Archive | September, 2017

Merkel’s Pyrrhic Victory

28 Sep

A couple of people asked me for my take on the German elections. This is my view, but YMMV. I’m not an expert on German politics and most of my sources are second or third-hand.

Quite a few people on Facebook have been comparing Angela Merkel to Hilary Clinton over the past couple of months. Personally, I disagree with the comparison. Merkel has a great deal more in common – and the irony of this is darkly amusing – with Theresa May. Both politicians made staggering errors of judgement and only escaped the consequences of their mistakes because of the weaknesses of their enemies.

Right now, as I understand the situation, Merkel and the CDU will need to go into coalition with a number of other German parties, all of which have no reason whatsoever to make matters easy for her. Her former allies in the SDP have already decided that they will not remain in alliance with her, at least partly because Merkel cost them a considerable number of seats. (In some ways, this appears to be akin to the UK’s brief alliance between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, which cost the latter heavily in the elections.) As the other parties have good reason to share the belief that Merkel’s policies cost them heavily too, they’ll demand very steep prices for their support.

Merkel will thus have to balance a very unwieldy coalition government, composed of parties that have widely divergent aspirations. This is not a recipe for stable government at, perhaps, the worst possible time. Worse, Merkel’s own party – like Theresa May’s – is likely to blame her for their losses too. I suspect that a number of senior politicians are expecting Merkel to form the government, then step aside. Given that Merkel has actually, in her own way, become as divisive as Donald Trump, this may be the best possible outcome. However, I don’t expect her to leave peacefully. Merkel – unlike Margaret Thatcher – does not appear to realise that she is a problem for her party.

The joker in the deck is the rise of the AfD – a right-wing party that won a considerable percentage of votes. (Quite why this surprised anyone is beyond me, for reasons I will discuss below.) Indeed, the one thing that unites the mainstream parties is a determination to keep the AfD out of power. The AfD will therefore find itself frozen out of the political mainstream, as long as Merkel’s coalition stays together. This is both good and bad for the AfD. On one hand, if it isn’t part of the governing coalition, it can avoid taking the blame for any future problems; on the other hand, if it is unable to deliver anything to its voters, those voters may slip away to political parties smart enough to reshape themselves to suit the public mood. It will be interesting to see if the AfD can build on its success or fall back into irrelevance.

Merkel herself is a serious liability. (In some ways, this is akin to Hillary Clinton and the Democrats.) She has been in power long enough to have a very checkered record on a number of subjects, ranging from European unity to immigration. From a political point of view, Merkel’s decision to allow migrants to enter Germany was disastrous, a problem made worse by her refusal to admit that it had been a mistake. Her government showed some dangerously illiberal sentiments in the months afterwards – and still does, to some extent – and played a major role in weakening German faith in its government. Outside Germany, she is regarded with some suspicion. Merkel’s apparent belief that she has the right to force Eastern European states like Poland and Hungary to take migrants only reinforces concerns that the EU will become a de facto dictatorship. Indeed, one can argue that the German migrant crisis boosted BREXIT. It did not bode well for the future.

The core of the problem is that nationalism is making a significant comeback in Western Europe. (Eastern Europe was always more nationalistic, a legacy of Soviet domination.) On one hand, the EU is a bureaucratic (and out of touch) nightmare that only a bureaucrat or a politician could love. As I have said before, a Texan and a New Yorker might have something (being American) in common, but a Frenchman and a German do not. The EU simply does not inspire much in the way of loyalty. And on the other hand, mainstream political parties are simply unable or unwilling to acknowledge that there are problems that need to be fixed. Instead, they chose to blame the voters for daring to have doubts.

This drove voters towards the more extreme parties, which do acknowledge the problems. It is no coincidence that Donald Trump’s ratings skyrocketed after he pointed the finger at immigration. The same is true of right-wing parties across Europe. When times are good, people are happy to share; when times are hard, people want their concerns put first. And calling voters who have very valid concerns about immigration racists only made matters worse. Voters who feel threatened do not want to be talked down to by someone who has security on call, 24/7. As a cynical friend of mine put it, “Merkel put the interests of migrants ahead of the German population – and it is the German population who can vote!”

In the end, it is difficult to see how the European Union can survive without significant adjustment. And yet, there doesn’t seem to be any awareness amongst the elite that the EU needs to reform. Merkel – or her successor – will find himself torn between the need for major surgery or allowing problems to fester until they finally explode.

Merkel’s victory, in short, may prove to be nothing of the sort.

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Be Constructive, Not Destructive

26 Sep

I cannot say that I care – much – about the current crisis in the American National Football League. My time in school left me with a profound dislike of team sports and a very definite mistrust of those who played them. The idea that someone’s worth should be measured by their skill at kicking a football around a muddy field is distasteful to me – my heroes are policemen, firemen, military personnel and good writers, not sportsmen.

And I’m British, so I don’t have any skin in this particular game <grin>.

But watching all the articles popping up in my Facebook page left me wondering if there was any actual point to the protests. Leaving aside the question of whether or not people should stand for the national anthem or not, does it really do anything if football players take the knee? Do they get anything out of this beyond some bad publicity? Most importantly of all, are they actually doing anything constructive?

