I’m a late Cold War baby. I didn’t have my parents’ experience of growing up in a world of weapons escalation, the Iron Curtain* descending, the Korean War, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile crisis, etc etc. The Cold War was decidedly hotter for the generation preceding mine. When I came on the scene, it was more about Sting songs suggesting Russians might not eat babies – though still with the conditional: if the Russians love their children too. By the time we saw the Berlin Wall come down, various ex-pats from Pink Floyd were invited to come and give a concert of songs from the Wall. I actually watched parts of this in West Germany, in the living room of my German cousins. I still find this whole concert both absolutely appalling and brutally perfect, historically speaking – kinda like Elton John repurposing a song about Marilyn Monroe for Lady Di. Just, yuck.
Anyway, point being, I’m a late Cold War baby, and my experience of the Cold War is almost completely pop cultural. I remember quite vividly watching The Day After on my grandparents’ somewhat filmy television – imdb informs me it aired in 1983, which would put me at 9 years old, just the age of my son now – and growing increasingly freaked out. Not so much the attacks, which are pretty standard disaster porn fare from the era, but the dread of the long denouement, one that ends, as much as it ends, in despair. My parents sent me to bed – they saw the freak out – long before The Day After was over. I only know the ending because I sought it out a couple of years back, suspecting that that was the film that sparked my life-long bone-crunching fear of zombies. Which, yep, that’s the genesis.
I dreamed of nuclear annihilation for years: the mushroom clouds blooming in the distance, the hot wind, the feel of my body in a painful disintegration. I never died in these dreams – I’m not sure about the folklore that says that if you die in dreams, you die in real life, because I have certainly died in dreams, just not these ones. (Of course, maybe I’m in some weird Gibsonian afterlife, typing on into the void. Seems unlikely though.) In these nuclear dreams I lived in agony, the world on fire. Dead but not, crawling.
However, I was seriously freaked out by Gretel in Bitter Seeds, as Gretel is a prescient sociopath created by Nazis, and undoubtedly the Big Bad in both books. I mean, just, eeek. Her brother, Klaus, is a little luggage-y in the first book – he’s mostly there to be eyes on Gretel, because you can’t give Gretel, the big prescient bad, her own pov without completely destroying narrative tension. In this book, Klaus really comes to life, becoming a character I just absolutely adored. Marsh is still a little iffy to me – I felt like his personality had been mothballed for 15 or whatever number of years in some respects, though the stuff with his wife had the ugly, brutal reality of love’s long, slow death.
All this blither blather, I assure you, has something to do with The Coldest War by Ian Tregillis . I’m trying desperately to avoid spoilers, because this is one of those books that hinges so very, very much on its ending. The Coldest War is the continuation of Bitter Seeds, an alternate history of WWII wherein the Nazis have developed steampunkish Übermench, and as a counter, the British have harnessed the chthonic power of Eidolons, Lovecraftian horrors par excellence.** There’s some lumpinesses to the first book that are worked out a bit here. Tregillis’s characterization is a little weak in the first book, especially when dealing with characters like Marsh’s wife and kid, which seem to pop into being with big bullseyes on their heads, redshirts just waiting for an away mission to die to prove the situation is serious.
So here we are, in the Cold War that is and isn’t like our own Cold War, monsters and ubermench, Soviets and race wars, oil and the firebombing of civilian targets, and what struck me was the inevitability of nuclear disaster. Why haven’t we blown ourselves to shit yet? I’m not dreaming of it anymore, my cells burning as I scream in dreaming living death, but it’s not like we’ve somehow precluded this eventuality. The warlock children who have been raised to speak the Lovecraftian language of the Eidolons at one point tie a push-pin into Sante Fe, NM, and I shuddered, shuddered.
Alternate history is, sometimes, our imagining the worst of all possible worlds, the difficult cultural superego who passes judgment and offers dubious salvations. We imagine monsters who can see what we do, and they can see what we’ve done. Holy shit. I mean, I was only 9, but I wonder a little about my cute little childhood nuclear terror and the fact that my country dropped The Bomb on civilians, on cities. I don’t want to get into a big thing about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the inevitability or the necessity of their destruction. When I saw a recreation of Big Boy in the Los Alamos museum, when I saw the recreation of the Enola Gay in the Imperial War museum in London, I burst into tears. History is an inevitability. I know it doesn’t do any good, but I’m so sorry.
What do you call survivor’s guilt, when your country, your people, perpetrated the attack? I’m sorry that history is shitty and sucks? I know, I’m at least a generation from the people who made these decisions, more like two, but I’m not exempt from my culture and my history. I’m an American, and proud of it in many, many ways. And in others I want to crawl into the basement and cry for a long, long time. I mean, I don’t want this to devolve into a bunch of typical liberal hand-wringing or whatnot, I just want to say that history is both personal and horribly impersonal, and our entrances and exits into that great narrative stream are punctuated by both easy upset and shocking convergences. So there.
I suspect I’m not making a ton of sense, because I’ve drinking since noon – vacation rules! Richard and I were talking about this book while I was reading, while the newest Captain America movie played in the background – which is super funny, because Ian totes looks like skinny Captain America, before the serum – and we posited that there are three ways a plot with a prescient sociopathic villain can go:
1.) Turns out, Gretel isn’t actually a psycho. (Or, lolsyke, nevermind everything I ever said about my characters.)
2.) Some random, unforeseeable event defeats Gretel. (Also called Making Shit Up so Things Can Turn Out Right.)
3.) Secret option 3, which means Ian is badass and awesome.
I’m happy to say this book is solidly in secret option 3 territory, and there was a moment there when several conceptual things came together that were so freaking awesome. I had the shit scared out of me by Gretel in book one, which was deepened here in many ways. There’s this thing really early on where Gretel needs a jar, and it turns out she engineered the death of Heike (which happens midway through the first book, and you kind of just think that sequence is there to how you what a badass Gretel is, like Darth Vader crushing some throats). But then it turns out she engineered this death so that Heike’s brain would be jarified and brought to the Soviet Union so that Gretel could dump the contents and use it for a very prosaic purpose. Just, holy shit. This whole series is a long con, the longest con. And as scared as I am of Gretel, I’m more terrified of what scares her. And what scares her is what scares me, and has scared me since I was 9. The inevitability of history is a godamn bitch.
*Just wiki’d the source of this term, because weirdly, we were just talking about Churchill at work, and my client piped up that Churchill was the origin of the term Iron Curtain. Which, turns out, not exactly. Fothermucking Goebbels used it during the War, and it has some roots in the bible or something. Holy god, reading that wiki page made my arms tingle, what with how this book deals with the War, the Cold War, and Everything. Sometimes life is freaky.
**Here, right before I’m about to be critical of Bitter Seeds is probably as good a time as any to announce that I’m friends with Mr. Tregillis, for full disclosure. I also know that Ian doesn’t read reviews, so I could probably be as big a bitch as I wanted here, not that I want to.