Review: On Nuclear Terrorism

On Nuclear Terrorism

Michael Levi’s On Nuclear Terrorism has been the best book I’ve read in some time. In fact, of all the books and papers I’ve read on this topic, it’s arguably the greatest. Levi takes a holistic approach, using the analogy of a sports team where trying to judge each component in isolation falls short. Although he uses baseball when football is a much better analogy. Oh well.

The decision to look at the big picture as well as noting the issues that alarmist worst-case analysis brings are relevant to much more than countering nuclear terrorism. He also turns “the terrorists only have to succeed once” statement on its head by pointing out that while true, it can also be said that “they have to succeed every step of the way, while their opponents only have to succeed at one”. This sort of reasoning is welcome whatever the subject.

Not that this is a brief overview-it goes into a lot of detail on things like the uses and limitations of scanning detectors and does a lot of detail on gun-type weapons (implosion ones get less effort, because given the issues states have had, non-state actors going for them is arguably pushing it). And he even goes into psychology as well, which is important for the goals of irregular groups.

The impression I’ve gotten from this and other sources is that nuclear terrorism can be compared to Y2K. Y2K was mistakenly perceived as an overblown panic when in reality it was a legitimate issue largely solved by a massive effort when the new millennium rolled around. Similarly, while the threat of even a radioactive Beirut/Tianjin/Port Chicago-level blast (to say nothing of even a Little Boy-level bomb) is a legitimately frightening one, the similarly massive efforts to work against it have (to date of course) deterred even attempted nuclear terror attacks. The Aum Shinrinkyo cult marked the only known attempt at a substantive irregular nuclear program, and it failed despite numerous factors in its favor (lots of money, able to operate openly pre-chemical attacks, and access to Russia at the depths of its 1990s desperation).

Bad sports analogies and occasional clunkiness aside, this is an excellent book.

Review: Tarnsman of Gor

Tarnsman of Gor

The Gor series is perhaps the most infamous science fiction one ever. Yet you’d never know it from the beginning entry, Tarnsman of Gor. What that is is a somewhat sleazier and really, really blatant John Carter of Mars knockoff. As transported Earthman Tarl Cabot goes to a world of barbarians, slavery, and giant birds (the titular “tarns”), a clunky narrative ensues.

The series devolved fairly quickly into what is best known as slave sleaze, where it becomes filled with blocky rants about how men holding women as slaves is the best, most natural form of society, and how many Earthwomen suddenly find themselves loving being slaves. This isn’t as present in the first installment, but Cabot is still not exactly the most ideal protagonist.

More interesting than the blocky prose is how the series got its reputation: I mean, there’s certainly no shortage of outright and far more explicit sleaze fiction, whether in the 1960s-70s or today. So why do sci-fi/fantasy fans turn their anger more on Gor and not those? I’d argue that it’s because it makes the fig leaf of “sword and planet adventure” too blatant, putting it in a different standard. Even Dray Prescot got into mocking Gor, naming a barbaric continent of slavers “Gah”.

But yeah, even in the early, less problematic books, I can unhesitatingly say: Skip Gor. Author John Norman rivals William W. Johnstone for “worst mainstream published author”, and that is no small feat.

Reactor Grade Plutonium

Reactor-grade (as opposed to weapons-grade) plutonium has been hotly (no pun intended) argued over as to its suitability for nuclear warheads. From the open-source claims I’ve been reading, there are arguments that I’m not qualified to address the technical side of, but a couple of common themes have emerged:

  • Every extant nuclear power has chosen to go ahead with the additional expense of weapons-grade plutonium rather than trying to make something out of reactor-grade material. There have been tests and rumors, but that’s it.
  • Reactor-grade plutonium is hotter, more dangerous when exposed [making design and handling more difficult], requires more material for less explosive power, and is far more likely to fizzle (detonate instantly with a much lower yield).
  • However, even the low yield (less than a kiloton) is still a radioactive Beirut explosion, raising fears of nuclear terrorism with stolen reactor-grade materials.
  • Improved design can remove many of the shortcomings of reactor-grade plutonium.
  • The increased yield uncertainty makes it less attractive for tactical operations.

Still, the technically “easiest” way just to make a nuclear explosion with national-level resources would be to use civilian reactor-grade plutonium to put together an atomic charge. The list of countries that could do such a thing is much longer than the conventional nuclear states. Granted, they’d be facing a large backlash to make an explosive charge that’s 1940s-level at best and has little practical military utility, but it’s what’s the most possible in spherical cow terms.

