Welcome back to the Lovecraft reread, in which two modern Mythos writers get girl cooties all over old Howard’s sandbox, from those who inspired him to those who were inspired in turn.
Today we’re looking at Charlie Stross’s alternate history novelette “A Colder War,” originally written c. 1997 and first published in Spectrum SF No. 3 in July 2000, Spoilers ahead.
“Once, when Roger was a young boy, his father took him to an open day at Nellis AFB, out in the California desert. Sunlight glared brilliantly from the polished silverplate flanks of the big bombers, sitting in their concrete-lined dispersal bays behind barriers and blinking radiation monitors. The brightly coloured streamers flying from their pitot tubes lent them a strange, almost festive appearance. But they were sleeping nightmares: once awakened, nobody—except the flight crew—could come within a mile of the nuclear-powered bombers and live.”
Roger Jourgensen, CIA analyst, has a tough assignment—to reduce complex intelligence to a digestible précis for the newly elected president (Reagan.) The Russians’ Project Koschei is “a sleeping giant pointed at NATO, more terrifying than any nuclear weapon.” Add in the Russians’ weaponized shoggoths, which have recently wiped out whole Afghan villages. By using them, Russia’s violated the Dresden Agreement of 1931, which even Hitler respected. That same agreement forbids mapping a certain central plateau of Antarctica, where the US has its own questionable projects underway. Jourgensen recalls his childhood dread of nuclear holocaust. Now he’d prefer he and his family perish in nuclear fire rather than face “what he suspects lurks out there, in the unexplored vastness beyond the gates.”
Jourgensen’s report goes well; he’s recruited by Colonel (Oliver) North to join his special team as CIA liaison. They work out of the Executive Office Building, with an executive order to use any means necessary to counter the use of, well, Outer weapons by US enemies.
One assignment takes him to Lake Vostok, deep beneath the Antarctic ice. America has appropriated a “gateway” shortcut between its bottom and ruins in Central Asia (Leng?). A minisubmarine transports high-grade Afghan heroin on this run, in which North takes an interest. The heroin, Jourgensen ascertains, came through fine. Not so the submariners, who show signs of extreme aging, probably due to a flare from the alien sun they’ve passed under. They later succumb to radiation poisoning, and missions through that gateway are suspended. North’s team does plant a radio telescope on the far side, in “XK Masada,” an ancient city on an alien world 600 light years closer to the galactic core than Earth. The air there’s too thin for humans, the sky’s indigo, the sun blood-red; symbols on the long-deserted buildings resemble those on the doors of a concrete bunker in the Ukraine, “behind which the subject of Project Koschei lies undead and sleeping: something evil, scraped from a nest in the drowned wreckage of a city on the Baltic floor.”
Professor (Stephen Jay) Gould visits North’s team to report on a creature he’s examined for them. It’s unmistakably Anomalocaris, an animal found among the rich Cambrian fossils of the Burgess Shale. Yet this specimen was recently dead, not even decomposed! More astonishingly, its tissues reveal it has no earthly relatives, not even in the archaeobacteria. In other words, it must be of alien origin. North concedes it was recovered through a gateway. Gould also opines that the so-called Predecessors—the barrel-bodied, star-headed beings uncovered by Miskatonic’s Antarctic expedition—were highly intelligent—indeed, he wonders whether humanity is worthy to inherit their technological crown.
Jourgensen remembers Nazi experiments on whether human brains could survive in proximity with the “Baltic Singularity,” now Russia’s Koschei. He supposes that Koschei’s “world-eating mind” dreams of feasting on fresh sapients, be they Predecessors or humans. Gould may be thrilled to confirm extraterrestrial life, but if he knew the whole truth, he wouldn’t be so happy.
Meeting with an Iranian informant, Jourgensen learns the Iraqis are stirring up cosmic trouble in Basra—the “unholy brotherhood of Takrit” sacrifice on the altar of “Yair-Suthot,” causing “fountains of blood” to spray in Tehran! Gates are opening everywhere! The situation is so desperate that Iran is willing to work even with Israel to develop nuclear defenses of its own against the “ancient abominations.”
