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The Day After World War III by Edward Zuckerman (1984) 407 p.

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Back on my bullshit thinking about nuclear war, I mistakenly ordered this little-known book from AbeBooks thinking it was a Warday-style speculative future history. It’s not, but that didn’t make it any less compelling. The Day After World War III is a long, in-depth examination of precisely what kind of planning the United States had in place to cope with a nuclear war: everything from civil defence to brinkmanship strategising to evacuation plans to recovery and reconstruction. It’s obviously dated, but it’s also clear that much of it is probably still relevant, and perhaps more relevant than ever given how many more nuclear powers there are in 2019 than 1984. (In the last few hours, as I’m writing this, Pakistan and India have started shooting down each other’s fighter jets in their latest skirmish over Kashmir; both countries are nuclear powers.)

Zuckerman alternates between primary chapters describing contemporary nuclear plans, and secondary chapters examining how America got to that point. The early secondary chapters, revolving around the Manhattan Project, the development of the first nuclear weapons and the development of a doctrine around their strategic use and purpose, are very interesting; the later ones, which tend to revolve around budgetary disputes, congressional committees and successive political tweaking by various presidents, not so much. But overall this is an approach which works well – perhaps even more so from a contemporary perspective, considering most people under fifty remember the Cold War as a vague notion of foolish warring powers risking all our lives by playing with fire. But the reality of two superpowers pointing missiles at each other in a deadly stand-off did not emerge from a vacuum: the development of nuclear weapons and the resulting Cold War was a direct geopolitical consequence of World War II. As Dan Carlin reminds us in his podcast episode Destroyer of Worlds: “Remember what these people have seen.” The politicians, generals and scientists who developed nuclear arms and strategised their use in the late 1940s and early 1950s had all born witness to the greatest massacre in human history, from the gas chambers of Auschwitz to the beaches of Normandy to the Rape of Nanking. They were under no illusions about what mankind was capable of. They had also just managed to defeat one genocidal empire; but the Soviet Union was still under the rule of Joseph Stalin, a blood-soaked dictator, and with Germany and Britain exhausted, that left two superpowers dictating the fate of an increasingly globalised world. We know, from our 21st century vantage point, that the end of World War II ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. They didn’t know that. The statesmen, generals and scientists of the late 1940s could just as well have seen a brief reprieve before another confrontation. There are any number of parallel universes peeling away from this one in which the 1950s led to another great war and a nuclear holocaust. The existence of nuclear weapons and intercontinental delivery systems is an unalterable fact of technology; the fact that we have all been safely borne into the 21st century without seeing any further use of them indicates maturity and wisdom on both the American and Russian sides, across successive generations. (Which is not to discount sheer dumb luck, and also not to discount the disarmament movement, which – however idealistically – strives for the best of all possible worlds.)

It’s interesting to re-examine your own beliefs about nuclear war, especially for those of us who grew up after the Cold War, with only a vague notion that the combined stockpiles of Russia and the US are enough to wipe out all life on Earth. Zuckerman actually spends quite some time discussing the dispute throughout the Cold War between the disarmament movement, who insisted that a full-scale nuclear war would lead to the extinction of humankind (or at least of advanced human civilisation) and the strategic hawks, who insisted that with correct defence planning and a limited exchange, both the US and the USSR might emerge from such a war as functioning, viable countries: horrifically scarred and devastated, and possibly no longer the world’s pre-eminent powers, but certainly a far cry from ending all life on earth. Zuckerman himself takes no side in that debate, and indeed shows us how it’s simply impossible to model such a scenario, but does point out the obvious truth that tens of millions dying in nuclear hellfire is still far too high a price to pay to ever countenance a nuclear war. It is true, however – as FEMA representatives protest in the hot seat at congressional committees – that it would be remiss of the US government, and of their agency in particular, to have no plans whatsoever to defend the populace from nuclear attack.