Review: Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire

Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire

Infamous nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovsky recently passed away. Fans of online alternate history know him as the main character of a timeline-turned-ebook called Zhirinovsky’s Russian Empire. In it, Yeltsin is killed during the August Coup and Zhirinovsky ends up in control of the USSR-turned-“Union of Independent States”, with the 1990s going from mostly peaceful to mostly not peaceful.

What this does right is actually using the “snippets of fake newspapers” formats very well. There are elements of drama that are well done, and the whole thing seems like a way to tell a story rather than a way to avoid writing a narrative. However, the biggest issue is the tone, which can go from too serious to too goofy and back at the drop of a hat.

Furthermore, while it’s not intended to be the most “plausible” alternate history, there were more than a few times when my suspension of disbelief didn’t hold up. Zhirinovsky is portrayed as a wild man who barely wins even with dirty tricks, yet he somehow has the political pull to wrestle something as powerful as the Russian arms industry into a 180 degree shift in policy (a so-called “billion Kalashnikovs and one nuke approach). And of course, him getting to power is ultra-contrived to begin with.

But by the standards of online alternate history, this is a good story. It has a proper beginning and end, and is better paced.

Review: Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program

Apartheid South Africa built a handful of nuclear bombs before the ANC government dismantled them. As a result of that revelation and transparency, it provided an interesting look into a a field that is understandably quite opaque otherwise. David Albright and Andrea Stricker’s Revisiting South Africa’s Nuclear Program show it in depth.

Altough this is a technical nonfiction book, Albright and Stricker nonetheless write well, and it’s quite accessible to non-nuclear physicists. The creation, developmental struggles, warhead production, and removal of South Africa’s nuclear weapons is all covered, and there are several interestingly unique factors about it that the book provides.

The first is a technical tidbit. South Africa went with a conceptually simpler gun-type device in the style of Little Boy. However, their device was small enough to fit on a Raptor glide bomb carried by a Blackburn Buccaneer, and there were (preliminary) plans to boost it to around a hundred kilotons using a special pellet. As most powers have used implosion devices, South Africa’s experience shows how far the basic gun-type can be pushed.

The second is that, unlike other nuclear programs, South Africa’s was comparably well run and efficient. The pragmatic choice of a gun-type was one of the good decisions that it made. And it still took several years in peacetime while running into bottlenecks-most notably the enriching of uranium.

For those interested in the relevant subjects, this book is thus a good read.

A Thousand Words: Mighty No. 9

Mighty No. 9

Judged on its own without any other context, Mighty No. 9 would resemble a mediocre Mega Man-style game. There have been dozens of those, including more than a few in the official series itself. To study it there would not be the most interesting. About the only things I can say for the game itself are that it copied the cheapest difficulty elements (why?) and in everything from plot to aesthetics simply tried to be “as close to classic Mega Man as possible without lawsuits”.

But what is interesting is the ridiculous amount of hype that came around its crowdfunding. Occuring in the “irrational exuberance” phase of Kickstarter and spearheaded by ex-Mega Man head Keiji Inafune, this was one of those “the gaming king came down to make a dream” experiences. This prompted emotion that successful MM-esques like Azure Striker Gunvolt (made conventionally by a firm that had experience on the official games) and 20XX (crowdfunded yet made by an unknown) couldn’t bring.

The result was a ton of stretch goals “met”, feature creep, the project getting out of hand, the mood turning from hopeful to laughable, and then the game itself sinking like a stone when it was finally released. Whether it could have been better or if the expectations were just too great is an open question. What is not is that this was one of the biggest crowdfunding embarrassments.

The Super-Mansion

The conclusion of The Sure Bet King took place at a Los Angeles super-mansion. My current WIP is also focused around a super-mansion. The super-mansion is one of those setting places that I just love. They’re (impractically) big, they can have a lot of stuff, and they can have very different themes.

The closest thing to an official definition of a “mansion” is “a luxury home at least 5,000 square feet in size”. Super-mansions are even more nebulous, with their only real distinguishing feature being their bulk. My own definition is “it’s a super-mansion if any one room in it is bigger than an entire normal mansion”.

Review: Onslaught

The Fae Wars: Onslaught

J. F. Holmes’ The Fae Wars: Onslaught is the story of magical evil elves invading the contemporary world with magic that can overcome technology. It’s just a cheap thriller, but it’s a fun cheap thriller. The action is constant and told from both sides, with both experiencing difficulties.

While the military stuff is frequently both contrived (foreign arms dealers getting a giant super-arsenal into New York City), and inaccurate (the human aircraft engage at far closer distances than they realistically would, for one), this isn’t the kind of book where one would quibble about such things. It’s a fun magitech war novel that should be treated as a fun magitech war novel.