Thursday, January 14, 2021

Go Big Or Go Home: Thoughts on KING ARTHUR (2004)

Back in 2004, I saw the historical epic (well, it tried to be) King Arthur with a friend from the Boy Scouts. I remember liking it, although even then I thought that the Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot love triangle was poorly done (it seemed to consist of people staring at each other) and even then I knew that the Catholic Church didn't have that much power in that time period.

Well, between then and now the film podcast Myopia Movies came to be, and this was one of the movies I really wanted to do. We watched it in late December. Here's the podcast. Let's start with some general commentary...


*For starters, the concept is sound. Most Arthurian stories depict a society more like medieval Europe with armored knights, chivalry, etc. but Arthur, if he were real, lived much earlier. Setting the story during the fall of Roman Britain--a "last helicopters out of Saigon" type of thing--is much more creative. They also went with the Sarmatian hypothesis that Arthur's knights were based on Sarmatian auxiliary cavalry, which is pretty cool. However, the fact they get the time period right means that all the stuff they get wrong (see this TVTropes "Artistic License--History" for more) sticks out even more.

For example, Arthur's "knights" are supposed to be Samartians, but their battle-cry of "RUS!" invokes an ethnic group that didn't even exist until centuries later. Furthermore, the Sarmatians were kindred to the Persians. Although they wouldn't be Asian in appearance like Turks or Mongols, they wouldn't be British either. Giving people who are supposed to be Middle Eastern the Welsh/Celtic (or in the case of Lancelot, French) names of the legendary knights and having them played by British actors gets sillier the more you think about it. I wouldn't put up there with "John Wayne Playing Genghis Khan" levels of ethnic miscasting the way Nic did, but it's getting there. 

Since Arthur (Clive Owen) is supposed to be a descendant of Lucius Artorius Castus, a Roman officer who commanded Sarmatian cavalry in Britain, they could have made his "knights" (who would have been called "equites" or something similar--"knights" is a much later term) descendants of the original Sarmatians and British wives who've kept up the family tradition. This could explain their Welsh names, being played by British actors, etc. but also explain why they have very Asian or Middle Eastern-looking equipment. The decaying Western Roman Empire (or if they go with the right time period, the abandoned remnant of Roman civilization in Britain) is running out of money, they're required to provide their own gear, and this is what they've got.

*Although the "love triangle" still consists of a lot of staring like I remembered, Guinevere does have meaningful conversations with both Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) and Arthur--she and Lancelot engage in snarky banter before a really fun battle on the ice with a group of Saxons and she and Arthur talk about politics--and Lancelot is clearly depicted as the kind of man who goes after women who are already spoken for. He claims one of Bors' many illegitimate children is really his, (I think) paws at Bors' girlfriend, and jokes that another knight will be fortunate to have children who all look like him rather than their purported father. Had Lancelot not been killed like in the film and remained Arthur's second-in-command, I could easily imagine this being a problem.

*The film does get it right that the Western Empire was a Christian state when it collapsed--the "heathen orgies and decadence" period was hundreds of years prior--but they overstate the power of the Church. Church officials are not going to be giving Roman soldiers orders and there were no "papal armies" for Arthur to threaten to fight through to get to Bishop Germanus (Ivano Marescotti) if things go wrong. It would have been better if it was a Roman general giving Arthur and his remaining "knights" the orders for one last mission to get their promised discharge papers, and when Arthur complains, the general can tell him privately that the Pope is behind this. The Pope at the time would have been subordinate to the Emperor, but that doesn't mean he couldn't pull strings for his own schemes.

*The film also gets the Augustine/Pelagius issue wrong. Pelagius was not some early version of a Renaissance Christian humanist and Augustine was not some grim-bot obsessed with human sinfulness who wanted people to just sit around and suffer. Pelagius taught that since people could theoretically not sin, if they did sin they have no excuse. Augustine's belief in Original Sin is merciful in comparison because it at least acknowledges human imperfection. Pelagianism was a very ascetic creed that became popular in Britain as a reaction to the lax "Christian in name only" attitudes of most people once the state officially became Christian. Rather than being toadies of a corrupt and overly-political state church, the zealous monks who have themselves walled up alive with the "Woad" prisoners to convert them to Christianity before they all starve to death would be Pelagian true-believer types. 

(It's also described that Arthur hasn't put in much if any effort to convert his pagan soldiers to Christianity--an Augustinian could theoretically believe in predestination to the point they think it's all in God's hands and they have no responsibility to evangelize, but a Pelagian wouldn't.)

*I refer to the Saxon king Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård) as "medieval Nazi Gandalf" at least once in the podcast. Not only is he anachronistically racist (he kills one of his men for trying to rape a Celtic woman on the grounds that "we don't mix with these people" and then kills her too, plus he sadistically tells a British traitor that they're going to kill his people and make him watch), but he sounds like he's a chronic smoker who's asleep half the time. Per TVTropes the actor was trying to play him as someone who was bored and finds in Arthur "a man worth killing," but that wasn't impressive. I've seen Skarsgård in other movies--surely he could do better than just sadistically mumble.

*Although not everybody in the podcast agreed with me, Arthur is the one with a character arc in the film. He starts out believing in the ideals of Rome and the Church, but seeing the Roman government break promises to his men, seeing Roman officials misuse Christian ideals to justify abusing the common people he feels obligated as a Roman officer and as a Christian to protect, and finally learning that the Church has executed his religious mentor Pelagius for heresy totally destroy his faith in Rome. He also has the Celtic rebel Guinevere (Keira Knightley) and her father Merlin (Stephen Dillane) trying to get him back in touch with his British heritage through his mother. This explains his decision to essentially desert the retreating Roman army and lead the Celts against the Saxons.

(Guinevere is pretty blatantly a honey-trap, by the way. Her idea of flirting with Arthur is to harangue him about politics, Merlin is conveniently around to try to talk him out of his grudge for his mother's death, and when Arthur's broody and emotionally vulnerable after the death of Dagonet and learning that Pelagius has been executed, Guinevere straight-up climbs on top of him and they go at it. Once Arthur rescued Guinevere from the odious Roman landlord, it is totally plausible Merlin and/or Guinevere saw an opportunity to recruit their greatest enemy to fight for them.)

*Bors is hilarious, by the way. He has so many illegitimate children he can't remember their names and has to rely on numbers and he's not keen on marrying the mother of at least the youngest one. Arthur is the most admirable character, but Bors is the most fun.

However, although the movie proved disappointing, it's easy to complain. In the podcast I mentioned that this could have been a Lord of the Rings-style trilogy or at minimum a three-hour mega-movie. As-is, it could stand to be tightened further (Bors' girlfriend has a musical number I thought was kind of stupid), but there's so much potential here for more. More battles to show that this is the last stand of a whole civilization, plus Arthur's arc and the Lancelot/Guinevere/Arthur triangle could have been better developed if there was more screen-time.

Phase One (Movie #1 or the first hour): We meet Arthur and his "knights" and see them fighting the "Woads," anti-Roman Celts led by the druid Merlin who've been emboldened by the Roman military withdrawal a generation earlier. They return from a hard-fought battle to find Bishop Germanus from Rome waiting for them. Given how Arthur would have lived after the Roman armies left Britain, Germanus is there as a Roman government envoy or an unofficial ambassador (think Rev. Jesse Jackson getting American POWs released) promising aid from Rome to the besieged Romanized Celts if they rescue a well-connected family whose villa is under threat from the Woads, Saxons, or (depending where it's located) both. If he's not there officially but promises to use his pull with the Pope to get the emperor to send reinforcements, this would represent the role of the Pope more realistically.

