Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Review: Ninefox Gambit by Yoon Ha Lee

Ninefox Gambit is amazing. I love the characters, in all their scheming glory. I love the immersive world building, the no-hand-holding style of dropping the reader into a truly alien setting where the very rules of reality are altered by changes to the calendar. I love the smooth prose, the little moments that give characters life, the awkward exchanges, the unusual hobbies, the triumphs and the sudden plunge into cold water of reversed fortunes. I love the density of themes: shared belief, loyalty, games, hobbies, mathematics. Yes, I loved the math. And I say this as someone who has always hated math.

Most of all, I love that nothing is a mere gimmick. The techno-magic system is original, fleshed out, and interesting. You rarely see that. There's a lot of pulp out there that manages one of the three, and good stuff that manages two, but nailing all three is rare. And this approach to deep, fresh ideas flows through every aspect of the book. Every little detail is weird and wonderful, and the implications of every detail are thoroughly explored. Nothing is window dressing here. Nothing is a gimmick.

This is essential reading for anyone who likes military sf. And I mean essential. It's an entirely new take on the genre, and you simply can't say you understand that genre if you haven't read it. In fact, if you haven't read it, I don't even want to be around you. Apart from how one-sided our conversation will be, as I gush on and on about this book while you stand mute, I'm a little worried that your unenlightened presence might destabilize the space around you. So read it.

Yours in Calendrical Heresy,

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Book & Blog News

Whoa. Wrong book.

As good-hearted people who read the comments section may already know, I finally managed to trick someone into publishing one of my novels. All that time spent training with Tibetan masters in the shadow arts that cloud men's minds has really paid off. And people say FSU is just a party school.

The novel is titled The Guns Above, and it'll be available from Tor Books sometime next year. And yes, it's that Tor Books. I know, right?

I'll give you more details and excerpts and suchlike in the months to come. For now, let's call it an action-adventure gunpowder fantasy, and tease you with this pitch:

For years, Auxiliary Lieutenant Josette Dupre has served loyally in His Majesty's Royal Aerial Signal Corps, whose fragile airships are the army's eyes on the battlefield. When, by royal decree, she becomes the first woman to command an airship, Josette finds herself caught in a tempest of politics and prejudice. Her crew is skeptical of her abilities, her commander has taken a personal interest in destroying her career, her new airship is an untested deathtrap, and the army has sent an observer to catalog her every moment of weakness and indecision. At this point, she only hopes she can survive long enough to be killed by the enemy.

So it's kind of like Aubrey-Maturin on an airship, which is a book I'd buy in a heartbeat. So, insofar as I'm highly representative of the average American... Shit. Well, Tor has a great marketing department, anyway.

They also have the world's best editor, Diana Pho. This is not me sucking up, by the way. It's an objective fact. I did the math. She also moonlights as the founder of Beyond Victoriana, an award-winning multicultural steampunk blog that challenges the community to recognize a world which extends beyond the suburbs of London.

And of course I have to thank Paul Lucas of Janklow and Nesbit, who would be the world's best agent, except that Justin Beiber's agent must surely have signed a deal with Lucifer or something. Paul's definitely the world's best literary agent, though, and the most patient agent of any sort. Because really, he would have to be, wouldn't he?

That's the book side of things. But you ask, hat and/or heart in hand, (and in the latter case, ew,) what does this mean for the blog?

The blog will still exist, but it may not stay here. My tentative plan is to integrate it into a dedicated website geared towards publicity sometime in the next few months. The current blog just isn't well tuned for tricking you into buying my books. I mean, I'm looking over it now, and I can't even tell what my own name is. (Seriously, though, what the hell is my name? If you know, please send me an e-mail at... umm... Does anyone know my e-mail address?)

In the meantime, I'll be trimming the fat around here. That means, starting within the next few weeks, articles will begin to disappear due to issues of popularity, incongruous theme, relevance, or too-much-cursing-even-for-me-which-is-really-saying-something-let-me-tell-you. So, if your taste is bad enough to want to read a particular article of mine, but not quite so bad that you already have, you might want to go ahead and get that done, because it may disappear at any time.

