underlying logic, and makes its plans accordingly.

A Theory of Space-Centric Warfare: Part One

Sunday, June 15th, 2008

The revolution in military strategy that the arming of the heavens heralded extended to every arena of warfare. By the 2020s, it was already accepted as axiomatic that whoever controlled space would control the world. But the thousandfold nuances and corollaries to this basic postulate took some time to work out—and left a myriad questions in their wake.

Certainly, it was recognized fairly early on that the ability to project power from space onto the ground rendered the heartlands of the major powers more vulnerable to swift attack than ever before. While in the 20th century satellites stood by to give notice of ballistic missile launch, and fighter-jets patrolled those areas through which bombers would have to pass, now space-based munitions would be able to rain destruction down on any point with little or no warning. All the more so as many of those weapons would be traveling at the speed-of-light, since directed energy weapons attained maturity well before the middle of the twenty-first century.

Consequently, as the Second Cold War intensified, the two superpowers redirected resources toward a defense in depth around the (extensive) geographies under their direct control. In the new paradigm, ground- and aircraft-based lasers and missiles would join forces with their counterparts in space to respond to attacks that hurtled in from beyond the bounds of air—and to grapple directly with the sources of those attacks. One secondary outcome of this stance was that it rendered Europe’s efforts to ensure that it would not be the cauldron of a future conflict tolerable to both superpowers: the margin of advantage that would have been provided through European bases was, ultimately, negligible. Yet it should be noted that most of the neutral powers did not fare as well as the Euro Magnates. Many of them—particularly those that occupied valuable equatorial territory (the ideal point for launch-sites)—found themselves absorbed within the superpowers’ defense grids so that the ever-growing launch architectures could maximize their ground-to-space capacity.

From the perspective of civilians dwelling within the U.S. or the Coalition, however, the most significant implication of the mass deployment of space-based munitions was the end of the era of mutual assured destruction (MAD). For, although it was true that the distance that nuclear-tipped missiles had to travel was now far shorter, the rise of space-based defense systems and speed-of-light weaponry meant that any missile could in theory be stopped. In fact, it was highly likely that any one missile would be stopped. This in turn resulted in the targeting of both nuclear and conventional warheads away from civilian sites and toward military ones; to do otherwise would have been to waste weapons that could have been used on targets with counterforce capabilities.

Furthermore, the actual importance of nuclear weapons diminished with the rise of hyper-precise firepower. There was, after all, little sense in using a politically problematic nuke when a powerful conventional device or a directed energy broadside would do just as well. Yet the sweeping aside of the MAD era left at least some military planners feeling somewhat nostalgic: whereas a city-busting nuclear exchange had always been at once both the standard wargaming conclusion in a clash between the superpowers of bygone days—as well as the central factor that made such a war less likely—now that certainty was gone. Was conflict more probable? If so, to what extent had that probability increased? How might such a confrontation play out? And how might it end? These were questions that persisted even after the Zurich Treaty . . .

(To be cond.)

More human than human

Friday, June 13th, 2008

” . . my concern goes to the development of humans as special weapons. Here is a virtually unlimited field which a few powers are now developing.” –Paul Muad’dib in DUNE MESSIAH

One of the aspects of THE MIRRORED HEAVENS that’s gotten a fair amount of attention is how spymasters rewrite their agents’ memories (a dynamic that’s made all the more complex by two of those agents believing themselves to have once been romantically linked). In that sense, the book ended up being a cross between James Bond and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: people looked at me like I was crazy—or at least, I seem to *recall* them looking at me like I was crazy—but my agent (er, literary not espionage) smelt opportunity, and here we are as a result of her astuteness.

At any rate, turns out the Pentagon is on the memory trail, too. Wired’s Danger Room reported earlier this week on how the U.S. military believes itself to be locked in a “brain race”, in which the victory will go to the side that manages to produce the most enhanced soldiers. To be sure, the Pentagon has been adamant that its goal here is simply one of helping the troops to “be all they can be.” So, for example, eliminating the need for sleep=worthy stretch goal. Increasing alertness to razor-sharp precision=worthy stretch goal. So far, so good.

But, as Wired notes, the documents (available here) also reveal more ambitious goals. And more specific anxieties. The brain-computer interface is one such focus: some of this involves tapping the subconscious in battlefield situations, some of it focuses on investigating the advantages that a more seamless man-machine interface might yield. This wouldn’t just mean stuff like thought-controlled MiG jets piloted by Clint Eastwood, which is obviously what we all want to see, but also (though the report doesn’t mention it), implants that essentially enable telepathy. The latter of which appears in THE MIRRORED HEAVENS on a more-or-less routine basis.

And then there’s the possibility to fuck with memory, either via an interface or via drugs. The report is very carefully worded: this is yet one more thing that our nefarious adversaries might get up to at some point, and thus more thing we’ll have to watch very closely, blahblahblah. But anyone who’s studied the CIA’s track record with MK-ULTRA (which centered around the effort to use LSD as a mind-control agent), knows that governments love this kind of stuff the way pigs love shit. Indeed, the report goes on to talk (in the context of a brain-computer interface) about the potential for “remote guidance or control of a human being.” They don’t specifically link this to memory, but it doesn’t take much to draw the connection.

To be clear: none of this is right around the corner. But all of it raises critical questions. For now, I’ll content myself with just one. We’re rapidly approaching the point where certain types of soldiers will be way more than just “professional soldiers.” They’ll be engineered. (And we haven’t even started talking about the can of worms that genetics might open.) Are such soldiers ever going to be capable of re-entering society in a civilian role? Will they simply become part of the growing legion of private mercenaries that now support our public-funded armies? Or will they never leave in the first place? Maybe they won’t want to.

Maybe the idea will never occur to them.

Homeworld and the nature of this one

Thursday, June 12th, 2008

Starting close to home: or rather, Homeworld. Which was the videogame I worked on back when the idea of writing a novel had yet to even occur to me. The folks at Relic News did a little sleuthing a couple weeks back and realized that I was the same guy who received co-writing and story concept credits on what went on to win PC Magazine’s Game of the Year for 1999; earlier this week, a more comprehensive article appeared in gaming blog The Big Download, in large part as a result of their efforts, I’m told. Thanks guys!

Moving into the news: the Louisiana Senate has passed a bill which essentially acts as a trojan horse for creationist teachings. (Thanks to the inimitable Pharyngula for the tip.) The thing that always boggles my mind about this kind of thing is that believing in Christianity doesn’t automatically entail believing that the Earth was created five thousand years ago. Nor does it mean that one has to subscribe to a world in which dinosaur bones are all part of some elaborate scheme to test our faith.

Because otherwise faith in the next world will inexorably undermine our position in this one. The New Scientist reported last week on the speech of Nobel laureate David Baltimore at the first World Science Festival, who commented on the damage that creationism is doing to the U.S.’s international scientific stature. There’s no doubt this fear is totally warranted; there’s also no doubt that this issue is very much THE issue in the culture wars now underway. Virtually everything else admits of compromise; this one does not. This is at the heart of what kind of nation we’re going to be in the 21st century.

‘Nuff said for now.