Already strained by having to deal with the "Woads" and having been on the receiving end of Saxon raids before, Arthur and the remnant Romans in Britain agree. Lancelot, Arthur's closest friend and second in command, is skeptical, but the more experienced Arthur points out that with the Saxon raids they're fighting a two-front war and need all the help they can get. If the Saxon raids are being launched from coastal enclaves established a generation or two earlier, Arthur can emphasize the importance of not conceding the invaders any more land. However, Arthur finds the Roman landlord Marius (Ken Stott) abusing his proto-serfs and killing Woad prisoners in horrific ways and justifying it in the name of Christianity, something he finds absolutely horrifying. The meet-cute with Guinevere still happens and the film (or this segment of a single film) ends with the Saxons arriving sooner than they'd thought. Arthur, his knights, Marius's family, and their abused peasantry have to beat a hasty retreat. Cerdic sends his son Cynric (Til Schweiger) after Arthur to earn his spurs and perhaps take Marius and his family hostage for ransom (this is where the British traitor can show up) while he takes the main army out for "land-taking."

(Arthur being ignorant of just what Rome really was like is much more believable if he were born after the Roman armies left and this is all based on nostalgia--an active Roman officer, even one in a isolated area like Britain, would know better.)

Phase Two (Movie #2 or the second hour): The retreat back to the coast with the Roman family, pursued by Cynric's Saxon detachment. This is where we see Arthur's faith in Rome beginning to erode, the love triangle between Guinevere, Arthur, and Lancelot begin to form (the director's cut has much more interaction between her and both men), and several deaths. Meanwhile, the main Saxon army under Cerdic is killing or driving out the native Britons (both the Romanized and non-Romanized), claiming attractive women as war prizes, etc. and Cerdic is gruffly commenting on how this is good land and his people will make good use of it. It's a lot clearer why the Saxons are there and what they'll do to the people if they're not stopped. We still have the battle on the ice because this shows off Arthur's cleverness and the banter between Lancelot and Guinevere, plus more overt assistance from the Woads on the grounds that the Saxons are the enemies to all Celts, not just the Romanized ones. Arthur also learns about the Church's torture and execution of heretics (this happened for the first time in 385), something that clashes mightily with his Christian beliefs and his nostalgia for Rome. Most of this film (or this part of a single film) will be the prolonged Saxon pursuit, with the climax being the battle on the ice and the humiliation of Cynric.

However, when they meet back up with Germanus, he takes the family and leaves, promising to return with help in such a way that the increasingly-disillusioned Arthur thinks he's either lying or simply not able to fulfill his promises. In his despair he turns to Guinevere and, well, bow-chicka-bow-wow ensues.

Phase Three (Movie #3 or the third hour): Using Guinevere as a go-between, Arthur and the Romanized Celts make a truce with Merlin and both Celtic factions gather their armies to fight Cerdic and Cynric. Nic suggested in the canonical film that Arthur should have shown the Woads how to make the trebuchets they deploy for the final battle, since this is something the Romans would know how to do but the more primitive and disorganized anti-Roman Celts wouldn't, and a longer movie would allow this. They set up the trebuchets atop Badon Hill and bombard the Saxon armies, baiting them to attack uphill against dug-in infantry while Arthur's cavalry harry their flanks, hit and run to draw Saxon forces out of formation, etc. If this is a whole separate movie, it's basically a post-Roman version of Gettysburg or The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Arthur and friends are ultimately victorious, at the cost of many lives. Arthur and Guinevere marry in a ceremony mixing both Celtic (the standing stones) and Catholic (the wine cups and perhaps a convenient baptism for her) elements to secure the alliance against future Saxon attacks. Arthur is hailed as the new High King in a Celtic fashion, with the Roman elements throwing in "Imperator."

However, a surviving Lancelot obviously still infatuated with Guinevere is an ominous sign. If Cerdic is killed but Cynric survives as a POW, he can witness the alliance being made and sent home with a warning of who'll be waiting if he tries anything funny, But rather than becoming a sadder but wiser man smart enough not to tangle with the Celts again, Cynric pretty obviously plans to continue the plan to conquer Britain--and also avenge his father's death. Given how historically Arthur and the Romanized Celts were doomed, this would be dropping more hints that this victory will not last.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

2021 Publication Plans: SERPENT SWORD (BATTLE FOR THE WASTELANDS #2)

Former member of my writing group Jeff Baker attended the Liberty Con convention a few years ago and brought back word from a self-publishing panel that the best way to self-publish is to "churn and burn"--put work out there quickly. Although independent publishing allows me to put out stuff faster than a traditional publisher (I put out Battle for the Wastelands in December 2019, "Son of Grendel" in May 2020, and The Atlanta Incursion in July 2020), I listen to a lot of writing podcasts and there are indie writers who put stuff out much faster. Heck, closer to home I have the example of current writing group Dave Schroeder, who puts out 1-2 books per year.

("SOG," TAI, and especially Battle had been written years in the past and had been sitting in my file, so 2019-2020 was not my usual production speed.)

Some of my slowness in comparison to others is hard to get around--the Wastelands books in particular are very research-intensive, I run the whole manuscript through my writing group and then heavily revise based on their suggestions, I hire a professional editor/formatter and cover designer rather than do it myself, and I commission illustrated cover art rather than using pre-made covers--but I also tend to dawdle and spend too much time on things like my blog, Twitter, etc. So I'm going to do my level best to make sure that Serpent Sword: Battle for the Wastelands #2 comes out sometime in 2021, the earlier the better. This involves committing in advance to have chapters for my writing group even if they're not finished when I make the reservation, which was a major reason I got The Thing in the Woods, Battle, and Little People, Big Guns finished as quickly as I did.

So far so good--I have the first six chapters completed out of around 33-34, and lots of chunks of future chapters already written. The total word count is around 37,000 words and if the expected final word count is around 90K, that's a great big chunk done. I also have the cover art already made, which will save even more time.


(If you like the cover, check out West Coast artist Matt Cowdery, who's illustrated a lot of my independent projects. The people you meet on the last day of DragonCon when tickets are only $30.)

I'd initially hoped to get it done sometime over the summer and potentially have room to finish and publish The Walking Worm, the second sequel to Thing. However, owing to the need to cycle that through writing group, the whole editing/publishing process, and whatever conventions I can scrounge up for the year, it seems very unlikely that I'd be able to get it out in 2021.

Saturday, December 26, 2020

My Recent Reading List (December 2020)

Being that I'm a high-school teacher, I get a lot more time off than the average bear. This past week-ish, I've been using my free time to either catch up on reading or take notes from books I've read previously but had sitting around for weeks or months.

Here's a partial list of books I've read, books I'm reading, and books I've heard about and am trying to get hold of. If any of these sound interesting, please buy through Amazon because these are Associates links. :)


Bitterly Divided: The South's Inner Civil War-This is about how the South was far from united during the (American) Civil War. It makes the very strong case that if you combined the poor whites and the slaves, the majority of people in the South actually opposed secession, and many people who had supported it became disillusioned as the war went on owing to the mistreatment of the common people by the Confederate government, widespread poverty at home, draft-dodging by the rich and the plantation owners, etc. This is prime research material for the sequels to Battle for the Wastelands, since this world is roughly between the Civil War and WWI in terms of technology and social development (with the exception of slavery) and the late-war Confederacy provides a good example of how a society during this time period could collapse internally.

(The Confederacy also made some obvious mistakes that Grendel, the Wastelands series' Big Bad, can avoid. For example, the planters promised to grow food crops to feed the Confederate armies...but instead grew cotton and tobacco for the mountains of cash they could make. Although the cotton trade helped the Confederacy secure armaments and other useful materials from abroad--the book doesn't touch on that--it also contributed to starvation at home that prompted riots in the cities and desertion from the armies. Grendel, who's been a soldier since he was fifteen and is now in his mid fifties, will have the experience to know this is a bad idea and the dictatorial power and strength of will to make sure this doesn't happen.)

