So Jared of pornokitsch.com and I had this cool idea: we would each post something about the various books we owned which were about, or set during, the Cold War. His are here. I’m old enough to remember the Cold War, although not all of it, of course. I’ve not been around quite that long. Anyway, I had a quick look through my book collection and discovered that I had almost 100 books on military aircraft used during the 1950s and 1960s and 1970s. I don’t remember buying so many. Some, I can pass off as research for various pieces of fiction. Honest. But others… Er, no. I put together a post about some of these aircraft books, but then I realised it wasn’t very interesting. So I binned it. Maybe I’ll inflict it in you another day. Instead, I decided to write about some other Cold War books instead… And yes, one or two of them are about military aircraft. But never mind.
One feature of the Cold War was the Space Race. Which didn’t actually amount to a race. At least, NASA always insisted it was never one. But then they did lie on occasion. Not about putting a man on the Moon, however. That was real. And I find it really annoying when people claim it was all faked. But anyway, the Cold War… Science fiction was more than happy to take the Space Race and run with it – and extend the Cold War to low earth orbit, the Moon, and wherever else US sf authors and their manifest destiny thought the Soviets might try and compete with them. Even as late as 1984, Kim Stanley Robinson had Americans versus Soviets in space in his Icehenge. The following sf novels, however, actually predate Gagarin’s momentous flight… which means they get a lot of the details, er, wrong. But never mind.
According to the back cover of First on the Moon (1958), it is “a thrilling adventure of the very near future. Written with up-to-the-minute accuracy by a professional aviation research engineer…” Aviation research is, of course, all about spaceflight. Not. So it’s no surprise that First on the Moon hews pretty closely to early 1950s visions of missions to the Moon. But we mustn’t forget those pesky Soviets, who are determined to use “assassination and sabotage”, or “an H-bomb loaded rocket missile”, or even “a Red spaceship with a suicide crew” to prevent the noble Americans from claiming the Moon for “Old Glory”. First on the Moon was Jeff Sutton’s debut novel, and it’s the sort of alarmist Cold War claptrap that normally appeared from publishers of cheap thrillers rather than genre imprints. For the record, the Americans get to the Moon, but then there’s a game of cat and mouse between astronauts and cosmonauts, as illustrated by the cover art. I’m assuming the guy in the red spacesuit is a Russian, because of course being Reds they’d have spacesuits that colour. You can just make out that the bloke shooting at the Red is wearing a blue spacesuit. He must be a good guy, then.
Bombs in Orbit (1959), Sutton’s second novel, is more of the same. Not only does the cover art feature a pair of Convair F-102 Delta Daggers (Sutton worked for Convair at the time), which of course can’t reach orbit, but the back cover boasts the immortal strapline “SPACE FROGMEN!” (which, I freely admit, is what prompted me to buy the book in the first place). The titular bombs… “Now the Russian space lead had taken a fatal turn – they had three controlled H-bomb Sputniks circling the Earth ready to drop when and where they wished.” Oh no! Not the H-bomb Sputniks! Bombs in Orbit is “a novel that cannot be put down until the last taut page.” This is blatantly untrue as I have done it many times.
Sutton continued writing his Cold War space novels with Spacehive (1960), which boasts – I think – another Convair delta-winged fighter on the cover. I’m not sure which one, however; perhaps it’s one of the research aircraft used when they were developing the B-58 Hustler supersonic bomber– Ahem, anyway… The Spacehive is some sort of project in low earth orbit – “The United States was tossing the parts of Project Spacehive into orbit like bits of a jigsaw puzzle” – but the US has not quite thought things through because “how do you get any work done when you’re a sitting duck every ninety minutes for Russian rocket snipers?” Oh no! Not the Russian rocket snipers! I’ve yet to read this book, or Bombs in Orbit (all the quotes here and above are taken from the back-cover blurbs), but they but look very… manly, all stony glances and blazing eyes. And gruff, lots of gruff.
Charles Eric Maine, on the other hand, was a Brit and an actual science fiction writer. High Vacuum (1956) was his fourth novel and is a straight-up Moon disaster novel. A US rocket crashes in the Sea of Rains – a little bit of prescience by him there (I mean Apollo 15, which of course didn’t crash, but you know what I mean; and not Adrift on the Sea of Rains). “There is enough oxygen to keep alive four survivors for five weeks – or two for ten – or one for twenty…” It’s fortunate the crashed astronauts haven’t lost their ability to add up or take away. In actual fact, only three astronauts survive the crash and must struggle to survive… and try to figure out how to get back to Earth – um, this is starting to sound a little familiar…
The moment I saw Caper at Canaveral (1963) by Roger Blake on eBay, I had to have it. Just look at that strapline: “Bolder than today’s headlines! Cuban Commies use the fiery desires of a lush nympho to try to gain American missile secrets!” They don’t write them like that any more. Fortunately. And the back-cover’s no better, with its “COUNTDOWN FOR SEX!”. And just in case you don’t know what that is: ” 5 4 3 2 1″. The blurb is, well, it’s… “Gary’s public relations job meant getting the top scientific brains to join his firm. And his formula for winning them over was simple: FREE WHEELING SEX!” So there you go, back during the Cold War even the pencil-necks were manly stallions.
