Missile Gap by Charles Stross
Subterranean Press, (December) 2006, $35.00, 99pp
ISBN 1-59606-058-1
See also my review of Iron Sunrise and The Jennifer Morgue This review first appeared on The SF Site
Do you know what I love about Charles Stross’s science fiction? It’s that it is (or at the very least sounds) so very clever. It’s got big scary ideas in it, technology that I want for Christmas, and Stross doesn’t usually pull his anthropic punches. Pow! There’s nothing particularly great about human beings. Wham! We’re not as smart as we like to think we are (although to get that into perspective, we do imagine we’re pretty damn smart), and – Ka-pow! We can only exist in a very, very narrow range of physical conditions. And don’t even get Stross started on our limited biological perceptions.

Fortunately, despite these dreadful handicaps, we can, some of us, still write some very good science fiction, and Stross has come up with just such another prickly, philosophical, collective ego-deflating piece in this novella for Subterranean Press. Subterranean don’t ordinarily ‘do’ science fiction (they specialize in ‘horror, suspense, and dark mystery’), but sf’s a big old genre and Missile Gap has elements of all these within it’s nominally alternate history pages.

I say ‘nominally’ because one of the disconcerting central questions the book throws up is whether the world its characters inhabit is, if you’ll pardon me being somewhat mysterious, not an alternate history but more another alternate future. For in an alternate past on a decidedly alternate ‘Earth’ it’s 1976, with all the fashion mistakes and geopolitical realities that entails… Except they’re not geopolitical at all, since during the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 everything on earth was transplanted onto a gigantic flat disc in the Lesser Magellanic Cloud one million years in the future. And that’s ‘GIGANTIC’ with a capital everything: this disc has the surface area of a billion earths.

But the old Cold War rivalries have continued unabated since, and the narrative in Missile Gap follows a variety of characters: Yuri Gagarin, now a spare wheel in the Soviet space program (since there is no longer a space program, the unhelpful physics of the disc rendering such ventures impossible) has been sent on ‘an historic five-year cruise [to] boldly go where no Soviet man has gone before, [to] explore new worlds and look for new peoples, and to establish fraternal socialist relations with them’ (p.20) Heh.

Maddy Holbright and husband Joe are part of the ongoing US colonisation efforts, sailing for six months across this vast new world to start a new life in New Iowa, and Gregor Samsa (the name may be familiar) is some kind of secret agent. Initially he is working in a plucky little Britain, just barely holding out against the creeping Soviet menace; and later in a rather shell-shocked USA, still coming to terms with its superpower status being rendered functionally irrelevant in this strange new world. There he meets a certain Dr. Carl Sagan (whom it’s always good to see – he’s still sorely missed in our household).

All of these have a part to play, albeit on a (very) sliding scale, in unravelling the ontological mystery that the disc represents. And as I may have intimated before, it’s a harsh and unforgiving one before which most (puny) humans quail – assuming they can even imagine it. Missile Gap is a frequently quite unpleasant book, and despite Gagarin’s mission statement there is precious little of that kind of spirit in it. Stross is trying to give us a true sense of perspective upon the universe, to perhaps jolt those raised upon a diet of Star Fleet expansionism and humanism, out of their complacency and any kind of manifest destiny hangovers. It’s a big, cold, uncaring universe out there – just ask the dinosaurs.

But while I appreciate and even applaud Stross’s philosophical aims with this book, it’s biggest limitation is that it’s a novella. Stross has given himself an awful lot to get said and done in less than 100 pages (in my proof copy, anyway), and a significant fraction of those pages feel either unfinished or unnecessary, or even both. Robert Charles Wilson’s superb Spin (a ‘matter’ story to Missile Gap’s ‘anti-matter’) took more than four times as many pages to tell a not dissimilar story. Missile Gap, too, would benefit from being either a terse, idea-driven short story or a more thoughtful, and paradoxically tenser, novel. Which isn’t to say there’s a lack of exciting ideas, clever humour or real horror here, but rather there’s a brief rush of images, a surfeit of thoughtful and of crazy ideas. Missile Gap feels like a large, bizarre and extremely colourful jigsaw puzzle, but actually quite a simple one composed of very few pieces, not all of which fit together as well as they might.

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