Footfall – A Retrospect

19 Sep

The passing of Jerry Pournelle, one of the acknowledged Grand Masters of science-fiction, has left me looking back at his work and how it has influenced me over the years. Pournelle crafted – crafted, perchance – some of the most important novels of the last four decades, both alone and in partnership with Larry Niven. Of those, The Mote In God’s Eye, Lucifer’s Hammer and Footfall stand head and shoulders above the rest. They set the standards for the rest of us to follow.

But why?

To answer that, one must answer a question that has bedevilled many of us in the SF community in the last decade or so. What is science-fiction? Is it merely a setting or is it something more? Is it focused on technology or the human factor, adventure or philosophy? Is it the future, or the past, or an alternate world? And does it cross the line between straight SF and other genres?

The question is not easy to answer. A romance story dressed up in science-fiction clothing would not, in my view, be pure science-fiction. A detective story that didn’t depend on a science-fiction element as well as a science-fiction world – a clone body being used to hide a crime, for example – would not be pure science-fiction either. Indeed, the more advanced the technological base of the story, the thinner the line between science-fiction and fantasy. The Culture novels of Iain M. Banks are great reads, but the technology is so far ahead of the current level that it might as well be fantasy. Banks has to work hard to craft situations where the Culture simply cannot appeal to a combination of force and simple self-interest.

A pure science-fiction story, in my view, requires two elements. First, the technology must be both reasonably possible, at least within our current understanding, and be what makes the story happen. Ideally, technology and the practical application of same should be what solves the problem. And second, the human characters must be human. They cannot – they must not – be something greater. A person who grows up in the Foundation may still be recognisably human, but a person who grows up in the Culture may not be. Their mindset will be very different from ours.

Obviously, there is a lot of room for debate here. A story may not fit my definition above, but still be a very good read. David Weber’s Honour Harrington books are good reads, yet they rely on a specific kind of universe and technological base; Peter F. Hamilton’s Void books showcase the wonders of a possible future, but – again – have left the limits of present-day technology a very long time ago.

By this definition, Footfall is one of the purest science-fiction books in the world.

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(For once, the UK got the cool cover.)

Niven and Pournelle did not anticipate the collapse of the Soviet Union. Footfall takes place in a vaguely alternate universe, where both the US and the USSR have bases on the moon, a soviet space station orbits the Earth and the Challenger disaster never happened. Despite that, it is a fairly good reproduction of the US in 1985: no cell phones, no stealth airplanes, no internet, relatively few ground-to-space weapons. Given that the moonbases are of very little importance to the story, one might simply ignore them. In some ways, the story is as dated as The War of the Worlds.

The story begins when astronomers detect a giant alien mothership approaching Earth. Indeed, the first quarter of the book covers a series of reactions, from governments who are torn between welcoming the new arrivals and preparing for war to survivalists who want to go underground, fearing the worst. Preparations are made to greet the aliens with a multinational welcoming committee on the space station, but – of course – the aliens have other ideas. As soon as they get close to Earth, they attack. The space station is captured, humanity’s network of satellites is blasted to dust and kinetic projectiles are rained on the planet below. Military bases, airports, dams and everything else that looks dangerous – from orbit – is smashed flat before a single alien sets foot on Earth.

As humanity reels under the onslaught, the aliens land in Kansas. Their control of space makes their position impregnable – notably, the authors don’t spend much time on the battles – until the US and USSR cooperate to drop nukes on the alien lodgement, obliterating both the alien base and much of the region. The aliens retaliate, however, by launching an asteroid at Earth, clearing the way for a second landing in Africa. Desperately, the US builds an Orion spacecraft and launches a final desperate bid to regain control of the high orbitals and force the aliens to surrender. It works, barely …

What is most impressive about Footfall is that the technology used by both sides is well within the limits of the possible. There are no heat rays (although lasers are mentioned), nor are there force fields. The aliens use railguns and Project Thor kinetic projectiles to clear the way for their landings, smashing armoured columns from orbit and making it impossible to muster a large-scale counteroffensive. (The one major counteroffensive fails miserably, pretty much completely off-screen.) They use lasers to launch spacecraft into orbit, as well as serving as an anti-aircraft system; they use orbital power satellites to keep their facilities operational and, later, as a bribe to get a number of countries to surrender to them. Merely by holding the orbital space around Earth, they appear to be certain to win. The book makes it clear that one doesn’t need aliens to hold command of space. In its universe, the USSR was slowly moving to take space for itself.