I did say I was going to mention some books about Cold War military aircraft, but in my defence they’re not real Cold War military aircraft. They are in fact aircraft that never got off the drawing-board or beyond the prototype stage.
There were some pretty cool ideas floating about at the time – all in an effort to go higher, further and faster than the enemy. Midland Publishing specialises in military aviation books, and has produced a series on the, er, blue sky thinking prevalent at the time. I don’t have all of the Secret Projects books – there’s another British Secret Projects (which I have but haven’t included here), an American Secret Projects on bombers which I don’t own, and a Soviet Secret Projects on fighters which I also don’t own. Midland have also published several books on Luftwaffe Secret Projects. But Nazi secret technology and occult flying saucers is probably a post for another day…
Some of those proposed Mach 3 bombers and fighters may have been cool, but the coolest machine of all was the Caspian Sea Monster. Caspian! Sea! Monster! It was actually an ekranoplan, or ground effect vehicle, which flew a handful of metres above the ground or sea surface. Only the Soviets bothered to build them, and some of them really were monsters, huge things capable of carrying tanks at 500 kph. Unfortunately, they did require a very placid sea-state, which limited their usefulness. Still, they are cool. An ekranoplan makes an appearance in Sebastian Faulks’ James Bond novel, Devil May Care, and I believe Charlie Stross has mentioned them too in his fiction. But really they should be in every story ever written.
After all that money spent designing and building aircraft that could fly as fast as possible, during the 1960s a bunch of politicians decided supersonic bombers were an inefficient method of delivering nuclear warheads to the enemy. Build a faster bomber, and the enemy only went and spoiled things by building a faster interceptor. And they were expensive too. Even when they were controlled by Giant Computer Brains, like SAGE – which was used to direct interceptors to bombers entering US airspace. At the time it was built, SAGE was the biggest computer in the world, with each of its 24 machines weighing 250 tons. Yay for miniaturisation and the integrated circuit. Anyway, no supersonic bombers and no supersonic interceptors. Instead, it was all about ballistic missiles. These were buried in silos hidden in the countryside, or carried on submarines. I don’t have any books on ballistic missile submarines but I do have this one on missile silos. Nowadays, you can buy abandoned missile silos, and several have been converted into homes. We may laugh now, but they’ll be the ones laughing after World War III…
Speaking of which, should there be an exchange of missiles, the government and military command structure need somewhere safe to carry on the fight. A nuclear bunker. Or several of them. The general public had fall-out shelters of their own, of course, but they had to build them themselves in their own backyards. It’s doubtful they would have been very effective. The shelters documented in Cold War Secret Nuclear Bunkers – which, of course, are not all that secret anymore – were only for the government and military. And they were pretty damn big. Most have now been abandoned. Of course, fall-out shelters were only effective if you managed to get inside them before the missile hit. In the UK, we had the “three-minute warning”, which didn’t really give enough time to do anything except perhaps say “Oh shit”. The government successfully sold this to the British public as crucial and important because the US told them to. In actual fact, putting early warning stations on British soil gave the US a ten- to fifteen-minute early warning, which was plenty of time for them to see about defending themselves. If the UK got turned into a post-apocalyptic wasteland in the process, why should they care? That’s what allies are for, right? Recently, a military nuclear bunker in Scotland was put up for sale – very useful for the family who needs a Giant Nuclear Bomb Proof Basement.
Other countries beside the UK had not-so-secret-now nuclear bunkers. In the US, they had enormous secret underground command complexes built into mountains. Like NORAD, and that one where they keep the stargate. And the ones where they keep all the aliens. Underground Bases and Tunnels was published by Adventures Unlimited Press, which probably tells you all you need to know about it. If you need a hint, here’s the back-cover blurb: “This is a disturbing and important book, revealing a massive level of secret underground engineering activity on the part of the federal government” and “A must read for students of conspiracy, technology suppression, UFOs and the New World Order”. There is a companion volume, Underwater and Underground Bases, but I’ve yet to pick up a copy. All that money Western governments spent on secret bases full of reverse-engineered alien technology, and all they really needed to control their populations was… neoliberalism! And we bought into it, even though it’s all based on a spreadsheet that contains equations that don’t add up. Economics: it’s magical. Personally, I’d sooner governments used alien technology. That would be much more fun.
So there you have it, a small slice of the Cold War in fiction and fact. Four decades of the twentieth century in which the two largest industrial nations postured and blustered… and a complete waste of time. Because the USSR just collapsed on its own. Apparently, when the USSR did crash, many powerful officials in the US intelligence community didn’t believe it. They thought it was a trick. The Soviets were only pretending their entire nation had come crashing down about their ears! In actual fact, they were going to go: Aha! Fooled you, imperialist yankee running dogs! And then invade everywhere. Still, history often makes fools of even the cleverest among us (not that there are any of those in government, of course). But at least the Cold War made an excellent topic for fiction, both science fiction and otherwise. It allowed various writers to fight the good fight under alien skies, or present secret services that weren’t collections of over-educated incompetent nincompoops. At least the Cold War was good for art. And cool aeroplanes. Don’t forget the cool aeroplanes. And the ekranoplans as well, of course. At least the Cold War gave us ekranoplans. And for that we should be properly thankful.