Archive for July, 2008

Kicking cyberpunk’s ass

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

SF Signal reviewed the book: they didn’t really like it (well, to be precise, they said it was a “decent read with some major flaws that keep it from reaching greatness.”) But hey, one of the things that every new author has to recognize is that (gasp) not everybody is gonna love your novel. Yet what really got my attention was this:

Stephen Baxter, on the back cover, calls Mirrored Heavens ‘a crackling cyberthriller.’ Well, if you’re looking for cyberpunk, you won’t find it here. True, the two-man teams consist of a Razor (hacker) and a Mech (muscle), with the Razor providing network backup and support for the Mech. However, just because the Razors can access the Zone (network) and work some heavy duty magic doesn’t make this book cyberpunk. Yes the world of this future is a dystopia, but the characters here aren’t from the bottom of society, fighting against the government or corporations, they are the government, and far from fighting for the little guy, they are fighting to save the status quo.

This is fascinating to me, all the more so as I totally disagree.  At its heart, I take cyberpunk to be about the interface of humans to technology in a world where the tech is so immersive that humans are (almost literally) inside that tech, and vice versa.  As to where it goes from there:  it’s true that the dominant strand of cyberpunk thus far has focused on the predicament of the “lone wolf” fighting against corporate interests.  But I have yet to see the Cyberpunk Rulebook that says this is a necessity in order to merit inclusion within the subgenre.

And even if you showed it to me, I’d throw it out the window and get back to my work.  Because I think this kind of literal “checkboxing” isn’t just intellectually lazy:  it’s proof that cyberpunk, like any genre that’s been around for a while, needs a good kick in the ass every once in a while to keep the circulation going.  In fact, it’s ironic that a genre that was founded on an ethos of rebellion should try to dictate rules about Just How Bad-Ass a Noir Hero You Need To Be in order to be included.  But consider this:  if cyberpunk is fundamentally about alienation (and I think it is) .  . . why assume that those who are charged with defending the status quo are any less conflicted or alienated than those who fight it?

Especially when it turns out that the status quo just ain’t what anyone thought it was.

Reading tonight/reappraising Star Wars: THE PHANTOM MENACE

Tuesday, July 15th, 2008

I’ll be reading at Flights of Fantasy Books in Albany, NY tonight at 7 p.m. If you’re local, stop on by!

And on an unrelated note: I was watching STAR WARS Episode One again last night, and realized something about it. Which is: the first ten minutes are pretty much perfect. The Jedi diplomatic mission, the double-cross, the frenetic pursuit through the corridors of the trade federation ship . . . that stuff ROCKS. In fact, the movie continues to rock until they invade the planet and we encounter Jar-Jar. I know a lot has been said about that guy, and believe me, I’m not going to offer any incredibly insightful revisionism re his role. You’ll find no new interpretations here. In fact, I’m a staunch traditionalist on this front:  because if I’m right about the first ten minutes of PHANTOM MENACE, then Jar-Jar didn’t just wreck the movie.  He wrecked an awesome movie.


MIRRORED HEAVENS reading in Albany tomorrow!

Monday, July 14th, 2008

I’ll be doing a signing/reading of THE MIRRORED HEAVENS at Flights of Fantasy Books, Albany, NY tomorrow, July 15th, at 7 p.m. The folks who run it seem really cool, and I’m looking forward to meeting them. If you’re in the area, stop on by, as it’s gonna be fun. Last time I read from the spaceplane hijack scene; this time, I think it might be the maglev train chase through the Atlantic Tunnels. We shall see. The suspense builds. . .

In the meantime, I’m taking today off to hang out with my friend Jerry, who escaped the NYC ratrace a few years ago so he could chill amidst the upstate greenery. We’re gonna do some canoeing (hopefully that’s not a code for some new type of designer drug that all the cool kids have gotten into), and kick back a little. Hope everybody enjoyed the weekend. Now I’m off to extend it just a little longer . .  .

The U.S. space program . . . (yawn)

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

A front-page article in the Washington Post yesterday asserted that U.S. dominance in space is slipping, with lots of examples to prove the point: the recently launched Japanese lunar orbiter, the upcoming Chinese space walk, Israel’s nanosatellites, etc. But the article, which draws from a study undertaken by Bethesda, MD consultants Futron, is a somewhat awkward pastiche of two separate trends. On the one hand, it’s to be expected that the lead of the U.S. would decline in relative terms, as more and more nations get in on the act. It’s a little like the initial wave of industrialization: first Britain built its factories, but other nations were quick to follow suit, a development that Britain could do little about.  Indeed, more nations getting into space in a robust way is a good thing, and should be welcomed as such.

