Review: The Body Man

The Body Man

Eric Bishop’s The Body Man is a remarkable piece of thriller writing. This tale of an extra-secret Secret Service man has managed to dethrone past champion Marine Force One for the “most adequately middling novel” crown. It incorporates every plot trait of a cheap thriller-the agent heroes, the high-level conspiracy, the Russians, the Arabs, the action-in a simply adequate fashion.

It’s never actually bad, even if it’s a little longer than it probably should have been. But it never really becomes, or even tries to become more than what it ends up being. Which is the most solidly “median 51%” book I’ve read in a long, long time. The action is neither bad nor excellent. The stakes are not too low but not too high either. You get the idea. It’s weirdly distinct because of its “genericness”. And that’s not a small feat.


I’ve always been intrigued by “superjumbos, which I unscientifically define as “any airliner which is bigger and/or can carry more passengers than a 747.” Perhaps the only mass-produced superjumbo has been Airbus’ doomed A380, a luxurious plane that was nonetheless brought down by an inability to be used as a freighter and a shift away from the “hub and spoke” model that it was designed for.

But with the hub and spoke model in place, and with air travel increasing, the superjumbo does make at least conceptual sense. The justification works like this: If, thanks to a lack of runway space, you can only get X number of flights per major airport, you might as well give them to a bigger plane. To oversimplify it, the choice isn’t between two planes with 300 passengers each or one with 600, it’s between one with 300 or one with 600.

Granted, there are many, many practical obstacles too, like if your superjumbo needs more engines and/or is less fuel efficient (neither an unreasonable thought). But the place for these aerial titans is a legitimate one. Or at least an excusable one with regards to getting one or more of the many on the drawing board designs into alternate production.

And of course, mammoth aircraft that, unlike the A380, were designed to be heavy freighters, do have a niche role in carrying big and oversized loads. See the late An-225 (which had a passenger variant proposed!) and the Super Guppy/Beluga/Dreamlifter oversized transport planes.

It’s all food for thought. After all, what aviation enthusiast doesn’t like gargantuan planes?

The Nuclear Assumptions

The one thing going in the would-be nuclear terrorists favor is that nuclear weapons have a lot of “slack” built into their design. IE, they can be ridiculously “inefficient” and still be devastating. Even a rough-implosion sub-kiloton warhead is still a much hotter, radioactive version of this:

But that’s it. Everything else works against them. There’s a lot of attention paid to nuclear material ever since the 1940s for obvious reasons. The materials require specialized personnel and are hazardous (radiation is the least of the worries-both uranium and plutonium are extremely flammable, for one). I used the analogy of Y2K in my review of the best book on the subject that I’ve read.

While reading Brian Michael Jenkins’ own book, one passage jumped at me. This was Jenkins, a renowned terrorism and security expert, talking about how the yields increased.

We have too easily slid from the scientists’ first estimates of terrorist nuclear devices with yields likely to be in the tenths of a kiloton range to a now-assumed standard of a ten-kiloton terrorist bomb. The worst case has become the baseline assessment.

-Brian Michael Jenkins. Will Terrorists Go Nuclear? (Kindle Locations 3611-3612). Kindle Edition.

And yet, both seem valid. Ten kilotons is slightly less than Little Boy, an extremely simple “bang two chunks of HEU together” design whose biggest limiter is that it requires a lot of fissile material. Less than a kiloton is what’s often theorized for a very basic implosion design, necessary with plutonium as the explosive material. Since in the 1970s there was justified fear around the glut of plutonium, that is not an unreasonable assumption. Likewise, it’s also not unreasonable to assume that with access to Little Boy levels of material (Cold War “Surplus”?) one could make a Little Boy level bomb.

There are no real case studies to go on. Aum Shinrikyo conducted the only known and most credible attempt to acquire nuclear weapons by a terror group. It never got beyond basic theoretical designs, as has every other terror daydream. With a (thankful) sample size of zero, all planners can do is base the possibilities on theory.

Review: The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog

David Putnam’s The Gamekeeper’s Night Dog is one of the weirdest alternate history novels I’ve read. And yes, I have read every single Kirov novel. None comes close to this… thing. Really, to talk about it in conventional literary terms is almost beside the point. It’s middling in terms of quality and is a little too bloated, but why talk about that when you have such a befuddling premise?

See, in the 1890s, protagonist David Banner (no relation to the Hulk) has the Judeo-Christian God appear in a dream from His home in the black hole in the center of the Milky Way. A nightmare scenario (aka actual history) awaits if the last of the classic English Bulldogs (always capitalized in the book) goes extinct. There’s exposition where World War I, II, and even III is shown, with animal cruelty activists being portrayed as the equals of history’s worst monsters.

Also, apparently the divine value of a nation comes from the kind of dog that it has. Yes, it’s a weird book. Anyway, man and dog alike uplift the world, fight a very different Boer War, and continue to battle in an ahead-of-its-time World War I. We get loving depictions of bulldogs ripping men and animals to pieces. In fact, most of it is basically just bulldogs in “action”. The question remains: How do you even judge this book? My answer is simple. You can’t. It is not a novel so much as a very bizarre artifact.