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind-A condensed history of the human race I got as a birthday present but only now just got around to reading. Very simple and to the point, very detailed. Some interesting ideas about the nature of human thought processes versus that of our extinct kindred like the Neanderthals and how that extends to things like the establishment of communities beyond the tribe (i.e. a nation, a religion, an economic system, etc). I'd already read the author's book Homo Deus, but not this one.

Artemis-Another birthday book I've only just gotten started on. Crime and shenanigans in the first city on the Moon. :) This is by the author of The Martian, which I found in a free-book box but haven't read yet.

A People's History of the Civil War-This covers a lot of the same ground as Bitterly Divided (it is, after all, by the same author), but also includes the experiences of Native Americans out west and poor people, white and black, in the North. Basically there was a very strong anti-conscription movement in the North, which is typically only discussed in the context of the New York City draft riots. Given how I've noted the steampunk era was full of class conflict, I can mine this for information as well.

Stars In Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign-In Battle for the Wastelands and its companion novella "Son of Grendel," most of the action is centered on a platoon (30-40 men) or company (100 men). The largest combat sequences in Battle involve forces that are perhaps a brigade (3,000 to 5,000 men) in size. Things scale up in the sequels significantly. I've also requested author Shelby Foote's novel about the Battle of Shiloh from the library to similarly pillage, since a novel would go into more detail about the experiences of a man on the ground so to speak.

A Nest of Corsairs: The Fighting Karamanlis of Tripoli-This is an older book about a pirate dynasty that ruled Tripoli as the (nominal) subordinates of the Ottoman sultan, but it has some truly vivid descriptions of the environment of Ottoman Tripoli that I copied wholesale into my notes to use as inspiration for sequences in the Wastelands world involving the Iron Desert as well as a "flintlock fantasy" set in a fantasyland version of the early modern Mediterranean. Although it's old-fashioned in some of its language, it's a very interesting read.

Dominion: How The Christian Revolution Remade The World-The Cobb County library has it but the Atlanta-Fulton library doesn't, so I requested an interlibrary loan. Since those are closed down right now, who knows when I'll actually read it. This book discusses the Christianization of Rome and the resulting effects on both Roman and broader Western society. Based on the reviews, the author (although not a Christian and sometimes very critical of Christianity) makes the argument that this improvement has been broadly positive.

Sea Stories: My Life In Special Operations-This is an autobiography of Admiral William McRaven, a longtime Navy SEAL who ultimately planned the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. A lot of interesting stuff about the military in the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, plus some of the Wastelands books involve dirigible raids with assassination in mind, so I can use this as a model.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic In History-I haven't read this yet, but I have put it on hold from the library. It's about the Spanish Flu, which spread like COVID-19 but killed far worse, and its effect on science, world politics, etc. There are a bunch of people ahead of me in the line for it at the library, so a lot of people are seeing the COVID-19 parallels.

Civil War Commando: William Cushing and the Daring Raid to Sink The Ironclad CSS Albemarle-I vaguely remember reading about this episode as a child in one of my grandparents' Civil War books, but I recently heard about this on the History Unplugged podcast. This sounds like a pretty cool episode in and of itself, plus it's more research material for Wastelands. The Atlanta-Fulton library doesn't have it and interlibrary loans are shut down, so I might have to bite the bullet and buy it.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

The World Between Worlds, THE MANDALORIAN, and Rebooting STAR WARS Without Nuking Sequel Trilogy

The following post contains massive spoilers for The Mandalorian, Star Wars: Rebels, the Star Wars sequel trilogy, etc. so if you don't want that, go away.

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As many of you know, the Star Wars Sequel Trilogy--The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, and The Rise of Skywalker--were quite divisive among fans. Many (including me) thought TFA was too derivative of the original film, while others disliked what The Last Jedi did to the character of Luke Skywalker. The Rise of Skywalker tried to stitch both competing narratives together, questionably. But recently there's the appearance of Luke in the Season Two finale of The Mandalorian, in which he recruits Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) for his new Jedi Order. There are even rumors of a Luke Skywalker series, either using younger Mark Hamill's image on a body double as a continuous "deepfake" or a new actor (like Sebastian Stan). Given what ends up happening to Luke's new Jedi Order before the new trilogy begins, not only is Grogu in grave danger, but if there's a Luke Skywalker series covering the new-canon events after Return of the Jedi, we know how this is going to end. The shadow of inevitable doom would be hanging over the entire concept and one wonders how viable such a TV series would be.

That said, there might be a way to avoid this--and to reboot the entire Star Wars universe while we're at it. Jack Conner, an independent fantasy and steampunk writer who blurbed my novel Battle for the Wastelands and hosted my alternative take on Rey on his blog posted on Facebook that there is an in-universe mechanism for time travel revealed in Rebels--the World Between Worlds. In Rebels, Jedi Padawan Ezra uses it to rescue Ahsoka Tano from Darth Vader. The World Between Worlds could be used on a much grander scale than that to create an entirely new timeline.

Hear me out. In the aftermath of the events of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey and one of the new Jedi she's trained (the broader SW canon states she eventually became a Jedi Master, meaning she trained a Jedi to knighthood), discover the World Between Worlds. They attempt to use it to stop all the horrors of the sequel trilogy--the Hosnian Cataclysm, the First Order takeover of most of the galaxy, the Sith cultists blowing up a planet, etc. To accomplish this, she decides the best way is to stop Palpatine's soul from escaping his body and fleeing to Exegol, where he was revived (something the Rise of Skywalker novelization describes). Although this would probably erase her from existence--she's the daughter of a clone of Palpatine created through the project--she's a Jedi and the path of the Jedi is selflessness. Or to quote Spock, the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one.

And in this effort she succeeds. Palpatine is permanently destroyed on the Death Star (maybe she materializes in the reactor shaft and stabs him before his soul can flee his body through the Force to Exegol) and the Sith Order is wiped out. Rey might be able to return to her own (changed) future via the World Between Worlds like Ezra did with Ahsoka, or could be killed when Palpatine's body explodes. Either way, this is a prologue to the new Luke Skywalker TV series--the next scene reveals that this is young Luke having a Force vision in which he realizes this mysterious stranger has averted a terrible calamity.

(It might also clue him into the World Between Worlds, setting the stage for future events.)

However, even though some fanboys would love this as an excuse to bring back the old Expanded Universe, there are still complicating factors. The Sith Eternal's operation on Exegol is still there, plus Palpatine being really dead as opposed to "mostly dead" won't affect the events immediately after Return of Jedi. We'll probably still have Ben Solo, Imperial die-hards embedded in the New Republic and various large corporations, etc. And, as The Mandalorian reveals, Thrawn is still out there plotting against the New Republic as of nine years after the Battle of Yavin and five years after Palpatine's fall. Without Palpatine being ultimately in control, Thrawn can seize the remaining Imperial assets in the Unknown Regions (creating a new-canon version of The Empire of the Hand), with the head of the Sith Eternal on Exegol standing in as this timeline's version of the insane Jedi clone Joruus C'Baoth.

And that in turn allows for a nice tie-in with the sequel trilogy--Dark Rey. One of the Kylo Ren comics strongly implies Palpatine's involvement in the events that ended Luke's Jedi Academy, so Luke's attempted murder of his nephew and his nephew's consequent attack on the Jedi Temple could be the result of his malevolent spiritual influence. This doesn't happen and so Ben stays good, Luke's new Jedi Order survives, etc. But the Sith Eternal cult on Exegol still plots to resurrect Palpatine and this timeline's Rey is born as a result. The Sith cultists decide that she'll do and she's raised as a Dark Jedi and groomed to be possible future leader. We can still have Reylo, only instead of canon's Good Girl Saves Bad Boy (a cultural meme that has hurt far more good girls than saved bad boys), we could potentially have Good Boy Saves Bad Girl.