But, on the other hand . . .  the U.S. space program really is floundering, in absolute terms. Yes, the nation remains ahead of the competition, as can be seen in Futron’s space competitive index, published in The Economist. But the Shuttle gets retired in 2010, and then we’ve got a five year gap during which no American spaceship will be able to reach the International Space Station. Paying the Russians to take us there will be our only option, until the Constellation comes online five years later.

Or never.  Which is an increasing risk at this point.  We’re obviously heading into an era of ever-tighter budgets, and NASA’s programs tend to be one of the first things to get cut.  All the more so given that the U.S. public could give two shits about what happens after the Shuttle.  Or, for that matter, the Shuttle itself.  Hell, the only way it can make the news anymore is as flaming wreckage.

Which is what makes the post-Shuttle plans such a total pull-your-hair-out-while-you-bash-your-head-into-a-wall missed opportunity.  NASA had a big chance to get people’s attention again, and all they could come up with is something that looks to the average American suspiciously like a repeat of Apollo (only more expensive, with both earth AND lunar orbit rendezvous).  They’d have been far better advised to head to Mars, or start mining asteroids . . . or anything besides something that everybody in this country knows Tom Hanks has already done.  As Bob Mahoney argued so cogently in The Space Review earlier in the year, when it comes to PR, NASA really blew it.  Again.

But not everybody has lost the plot.  While NASA lurches toward the budget axe, the Pentagon keeps on trucking.  Because one of the areas where the U.S. still remains unchallenged in space is with regards to military hardware:  we’ve got as many satellites in orbit as all other nations combined.  Without those sats, the ultra-precise weaponry of the U.S. war machine would be reduced to near-uselessness.  And if anyone ever gets into a position to challenge those sats .  . .

And that, as I’ve argued before (and as the Post article implicitly underscores), is likely to be the dynamic that ultimately shifts this whole equation.  Ultimately, the only REAL reason America ever came up with for getting into space in a serious way is because the other guy was doing it.  Sputnik got us off our butts in the 1950s/60s, and I suspect that something similar is going to happen again.  Put it this way:  the Moon will be a LOT more interesting to the American public when the Chinese start walking around on it.  Which won’t happen for a while yet.  But there’s an awful lot that they and others can get up to in the meantime.

The publishing gauntlet

Wednesday, July 9th, 2008

I’m guest-blogging over at Bantam Spectra’s Facebook page for the next few weeks. Spectra told me there’s a lot of aspiring authors over there, so I figured I’d start things off with a post about How To Get Your Novel Published. You can click HERE for the whole thing; it’s (obviously) all just my opinion—or rather, represents my potentially idiosyncratic experience in getting published—but I sure wish someone had told me something similar back in 2006 when I was first gearing up for a tilt at the publishing windmill. Perhaps there’s a way for me to email this back in time to that struggling, desperate fool who didn’t understand critical things like (a) the REAL solution to the “can’t get publisher without an agent/can’t get agent without a publisher” paradox, or (b) what all the query-letter advice books overlook, or (c) the actual key to success . .  .though I guess given how things turned out, it’s a bit of a moot point now. Fortunately.

But hey.  What are you still doing here anyway?  Go check out the post!

Weekend round-up

Monday, July 7th, 2008

The bad news first. Some punk(s) has/have stolen several laptops right out of Clarion West’s 08 residential house. Thanks to the generosity of the Seattle/Clarion West community, replacement laptops have been secured for the summer, but that still leaves students facing the need to ultimately buy new laptops (to say nothing of the mental stress incurred in losing critical files/data). If you’re able to donate or contribute in any way, contact Leslie or Neile at infoATClariontWestDOTorg.

On a happier note, I’ve sent in to Bantam “exclusive bonus material” for the mass-market paperback version of THE MIRRORED HEAVENS. The mass-market will thus represent the first time any excerpts from my glossary will have seen the light of day, but what I’m really excited about are the “character dossiers.” These consist of files on (a) the agents, (b) the handlers, and (c) the Inner Cabinet (i.e, the rulers of the United States):  they’re written from a senior Praetorian perspective, and they shed new (and, I think, interesting) light on the book’s events.  They also point the way toward the sequel, but that’s another story . . .

Space-Centric Warfare, Part Five: Underwater Combat

Friday, July 4th, 2008

(To start reading from the beginning of this essay, click HERE. And by the way, Happy 4th.)

Though the Eurasians possessed no equivalent to the Raft, their own navies didn’t lack for funding. This was in large part due to the fact that the most interesting thing about the ocean was, as ever, what was lurking beneath the surface. In fact, the seas were essentially the only place where mobile weapons/vehicles could be hidden from satellite surveillance. Such surveillance was far better than in the 20th century—when it had essentially been nonexistent—but it still remained far from perfect against a deep-running, stealthy submarine.