Jourgensen ends up testifying before a Congressional committee about North’s activities. He admits that the “weakly godlike entity” at the heart of Project Koschei is “K-Thulu” and that the gateways connect to at least three other planets. At XK-Masada, the government’s prepared a retreat for selected members of humanity (you know, government people and their support staff)—it’s a city under a Buckminster Fuller-designed dome a mile high, defended by Patriot missiles and radar-invisible jets. The “bolt-hole” gate lies under the Executive Office Building, all ready for evacuation in event of war.
The committee’s interrupted by news of an attack. The military’s gone to Defcon One. Evacuation through the “bolt-hole” commences, and Jourgensen’s swept along. Later, at XK-Masada, North tells him how Saddam Hussein finally succeeded in stabilizing the gate into “Sothoth.” Mass destruction swept the Middle East. Iran panicked and went nuclear. Russia responded. Somehow the gates of the bunker in Ukraine opened, and Koschei was loosed. Now K-Thulu heads toward the Atlantic, and Jourgensen must help figure out what the US should do if it doesn’t stop there, because all their special weapon systems haven’t fazed it a bit.
Jourgensen complies, but horror and survivor’s guilt rack him. He often wanders outside Masada, surveying the dead landscape of a dying planet not even his own. He begins to converse with the void, which tells him in North’s voice that his family might still be alive. After all, there are fates worse than death. Within the “eater of souls” there’s eternal life. No one’s forgotten and allowed to rest in peace—instead they endlessly play out alternate endings to their lives in the soul-eater’s brain.
Roger considers suicide. But if his analysis of the situation is wrong, well, he’s still alive. If he’s right, death is no escape. Only why, he wonders, is hell so cold this time of year?
What’s Cyclopean: It’s the clinical, almost-but-not-quite random code phrases that stand out: GOLD JULY BOOJUM, SECRET INDIGO MARCH SNIPE, Project Koschei
The Degenerate Dutch: Cold War paranoia, Mythos-infused or otherwise, doesn’t make any of the powers involved look pretty.
Mythos Making: Per “Mountains of Madness,” this is what happens when blasphemously surviving nightmares squirm and splash out of their black lairs to newer and wider conquests.
Libronomicon: The Russians use tools described in the Kitab al Azif. “The Great Satan” doesn’t have quite the same referent here that it did in our universe.
Madness Takes Its Toll: The darkness between world’s broke Jimmy Carter’s faith and turned Lyndon B Johnson into an alcoholic. Then there’s the “world-eating mind adrift in brilliant dreams of madness, estivating in the absence of its prey.”
I recall the ’90s as a precious, brief period between apocalypses. The Cold War had been peacefully, miraculously resolved. (Even if the Soviet Union’s collapse didn’t make the War’s eldritch weapons vanish, merely distribute them more widely.) Terrorism hadn’t yet provided a replacement existential enemy, and climate change didn’t loom large in the public consciousness. All we had to worry about was the hole in the ozone layer, war in the Middle East, austerity at home…
Into this optimistic gap came Charlie Stross with the proposition that Lovecraft was a very modern writer indeed. In his 2004 essay appending The Atrocity Archives, he opined that HPL perfectly presaged the fear of a manmade—and yet entirely inhuman—apocalypse. Seven years earlier, in “A Colder War,” he illustrates this idea in its primordial form. The Laundry books (of which TAA is the first) shade from nuclear paranoia into the civilization-breaking horrors of the 21st century. “Colder War” is darker and more focused—an ideal of the argument, unencumbered by any need to support later continuity.
This week’s story includes superficial precursors to the Laundry—the camera-esque guns, the Eater of Souls—but on a deeper level it reminds me of the many lifeless and dying alternate realities that the Laundry agents have encountered. Most of these worlds died through some variation on the events in “Colder War;” the latest book includes a delineation of all the CASE NIGHTMARE scenarios that constitute “solutions to the Fermi Paradox.” The eye of survival in the needle of extinction is very narrow indeed. In Stross’s universes, at least. In ours…?
