31 May 2008

Book Reviews: The Mid-year Round-up

I haven't posted much this month because the vitriol that prompted me to begin this blog site has been largely expelled (for now, the upcoming general campaign and the Shrub's guaranteed incompetence is sure to stir something up between now and the new year).

In the interim, I will grace you with some of the better books I've read these past 6 months. They're in no particular order other than "when read":

  1. Takeover, Charlie Savage. The first book of the new year, it's a distressing look at the return of the imperial presidency and the subsequent damage to our democracy.
  2. See No Evil, Robert Baer. The inspiration for George Clooney's Syriana. Baer is a former CIA operative and I think he's still too enamored with the "adventure" of covert ops but it is an interesting glimpse at the inept workings of our "intelligence" services.
  3. Reading Lolita in Tehran, Azar Nafisi. You'd wish someone in the Bush administration would read this in the hopes that they might reconsider attacking the country.
  4. Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon. Reminiscent of Fritz Leiber's Fahfrd/Grey Mouser and it involves the Khazars. Hard to go wrong, and Chabon doesn't.
  5. The Basic 8, Daniel Handler. I knew I liked Handler after reading Adverbs but this is his best novel so far.
  6. The Age of Lincoln, Orville Burton, and 1858, Bruce Chadwick. I found both books very interesting because they illuminated a period of American history with which I was not very familiar.
  7. Discovering God, Rodney Stark. Read the first 2/3s of the book for his insights on religious belief but you can skip that last 1/3, which is a screed about the supposed superiority of Christianity over all other religions. (If interested, you can read my Amazon review here.)
  8. Seeing Red, Frank Beddor. The second book in Beddor's reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll is as good as the first; I look forward to the final book.
  9. The Day of Battle, Rick Atkinson. Having read this as well as Ronald Spector's In the Ruins of Empire and Mosier's reinterpretations of World Wars 1 and 2, I'm amazed we won either war. Fortunately, neither Germany nor Japan commanded the sheer resources the U.S. did.
  10. Weight, Jeannette Winterson. A reinterpretation of the Atlas myth that suggests that many of the "weights" we labor under are created by ourselves.
  11. Worshipping the Myths of World War II, Edward Wood, Jr. A cri de coeur from a man who's been through the hell of war, and wants us to understand the dangers of glamourizing such insanity.
  12. Night of Knives, Ian Esslemont. Steven Erikson's partner in the world of the Malazan Empire. He's not as compelling or assured an author as Erikson but he shows promise.
  13. Matter, Iain Banks. Bank's latest Culture novel. Up there in the top five, though Consider Phlebas and Player of Games remain my favorites.
  14. The Blade Itself, Joe Abercrombie. A disturbing fantasy novel. Brutal and realistic, I'm not sure what to think of it yet.
That's it for now.

I'm still contemplating the Lord of the Rings v. LotR (the movie) review; perhaps for June.

12 May 2008


As with Star Wars, so with Star Trek: I've been very disappointed with where it's gone since The Next Generation came out. I was fortunate enough to encounter Star Trek in that "golden age" between cancellation and the first movie, when the tradition was carried on by fanzines and authors who weren't constrained by "The Canon."

Now, unfortunately, it's been homogenized and pasteurized and politically correctivized to the point where it's just "feel good" pablum suitable for the brain dead who make up the majority of the TV-viewing audience. (I knew things weren't going to go well when I saw the new Enterprise -- a squat, ungainly looking thing that had lost all the graceful lines of the original and movie versions.)

Don't get me wrong: Some of the things and characters introduced in the series spin-offs worked for me. I like Patrick Stewart; he's a good enough actor to make even the crap he was given to act look good most of the time. Brent Spiner's "Data" had his moments. One of the most affecting and best episodes of The Next Generation, in my opinion, was "The Offspring," when Data created a daughter. "Yesterday's Enterprise" and "Conundrum" were both good, and there were a few other diamonds in the rough of TNG. Of the other series, the only episode I can remember is Deep Space Nine's homage to "The Trouble with Tribbles."

And, lord, what they did to the Klingons and the Romulans just makes me ill.

So in the same spirit that I offered my alternative Star Wars universe, I offer my alternative Star Trek universe. As with any good mythologist, I've cherry picked a great deal from a host of sources, including the original series (which I tend to follow most closely), the movies, what little from TNG et al. I think worked, several of the better Trek novels (particularly John Ford's The Final Reflection, which is, hands down, the best Star Trek novel ever written), the strategic board game Star Fleet Battles (which, until it became just another WW2 simulation set in space, was a great game), and a soupcon of my own fevered imaginings.

