Monday, 28 August 2017

Fallout 4 – Diary of a Deceiver, Part 2

The first part of Pang Li’s cynical adventures in post-apocalypse America can be found here. And now, the adventure continues:

Date: 2287 October 24th [Afternoon]

I’ve found an intelligent and helpful friend. Admittedly, he’s an Alsatian, but it’s still a nice surprise.

After shooting a few ruffians with a gas mask fetish, I encountered some people who aren’t violent thugs. Problem is, they’re a junkie, a loser, a bitch and a hick, led by some sort of weird LARP enthusiast. He’s called Preston Garvey, and has a laser-powered musket, for pity’s sake. And you know what they called the Alsatian? Dogmeat.


Might as well have called him Hors d’Oeuvres.

And just compare the LARPers to Dogmeat’s attitude. He came out of nowhere and we worked together. Gravyboat and his chums (five of them, total) were hiding in a room whilst me and the Dogmeister took out every one of the thuggish gang attacking them. No wonder people say dogs are man’s best friend. At least that hasn’t changed.

That said, they did have some useful information. Seems there is a city built around the old football stadium. It’s got to have someone who has basic technological expertise. That’s the good news. The bad news is the quintet of fools have decided they want to make their new home at Sanctuary Hills. As long as they don’t bother me, I’m sure I’ll be able to tolerate them. Besides, having someone armed and on patrol whilst I’m gone might be useful.

Late addition: Preston’s quite an attractive man, but if he tries telling me about a settlement in trouble one more time I’m going to introduce his nuts to my baseball bat.

Date: 2287 October 25th

I was heading south to Diamond City when I caught some radio chatter (and not the whiny weasel on Diamond City Radio). It was a cry for help from some militant group holed up in a police station. Got there in time to save a librarian, an invalid, and a tin hat uniform called Danse. They were being attacked by the irradiated, degraded, mindless residents of Boston (now referred to as ‘ghouls’).

Danse wouldn’t give me any info on his group, but I, and my charming bathrobe ensemble, did manage to persuade him to hire me. It’s perfect. The mission is retrieving some hi-tech gear to boost their radio. With any luck, I’ll be able to use that to contact Beijing directly. If not, I’ll see if I can get in touch with whatever’s left of Chinese intelligence over here.

Found some good supplies in the police station. Might use the handcuffs on Preston if he keeps blathering about settlements (he says he can’t help them because his ‘hands are full’ in Sanctuary, but all he ever does is walk up and down the street, whistling. In the old world, he would’ve been a standard issue desk jockey, handing out orders and doing nothing himself). Also found a holotape diary from the librarian. The group’s called the Brotherhood of Steel. Sound very aggressive, an army focused on guns with a serious lack of interest in intelligence. Weird that there’s no mention of the US Government. Does it even exist? Was our victory absolute? Anyway, the Brotherhood’s lax with cybersecurity, not even a password on their computer. They’re a long range recon team. Danse seems skilled at getting his soldiers killed. Good to learn right before we head out together.

I think Danse might be a shade socialist. We arrived at ArcJet Systems and he started ranting about corporations and technology being abused. Maybe this Brotherhood is more compatible with Chinese than American thinking. He also mentioned something called the Institute, descendants of scientists. If this transmitter doesn’t come off, they sound like a good lead.

Got attacked by androids called synths. I think Danse’s balls are bigger than his brain. I fired up a rocket engine to incinerate them (he survived, although, to be frank, that wasn’t really a factor in my decision) and he congratulated me on the tactic, despite almost cooking him alive. Unsure if he’s dumb as a post or hard as nails. Either way, he invited me to join his merry band of militants. I said I was unsure. Don’t want to get tied down, for all I know the Brotherhood’s got more enemies than friends.

That’s the good news. The bad is that the transmitter was too weak to contact Beijing, and nobody responded to my old call-signs to local intelligence HQ. I’ll have to look elsewhere, and the only place to go is Diamond City.