Sometime in the summer to fall timeframe, I'll start doing regular articles again. They probably won't be weekly, as they were before, because a combination of book stuff, day jobs, and criminal activity doesn't leave me as much spare time as I once had. So we'll aim for monthly at first, with smaller updates in between, and see how that goes.

And finally, let me apologize for the paucity of substantial articles over the past few... [checks archives] holy shit, it's been, like, over a year. Why the hell is anyone still reading this? That's just an irrational level of dedication, right there. In other words: the best level of dedication. So leave a note in the comments, and on the day I finally rule this world, you will be rewarded with land and power.

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Just went to see Birdman with my relatives. It's based on Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a short story about trying to make your relatives understand the themes of the movie Birdman on the drive home from the theater.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Box Seats at the Security Theater

I'm at the airport and I accidentally walked through the pre-screened security line. The guy checking boarding passes just sent me through without even mentioning my mistake, much less stopping me. Either he truly doesn't give a shit or pre-screening is now on the honor system. I didn't even realize I was in the wrong line until I noticed there was no body scanner in my line.

This is scary. I mean, what if I'd been carrying four ounces of water with malicious intent?

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing, Part 3

So now we’ve nuked the surface, we’ve nuked the ocean depths, and we’ve even nuked outer space. And Alexander wept, for there were no more worlds to nuke. What’s a superpower to do?

Well, just make bigger nukes, obviously.

Enter, the H-bomb. The hydrogen or thermonuclear bomb is a much fancier lad than the a-bomb that preceded it. The A-bomb is purely a fission device, in which heavy elements are split, releasing colossal amounts of energy. But you can also fuse lighter elements to release energy. The problem is, it’s hard to compress and heat lighter elements enough to ignite fusion. Re-enter the A-bomb, which can provide more than enough heat and compression to ignite a fusion reaction. And then re-enter the A-bomb again, because we’re going to surround the fusion stage of the weapon with a massive amount of unenriched uranium, called the tamper. Unenriched uranium is stable under normal conditions, which is why we can cram so much of it into our thermonuclear device in the first place. But when exposed to the fusion reaction, unenriched uranium completely loses its shit. It kicks off a second round of fission, which in most thermonuclear devices provides the majority of the megaton-range yield.

It’s also much dirtier. While only increasing the yield by three- or four-fold, it multiplies the radioactive byproducts of the bomb by a thousand times. Behind closed doors, the military fucking loved that part, because a single bomb could effectively bring strategic targets to ruin even if strategic assets within those targets survived the initial blast and fireball. Oh and, by strategic targets, I mean cities, factories, and ports. And by strategic assets, I mean the people who live and work in them.

In public, the tone was very different. The official line in the U.S. was that radiation release did not scale with the increasing yield of nuclear weapons. Which, I guess, is technically true. It didn’t scale, because in the H-bomb, radiation growth exceeded yield by several orders of magnitude.

Which brings us back to Bikini Atoll, where we started this wild and wonderful journey. It was early 1954, about a year and a half after the first ever detonation of a thermonuclear device in the Ivy Mike test. The problem with the Ivy Mike H-bomb, however, was that it was literally the size of a building and thus completely impractical for military use. The Castle Bravo test sought to rectify that by detonating a thermonuclear bomb weighing about ten tons. That’s still pretty heavy, but it’s getting into the deliverable range.

The Castle Bravo bomb was expected to yield a blast in the 4 to 8 megaton range, but the designers made a critical error. They assumed that most of the mixture of fusion fuel in the second stage would prove functionally inert, unable to contribute to the nuclear reaction within the millisecond timeframe of the detonation sequence. This was due to the fact that they had never actually tested the fuel's response to high-energy particles, like those released by the first stage. If someone had stopped and said, “You know, maybe instead of assuming the mix will work a particular way, we should put it in a nuclear accelerator and actually test that shit,” then things might have gone differently.

But who has time for that? We’ve got stuff to nuke. Snap to it!

That very same “fuck it, let’s just light it off and see what happens” attitude was also operative on the day of the test, when it was decided they would go ahead with the detonation despite prevailing winds that were veering from north to east, where they could carry fallout over populated islands. The deciding factor, apparently, was that they’d done a lot of work setting up observation instruments around the blast site, and would have to do it all over again if the test was delayed.

Who needs that kind of hassle? Just blow the damn nuke already.

