Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Welcome to Your Apocalypse: Plague

Global epidemics are popular devices for wiping out humanity in science fiction novels. Like neutron bombs, they kill off all the pesky humans without damaging their property and homes, leaving the survivors ample resources with which to rebuild civilization or have interesting adventures. Earth Abides, The Long Loud Silence, John Christopher's young-adult novel Empty World, Vernor Vinge's The Peace War, and the film 12 Monkeys all use some form of superbug to wipe out humanity; few works of fiction, however, dwell on the environmental, social, and psychological impact of death on so large a scale. Few even discuss how frightening super-pandemics could be, with Stephen King's The Stand a notable exception.

Our planet has experienced several pandemics in the last millennium, all of which killed several million people and all of which left some sort of documentary record. The Black Death of 1346-50, probably a mixture of bubonic plague and anthrax, was introduced to Europe via the overland trade route to East Asia, and slaughtered over one-third of the continent's population; by the end of the 1300s, the global population had fallen by about 25% (or 100 million people). The epidemics of smallpox and other illnesses that European mariners introduced to Mexico, Brazil, and the Caribbean in the 16th century killed millions of Indians and probably reduced those regions' indigenous populations by 80% before the century was out (see Crosby, Germs, Seeds, and Animals [M.E. Sharpe, 1994]). Cholera pandemics in the 19th and early 20th centuries killed upwards of 10-15 million people. Spanish flu killed at least 50 million people worldwide at the end of the First World War. HIV/AIDS has killed 30 million people since the 1980s, and as many more people are still living with the disease today.

History can tell us a great deal about the consequences of a large-scale epidemic. Massive die-offs, first of all, can result in the loosening of economic bonds, as surviving serfs or peasants use their scarcity to negotiate with landlords for freedom, but they can also result in the stark curtailment of freedom. When labor is scarce, lords and conquistadors are just as likely to resort to slavery to provide it. Parts of Europe where slavery was in decline, like Italy, saw a resurgence of slave labor in the decades following the Black Death, and when Spanish and Portuguese colonists found that their Indian laborers were dying they replaced them with African slaves.

Epidemics can lead to medical breakthroughs, like the development of public sanitation to fight cholera and of anti-retroviral drugs to fight AIDS. But they can also provoke superstitious responses and violence: think of Europeans who blamed bubonic plague on the Jews, Huron Indians who blamed smallpox on Jesuit missionaries, and evangelical Christians who attribute AIDS to divine displeasure with homosexuality. And, finally, huge die-offs generally don't have any long-term effects on the survivors. Given the relationship between long-distance travel and large-scale epidemics, one might expect trade and travel to decline after pandemics, but I know of no case where this has occurred. Humans also still prefer to live in crowded cities, sometimes in close proximity to livestock, an ideal environment for generating new illnesses. They tend forget the need for prophylactic measures, like vaccination or condom use, once a generation has passed since the peak of a die-off. A realistic novel or movie set after a future plague would have some of the survivors sold into slavery, or the effective equivalent; others killed as scapegoats; and the rest forgetting anything ever happened – until the next epidemic came along and killed another hundred million people.

What, finally, might our fictional (we hope) future superbug be? Damned if I know, though it's comforting to realize that epidemics are to some degree self-limiting. Truly frightening and lethal diseases like Ebola tend to kill their hosts before they have time to spread; those that are both highly contagious and have a long incubation period, like smallpox or influenza, can spread far and wide but kill only a fraction of those infected with them (30%, in the case of untreated smallpox, less, in the case of flu). There may be exceptions. Extreme drug-resistant tuberculosis sounds like it's both contagious and highly fatal, and apparently one can only treat it with chemotherapy and quarantine, both of which are expensive. It's also apparently possible to create a genetically engineered strain of smallpox that suppresses the host's immune response, making it both highly contagious and 100% fatal. I can't imagine anyone setting a science fiction novel in a post-immunosuppressant-smallpox world, however, because there wouldn't be any humans left to write about…

Monday, October 8, 2012

The Annotated "Colder War"

One of the most popular SF writers in the field today is Charles Stross, who began writing fiction full-time about 15 years ago and started publishing novels around the turn of the century. His particular specialty is blending, subverting, and critiquing the tropes and cliches of science fiction and its allied genres, fantasy and horror. His published books of just the past ten years reveal his authorial range: they include three space operas (including one with an all-robot cast), an anthology of stories set during a technological Singularity, a six-volume alternate-history series disguised (at least initially) as a fantasy adventure, three near-future police procedurals, and four spy novels (and several associated short stories) set in a world where H.P. Lovecraft's horror stories are real.