Friday, 25 August 2017

Review: The Wonder Book of Aircraft

The Wonder Book of Aircraft is one of several older books that have been piled up, awaiting attention for some time. It was written in 1919, just over a decade and a half after the first powered flight, and a year after World War One came to an end.

It’s a book for children but easily the most adult (purely in the sense of maturity) children’s book I’ve ever read.

The writing style is completely grown-up, to the extent that if it hadn’t been specifically indicated as written for children I would never have guessed. It is also very of its time, both in assumed knowledge (parabola – a word every schoolboy knows) and general sentiment (there’s a picture of a German airship going down in flames with the caption “Just retribution”).

Mostly, this is rather engaging. It’s a charming, confident book filled with fairly simple but useful explanations of flight (there’s a strong leaning towards war machines which is natural given it came out right after the Great War), optimistic predictions for the future, the basics of aerodynamics, and a few daring stories of heroic deeds (some real, a few fiction stories). Also covered is a brief look at the history of attempted flight, airships, balloons, and how to make your own model planes.

The only bit that took me aback was the single instance, used in a story, of a term that today would definitely not be included in a children’s book (a six letter racial epithet).

The book is festooned with photographs, many from the air, and illustrations. Although the quality is naturally far less than that of cameras we have today, some photographs are nevertheless fantastic (I particularly enjoyed one showing a giant airship’s shadow alongside a steam engine). Whilst most images are of planes there are plenty of airships and balloons, as well as some other subjects (such as anti-aircraft guns).

Regular readers will be aware that this is not my usual sort of book, but I did find it fascinating nevertheless. With the exception of the model plane instruction (not my area at all) and the ‘old-fashioned’ language used on one occasion, it was thoroughly engaging and intelligently written. I tend not to write of F1 here, but the part on aerodynamics neatly applies (upside down, of course) to that motorsport, which was a nice bonus.

My own copy (a Christmas present to Ernest Wright in 1919 according to the handwritten note at the front) is in slightly tatty repair, but that didn’t stop me enjoying it a lot.


Sunday, 20 August 2017

Fallout 4 – Diary of a Deceiver, Part 1

Note, I’ve deliberately taken some liberties with the storyline, so there will be some spoilers and me making some stuff up. This is a little bit of comedy intended to be read by people who have finished the game (just so they get the references, as well as not suffering spoilers).

This is the first time I’ve written something like this (well, apart from a Metal Gear Solid story I wrote about 15 years ago) so do let me know if you like it and I’ll write more of this and/or other games.

Date: 2077 October 23rd

I’m growing really tired of this suburban hell. Being married to the most stupid man alive doesn’t make it any easier. Nate’s idiocy does mean I’ve gotten away with a few close calls when anyone with half a brain would’ve noticed something amiss (my bosses back in Beijing really did pick out a prize-winning sucker for me), but this latest episode is just something else.

The baby’s black, Nate. And you’re not. Did you think he was born with a suntan?

It’s bloody annoying, but if this jester really is the calibre of a career soldier in the US then at least we’re going to win this war, and probably soon.

HQ sent over a muppet with a clipboard to get me signed into the local vault (a private enterprise shelter in case of nuclear devastation). Seems a little unnecessary, but does help me blend in with the local paranoid bed-wetters.

Halloween’s close. It’s this Western holiday which involves socially-sanctioned vandalism, harassing people in their own home for sweets, and dressing up like fools (or skanks. You wouldn’t believe the kind of thing Nate wanted me to wear). The sooner we crush these capitalist pigdogs the better.

Although I do like their sweet rolls.

Late addition: we’ve nuked most of the US! Got to run to the shelter, but we’ve won!

Late late addition: you know, some warning from Beijing would’ve been nice. I almost got swallowed by a nuclear storm. The shelter seems functional enough, although I think in the confined conditions I may end up murdering Nate. And the social etiquette is really intrusive. I had to strip down to my underwear and put on this blue catsuit in front of some pervy doctor. Just as soon as I’ve gone through decontamination and everything checks out I’m going to lay down the law to him.

