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Lost Voices 14: Earthwreck! by Thomas N. Scortia


By Thomas N. Scortia 

3 May, 2000

Lost Voices


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Thomas N. Scortia

Fawcett Gold Medal [1974]

224 pages

Synopsis: It’s 1988 and the US and SU both have impressive manned space stations in orbit. The US is preparing to return to the Moon, to built a second-strike weapons facility, as allowed by various weapons treaties. The Soviets are planning a manned mission to Mars, to follow up on their extremely successful series of unmanned probes. Because of certain terms in the space-militarization treaties, the two stations,while not cooperating as in Bova’s Millennium, do have open and frequently used lines of communication.

Soon after Captain Quintus Longo leaves his family to serve a tour of duty on the American station, a nuclear war breaks out on Earth, triggered by a joint Japanese-Arab terrorist nuclear attack on Tel Aviv using Chinese nuclear weapons.

The war escalates and after some well intended political bungling by the USA [neutral to begin with], the entire world is involved. Within a day or so, it is obvious that most large Earth-based life is doomed: the radiation levels are lethal and the Russians have released a deadly disease which is more persistent than anthrax. The surface will probably be uninhabitable by humans for several centuries, primarily due to the disease.

Survival demands cooperation between the Americans and Russians in orbit, if only because the Russian station has all the fertile women left alive [The US station has a single female aboard but due to illness she is sterile]. At first, the two sides plan to recolonize Earth but even with sealed life-support systems the risk is too high. They then consider the Moon and finally Mars, which has turned to be far more potentially habitable than US probes in the 1960s indicated. The problems are several: the available resources are insufficient to reach Mars safely. Both sides still have trust issues with the other. Supply issues are solved by taking advantage of the accidental survival of the facility at Cape Canaveral, the US level of automation there, the temporary survival of a pregnant NASA technician and the willingness of two astronauts, one American and one Soviet, to go down and launch the supply ships.

Trust issues nearly doom the mission: the two astronauts have a history dating back to when the US astronaut was a boy in East Germany, featuring a gay love triangle, perceived betrayal and the death of the East German’s lover. They resolve their issues, but delay causes the US astronaut to stay behind while the Soviet astronaut and dying technician return to space. Meanwhile the second in command of the US space station, who is completely paranoid about the Soviets, waits until the Russian women have been transferred to the US station and then tries to kill the remaining Russians. He is stopped but in the process he, the US commander and a portion of the fluorine-oxygen fuel [1] for the Mars mission is destroyed, apparently dooming the Mars initiative. Lucky, it’s been established the Earth has a second, tiny moon and the humans figure out how to exploit it for the marginal extra boost they need to get to Mars.

Along the way, Longo deals with the loss of his family, forming a new alliance with the American woman. They deal with the issue of her sterility and Longo’s extreme fertility obsession, ending the book in orbit around Mars, vowing to raise a new generation of kids together.

On the whole, this book was more ambitious than successful, imo: Scortia obviously did a lot of research into the space technology aspects of the book, with fairly long passages about how the various approaches to space transportation work [One advantage of the US/SU split is that the two sides can explain at length how their rockets work]. Unfortunately, I thought a lot of the plot involved contrived crises and contrived solutions, especially the use of Toro, the little moon, and the happenstance that Mars is easily terraformable with the technology onboard the stations [There’s a nice touch about recovering seeds from human feces in the waste system which I thought was nicely thought out, though].

The characters, while not as two dimensional and dull as is often the case in SF, seem to me more soap-opera-ish than rounded. The idea that out of billions of humans, the handful who survive will include two people in a romantic triangle begs credibility, esp given that they ended up on opposite sides of the Cold War. If they’d both been on the same station, that would have seemed more likely to me. On the other hand, points to Scortia for trying.

The nuclear war seemed a bit too effective at wiping out the planet but at one point they mention 200 MT nukes are being lobbed: obviouslythis world’s nuclear war doctrines deviated from ours, in which the trend was for more but smaller yield warheads. In retrospect, I would imagine that the people in this book would agree that raising the rad levels on Earth to the point where short term doses in the thousands of rems were unavoidable had noticeable drawbacks as an outcome of their strategic doctrine and following it up with a lethal and uncontrolled disease was also arguably suboptimal. 

Despite these criticisms, I thought Earthwreck! was an enjoyablenovel of total world destruction.

Thomas N. Scortia is perhaps better known for his collaborations with Frank Robinson, The Glass Inferno [Made into The Towering Inferno ], The Prometheus Crisis , about a nuclear reactor melt-down upwind of LA, The Nightmare Factor , The Gold Crew [made into a made-for-TV movie without the irksome formality of payment to the authors, about which Frank Robinson has written entertainingly], and Blow-Out!. He had at least two personal SF collections and helped edit others but if he might have later considered returning full-time to the SF genre, as Robinson and Alfred Coppel [to name but two authors who also went the SF-thriller route] later did, he never got the chance: He died of leukemia in 1986, apparently due to exposure to radiation at early nuclear tests.

Clute mentions that shortly before Scortia’s death, he had announced new independent projects but doesn’t mention what these were. Would anyone out there know?

Next: The Man Responsible , Stephen Robinett