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...?

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