My jumping off point was "the Eugenics Wars did not occur in 1993." So I asked myself, "What if we pushed them up by a century -- to 2093? Could we rework the timeline?" I think I was able to:

c. 1 million BC
Limited evidence on Vulcan and several other starsystems suggests that the region had been colonized by an advanced species. Discovery of Sargon’s World in AD 2206 corroborated this theory, though there remains no evidence of a direct influence on the archaic Vulcan species.

c. 4000 BC
Vulcan’s first advanced civilization flourished. Though it never developed warp drive, it did succeed in building ships capable of 0.5c-0.75c. In its last century of existence, several groups sent out colonizing expeditions; one of these gave birth to the Romulans.

Vulcan nearly perished in a nuclear and biological cataclysm that utterly wiped out this first civilization and left few survivors. The extra-Vulcan colonies were abandoned and most perished.

The Vulcans (and Romulans) of this era were far closer to humans physically and mentally. Though they had a greater capacity for metapsychic talent, it was not dominant. Post-Cataclysm, there is some evidence that the so-called Preservers intervened in Vulcan development, producing the modern Vulcan species.

c. 3000
Due to time-dilation effects, the Vulcan ancestors of the Romulans reach the Romulus/Remus star system. Though Remus is a more clement world, the colonists settle on Romulus, which more closely resembles Vulcan in climate and ecology.

The first years of the colony are brutal but eventually a stable population develops and even begins to flourish.

The high technology of the original colonists is soon lost but as the Romulans progress much is recovered. Technical discovery largely parallels Earth’s so that when the two races meet in the 22nd century, they are on a par.

c. AD 1
Surak appears and sets Vulcan on its path of “logical” development.

c. 1700
The Vegan Tyranny is overthrown.

c. 2000
Vulcan explorers reach Sol and begin observations. At the same time they prevent other civilizations (notably Andor and Tellar) from interfering in Earth development.

Second Great Depression: The economic meltdown of the world economy leads to small-scale wars, terrorism, and political and social instability (including “Colonel” Green’s dictatorship, which endured from 2033-2035 over a large portion of Southeast Asia and Australia). The estimated death toll is 600+ million.

By tradition, the Second Depression ends when an obscure physicist at the University of Montana, Zefrem Cochrane, publishes his unified field theory (at the age of 34).

Cochrane publishes the Foundations of Warp Dynamics, proving the theoretical possibility of FTL travel.

Exhausted by 40 years of turmoil, the surviving nations of the world convene the United Nations for the first time since 2027 in Toronto. (Toronto was chosen as a neutral meeting ground since there was still a great deal of mistrust among the major powers of the period such as Brazil, Singapore and Tehran.)

The Toronto Conventions are adopted – the first step toward an effective world government. This document is heralded in subsequent decades as being on a par with the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, the Fundamental Declaration of the Martian Colonies, The Statutes of Alpha III, etc.

Work begins on dismantling the world’s arsenals.

Taking advantage of disarmament, Cochrane convinces a consortium to back the building of a warp-drive prototype using a nuclear missile as a foundation.

Cochrane launches the first warp-drive ship, Phoenix (though legend has it that Cochrane privately called it Pandora’s Box since it would lead to a plethora of unintended consequences).

The ship is detected by a Vulcan surveyor in system at the time, leading to First Contact.

Subsequently, Vulcan aids Earth with medical and other humanitarian technology that allows the planet to recover from the previous century.

Vulcan introduces Earth to the Andorian Star Empire, the Tellarite Territories and the near-human inhabitants of Alphacent.

While the Vulcans, Andorians and Tellarites are clearly products of a nonhuman evolution, the Alphacenti turn out to be the modern descendants of homines neandertalenses, presumably transported from Earth by unknown entities. (Archeological evidence proves that the entire ecosphere of Alphacent is only about 250,000 E-years old. Before then, the planet could only be classed as M by courtesy – it was far too cold, arid and oxygen poor to support life more complex than lichens.)

Earth’s space program concentrates on developing intra-Solar industries and colonies. Permanent bases are established on Luna (2068) and Mars (2080), and a flourishing space industry develops.