Date: 2287 October 23rd

Decontamination was a con. I should’ve known better than to trust a dodgy Western corporation. I got frozen cryogenically. Briefly got thawed out to see some slaphead shoot Nate and steal the kid. When I woke up properly, everybody else was dead. A dozen cryo-chambers and every single one failed except mine (Nate’s seemed to be working but given he had a gaping hole in his skull it didn’t do him much good).

Found myself a new catsuit and a truncheon. Everything’s dead here except for some giant cockroaches. I must have been out for a while. Got hold of a gun and some glasses (I always did my best work as ‘sexy secretary’) and found a handy PipBoy. Time to go home, dig out the transmitter, and get in touch with Beijing.

Late addition: more roaches at home. Codsworth (damned silly name. Serves me right for letting the moron pick it) was the only thing still functioning but I think he’s suffered some sort of corrosion. Gave me a holotape of Nate being soppy.

Oh, and the war ended just over 200 years ago.

Everyone I know is dead. On the other hand, my backpay is going to be billions of yen, so swings and roundabouts.

Date: 2287 October 24th [Morning]

All the houses were absolutely ruined. Took a while, but I managed to salvage enough junk to build a half-decent home, and used my stash of weaponry (still serviceable) to create some machine-gun turrets. That’s the good news. The bad is that my radio transmitter was busted. Seems like vandals broke in, missed the guns but had a shooting match and turned the comms gear into Swiss cheese.

The US is an absolute mess of lawless decadence and social breakdown. And now it’s irradiated too. Still no idea how things are back home. Starting to worry Uncle Sam might have sent a missile or two Beijing’s way. But we’re resilient, I’m sure everything’s ok. That does leave the problem of contact, though. Only option is to wander into this apocalyptic mess and try to find someone who knows one end of a diode from another. What fun.

Oh, and Codsworth kept rambling on about Shaun (that’s the kid). Annoyed me at first, but “I’m looking for my son” is a much better excuse for wandering about than “I’m a Chinese spy. Any idea how to get in touch with Beijing?”, not least because I can’t imagine the locals (if there are any) will be fans of China given we nuked their country back to the Stone Age.

Part 2 is here.


Friday, 18 August 2017

Marching Speeds

A man can walk four miles in an hour relatively easily. And yet, an army of foot soldiers marching (in the ancient world) would cover perhaps six miles in a whole day. Even horsemen would only go twelve.

There are exceptions, but the above are averages taken from Theodore Dodge’s excellent histories (check out his Hannibal, Alexander and Caesar biographies if you haven’t yet).

Why does it take so long to move an army, when a single man with staging posts (for fresh horses) could cover, theoretically at least, well over a hundred miles in a single day? Even a chap out for a walk could easily make 10-20 miles over the course of a day.

Various changeable circumstances can affect how fast an army can move. Weather, terrain, and supplies all have a serious impact (more on those below). But even when it’s nice and warm, the ground’s flat and roads are good, and there’s plenty of food and beer, armies are still, usually, horrendously slow.

Moving one person is easy. They get up on time, and wander off. If they reach a bridge, that’s fine. If they need to climb a little, that’s usually no problem.

An army is different. The whole army can’t set off at once, because a road might only be wide enough for six, or fewer, to march abreast. Even as the vanguard strolls off, most of the rest of the army will be taking down last night’s camp and eating the last of the cheese. The sheer volume of people slows the army’s progress.

The number of men and beasts (not just war horses, but donkeys and oxen and mules to carry supplies or pull wagons) can also ruin roads. What might be a nice journey for the vanguard could be a squelching quagmire for the middle or rearguard. Similarly, if the vanguard reaches difficulties (say a flood washes away the only bridge for miles and it needs repairing) that then slows everyone else as a queue forms.

