Short Story Review: Kris Neville’s “Cold War” (1949)

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!

Today: Kris Neville’s “Cold War” (1949) in the October 1949 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. You can read it online here.

Previously: Theodore L. Thomas’ “Broken Tool” (1959) in the July 1959 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. You can read the story online here.

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!

If

You can qualify

YES!

Space Stations need men!

America’s defense has an opening for you!

Excellent pay!!

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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16 thoughts on “Short Story Review: Kris Neville’s “Cold War” (1949)

  1. You could make a very cool lit study for an English class out of these selections. Especially if there are enough available online. What a cool theme to discuss!

    I’m retired, but it’d be fun to put it together. 🙂

    I appreciate your reviews. Nice work.

  2. I just read it.

    [1] So it’s not really about “space agencies and astronauts,” is it?

    It is, I suppose, about “the culture which produced them,” inasmuch as the Cold War space race was very much sold and funded on the basis that it was a race for the commanding heights, the strategic high ground, from which the superior state-actor would then have dominance through the ability to reign down nuclear weapons on its enemy. That’s the true subtext of Kennedy’s 1962 speech — “we choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard,” etc. It was a race for the strategic high ground.

    Nevertheless, that said, the real question that Neville was trying to write about in this story from 1949 was whether the U.S. should use its dominant position as the sole possessor of nuclear weapons — indeed, could the U.S. resist the temptation of exploiting that dominant position — to nuke the Commie bastards now.

    Unfortunately, that question was already a dead issue by the time Neville’s story reached the newsstands in the October 1949 issue ofASTOUNDING. Because the USSR had carried out its first successful test of a nuclear fission device at its Semipalatinsk test site in Kazakhstan two months earlier, on August 29th, 1949, and Truman had publicly announced that to the U.S. one month earlier, on September 23rd.

    So Neville’s story as a piece of moral or intellectual analysis was already an irrelevant historical artifact by the time it was published.

    If we take it as a piece of fictional art, on the other hand, it’s extremely clunky and clumsy. Writers like Asimov and Van Vogt, for heaven’s sake, were writing better prose and characterization; and next to C.L. Moore and Henry Kuttner, “Cold War” just doesn’t register. Heck, Robert Heinlein would have written this story a lot more artfully, except his answer would probably have been, Hell, yes, nuke the commies now. (In fact, Heinlein sort of did write this story back in 1940 in ‘Blowups Happen.’)

    [2] By the way, the version of the text you link to is impossible to read due to extremely funky scanning. I read it at the Luminist periodical archive here —
    https://drive.google.com/file/d/1-t93bqOZ_KQE8QoEhAJ79gNJVfZNY7ki/view

    And it’s also available here —
    https://archive.org/details/AstoundingScienceFictionv44n2/page/n120/mode/1up?view=theater

    • Hello Mark,

      Thanks for reading the story and joining the discussion! I mention some similar elements in my review.

      For example, as I know some readers would not understand the exactly moment about whether or not the Soviets had nuclear weapons, I mentioned all the same dates you did in my post. It’s very important to know the historical context to pin down his purpose and why he depicts nuclear weapon space stations as he does.

      Here is where we differ a bit:

      You write: “So Neville’s story as a piece of moral or intellectual analysis was already an irrelevant historical artifact by the time it was published.” I’m not so sure (if it matters as fiction is relentlessly topical). This is why I focused my comments on the coercive government and personal impact of the looming potentially of nuclear war. Neville narrows in on the psychological strain facing the individual tasked with overseeing such destruction. This strain wouldn’t disappear with knowledge of the Soviets having weapons… although the exact result of a nuclear war would transform into mutual destruction.

      As for “clunky” — well, here’s my problem with 40s SF. I sort of side-stepped that issue in my review and is the reason it isn’t higher rated. I enjoyed the psychological worldscape he lays out. His use of the advertisement reminded me of the William Tenn (“Down Among the Dead Men”) story we read for this series. But yes, it’s isn’t the best crafted but has a functionalism that conveys his aims.

      I am fascinated by the complete lack of “exploration” envisaged by this entirely militarized “space agency” branch. One gets the sense that it was entirely for military purposes. And the feel is distinct for sure!

      As for the Luminist website, I have no idea what that site actually is! hah

      You linked the same Internet Archive file I did. The only difference is the “viewer” button you selected at the bottom of the page. The scan looks fine on my end but you might need to press a different viewing option at the bottom.

