Several days ago, Michael Kennedy mentioned Nevil Shute’s end-of-the-world novel On the Beach. There were, of course, a considerable number of nuclear-war-related novels published during the Cold War era…one of the last representatives of this genre is Trinity’s Child, written by William Prochnau and published in 1983.
The central character, Moreau, is a B-52 copilot. Her decision to pursue a career in the Strategic Air Command was greatly influenced by her love and admiration for her father, a SAC general known as “the coldest of the cold warriors.” When Moreau was 10, her father took her to the Trinity atomic test site. She told him that all her friends expected to die in a nuclear war, and he explained to her the logic of nuclear deterrence:
“I’m sorry your friends are afraid…I don’t know if you can understand this yet, but fear is my job. It’s my job to keep everyone so afraid no one will ever use these bombs again.”
“How long do you have to do it, Dad?” she asked, eyes down, her small, fine hand picking at the old bomb crate.
“Forever, honey. Eternal vigilance, President Kennedy said. After me, someone else and then someone else and then someone else. Forever, into infinity.”
To which Moreau responded:
“After you…I’ll do it, Dad.”
In her B-52, Moreau is paired with a pilot named Kazaklis, and the two absolutely cannot stand each other. Kazaklis doesn’t think women belong in SAC and is further irritated by the failure of his attempt to get Moreau into bed; Moreau in turn is irritated by just about every aspect of the pilot’s personality, especially his obsession with playing video games.
The Soviets launch a limited nuclear attack, intended to kill “only” a few million Americans. The President’s helicopter is knocked down when a Soviet missile lands closer to the White House than was intended, and control of the nation’s nuclear forces temporarily devolves upon the general in command of the Looking Glass airplane, who is appropriately codenamed ALICE. Another airplane is dispatched to pick up the only Presidential successor who can be located in the post-attack chaos: the Secretary of the Interior, codenamed CONDOR.
(Alice) turned back to his map, briefly wondering what perversely wry and lost soul had come up with the code names for the event they never expected to happen. Looking Glass, Alice, Icarus, Trinity, Jericho. And Condor, powerful, ominous, lord of all it surveyed. Last of a long and proud line, almost extinct now.
Condor falls under the influenced of a military intellectual mockingly nicknamed The Librarian, who seeks to persuade him not to limit his response to Soviet military facilities and cities, but rather to launch a counterstrike aimed at destroying all of the Soviet leadership bunkers. Alice and his naval counterpart, Harpoon, are horrified, recognizing that if the Soviet leaders are all killed, there will nobody to turn the war off, and it will continue until both countries are totally destroyed.
In their B-52, Moreau and Kazaklis have received the message they never really expected to get–two code sequences indicating the beginning of a real nuclear war.
“Voice confirmation,” Kazaklis said into the direct channel to the tower. Sequence one, go. Sequence two, go. Code: Trinity. Confirm.”
“Confirm Trinity,” a solemn voice, touched with a Bronx accent, replied. “Confirm go.”
This is an excellent book. You don’t necessarily have to agree with the author’s political views–he was pretty clearly opposed to the Reagan arms buildup, believing it would likely result in a scenario like the one portrayed in the book–to appreciate the excellence of the writing and character development.
In 1990, this book was turned into a movie, “By Dawn’s Early Light.” Rebecca DeMornay was an excellent choice to play Moreau; however, the script does not really develop her character and her motivations for being in SAC in the first place–and, unaccountably, Moreau and Kazaklis are shown as lovers in the first 5 minutes of the film, which completely undercuts the conflict between them that was so important to the story in the book. (The only explanation I can think of for this bizarre change is that film was originally made for TV and the producers were afraid of viewers changing the channel if they didn’t work some sex in pretty quickly.) The film is worth seeing–James Earl Jones is excellent as ALICE, and Jeffrey DeMunn is good as HARPOON–but could have been much better.
Again, the book is highly recommended. The fact that a nuclear exchange with the Soviets didn’t happen during the Cold War era does NOT necessarily prove that such an exchange was highly improbable. We might have just been lucky.