Weird World War 3, Octopus, Weird Tales, Serling

A year ago (almost to the day as I write this) I received an invitation to contribute to a Baen Books anthology of Weird World War III stories. The “Weird” parameter hinged on the fact that there needed to be some manner of speculative element, and the “World War III” aspect had to be a non-nuclear, alternate historical take on possible confrontations between the Soviet Union and the United States. Think Tom Clancy meets Stephen King. This month, Weird World War is officially out, and has an interview with yours truly on my contributed story (along with a nifty and thematically appropriate video from Golden Earring).

My contribution is “Shadow Rook Red”, the second tale in the book (right after David Drake!) Set in an alternate 1980, this story is a fast-paced espionage thriller concerning a speculative technology in a Cold-War-turned-hot. As Soviet and NATO forces clash, a CIA operative struggles to rescue a kidnapped scientist from a Russian grab-team able to toggle in and out of our dimensional plane. I set the story in Lucerne, Switzerland as it makes for an appropriately neutral territory for an in-the-shadows espionage thriller, as well as Lucerne being one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever visited.

The opening of the story goes:

His flight to Lucerne, Switzerland had been a night hop from Heathrow, and he’d barely stepped from the private airfield when his local contact pulled up in an unmarked car. The man looked grim.

“There’s been a development,” his contact–and friend of twenty years–said. “We’re going straight to the safehouse.”

Kiernan Rayfiel of the Central Intelligence Agency climbed into the car, laying his briefcase in his lap. The morning was still dark. The car pulled away from the airstrip and was suddenly barreling along deserted streets, hemmed in by quaint houses. “This war has been one endless series of developments,” he muttered. “What’s going on, Charlie?”

“Our asset failed to check in. He never fails to check in.”

Kiernan looked at his watch in the gloom. “It’s just past 4 a.m. Maybe he’s asleep. Isn’t that what normal people do? Sleep?”

I remember well the late stages of the Cold War, growing up in the shadow of nuclear threat. Back in the ’80s, it felt like standing at a crossroads. Having been weaned on classic sci-fi books and films, I partly expected to grow up in a spacefaring civilization; I’d watched James Kirk conduct interplanetary investigations, going from one world to another as easily as taking highway exit ramps. I’d watched Forbidden Planet more than a few times. I’d seen The Outer Limits and The Twilight Zone. Even my wood-paneled video game consoles promised a galactic playground. 

At the same time, I was aware that the United States and Soviet Union were engaged in a potentially apocalyptic standoff. Plenty of sci-fi reflected this concern, too: the giant ants from Them! didn’t frighten me as much as the horror of The Day After and Testament. As children are wont to do, I started reading about nuclear war, and came to understand that this was at least as likely a future as planet-hopping commerce. Would Connecticut get attacked in a nuclear war? The submarine base at Groton was surely on the Kremlin’s hit-list; I have a distinct memory of examining a map of my home state to measure the miles between my hometown and likely targets in a kind of grisly calculus that took into consideration the factors of disintegration, fireball, and radiation. I read John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. 

Then the Soviet Union collapsed and has never, ever been a problem since. And while we don’t have moon-bases or Martian colonies yet, at least we’ve become a highly rational and humanistic civilization devoted to the advancement and betterment of the planet, with highly enlightened leaders and civil discourse. I mean, it’ll be Star Trek any day now. 

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In other news, for Weird Tales (yes, THE Weird Tales) I was asked to interview the extremely talented writer and personal friend Marguerite Reed on her newly published story “The Beguiled Grave”. Her dark fantasy contribution is not only fascinating, thrilling and mesmerizing, but it is pitch-perfect for this historic magazine. I encourage everyone to read it, as well as show support for Weird Tales’ revival.

It is the ’20s, after all. I welcome the return of the pulps, if only to bring back a variety of print magazines for writers and readers alike.