The aliens themselves are alien, although not as weird as the aliens from The Mote in God’s Eye. Resembling small elephants, they have a very alien herd mentality; they start the war, at least in part, to test themselves against us. It is clear that they would have surrendered if we had proven stronger, at the start; our failure to surrender when they stomped us flat bemused, then angered them. (And then it dawns on them that they can ask for conditional surrender instead of unconditional surrender …) Niven and Pournelle do a very good job of representing the alien politics and making them understandable, if not likable. These aliens are not humans in alien suits.

Footfall is, in many ways, an event story. Like much such stories, the characterisation suffers. (Red Storm Rising is one of the few single-volume event stories that actually managed to balance events with decent character arcs.) The President and most of the other characters are instantly forgettable, with a handful of exceptions. (It’s nice to see a female army intelligence officer who just is.) There are no scenes where POTUS flies a combat jet into battle <grin>.

The characters who do have genuine story arcs tend to make points; some subtle, some not. Senator Was Dawson, a space enthusiast, calls in every favour he is owned to be part of the welcoming committee, which ends badly when he finds himself an alien prisoner. Nothing loathe, he tries to use his new position to convince the alien dissidents to make peace with Earth, an attempt that backfires horribly when he manages to talk them out of being dissidents! And John Fox, an anti-technological zealot, rapidly comes to realise that he is little better than a traitor to the entire human race. Both Fox and Dawson have to work fast to redeem themselves and the book is ambiguous about their success.

Niven and Pournelle (and I) acknowledge that technology can cause problems. Every change in the status quo has caused problems. And yet, technology can also solve the problems it causes as well as the original problems it set out to solve. The first nuclear power plants were dangerous things – no one would dispute that – but more modern nuclear plants are far safer. So-called ‘Green’ energy has produced little more than a series of expensive boondoggles. People who want to go back to the simple life have never experienced it.

Oddly, for a book of its era, Footfall shows Russians as sympathetic characters, even though it has no illusions about the Soviet Union itself. The Russians are understandable, torn between the need to keep Eastern Europe under control and a grim awareness that the price of constant repression is staggeringly high. Even the most powerful among the Russians are inmates in a giant prison camp, fearful to say or do anything for fear of attracting the ire of the KGB. And the price Russia pays for helping to nuke the aliens in Kansas is a bitter civil war. Russia vanishes from the plot halfway through the book and it is easy to understand why.

Part of this, of course, is another teachable moment. The aliens were effectively ‘uplifted,’ brought to sentience by a long-gone precursor race. Their technology comes from records left behind by their precursors, saving them the trouble of developing it themselves. And yet, the aliens are seemingly blind to the potentials of their systems, let alone the boundless opportunities outside the gravity well. Even the dissidents, the ones opposed to the war, are horrified when they realise just how much humans know. Their shift to supporting the war comes when it dawns on them that humans will crush them, given time. Their way of war – loser surrenders and gets assimilated – doesn’t apply to us.

This is true of the Soviet Union too, both in the book and in real life. The Russians did make some impressive technological developments, but they spent far too much of their time stealing technology from the West and copying it. Part of this was because of the constant paranoia, the constant awareness that one was being watched, that one had to watch what one said … hardly a good state for scientific development. The Soviet Union was more interested in repressing its people than in allowing them to flourish. If nothing else, Footfall serves as a both a reminder of why the ideal of communism is so insidious and a reminder of why we should be very glad the Soviet Union collapsed and vanished into the dustbin of history. One may censor something one doesn’t like – as a debate of the merits of the pornographic movie Deep Throat makes clear – but where do you stop? It isn’t easy to resist the ‘think of the children’ mentality, yet it must be resisted! Where do you stop?

Niven and Pournelle spend less time covering the side-effects of the war than I would have expected, although they do manage to slip in a few more teachable moments. America survives the later stages of the war, at least in part, because the government is weakened without being destroyed. What makes it work, as one character notes, is just enough government, combined with a high degree of personal initiative. Washington’s burdensome web of regulations and ‘you can’t do that’ bureaucrats being cut down sharply is good for the economy, something that far too many people fail to grasp. My old rule of thumb – the more you ask the government to do, the less it can do – remains as true as ever. Indeed, I wish they’d spent more time covering some of the points here. But I cannot fault their decision to limit it.

