Douglas Terman’s 1980 Free Flight is a post-apocalyptic thriller.
Believing that political and economic trends favored the US, Soviet Politburo extremists decided to take advantage of the Soviet’s existing superiority before it vanished. One bold first strike and they would unify the world under Soviet rule for the comparatively small cost of a few tens of millions dead. Mistakes were made. Billions died. Nevertheless, the Soviet Union prevailed.
Air Force Officer Gregory Mallen picked the perfect time to holiday at his isolated Vermont cabin with doomed girlfriend Anne. Makeshift counter-measures protected Mallen1 from the fallout. In the two years since 1985’s Seven Hour War, Mallen has lived in his cabin, occasionally bartering for necessities. Until now, America’s new government has ignored him.
That respite is now over.
Having consolidated their power across America, the Soviet-run government has finally got around to assessing all the little out-of-the-way American communities heretofore ignored by the central government: a Doomsday Bookfor 1987. Those who cannot fit into the New System will be detained and sent off for re-education in facilities from which nobody ever returns.
Mallen correctly suspects that former USAF officers have an express route to re-education. The time has come for Mallen to flee Vermont for some corner of the former Canada too obscure for the government to bother with. Luckily, Mallen has a Sperber SP5 sailplane in which to flee. Less luckily, a quisling alerts the Peace Division officers to his presence before he can flee. Mallen is detained.
Left to his own devices, it would be all over for Mallen; all he can expect is interrogation, torture, and whatever grim fate waits for him in Albany. However, he is not alone in Peace Division pokey. Fellow prisoner Wyatthas very good reason to avoid being sent to Albany — a little matter of having killed a number of Peace Division and Security Force officers — and he has the skills Mallen lacks to break the pair of them out of prison. Once out, Mallen and a badly wounded Wyatt flee in Mallen’s sailplane.
Escape and the trail of bodies left in their wake elevate the fugitives to most-wanted status. Mallen and Wyatt’s escape is particularly embarrassing for District Commander McKennon. Failure to recapture the pair will hand McKennon’s boss Brinkerhoff the ammunition Brinkerhoff needs to rid himself of his ambitious, disloyal subordinate. McKennon is highly motivated to pursue Mallen and Wyatt with all the resources at his disposal.
Dodging McKennon’s helicopters, the two men make it as far as former Quebec. There they are forced to land the damaged plane, to forage for gasoline, for medical supplies to treat ailing Wyatt’s infected wound and for materials needed to repair the plane. Jeanne Le Borveaux’s farm seems perfect … if Jeanne’s son Paul, a true believer in the New System, can be convinced not to betray the fugitives.
The novel begins with a Russian historian’s examination of a diary detailing the events leading up to the Seven Hour War2. A detail that caught my eye on rereading this for the first time in forty-odd years: among the moderates purged from the Politburo to ensure full support for the attack on the US and NATO forces is a fellow named Gorbachev. Coincidence or did Terman mean Mikhail Gorbachev? Gorbachev was a Politburo member when the novel was published.
It’s not clear to me how the Russians managed to pull a victory out of the war, in as much as their counter-force strike was a complete failure and their ICBMs fell on empty silos3. For that matter, it’s not really clear why the malevolent government from which Mallen had to flee needed to be a Soviet Occupation government rather than a home-grown autocracy. However, if Wyatt can be believed (and although he is reluctant to admit to this, before he became a fugitive, he was an occupation official4), it’s a very temporary victory; the world is collapsing into de facto independent Special Forces fiefdoms.
Another detail I forgot in the last forty-odd years; it takes Mallen and Wyatta surprisingly long time to get to the Le Borveaux farm. This is because the author clearly loves planes and wanted to focus on the challenges of fleeing helicopters in a sailplane.
This is a perfectly functional novel. However, I cannot help but feel that author Terman chose the wrong protagonist. Mallen is by inclination a bystander who only left his cabin when he was forced to do so. Wyatt, on the other hand, has a backstory that involves overcoming institutional barriers to earn a law degree. He actively tried to keep his small community functioning in the face of nuclear war and the ensuing pandemic. He resisted government excesses. He’s the one who breaks out of jail, with Mallen along for the ride. In pretty much every way, he’s a more interesting, more active character than Mallen. No doubt there’s some subtle detail that convinced Terman to focus on Mallen but as to what it might be, I can only speculate.
Free Flight is out of print.
1: Girlfriend Anne did not survive; she preferred fresh air to filtered air.
Anne is not an example of the “dead woman in refrigerator as plot motivator” trope. Mallen had only begun dating her; he wasn’t particularly getting along well with her when the bombs fell. He is neither devastated nor motivated by her death. Everyone with dead relatives (and essentially everyone in the novel is a bereaved survivor) would have been more grief-stricken than is Mallen.
It is not clear how many survivors there are. Wyatt claims five billion people died in the war but since that is slightly more people than were alive in 1985, that is probably hyperbole. However, it’s pretty clear that Earth in 1987 has at least an order of magnitude fewer people than it did in 1985.
2: Actually the war is still on-going, as the Chinese decline to submit to their Russian neighbors.
3: Pretty much every nuclear-armed NATO member managed to launch in time. In fact, France retaliated well before the US.
4: The alternative to active participation in the New System being starvation, most of the surviving Americans prioritize their next meal over trivialities like political freedom.