SS Lewis & Clark reaches Saturn (2071) and discovers evidence of alien artifacts on many of its moons (approximately 0.25 million years old).

Xenoarcheologists discover extensive ruins at the Martian poles (2077). Like the Saturnian relics, the oldest date to about a quarter of a million years ago and the youngest are about 100,000 years old.

In this period, certain member governments of the United Nations begin secret experiments in eugenics, ostensibly to eliminate genetic disorders in the human species but with the ultimate goal of creating a race of “supermen.”

The United Nations Space Fleet (UNSF) is created. Though it is a military body, the focus of its training is on avoiding conflict.

First Earth Trading Mission to the Orion Colonies.

The United Nations Space Fleet Academy is opened in San Francisco.

The Fundamental Declaration of the Martian Colonies establishes the right of any colony to self-government.

The Eugenics Wars: The “supermen” rise up against the United Nations and their own creators, seizing power in a number of territories.

The last significant military conflict fought on Earth claims 60 million casualties. The greater portion of these casualties was incurred in the campaign against Khan Noonian Singh, the most powerful and capable of the “supermen,” who ruled India and Southeast Asia.

Genetic experimentation is severely limited, though research in combating genetic disorders continues and results in some remarkable advances.

Horrified that Earth may be plunging into a fourth World War, Zefrem Cochrane emigrates to Alphacent (at the age of 86). Still mentally and physically active, the esteemed Cochrane teaches at several Alphacenti research establishments for the next two years before disappearing into uncharted space aboard a prototype warp-capable shuttle.

Khan Singh escapes the storming of his capital (Karachi) with c. 100 fellow “supermen” aboard a sublight, DY-100 class ship (Botany Bay), which escapes the UNSF’s net to disappear into interstellar space (Singh used a sublight vessel so as to avoid a detectable warp signature).

Outside of Singh’s clique, 114 “supermen” survived the war and are interred in a penal colony set up in Antarctica.

Loathe to execute the “supermen,” the UN finally decides to exile them to an extra-Solar colony – a G5 sub-giant 78 light years from Earth which hosts a Class F, marginally habitable world. The voyage takes nearly 12 years (at warp 2), with the “supermen” in suspended animation aboard two ships.

Earth establishes its first (officially recognized) extra-Solar colony in the Tau Ceti system.

The first era of extra-Solar expansion. Since even the most advanced ships are limited by technology to speeds of warp 3 or less, only about 20 worlds in a 40-light-year radius are colonized.

The “supermen” reach the G5 system and establish the colony of Prometheus.

Sarek of Vulcan and Amanda Grayson of Earth conceive a hybrid human-Vulcan, and Amanda gives birth to Spock.

The Romulan War begins when the Romulans massacre the colony of Novya Novgorod. The UNSF and Romulan forces struggle indecisively over the next decade without ever meeting face to face before a treaty is arranged by subspace radio. Andor and Alphacent participate in several campaigns but Vulcan and Tellar remain neutral.

In the wake of the war, a movement begins to create a federation of some sort among Earth, Vulcan, Andor, Tellar and Alphacent.

James Kirk is born in Iowa (Earth).

Richard Daystrom develops the prototype duotronic computer.

The UNSF DSV Sentry engages the IKV Devisor to rescue a Klingon family fleeing from that empire, inaugurating Earth’s first known contact with the Klingons (though unexplained disappearances of ships in the preceding decade could have been due to Klingons, and Earth merchants may have unknowingly encountered Klingon traders in the bazaars of the Orion Colonies). (This is the so-called battle of Donatu V mentioned by Spock in The Trouble with Tribbles.)

The existence of a large, aggressive interstellar polity is the final piece of the puzzle – In the First Babel Conference, the Founding Worlds (Earth, Vulcan, Andor, Tellar, Alphacent) create the United Federation of Planets (2184).

One of its first tests as a government is the rescue and aid mission to the Tarsus Colony, where 4,000 colonists had been massacred by its governor.

With the processing power of duotronic computers, the matter transporter is successfully tested.

Over this decade, the various space fleets of the Federation’s member worlds are integrated into Starfleet.

The Axanar Peace Mission forestalls outright war between the new Federation and the Klingon Empire but incidents continue to occur between the two polities.

The first Constitution class heavy cruiser, UFP DSV Constellation, begins active duty. The Constitutions are more than simply battle cruisers; they incorporate facilities for exploration and scientific research. The design turns out to be more successful than its creators could have hoped, as Constitution-based starships become the backbone of Starfleet for the next century.

