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.)


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.


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.)


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.


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.


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.


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.

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