(Hmm...if Rey survives going back in time to finish Palpatine and returns to neo-EU future, a love triangle between herself, Dark Rey, and Good Ben? Could be mined for laughs, especially if for whatever reason one ends up impersonating the other.)

And on that note, I'll end this with a fan film I found that seems to take place after The Force Awakens but was released before The Last Jedi.


Enjoy!

Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The Politics of BATTLE FOR THE WASTELANDS, Or Putting "Punk" In Steampunk

As most of my regular readers know, I officially became a steampunk writer with my novel Battle for the Wastelands and its companion novella "Son of Grendel." Although those two books came out relatively recently, I'd been tinkering with them and pitching them for years (I completed the first Battle draft sometime in 2012) and I'd attended the Atlanta steampunk convention AnachroCon in 2014. One common concern I've heard re: steampunk over the years was that it was becoming too focused on aesthetics of parasols and dirigibles, with the "punk" angle (subversion of norms, challenges to authority, etc) neglected. In particular, the late 19th Century on which steampunk is based involved a lot of labor/class unrest that was supposed getting ignored in favor of fashion.

Between those comments I'd seen around and reading Killing For Coal in graduate school, I decided to make labor issues part of the worldbuilding in the Wastelands world. If you haven't read Killing For Coal, it's a fascinating look at the 1913-14 "Colorado Coalfield War" and its aftermath. Although it's mostly remembered for the Ludlow Massacre, in the aftermath of the massacre the striking miners proceeded to hammer the state militia (what would soon become the National Guard) for several days and workers in other trades began holding military drills and the like. That and the Battle of Blair Mountain were the closest incidents to outright socialist revolution in the United States I can think of. This is referenced in Battle when, in a meeting with his warlords, the villain Grendel talks about putting down strikes and the various commanders keeping forces at war footing--despite the vast expense--to avoid dumping hundreds of thousands of young men who know how to use weapons into the labor market. One reason the striking Colorado miners were such effective fighters is that many were veterans of wars in Europe. Although the first lord of the Northlands doesn't know about the coalfield war (I'm keeping it very vague as to whether this is our future, the future of a similar world, or something else entirely--think Stephen King's Dark Tower), he doesn't want similar incidents breaking out across his empire.

(Not only are Grendel and his cronies afraid of strikers being effectively able to resist the local police, the armies of lesser lords, or even Grendel's elite Obsidian Guard, but they're also concerned about their own soldiers following orders in the event they're sent against former comrades. The first Russian Revolution broke out when the soldiers refused to suppress food riots in St. Petersburg, after all. The film In Pursuit of Honor begins with a group of cavalrymen refusing to attack the Bonus Army outside of Washington D.C. because they'd served with those men in France, although I'm not entirely sure if that incident actually happened.)

Another plot plot in Battle is a small-scale war between two of Grendel's warlords that starts out over a labor dispute. One of Grendel's warlords is a straight-up mutant cyborg who breeds armies of mutants in the shadow of an "Old World" nuclear reactor. As part of a trade deal, he'd offered another warlord some to work in mines alongside more "normal" workers. The other workers went on strike and took to the hills with guns rather than work alongside "freaks," much like how racial violence accompanied labor disputes when black workers were brought in to replace striking white ones. The film Matawan covers one such incident, while I remember reading about a number of such instances in Making A New Deal. This ultimately escalated into a war between the two that sets Grendel looking for an outside enemy to keep everybody busy, something that will have consequences throughout the entire series.

Another "punk" element that's worked into the Wastelands world is the Jim Crow practice of convict leasing, chronicled in Slavery By Another Name. When Grendel united his homeland of Sejera through a dynastic marriage (and jackbooting those who objected), he made a very big deal about formally ending chattel slavery. But what dictator doesn't have forced labor? In addition to the usual labor camps and mines for political troublemakers and common criminals, both Grendel's overarching regime and private companies also lease convicts from lesser governments for forced labor. Convict leasing began after Reconstruction and continued all the way through World War II, a nice bit of period-appropriate dystopia. And considering how convicts under Jim Crow were viewed as more expendable than slaves (and in-universe there are references to convict laborers dying at high rates on certain projects), I imagine there'll be rebellions and the like should the opportunity arise.

Finally, part of the backstory for the defeat of the Merrill family--the last major independent power in the Northlands--was labor disputes. James Merrill, who was leader at the time, was preoccupied with mediating the concerns of business owners and workers and paid little heed to Grendel's growing military threat until it was too late. It's an underground labor movement that keeps his son Alonzo and his rebels supplied with equipment and trying to find a way to fairly deal with both capital and labor will become a problem for the son as much as the father in the second book.

The historical steampunk era was not just known for labor and class problems, but also an increasing push for women's rights. The first country to allow women to vote nationwide was New Zealand in 1893, while women won voting rights state by state throughout the 19th Century in the U.S. until the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920 guaranteed the right nationwide. This is touched on a bit when our oblivious hero Andrew Sutter, son of a prior mayor in his hometown, wonders why nobody asks his twin sister Sarah's opinion on anything the way they ask him and Sarah points out this should be rather obvious. 

(Although I didn't go into a lot of detail about how government in Andrew's town works, there aren't any women attending the town meeting on how to deal with the coming assault on the town by the extortionate Flesh-Eating Legion. This would strongly suggest women were either legally not allowed to participate in formal politics or it was Simply Not Done, since the town has been broadly self-governing since the Merrill dynasty fell but must provide tribute and conscripts to the Flesh-Eaters when asked. This might not be universal, since the surviving Merrill armies do field female soldiers and nobody seems to view that as particularly remarkable. To cite Eowyn's conversation with Aragorn in The Two Towers, those without swords can still die upon them.)

However, the main feminist plot point (so far) is the deconstruction of "it's good to be the king" in regards to the harem Grendel started up after the death of his wife. One of his concubines is Catalina Merrill, daughter of James and sister of Alonzo, who really, really doesn't like it. She exhibits some fairly overt symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder from Grendel's attentions. Meanwhile, there's constant catfighting between the women and rival sons of different mothers plotting against each other, something that polygamous societies like the Ottoman Empire or ancient Israel were known for. This will only get worse later in the series. Although none of Grendel's women could be credibly described as 19th Century feminists, this does show how incredibly destructive this situation is. King Conan and his "luscious concubines" this is NOT.

Sunday, December 20, 2020

TOP GUN 2: THE SUPERGUN, Or "SDI-Punk" Continues...

As we are all aware by now, there's a long-delayed sequel to the 1980s military adventure film Top Gun, currently slated to premiere during the summer of 2021. In the present day, Maverick is a test pilot and doing his best to avoid advancing in rank to the point he wouldn't be flying anymore or getting pushed out due to not advancing in rank. However, as my regular readers know, I recently hosted guest posts from author Ken Prescott on a proposed new genre called "SDI-Punk" and films and especially books that would fit. I also wrote a post of my own that emphasized the "punk" elements. When I shared the posts online, Baen author Christopher DiNote suggested that Top Gun would fit in the genre, but I didn't think it was speculative enough--it doesn't have the sort of advanced versions of period technology the way steampunk (Babbage engines, more dirigibles) or dieselpunk (rocket packs, Nazi or Soviet super-science) do.


However, a more elaborate and more "period" Top Gun sequel might fit the bill. There were several incidents in the 1980s where the United States engaged in combat with the forces of Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi--one in 1981, two in 1986, and one in 1989, in addition to two incidents of Libyan-sponsored terrorism. During Operation El Dorado Canyon, Gadhafi retaliated against U.S. airstrikes by firing SCUD missiles at a US base in Italy--although they didn't do any significant damage, they scared the stuffing out of the local Italians and the Italian government planned but ultimately didn't go through with a retaliatory attack of their own.