Narrow passes in mountains or slender footbridges are no problem for one man, but they’re bottlenecks when you’ve got thousands. Not only that, they may well be impassable for wagons and difficult/impossible for horses. A route one man can take is not necessarily a route an army can take.

Then there’s pestilence. Leave aside that a small army of whores will be prising coin from men who could die tomorrow (pox was spread thus although certain diseases were different. Syphilis didn’t exist in medieval England, arriving in the Tudor period and only mutating in Elizabeth I’s reign into the disease it is today). Medieval hygiene could include eating in close proximity to latrines. The camp disease of dysentery would usually break out. Fouled wells or even just drinking uncontaminated water could lead to typhoid. Having so many men together (and a medieval army could outnumber most medieval cities’ populations) in such close proximity massively increased the chances of disease breaking out, and then spreading rapidly. For this reason, armies besieging a castle/city could suffer as much as those trapped on the inside.

Supplies were often problematic. Gathering sufficient before you start depended on a good harvest and organisational abilities. If your adversary knows you’re coming he’ll foul wells and ensure harvested crops are safe inside castle walls so you struggle to feed your army off the land. This means the foraging parties have to roam further afield (and they need protection so you need to send more men), again slowing an army down. One man can swipe a few apples and blackberries, but an army takes a lot of feeding (and the animals need food too).

Weather can have a substantial impact. Ordinary drizzle (almost the default setting of Britain) can soften roads which turn to sludge beneath a thousand marching feet. Heavier rain can destroy roads or bridges, or flood camps and drown people and horses. But hot weather has dangers too. Finding sufficient water becomes even harder, and may slow the pace of men and animals. Even worse, forest fires (as now) can spring up out of nowhere.

Most travelling in the ancient and medieval world, as you’d expect, was by land. However, sea journeys also could be delayed on account of an army. If you don’t have enough ships because they’re delayed due to bad weather or simply take time to arrive, then either you split an army in two and risk it being defeated in detail, or you have to wait. One man needs just one ship.

In books, both historical and fictional, it’s entirely legitimate to have individuals travel a lot faster than armies, for all sorts of reasons (not to mention the possibility of messages being sent by bird).

As an aside, the Persians had an interesting measure called the parasang. Unlike a mile, the parasang was a unit of distance measured not in length but time. One parasang was one day’s march. That’s quite a clever way of doing things, as two roads leading to the same place might have a very large number of miles to the north compared to the south, but if the south road leads through mountains the northern road might still be a quicker route.


PS the next few blogs will likely be book reviews of The Wonder Book of Aircraft, The Emperor’s Edge, and Spies, Sadists and Sorcerers.

Thursday, 10 August 2017

Review: King John, by Marc Morris

King John does not have the finest of reputations in English history, but is the opprobrium deserved or unkind?

This biography recounts the life (with a strong focus on adulthood) of perhaps the most persistently disliked of English kings.

The structure for the first 2/3 or so is unorthodox, in that it has alternating timelines, leading up to and after 1203 (the former, of course, comes to an end from which point the later timeline continues until John’s death). Although the cut-off points are chosen well and skilfully lead to some interesting juxtapositions, I probably would’ve preferred a more straightforward single timeline account.

John was one of four sons of Henry II (Henry, Richard and Geoffrey being the others) who embarked upon a great many squabbles, rebellions, and wars with/against Philip Augustus (the king of France, a wily fellow who benefited greatly from Henry II’s rank incompetence when it came to keeping his family singing from the same hymn sheet).

John was an interesting, and wretched, character. I found him despicable in personality, but less incompetent than imagined (indeed, he did have a few strokes of bad luck that substantially altered the course of events. That said, it’s possible to imagine Richard [his elder brother] reversing such misfortunes, and John was never accused of a surfeit of courage). His greatest skills were extortion and low cunning.

But it was this very wretchedness that brought about Magna Carta, which became touchstone against tyranny for centuries to come.