All the more so against a submarine capable of suddenly attaining “warp speed”: because, ultimately, the one factor above all else that guaranteed that naval items would be a priority item in the defense budgets was that the speed of 22nd century undersea warfare promised to render that of the previous century slow-motion—literally. Tapping the possibilities inherent in supercavitation technologies allowed the development of vessels that could reduce hydrodynamic drag by traveling inside superheated, self-generated bubbles of water vapor and gas—and that could thereby move at hundreds of kilometers per hour, irrevocably altering the pace at which undersea warfare would be conducted.

A critical byproduct of supercavitation was that it intensified the urgency of anti-submarine strategies, particularly in the vulnerable areas near the coast. Just as with geosynchronous orbit, technological/strategic realities drove a mutual understanding regarding the positioning of munitions here as well:  by the 2080s, the two powers had tacitly agreed to recognize the extension of territorial waters to four hundred kilometers out. Most admirals believed that even this was not enough, given the speed of hypersonic missiles and the reality of directed energy.  Accordingly, those four hundred kilometers were awash with underwater sensors, sea-bottom stations, mines, and anti-submarine submarines.  Destroyers cruised the surface and prowled around ocean-going platforms of varying size, while swarms of jet-copters patrolled the skies.

To be sure, littoral waters were an area where the U.S. (despite the positioning of the Rafts as forward attack platforms) had much more to lose than did the Eurasians, since so many of the large American launch pads were situated in relatively close proximity to the coasts.  The United States therefore poured tens of billions of dollars into its Atlantic and Pacific Walls, which extended as far south as the northern parts of South America.  Nor did Navy (and, eventually, NavCom) officers ever tire of arguing that these defense lines should be extended all the way to the Horn (a strategy that would mean absorbing the few neutral territories situated down there).  It could also be assumed (though no one ever admitted it) that both sides had positioned strongpoints at various places in the deep trenches across the world’s oceans, as these avenues represented logical points of concealment for approaching attack submarines.

In this regard, the most studied and speculated-upon undersea theater was that of the Arctic Ocean, across which the two superpowers directly faced each other at a relatively short distance.  The ice-packs may have been dwindling, but they were still much in evidence—and they would make it even more difficult for space-based and aerial recon platforms to intervene in the ever-shifting game played out by hunter and hunted in the most frigid of all waters.

Space-Centric Warfare, Part Four: Naval Combat

Wednesday, July 2nd, 2008

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

All of the attention upon space left the leaders of the non-space services scrambling to assert the significance of their own theaters (though they hedged their bets by building up their own space-based presences). They experienced mixed success in this regard. Perhaps the fiercest such debate centered on the role that the sea would play. Unsurprisingly, the navies of both sides argued that Neptune’s arena would be a crucial one, and they mounted a wide range of arguments to support their claim.

The experience of the U.S. Navy in developing and making its case is particularly instructive. Its officers contended that since all the nations across the three Eastern continents were either neutral or Eurasian vassals, attacks launched from the oceans were the most immediate route, save from space itself, to deploy U.S. munitions without warning into the East’s defenses.  Indeed, at the core of the Navy’s calculations was an attempt to replicate a key component of its strategy during the First Cold War:  namely, encircling Russia and China with a series of bases capable of projecting force into their homelands.

The question, though, was the nature of that force.  The dominant naval platform of the 20th century, the aircraft carrier, had become obsolete long before the full resurgence of the Eurasian powers.  Carriers were simply too vulnerable to waves of torpedoes and ever-faster cruise missiles.  An increasing proportion of the force in any one carrier group had to be dedicated solely to protecting the carrier—yet such precautions failed (in spectacular fashion) against more than one “rogue state” in the first two decades of the 21st century.

The solution to all this was as radical as it was expensive:  since a maneuvering boat was essentially motionless relative to onrushing hypersonic missiles, why bother trying to build any evasive capability into a capital ship at all?  Why not make it motionless?  Thus was conceived the Raft (also called the Floating Fortress, in homage to Orwell): several kilometers along each side, racked with weaponry, and boasting full-length runways, as well as space launch facilities. content_military_04floating.jpg In the eyes of their designers, two factors made the Rafts a survivable proposition:  first, most of their weapons could be utilized for defensive purposes against oncoming missiles (e.g., the craft possessed a myriad smaller lasers that could be trained directly upon such incoming targets) and, second, a Raft was so large that even a direct hit was unlikely to be fatal.  When possible, Rafts were placed on or near the equator to maximize their space-launch potential.

It can safely be asserted that the construction of such behemoths laid to rest any notions that the U.S. navy was run by hidebound reactionaries wedded to the capital ships of a previous generation—but how they would perform were they to be put to the test remained to be seen.