    • You are under no compulsion to read every one Richard! You’re welcome to wait until I say a story is a masterpiece and exciting and riveting.

      My site, perhaps different than some, is not entirely for identifying masterpieces. As you know, I’m charting a theme and territory. The act is definitely more exciting than some of the stories for sure.

      • Don’t worry Joachim, I like to keep-up with your posts and comment if I can, which sometimes means reading the short stories online. Even those you rate as masterpieces though, I don’t always like. It’s just I don’t seem to really get into them enough to understand their themes.

        • The hunt is fun! haha

          Let me know if you know of any stories that you enjoy that fit the theme. I’ve been reading a bunch of recommendations for this series. I’m generally not one for recommendations [well, I take that partially back — I read lots and lots of reviews and tend to remember them when I peruse the shelves] but short stories are easily digestible.

          • I can’t think of any short stories that fit the theme that I’ve liked, but looking through the lists of short fiction I’ve read, I found one by Kris Neville, an author I’d forgotten I’d read. It’s called “From the Goverment Printing House”, published in Harlan Ellison’s “Dangerous Visions”, about a very young and precocious child, whose parents have plans for his education in a future society, which are predictable and stayed, but the child seemed more wise than them. I wasn’t awestruck by it, but I preferred it to the other one.

  3. @JB —

    Apologies for my redundant mentioning of dates! I read your review, then read the Neville story, and forgot you covered that.

    JB: ‘I enjoyed the psychological worldscape he lays out … I am fascinated by the complete lack of “exploration” envisaged by this entirely militarized “space agency” branch. One gets the sense that it was entirely for military purposes.’

    This actually was the mindset, at least as far as the Pentagon was concerned.

    For instance, you’re probably familiar with Freeman Dyson and Ted Taylor’s Project Orion — that most faustian project of an era of faustian projects (and if you’re not familiar with it, here’s an article by physicist Jeremy Bernstein, the last surviving Orion team member since Freeman Dyson has died — https://inference-review.com/article/reflections-on-project-orion).

    So Orion went through several iterations and as late as January 1961 was still running when J.F. Kennedy became president. One of the first things Kennedy and MacNamara did was go visit USAF general Thomas Power who’d succeeded LeMay as head of Strategic Air Command when LeMay got bumped upstairs to vice joint chief of staff for the Air Force.

    It turned out Power had a gigantic model of an Orion spacecraft outside his office — somewhere between five and eight feet tall, according to various accounts — and enthused at length to Kennedy and McNamara about how the U.S. Air Force was going to build about seven of these battleship-sized, nuclear bomb-powered platforms and put them up at around the distance from Earth that the Moon is, where the Soviets couldn’t reach them and they could target nuclear fusion bombs at anywhere on Earth.

    In other words, Orion — as the USAF envisioned it — would have been pretty much the real-world realization of the kind of orbital fortresses Neville’s story (somewhat vaguely) envisions. Apparently, when Kennedy and McNamara left the Pentagon and Power, they just looked at each other and shook their heads and decided, “Right, we’re closing that one down right away.”

    And of course all NASA’s Project Mercury launchers were adaptions of the likes of the Atlas ICBM rockets developed by General Shriever’s ICBM program.

    Just a fascinating era that continues to reverberate today. The early SAGE system (Semi Automatic Ground Environment) computer- and radar-based air-defense system led directly to the ARPANET, and thence to today’s global Internet. And the thorium nuclear reactor people talk about now was in fact developed originally for LeMay’s nuclear-powered bomber project (which lost out to Schriever’s ICBMs, which was why LeMay got bumped upstairs to the joint chiefs to get him out of the way.)

    • No need to apologize! Like you, my historian sense kicked in and I immediately felt the need to identify the specific historical context re-American knowledge of the state of nuclear warfare as it’s important to get at Neville’s vision.

      I will take a look at the article. While I have heard of the system and even read an article recently in one of the SF magazines I was perusing, I did not know the specific details.

      Thanks again!

  4. Hello Joachim,
    I’ve been hoping Chris Neville would show up in a review here eventually. I’ve only read a few of his works, but never this one so I’ll add it to the list. I did read his story “Special Delivery” and enjoyed the heck out of it. I read it years ago so I’m not sure how well it would hold up now.
    Thanks

    • Thanks for stopping by! You’re welcome to join the read-along. Link to the story can be found at the beginning of the review.

      What is “Special Delivery” about?

      Do you know of any other vintage short stories that might fit the theme of this review series?

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