I am fond of Stross's novels, but find that some of his best work can be found in his (fairly infrequent) short stories and novellas. My favorite Stross story, "A Colder War," is typical of his writerly technique, insofar as it takes the people, places, and monsters of Lovecraft's "Cthulhu Mythos" and incorporates them into a 1980s techno-spy thriller, with predictably horrifying results. In re-reading the story recently, I realized that much of my enjoyment stems from understanding the various historical and fictional references that Stross makes, and that not all readers would appreciate Stross's terminology, genre references, and jokes.  "This," I thought, "is a story that could benefit from a few footnotes," much like Howard Waldrop's story "The Annotated Jetboy" from the Wild Cards milieu. Since Mssr. Stross is a busy man, and doesn't mind fans writing derivative works as long as they're free and he doesn't have to read them, I thought I might perform this minor service for his readers.  Herewith, then, my notes to "A Colder War."


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All page-number references are to the version of this story found in the paperback edition of Wireless (2010). The abbreviation "HPL" refers to Howard Phillips Lovecraft (1890-1937), creator of the Cthulhu Mythos that forms the background to the story.


84: Nellis AFB [Air Force Base]: Located near Las Vegas, it is one of the largest military air bases in the United States. Yes, it's a real place.
  Pitot tubes: Partially closed tubes used to measure airspeed.

85: SECRET GOLD JULY BOOJUM: Stross's protocol for identifying Top Secret information – a string of unrelated nouns – is actually not a bad form of encryption, though to the best of my knowledge no real-world intelligence service uses it as a security protocol.

86: like pentacles: Stross's description of the symbols on the tarps indicates that they are Elder Signs, used in the Cthulhu mythos to bind or banish otherworldly nasties.
  ORBAT: Order of Battle, a list of the combat units available to a particular army, arranged by command hierarchy.
  Live servitors: also known as shoggoths (see p. 92), first described by HPL in At the Mountains of Madness.  The Elder Things, an alien race which came to Earth in the Precambrian Era, created them as a servant race; they later rebelled.

87: this conclusion is questionable: The Soviet ploy referred to here was quite famous by the 1980s, though it apparently caused great consternation at the time of its use (1964).

88: KH-11: also known as "Key Hole," the most sophisticated spy satellite in use by the United States in the 1980s, when this story takes place.
  Church Commission: A 1975 Senate commission that investigated abuses of power by the American intelligence community in the 1950s and '60s.

89: eighteen-year-old faked missile photographs: Assuming this refers to the 1963 file in the next paragraph, this establishes the starting date of Stross's story as 1981.
  Koschei: A nearly-invulnerable villain from Russian folklore.
  It had been enough to stop JFK running: Either the Dallas assassination didn't occur in this continuum, or Stross is writing subjunctively, eliding the phrase "even if he had lived."

90: the cold plateau beyond Mount Erebus: Location of the city of Elder Things described in "At the Mountains of Madness," apparently known to and covered up by the American, Soviet, and Nazi governments.
  Balloon ever does go up: A term popularized during World War Two, when raised barrage balloons signaled an impending air raid.  Used during the Cold War to refer to the outbreak of general war.

91: the colonel: Oliver North, the director of several of the Reagan administration's illegal covert operations in the 1980s (both in the real world and in Stross's continuum). Anyone familiar with Oliver North and Cthulhu should now realize that this story is going to end very, very badly.
  This fuckup in Tehran: presumably a reference to the Islamic revolution of 1979, rather than the Iran hostage crisis of 1979-81, which ended just as Reagan was taking office.

92: Upper Volta: Reference to a derogatory phrase used by diplomats to refer to the Soviet Union – "Upper Volta with rockets," i.e. a Third World country with a First World military.  Upper Volta is now Burkina Faso.
  The Company: The CIA.
  Wet ops: Lethal covert operations, or as we mundanes call them, assassinations.
  Marque and reprise: Stross means "marque and reprisal," a license to commit piracy on behalf of a nation-state. Used in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries, now obsolete.

93: Lake Vostok: In the real world, an ancient lake buried beneath several miles of pack ice in eastern Antarctica; in Stross's continuum, an equally ancient lake buried beneath the Ross Ice Shelf on the same continent.

94: ELF: Extremely Low Frequency, a long-wave radio communications technology used to communicate with submerged submarines.
  Ullage: loss of liquid from a container.

96: Predecessors: The American intelligence community's term for the Elder Things. An improvement, arguably, on Lovecraft's own term.
  General LeMay would be proud: Reference to Curtis LeMay, pioneer of saturation bombing during World War Two, creator of the Strategic Air Command, and author of the slogan "Bomb 'em back to the Stone Age."

98: Belsen postcards, Auschwitz movies: This may be a figurative reference to human sacrifices performed in order to summon or feed the creature at the heart of Project Koschei (i.e., Cthulhu), or an actual reference to the extermination camps, which in Stross's continuum may have been used for the same purpose.
  Organization Todt: Nazi slave-labor firm, which employed over one million prisoners on large-scale engineering works.
  Professor Gould: Stephen Jay Gould, a paleontologist and popular-science essayist, and author of, among other books, Wonderful Life (1989), an account of the Burgess Shale mentioned on the following page.