So here's an idea for a Top Gun sequel that includes "SDI-Punk" elements. It could be released in the late 1980s or early 1990s to capitalize on the Libyan incidents or the Gulf War or later, so long as Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer look young enough that it's not a "next generation" film like the upcoming sequel (featuring Goose's son) is. The gist of my idea is that Gadhafi's attack on Lampedusa is more effective--more (and/or more effectively used) SCUD missiles or, to be even more fun, Gadhafi has borrowed the services of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein's mercenary scientist Gerald Bull and built one or more "superguns." In real history the project was sabotaged and Bull himself assassinated by Israeli agents, but if Saddam loans Bull to Gadhafi, the Israelis might not view him and his project as a threat since a Libya-based supergun couldn't hit Israel.

So Gadhafi builds one or more doomsday mountains with superguns able to strike targets in Chad (where Gadhafi had been fighting wars already) and Italy. The film starts with Maverick and company participating in the 1986 air battles with the Libyans, but while they're recovering from their mission aboard the carrier or on shore leave in Italy, the Libyan attacks on Italy are much more severe than in real history. We're talking more effective SCUDs, attacks by the supergun that can't be intercepted by Patriot missiles, and with Western casualties and significant physical damage, the US and Italy now have to respond. The climax of the film involves the US Navy pilots escorting an Italian strike package to destroy Gadhafi's mega-guns and mobile SCUD launchers (easier said than done given what happened in real history in 1991). This features a series of air battles more impressive than the climax of the original Top Gun, since the NATO forces would be fighting over enemy territory (i.e. antiaircraft fire that wasn't an issue in the original film) against much larger numbers of enemies. The Mig-28 of the original film might reappear, with the lessons learned from the first film making Maverick's tricks less likely to work. The possibility of capture and torture by Libyan forces would be a realistic possibility, unlike the South Yemeni or whoever the enemy was in the first film. And with a much larger crisis that clearly won't be over in one or two days, Maverick and friends might see antiwar protests on CNN or encounter protesters while on shore leave.

(That's the "punk" element, as 1986 is a little over a decade after Vietnam and the Gulf War hasn't put those ghosts to rest. The so-called "anti-imperialists" will be out in force for this.)

This wouldn't be nearly as happy-go-lucky as the original film, but something more akin to the 1976 film or 2019 film about the Battle of Midway. Shore leave in Italy means romantic subplots or fun scenes, but this will be primarily a war film.

You all like? I'm sure this could make for an interesting fan-fic, or a "serial numbers filed off" original novel. Also, here's a podcast episode on the original Top Gun that I'm part of.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Thoughts On Ken Prescott's Proposed "SDI-Punk"

I'm a member of an online networking forum for writers and a fellow forum member is Ken Prescott, who'd served as a Marine and wrote the Cold War thriller Not By Sight. In a discussion online, he proposed a new sub-genre called "SDI-Punk," in the vein of cyberpunk and its derivatives like steampunk. If one is going with "imaginative history," steampunk is Civil War to WWI, dieselpunk is WWI and WWII, and then you get into atompunk in the 1950s. Prescott's aesthetic is very late Cold War and derives its aesthetic from things like stealth technology, Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative (popularly described as "Star Wars"), and the mysterious Aurora aircraft. There are also plenty of "roads not taken" in regards to the space program in this period, like the X-30. Finally, "SDI-Punk" features a more muscular approach to the Cold War, as befitting someone of his background. He suggested that the best example of this genre is the Clint Eastwood film Firefox, in which an American pilot infiltrates the Soviet Union to steal a prototype Soviet jet controlled directly by the pilot's brain. However, it's not just all cool aircraft--there's culture stuff like cable TV, yuppies, and rap and social movements like the anti-nuclear and anti-apartheid movements. More on them later.

(Here's a guest post he wrote introducing the concept and here's a follow-up post on works of film and literature set in this genre. Firefox is just the beginning.)

This is something I found very interesting, considering I had recently blogged about adapting Dean Koontz's 1980s-set Watchers into a television series and both of us agreed that Stranger Things and The Americans fit in. Having discussed the concept with him and read his blog posts, here's my spin:

One criticism of steampunk is that it's all parasols, Victorian fashion, and a very rosy-eyed view of imperialism and doesn't take into account things like the labor movement, agitating for women's suffrage, and the ugly reality of imperialism epitomized by, "We have got the Maxim gun and they have not." Dieselpunk's politics tend to be a bit more obvious, with both Indiana Jones and the Rocketeer fighting the Nazis, the Shadow fighting Shiwan Khan (a stand-in for Imperial Japan?), and an older Indiana Jones dealing with both McCarthyite G-Men and the genuine Communist menace of Irina Spalko. Part of "punk" is being subversive of social norms and conventional morals and a big part of cyberpunk is hackers fighting corporate domination and high-tech street gangs and criminal organizations. Although Prescott acknowledged elements of this setting that would subvert the overall neo-Reaganite ethos on display with "morning in America" and Communist and terrorist villains with the anti-nuclear movement and the "Satanic Ritual Abuse" panic that led to a bunch of innocent people being jailed (I'd forgotten about that), I'm going to go a bit further down the rabbit hole.

So if I were writing an "SDI-Punk" story, I'd include more of a "punk" angle much like how I bring labor politics and racial issues into my steampunk fantasy novel Battle for the Wastelands and its companion novella "Son of Grendel." As mentioned in the original post, the 1980s had lots of rebellious movements against the anti-Communist/pro-capitalist consensus--the anti-nuclear movement, the green movement, and the growing agitation for world governments to do something about AIDS. There's also the anti-apartheid movement and the resulting plethora of villainous Afrikaners in films like Lethal Weapon II. Even the conservative Bill Cosby wouldn't let NBC remove anti-apartheid posters from the kids' bedrooms in The Cosby Show.

Since Prescott's goal was to create an aesthetic and setting for writers to play in, here're a couple "SDI Punk" scenario of my own creation that could work:

Sometime in the mid-1980s, South Africa's border wars with its neighbors escalate into a full-blown proxy war in the Arab-Israeli sense of the word. Perhaps South Africa's "destabilization" policies backfire, creating a united front of black-ruled left-wing states that's a conventional military threat rather than real history's seething messes. The US backs South Africa (albeit they're The Friend That Nobody Likes) against the "frontline states" backed by the USSR and Cuba. Worries about another Vietnam (and the massive political blowback the Reagan Administration would get from openly supporting the most flagrantly racist regime in the world) keep the U.S. from sending in troops to prevent a potential Soviet takeover of "the mineral treasure house" of southern Africa (which would also menace the "energy treasure house" of the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the sheer distances involved, the growing sinkhole of Afghanistan, and the threat of South African nukes prevent the Soviets from intervening openly. 

However, the US and the Soviets both use the conflict as a chance to test out their newest and fanciest technological toys (either by letting their local proxies use them or sending in their own personnel on a very small scale like the Soviets did in Korea and Vietnam). There's also all sorts of black ops/intelligence skullduggery going around, including attempts by both sides to manage or manipulate popular protest movements. And although AIDS does not appear to have really gotten big in South Africa itself until the early 1990s, more US, Cuban, Soviet, and other Eastern Bloc personnel in Southern African more broadly could provide another victor for HIV to spread either locally or back into their home countries. Such a scenario could inflame the debate about the United States' association with South Africa and the possibility of getting pulled bit by bit into another war and even lead to cross-pollination between the antiwar, anti-apartheid, and anti-AIDS movements. 