The writing style is easy to read, and there aren’t many difficult terms (where these occur, such as ‘prise’, they’re explained). If you don’t read much history I don’t think you’d have any problems with this as an introduction to 12th/13th century history.

This biography of King John is the second book I’ve read by Marc Morris, (the first, an Edward I biography, is reviewed here).

Those interested in the period may also find Thomas Asbridge’s biography of William Marshal (reviewed here) of interest.


Wednesday, 2 August 2017

Julius Caesar and Genocide

Yes, it’s one of those cheerful blogs.

I was twittering away, conversing with a friend, when I happened to mention Julius Caesar once massacred almost half a million Germanian tribesmen.

And so the idea for this blog was born. Unlike almost every other figure from classical history, people do generally know a bit about Julius Caesar. Some of it is tosh. The ‘veni, vidi, vici’ quote isn’t from when he invaded Britain (and failed), it’s from when he crushed Pharnaces II, the ruler of Pontus. Similarly, he wasn’t born by Caesarian section (we know this because although Romans could practice it, the procedure always killed the mother and we know that Caesar’s mum survived birthing him).

Other bits of common knowledge are true. He did conquer Gaul (mostly. Gallia Narbonensis had been conquered some time earlier). He did cross the Rubicon and cause a cold war to become a hot one. And he was murdered in the Senate by some of his former friends.

Part of this history is written by Caesar himself. The Gallic War entirely, and the first quarter or so of The Civil War (the rest being written by a few contemporary authors). His adopted son, who took the name Augustus, also had reasons to embellish the propaganda around Julius Caesar’s conduct. After all, nobody wants to say their adoptive dad was a lunatic, do they?

But there are certain things about Caesar which are not common knowledge today. In his lifetime he acquired (and detested) the nickname the Queen of Bithynia. This was because he was sent on a diplomatic mission to Bithynia (small kingdom in Asia Minor, if memory serves) and was so fond of the king he stayed on longer than planned.

A loathed nickname being expunged, mostly, from history is understandable when you become dictator for life and your adopted son becomes the first emperor of Rome. There is a more troubling act of Caesar’s that remains obscured from general knowledge, though.

He murdered tens, perhaps hundreds, of thousands of innocent people.

A Germanian tribe, reportedly 430,000 strong (even allowing for exaggeration, the number will be vast), was negotiating peacefully with the Romans, led by Caesar. Or so they thought. In the middle of negotiation, Caesar had them all slaughtered.

This was not an army, it was a tribe of men, women and children. And he butchered them, citing duplicity on their part as the justification. In his biography (simply entitled Caesar), TA Dodge used the term ‘holocaust’ to describe the act (the history pre-dates WWII by some decades).

This was not the first time such an action was attempted. Decades earlier, the Cimbri (a tribe seeking to settle peacefully on Roman territory if possible, and to migrate west by passing through Roman territory if not) was similarly attacked. Unfortunately for the Romans, who initiated the battle, the Cimbri won. This was repeated, farcically, several times. In one such battle, Arausio, partly due to mutual loathing of Roman leaders Caepio and Maximus, the Romans suffered a defeat to rank alongside Cannae. Eventually the Cimbri were defeated by Marius, Julius Caesar’s uncle.

Roman belligerence towards barbarian tribes, therefore, was nothing new. Indeed, in Rome and Italy (by Livy), there’s an approving passage written of Roman action to kill a huge number of fighting age men of the enemy.

And yet this genocide of Caesar is little known. I do wonder whether, at the time, the reason was very different to that of his nickname becoming little known. It might just be that in the 1st century BC, wiping out a tribe of barbarians was seen as a good thing, but not significant enough to be worth remembering.

It’s tempting to think of the Romans only in terms of civilising influence (roads, rule of law, the Pax Romana, what have the Romans ever done for us? Etc). They weren’t above exterminating tribes of people who wanted peace. But it was deemed ok. Because the hundreds of thousands they murdered were savages.