In the War Room of Command Post D the military and civilian analysts stared in horror as the message appeared on the big screen:
ATTENTION ALL COMMANDS! SAMOS SATELLITE 105 REPORTS ROCKET FIRED FROM EASTERN SIBERIAN POINT. NORAD.
A projection of the polar region appeared on the screen and all eyes followed a red dotted line that started in Siberia and had now reached the edge of the icecap. It was picking up speed as it arched up over the top of the world.
SAC TO ALL WINGS. SCRAMBLE ALL AIRCRAFT.
BMEWS NOW REPORTS 25 ICMB’s..ESTIMATED IMPACT AREAS: WASHINGTON, OMAHA, VANDENBURG, McCOY, MacDILL, COLORADO SPRINGS, MARCHFIELD, TITAN BASES AT TUCSON, DENVER…
PRESIDENT AUTHORIZES ALL FORCES TO ATTACK! ATTACK! ATTACK! PLAN C FOR CHARLIE. START COUNTDOWNS…
This book brought a phenomenon to my attention and I’m trying to piece it together so I hope that writing about it helps me put it into coherent words and maybe, just maybe, figure it out. Or at least bring it to someone’s knowledge so that they can help me figure it out. I mentioned it to my friends and they have noticed this same phenomenon with other books, and the best I got from them was that they hoped I figured it out so that we can all know what the heck is going on.
I’ll put it like this: Some books do not seem to want to be read. That’s the simplified version.
I picked up this book on Thursday afternoon. It’s a very light paperback, about 120 pages, and I should have been able to knock it out in a few hours. But I just couldn’t. I couldn’t bring myself to pay any attention to the words on the pages. Nothing was creeping through my eyes and into my skull.
I would see a name or a place or something, and I just didn’t care. I knew I wouldn’t remember this character. I knew I wouldn’t remember what they did. I just couldn’t.
It’s not that the book was necessarily bad. Saying that would be too easy, and besides, I didn’t really know it was bad yet. Was it something undefinable in the prose that immediately turned me off? Was I just tired?
This will sound silly, but it was like there was some kind of force field on the narrative that was just diverting my attention away. The more I tried to focus, the more distracted I got. I started thinking about doing something more exciting, like scrubbing the toilet or seeing if I could find another Sime/Gen novel.
I hope some of this makes some sense. Fortunately I was able to buckle down and finish this thing, and eventually I managed to get a bit more into it, but it was never an especially fun read.
Let’s talk about this cover first. What is up with that art? This book was not, as I was led to believe, science fiction, even though I found it in the science fiction section of the used bookstore and, I mean, just look at it. That guy’s face is coming off revealing the possibility that David Icke was right all along, and on the left there’s some kind of…woman? I guess? Is she supposed to be a robot? A gynoid? And on the right you can see part of a woman, which makes me think that this cover art is part of a larger work that got cropped down to be randomly paired with a Cold War-era suspense thriller. I just noticed that the guy on top is crying and that his tears are merging with that giant ball of swiss cheese, so there’s that. Also, just behind the gynoid, there is a small Spanish church, which I choose to call La Iglesia de Aburrimiento Eterno.
And then there’s the tagline. Do books have taglines? Is there a publishing term for that? Anyway, it’s just so BORING.
DESTROYING THE WORLD
Even an exclamation mark would be welcome there. It’s like the cover-putter-together is saying to us “I couldn’t be damned to care about this book, why should you?”
The star of the book is a guy named Chris Tolliver, who is a colonel in the USAF. Chris has got some troubles. He argues a lot with his wife, he hates his father-in-law in a standard mutual fashion, he worries about his kids, he’s gotta pay the mortgage, and the Russians are liable to incinerate him and everyone he loves at a moment’s notice in a nuclear hellstorm the likes of which the world has never seen. Not a super happy life.
He works at an Air Force base and one day his general calls him in to tell him a super secret secret fact. Why, exactly, the general felt the need to do that is not discussed. He is, in fact, breaking a direct order in doing so. Whatever his reasons, he tells Chris that this particular Air Force base is home to the worst thing imaginable: THE DOOMSDAY WING.
See, when I picked this book up I was hoping that THE DOOMSDAY WING would be an awesome cadre of the best fighter pilots in the nation, flying experimental aircraft and getting into wacky and dangerous adventures while the world exploded around them. That is the book I would have liked to read.
Sadly, this is not the case.
The Doomsday Wing is just a name for a group of special nuclear warheads stationed at the base. The warheads have cobalt in them, which when detonated will spread throughout the atmosphere and wipe out all life on Earth. They are to be used only in the most devastating of circumstances, i.e. if the Russians win.
That’s right, the American government has taken it upon itself to say Better Dead Than Red for the ENTIRE WORLD.
Chris, understandably, has got some problems with this. He’s not exactly thrilled to know that he works in the place that might eventually wipe out all life on the planet just because the Russians have boots on American soil. So he broods on it for the rest of the book.
Meanwhile, he’s having arguments with his wife. He’s stressed out and she doesn’t seem to understand because, honestly, she’s pretty much a bitch. She keeps haranguing him to leave the Air Force and join the private sector and make more money because really that’s all she seems to care about. They have two children, a girl and a boy, and the interactions between Chris and his daughter are, well, a bit odd.