That said, there are some odd moments in the plot. While the Russian subplot coming to an end makes sense, the survivalists are of less importance and could probably have been cut out without materially weakening the book. (I was expecting them to be in Kansas, which they weren’t.) Other moments could probably have been cut down too, perhaps while some other sections were expanded. On the other hand, the alien politics makes for a welcome change – particularly when compared to Lucifer’s Hammer – and probably could have done with a little further expansion.

In many ways, Footfall reads a little dated. The technology and politics (US and international) are well out of date. Social attitudes changed a lot over the years since the book was written, for better or worse. Other aspects are unknown to a new generation of readers – unlike The Mote in God’s Eye, the book isn’t that timeless. Indeed, the in-jokes – characters based on science-fiction writers of that time, for example – are largely meaningless these days. You’d have to know a great deal about the fandom of that time to understand them. That said, you don’t need to understand such details to like and enjoy the book.

And yet, Footfall has not yet expired completely. Command of space remains utterly priceless, in military affairs. Even a relatively primitive opponent, given free access to space, would be able to crush the United States and NATO. (China’s interest in space should be seen as a potential threat.) There is nothing in the book that we could not do, given the political will. No magic tech, just hard science. And the anti-luddite message never stops being important. Technology – and the understanding of technology – is the key to progress, genuine progress. It is also the key to victory, both in the Cold War and the ongoing conflict with Radical Islam. Tech can make life better in a way that no amount of de facto fascism cannot. Capitalism and constitutional democracies are not perfect, but they are far – far – better than the alternative. Those who would hold us back do not have our best interests at heart.

The best science-fiction talks about the limitless possibilities of the future. By that standard, Footfall will be popular for a very long time to come.

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It’s been one of those weekends …

17 Sep

It’s been one of those weekends … <sigh>.

The good news is that I started work on Graduation Day on Monday – the bad news is that I caught a cold, which was vile enough to keep me from working Saturday and Sunday. I’m hoping to resume work tomorrow, but – obviously – it depends on my health. I haven’t posted a snippet because the prologue and the first chapter is pretty much a colossal spoiler for The Gordian Knot.

I’m currently awaiting the second (and hopefully final) set of edits for The Gordian Knot and the cover, which is being finalised now, is a thing of beauty. In my rather less than humble opinion, it is the best cover of the series, even though it is up against some pretty stiff competition.

On other news, The Zero Curse is out and doing well, but could really use some more reviews (hint, hint).

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More news soon … <grin>

Out Now–The Zero Curse

14 Sep

The sequel to The Zero Blessing

Zero Cursed Cover FOR WEB

Caitlyn Aguirre is no magician …

… But that doesn’t make her useless.

After discovering her true talent and uncovering the long-lost secret behind Objects of Power, Cat returns to school – intent on showing everyone what she can do. But her mere existence is a threat to the balance of power, convincing some to befriend her, some to try to use her … and some to remove her.

And when she and her closest friends become the target of a deadly plot, she must use all her wits to save them and escape before she becomes the first casualty in a deadly war.

Download a FREE SAMPLE, then purchase the book from Amazon here – US, UK, CAN, AUS.

Shares, reviews and comments welcome!

A Visit to Wigtown

10 Sep

After writing The Zero Curse, now having its second edit, and doing the first set of edits for The Gordian Knot, I decided that we needed a holiday. And so we drove to Wigtown, Scotland’s National Book Town. It was smaller than I had expected – there were very few places to eat, save for the hotel and a handful of cafes – but it was interesting. I brought home a lorry-load of books.

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The sign welcoming us to the town; turn right for books.

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We stayed at the Craft Hotel – the staff were friendly, the room was reasonably comfortable and the food was good.  It also sells a vast number of DVDs and books.

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I’m not convinced that this is the largest second-hand bookshop in Scotland, as I visited a pretty big one in Inverness, but it was still a great find.  Plenty of old books, as well as history and military stuff.  Prices were reasonably good, but some of the older books were priced high.

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A bookshop for children, with both new and second-hand books.  Eric had a good time playing while i looked for books, finding an old friend from childhood in the shelves …

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Believe it or not, this is an AIRBNB.  It’s a small bookshop with limited stock, but it offers a fun experience.  I’ve worked in bookshops – it can be great <grin>

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One of a handful of cafes that also sell books.  There’s a focus on female authors, although the collection is actually much broader.  It also hosts book discussion groups and sells food.

