There are three frequent themes in the long running genre of future war fiction. One is a call for better preparation today (Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of The Sands comes to mind). Another is the group of previously unregarded heroes who save the day; another, less common in recent times, is the ignored secret weapon that helps them. (In one 1930s story I recall, it’s a battleship with infra-red rangefinders and onboard UAVs.)
All three are present in Space Wars: The First Six Hours of World War III, written by a troika of authors including former AvWeeker Bill Scott.
You don’t come to this genre looking for subtle characterization and the complex interaction of human emotions (“The Oprah Book Club section’s in aisle H, d00d.”) and Space Wars, in that respect, does not disappoint. Heroes are square-jawed and gentlemanly, foreigners are naïve or unreliable, and villains literally foam at the mouth. (Thinking of which, the culturally hypersensitive might give this one a pass, too.
Like any techno-thriller, the book risks sliding over the line into technological TMI (Too Much Information), the kind of detail that works in Aviation Week but tends to cause the plot to labour like a 640K PC with too many open applications. It slides into the classic literary trap that my mother always dubbed “Thou knowest, my Lord Archbishop” in which characters start explaining things to one another in great detail that they both already know. On the other hand, there are very few future-war or techno-thriller writers (Childers was one) who can avoid that.
Space Wars’ call to action is based on undisputed reality: both civilian life and military power are increasingly dependent on space-based systems that are not protected against hostile action. It’s also true that any discussion of ways to make those systems less vulnerable tends to run very rapidly into a counter-argument that’s not fact-based. It’s quite one thing to argue that space can be secured in ways that are not military in nature; it’s another to do what many do, which is to claim that space is by its nature the common land of all humankind and that subjects such as “space control” are too ghastly to contemplate.
The books’ heroes are an unlikely group is an unlikely setting: wargamers in a secure operations room. While there is a shooting war going on, the key conflicts are played out in offices and over conference calls, where the shooting is in real time but on flat-panel displays. It’s different from most of this genre but very real, and very contemporary: when bad news arrives, you can rewind the live video and watch it happen.
The secret weapon – no plot spoilers here, because it is given away by paranormal radio host George Noory in his foreword – will be familiar to loyal AvWeek readers as BlackStar, the black-project two-stage-to-orbit spaceplane that Bill Scott pursued with Ahab-like intensity for much of his career with the magazine. (Without airing any linen, let’s say that not everyone was lining up to carry Bill’s harpoon.) While the BlackStar episodes occasionally struggle with both TMI and the Archbishop, Scott’s real-world experience in flight testing shines through.
Space Wars is a book that can be read as a thriller, as a call to arms or a fictionalized exploration of the world of wargaming and space security. In any sense, though, it’s an original. Besides, how many novels actually have one of their characters writing a dust-jacket blurb?