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If you can think of it…

August 1, 2011 Comments off

…Someone has made porn of it.

This is known as  Rule 34.

Charles Stross, being the net-savvy author that he is, was of course sure to use this someday. And so he returns to the ‘twenty minutes into the future’ setting of his earlier novel ‘Halting State’.

The last time we met Liz Kavanaugh of the Edinburgh police force, she was working a case involving missing persons and high finance surrounding an online gaming company. Today, she has been passed over for promotion and moved sideways in the organisation, and she is now in charge of the department monitoring the seamier side of the Internet and investigating crimes that have a connection with it.,

The other characters we meet are Anwar Hussein, a small-time criminal trying hard to stay on the straight and narrow for the sake of his children, who gets a job offer that is entirely above board, and yet still too good to be true.

And we have the mysterious representative of ‘The Organization’, who is tasked with setting up a sales and distribution network for counterfeit goods produced in back yard synthetics fabrication units.

A good techno-thriller starts with a plot. Charlie knows how to do this, and from the moment a colleague calls in Liz for a scene that looks like an accident in auto-eroticism, Charlie works his way through a well-constructed plot that ends with a high¬†“Holy Shit!” quotient.

But plot is not enough. Charlie gives us interesting characters as well; people we care about. Liz’s character traits may make her look like a role-model for a PC protagonist, and yet she jumps the bounds of the archetype, coming alive for the reader. Anwar is touching in his dedication to his children and in his bewilderment at his predicament, and the operative is a chilling psychopath.

We get a kinky, and sometimes squicky look at the seamy side of the Internet tomorrow, and an interesting speculation how spam, fraud and countermeasures might evolve. We get it in Charlie’s inimitable clear, lightly sardonic style. And as a bonus character we get Charlie’s hometown of Edinburgh, described so lovingly that we can almost hear the murmur of the hurrying masses in its streets.

‘Rule 34’ is almost without weak spots. About the only thing really springing to mind is the persistent use of the second person singular as authorial voice, which may put off some. If you managed to get over it to enjoy ‘Halting State’, it will be no problem here either. Of course it is not High Literature, but then again, neither does Charlie pretend it is.

If you like a good thriller, this is a definite must-read.

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Categories: Books, English, Science Fiction

The Most Dangerous Enemy 11: The Enemy at the Gate

May 10, 2011 Comments off

This is a neat little interlude chapter, wherein Bungay quotes a reporter giving an eyewitness account of a dogfight and the subsequent reactions from the public.

It works to give us a whiff of period atmosphere, but that’s all it does.

Neat, but could have been cut with no loss at all.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 10: The Defenders

April 13, 2011 Comments off

Faster than a speeding bullet! Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound! Is it a bird? Is it an aeroplane? NO! It’s Keith Park!

‘The Defenders’ is dedicated to the major personnel fighting the battle on the British end: Hugh Dowding and his immediate subordinates Keith Park, Trafford Leigh-Mallory, Richard Saul and Quintin Brand.

Air Marshall Hugh Dowding

Dowding gets comparatively little attention. Bungay does dwell on the shabby treatment he received, especially regarding the constantly moving date of his retirement. The manner of his actual retirement is treated without the usual drama other writers engage in, that of calling it a palace coup by Air Vice Marshal Sholto Douglas in concert with Leigh-Mallory. This, as we shall see, is merely a minor sop to the opposition.

Air Vice-Marshall Keith Park

Park gets built up to almost saint-like proportions as the ideal leader, beloved by his men, a visionary who understood what Dowding wanted and executed it almost perfectly. This is outright hagiography; reinforced by a completely unneccesary emphasis on Park’s Christian faith.

Air Vice-Marshall Trafford Leigh Mallory

The words used for Leigh-Mallory’s description are of a different class altogether. ‘Character assassination’ comes to mind. Unfortunately, instead of dwelling on the actual facts in the ‘big wing’ dispute and Dowding’s eventual retirement, Bungay engages in an ad hominem attack, calling Leigh-Mallory’s fitness for commanding a Fighter Command Group into question because he never flew fighters himself (unlike of course Keith Park, who was simply a dashing fighter pilot, darling), and using hearsay evidence furnished by none other than Keith Park as to Leigh-Mallory’s intentions of getting Dowding sacked. Yes, a real trustworthy source there.