(Depending on the personalities involved, one might also see changes in conservatives' attitudes toward AIDS sufferers--they might be more likely to sympathize with a deployed soldier given a bad blood transfusion to save his life or who made one bad decision with a local woman than with a drug addict or a homosexual. And bonus points if some dumbass starts attacking soldiers deployed in Southern Africa as AIDS vectors. Remember this would be around a decade after the controversies over Vietnam, which included instances of disrespect toward veterans. Even if it's not in the movement's best interest, there's always some idiot somewhere and people will talk.)

And although this is not as well known due to the Soviet Union being a closed society less tolerant of domestic political dissent, Afghanistan spawned a Soviet antiwar movement and a growing manpower drain in Africa might add fuel to the fire. The problems that prompted Gorbachev's reforms are still there, even if Prescott's vision requires a stronger USSR, plus internal Soviet politicking is more interesting (and more congruent with reality) than a purely monolithic "Evil Empire."

The Middle East could be another theater for an "SDI-Punk" story...there's Israel's war in Lebanon, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, and the Iran-Iraq War. Charles Stross's novella "A Colder War" features the Soviets in Afghanistan and the Iraqis in Iran using Lovecraftian horrors, ultimately culminating in a World War III that features the US deploying atomic-powered bombers carrying Project Pluto nuclear-powered nuclear-armed cruise missiles against none other than Cthulhu. The more cautious/conservative/still-have-PTSD-from-WWII factions of the Soviet leadership aren't going to want an unstable third force on their border and the more aggressive and zealous-for-the-Revolution types might see this as the chance to get warm water ports at long last and put the West's oil supply under Soviet guns. Meanwhile, the US isn't going to want the Soviets to attempt the latter while claiming the former. And it was a war in Iran that spirals into the nuclear holocaust depicted in the amazingly depressing film Threads.

However, a more limited conflict might involve chronic troublemaker Moammar Gadhafi in Libya (who was parodied in the animated Transformers show), since he's so outlandish the Soviets aren't going to go to the mattresses for him. There were real-life skirmishes between Libyan and NATO forces and Gadhafi repeatedly meddled in Chad, so there's plenty of opportunity for "fun" that wouldn't necessarily risk World War III. Hmmm...Libyans as real-life Bond villains with some kind of oil-funded superweapon like Saddam Hussein's Project Babylon? Or, to justify the deployment of something more outlandish, perhaps something more sci-fi oriented like an anti-satellite laser weapon or an independent space program? You could tie in the cultural elements of the 1980s--CNN is reporting live on the early deployments of such things in Chad, devotees of "rap culture" fall for Gadhafi's pan-African schtick and agitate against US intervention, there're more mainstream concerns about another Vietnam, and so instead of an open invasion, you have some kind of balls-to-the-wall covert operation to steal or destroy this weapon like Firefox.

Anybody got any more ideas...?

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Guest Post: "SDI-Punk" Literature and Film

(This post is the second part of an earlier blog post introducing the concept of "SDI-Punk" as a retrofuturist genre in the vein of steampunk and dieselpunk. Now we continue with existing works of fiction and non-fiction that would actually fit in this genre.)

RESOURCES

The core era of this genre is the 1983-1988 era, but antecedents could be found in the 1970s. Below is a partial list of works I would consider to be in or relevant to the genre.

MOVIES AND TELEVISION

SDI never really made its way to the big screen--or the small one. So, in addition to one piece of actual SDI-punkness, I offer other relevant movies and TV shows set in that era.

The Americans: This series focuses on the lives of Soviet illegals operating in the US during the 1980s. Sometimes, the plot deals with technology theft (which was a recurring theme throughout this period).

Firefox: The one truly SDI-punk movie entry. Underrated Clint Eastwood movie based on a novel by Craig Thomas. An American pilot, haunted by the demons of his time in Vietnam, must infiltrate a Soviet flight test facility and steal the ultimate warplane--and then get past Soviet defenses to get it to the West. An atmospheric score by Maurice Jarre, a decent adaption of the source novel into film (not an easy task at all), excellent flight sequences, and one of Clint Eastwood's more complex performances make this a worthwhile movie.

Robocop Trilogy: SDI plays a background role in the news updates, and some of the punk themes play out into the movies' "Delta City" arc.

The Hunt For Red October: Tom Clancy's debut novel made its way to the screen in 1990, and the results were outstanding. Excellent performances by Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery, excellent use of Navy support, and a storyline that conveyed the tension of the setting (1984) make it well worth watching.

No Way Out: Possibly the best spy movie of the 1980s. Paranoia you can cut with a knife, and multiple surprise-but-perfectly-logical twists keep you guessing beginning to end.

The Soldier: A fun romp that ends up with rogue agents (East AND West) conducting a nuclear standoff, with tons of action throughout. The soundtrack is by Tangerine Dream; it's a time capsule of the early 1980s. (Pay attention during the opening credits; you will see that material again.)

Stranger Things: 1980s period drama with government conspiracies meeting Middle America. (I haven't actually seen this show, but I've heard good things about it from various people I know.)

NOVELS

The pickings are MUCH better here. Below is a mere sampling of the riches to be found.

Dale Brown

Flight of the Old Dog: High-technology weapons, including a B-52 refitted with stealth technology(!), SDI plays a role.

Silver Tower: This one is another core SDI-Punk entry. The American Armstrong Space Station, armed with various weapons including a hyper-powerful laser, may be the only thing that can stop a Soviet invasion of Iran.

Tom Clancy

Cardinal of the Kremlin: Jack Ryan is at the focus of the race between the Americans and the Soviets to develop high-energy lasers for strategic defense, with espionage playing a core role. Ends with what would be an absolutely LEGENDARY covert operation. Definitely core SDI-Punk material.

Jim DeFelice

Coyote Bird: Published right at the end of the Cold War, it posited a US-Japan rivalry and hypersonic superplanes. Technology, pilots, and the interaction between them are the central themes of this novel.

David Drake

Skyripper: Former NSA agent Tom Kelly is called back in to service to manage the defection of a Soviet scientist who has the secret to powering space-based lasers. The kicker: The Soviet scientist is defecting because little voices are telling him that aliens are about to invade Earth. The protagonist isn't a very nice guy, but he has a definite sense of right and wrong, and he is brutally competent at his job.

Fortress: In an alternate history, JFK survived and put into motion Fortress--a space station armed with thousands of nuclear bombs. Problem: Nazis in flying saucers have hijacked it. (No, really.) Tom Kelly (yes, the same guy from Skyripper, different universe) to the rescue! (Oh, dear, the body count is going to be spectacular.)

Payne Harrison

Storming Intrepid: A Soviet agent hijacks a space shuttle carrying the first SDI satellite. America wants it back. Hilarity Ensues.

Donald Kingsbury

The Moon Goddess and the Son: Expanded version of the Analog serial from the late 1970s. The Soviets go into space in a big way in the late 1980s, and the US launches a crash program to beat them. SDI plays a core role. The punk elements revolve more around what happens when one man can become his own military-industrial complex, and how that could interact with strategic forces. In some ways, it hasn't aged well; in others, it's aged so well it's moved from "that's an interesting idea" to downright disturbing.

William Lovejoy

Black Sky: A joint US/Soviet suborbital stealth aircraft program goes up against their Japanese counterparts.

Delta Blue: An elite USAF spaceplane squadron must take on a resurgent Germany before their geothermal power project causes a global calamity.

Delta Green: Renegade Soviet hardliners steal a USAF spaceplane. Sequel to Delta Blue.

Janet Morris 

Warlord: Someone is killing former operatives of a CIA black project aimed at colonizing Mars. The two remaining survivors must navigate a covert war between the US and the USSR for control of space and flush out the killers. 

