“A Redress for Andromeda”

This week’s weird fiction.

Review: “A Redress for Andromeda”, Caitlín R. Kiernan, 2000.The Weird

I seem to recall, but am too lazy to verify, that I once heard Kiernan say on the Coode Street Podcast say that she wishes she could dispense with plot all together in her stories.

This story goes a long way in that direction.

It’s long on atmosphere and poetic prose. Kiernan does what I’ve long wished modern poets would do more of: use the beauty that can be wrought from scientific concepts and terminology. Specifically, she uses the language of geology and paleontology, the academic specialties she was trained in.

The story starts with Tara, a marine biologist, driving on Halloween night to an isolated house

where the land ends and the unsleeping, omnivorous Pacific has chewed the edge of the continent ragged.

On the porch are 111 lit jack-o’-lanterns, one for each year of the mansion’s existence. Continue reading ““A Redress for Andromeda””

Eyes in the Sky

This one makes a nice companion to the last post on David Hambling’s Swarm Troopers though it’s not as tightly written.

Review: Eyes in the Sky: The Secret Rise of Gorgon Stare and How It Will Watch Us All, Arthur Holland Michel, 2019.51zYpraxPqL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Imagine above you is a camera. It can survey tens of miles at a time yet take in enough detail to read license plates and distinguish faces. It records all it sees. It’s a spy TiVo.

If you’re a terrorist, it knows where you are, where you’ve been, whom you’ve met.

If you’re a politician with an embarrassing secret, bribes or some sexual picadillo, it knows where you’ve been and whom you met.

If you shot a drug dealer on a street corner, it saw you and the past movements of the dealer.

If you’re a plumber not paying your taxes, it can track your service calls in real time and perhaps the tax authorities can serve a levy on your customers or do an audit.

If you’re a child snatched and put in a van, it knows the license plate number of your abductor.

If you’re on a rooftop after a hurricane, it can help rescue you.

If you eschew electronic communication with your fellow political dissidents, it can follow you to an in-person meeting with them.

You don’t have to imagine this camera. It exists already. It’s been built and used for some of the above purposes. It could be used for all of them. Continue reading “Eyes in the Sky”

Swarm Troopers

Long before I read David Hambling’s excellent Cthulhu Mythos fiction, I knew him as a popular science writer on weird or speculative science for Fortean Times and on military technology. I read his earlier Weapons Grade: The Revealing History of the Link Between Modern Warfare and Our High Tech World which I recommend as a look at civilian spinoffs – some social like the public relations industry – from military research and weapons. (I did not review it though.)

Before I read Arthur Holland Michel’s Eyes in the Sky, I decided to actually read this one which I got last year though it is several years old.

Review: Swarm Troopers: How Small Drones Will Conquer the World, David Hambling, 2015.51NFMTI0jwL

To paraphrase a prophet,

Beat your iPhones into swords, and turn your Christmas toys into spears: let the weak say, I am strong.

This self-published work draws upon David Hambling’s extensive writings about modern drone technology for various magazines. It may be four years old, but it’s still worth reading. The kindle versions has extensive links to various online resources, and Hambling’s blog swarm-troopers.com has kept current with news on the types of drones central to this story. Hambling’s presentation seems to almost be intended as a concisely written academic precis on the subject with an abstract given for each chapter.

I haven’t kept that current with developments in drone technology, so this book was valuable.

Valuable and frightening.

The first thing one learns is that militaries have been messing about with unmanned aerial vehicles since 1849 when an attempt was made to bomb Venice with unmanned balloons. The British military developed a remote-controlled airplane in 1916. Drones piloted remotely via onboard tv cameras were successfully deployed by the U.S. Navy in 1943. A Drone Anti-Submarine Helicopter (that would be DASH — this book is full of often strained military acronyms) was developed in the early 1960s. Continue reading “Swarm Troopers”

“The River Styx Runs Upstream”

This week’s weird fiction being discussed over at LibraryThing is Dan Simmons’ first published story.

Review: “The River Styx Runs Upstream”, Dan Simmons, 1982.PTBS1992

This, like Robert Silverberg’s classic “Born with the Dead”, is a resurrectionist story. Whereas that story’s returned dead stick to themselves and are oddly changed and not interested in their former lives, the dead of Simmons’ story function at a much lower level.

The story opens with a thematic statement from Ezra Pound’s “Canto LXXXI”:

What thou lovest well remains the rest is dross

What thou lovest well shall not be reft from thee

What thou lov’st well is thy true heritage”

The story is narrated by a young man looking back to his boyhood, and it starts when he is eight.

His mother has died and been brought back by the Resurrectionist movement. They are somewhat like a church. The boy’s father will be tithing 25% of his income to pay for the resurrection and the group’s activities. Continue reading ““The River Styx Runs Upstream””

“The Shadowy Street”

This week’s weird fiction selection is from Belgium writer Jean Ray.

Review: “The Shadowy Street”, Jean Ray, translated Lowell Blair, 1931.The Weird

This story has a lot of detail I’m not going to get into.

There’s a nice opening frame with a bundle of junk paper bursting open on the docks at Amsterdam. We hear of paintings cut up by customs officials and various corporate bonds of bankrupt companies. It’s a junk collection of dashed dreams.

