Why the NES Zapper is One of the Greatest Things in the History of Videogames

Nintendo wanted to draw on a broader range of human experiences.  With its motion controls and sensor bar the Wii created a new sort of shared space between our living rooms and the dimension implied by the glowing screen. The revolution was that anyone now knew how to play a videogame.

But here’s the thing, Nintendo already did this, without lasers or gyroscopes or accelerometers or even more than eight bits of memory. I’m talking about Nintendo’s 1984 creation: the NES Zapper.

You can read my full article at Unwinnable.

James Clavell and SF

Any James Clavell or Harold Lamb fans out there? I have an essay up on AE, on the relationship between historical fiction and certain works and sub-genres with SF (alternate history is something I didn’t even get into). It’s entitled “Bleeding of Genres: Historical Fiction and SF“, and just possibly, if inspiration strikes, I’ll write more on the topic of cross-genre influences in the future.

Book Review: The King’s Last Song

In the modern-day story, emotionally-damaged survivors of the war put a human face on a national ordeal. In Jaya’s epic kingdom-building tale — what I like to think of as Shogun, the Cambodian edition – the plot still comes down to individual human will and spirit. In the conquering of nations, sometimes even the lowliest slave has a necessary part to play.

Read my full review at AESciFi.

Tuesday Links (07/31/12)

Five Men Agree To Stand Directly Under An Exploding Nuclear Bomb: “Watching this film, there are many things to wonder (and worry) about, but one of the stranger moments is how the bomb bursts in complete silence. We see a sudden white flash. It makes the soldiers flinch. Then there’s a pause, a pregnant quiet that lasts for a beat, then another and then — there’s a roar.”

Batman: Plutocrat: “Superman (for example) fights intergalactic dictators, evil monopolists, angry generals, and dark gods, i.e. symbols of abusive authority. Batman fights psychotics, anarchists, mob bosses, the mentally ill, and environmentalists, i.e. those who would overthrow the status quo. Superman fights those who would impose their version of order on the world. Batman fights those who would unbalance the order Batman himself imposes on Gotham.”

Dinosaur Comics Presents McDonald’s Presents the Olympic Games: “Perhaps you’ve forgotten Coca-Cola, THE OFFICIAL SUGARED AND COLOURED BEVERAGE OF MCDONALD’S PRESENTS THE OLYMPIC GAMES?? You want a sculpted gold-medal body? Have you tried exercising? Sure, maybe. But have you tried CHUGGING A COKE?”

Tuesday Links (06/05/12)

Genre in the Mainstream: The New Yorker’s Science Fiction Issue: “In the end, when Eustace Tilley holds up his monocle to a rocketship, the analysis is awesome, readable, and makes you feel smarter. But Eustace Tilley can sadly, not build a convincing rocketship.”

A tale of openness and secrecy: The Philadelphia Story: “Attempting to control the spread of nuclear weapons by controlling scientific information would be fruitless. . . . Because they had not been part of the Manhattan Project in any way, they were under no legal obligation to maintain secrecy; they were simply informed private citizens. In the fall of 1945, they tried to figure out the technical details behind the bomb.”


Tuesday Links (05/29/12)

Why Nikola Tesla was the greatest geek who ever lived: An Oatmeal comic.

Nikola Tesla Wasn’t God and Thomas Edison Wasn’t the Devil: The Forbes response.

I wrote a response to the Forbes article about my Tesla comic: The response to the response.

Could a Rendezvous with Rama Movie Capture the Wonder of the Book?: A comic critique.

Book Review: Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5

In 2002, the British government agency, Military Intelligence, Section 5, also known as the Security Service, or simply MI5, advertised for a part-time historian to write an official history of the Service, in time for its 100-year anniversary in 2009. The paperback edition, released December, 2010, included some small corrections and improved details, particularly on more recent terrorist activity, which previously, for security reasons, could not be published.

It’s a far cry from just a few decades ago where Service staff often could tell no one where exactly they worked, and even the appointment of the Director General was not publicly announced. In order to complete this monumental task, Christopher Andrew, a leading authority on the history of intelligence had access to tremendous amounts of declassified along with still confidential records. No doubt there were occasional clashes between the desire to detail a complete history and the need to avoid compromising national security.

The story of British intelligence dates to the first decade of the 20th century, precipitated by several years of increasing public hysteria and popular novels about “the Kaiser’s spies” operating in England. It all culminated in October, 1909 with an army captain named Vernon Kell and a navy commander named Mansfield Cumming running a two-man operation, trying to build an intelligence organization from the ground up. It wasn’t long before the two men parted ways to head their own organizations. Kell was first Director General MI5, whose province would be espionage and subversion within the Commonwealth, while Cumming was first Chief of MI6, responsible for collecting intelligence about foreign powers outside British soil.

This hefty history seems both thorough and objective. Broken into sections on “The German Threat”, “Between the Wars”, “The Second World War”, “The Early Cold War”, “The Later Cold War”, and “After the Cold War”, the individual chapters nevertheless cover much of the same period from different perspectives. For example, one chapter in the section of “The Early Cold War” covers some specific decrypted Soviet communications that would eventually lead to the uncovering of the famous “Cambridge Five”, enormously successful Soviet spies who had penetrated British intelligence.

