Thursday, April 19, 2007

Missile Gap, by Charles Stross

The year is now 1973. Just as the Cuban Missile Crisis was heating up something happened. The Earth, once a sphere, is now flat. The balance of power of the Cold War has shifted because the nuclear deterrent of the United States was predicated on being able to launch a missile over the North Pole and then south to Moscow. With the Flat Earth this is impossible and the Communist Soviet Union has spread its power and influence across Europe with only the United Kingdom holding out, but even that is weakening. Democracy has fallen across the flats like dominoes. The world has done more than flatten itself out, however. Sail to the East from Siberia or to the West from California and thousands of miles out there are new continents not populated by humans. The Earth has been changed, or perhaps moved.

In Charles Stross's novella Missile Gap we are introduced to a situation where what appears to be Communist plots and infiltration is far more than what it seems to be, where the manifest destinies of two empires now have new frontiers to expand the worldviews of democracy and socialism, and where there is the very real danger of some sort of alien threat because unknown beings of unimaginable power had to have been the ones to have changed Earth. Stross touches upon a combination of storylines to advance Missile Gap: a political one, and explorations from the Soviets and Americans about what exactly is on these new massive continents. What has really happened to Earth is a shocker and the ramifications go well beyond the political for our future.

Knowing that this novella first appeared in Gardner Dozois's themed anthology One Million A.D. provides a very different mindset for what sort of story Stross is telling than if the reader goes in blind. This vision of an alternate past is actually a vision of the future and though there is a bit of disjointedness as several of the storylines do not truly intersect, the combination of viewpoints provides a broad view of the impact of this world change that would not be possible with a single viewpoint narrative. References to real life political and science figures like Carl Sagan and President (!) Robert McNamara grounds the novel in a sense of reality in this unreal setting. While some readers may be disappointed in the lack of emotional depth or full exploration of the political (or alien) aspects of Missile Gap, this novella shows another part of the true range of Charles Stross as a storyteller as he is able to move between different styles of speculative fiction with ease and tell a masterful story each time. Weighing in at fewer than one hundred pages, Missile Gap is quite the work of creativity.

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