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Larger on the inside, this bookshop sells all kinds of books – I was there for the history.  It is well worth a look – the staff were very friendly and knowledgeable,

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From the outside, this one doesn’t look like much.  But it has the largest collection of second-hand fantasy and SF books I’ve seen outside LONDONCON.  The owner was friendly and chatted happily to me about books – I bought a vast number of Baen books I never knew existed until i entered his shop.  My collection thanks him, although my bank manager probably doesn’t.  There’s also a collection of rare SF magazines and suchlike – I had a look, but decided against buying any. 

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Believe it or not, this is meant to be a harbour.  Eric and I explored, but all we found was an old dock filled with mud.  The tide must have been out.  (I later discovered that the harbour simply isn’t used very often.)

All in all, we had a good time.  The only downside was the limited choice of food – I’d assumed that we could find a curry house, but the closest one was apparently eight miles away (we didn’t go).  One of the booksellers also warned me that the ATMs had a habit of running out of money, something that is apparently a major problem during the festival.  But otherwise … we had a very good time.

Back to work tomorrow …

Jerry Pournelle, RIP

10 Sep

Jerry Pournelle was one of the true greats of SF.

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I do not think that can be denied. We live in an age where we argue over what is and what isn’t science-fiction, with arguments over how many elements from other genres can be introduced before a book loses its SF sheen. And yet, Jerry Pournelle was definitely one of the greats, a man who helped shape the ‘hard SF’ genre in many – many – ways.

I never met him. I wish I had, before his untimely death. Pournelle was an influence on my writing, one of the writers who introduced me to hundreds of concepts and technologies that would inform my own work. And he was also instrumental in shaping my attitude to progress and the enemies of progress, the enemies of humanity itself. For this, I will be forever grateful.

Pournelle had no time for the belief that technology was evil. He believed, firmly, that technology solved problems. His books were true SF in the sense that they celebrated the greatness of the human spirit and a ‘can-do’ attitude to advancing forward, rather than mourning a mythical past and advocating a return to the soil. Pournelle’s characters faced problems and overcame them through imaginative use of technology and science, as well as a willingness to think outside the box.

He taught his readers about both the wonders waiting for us – in space – and about those who would drag us down. He had no hesitation in painting both bureaucrats and social engineers – the term Social Justice Warriors didn’t enter the mainstream until later – as unrelenting enemies, men and women who prefer to tie us down rather than let us reach for the stars. He had a jaded attitude towards modern-day law enforcement, recognising its flaws as well as its unquestioned advantages; he understood the dangers of relying too much on a government that literally could not handle all of its responsibilities. He understood, all too well, that the nihilism that infests so much of our society was – is – something that had to be fought.

He also understood, in a way that many modern-day writers and politicians fail to grasp, that there are no perfect solutions. A military vet himself, Pournelle understood the realities and limitations of modern war – and, perhaps more importantly, knew that history never really ends. Civilisation has to be defended. Victory comes at a price, one that has to be paid; defeat comes with a steeper price, one that cannot not be paid if one loses. He also understood the importance of grasping the nettle and making changes, sometimes, when it is clear that events are moving out of control. The Higher Education Bubble, among others, bears mute witness to the refusal of politicians to realise that there is a problem and deal with it. But they know that any substantial movement to fix the problem will cost votes …

It didn’t take long for his detractors to come out of the woodwork and accuse Pournelle of racism. I don’t believe he was, not in the conventional sense. His work praised and promoted those who work to better themselves and reach for the stars, while slamming those who preferred to wallow in squalor. Those who upheld civilisation, in ways big and small, were his heroes, from the street kid who moves into space to the millionaire who devised his own society. ‘God helps those who help themselves’ could easily have been his motto.

As a writer, Pournelle expanded our minds; as a social commenter, he helped us understand the problems facing the human race. He codified the ‘Iron Law of Bureaucracy’ and the political axis, taught us about the ‘Voodoo Sciences,’ doing all three in a manner designed to teach rather than confuse. He understood and helped others to understand too. There is no greater praise that I can offer.

The SF community owes a great deal to Jerry Pournelle. And his passing marks the end of an era.

Rest In Peace.

Updates (again)–SIM, ZERO, ANGEL

6 Sep

Hi, everyone

It’s been an odd week, really.

Right now, I’m waiting on two sets of edits – The Zero Curse and The Gordian Knot. I’m hoping to get The Zero Curse out by the end of the month (hence the blip in my publication schedule) but obviously I can’t promise anything until I see and do the edits. That said, I already have the cover so unless there are any real glitches with the edits I should be able to go through them fairly quickly.