We know about so many close calls. Not just the Cuban Missile Crisis, but bombs improperly secured, computer errors corrected at the last minute, blips disbelieved by one sensible soldier. Stanislav Petrov saved the world one day before I turned eight. In dozens of unconscionably irresponsible moments, we simply got lucky—Reagan’s “fifteen minutes” quip is an all-too-plausible jonbar point. With shoggot’im providing just a little extra impetus…
I grew up believing the bombs would fall any day. That experience is the sharpest generational divide I know. A friend, a decade younger, recently drove cross-country and camped cheerfully just outside the security zone of an ICBM silo. To me, that’s the rough equivalent of laying down your sleeping bag on the slab over Cthulhu’s bedroom. Stross’s metaphor seems exact.
In ’97, “A Colder War” was among my first exposures to Lovecraftian literature. On reread, it retains its power—it’s possibly the scariest Mythos story I’ve read. Having since read “At the Mountains of Madness” only enhances it. On this read, I’m also more familiar with the Drexlerian nanotech underlying Stross’s shoggoths, a clever reinterpretation of their amorphous power, and with the wondrous critters of the Burgess Shale. We’ve learned more about their place in evolution since the story was written, but I’m still totally open to Anomalocaris being extraterrestrial.
Speaking of Anomalocaris, the cameo by Steven Jay Gould provides a moment of pure delight in a deliciously dark story. I love his enthusiasm over the existence of alien life and the longevity of the Elder Thing artifacts. His inversion of Lovecraft’s terror-ridden deep time rants is pitch perfect. And in a context where terror would be fully appropriate, it induces every shiver Lovecraft could hope for.
This week’s story, which yes, unbelievably, I’ve just read for the first time, has roused me to new heights of geek bliss. How often do Stephen Jay Gould and Oliver North, Anomalocaris and K-Thulu, get to dance around each other in one story? Answer: If anyone can come up with another instance of this rare alignment of stars, let me know.
One of my favorite books is Gould’s 1989 Wonderful Life, a combined “biography” of the Burgess Shale, a taxonomic exploration of its Cambrian organisms, and some maybe-out-there evolutionary speculation. I heard Gould speak a couple times at Brown Bookstore and remember him as one of those uncommon people with so much enthusiasm for their subject that you couldn’t help basking in the energy. I can’t say I’m a fan of the other historical figures in the story: North, Fawn Hall (yeah, her hair really WAS that big), Reagan, Saddam Hussein, etc. However, they all played their alternate history parts here with gusto, on-page or off. And Anomalocaris! My favorite Burgess Shale creature, along with the also-mentioned Opabinia! I had a dream once that an Anomalocaris was floating around in my yard, which was both thrilling and terrifying. Hallucigenia, on the other hand, always struck me as improbable as a stand-alone beast. Though live specimens, waving their tentacle-thingies, would make nice hair ornaments (fin ornaments?) for Deep Ones. [RE: Maybe that’s why Hallucigenia is my favorite?]
The alternate history conceit of “A Colder War” is that Professor Dyer’s desperate attempt to stop Antarctic exploration (aka “At the Mountains of Madness”) did not succeed. In fact, it looks like he was right about the danger of his account, that it would only spur interest in that icy land of eternal death—or maybe eternal alien life. Nations rushed to mount expeditions, but by 1931 they’d discovered enough to sign off on the Dresden Agreement, which apparently forbade the development or use of alien technology as weapons. Even Hitler was supposed to have been spooked enough to respect the Agreement, except when he didn’t. We eventually learn that the Nazis were the ones to uncover the “Baltic Singularity”—a monstrous being “nested” in the ruins of a city drowned at the bottom of the sea. Nazi doctors investigated the Singularity’s capacity for inducing madness in humans. Looks like Mengele himself fell prey to its mind-warping emanations. But the Russians outdid the Nazis. If I’m reading this complex story right, they’re the ones who transported the Singularity from the Baltic to the Ukraine, where they tucked it into a giant concrete bunker to continue its long nap—until they unleashed it to wipe out the West, as US intelligence fears. This is the dreaded Koschei Project, and its subject is K-Thulu (we all know who THAT transliteration of the name refers to!)