Look, it’s easy to protest these days. Anyone can be an activist. You can go online and share articles until you’ve cleansed your friend list of everyone who doesn’t agree with you 100%, or re-tweet posts from famous left/right-wingers until you’re blue in the face. Or you can go to a protest march, where – as a general rule – there is very little actual danger. President Trump is not in the habit of sending soldiers to mow down protesters, unlike – say – the governments of Iran, Saudi Arabia, China and quite a few other countries that can reasonably be described as prison camps above and mass graves below.

And this had an odd effect – if ‘protest’ is something as simple as pushing a button on a computer, does it do anything at all?

Is all of this protest simply sound and fury, signifying nothing? And has Colin Kaepernick actually achieved anything?

As far as I can tell, the answer is no … beyond losing his position and triggering off a cascade of hysterical screaming from both sides of the endless political war. Kaepernick remains unsigned, at least in part, because any team that hired him would face the wrath of an angry public (and tweets from Donald Trump). Why would any responsible owner want to take the chance of hiring him? (A problem made worse by his girlfriend once comparing a potential manager to a slave owner.) It is difficult to take Kaepernick seriously because he doesn’t seem to have considered what he’s actually doing. It’s easy to protest, but harder to do anything effective.

People generally tune out hysterical screeching and emotional blackmail. Extremists on both sides of the culture wars are regarded, more and more, as dangerously destructive forces rather than people willing to work together to solve the nation’s problems. Would it not have been better, perhaps, if Colin Kaepernick – a very wealthy young man – had set out to find a more constructive solution to his woes?

According to a brief web search, Kaepernick’s net worth is $25 million dollars. On one hand, he gave up a lot of money for his protests; on the other hand, $25 million in the bank is enough for him to live in luxury for the rest of his life. What if he’d invested it, instead, in education for young black men? He has money, fame (he certainly has high name recognition even now, although mainly for the wrong reasons) and plenty of connections he could use to get more donations. It wouldn’t be hard to set up a trust fund – and, with the right sort of people in charge (people who actually know what they’re doing), it might actually do a great deal of good.

There’s nothing flashy about this. Nor is there anything that most reasonable people will find controversial. It wouldn’t suit someone who thrives on drama and controversy and generally being the centre of attention. But it would be constructive, not destructive, and it would be something most people could get behind.

The key to changing the world is not hysterical screeching and dramatic, but ultimately pointless protests. The key is understanding what is actually going on, finding basic solutions, selling them to everyone involved and carrying on until the problem is finally resolved. It isn’t enough – for example – to be against Trump. You have to be for something better if you want people to vote for you. Practical solutions trump (hah) screeching every day.

On one hand, an educational trust (or whatever) won’t make the news. But on the other, it might actually do some good …

… Which is more than can be said for pointless (and potentially suicidal) kneeling protests.

OUT NOW–The Gordian Knot (Schooled in Magic XIII)

25 Sep

Up for download NOW!

Gordian Knot Final FOR WEB

The post of Head Girl of Whitehall looks fantastic on anyone’s resume. It places the lucky winner on equal terms to the staff, granting them authority, power and responsibility that no other student can even dream of possessing. A student lucky enough to win the coveted post is destined for greatness. Everyone will want to know their name.

Naturally, Emily doesn’t want it.

But when she returns to Whitehall for her sixth and final year, she discovers that the staff have elected her to the post – and refusal isn’t an option. Worse, the Grandmaster wants her to run his pet project – a formal duelling club – even though it’s the last thing she wants to do. Reluctantly, she starts to carry out her new duties, unaware that deadly enemies are waiting in the shadows, preparing themselves to strike at her when her back is turned. Someone is spreading rumours about her, someone is sabotaging her projects, someone is weakening the ties that bind her to Whitehall …

And, as matters start to spin out of control, as the life and soul of one of her closest friends is thrown into terrifying danger, Emily must decide between carrying out her duties or walking away, knowing that either choice will cost her dearly …

… And leave her alone at the centre of a deadly storm.

Download a free sample, then purchase from the links on this page!

Minor Updates–And Samples

25 Sep

Hi, everyone

If everything goes according to plan – which it hopefully will – The Gordian Knot should be released in the next few days. We have the cover – see below – and the edits. I think I can safely say it’s the best cover in the series, which puts it up against some pretty stiff competition. There’s a small sample here.

Gordian Knot Final FOR WEB

I’m also 28 chapters into Graduation Day and enjoying the sensation of a clear run at the ending when I know what’s going to happen, more or less, in the remaining 12 (or so) chapters. Hopefully, as Graduation Day is the last of the second arc, it will end with a suitable bang that closes off some plotlines and opens the path to the third arc. We shall see.

Obviously, there’s no way I can offer a publication date yet, but I’m hopeful that it will come out before the end of the year.

The Zero Curse is coming out in paperback today, complimenting the eBook. The eBook is doing reasonably well, prompting questions about a second trilogy set after The Zero Equation. I do have a plotline for at least one book, a spin-off of sorts, but I don’t intend to write it just yet. First, I have to finish the first trilogy, then take stock.

After Graduation Day, I’ll move straight into The Cruel Stars, which will be a second stand-alone Ark Royal book.

Let me know what else you’d like to see!

Chris

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.

9781857230970-fr-300

(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.

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).

Zero Cursed Cover

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!