Enterprise’s keel is laid down in this year; she is the first of the Constitutions whose components are built entirely from scratch and the first ship to incorporate several major advances: dilithium crystals, making speeds of warp 5+ possible; duotronic computers; phaser and photon weapons technology; and the transporter.

Starbase One – aka Fleet Headquarters – is built.

Robert April commands Enterprise.

Christopher Pike commands Enterprise.

The Talos Star Group is declared “off limits.”

The Back to Earth movement results in the Federation’s first existential crisis, nearly causing the break up of the newborn polity at the Second Babel Conference.

The Conference also results in the short-lived experiment of exchanging ambassadors between the Federation and Klinzhai. (The Federation’s ambassador was recalled after two years, and the Klingon’s ambassador never officially occupied the “Klingon Embassy.”)

James Kirk commands Enterprise for the first time.

A war with the Klingons ends abruptly when the Organians intervene and stop it. The Organian Treaty will govern Federation/Klingon relations for the next 25 years.

In this year too, the Federation comes face to face with the Romulans, discovering them to be a Vulcan subspecies.

Also in this year, the so-called “energy barrier” is encountered near the galaxy’s rim. Initially this phenomenon was thought to be natural and extend around the galaxy but a subsequent joint UFP/First Federation scientific mission (2210-2219) discovered that it was the remnant of a vast alien construct that may have surrounded a volume of space 10,000 LYs across. Considering its properties, its purpose was most likely defensive. The mission “turned it off” in 2217 and xeno-archeological expeditions continue to study the ruins of the mechanisms to the modern day.

The Klingons and Romulans contact each other and agree to several technology-exchange treaties over the next century.

Multitronic computer research suffers a catastrophic setback with the M-5 debacle. Despite this, several of Richard Daystrom’s colleagues persevere in making a workable multitronic circuit, succeeding in 2211. Because of their breakthroughs, both the Genesis project and transwarp drives are made possible.

Enterprise undergoes extensive refits, making it the class ship of a fourth generation of heavy cruisers.

The V’Ger probe returns to Earth.

Spock commands Enterprise, though under him its duties are primarily confined to training and scientific research. Kirk becomes Chief of Training Operations.

The Genesis Incident precipitates the second great crisis in the Federation’s existence and a precipitous deterioration in UFP/Klingon relations, though the Organian Treaty continues to preclude armed combat. (As Carol Marcus was the only Genesis team-member to survive the debacle, the Federation Council had little difficulty suppressing the theory and technology to create the Genesis Effect, and it appears that no other polity has had the temerity to pursue it.)

Despite technical difficulties, the fifth generation of heavy cruiser-class vessels incorporating transwarp technology enters regular service. (Transwarp drive is based on a better utilization of warp-field generation, making speeds closer to the theoretical maximum of warp 10 possible.)

An extragalactic probe wreaks havoc on Earth’s ecosystem, apparently in an effort to re-establish contact with the extinct species of humpback whale. Representatives of the species rescued from the 20th century and brought forward in time satisfy the probe so that it ceases its assault on Earth. Naturally, research into utterly nonhuman intelligences receives a tremendous boost.

The probe refuses any contact with Federation representatives but its departure trajectory sends it toward the Magellanic Clouds.

Kirk commands Enterprise on its final five-year mission before he and the ship retire from active service. Kirk is promoted to Fleet Captain, Reserve, and Enterprise becomes a Museum Ship at the Memory Prime Complex.

A catastrophic subspace implosion destroys a Klingon operations complex in their home system and threatens Klinzhai with destruction (its effects were felt clear to the Klingon/UFP border). A promising beginning of talks between the Federation and the Empire ultimately results in nothing. The Klingons balk at potentially becoming dependents of the “Earthers.” Even today the Klingons do not discuss the measures taken to save the homeworld but by 2250 Klinzhai had apparently fully recovered.

UFP DSV Medea reestablishes contact with the “supermen’s” colony on Prometheus. The Prometheans have managed to survive the overweening ambitions of its first generation of “supermen” by re-engineering the brains of second and subsequent generations to produce proteins that ameliorate aggressive expressions – the Prometheans retain the basic drives of unmodified humans. Since this expresses itself (partially) in pheromones, even first-generation “supermen” find themselves acting less aggressively. This effect is found to affect unmodified humans as well.

Prometheus joins the Federation.