But wait! Doesn’t Cthulhu lie dreaming in R’lyeh, under the South Pacific? What’s he doing in the Baltic? My mind races. Maybe the Japanese found a re-emerged R’lyeh and shipped its most famous denizen to their German allies? Only the ship sank in the Baltic. But wait, there’s already an ancient sunken city at the bottom of the Baltic! Okay, here’s a better theory. There’s more than one Cthulhu, so to speak. After all, it’s Lovecraft canon that Cthulhu is but the greatest of his Greater Race, its high priest. The Baltic Singularity could be another Cthulhuian (a lower-level priest?) whose city sank like R’lyeh at some point in cosmic time.
And then the “Baltic Singularity” brings to mind the “Baltic Anomaly,” a curious geological formation, or primordial artifact, or alien spaceship, discovered in 2011. So, yeah, Stross wrote his story around 1997, but maybe (cue new conspiracy theory) he had access to deep dark CIA documents detailing the Anomaly. You know, the photos that showed glyphs on the sunken city like those on the Project Koschei bunker! Uh oh.
Oh wait, I almost forgot the shoggoths, or shoggot’im as they’re probably more rightly called in their awful plurality or aggregate. The Russians have some, which they’ve somehow learned to control enough to use as weapons in Afghanistan. I guess they got them in Antarctica, from the “Predecessor” ruins. Or maybe from an under-ice lake like Kostok. Or maybe through a gateway to alien worlds. The possibilities!
There’s plenty of fun in “A Colder War,” like the wedding of Mythos and intelligence-military jargon, like North’s “febrile” hyperactivity and the Congressional hearing in which Jourgenson is grilled about the Russian shoggoth advantage. But Stross masterfully subordinates the lighter elements to a foreboding suspense and “cosmicophobic” anxiety that make the story genuinely chilling. Protagonist Jourgensen doesn’t even seem to experience the wonder that leavens many Lovecraft characters’ terror, in the face of proof that man is neither alone in sapience nor supreme master of creation. It’s Professor Gould who’s exhilarated by the vastly widened prospect of universe and life that Pabodie, Dyer and Atwood opened to the modern world.
Roger Jourgensen thinks Gould’s an idiot, that he couldn’t be happy if he knew the truth. The whole truth. The truth at which Roger later stares at XK-Masada: that he’s left one dying world for another dying world, and that even dying is no guarantee of peace. Not when there are devouring minds so infinitely curious as to subject assimilated psyches to endless revisions of their exits.
Which makes me think of Gould’s theory about rewinding and replaying evolutionary history! Whoa. Maybe K-Thulu is just experimenting with that idea, “weakly godlike agency” that he is.
Next week, a different war and a different Mythosian connection in Fritz Leiber’s “The Dreams of Albert Moreland.” (The link is a scan of the original fanzine. If you don’t enjoy squinting at 60-year-old typeset, you can also find the story in e-book format in The Second Fritz Leiber Megapack, among others.)
Ruthanna Emrys’s neo-Lovecraftian stories “The Litany of Earth” and “Those Who Watch” are available on Tor.com, along with the distinctly non-Lovecraftian “Seven Commentaries on an Imperfect Land” and “The Deepest Rift.” Winter Tide, a novel continuing Aphra Marsh’s story from “Litany,” will be available from the Tor.com imprint on April 4, 2017. Ruthanna can frequently be found online on Twitter and Livejournal, and offline in a mysterious manor house with her large, chaotic household—mostly mammalian—outside Washington DC.
Anne M. Pillsworth’s short story. “The Madonna of the Abattoir” appears on Tor.com. Her first novel, Summoned, is available from Tor Teen along with the recently released sequel Fathomless. She lives in Edgewood, a Victorian trolley car suburb of Providence, Rhode Island, uncomfortably near Joseph Curwen’s underground laboratory.