MEDUSA (With Chris Morris): Pure SDI-Punk. A CIA operative and a hotshot Air Force test pilot must stop a Soviet provocation aimed at American orbital defenses. Superplanes, lasers, and old-school spying and mayhem all play a part.

Active Measures (with David Drake): More SDI-Punk. The American President is a  Soviet mole, and things are cheerfully going to hell at home and abroad--and in space. Multiple spy plots crash into each other. First description I ever saw of a self-forging projectile charge (published in 1985).

M. E. Morris

Alpha Bug: A new Soviet space weapon threatens America's nuclear arsenal. A medically retired astronaut may be the only guy who can stop it. Action ranges from infiltrating Baikonur Cosmodrome to a dogfight over the Black Sea, with a final confrontation in orbit. SDI-Punk core material.

Ralph Peters

The War in 2020: Published in 1990, as the Cold War was waning, and America was fearing Japanese economic warfare. The US 7th Cavalry Regiment, equipped with the latest high-tech tilt-rotor gunships, is fighting a Japanese-backed Islamic invasion of Soviet Central Asia. The author described it as a novel of nightmares, and the description fits. SDI is in the background, as space-based defenses make central nuclear war impossible--and all manner of mayhem inevitable.

Gary Allen Ruse

A Game of Titans: Published in 1976. The USA and the USSR are squaring off in a remote corner of the Pacific for high stakes. The Soviet Navy sends their (then-new) V/STOL carrier Kiev; the United States Air Force sends a nuclear-powered airship(!), the Grand Eagle. The airship carries drones (then called "remote-piloted vehicles," or RPVs), a laser weapon(!), and Harrier jump-jets. Ruse takes an incredible premise and sells it well.

D. J. Savage

The Glass Lady: A prototype American orbital laser has malfunctioned and destroyed a Soviet research satellite. A joint US/Soviet space shuttle mission is the only chance to deactivate the weapon; if the mission fails, the shuttle crew will be "terminated with extreme prejudice."

Craig Thomas

Firefox: As mentioned above, American pilot Mitchell Gant must steal the ultimate warplane from a test facility deep inside the Soviet Union--and make it back out.

Firefox Down: Takes up right where Firefox ended. Forced to land on a frozen lake in Finland due to battle damage, Gant must escape Soviet capture while the British seek to recover the aircraft itself.

Winter Hawk: Gant is back, flying a stolen Hind helicopter gunship into the Soviet Union to rescue a CIA agent with information on Soviet space-based lasers, vitally needed to close a loophole in a soon-to-be-implemented arms treaty. But there is far more at stake. Complex plot and characterization, shifting alliances, and the stifling environment of Baikonur Cosmodrome make this one of Thomas' best novels.

ANTHOLOGIES

Jerry Pournelle

There Will Be War: Ten volumes published from 1982 to 1990. Many stories and nonfiction essays about SDI and its potential impact on the world.

Dean Ing

Firefight 2000: Fiction and technology essays. Some interesting technology notions that are related to SDI.

NON-FICTION

Dean Ing & Leik Myrabo

The Future of Flight: A 1985 book on potential future aerospace technologies, most of which revolve around using high-energy lasers to beam energy to aerospace craft. Some math, but the authors do their best to keep it accessible to the layman.

David Pahl

Space Warfare and Strategic Defense: Large-format hardcover with gorgeous full-color art and photographs examining SDI from multiple angles; the author examines both the promise and the perils of orbital warfare and ballistic missile defenses.

Curtis Peebles

Battle for Space: Published in 1985. Examines the history and prospects for development of military space programs, including anti-satellite weapons and the Strategic Defense Initiative.

Jerry Pournelle & Dean Ing

Mutual Assured Survival: A 1984 book discussing (and advocating) ballistic missile defenses. Discusses technologies, project management, and places the argument in a larger context of renewing American space exploration.

TABLETOP GAMES

Steve Jackson Games

Orbit War: Originally published in 1984 in the SJG magazine, The Space Gamer. Interesting game of orbital warfare; the game gives a somewhat realistic model for orbital movement and even the Earth's rotation, creating a very dynamic battlefield. Units include space shuttles, space stations, killer satellites, nuclear weapons, mines, etc. Somewhat complex, but worthy of study. (The time I used orbital mechanics to slingshot a nuke into my opponent's space station was a thing of beauty.)

About the author: Ken Prescott is a Marine Corps veteran. He has worked as a management analyst, medical coder, and human resources specialist. His novel Not By Sight is available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon. He lives with his wife in San Diego, California.

Guest Post: Introducing SDI-PUNK, Or The Once And Future 1980s

It's morning in America, it's high noon in the Cold War, and America is on the HIGH-WA-AY TO . . . THE DAN-GER ZONE!

(Admit it, dear reader: you sang that last bit along with me.)

SDI-Punk is yet another form of retrofuturism, just as Steampunk reflects the Victorian vision of the future with its airships and steam-powered hardware, Dieselpunk represents a weird World War II, and Atompunk gives us the future as seen from a time when we really did vaporize entire islands as physics experiments.

SDI-Punk crosses the line of departure in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It is focused on the military, intelligence gathering, and the military-industrial complex. The centerpiece of SDI-Punk is right there on the label: the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) and advanced aerospace technologies. The purpose of SDI was two-fold; first, to do research and development on ballistic missile defense, in order to invert the calculus that favored offense over defense; second, to help open a new "technological front" in the Cold War, outflanking the entire Soviet military industrial complex.

In our history, SDI was, arguably, the killing blow to the edifice that was the Soviet Union. German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt once quipped that the USSR was "Upper Volta with missiles." Without missiles, the USSR was a ramshackle imperium where the bosses pretended to pay the workers, and in return the workers pretended to work. SDI eventually died quietly in 1993, barely a decade after it began, apparently no longer necessary because the Cold War was over.

But what if the USSR had been made of somewhat sterner stuff? SDI may have been championed by a Republican President, but it had bipartisan support in an era where "conservative Democrats" still existed. Had the Cold War still been going by the time a Democrat moved into 1600, SDI might have had a bureaucratic and legislative momentum of its own, perhaps eventually leading to deployed weapons.

SDI was just one piece of a much larger scheme of technological flanking maneuver in both the military and civilian realms. Other pieces included stealth aircraft (which would render most of the USSR's very expensive air defense network useless), smart weapons (more targets killed per sortie flown), advanced communications and intelligence systems (making the entire force more responsive and agile), Tomahawk land attack missiles (making US Navy surface ships--which had, since the end of WW2, been relegated to carrier escort missions--into lethal threats that would need to be tracked just like the carriers; this would overload the Soviet ocean surveillance system by giving it too many things to do at once), and using the KGB's penchant for technological theft to pass sabotaged equipment and unworkable designs to the Soviet Union.

The result of all that military investment played out on American television screens during Operation Desert Storm, when a U.S.-led coalition took only six weeks to turn the fourth-largest army in the world into the second-largest army in Iraq.

But enough of geopolitics and grand strategy. Like all literary punk, SDI-Punk is as much about the aesthetic and zeitgeist as it is about story and characters. So, what do we have to work with?

MORNING IN AMERICA

We were coming out of the post-Apollo, post-Vietnam, and post-1974 oil shock doldrums. NASA was returning to manned spaceflight with the Shuttle; it was easy to envision successor systems that would have a lower cost per pound to orbit. We actually started doing blue-collar stuff in space--fixing busted hardware in low orbit instead of simply writing it off.

High-end sports cars were almost universally wedge-shaped. (This is the way! I have spoken!)

Women's shoulders were padded, and women's hair was big. The mullet was popular among men, although not actually called that at the time; sometimes it was called "helmet hair," or the "Tennessee Tophat." Lee Iacocca made the white collar on a colored shirt the power fashion statement for men.

