The following review is the 7th post in my series searching for “SF short stories that are critical in some capacity of space agencies, astronauts, and the culture which produced them.” Some stories I’ll review in this series might not fit. And that is okay! I relish the act of literary archaeology.
Thank you Antyphayes, “Friend of the Site,” for bringing this story to my attention!
Up next: Philip K. Dick’s “A Little Something For Us Tempunauts” in Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology, ed. Barry N. Mazlberg and Edward L. Ferman (1974) [You can borrow this anthology online in one-hour increments]
“Cold War” (1949), 3.5/5 (Good). You can read it online here. I read it in First Step Outward, ed. Robert Hoskins (1969). Now let’s dive into the psychological hellscape that is militarized SPACE!
“The Government needs YOU!
You can qualify
Space Stations need men!
America’s defense has an opening for you!
Generous Furloughs!” (25)
Kris Neville posits that humankind’s first step into space will be for military purposes. The United States erects nine space stations, moving “rapidly in their orbits” in order to “come within range of every point of Earth,” containing “enough pure death to annihilate any nation on Earth!” (29). The US “rules” by negative force—the threat of nuclear annihilation.
A bit of historical context first: Neville submitted his story (for its October publication) before Americans knew the Soviets were moments from testing their own nuclear weapons–the first Soviet test occurred August 29th with President Truman, in disbelief, releasing a terse statement September 23rd to the American public. Like Leigh Brackett’s description of limited nuclear war in The Long Tomorrow (1952), it’s worth pointing out that the hydrogen bomb wasn’t tested until 1952.
The plot concerns a senatorial investigation into whether or not the space stations are manned by “loyal American citizens” (28). The President, visibly aged and tired after only two years in office (26), goes to extreme lengths to derail the senatorial oversight and snuff out the fragments of terrifying scandal the press uncovers. The astronauts who man the stations, a button away from annihilation, spinning in their orbits over enemy territory, experience a “hypnotic effect” (36). And could, at any moment, become “murderous… insane!” (37).
Neville’s Cold War near-future presents American ideals misshapen by the mistakes of a coercive government. There’s a human toll to all the geopolitical maneuvering, and this is where Neville hits his stride–from the President prematurely aged to the men trapped above in their deathly orbits.
I will be exploring more of Neville’s short fictions. I enjoyed his co-written short story (with Barry N. Malzberg) “Pacem Est” (1970) and also the fix-up novel Bettyann (1970) comprised of “Bettyann” (1951) and “Ouverture” (1954). Malzberg spoke highly of him an I can see inklings, in the handful I’ve read, of why.
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