Then another chapter is all about the lesser-known but simultaneous period in history of the early negotiations for the state of Israel. The major security threat of that unstable time was Zionist terrorism. (Andrew also tells us that the extremist Jewish Nationalist groups of this time were the very last in history to self-describe as terrorists for their cause.)

It’s interesting to see how priorities have changed throughout the history of the Security Service. Though originally conceived of as defending British Commonwealth from agents of foreign powers inside its borders — essentially spies, saboteurs, and a potential fifth column in case of war – MI5’s authority over all state enemies within the realm also put it front and centre in all instances of domestic terrorism as well.

The significance of this became clear during the Troubles of Northern Ireland, starting in the late 1960s. Actions by the Irish Republican Army originally catalyzed the creation of Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police almost a century earlier (previous to the existence of any military intelligence service), but the Security Service took a leading role when violence re-erupted in the later 20th century. In more recent decades, Muslim terrorist groups have been a major concern to both intelligence officials and the general public in the West, and this, too, has fallen firmly within MI5’s operational scope.

By far the biggest focuses of the Service throughout its history are the enormously successful “Double-Cross System” used to mislead the Germans by false information in the Second World War, and the 40-plus years of espionage and counter-espionage against the Soviet Union, including the uncovering of the “Cambridge Five” and the famous “Atom Spies” who passed on the secret of the bomb. But as noted, it’s interesting to see that even while lesser-known threats are in the background as far as the public is concerned, the Service still has a smaller team quietly collecting information. During WWII, only a small amount of energy was devoted to Soviet intelligence (not enough, it later turned out), but analyzing what intelligence was collected became a priority during the Cold War. Similarly, glimmerings of Muslim terrorism are foreshadowed in the latter years of the Cold War, though they were not considered a priority at the time.

This is not a weekend read. Andrew could probably take some of the highlights and cut this 1000-page behemoth into something much more digestible, but if he did, it wouldn’t be a history anymore. Objective, fact-based (with an endnote for nearly every sentence to prove it), and detailed, Defend the Realm really packs it in. The density of information is high, the amount of filler is essentially nil, and the type is quite small.

Andrew also does not speculate as the writer of a general audience work might. He’s a professional historian and this is a professional piece of historical scholarship. I’ve been reading this book on and off for six months, and some casual readers might have given up before then. It’s not narrative and we know only what definitely happened; he does not tell us about the emotional states of the principal players or speculate on the dramatic tension at some of the events.

On the other hand, the material sometimes speaks for itself. This is the real-life story of war, foreign spies, secret political meetings, terrorists, and narrowly-evaded disasters of all kinds. For hard-core history/military/intelligence buffs, this is a goldmine of carefully collected and organized material. The shadowy realm of military intelligence is a rarely thought about but inescapable part of our modern world.

(Vintage Books, 2010)

Article first published as Book Review: Defend the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew on Blogcritics.

Science Fiction to the Rescue in WWII

I reviewed the new Heinlein biography recently, which I quite enjoyed. It’s the first of a planned two-volume project, so I am also eagerly anticipating the second, particularly since by the end of part one, only Heinlein’s first couple of books had been mentioned (along with a few notable shorts).

This volume was surprisingly interesting given that the majority of it covered Heinlein’s life prior to his full-time writing career. After all, the reason anyone would want to read a bio of a famous author is because they’re interested in his work, but it turns out he was also an interesting man before he became an interesting author. Of course, he also lived in interesting times, and having now read several histories and biographies taking place in the first half of the twentieth century, I find I just can’t get enough of it. So much happened in the century of my birth.

One rather surprising tidbit came after the Pearl Harbor attack which precipitated US entry into World War Two. Heinlein, though he had been forced to give up his first career as a naval officer due to pulmonary tuberculosis, tried absolutely everything to get enlisted again for the war. It seems the Japanese attack had an incredible galvanizing effect on US citizenry such that patriotic, able-bodied men (and women) were volunteering left and right, to the point that officers in charge of enlistment couldn’t keep up.

Though still medically unfit to serve, Heinlein was able to use a former officer contact to get in as a civilian engineer at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. His navy contact also requested that Heinlein, working with pulp giant, editor John W. Campbell, try to recruit — no joke — more science fiction writers to come do war work. In fact, in those early days of the new genre of science fiction, many of the writers did indeed have scientific or engineering training. Heinlein ended up bringing in a young Isaac Asimov (a recently minted chemistry PhD), and L. Sprague de Camp to work in the same research facility out of the yard as he.

Heinlein also ended up doing some minor engineering work that, unbeknownst to him, was related to the still top-secret development of radar technology. Across the pond, English SF giant, Arthur C. Clarke, was also working more directly on radar applications.

Pretty cool. When the world was in jeopardy, the allies called on their best genre writers to save the day. SF enthusiasts often claim their favourite authors can see into the future. When the Allies needed help, however, these writers were brought in to help create the future. Along with the bomb, radar was the top-secret, brand-new Allied technology of WWII. Future Nobel-winning scientists gave their best for the war effort, alongside future Hugo-winning sci-fi writers. Who’d have thought?