Sunday, February 15, 2015

Schismatrix Plus

Is a pretty damn good book.

I had heard of Sterling's Shapers and Mechanists secondhand, and even borrowed the Shapers (necessarily inaccurately) for a Traveller came at one point, but hadn't realized the original source.  I'm glad I stumbled across this, though somewhat sad at the number of years elapsed in the interim.  The main Schismatrix story is something of a travellogue, with a main character (who reminds me a lot of one of my favorite old PCs) perpetually cooking up schemes to stay alive in a chaotic world.  Some reviews complain at the lack of a single, coherent mainplot, but I think when you write at this near-dynastic scale, that makes a lot of sense; it is hard to devote all of one's energies to any single task over an unnaturally-extended lifetime (as is considered late in the story), be it world dominance or hunting down an enemy or rescuing a loved one.  Time grinds down everyone's resolve, and everything changes eventually; there's always an economic bubble somewhere, but when it bursts it pays to have a contingency plan.  I liked that about Schismatrix.

Sterling does a lot of evocative and imaginitive worldbuilding.  The Shaper/Mechanist universe is overflowing with factions and organizations; the Preservationists, the Geisha Bank, the Nephrine Black Medicals, the Fortuna Miners' Democracy, the Blood Bathers, the Cataclysts, the Lobsters (I really liked the Lobsters), the Polycarbon Clique, the Lifesiders Clique, the various Shaper genelines, the big Mechanist cartels and zaibatsus, and probably a bunch more that I'm forgetting, each with an ideology that may or may not make any sense, and which might be clarified to the reader only long after that faction is destroyed or driven from power (or not at all).  It's a beautiful mess of philosophies and I love it.  It begs for use in an RPG; forget monster of the week, have a lunatic philosophical faction of the week.  Maybe that's why Planescape was popular...

The rest of the worldbuilding, in terms of physical and social setting descriptions, was also very well-done.  There was a lot of it, but I didn't get bored of it, because everything was strange and interesting.  Contrast: I also read Old Man's War recently, and a conclusion I was forced to draw was that I have no interest in reading mundane worldbuilding, as embodied in the (long, dragging) description of the various standard earthling breakfast foods served to new trainees (waffles, donut, bacon, &c) and other normalcies during the first part of the book.  Sterling avoids this trap; even when the mundane, like a housecat, does appear, it is seen through 'alien' eyes and described from that perspective in an amusing fashion, in juxtaposition with an oddity a page (cockroaches as pets?) described as completely ordinary from that same perspective.

I also liked the single-solar-system scope.  It's a bit more to my tastes than romping across the stars these days, but not an easy niche to find in science fiction.  No psi/magic/what-have-you; everything is kept fairly plausible to casual examination, except for that one thing which comes in a bit late and is not totally unreasonable.  Some of the characters are genetically engineered to be badasses, but those characters operate on a fairly even playing field against clever and postnatally-augmented folks.  The movers and shakers may be of high birth, but that's never why they're in charge; Brin's aristocratic concerns are strongly averted.  Falling in with a philosophy and working cleverly to achieve a shared worldview seems more important than lucky birth, and no manner of predestination is present.  Pre-singularity posthumanity is also a very workable premise; you get to do all sorts of body modification and philosophical diaspora without having to deal too much with the exponential growth and rapid obsolescence.  Sort of a nice balance between cyberpunk pessimism and transhumanist optimism; posthumans and their factions can be as cruel as any cyberpunk corporation, but the reign of any single power never lasts.

Anyway, 5/5 will probably read again, would steal from this book for Traveller without hesitation.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Inside the Soviet Army

From Suvorov's Inside the Soviet Army:
Only three forces are active in the Soviet political arena-the Party, the Army and the KGB. Each of these possesses enormous power, but this is exceeded by the combined strength of the other two. Each has its own secret organisation, which is capable of reaching into hostile countries and monitoring developments there. The Party has its Control Commission-a secret organisation which has almost as much influence inside the country as the KGB. The KGB is a grouping of many different secret departments, some of which keep an eye on the Party. The Army has its own secret service-the GRU-the most effective military intelligence service in the world.
Each of these three forces is hostile to the others and has certain, not unreasonable pretensions to absolute power but its initiatives will always fail in the face of the combined opposition of the other two.
Of the three, the Party has the smallest resources for self-defence in open conflict. But it has a strong lever at its disposal-the appointment and posting of all officials. Every general in the Army and every colonel in the KGB takes up his post and is promoted or demoted only with the approval of the Administrative Department of the Central Committee of the Party. In addition, the Party controls all propaganda and ideological work and it is always the Party which decides what constitutes true Marxism and what represents a deviation from its general line. Marxism can be used as an additional weapon when it becomes necessary to dismiss an unwanted official from the KGB, the Army or even the Party. The Party's right to nominate and promote individuals is supported by both the Army and the KGB. If the Party were to lose this privilege to the KGB, the Army would be in mortal danger. If the Army took it over, the KGB would be in an equally dangerous situation. For this reason, neither of them objects to the Party's privilege-and it is this privilege which makes the Party the most influential member of the triumvirate.
The KGB is the craftiest member of this troika. It is able, whenever it wishes, to recruit a party or a military leader as its agent: if the official refuses he can be destroyed by a compromise operation devised by the KGB. The Party remembers, only too clearly, how the KGB's predecessor was able to destroy the entire Central Committee during the course of a single year. The Army, for its part, remembers how, within the space of two months, the same organisation was able to annihilate all its generals. However, the secret power of the KGB and its cunning are its weakness as well as its strength. Both the Party and the Army have a deep fear of the KGB and for this reason they keep a very close eye on the behaviour of its leaders, changing them quickly and decisively, if this becomes necessary.
The Army is potentially the most powerful of the three and therefore it has the fewest rights. The Party and the KGB know very well that, if Communism should collapse, they will be shot by their own countrymen, but that this will not happen to the Army. The Party and the KGB acknowledge the might of the Army. Without it their policies could not be carried out, either at home or abroad. The Party and the KGB keep the Army at a careful distance, rather as two hunters might control a captured leopard with chains, from two different sides. The tautness of this chain is felt even at regimental and battalion level. The Party has a political Commissar in every detachment and the KGB a Special Department.