Personal computers were in their infancy (most home computers through the period had less memory than a typical CPU has for cache memory today), and networking was even more primitive (2400 baud over a dial-up modem was considered extremely quick until about 1988 or so). Nobody had any real idea what would happen, so predictions were all over the place, and almost nobody foreseeing anything like the World-Wide Web, social networking, online shopping, or Netflix. Computers and their impact on culture were trivial compared to today, and most of the impact was hype as opposed to substance. Computer networks, when they did appear and did play a role, looked like over-glorified USENET, without much in the way of graphics or video.

In Maryland, an insurance salesman named Tom Clancy wrote The Hunt For Red October, which became a sleeper best-seller, was praised by President Reagan as "the perfect yarn," and finally gave an identity to a genre known as the "technothriller," which fused real-world political and military strategy, operations, and military/law enforcement tactics into (usually) readable popular literature.

Music was . . . well, it was the 1980s. (You really did have to be there.) MTV actually played music videos. Hair metal, synthpop, rap music, punk rock, album-oriented rock, heartland rock, and many other genres coexisted happily, cross-pollinated one another, and even (in my never humble opinion) reached their peak expression in this era. 

HIGH NOON IN THE COLD WAR

Detente was dead, mostly because Ivan didn't play nice in the 1970s. The Cold War fell to a nadir in 1983, with the following events:

March: In a televised speech, President Ronald Reagan asked, rhetorically, if it would not be better to save lives, rather than to avenge them? That speech was the beginning of the Strategic Defense Initiative. Critics labeled the idea "Star Wars" and joked about "Ronnie Raygun." Most ordinary folks thought it was a good idea.

September: Korean Air Lines Flight 007 was shot down after intruding into Soviet airspace (the West maintained the intrusion was accidental; the Soviets insisted that the plane was on an espionage mission). A false alarm in Moscow occurs when an early warning satellite over North America gives false indications of an American strategic missile launch. The duty controller overrides the false alerts.

October: The US invades Grenada to prevent it from becoming a Soviet satellite. This freaked out the Soviet Union, because up to that point their understanding of the rules was "What's mine is mine, and if I can grab it, what's yours is mine, too." The Americans weren't supposed to grab stuff off of the Soviets! 

November: A NATO command post exercise, "Able Archer," is much more extensive than usual. The Soviets interpret this as a sign of a possible first strike by the United States, and go to nuclear alert in Eastern Europe.

Doctrinal revolution was underway inside the military, as the American way of war changed radically in the air, land, and sea domains (much of it coming out of the lessons of Vietnam--failure is a very good teacher), and space becoming a potential fourth domain to military operations. 

The 1980s aerospace future was stealthy (manned) combat aircraft; easy access to space with a manned space station, and eventually a moonbase; laser battle stations would patrol the cislunar void; and hypersonic airliners would fly to the other side of the world in just two hours. (Implied in that last bit: hypersonic bombers would deliver conventional or nuclear weapons to the other side of the world in just two hours, or the Pentagon would take $4,000,000,000 off the price tag. Avoid the Noid!)

POLITICAL HORIZONS: THINKING GLOBALLY, ACTING LOCALLY

The political arguments of this era are interesting because we can see the hazy outlines of today's politics that are driven by global economics, viral videos, and the 24-hour news cycle.

CNN went on the air during this time, and began building the 24-hour news cycle.

The big SDI-related tie-in was the nuclear freeze movement, which arguably spawned SDI as a response. People were made uneasy by talk of building up US nuclear forces, and a wide swath of the political spectrum--generally left of center, but some on the right were at least sympathetic to the idea--settled on the idea of freezing nuclear weapons acquisition and research in place. Whether or not this was a good idea, it became very popular. A counterpart movement arose in Europe due to the impending deployment of improved theater-level nuclear forces by the United States. SDI came about in response to these ideas; perhaps defenses against ballistic missiles would make them less useful.

Political activism ranged from benefit concerts to fight famine in Ethiopia to calls for American schools and pension funds to divest themselves of companies based in or with significant business interests in South Africa as a means of fighting against apartheid. The rise of satellite news and modern telecommunications meant that local activism and non-governmental entities could begin to affect global issues, continuing a process that had begun in Vietnam, with the war being brought to American living rooms every night. A truly "punk" SDI-Punk would take this into account.

The flip side of this was that moral panics could be started in the same way. The 1980s saw a great deal of fear of "satanic ritual abuse" of children, arguably started by the McMartin Preschool case in Manhattan Beach, California. Sloppy analysis and even sloppier questioning of children (frequently involving the children being led by their questioners to the desired answers) led to convictions and plea bargains; eventually, the case petered out in a series of acquittals and hung juries years later. The sensational allegations are much better remembered than the final results.

Rural America was starting its decline; the farm foreclosure crisis began in the early 1980s as a decline in commodity prices hit heavily-leveraged farmers hardest. Further exacerbating the crisis was the rise of globalization, with maquiladoras (foreign-owned factories in Mexico) taking over production from factories located in small towns all across rural America. Losing a small factory in Chicago is bad enough for those who work there; losing that same factory in a town of 10,000 is a regional economic calamity. This made for a one-two punch that sometimes turned what had been thriving communities into near ghost towns where the only remaining industries were growing marijuana, cooking meth, and/or facilitating trafficking, whether in narcotics or people. Farm Aid was a benefit concert in 1985 to help family farms that eventually evolved into a permanent fixture as the artists and the sponsors realized the problems weren't going away.

Urban renewal and gentrification had been topics of discussion in policy and academic circles prior to the 1980s, but the rise of "Yuppies" (Young Urban Professionals) and entrepreneurship brought the conflicts inherent to these efforts from the back rooms of city managers and local community news to the big screen via the Robocop films. Homelessness, gentrification, and urban crime were all examined through these lenses.

BADDIES, BIG AND SMALL

The big scale antagonists are those devious, never-to-be-fully-trusted Commies in the Kremlin. Even in the very endgame of the Cold War, and absolutely no one expected the entire edifice of Soviet Communism and its satellite states to just collapse as they did. (I was on active duty in 1989; if you'd told me on January 1st that by the end of the year, the Berlin Wall would be torn down and German reunification would be on the negotiating table, I would've laughed in your face.)

Lesser antagonists would include various flavors of terrorist (transnational terrorism was a much different beast than today; Moscow funded terrorism in the Free World on the theory that the enemy of their enemy was, at the very least, a potentially useful idiot), drug lords, and regional powers. 

One notable omission from the rogues' gallery of the era: China. They weren't expected to ever be a major player outside of low-end manufacturing. 

(Shows you how much we knew.)

Other possible antagonists, especially for a noir/gritty story, might include devious defense contractors falsifying test results (this has always been a problem, particularly among low-end "schlocker" subcontractors supplying components to larger firms). 

Near the end of this era, Japan began to appear as a potential threat, with several novels focusing on the nature of changing technology and the fear of losing entire economic sectors to Japanese competition; a few of these posited that Japan's increasing economic power might lead to military conflict with a (relatively or actually) declining America.

The 1980s were the decade of the corporate raider, leveraged buy-outs, junk bonds, and insider trading. This could potentially affect military contractors. One could even have Soviet-financed corporate raiding . . .

The current wave of 1980s nostalgia shows no real sign of ending anytime soon; the tropes of the SDI-Punk genre and the 1980s in general are a fruitful vein just waiting to be mined by creators in all fields.

Up next...existing works of "SDI-Punk" in film and especially literature...

About the author: Ken Prescott is a Marine Corps veteran. He has worked as a management analyst, medical coder, and human resources specialist. His novel Not By Sight is available as a Kindle ebook from Amazon. He lives with his wife in San Diego, California.