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.

Review: Manhattan Massacre

Manhattan Massacre

In the mid-1970s, the Mack Bolan inspired “Men’s Adventure” genre reached either its height or its nadir with a trio of series overseen (and often written by) Peter McCurtin. The Sharpshooter, The Marksman, and The Assassin were a jumbled mess of mobster slayers intended purely to be released as quickly as possible. Their sloppiness led to internal inconsistencies in such minor issues as the main character’s name.

Anyway, Manhattan Massacre features interchangeable mobster hunter Robert “The Assassin” Briganti, who joins fellow interchangeable mobster hunters Johnny “The Sharpshooter” Rock and Philip “The Marksman” Magellan on a mobster-killing revenge trip. The book doesn’t really have much of a plot beyond killing mobsters, and its prose is weird. It alternates between long overdescriptive passages (especially concerning weapons, such as the insistence on saying that Briganti carries a Canadian 9mm Hi-Power) and short crude sentences with lots of exclamation points!

This is not a good book, and it’s kind of offensive even by 1970s cheap thriller standards (A scene where Briganti meets Black Power activists is particularly horrible in both political and literary terms) . But it’s weirdly amusing to see a genre at its most frenetic. I did not regret reading this-uh, book.

Review: In The Balance

Worldwar: In The Balance

In 1994, Harry Turtledove decided to run with what can rationally and scientifically be called one of the most awesome fictional concepts ever: Aliens invade during World War II. The opening book, In The Balance, starts things off with a bang.

A group of lizard-aliens known only as “The Race” with juuust the right amount of technological balancing to make for a great story attack a humanity that’s stronger and more advanced than anticipated. While the issues Turtledove has with long series (pacing, repetition, etc…) appear even during this book, they’re not deal-breakers. And the weaknesses are more than made up for by the amazing first impression the book makes.

If you like alternate history, science fiction, World War II, or just strange concepts in general, this is worth checking out.

Weird Wargaming: The Axis Contraptions

After World War II, various veterans of the vanquished (to put it that way) offered to design and make various military platforms. Only a few actually entered production. Kurt Tank designed the HF-24 Marut and sputtered-out Pulqui jet fighters. An Italian submachine gun, the TZ-45, found its way into the Burmese Army. Most fell victim to the same culprits: A combination of Cold War military aid and cheap Allied surplus sweeping them aside, while not being high-performance enough to beat them that way.

Yet for alternate historians/wargamers/writers wanting to add various wunderwaffe to their scenarios, it’s not that implausible that a few could slip through here and there. They’d mostly be out of the way unless history moved to that region (for instance, the Willy Messerschmidt-designed HA-300 would undoubtedly see service in the Arab-Israeli Wars if it entered mass production.) But they could still be done.

What would be most interesting would be the really exotic and large Luft 46 aircraft and wunderpanzer tanks. Those would probably need veto-able foreign engines (or other less obvious components) and would be no picnic to design. But they would be the most fun to play.

Review: Diggstown

Diggstown

Leonard Wise’s Diggstown is a 1978 novel about a small town in the Deep South that is obsessed with boxing to the point that it’s named after a local who became a world champion. It’s also about an attempted swindle by a scam artist from up north that leads to boxer Honey Roy Palmer having to run a gauntlet of ten Diggstown dwellers in the ring. A colorful sports thriller, it nonetheless works a lot better as a comparably low-stakes sports novel than when it tries to be a serious thriller.

This unsteady wobbling also applies to its treatment of sensitive and difficult topics. For a 1970s book set in the south, I was pleasantly surprised to see it being tasteful and well-handled in terms of race. Yet the same cannot be said about it regarding its sex scenes. Those are not tasteful or well-handled.

The book also tries to be too setting-focused, taking its time before it finally gets to the climactic boxing matches. Yet once it gets there, those are as well-written as any other good sports fiction. You could do a lot worse than this book if you like boxing or old thrillers.

People Playground Peoples

People Playground Peoples

My favorite go-to relaxing game now, especially after I’ve discovered the massive and excellent mod scene, is People Playground. I of course act out a lot of scenarios-ok, a few types of scenarios, involving the mysterious mad science facility. And here are the “roles”.

Subjects

Represented usually by the default “humans”, subjects are the test subjects who are either being killed in terrible ways (don’t feel too bad for them, they struggle to walk several steps) or rebelling in some form (and usually ending up getting killed in terrible ways).

Technicians

Dressed in work-esque outfits, technicians usually sport some kind of chemical mask. They’re often placed by pieces of machinery, where they operate them and oversee experiments (very, very frequently becoming collateral damage). Unlike troopers, technicians mostly use a min-max arsenal-either finicky destructive contraptions or simple/improvised-type weapons that they built themselves.

Troopers

Troopers are the enforcement arm of the facility, being dressed in various kinds of military uniform and carrying a large variety of conventional weapons. Don’t worry, they always get killed in quantity too.

Commanders

Clad in various types of ornate and/or formal clothing, commanders wield sidearms and direct the “experiments”. However, a field commander is just as vulnerable as anyone else on the playground.

Review: Brink of War

Brink of War

Logan Ryles’ Brink of War is a rather strange action thriller. It’s equal parts 51% action thriller that plods along just fast enough and just well enough to be sufficient (when it’s focused on that), tepid attempt at a technothriller that falls short because of how little research is done on the various pieces of military equipment mentioned (at times it comes close to Ian Slater levels of inaccuracy) and justification sequences. Yes, justification sequences.

See, the premise of the book is that action hero Reed Montgomery (again with the action hero names) is sent to investigate the mysterious downing of this plane called, uh, Air Force One in eastern Turkey. And despite being in one of the most militarized regions of the world, the Americans need an action hero who’s in Latin America at the start of the book. I don’t mind contrivances, but this spends way too much time dwelling on its justification for having an action hero.

So a third of the book is a “decent enough” action hero novel. But two thirds of it are not. I guess that makes it uh, a 16.83% book? Whatever it is, there’s sadly much better cheap thrillers out there.

A Thousand Words: The Assassination of Trotsky

The Assassination of Trotsky

Directed by Joseph Losey and starring Richard Burton as the title character, The Assassination of Trotsky is often placed on many “worst movies ever” lists. It is a well deserved placement. For this is a terrible, terrible movie. And it’s deliberately terrible-it’s not due to circumstances, but due to creative choices.

First off is Richard Burton’s performance. His Trotsky looks like a cheap Colonel Sanders mascot and acts like that aging beatnik professor you had in college and loathed. You will learn absolutely nothing about the historical context from this film. In fact, the only way to make sense of the incoherent plotting is to assume that Losey thought the audience would already know everything historically relevant.

Second is the massive, massive padding. Since it doesn’t take ninety minutes to have an ax hitting someone in the head (SPOILER ALERT!), Losey fills the movie with filler. This includes a scene involving rabbits being raised, a long gondola ride where Stalin’s image appears in the water, and, worst of all, a long and gruesome bullfight scene. The only attempts at suspense involve dragging every scene out and playing minimalist music. This gets old after about, oh, two such scenes.

About the only sympathetic character is Romy Schneider’s “Gita”, who is as confused with the situation and disgusted with the bullfight as the audience is. Sadly, she cannot carry on her own, and is the subject of a padding scene as well.

This is a terrible, terrible mess that’s almost so bad it’s good. Almost.