What makes this so interesting is how unrealistic those plans seem. I’m a long-time reader and writer of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction. The interesting thing to me about that genre is the human factor: how certain people cope, or don’t cope, when the threads of society begin to unravel. How people react, how people behave, what people are capable of doing. That’s why it’s equally fascinating to me to read the plans of a bunch of FEMA wonks with a strong grasp of logistics but a poor grasp of human nature, meticulously considering the most efficient way to transport large numbers of civilians, or how much square meterage of extra dirt cover is needed for a fallout shelter, or how much manpower is required for this or that task – without ever considering the human factor, without ever considering that maybe a good chunk of their assumed volunteer workforce is more likely to drive right past their assigned fallout shelter and keep going until they get their family to Canada. One FEMA guide details how civilians evacuated from high-risk areas to low-risk areas would be put to work piling dirt over their shelters, adding that their numbers would be reinforced by minimum security convicts released from prison, which instantly conjures up an image of a white suburban insurance broker being asked to work a dirt-bucket chain alongside a tattooed black ex-con, and invites the question of precisely how FEMA intended to enforce these plans. Zuckerman maintains a great dry sense of humour throughout these examples:

The sudden news… that half a million black and Hispanic residents of the Bronx are heading for rural Ulster County is likely to create tremors in Ulster County… In 1980, FEMA ordered a special study “to examine the question of whether or not Blacks and other minorities might experience special problems in the event that a nuclear war became likely and the President ordered a massive population relocation.” It concluded that they would.

If you’re wondering how any of these evacuations would have time to take place, the answer is that government planners expect a nuclear war would most likely occur after a prolonged build-up of tension; a “bolt from the blue” attack is considered unlikely. This feeds into another myth many of us grow up with, which is that Mutually Assured Destruction means you aim your weapons at the enemy’s cities, like holding a gun to his children’s head. Not so; nuclear arms do not make conventional arms and conventional warfare entirely obsolete. So you wouldn’t want to be in Los Angeles or New York or Washington when the bombs fall, but only because major cities tend to be the location of military bases, government offices and critical infrastructure like deepwater ports, major airports and steelwork industries. Nuclear arms were developed as strategic weapons of war, and they’re intended to be used as such; from a strategic perspective, bombing a purely civilian target merely means your enemy no longer has to feed and care for those civilians, and you’re down one bomb. This would of course be cold (or hot) comfort  to the civilians who have the misfortune to live too close to a military target. (Sidenote: I’m Australian, and given that Australia is a major US ally, it doesn’t seem unreasonable the Soviets would have spared a dozen or so nuclear bombs for us – certainly Exmouth would be toast. My office in Melbourne is about five hundred metres away from a major Department of Defence site; I’ve played around with the Nuke Map and determined that it would depend on the tonnage of the weapon in question as to whether I died in the fireball, died in the collapse of my brick office building, or merely died a slow and lingering death of radiation poisoning.)

This is also the reason the US built its missile silos in the Upper Midwest: not just to decrease the range American missiles would have to travel to Russia and increase the range submarine-launched Soviet missiles would have to travel to the silos, but also to keep them away from the cities. Nuclear missile silos are another thing we don’t ever really think about, and it’s fascinating to remember that there were other people – designers and engineers and strategists – who spent much of their careers thinking about them. Zuckerman describes how the missiles in these silos are, by the 1980s, hardened against attack by being slung on cables and braced with rubber and foam:

While unused missiles are swaying gently in their slings to the rhythm of Russian hydrogen bombs exploding nearby, surviving missile launch crews will be sitting tight in their aircraft-style seats, lap and shoulder belt fastened to keep them from being thrown to the floor by shockwaves. Their launch control capsules are mounted on giant shock absorbers.

An Air Force crewman at one of these silos tells Zimmerman that most of this strategising seems to end at the point of launch. Each silo contains emergency rations, and a .22 rifle – “The idea is you can shoot rabbits with it.” Much of what makes The Day After World War III great is the cumulative effect of these fascinating details. After describing the U.S. Air Force’s ‘Looking Glass’ flights (a fleet of AWACS planes, at least one of which is always in the air, to serve as a mobile command post in the event of an unexpected nuclear strike) Zuckerman describes what would happen in the event of an actual nuclear war:

The plane’s crew will be flying by instruments – even if the sun is shining and the weather is fine. The crew members’ view of the sky will be blocked by aluminized fabric curtains they will place over the cockpit windows (the only windows on the plane) when the war begins. Their eyes will need that protection from the blinding light of the hydrogen bombs exploding below.