99: skinny woman: Fawn Hall, Col. Oliver North's secretary and resident paper-shredder.

99-101: anamalocaris: A real-world organism, extinct for approximately 500 million years, which in Stross's continuum is an alien creature, introduced to Earth via the gate under Lake Vostok. In our own continuum, anomalocaris is pretty weird.

100: cauliflower head: One of the distinctive features of the Elder Things or Predecessors.

102: minox: Film from a type of miniature camera developed in the 1930s and commonly used by mid-20th century spies.
  on the Baltic Floor: The Cthulhu "entity" in the Koschei bunker is either an avatar or copy of HPL's original (which lay "undead and sleeping" beneath the Pacific Ocean), or else Cthulhu's tomb-city of R'lyeh is in Stross's continuum under the Baltic Sea. One supposes it would have been difficult for the Nazis to reach the South Pacific, even with Japanese help.

103: Baltic Singularity: The intelligence community's use of the word "Singularity" to describe Cthulhu makes it clear that the entity lies beyond explanation by conventional twentieth-century science.

104: shy bald admiral: John Poindexter, National Security Advisor to President Ronald Reagan.
  End-user certificates: Issued by arms manufacturers to their customers to prevent, often ineffectively, the resale of weapons.

105: Jermyn Street: High-end London men's tailoring district.
  Old man Ruhollah: Ayatollah Khomenei, supreme religious leader of revolutionary Iran from 1979 to 1989.

106: very dangerous men: Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed religious terrorist group whose capture of several American hostages in 1984-85 initiated the Iran-Contra scandal.
  Unholy brotherhood of Tikrit: Presumably an Iraqi cult, associated with Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti, which worships the Lovecraftian deity Yog-Sothoth (a deity associated with inter-dimensional gates) and uses his power against Iran, with which Iraq was then at war.
  Mukhabarat: See page 110.
  Bekaa: Valley in Lebanon where Hezbollah was based during that country's civil war.

107: Leng: Mythical plateau which was the site of an evil kingdom of  flesh-eating sorcerers in HPL's work. Leng may have been in central Asia, in the other-worldly Dream Lands, in Antarctica (hence Mehmet's reference to "icy spoor"), or all of these places at once.
  Kitab al-Azif: The Necronomicon, a legendary book of summoning spells found in several of HPL's stories. Its author, Abd Al-hazred, was allegedly devoured by invisible demons.
  F-14C: Revolutionary Iran used a number of American weapons that were either acquired by the Shah (who was an American ally) or illegally sold to the Iranian government as part of the Iran-Contra scandal.
  Dimona: In the real world, Israel played an intermediary role in the shipment of American weapons to Iran, but none were nuclear.

109: advanced robotic systems: HPL implied that the shoggoths were biological, but Stross's explanation makes more technical sense, and reflects the kind of concepts that the American and Soviet intelligence communities would have used to understand them.
  Utility fog: Actually, this idea appears to have been prefigured in a 1964 novel by Stanislaw Lem.
  Molotov Raid: Presumably, a Soviet expedition which looted the Elder Thing / Precursor city in Antarctica after the return of the Pabodie Expedition.


110: weakly godlike agencies: a carryover term from SF-nal speculation about transhuman intelligence, used in Stross's own science fiction novels.
  K-thulhu: Since it is supposedly impossible for humans correctly to pronounce "Cthulhu," Roger's spelling and pronunciation of the name is as correct as any other. One may infer from it that this world's intelligence community reserves the "K-" prefix for Mythos-related places, beings, and technology.

111: Buckminster Fuller: inventor of the geodesic dome.

113: cracked some kinda joke: Reagan did, in fact, make the aforementioned joke about "outlaw[ing] Russia forever" over an inadvertently open mike (1984), and apparently the Soviet Union did take it seriously and put one of its armies on alert. CPSU officials were not known for their sense of humor.

115: Ligachev: Soviet Communist Party hardliner and putative successor to Mikhail Gorbachev in the mid-1980s.
  gate into Sothoth: Curiously, Stross isn't the only person in the world to speculate (tongue-in-cheek) that Saddam Hussein would be interested in mucking about with Cthulhu Mythos lore and monsters. Tyler Stewart, proprietor of Pandemonium Books in Cambridge, Mass., told me in 1991 he was playing around with the same idea.
   Yellow rain: a fungal poison allegedly weaponized and used by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
  WarPac: Warsaw Pact
  SS-20: Intermediate-range ballistic missile deployed by the USSR in the 1970s and '80s.
  Koschei is loose: Stross leaves open the question of whether the Project's directors unleashed Cthulhu against the Americans or against Saddam Hussein's temple/gate of Yog Sothoth. In the end, I suppose, it matters not.

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(Links added 21 Aug. 2015.)