Sunday, May 29, 2016

Earthwreck! by Thomas N. Scortia

"If the situation is as bad as we are speculating, then we need the personnel of the Russian station very badly."
"Need them?  For what purpose?" Rothgate sneered.
"Because..." Janice Svoboda said slowly, "because they have all the women."

The words "science fiction" do not appear on the cover of my Fawcett Gold Medal paperback edition of Earthwreck!, and it perhaps makes sense to think of it as a mainstream disaster novel or a "technothriller" rather than a "real" SF novel.  I bought the book thinking it was a SF story, but I was not disappointed; it is an effective and entertaining novel.

Published in 1974 and set in 1986 or so, Earthwreck! presents us with a world wracked by terrorism and locked in Cold War--a unified Arab Republic supported by Red China contends with Israel, while the USSR and China fight border wars against each other and both communist powers grimly face the liberal West led by the United States.  These tensions, however, have not been permitted to prevent advances in the exploration of space--both an American and a Soviet space station orbit the Earth, one hundred miles apart from each other.  Each station is building a ship with which to deploy a permanent base on the moon.  The Communist space station has been sending a series of probes to Mars, and they have discovered evidence that the red planet was once covered in dense forests, and that that vegetation is beginning to grow back.

In the novel's prologue we sit in on a collaborative meeting of dissident Japanese communists with Muslim terrorists, and in Chapter One these insaniacs detonate nuclear weapons provided by the Chinese in Tel Aviv, causing a chain reaction that results in worldwide nuclear and biological war.  By Chapter Five the entire human race has been wiped out, except for the 300 or so people in the two orbiting space stations!  Because of radiation, and airborne spores carrying the Soviets' weaponized strain of rickets, the Earth is off limits for at least a century!        

The plot of Earthwreck! consists of the characters dealing with various technical problems (I lost track of the number of times Scortia uses the word "jury-rigged") and psychological problems.  Sample technical problems:  In Chapter Four the Americans detect a Soviet warhead coming their way, and Italian-American engineer Quintus Longo has 38 minutes to figure out a way to redirect the deadly "bird." Genetic engineer Janice Svoboda, the only woman on the US station, develops simple organisms like chlorella to generate oxygen and strains people's feces in hopes of finding viable seeds.  The astronauts and cosmonauts work to cobble together out of the half-built American and Soviet moonships a single vessel with which to colonize Luna.  Scortia, a chemist who worked in the aerospace industry, knows all about Delta Vs and polymers and that sort of thing, and the book's science and engineering feel authentic and realistic.

For those of us who barely have enough know-how to drive a car, much less design a spacecraft, the psychological problems are essential to the novel's success.  Sample psychological problems: Will Longo crack up over the loss of his wife and sons?  Can the cold Svoboda learn to accept love?  Can Colonel Rothgate and Captain Steinbrunner, who hold grudges against the commies because years ago their loved ones were killed by Reds, be willing to collaborate with the Soviets?    

There's quite a bit of sexual content in the book.  A major element of the plot is how there is only one woman on the US station, but scores on the Soviet one, so if any of the American men want to participate in the propagation of the human race, they will have to collaborate with the Soviets.  Both Longo and Svoboda reminisce about their family relationships and sexual experiences back on Earth.  Earthwreck! has a homoerotic vibe, and a preoccupation with body hair, that are a little odd.  In the description of Longo's life with his family we learn that he insisted his wife Martha not shave her armpits, because the feel and smell of her body hair and perspiration excited him.  We also get a description of how proud he was of his five-year old son's body, including little Gino's penis, which Longo made sure would not be circumcised.

Scortia also talks a lot about ethnicity.  Many characters remark that Italians are emotional and obsessed with their children, and we are told Martha "was a marvelously hairy woman, very much true to her French ancestry."  Then there's expert pilot and motorcycle enthusiast Steinbrunner, who escaped East Germany in his youth.  We learn, when Longo showers with him, that Steinbrunner is "a dusky blond with the hairiness of the northern German blonds...."

I thought the psychological and sexual content--all the flashbacks to the events on Earth that formed the characters of these people now lost in space, and all the descriptions of how they respond to the pressures of the desperate situation they find themselves in--was effective and interesting, in part because some of it was unusual--it is common in popular fiction to find loving or leering descriptions of a woman's breasts, so all the descriptions of body hair here constitute a memorable change of pace.

Scortia's style is smooth, and the novel is well-paced and well-structured.  The brief homerotic shower scene early in the novel effectively foreshadows the revelation in the end of the book that the formative event in Steinbrunner's young life was a homosexual love affair--by a shocking coincidence the man who turned Steinbrunner's lover in to the Stasi is aboard the Soviet station, which provides the pilot the opportunity to wreak a terrible vengeance!  Similarly, the brief mention of Mars early in the novel presages how, in the final third of the book, the Reds convince the Yanks to redirect their colonization efforts from the nearby barren moon to the distant surface of Mars, which is rich in valuable organic matter.  The last 60 or so pages of the 224-page book generate real suspense, as we readers wonder if Rothgate and Steinbrunner will really go through with their scheme to sabotage the Mars plan, which they feel is much riskier than the moon plan.

I resent the moral equivalency between the USSR and the West we so often see propounded in academia and popular culture in the same way I resent efforts to portray the Japanese as victims of the Pacific War when they were its instigators and aggressors.  (How much time has the president spent comforting the Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Indians, Australians, Britons, Americans and others enslaved, tortured and abused by the Japanese?  Maybe he does that all the time, at the golf course or something, and it doesn't get much publicity, so I missed it.)  So if I have a gripe with Earthwreck! it is that, while the novel implicitly condemns socialism and the Beijing and Moscow regimes (with its references to tyranny in East Berlin, comparisons of the efficient and comfortable US station to the inefficient, ugly and smelly Soviet station, and its assigning of blame for the catastrophe to Chinese and Soviet weapons), none of the characters makes an intellectual or moral argument against communism--Rothgate's and Steinbrunner's hostility to the Soviets is born out of their having suffered personal injuries at the hands of Marxist terrorists and ruling parties, not out of a passionate love for human freedom or a scholarly recognition that socialism leads to poverty.  Anti-communism in the book is not an intellectual or moral choice, but a psychological problem that has to be overcome if the human race is to survive, which I think is unfair and unreflective of reality.  Well, let's be generous and chalk it up to an artistic and ethical choice made by Scortia, the decision to take as one of Earthwreck!'s themes the importance to the health of individuals and of societies of forgiveness.


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