Apparently satisfied that the Federation and Klingon Empire have advanced sufficiently to preclude another full-scale war, the Organians inform the respective capitals that they will no longer enforce the Treaty outside of the Organian system.

Tensions rapidly escalate between the UFP and the Klingon Empire but a “hot” war is avoided. The Federation, though it has a “war party,” cannot afford war with the Klingons as it is juggling a host of negotiations with other potentially hostile polities such as the Gorn and the Tholians. The Klingons, in turn, are attempting to deal with their own diplomatic problems, having encountered two highly advanced, highly aggressive polities on their borders opposite the Federation (codenamed “Lyra” and “Hydra” by the Federation).

At the Federation’s 50th year, the outlook of most member worlds is good. Despite an almost continual state of crisis with the Klingons, other diplomatic fronts look promising (or at least “not threatening”) – the Gorn, while not overly friendly, eagerly accept trade with the Federation and exhibit no great desire for conflict; the Tholians want nothing more than to be left alone, something the Federation is happy to oblige; relations with other star-faring races are good; and the Romulans demonstrate little interest in testing Starfleet’s defenses.

The Ersatz War: Matters come to a head between the Federation and the Klingons but neither can declare a real war because of economic and political factors. What results is a series of single-ship and small fleet “incidents” that cause tremendous loss of life but resolve nothing.

Starting in 2243, a remarkable conference of UFP and Empire diplomats hammers out the Khitomer Accords, which not only bring hostilities to an end but (to the surprise of everyone) actually calls for a limited alliance and the beginning of normal relations.

The Romulan Empire unilaterally pulls out of its treaties with the Klingons. They close off the Treaty Ports and seal their borders with the UFP and the Klingons for the next 60 years.

The Federation’s centennial is inaugurated with the introduction of the first Galaxy class heavy cruiser – the latest generation of the heavy cruiser class, incorporating the advances of the previous century, and continuing the tradition of peaceful exploration and expansion. At this time, the Federation comprises nearly 500 full status member worlds (“world” here describing not only planets but also artificial habitats) in 320+ systems; it also maintains associate status with a further thousand.

The Klingon Empire at this time is thought to comprise 300+ worlds plus the same number of splinter states and client worlds. The alliance with the Federation still governs relations between Klinzhai and Earth. Economic interdependence has become so great that there is little sentiment for hostilities on either side, though contact outside of a limited number of Treaty Ports is still infrequent.

The Romulans are thought to control approximately 150 worlds (many artificial constructs, considering the paucity of Class M worlds in that region). The Federation is aware that the Romulans and Gorn have clashed repeatedly but the Gorn are reticent and the Romulans mute about the subject. The Federation is also aware that the Romulans have encountered a third polity, codenamed “Aurigans” because their presumed systems are in the direction of that constellation, which has dominated their attention since soon after the Treaty Ports were closed (this information is based on third-hand accounts gleaned from the Klingons and the Orions).

The Orions remain independent. Orion was formerly a slave world of a Vegan Tyrant. When those enigmatic beings were overthrown c. 1700, Orion exploited the advanced technology left behind and became a trading entrepot for the surviving races of the region; a position they continue to hold. Some Orion “families” also became notorious as pirates and smugglers, willing to carry any cargo to any destination for the right price. The Federation strictly regulates trade between member worlds and an Orion Colony (statistically, the plurality of military incidents with Starfleet vessels involves Orion privateers).

The Gorn and Federation have opened a handful of Treaty Ports but contact between the polities is strictly controlled and very limited. The Federation believes that the Gorn occupy 100-120 worlds.

The Tholians continue to refuse contact with any other race. Since its first encounter with the Federation, the Tholians have become less preemptive in protecting their space, usually warning ships that they have strayed before escalating the confrontation.

Direct contact with the “Lyrans” and “Hydrans” has still not been established. It is believed that the Lyrans are felinoid in appearance and are at least as technologically capable as the Federation and the Empire. The Hydrans are believed to be one of the few known methane-breathing species.

The newest star-faring polity in the region is the Kardassi Union, which first encountered the Klingons some time after the Ersatz War. The Kardassi are a relatively young species; they only acquired dilithium technology after meeting the Klingons. They are also a highly aggressive species, routinely attacking both Klingon and Federation colonies and ships they believe are trespassing in their space. As in the Ersatz War, tensions are high on both sides and “incidents” are frequent.