Another Air Force crewman, assigned to refuelling squadrons, explains how he would wear gold goggles to protect from the same hazard – but at night, too dark for goggles, the refuelling teams wear eye patches: “If you get flash effects, you’ll lose one eye, but you’ll still have one that’s operable.” No fiction writer could come up with stuff like this. Only an entire nation’s military and political apparatus, working over successive decades, could deliver these morbidly fascinating small details.

Even if you have an interest in nuclear war, I’m not sure I can recommend this book – it’s out of date, and possibly out of print, and in any case I feel it did ramble on a bit too much and sometimes repeat itself. I can say that I found it a very interesting read, and I learned a lot from it. It’s a good deep dive into a subject we all know about but which few of us ever give much thought to, and which corrects a number of the default assumptions we build up over life.

The Talisman by Stephen King and Peter Straub (1984) 769 p.

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I wouldn’t describe myself as a Stephen King “fan,” though from what I remember from Goodreads’ Most Read Authors feature (which they inexplicably scrapped in January) I’ve read something like twenty books by the man. My opinion on King as a writer is probably not uncommon: he writes great, page-turning popular fiction, isn’t about to win the Pulitzer but still has far more skill than the average airport fiction bestseller, and he got some truly great speculative fiction books under his belt before going off the rails sometime around the late 1980s. (I’d prefer not to conclude that this was because he kicked cocaine around the same time; maybe it was because he’d become so enormously popular and wealthy he figured he must be doing something right and no longer felt compelled to listen to his editors, a tale of woe common to many bestselling authors.)

So while I haven’t read all of King’s early (i.e. good) work, nearly all of it is on my to-be-read pile. The Talisman for some reason was not. I think it’s because it was co-authored, which to me always smacks of the lesser-known author doing most of the work while the more famous one puts his name on the cover to shift copies. That doesn’t seem to be the case with The Talisman; supposedly Straub and King each wrote a chapter then sent it to the other to edit, and if I didn’t know any better I’d say King had written the entire thing. It’s only because I was looking out for it that I was occasionally able to spot a more Kingian tone to some of the chapters: more 20th century pop culture references, more of an inner monologue, more of a sense that the writer is getting really obsessively invested in certain villains – the televangelist running a juvenile detention centre in Indiana is pure Stephen King.

Anyway, regardless of who’s at the helm, it’s a pretty solid fantasy/horror story, once in which readers of the Dark Tower series will immediately feel at home. At the beginning of autumn in 1981, 12-year-old Jack Sawyer finds himself in a deserted New England seaside resort, dragged out of school in New York by his ageing mother, who was once a Hollywood starlet. Jack only slowly realises that she’s dying of cancer and has come to this old resort, where she once had happy memories, to die. Struggling to accept this, Jack befriends an old black janitor named Speedy Parker at the nearby mothballed amusement park. Speedy (100% a blatant Magic Negro archetype) tells Jack there’s a way to save his mother – if he travels into another world, a mirror world of America called the Territories, and retrieves something called the Talisman.

This of course sounds silly written down, but King handles it in that deft way he had back in his prime, slowly revealing that Jack has had visions and “daydreams” of the Territories for his whole life, and run-ins with denizens of that world, because his own late father (and his father’s business partner Morgan Sloat, who becomes the novel’s antagonist) had visited the Territories themselves. Speedy Parker’s befriending of Jack, therefore, is not the coincidental accident it first seems. To retrieve the Talisman, Jack must travel to California’s counterpart in the Territories. Having been granted the power to flip between the two worlds at will, Jack sets off on a great road story from America’s east coast to its west, facing dangers in both worlds.