Air Vice-Marshall Richard Saul

Never mind that as someone who flew a BE.2 in the run-up to Bloody April 1917 might have a very good idea of what attrition would mean in an air battle. No, Leigh-Mallory was definitely less capable a commander because of that, unlike Richard Saul of 13 Group who flew…wait, Richard Saul also flew observation missions in that selfsame BE.2, and also never commanded a fighter squadron. And yet this does not stop Bungay to praise him as a capable commander. This is, to say the least, illogical.

 

This chapter is one of the most infuriating pieces of crap writing I have ever had the displeasure to read.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 9: Eagle

April 11, 2011 Comments off

This chapter opens with a rumination on the complexities of planning a battle, and launches the ‘cock-up’ theory.

In short: battle plans fail because somewhere down the line a cock-up is made. Those whose plans prevent the most cock-ups win. Cock-ups may happen due to 5 identified (by Bungay) factors:

  1. Ignorance. Missing knowledge about the enemy, his dispositions, or the battlefield.
  2. Uncertainty. Factors beyond control, such as weather.
  3. Complexity. The more complex a plan is, the more scope for cock-ups.
  4. Equipment. The wrong equipment at the right place and time, or the right equipment at the wrong place and time.
  5. The opposition. Too many battle plans do not figure in the reaction of the enemy, or depend on certain reactions only.

I have a major problem with this theory. As Bungay himself admits, no cock-ups at all cannot be prevented. Yet his whole theory depends on battle plans foreseeing every eventuality and planning for it. History, however, shows that great generals do not try to plan for every contingency, but make their plans flexible enough to change them at a moment’s notice once a cock-up happens. ‘No battle plan survives contact with the enemy’ after all.

Witness for example Montgomery’s plan to take Caen and the surrounding airfields: when early in the invasion this failed, he switched to a strategy of continuous offensives to contain the Germans on his front, keeping their Panzer divisions mostly away from the American part of the front. Monty may insist that this was his plan all along, which makes him a vain and arrogant twit, but a close look at what actually happened shows that in actual execution he was able to be flexible and adjust his battle plans on the fly to overcome the inevitable cock-ups.

What’s worse is that Bungay admits that this sort of flexibility is important at the onset of his chapter, and then starts expounding on the philosophy of complete prevention. This is sloppy thinking, to put it mildly.

That aside, Bungay’s analysis of the weakness of the plans for Adlertag, the opening offensive in the Battle of Britain, is another well-written piece showing just how confused the Luftwaffe planning was. After reading about the various plans made up at all levels, and the complete inability of the high command to turn out a cohesive battle plan, it leaves one to wonder how the Eagle offensive even got off to a start in the first place.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 8: Sealion

April 10, 2011 Comments off

Much has been written on the viability of Operation Sealion.

Bungay does not much more than summarise the history of the plan as it made its way through the various German organisations. This includes the pessimism and general obstruction of the Kriegsmarine, and the almost foolhardy optimism of the Luftwaffe.

It also dwells a bit on the rather half-hearted planning efforts at the highest level (OKW) and ends with the fairly well-spread assertion that Sealion, if it had been attempted, would have amounted to little more than an enormous gamble that might have paid off.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 7: Strength for Battle

April 10, 2011 Comments off

This chapter is mostly concerned with the economic and logistical aspects of the forces pre-battle.

It gives us production figures, readiness rates and expected attrition rates (based on the previous campaigns in Spain, Poland and the German offensive in the West). All are well-sourced, and give a good notion of the time pressure the Germans were under to knock out Britain as quickly as possible before economic realities set in and would have made this an impossibility.

It also gives an account of the political pressures that led to Hurricane squadrons sent to France over the objections of Dowding.

An intriguing chapter, albeit a bit dry due to the amount of statistics quoted. It really makes one wonder whether or not the German objective of beating the RAF was realistic at all.

The Most Dangerous Enemy 6: The Bombers

April 10, 2011 Comments off

After discussing the organisation of Fighter Command and the equipment to be used in the previous two chapters, it is now the turn to take a look at the role of Bomber Command in the Battle of Britain.

I must say this chapter was a bit of an eye-opener to me. Anyone familiar with the RAF in 1940 knows about the disastrous deployment of the Fairey Battle squadrons in the Battle of France and the equally disastrous Wellington raids on Wilhelmshaven.

What surprised me though is the fact that Bomber Command materially affected the battle by raiding the Channel ports, hitting the German invasion preparations.

Another excellent chapter that gives well-cited details on the strategic thinking at the time.