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The Netflix documentary “My Octopus Teacher” is a terrific example of why I chose an octopus for my story “Sparg” years ago. The octopus isn’t merely the most intelligent invertebrate, but is more intelligent than a great many higher mammals, too. Curious, emotionally complex tool-users and problem-solvers, yet cursed with a pitifully short lifespan, they represent a tantalizing glimmer of consciousness from across a 600 million-year gulf. They call to mind a line from Voltaire’s Micromegas: “Our existence is a point, our duration a flash… hardly has one started to improve one’s self a little than death arrives before one has any experience.”

“My Octopus Teacher” is equal parts fascinating, thought-provoking, and heartbreaking. It is a glimpse into a brief relationship between minds from different species. A chance meeting of two consciousnesses in the dark.

The subject of animal intelligence has been something of an obsession for me, ever since I read the “Gorillas” chapter of Michael Crichton’s Travels, and then went on to the pioneering work of Jane Goodall and Diane Fossey. Neurological complexity bordering on (and perhaps straying into) sapience is demonstrated by an ample array of animals, from crows (which have learned to fashion hooks out of leaves to “fish” for insects), numerous cetaceans, pigs, horses, dogs… the list goes on and on. Yet the octopus has always been in its own unique category.

I suppose this is a long-winded way of saying that I recommend this documentary.

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Today marks the 61st anniversary of The Twilight Zone, and it remains one of television’s supreme achievements. Under the guiding hand of Rod Serling (who wrote the lion’s share of episodes) it’s still a superb example of what short fiction accomplishes so well: putting us into a brief alternate reality, like a dream that feels all too real, and encouraging us to reflect on the power of possibility. Edgy, courageous, shocking, and a class act, the show mesmerizes from the first disquieting notes to the closing credits.

Serling has long been a personal hero of mine. His unique brand of social acumen, nightmarish extrapolation, and sharp writing helped establish credibility for speculative fiction on the silver screen. Other shows like One Step Beyond and The Outer Limits had their shining moments, but never equaled the scope, range, or impact of Serling’s creation. From its original 156 episodes through each subsequent revival, it continues to resonate today.

In honor of that history, here are my Top Ten Favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone:

10: “A Game of Pool” – A terrific example of how The Twilight Zone uses such ordinary settings to tell compelling stories. Jack Klugman is outstanding as an obsessed man desperate to measure his sense of self-worth against the best–and deceased–pool player (played to perfection by Jonathan Winters). 

9: “The Invaders” – The first episode I ever saw, glued to late-night TV watching a terrified homeowner (played by Agnes Moorehead) in a desperate battle against an alien menace. The ending changed the direction of my life.

8: “To Serve Man” – Visitors from another world arrive on Earth to solve all our problems, for reasons that are not at all nefarious. 

7: “Time Enough At Last” – Written by Lynn Venable and starring Burgess Meredith, this is one of the most memorable episodes, with an ending as startling and cruel as a knife in the heart. 

6: “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” – One of the all-time classics and with a sincere performance from a young William Shatner. “There’s a man out there!”

5: “The Last Flight” – A WWI pilot flies through a strange cloud and ends up in 1959, where his sins threaten to catch up with him. The acting from Kenneth Haigh as the guilt-ridden pilot is dynamite, as is the dialogue by maestro Richard Matheson.

4: “The Masks” – A family of cold-blooded sociopaths eager to get their hands on a dying man’s fortune get more than they bargained for. This one is classic Serling: the dialogue so sharp it cuts to the bone, and an ending that is pure nightmare-fuel.

3: “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street” – A troubling look at xenophobia and hate beneath the sunny exterior of Americana. A commentary on the destructive power of fear and how it brings out the worst in us, and as relevant today as it was in the ’50s.

2: “Nothing in the Dark” – A house, an old woman, and a wounded police officer. Gladys Cooper delivers a heartbreaking performance, and a young Robert Redford plays the officer who may or not be more than he appears. Written by George Clayton Johnson. 

1: “Eye of the Beholder” – Simply put, one of television’s best hours. Maxine Stuart turns in a stellar acting job despite having her face covered in bandages. The atmosphere is haunting, and the message is eternal. 

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