By William Tuning
William Tuning’s 1978 Tornado Alley is a stand-alone near-future SF novel.
Dr. Graham’s claim that a large (but conventional) explosive delivered in the correct manner can disrupt tornadoes finds a welcome audience in California’s Junior Senator Jill Kernan. Jill is aware of how much tornadoes cost America. Lives lost, buildings destroyed. But she also knows this in a deep, personal way: as a child, she was orphaned by a tornado.
The science of the tornado disruption technique is solid. That leaves merely implementation issues, such as “who will pay for this,” “who will administer the program,” and “how can we scrounge the necessary equipment?” Step one: interminable senate hearings.
Senator Thurlow finds Graham’s proposal a bit Buck Rogers, but he is not opposed in principle to the general idea. However, he has quibbles about its implementation. Why run the program as a federal effort, requiring all fifty states to pay for it, when it could be run as a coordinated effort between the affected states’ national guard? Thurlow argues this from pure principle and not merely because he happens to hold high rank in his own state’s national guard.
Kernan manages to sway Thurlow (or perhaps he believes he is giving her enough rope to hang herself). To Colonel Hammer’s considerable distress, he is put in charge of the pilot program — Hammer is determined to become a general and running an underfunded blue-sky project seems likely to end his career. Success clearly demands airplanes as purpose built as the bombs they will deliver. Since new airplanes take a decade or more to design and build, what Hammer actually gets is an assortment of aging F4 Phantom IIs.
Once stuck with the job, Hammer becomes the project’s most fervent proponent. However, despite early successes, many challenges remain, technical and political, internal and external. It’s only a matter of time before the project suffers a serious mishap. Once that happens, Thurlow will strike.
Tuning died comparatively young from what appear to have been complications of alcoholism. His body of work is tiny: a handful of short stories, 1981’s Fuzzy Bones (an authorized sequel to H. Beam Piper’s Little Fuzzy), and this novel. If Tuning is remembered today, it is for Fuzzy Bones.
Tornado Alley isn’t a great book. It is, however, often surprising, starting with stock situations which it then proceeds to develop in non-standard ways. Perhaps some examples are in order.
- The step between idea and program turned out to involve rather a lot of politics, particularly of the pork barrel kind. Politicians can be swayed … if they can be convinced there is something in it for them or to a lesser extent, their constituents.
- Speaking of Thurlow, he isn’t a thinly disguised Senator Proxmire, which is frankly astonishing for Disco Era SF. He’s entirely different variety of stock political figure, the canny but amoral Southern politician. Thurlow doesn’t want to kill off tornado bombing. He just wants to be in control of it.
- Hammer is a traditional sort of officer who isn’t very happy that some of his subordinates are women1. However, as soon as it’s obvious they’re competent, this becomes a non-issue. The women do not have to prove themselves with some extraordinary feat. They just have to do the same job the men do, as well as the men.
- The public revelation that Hammer and Kernan sometimes knock boots is pretty much a non-event, as opposed to a career-ending scandal. This seems to be because the American public doesn’t care what consenting adults do2.
- There’s a spy subplot3. It’s an entirely American affair. No Soviets needed here, not when there are bitterly opposed factions in the military industrial complex.
- Logistics matter. So does maintenance. Flying planes into tornadoes chews them up faster than they can be fixed, which comes back to bite the program on the ass a few times. Indeed, there’s one mishap that might have been sabotage. Nope, just old equipment breaking down.
- Dramatic speeches made in violation of formal protocol always work in movies, as does violating direct orders for a higher cause. In this novel, those are excellent ways to find one’s program defunded and oneself demoted two grades and reassigned to Point Nemo.
It turns out novelty can (at least for me) substitute for other qualities. The prose may be unremarkable, the characters were snagged from central casting, but the story goes in non-standard directions often enough that I couldn’t stop reading4.
Often my reviews end with something “I hated this but lots of people like it and you might too.” This appears to be the other way round: I thought this diverting, but I cannot find much evidence anyone else reacted the same way. In fact, the evidence that it was reviewed at all is thin: Clute might have reviewed it, but otherwise Tornado Alleyseems to have appeared and vanished without note. I am not surprised by this, but it’s a bit sad.
Tornado Alley is out of print.
1: Except in the sense he is delighted to meet and woo any woman, which he does with considerable success throughout the novel. He has a battalion of friends with benefits.
2: Although it could also be because it’s a good bet Hammer has slept with any non-related woman he spends much time near.
3: The spy gets exposed because of diligent supplies tracking: he buys his own paper despite being able to requisition it, which means there’s a reason he doesn’t want people knowing how much he’s writing. I honestly cannot think of the last time I read a novel where this sort of detail mattered.
4: When I reviewed A Thunder of Stars, I was a little surprised that it began with paperwork and Calvin-Ball-esque committee-infighting. Tornado Alley belongs to that same select group: a significant portion of the book passes before the program is funded. Now, can I think of three more examples of works that begin with two-fisted committee meetings?