I’ve been spending the time reasonably productively. I’ve sketched out plots for The Princess In The Tower, SIM15, and Alassa’s Tale, a short story set between Graduation Day and The Princess in the Tower. I’ve also been scribbling out notes for Invincible, which will kick off the fourth Ark Royal trilogy. It isn’t solid yet, but I hope to start writing it fairly early in the new year.

Becalmed has been re-titled The Hyperspace Trap and has gone through a fairly solid editing process. It’s a stand-alone set in the Angel in the Whirlwind universe, which doesn’t have to be read to understand the mainline story, but it does offer some background to the problems facing the main characters. I’ve also started to plot out the next three Kat Falcone books, with the first one provisionally titled ‘The Embers of War.’

My planned schedule for the next few months hasn’t changed:

Sept – Graduation Day (SIM 14)

Oct – The Cruel Stars (Ark XI, stand-alone)

Nov – Cat’s Paw (Bookworm successor series, Vol. 1)

I may manage to fit Alassa’s Tale in after Cat’s Paw, but it depends on timing.

As I have mentioned elsewhere, I’m currently working on an anthology of stories featuring the British military. You can see the blog post here. Please email me if you’re interested in taking part and I’ll send you the rules.

Thanks for reading!

Chris

Marvel’s Darth Vader

5 Sep

It cannot be denied that Marvel Comics is going through a very rough patch. You can blame it on social justice, if you like, or a pointless push towards ‘diversity’ or even very poor writers and poorer editors, but it cannot be denied. Indeed, after a number of comics I liked were cancelled, I cancelled all my Marvel subscriptions. It was therefore something of a surprise when I picked up the first collected edition of Darth Vader and discovered that it was actually very good. I purchased the remaining collections in short order.

Set between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader follows our favourite villain protagonist as the Galactic Empire struggles to recover from the loss of the Death Star and the rise of the Rebel Alliance. Out of favour with the Emperor, Darth Vader discovers that he is now subordinate to Grand General Tagge (who had a bit part in A New Hope and was ret-conned into having left the Death Star before the disaster) and forced to compete with a set of new apprentices, created by the enigmatic Dr. Cylo. Unluckily for the Galactic Empire, Dr. Cylo has plans of his own …

Plotting his own course of action, Vader recruits a team of his own and, upon discovering that he has a son, starts planning to eventually take the Galactic Empire for himself.

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The story weaves in and out of established mythology – thankfully, it draws nothing from The Force Awakens and surprisingly little from the prequels. Vader’s encounter with Jabba in the first issue links neatly to the next two movies, as does his involvement with various well-known bounty hunters. Vader’s bid to prove himself – to claim his position as the undisputed second-in-command – links up neatly to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

Even better, there is only one crossover with other comic books – Vader Down. I’ve grown to loathe crossovers because they force me to decide between buying several more comic books so I know the background or coming into the story halfway. But you don’t have to follow the Star Wars comic book to understand the background of Vader Down, although the crossover does dilute the focus on Vader and his allies.

But what really sells the book is the characters. Vader himself is evil, but nowhere near as unpleasant as the gloating monster he serves. Vader’s team, too, is a brilliant inversion of the rebel trio; Dr. Aphra, Triple-Zero, BT-1 and Black Krrsantan are all evil counterparts of the rebels. Naturally, this partnership doesn’t last long and part of the latter third of the series includes Dr. Aphra trying to get away from Vader. It’s no surprise that Dr. Aphra actually got her own comic book series afterwards, as she’s probably the best of the characters created for the comic books. (And a dark reflection of Han.) While she doesn’t beat Vader, she manages to trick him into thinking her dead.

The bad guys – or badder guys – are just as interesting, in their own way. Grand General Tagge firmly believes that the Death Star was a colossal waste of resources, all the more so as it was destroyed by a single starfighter pilot. His boring, but practical approach to war is actually quite effective – indeed, if he’d been left alive at the end, he might have won the war for his master. On the other side, Dr. Cylo and his ‘apprentices’ are bent on eventually taking the empire for themselves, pitting Vader against a series of increasingly dangerous threats and attacks. And the Emperor – affably evil, but sadistic; drunk on power, yet cold and calculating – looms large over the comic. I wish we’d seen more of him.

I wasn’t impressed with The Force Awakens. And I loathed the prequels. And the Expanded Universe always veered between true greatness (Heir to the Empire, The Hand of Thrawn) and utter crap (The Courtship of Princess Leia, The Crystal Star). But this comic book reminds us of why we consider Darth Vader to be one of the greatest movie villains of all time.

It’s worth a read. Go read it.