The story’s structure is interesting. In that junk pile are two manuscripts which we read, one in German, and one in French. Both are first person accounts of life in Hamburg, seemingly right before the city’s great fire of 1842.

The German account talks about a strange set of disappearances and murders throughout the city and concentrates on a group of women in a single house. All the women in the house are terrified of the unknown menace except for Meta who stalks the house – the disappearances seem to happen at night – with a sword in her hand. It is implied that she knows there is some invisible and sentient creature at work. Continue reading ““The Shadowy Street””

The Spy and the Traitor

More spy stuff because I decided to read a spy book from my library for every new one I reviewed.

Review: The Spy and the Traitor: The Greatest Espionage Story of the Cold War, Ben Macintyre, 2018.untitled

For once, the subtitle on this one is not an exaggeration. The only other contenders I can think for “greatest espionage story of the Cold War” would be those of Oleg Penkovsky and, of course, Kim Philby who Macintyre also wrote a book about.

Like Penkovsky, Oleg Gordievsky was a Soviet intelligence officer who was a double agent for the West. Like Philby, Gordievsky made a daring escape to be with the country he secretly served. In Philby’s case, though, it was the considerably easier task of smuggling himself out of Lebanon and to the Soviet Union. Gordievsky was smuggled out of Moscow while he was under surveillance.

I certainly have not read every espionage memoir or case history ever written, but I’ve read a fair number, and Macintyre’s book is simply the best book on a spy case I’ve ever read. Macintyre not only has a nice turn of phrase but also delves into the psychology of the spy. This is a book that examines the complex motives – more complicated than the acronym MICE (money, ideology, compromise, and ego) would suggest – of the spy, and their intimate relationships with the case officers who “run” them. Macintyre shows the KGB and MI6 and the CIA as bureaucracies full, to varying degrees, of time servers, those psychologically unsuited for the work, and, of course, the usual bureaucratic tendency to bury failure or shift blame for it. Continue reading “The Spy and the Traitor”

The Moscow Rules

More spy stuff.

This one came to me for review from the Amazon Vine program.

Review: The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War, Antonio Mendez and Jonna Mendez with Matt Baglio, 2019.51L4Zb7vRoL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_

You’re in a gloomy city, Moscow. The natives, out of self preservation, don’t like to talk to you. Everywhere you go, you are followed. In fact, if you’re a diplomat or a CIA agent operating under diplomatic cover, there are tens of thousands of KGB agents in the city to watch you every time you step out. They’ve bugged your embassy. They’ve bugged your apartment. They’ve bugged your phone.

Go out and chat up the local Russians and try to recruit them to be spies? If you do manage to recruit any, if they actually volunteer to give you information, authentic information and not “dangles” meant to embarrass you to create a diplomatic incident or feed you misinformation, how are you going to get it? A dead drop when your surveilled by multiple teams of KGB agents? A brush contact?

You might as well try to try to recruit agents on Mars. In fact, that’s just what your boss, Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, said. Continue reading “The Moscow Rules”

“The Snail-Watcher”

This week’s weird fiction selection comes from an unexpected place.

Review: “The Snail-Watcher”, Patricia Highsmith, 1964.

There’s a certain predictability to this story, a story more farcical than weird.

Our protagonist is Peter Knoppert. He’s a moderately successful financier who will become more successful during the story. He’s not your stereotypically gray and dull man of business, and he does have one strange hobby: snail-watching. He is obsessed with snails. He’ll bend the ear of anyone who cares to listen about snails. Even among amateur naturalists, snail watching is hardly popular. For Knoppert, though, there is the “piquancy of the esoteric” bound in the observation and study of the snail. Knoppert, through snails, has had his eyes opened to the “beauty of the animal world”. For others, it’s a “unusual and vaguely repellent pastime”. To them, snails are ugly and not even really animals.

When our story starts, the snail population in Knoppert’s study has already grown to thirty glass tanks’ worth in two months. I suppose the first foreshadowing of how things go is when Knoppert sees a couple of snails not in his study, where they are supposed to be, but in his kitchen. He observes them doing a strange dance, swaying side to side, tendrils connecting snail head to snail head. Continue reading ““The Snail-Watcher””

The World Was Going Our Way

I’m still in spyland.

This is a sequel to the excellent first volume of the Mitrokhin Archives. However, I wrote no review of that and have no plans to. (It’s a thick book, like this one, and I’d have to re-read it.)

Review: The World Was Going Our Way: The KGB and the Battle for the Third World, Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, 2005.9780465003136

Vasili Mitrokhin was a KGB officer who had access to some of the organization’s archives on its foreign intelligence work. From 1972 to 1984, he’d take some documents home every weekend, make notes on them or, sometimes, copy certain documents in full. He’d hide the notes under the floorboards of his dacha.

In 1992, he defected to the British government with several boxes of those notes.

Whereas the first volume of the Mitrokhin archives, The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, documented KGB operations in Europe and North America and Australia, this one covers operations in the rest of the world though Japan, definitely not a Third World country, is included.

493 pages of this book are text filled with hundreds of names of agents, their codenames as well as the codenames of operations and places. The rest of the 677 pages are indexes, appendices, footnotes, and a bibliography. This book is not a light read and near the hardcore end of the spectrum for those interested in espionage as well as foreign policy and modern history. Continue reading “The World Was Going Our Way”