Which they did. And it was a fucking disaster.

Or a stunning success, depending on your perspective. Like, if you were an insane person, as seemed to be the case for many of our military and civilian leaders at the time, you’d call it a big win, because the yield was a full fifteen megatons. At the time, that made it the largest nuclear detonation in history, leaving a crater over a mile wide and 250 feet deep. The fireball was four miles wide and the resultant mushroom cloud seven miles wide. America, fuck yeah.

Even better, it spread a cloud of radiation over five thousand square miles of ocean. I mean, you can neutralize a lot hell of a lot of strategic assets that way.

The test was so successful that indigenous strategic assets had to be evacuated from islands which were rendered uninhabitable by fallout. Five strategic assets on the Japanese fishing boat Daigo Fukuryu Maru were exposed, resulting in the death of one of those strategic assets. Radioactive contamination from the test was carried by wind and ocean currents all around the Pacific Rim, from the west coast of America to Japan and Australia.

So, it was a rousing success, unless you happen to be afflicted by sanity.

Speaking of sanity and the lack thereof, you know what nuclear weapons would be great for? The construction business.

From that nugget of an idea came 1961’s Operation Plowshare, a proof-of-concept plan to demonstrate the myriad peaceful applications of multi-kiloton nuclear devices. The goal of Plowshare was to develop a toolbox of nuclear earth moving techniques—whose concepts ranged from merely frightening to utter, batshit insanity—and then hand them over to the private sector. Because, really, what damage can the private sector possibly do with nukes that the government hasn’t already?

Techniques developed by Plowshare were to be used to excavate rock and to fracture fossil fuel deposits for collection of their now-radioactive natural gas. If that sounds familiar, it’s basically just frakking, except instead of fracturing the rock with water, you use a nuclear warhead. What could be less controversial?

Similar methods were proposed for leached copper recovery and steam generation. And hey, wouldn’t nuclear devices make strip mining that much more wonderful?

If you’re already floored by this nuclear hubris, you may want to take a moment, because it gets worse from there. A Plowshare subproject codenamed Carryall planned to use twenty-two nuclear bombs to cut through the Bristol Mountains in California. Then a highway and rail line could be constructed across them. Complete, I imagine, with signs instructing motorists to please keep their windows rolled up.

And if you did happen to ride the crazy train through Carryall mountain pass, the next stop would be a nuclear-blasted sea-level link connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, to be called the “Pan-Atomic Canal.”

Once those ships transit Central America, though, they’ll need a harbor to dock at. And won’t it be easier to find that harbor if it glows in the dark? Enter project Chariot, which would chain several nuclear bombs to blow open an artificial harbor.

Now that you’ve docked your cargo ship, though, you have to get your goods out to the people. You’d like to use a river barge, but the only river nearby doesn’t connect to the river you need to send your product up. Well shit, man, with nuclear bombs we can make rivers into whatever shape we want. Project Tombigee/Tennessee River would have done just that, combining the aforementioned little rivers into one big river.

But, you ask, what if blowing up all those rivers creates a water shortage? Well, my friend, nuclear bombs have you covered there, too. Plowshare proposed to use nuclear bombs to connect two aquifers for easier water access. In another proposal, Plowshare would create a rubble chimney above porous rock, which would allow rainwater to seep through the rubble and collect in an artificial aquifer. Think of it as a value-add proposition, because your drinking water would be suffused with expensive radioisotopes.

Thankfully, someone finally came to their sense and cancelled the program in 1977, before it could do any major harm. But for the decade and a half in between, someone thought all of this was a good idea.

If I may come back to the present day for a moment before I wrap this up, I’m reminded of a bit of common wisdom that’s become popular over the last decade: "we have to keep nuclear weapons out of the wrong hands." On its face, the statement is indisputable, more a truism than a proposition, but something about it has always bothered me. It wasn’t until I was doing research for this series of articles that I finally realized what it was.

The problem is that it rests upon an unfounded, unspoken premise: that there’s such a thing as the right hands.

I leave you now with a song.

Monday, November 24, 2014


The final (for now) installment of Ill-Advised Nuclear Testing will be going up on Wednesday as normal, but after that it'll be light blogging for the foreseeable future.

So make sure you hold that article close and read the shit out of it.