Review: The Burma Wars

The Burma Wars

Because Myanmar/Burma features so prominently in my current novel draft, I figure I’d look at George Bruce’s The Burma Wars , a history of the British conquest. There were three large Anglo-Burmese wars, but Bruce mostly concentrates on the first. This is understandable, as the latter two were uninteresting squashes.

Bruce is every bit the Empire fan you’d expect a British pop-historian of the 1970s to be, but he still gives the Burmese credit when due. They were comparably armed, had a knack for building fortifications quickly, and the Anglo-Indian force that went against them was logistically troubled and questionably led. And yet, the British still eventually won, and it only got better/worse from there.

I wouldn’t make an old piece of popular history the sole source on any big historical event, but this at least made for a good starting point. I’m glad I read it.

The Hungry King

High-intensity warfare uses up a LOT of artillery shells. Like, a lot. How much? Well, these charts from the Light OPFOR Tactical (for eastern calibers) and FM 101-10-1/2, 1987 edition (for western calibers) give a notional example. They’re not identical-the OPFOR norms chart is shells fired towards a target while the FM 101-10-1 one is shells used up by a certain artillery piece per day-but they both show how much metal and explosive is going to fly (the answer: A lot).

Artillery is called the “king of battle”, and the king can get very, very hungry sometimes. Moving large quantities of heavy, highly explosive shells is no small feat, and to succeed or fail with that task means the difference between victory and defeat. A conventional Fuldapocalyptic World War III in the 1980s would have a massive quantity of artillery shells fired every day.

Review: Red Flag

Red Flag

I was intrigued by Mike Solyom’s Red Flag, a novel set around the titular air combat exercise. After reading it, I found it rather underwhelming. There’s actually more than one main plot. There’s the air combat exercise, there’s the backdrop of the author’s other books and ridiculous geopolitics with a de facto WWIII against a “Caliphate” armed with Cold War surplus stuff, and there’s a boilerplate science fiction UFO thriller.

The book isn’t bad at all. The author has genuine expertise, and it shows, even if sometimes it falls into the twin banes of Herman Melville Exposition and “Let me tell you how it really is, unlike on that TV” statements. What it does feel is dissonant. Because of the details and what’s supposed to be grounding, whenever there’s iffy geopolitics and/or weapons choices, it feels extra-off. And when there’s alien spider robots, it feels off even more.

I feel like truly weird, alien, Stephen Baxter-esque beasts would work better with a more grounded novel like it tries to be in air combat. I also feel like the aliens in this story would work fine in a more bombastic, Mack Maloney-type tale. But together they just don’t feel right.

Still, this is still a cheap thriller, and since when do cheap thrillers care about “dissonance”? As a cheap thriller, it may be a “mean 51%” book of varying degrees of quality instead of a “median 51%” book of consistent adequacy, but it still works.

The Plutonium Red Team Study

In the mid-1990s, a “Red Team” (simulated adversary) was launched by the Sandia national laboratory. It looked at all the processes for disposing of excess plutonium (especially after the fall of the USSR) and studied their potential vulnerabilities for unsavory acquisition of nuclear materials. The report is a very interesting read.

Everything from fuel assemblies to mixed/ceramic encased disposed plutonium is studied. The vulnerabilities studied include both accessing it at the storage site and separating the weapons-usable material. It’s quite interesting, yet gives the impression that most nuclear thieves would need to be employed by either a state or the cast of Payday 2. Which is kind of the point, showing the difference between more and less plausible points of failure.

Review: K Company

K Company

For the first in literal years, I deliberately sought out and read a western, Robert Broomall’s K Company. A story of army life on a hardscrabble post on the Kansas frontier and the inevitable conflict with Native Americans, it combines two genres that have never really gelled with me: The western and the historical war novel. How is it? Ok.

The old west is, of course, a setting more than anything else. Westerns can range from the cheapest cheap thrillers to the most staid literary epics. This book is more on the ‘realistic’ end, and I like that it’s vastly more evenhanded about the native/settler conflict than I feared it would be. Still, if I had to sum up the book in one sentence, it’d be “good, but not good enough”.

The writing is good, but not good enough for me to really get into it. The action is good, but not good enough for me to get into it. The characters-you get the idea. Still, I would recommend it if you do like westerns and/or more grounded historical war novels.

The Mountain Flip Flop

Despite otherwise having little in common save for lots of mountains, Switzerland and Afghanistan have a shared reputation in popular culture as being impregnable, untameable countries. Which led me to go: What if circumstances flip-flopped their history and outcomes?

In Central Asia, a Dari-speaking nation arises in the mountains of what we’d call northern and central Afghanistan. Close to many major trade routes, it takes advantage of its geographic security and reputation for studious neutrality to develop a thriving financial sector. This and the wealth generated by it enable this to develop a reputation for exporting luxury, advanced artisanal goods as well. Meanwhile in Europe, an artificial clump of different ethnicities in the Alps becomes a weak, tumultuous, war-torn “western Yugoslavia”.

Yes, it’s a very soft alternate history. But it’s the kind of thing that alternate history was made for, and it’d work great as a story’s setting.