Sounds pretty gameable to me...  There were a lot of other interesting tidbits as well, though I'm nowhere near finished with the book.  Soviet doctrine on the deployment of nuclear weapons was sensible but unsettling ("strike first, because you never know when the enemy will go for his nukes...").  Doctrine on the allocation of brigade resources was remarkably pragmatic (if you have three battalions, one of whose advance is stopped, one which is advancing slowly, and one which is broken and retreating, you throw all of your higher-level reserves and artillery in support of the one battalion which is advancing, however slowly, because offense is king and you want a strategic breakthrough).  Anti-tank guns were intentionally almost never self-propelled, both for simplicity of construction and so that their crews could not retreat.  Optimism about the future of the tank in the pre-drone / ATGM era (though it also makes sense here, since one of the postulates of Soviet doctrine was that advanced manufacturing was going to get wrecked harder than it did in World War II via nukes, so neither side was going to be able to continue producing advanced guided weapons in any volume).  Doctrine regarding rifled vs smoothbore mortars and volume of fire was simple but sensible:
But what about accuracy? you will ask. It is of no significance. Soviet commanders have chosen a different way of approaching the problem. If you have to pay for accuracy with complexity of design, you are following the wrong path. Quantity is the better way to exert pressure. Since two simple, smoothbore mortars can do the work of one rifled one we will use the two simple ones, which will have the additional advantage of producing a lot more noise, dust and fire than one. And this is by no means unimportant in war. The more noise you produce, the higher the morale of your troops and the lower that of the enemy. What is more, two mortars are harder to destroy than one.
Helicopters viewed as lightly armored flying tanks instead of as aircraft, vehicle crews don't have Need To Know regarding the specifications or type designations of their vehicles, weird variations in shell calibre so that it's hard to confuse different types of ammunition in writing or speech, troops not provided rations or bedrolls but to spend no more than five days at the front at a time, and all kinds of just foreign concepts.  Promotion among officers was determined both by time in grade, but each command had a maximum rank that could command it - if at n years in service you hadn't acquired command of a larger force by impressing your superiors and being given command of a force above your rank, you were stuck at your current rank (a surprisingly meritocratic and very gameable arrangement).  I'm fairly impressed by the degree of focus on combined arms, with both air and land armies under the command of a single Front Commander, and necessarily cooperating. In any case, a very interesting read.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The High-Low Mix

I've been reading some criticism recently about US aircraft acquisition policy which is sort of interesting from a wargaming perspective.  The opposition allege that the Air Force has a problem where it tries to construct a fleet solely of maximum-capability airframes with stealth and mach 3 and all the bells and whistles required to fight an adversary with advanced air defense capabilities while making cuts to areas like close air support and aerial reconnaissance that don't require the same degree of technological sophistication and are much more useful against technologically inferior opponents.  As it turns out, these sort of high-tech aircraft are really expensive and hard to manufacture and maintain in large numbers, leading to numerical inferiority and either reliance on old models for pedestrian missions like bombing guerillas (for which all the bells and whistles are not required), or extreme maintenance costs for those missions if advanced aircraft are employed.

The opposition further argues that the Air Force should strive for a "high-low" force mix, with 20% of the force consisting of highest-end specialist hardware designed to punch holes in technologically advanced adversaries at any expense, and the other 80% consisting of less-expensive, less-specialized, general-purpose aircraft capable of performing a wide variety of missions at lower costs.

This reminds me of a time when someone tried to build an all-cataphract army - it was very strong on paper, but availability was low and they weren't good at going in and digging lizardmen out of caves.

This discussion is also interesting in light of our Starmada games.  I think part of the reason we didn't really see mission-specialized ships was that basically all of the Starmada victory conditions boiled down to "destroy the enemy fleet".  It probably didn't help that some scenarios banned Cloaking, Hyperdrive, and other options which would permit the construction of specialist ships for those missions.

...  and now I have the itch to build a better (less complex) BattleTech on top of Starmada's chassis while avoiding Wardogs' mistakes.  Bother.

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Board Game Tuesday

Playing new boardgames with a different group on a weeknight?  Scandalous!

Manhattan Project - This struck me as a well-designed game.  Uranium and plutonium seem balanced against each other (uranium is faster but more money-expensive both for production and loading bombers and lower-yield, but the plutonium path is slower).  A number of rules prevent the game from deadlocking (mandatory placement or retrieval, bribe pool).  Was fun, would play again now that I have a better understanding of the mechanics and tactics. A little bit on the long side (about 2.5 hours I think?), but that was with some stalling plays and lots of inexperience.  Overall I feel the game was well-worth the time.

Coup - I was hesitant as I expected this to be a Mafia / Werewolf / Bang style deception game, but was pleasantly surprised.  Maybe I was thinking of the larger variant with Monarchist / Rebel cards.  I enjoyed this game more than I expected; it is very satisfying to pull off a bold-faced bluff.