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Book reviews

How language both reflects and influences technology, the story of a notorious satcoms failure, and an important message that should have been delivered differently.

Grove Press/Atlantic

Eccentric Orbits: The Iridium Story

By John Bloom, £16.99, ISBN 9781611855357

The low-Earth orbiting satellite constellation Iridium is well known throughout the space industry, but for all the wrong reasons. After the company filed for bankruptcy protection in 1999, the term ‘Iridium Effect’ grew to prominence in the media and industry alike: it encompassed the detrimental effect the high-profile business failure had on other high-tech propositions looking for financial investment.

Although this book doesn’t recognise the Iridium Effect in its index, it summarises the essence of the Iridium system in its opening pages with a pseudo-definition of the title word ‘eccentric’: “in aerospace engineering, an orbital path that’s off center…in psychology, a person who is off-center…in business, Iridium”.

This sets the tone for John Bloom’s entertaining story of the rise and fall of an innovative system originally designed for satellite mobile phone services, and its reincarnation under former PanAm CEO Dan Colussy. It reads like an airport novel – “Dannie Stamp, bitter, brokenhearted, packed into a sterile cubicle on a upper floor of The Tower [stared] off into the hazy shimmer of the oppressive heat…” – and introduces topics in a pithy, staccato fashion: “It was the season of the dot-com bubble.”

Some 500 pages later we see key characters “farming land in Iowa and the Texas Panhandle”, becoming “a consultant for NBC’s hit series The West Wing” and, in Colussy’s case, “working seriously on his golf game again”. In Wikipedia terms, it’s a story that could be condensed to a few paragraphs, but we’re thinking more like TV mini-series here. That said, the book was written using private and US government archives, personal interviews and other sources, and includes 15 pages of chapter notes and a 25-page index.

A 16-page colour-photo section presents key players, historical materials and the obligatory rockets, as well as a cartoon lampooning the original post-bankruptcy plan to deorbit the satellites: “I bought one of them I-ridium Satellites on E-bay!” says a man to his neighbour as a satellite aims for his house.

Thanks to a plan to ‘repurpose’ the constellation for the US Department of Defense, this didn’t happen, and in its current incarnation the company is now preparing for the launch of a replacement constellation called Iridium Next. The author describes Colussy’s visit to the Pentagon to pitch the repurposing plan with his typical narrative style, taking five pages to get Colussy in the office while referencing Alpine foothills, Chevrolet dealerships, Cold War think tanks, Blackbird spy-planes, comic-book heroes and TGI Fridays in the process.

He may take a while getting to the point, but it’s an entertaining journey. Ultimately, the readers who will gain most from the book are those who know a little of the Iridium story and the basic technology but enjoy the diversion of a ‘character overlay’. Engaging though it is, the text is a stream of consciousness flowing imperceptibly past the reader – a bit like Iridium satellites in their eternal orbits perhaps.

Mark Williamson


2017: War with Russia, An Urgent Warning from Senior Military Command

By General Sir Richard Shireff, Coronet, £20, ISBN 9781473632226

The day before I sat down to write this review, I heard a news report on Radio Liberty claiming that Russia was frantically stockpiling gold reserves, seemingly in preparation for a long military campaign. Does it mean that General Sir Richard Shirreff’s work of fiction will prove prophetic? Should we be afraid of Putin’s Russia?

General Shirreff’s answer, in the shape of his first novel, is ‘Yes. Yes. Yes!’ And as a former Nato deputy supreme allied commander Europe he should know what he is talking about. Modern Russia is in the throes of unprecedented militarisation, and its behaviour on the international scene is becoming more and more aggressive.

In his preface, General Shirreff calls Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia a Rhineland moment, and the annexation of the Crimea, with the resulting hybrid war in Ukraine, Putin’s Sudetenland. What next? Following the Hitler analogy, an invasion – with the role of Poland now to be played by the Baltics, which, in the novel, are invaded on a trumped-up pretext in 2017, provoking a nuclear conflict with the West.

Whether or not this terrifying scenario comes true, I wish Shirreff had limited himself to the preface. In other words, he should have stuck to non-fiction, without venturing into the literary realm and thus trivialising a very serious message.

The book starts with the kidnapping of four Americans by Russia’s FSB security service in my native Ukrainian city of Kharkiv. From Shirreff’s laconic descriptions, it appears that he has never set foot there – just looked at some maps perhaps. The names of the ‘baddies’ – Vronsky, Brezhneva, Merkulov and such like – have obviously been taken from history books. The president himself is referred to as Vladimir Vladimirovich – Putin’s full patronymic – and one of his factotums as Lavrentiy Pavlovich – the full name of Beria, Stalin’s one-time chief of secret police.

This matters. Writers struggle to find believable names for their characters, and borrowing them from other sources testifies to the poor quality of research. What’s more, nearly all Shirreff’s characters are cliched and stereotypical; the dialogue is stilted, and the inevitable love interest – a blonde Latvian spy – all but laughable.

There is one area, however, where the author must have done some serious research: his descriptions of weapons, arms and machinery seem to come straight from defence industry catalogues and field manuals. “The six-foot four-inch Kiwi established comms with PJHQ over the INMARSAT secure VTC”. Where is my trusted abbreviations dictionary?

General Shirreff has an important message, but chose the wrong way to share it. His timely and dire warning gets lost behind all those numbers, codes and abbreviations. The conclusion is simple: novels should stay the domain of writers.

Literature or not, let’s hope against hope that General Shirreff’s well-informed prophecies don’t come true.

Vitali Vitaliev

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