Worry, Worry, Scurry, Scurry

Earthwreck! — Thomas N. Scortia


Thomas N. Scortia’s 1974 Earthwreck! is a standalone near-future SF novel.

Captain Quintus Longo leaves his wife and children for what he believes will be a routine tour of duty on the American space station1. Thanks to a bold gambit by Japanese and Palestinian terrorists, it is the last time Longo sees his family alive.

The first hint the world gets that terrorists have seized control of the Arab Republic nuclear weapons comes in the form of three kiloton-range nuclear explosions in Tel Aviv. The Israelis respond with a megaton-range strike on the Aswan Dam. Millions die in Israel and Egypt; tragic but not world-ending. Russia and China back opposing sides in the conflict, but the Soviet-Chinese clash that follows isn’t necessarily the apocalypse, since both sides initially limit themselves to battlefield nukes. The United States issues an ultimatum to China and Russia: negotiate or face American fury. Rather than forcing the Russians and Chinese to stand down, the result is a full scale global thermonuclear war.

Apparently determined to get their money’s worth out of their arsenals, the nuclear-armed nations of the world profligately expended their supplies of nuclear warheads. The world of the 1980s was a well-armed one, with warhead yields as high as two hundred megatons. Many cities did not experience immediate thermonuclear death, but thanks to the fallout that spread swiftly around the global, no region on Earth was spared.

Up in the orbit, the Americans in the US space station and the Russians in theirs could only watch as their world committed suicide. Hastily assembled atmospheric probes confirmed their worst fears: enough radioactive fallout had been released to sterilize the planet. In the very near future, the two space stations will be the final repositories of complex terrestrial life2.

The situation is not completely hopeless. Aside from brilliant scientist Janice Svoboda, there are no women on the US space station. However, half of the Russian cosmonauts are women. If the two expeditions were to cooperate, they could establish a base on the ruined Earth, where they could wait for the radiation to die down before reseeding the planet.

Well, they could have done so had the Russians not unleashed a biological weapon whose spores could be viable for centuries.

Next best option: establish a human base on the moon. Which is what the expeditions had been sent up to do, after all. It is not at all a good option. The Moon is a harsh environment; it is not clear that the little colony could survive for two centuries (the estimated time it would take for the earth to cool down and the spores to die). Nor is it clear that a colony that had adapted to bleak Lunar conditions would be anything like the vanished human societies below.

The Russians have a bold suggestion. The Earth is deadly and the Moon would kill the human soul. Mars, on the other hand, is a world that needs only a little human intervention to become habitable. But Mars is much further away than the Moon. Even if the two surviving factions can overcome their entrenched distrust of each other and cooperate, it’s not clear that they can reach and settle Mars.


The novel doesn’t put any dates front and center. However, it is mentioned, in an aside, that the catastrophic war takes place some forty years after the Palestinian refugee camps were set up. That would put the event in the late 1980s. An odd 1980s, which is uncannily like the early 1970s, when this book was written. In this world, the the Suez Canal Clearance never happened.

The terrorists in this book are an ecumenical lot. They come from regions that stretch from the Middle East to Asia. It is a bit disappointing that the IRA and the Red Army Faction didn’t get invites to join the fun. Still, an impressive diplomatic feat. It just goes to prove that people can overcome profound cultural differences if they all hate the same folks.

The Chinese had provided the small nukes to the Arab Republic, believing that they had enough leverage over their clients to control them. We don’t get any Chinese viewpoint characters in this book, but one would think that the Party bosses in Beijing were very unpleasantly surprised by how events played out. A surprise that lasted as long as it took the war to wipe out China as well..

It’s interesting that the plot assumes that even a radiation-soaked Earth is likely to be far more habitable than any other body in the Solar System (which is, to the best of current knowledge, true). If the plot is to work, immediate Earth resettlement must therefore be ruled out by a lethal bio-weapon. Mars is upgraded to habitable by a bit of handwaving that has the Russians discovering3 that Mars’ geology is a lot more active than 1960s science believed. As a consequence, this book’s Mars is friendlier to terrestrial life than was actually plausible when the book was written.

In addition to getting a lot of his planetology right, Scortia pays more attention to the biological and cultural constraints and consequences of space settlement than was typical half a century ago. Even the fairly primitive space stations are designed to be as pleasant as possible; no Kubrickian sterility in sight. The settlers can do this because they have superscience! A bit of handwaving that we must allow SF authors.

This is a very short novel. The characters are sketched out in broad strokes: Longo is a baby-obsessed Italian-American (which greatly complicates his post-WWIII romance with brilliant scientist Janice Svoboda; she cannot have babies). Colonel Rothgate is a paranoid who fears the Commie Menace. Steinbrunner is a bisexual with a Tragic Past and an appointment with Heroic Sacrifice.

Plot conflicts are handled quickly, with quiet conversations or sudden deaths. Any obstacles to Mars settlement are mentioned, then quickly resolved.

It’s an interesting excursion into the mindsets of the 1970s and one of very few novels that took the view that life in space stations and lunar settlements might be inhumanly bleak. The novel’s brevity works against it; an extra hundred pages might have allowed room for more developed characters, not to mention room for ratcheting up the tension in the intervals between challenges and solutions.

Earthwreck! is out of print.

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1: The US has for some reason settled on a fluorine-oxygen oxidizer for their rockets. This has the benefit of providing a reasonably high exhaust velocity when combined with kerosene. The downsides: more expensive than liquid oxygen and more dangerous due to the fluorine.

2: It seems a little odd that nobody on Earth seems to have build underground facilities to wait out the aftermath of WWIII. Maybe they did, but managed to keep the existence of the refuges a secret.

3: Best not to consider the possibility that the Russian results are so different from the American ones because the Russians have got it wildly wrong….


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