Friday, February 13, 2015

War in the Atomic Age?

So, last week I snagged a rather entertaining little item through interlibrary loan.

 Figure 1: War in the Atomic Age? Cover
(Public Domain)

This little volume was written in 1946, some time after the Operation CROSSROADS nuclear test.   Captain Walter Karig was a prolific author - he even has his own wikipedia page - who had previously crafted such gems as Zotz! and Doris Force at Raven Rock.   War in the Atomic Age? is in the vein of the patriotic young adult novels of World War II, all about the derring-do of our Heroes in Uniform, only set in World War III.

This is a thoroughly forgettable little bit of atomic pop, but I feel like indulging myself after giving my first Real Math Talk, and frankly, you can't stop me.   And I want to share some of the pictures, some of which are pretty cool.

The scene is set in the US in 1976.   The world is at peace, and Father O'Shea of Georgetown University is observing the seismograph.   He sees a sudden jump, somewhere near the center of the country.   He confers with his colleagues in New York, who tell him to turn on the TV.   Kansas City has been nuked by the evil forces of the Galaxy.

That's right, the Galaxy!   They're the baddies of this story, an alliance of six unspecified countries with an unspecified but definitely evil ideology.   Given the geography involved, we know they have a port on the Pacific coast of Eurasia, but their "Herr Direktor" is more Germanic then Russian, and their flag is green, not red.   Other then that, all we know of them is that they're very evil.   Very, very evil.   They've just nuked Kansas City, after all, and now they're broadcasting a surrender demand on television, threatening to nuke more cities if the US doesn't come to heel.   Naturally, the president tells them off, and everyone cheers.

Father O'Shea never appears again in the book, by the way.

Figure 2: . . . the Galaxy has been secretly manufacturing atomic bombs."
(Public Domain)

Fortunately, US submarines soon spot and sink the iceberg bases used to launch the missiles:

Figure 3: ". . . the fore-end of the berg split and gaped wide."
(Public Domain)

Oddly, despite the title, this is the only atomic bomb used in the story.   Atomic bombs were outlawed after World War 2, so the US doesn't have any of our own.   And now that the US Space Force is alerted, there's no way the Galaxy will be getting a second A-bomb through our defenses.   Both the US and the Galaxy have force field projectors that destroy anything tangible trying to pass through:

Figure 4: "Everyone was detonated in flight against the super-electronic wall . . ."
(Public Domain)

Because of the force fields, the One Week War - which actually only lasts six days, but who's counting - will primarily be a war of super-weapons, as each side tries to find a way to punch a hole through the other's force field.   The first attempt is by the Galaxy: the Kansas City missile had been accompanied by a spaceship, to provide electronic guidance to the missile, and which is now trapped inside the United States' barrier.   (Spaceships in this story behave more like really fast, high-flying airplanes.)

Figure 5: A flying electronic laboratory from which bombardier and technician guide the flying missiles to their targets.
(Public Domain)

Realizing they will soon be tracked down and destroyed by the valiant Americans, the ship's crew decide to kamikaze their vessel against one of the force field projectors, knocking a hole through which flying wing bombers can attack:

Figure 6: "The first mass assault . . . of flying wings."
(Public Domain)

The enemy bombers make it through, but fortunately all are shot down before they reach their targets, and the Navy patches the barrier with a floating shield generator.   (Phew!)

Next, the Galaxy drops biological and radiological weapons on the neutral island of Palmyra, as an experiment, landing a science team to observe the results.   (I think Karig picked that island at random from an atlas, because in the real world it's uninhabited.)   American submarines - watching with "sky-spies", what we would call drones - send amphibious robots armed with flame throwers to avenge the poor Palmyrans.

Figure 7: "Crawling up out of the sea, the squat machines began belching streams of liquid fire."
(Public Domain)

Then the Galaxy tries to change the Pacific currents to turn the US into a desert, only to be stopped by American submarines and Atomic Drone Hoverfoils - nuclear-powered kamikaze drone ships, basically.

Figure 8: "Now we ought to be able to see something.   Turn on the works."
(Public Domain)

Then the Galaxy finds a way to project weaponized sound through the great barriers.

Figure 9: "Noise such as never assailed human ears before."
(Public Domain)

Fortunately, before they're able to drive the defenders insane, brilliant American scientists counter with giant mirrors projecting concentrated sunlight, to melt the Galaxy force field generators, in coordination with an assault by submarines and amphibious robots.

Figure 10: "A concentrated beam of solar energy shot down to the Galaxy coast."
(Public Domain)

American bombers and troop transports quickly pour through the breach, seizing key points throughout the unspecified enemy countries.   After a day the Galaxy has surrendered.   The book ends with a plea for peace through strength, especially naval strength.

I find this book interesting for a couple of reasons.   First, as a reflection of the times - this was published in 1946, before the Cold War had really set in, and when the Navy perceived itself to be in a desperate fight for strategic relevance against the new, atomic-armed Air Force.   Karig was a captain in the Navy Reserve, and it comes through - notice how most of the victories are won by the Navy, and they provide critical assistance even in the final battle.

Second, I think it's very interesting how few narratives there are of actually fighting an atomic war in the old good-guy/bad-guy style.   There are plenty of stories set in an atomic war, but almost all depict thirty-minute mutual suicides.   And there's more then a few WW3 technothrillers, but almost all of them depict a purely conventional war - if nukes are used at all, it's only at the end.   The only other stories about fighting a nuclear war I can recall are The War We Do Not Want, a training film by SAC, and maybe Arc Light, by Eric L. Harry.   Not that any of these stories are realistic, by any means, but people write all kinds of unrealistic things, and it's odd that this particular type of narrative hasn't been exploited.   I guess it strikes a little too close to people's fears.

Incidentally, does anyone know a good place to upload a pdf to share?   The book's out of copyright - it was never renewed when they extended the copyright life time in the '70s - so I scanned the whole thing.


  1. Have you tried Internet Archive? I haven't uploaded anything myself - but that's where I go to get things that are out of copyright.

  2. Have you ever read Steam Bird?

    Atomic powered aircraft - using atomic power to generate steam to spin turbines! Yes, pretty much naval atomic power systems in the sky. It's as painful as it sounds.

    As for uploading a PDF of this masterpiece - Scribd? Google Drive? Lots of 'cloud storage' outfits offer free starter storage and you can share out uploads via links.

  3. I have read Steam Bird! Quite a strange little book - the antagonists seemed to just be forgotten about after a third of the way through, in favor of rhapsodizing about steam engines. Schenck actually worked on the ANP project back in the day. You may already be aware of this, but the supercritical water reactor in the book was (very briefly) a real ANP proposal by the Pratt & Whitney corporation, before they shifted to sodium coolant reactors for the indirect-cycle.

    Thanks to both of you for suggestions - I really need to get around to doing this, but math, math, writing, and math have been keeping me in a permanent state of distraction.

  4. Interesting cover. My old, tattered copy long ago lost its cover, but it was mostly a B/W photo of a V-2 liftoff. I think it may have been one of the White Sands shots.