See, Chris thinks of his daughter as his favorite child. She’s about fifteen, just coming into womanhood, and they’ve always been close. That’s okay, I can kind of understand it, but God forgive me whenever they interacted I swear I read some sexual tension there. I will say this, for a concrete example. Chris got home after a hard day’s work one day and his wife wasn’t at home, so the daughter cooked supper. Pretty standard stuff, I guess, except that his fifteen-year-old daughter took it upon herself to make him some martinis. What teenage girl is going to make martinis for her father, even in 1963? Was that a common thing? Is this book just strange because it’s out of time? I’ll admit, I’m not a daughter, nor do I have one, so I can’t really say what I think is normal for father-daughter relationships. I have no experience except vicariously through popular culture. Still, a lot of what went on here struck me as just on the far side of weird.
Did I mention that George H. Smith (this author, not the Libertarian one) wrote a lot of erotica? Just looking at his Wikipedia page makes me think that he paints all male-female relationships with a certain flirty something. He just can’t help it, even when it’s really inappropriate.
After a fight with his wife, Chris catches up with an old flame who happens to work with him now. Clair was working in Tokyo about ten years back while Chris was there on government business. They hooked up back then even though Chris was married. She’s back in the States and, surprise!, she has just been assigned to the military base where Chris works. Chris calls her up one night in a fit of post-fight depression and comes close to hooking up with her again, but she says basically that it won’t work out now that he’s got kids and so he blue-balls-walks his way back home.
We jump across the world and meet this Russian guy named General Aristov. Aristov is CRAZY. The book tells us this. Repeatedly. Hell, when we first meet him he’s being subjected to a psychological battery by a doctor who basically writes CRAZY on the sheet. Through a series of hilarious mishaps, this doctor is never able to get this evaluation to the proper authorities, so that means that Aristov can go through with his CRAZY plan, which is to launch a clandestine nuclear attack against the United States. Aristov hates the United States with a passion. He blames them for killing his wife and family during World War II. See, his wife and family were killed by Nazis. So obviously the United States is to blame for that. I’m not saying this is bad writing, actually. It makes a sort of sense. See, you’d obviously think something like that if you were CRAZY. What I wonder is how he managed to get this far into the Soviet military with that level of insanity dominating his life. That’s the bad writing.
Back in America, Chris is at his post at the Air Force base when suddenly the news of the Russian attack comes out over the horn. It’s sudden and it’s unexpected and it’s devastating. Washington, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver, and on and on the list goes, all taken out in a nuclear hellstorm. Chris’s family, incidentally, live in Denver. He told his wife to get the family and head out early in the book because he had a bad feeling, but since his wife is a total shrew he fully expects that she did not do anything of the sort.
Incidentally, Chris is yet another one of those protagonists that is almost completely passive. All this just happens around him.
A counterattack is launched against the Russians, taking out several of their military bases along with Moscow and Leningrad. The Soviets respond to that by launching bomber aircraft with more nukes, but the American forces manage to stave them off for a time.
In the meantime, the base is visited by Senator Sam Barnes who, as far as he knows, now runs the government. For all anybody knows, everyone else is dead and now this random congressman runs the show. Nobody really questions this. Sam is also Chris’s father-in-law, and he’s a jackass. They don’t like each other. He never even addresses the fact that his daughter and grandchildren have been obliterated in a thermonuclear fireball, and almost as soon as he arrives, he starts arguing that the military should deploy THE DOOMSDAY WING.
Chris is all like no but there’s no getting around it. The Senator just doesn’t understand that this will, in fact, destroy all life on Earth. He think’s it’ll just kill all the life in the Soviet Union, because cobalt warheads will follow national borders and check on whether or not a person is a communist before filling them with deadly radioactive fallout. Chris and other military guys try to explain this to him, but his reaction is basically “Shut up and stop lying I mean obviously this is all propaganda why should I listen to you people who have to deal with this decision every day.” Honestly kind of realistic.
The world is saved when the President is found. He’s on his way to the base and the Senator just kind of deflates. “What’s the point of allowing the Russians to take over?” he asks. “What’s the point of anything in this book?” I respond.
The President arrives just as the Red Phone starts to ring. My hopes that it was Commissioner Gordon were dashed when it turned out to be the Soviet Premier stating that this whole thing was just a big silly screw-up and we’ll all laugh about it later. Actually he insists that the Americans stand down or the rest of the missiles will let fly. The President is basically all “But you started it!” and the premier is like “Yeah but you know how it is” and the President is like “Yeah, I know how it’ll be when I DESTROY THE WORLD” and the premier is like “What” and the President is like “You heard me” and the premier is like “Oh snap, I guess I’ll give up. Friendsies?” and the President is like “Okay cool let’s end this book” and so it does.
The last thing we find out is that Chris’s wife is dead but she sent the kids out of town at the last minute, so they’re okay. Clair, the chick from Tokyo that showed up out of the blue earlier in the book, turns to him and basically says “I’ve always loved you!” and the kids get to deal with a future stepmom.
I guess the moral of the story is that if your life is kind of rough, just wait for the brink of World War III and a nuclear firestorm will solve all your personal problems.
So yeah, ugh, whatever. This book was basically a reverse Dr. Strangelove but without anything to endear it to generations of moviegoers. What is had was a really cliché Cold War suspense plot that took an early background to a guy’s personal troubles. The book keeps going on and on about how worried Chris was about the Doomsday Wing and the possibility of using it and the great responsibility coming with the great power and all that, and eventually that problem ended up saving the day when the President semi-casually points it out to the Soviet Premier like it isn’t going to give him ideas like building his own cobalt bombs and destroying the world before the Americans get to. You know, in the way that the Cold War actually worked.
At least the book was short. Another fifty pages and I would go buy a bird just so I could have a cage to line with paper, if you catch my drift.