The bulk of the novel in fact takes place in our own world, which is fine, because this kind of Americana is where King excels. (I have a pet theory that he is in fact the most fundamentally American writer of the 20th century.) There are entire segments which add nothing to an already very thick book, but which I was quite happy to read, because they’re just pitch perfect. I particularly liked the thread where Jack ends up in a sort of implied indentured servitude at a dive bar in a bleak little rust belt town in upstate New York, which shows more than anything how well King – though by the time of writing this he was presumably already a millionaire – knows as well as anybody that 1970s and ‘80s impoverished, backwater, blue collar way of life:

They were town men from a rural area where the plows were now probably rusting forgotten in back sheds, men who perhaps wanted to be farmers but had forgotten how. There were a lot of John Deere caps in evidence, but to Jack, very few of these men looked as if they would be at home riding a tractor. These were men in gray chinos and brown chinos and green chinos; men with their names stitched on blue shirts in gold thread; men in square-toed Dingo Boots and men in great big clumping Survivors. These men carried their keys on their belts. These men had wrinkles but no laugh-lines; their mouths were dour. These men wore cowboy hats and when Jack looked at the bar from in back of the stools, there were as many as eight who looked like Charlie Daniels in the chewing-tobacco ads. But these men didn’t chew; these men smoked cigarettes, and a lot of them.

 

I compared this book earlier to the Dark Tower series, which is a both a good and bad thing. When The Talisman is at its best – showing the creepy, unsettling ways the creatures of The Territories are seeping into an all-familiar, all-American 1980s setting, from highway rest stops to industrial kitchens to a fancy prep school – it’s great, and reminded me of the very best of the Dark Tower series. When it’s not-so-great, it reminded me of… well, not the worst of the Dark Tower series (which becomes truly dire) but certainly the more annoying tics and habits of Stephen King. There’s a climactic battle which is rather Hollywoodesque, all bright lights and little substance; by that third act of the book in general, King has been drinking a little too much of his own Kool-Aid. (Robert Burns has nothing to do with this story, no matter how many times you have the characters quote a line from his poem.)

On the whole, though, The Talisman was a great read. It’s not up there with something like The Mist or the early Dark Tower books, which stand as the best things King’s ever written. But it’s definitely on par with a novel like The Dead Zone. If you like King’s work in general, you’ll like this.

Hogfather by Terry Pratchett (1996) 432 p.
Discworld #20 (Death #4)

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Okay, obviously I meant to read this one around Christmas, but lots of other patrons of my various online library services had the same idea. But for those of you in the northern hemisphere who are still in the bleak-holiday free stretch of winter that comes after New Year’s but before the first gasp of sunrise in spring, perhaps it feels more seasonally appropriate. (When I remember winter from the year I lived in London, it’s not the cold that comes to mind, but the dark – that overwhelmingly depressing darkness, the sun just slinking along the horizon, the shadows always long.)

Hogswatchnight is the Discworld’s version of Christmas and New Year wrapped up together, the name clearly inspired by Scottish Hogmanay. The patron saint is not Father Christmas but rather the Hogfather, who rides a sleigh pulled by four fat hairy hogs and whose association with meat and sausages speaks to older, darker, Mitteleuropan pagan rites: predators in the forest, blood on the snow, sacrifice to bring the springtime. As we know by now, belief on the Discworld is a very powerful thing, so even if people’s beliefs have changed over the centuries, the Hogfather is still around.

Until one Hogswatchnight he’s not. The Assassin’s Guild of Ankh-Morpork has been issued a very peculiar contract, and to carry it out they dispatch one of their dangerously gifted young assassins, the visibly insane Mr Teatime. My most distinct memories of this book are the creativity of this story thread (thinner than I recall, and in fact not really coming into play until the third act) as Teatime assembles a small gang of thugs and takes them… somewhere strange, where the sky doesn’t seem to meet the horizon and the trees and water don’t look quite right. Slowly figuring out what this place is, and precisely how Teatime plans to assassinate a magical figure of myth, is really great. It’s a brilliant piece of plotting which Pratchett could only do a) in a fantasy series, where most readers probably know this old trick of magic folklore, and b) in his fantasy series, where he has spent multiple books exploring the nature of belief and reality.

Death steps into the role of Hogfather to attempt to keep the myth going while also encouraging his granddaughter Susan to investigate what’s happening. Susan is a fine character but it’s Death as always who really shines, from the wonderful jokes that naturally stem from him taking on this unconventional role, to the sense of frisson that flows from seeing Death – with his odd affection for humanity – step up into the role of investigator, protector and saviour. The Death books have always been some of the Discworld’s best, largely because Death himself is simply one of Pratchett’s best characters.

Next up is Jingo, one of the very best books in the series.

Rereading Discworld Index

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