Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Hunt for Red October

The Hunt for Red October was an incredible book. First published in 1984, it was at the time when there was a height of conflict and tension between the Western Alliance and the Soviet Union. The book launched the writing career of its author, Tom Clancy, and created a new hero, Jack Ryan. Tom Clancy used this hero in many of his following novels, but The Hunt for Red October was the one that started it all. It was turned into a movie starring Sean Connery in the iconic role of Marko Ramius, the commander of the Soviet missible submarine, Red October, and Alec Baldwin as the role of Jack Ryan.
The book was incredibly researched, and the story goes that the Kremlin ordered a huge quantity of books to try and overcome their greatest fear (a captain of a missile submarine has a huge amount of independence, something not given to any other offical in any submarine, which is why the Soviet submarines had a political officer as well), and the US administration tried to identify who could have provided the detailed research to Tom Clancy.
The story revolved around the defection of the crew of the Red October, a revolutionary new Soviet missile submarine that has a new stealth propulsion system, something that can provide a major advantage to the Soviets (for information, a ballistic submarine missile has incredible firepower, read this entry), as the missiles provide both a stealth first fire capability and a quick reaction retaliatory capability. The US has an extensive underwater sonar system designed to pick up traces of an incoming submarine, but with this new capability, Red October would be able to avoid getting detected, an immense strategic advantage.
Marko Ramius, a half-Lithuanian by birth has risen high in the ranks of the Soviet navy and is now trusted with the best submarine made by the Soviet Union. However, they do not know that he is a disgruntled man, since his wife's death at the hands of a well-connected doctor was unpunished; further, he believes that Red October would provide an immense strategic advantage to the Soviet navy. He decides to defect, and then sends a letter to the Navy Secretary informing of his intention to defect and sail to New Yoork Harbor. This letter reaches once he has set sail.
The panic stricken Soviets send the entire North Atlantic fleet after him, although they realize that sending the fleet within a 400 km distance to the American coast could be seen as a tremendous escalation, so they inform the Americans that Marko sent a letter claiming that he will launch missiles against the US, which is why the massive Soviet fleet is chasing him.
In a meeting with the US President and other officers, Jack Ryan, a new CIA analyst (supposedly joining the CIA in another novel, Patriot Games), mentions that maybe he is trying to defect. He is charged with the responsibility of coordinating this, as too many people actually don't believe him.
In order to make it seem that the submarine has actually sunk, Red October declares an emergency, and gets most of the crew off, with the captain staying behind in order to sink the submarine. However, in a gun-fight on board the submarine, a GRU (Soviet military intelligence) agent uses a gun against the captain and his officer, and tries to blow up the submarine. Ryan finally kills him after a gun-fight.
In another tension filled event, the captain of a Soviet attack submarine, and a former pupil of Ramius, recognizes the submarine he is trailing is the Red October and tries to sink it. The US subs accompanying the Red October are unable to fire back, but eventually Red October rams this submarine and sinks it. And finally the Red October is guided into a US navy base. And in order to convince the Soviets that it was Red October that sank, the Americans place a device on the deep ocean floor that convinces the Soviets.
This was a compelling novel, something that was very exciting to read and also approve of the detail that went into writing this book.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Jeffrey Archer: Not a Penny more, not a Penny less

This was the first Jeffrey Archer that I read, and this was the first one written by him way back in 1974. It was a slow starter, but slowly picked up by word of mouth, and eventually became a big hit. The book was a bit raw, since it was his first book, but was still extremely enjoyable. The book was not terribly thick either, and was thus a good read.
So what was the book all about? It was essentially about the revenge thought up by a cold, calculating mind, that of a Harvard graduate now teaching at Oxford against a swindler. The story starts with the swindle though up by a man who has made his money by high-level cheating; in this case, Harvey Metcalfe, sells a story about an oil stock just about to hit it big. He manages to swindle 4 people out of a considerable portion of their money; Stephen Bradley, a Harvard mathematics graduate now teaching at Oxford; Robin, a physician at Harley Street; Jean-Pierre Lamans, an art dealer; and James Brigsley, a presumably vacant young English lord.
So when Stephen Bradley finds that he is now holding dud oil stock, he wants to get his money back, not exactly revenge, he just wants to get his money back, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less. He contacts the other 3 people swindled, and while initially they are unwilling to admit that they lost money, they eventually do so. He forms his own small army to get their money back. Part of the plan is that all the robbed will make their own plans to get the money back, and all of them will play their parts in each plan. The rest of the book is about how each of them make their own plans based on their own areas of knowledge, and start making a fool of Metcalfe. The amusing part is also about how they treat James Brigley as the only person who is presumably not smart enough to make his own plans; but eventually in a twist, due to romancing Metcalfe's daughter, he manages to get money back.
The last twist in the story is contained in the final 2 pages, so it is possible like I did so, where the last 2 pages were stuck together, and it is only when I read a different copy that I realized the final twist.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Bill Bryson: Down Under - An extremely entertaining book

This book was published in 2000, and goes by 2 different names. In the UK, it is called Down Under, and in the US, it is called In a Sunburned Country, no doubt because the term Down Under to refer to Australia is not so common.
This is an extremely entertaining book (I read it over a period of 3 days), and I would recommend it to anyone who wanting to visit Australia for vacation, or planning on settling over there. For most people in the outside world, Australia is known for its vast deserts, for some beautiful cities (Adelaide, Sydney (and its Opera House and Harbour), Melbourne, and Perth), for its cricket and rugby teams, and that is all what most people know about Australia.
The book presents an incredible amount of detail about Australia, presented from the perspective of driving from one city to the other. Hence, the author covers a fair amount of Australia through drives greater than 1000 km each; through the book, you get a perspective of how large, and yet how deserted most of Australia. Description of the last habitation for the next 400 km on a road gives an incredible feeling of desolateness.
The most interesting insight you get is into the kinds of creatures who inhabit Australia, a large number of them deadly who can suddenly attack you. From the large Australian salt water crocodile which can suddenly attack you when you are swimming, from extremely small jellyfish that can deal an incredible sting if you come into contact with them, from sharks in some of the major waters, from a number of extremely poisonous snakes, other creatures in the waters who are dangerous and you would not even notice them, a bird who has extremely sharp talons, spiders who are somewhat big and very dangerous. And about people who keep on getting struck by one of these dangers.
There is a lot of perspective on explorers, most of them who seem doomed, but still keep on venturing on; there is a street level perspective on the major cities, including what to see. The saddest part of the book was about the treatment of the original inhabitants, the aborigines and their current dismal health and life statistics, as well as not much of an improvement seen.
Mostly, the book is written in a very outsider perspective, so it seems much more entertaining. It is not a tourist guide, it is not a book about the people or a vacation diary, it seems much more than that. For example, the author wonders at so many unknown facts about Australia; from the fact that one of its serving Prime Ministers vanished into the sea and was never found,
that Australia sent large contingents to the World Wars, that there was no concept of something called an Australian citizenship till 1949. Read this book !!