Tuesday, December 15, 2020

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?


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. 


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!)


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.


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.

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