Thinking the Unthinkable: Armageddon Blues by Daniel Keys Moran

In this bi-weekly series reviewing classic science fiction and fantasy books, Alan Brown looks at the front lines and frontiers of the field; books about soldiers and spacers, scientists and engineers, explorers and adventurers. Stories full of what Shakespeare used to refer to as “alarums and excursions”: battles, chases, clashes, and the stuff of excitement.

There was a time when the world was locked into a conflict that wasn’t an official conflict, with two Great Powers and their associated blocs of nations poised on the brink of a war that many felt was inevitable. For decade after decade, the uneasy tension of the Cold War became a status quo that shaped politics, economies, and even fiction. Fictional protagonists and antagonists were defined by their chosen sides in the conflict between democracy and communism; future histories were defined by the struggle, and by predictions on how it would end. The collapse of communism, and the end of the USSR upended many a fictional universe and future history. Just before the Berlin Wall fell, a promising new author, Daniel Keys Moran, published his first novel, which turned out to be one of the last works of science fiction novels to reflect the old Cold War status quo.

The concept of contemplating “the unthinkable” comes from the think tanks like the RAND Corporation and strategists like Herman Kahn who developed the United States’ strategies for dealing with the prospect of nuclear warfare, spending their careers thinking through difficult topics that others were happy to ignore. And during the Cold War, like moths to a flame, many science fiction writers were drawn to the topic of an apocalyptic war, an Armageddon of our own making. There were countless books written about waging atomic war, and surviving in the blasted wasteland it would leave behind. It’s not surprising that this topic would attract the attention of a young author like Daniel Keys Moran, as it gave him the highest possible stakes to address in his first novel.

The cover of the paperback is what initially drew me into buying this book—featuring a painting by Jim Burns that gets the time travel theme across very effectively, with a doorway leading from a reddish, blasted landscape into an alternate version of the same landscape with greenery and blue skies. The protagonist looks very much like her description in the book, although for a character repeatedly described as ‘erotic,’ Burns offers a depiction that is refreshingly more subdued than his usual voluptuous female figures.

 

About the Author

Daniel Keys Moran (born 1962) is an American computer programmer and science fiction writer who burst onto the scene at a young age with ambitious plans and produced some very interesting books, but has subsequently faded from view. His first publication, “All the Time in the World,” appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine in 1982, when he was only 20. The story was expanded to novel length in Armageddon Blues, his first book, published in 1988, and was released as the first book of a planned series called Tales of the Great Wheel of Existence, though no other books in that series appeared. That may be because the Cold War premise of the book was rendered obsolete with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as happened with many other fictional universes. Moran followed this first novel with three books in quick succession, with Emerald Eyes appearing in 1988, The Long Run in 1989, and The Last Dancer in 1993. These books fit into a series called Tales of the Continuing Time, which Moran planned to expand to 33 volumes. Those three books were full of the type of exuberance that I normally associate with the old-school space opera of authors like E. E. “Doc” Smith or the superhero comics of authors like Stan Lee, and featured topics such as genetic engineering, telepathy, information networks, and virtual reality.

When Moran’s books stopped appearing, I assumed it was due to the “sink or swim” publishing policies of the time, where publishers put out large quantities of paperback books that appeared on the shelves for short periods of time, and if an author did not show significant sales after the first three or four books, they were basically tossed aside. I was disappointed, because his writing was enjoyable and full of vigor. Research on the internet shows, however, that while he did suffer some health problems, Moran is still writing, albeit at a slower pace, and some newer works are available from small presses or in electronic format.

 

The Cold War Paradigm

These days, it may be hard to remember the pervasiveness of the Cold War mentality, the fears that tensions would escalate into a “hot war” that could become World War III, and how profoundly those factors shaped international relations, politics, and even fiction. I remember staying home sick one day and watching the movies Doctor Strangelove and Fail Safe back to back, and being depressed for weeks. That was back in the 1970s, when fears of nuclear Armageddon played a bigger part in our lives, bleeding into all facets of popular culture.

The stagnant nature of the Cold War hemmed mainstream authors into focusing on tales with a smaller scope, as writing works that featured open warfare or a change in the grim status quo would have moved their tales out of the mainstream. Espionage or spy fiction became very popular, as portraying the shadowy struggle of intelligence agents behind the scene, keeping either side from gaining an advantage, was well suited to the times. One of the earliest spy fiction authors was Ian Fleming, whose James Bond launched not only a best-selling series of books, but a movie franchise that continues to this day. Other respected spy fiction authors included John le Carré, Len Deighton, Ken Follett, and Robert Ludlum. Later in the Cold War, books known as techno-thrillers became popular, mainly focusing on technology that might overturn the status quo. Successful techno-thriller authors included Craig Thomas and Tom Clancy.

Science fiction authors, on the other hand, were less concerned with exploring a stagnant status quo and instead concentrated on imagining all manner of ways that the Cold War could end, or what possible outcomes and endpoints might be reached if it persisted. Even when they didn’t use the United States and Soviet Union in their stories, it was common for tales to portray two giant blocs or alliances pitted against each other. Poul Anderson’s Dominic Flandry (who I’ve discussed here) was a clear projection of a Cold War-style secret agent into the far future. An interesting portrayal of détente leading to an uneasy alliance between the United States and Soviet Union can be found in Jerry Pournelle’s CoDominium series (discussed here). And stories that speculated on a hot war between the two blocs, or looked at what the world would be like after a nuclear war, are too numerous to mention (although David Brin’s The Postman, Roger Zelazny’s Damnation Alley and Sterling Lanier’s Heiro’s Journey stand out in my mind as three examples I especially enjoyed).

The collapse of Communist governments throughout Eurasia and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in a new era. There were extensive debates about what would come after the longstanding stalemate. One of the most interesting theories came from historian Francis Fukuyama, who posited that the fall of the Soviet Union would usher in an era of enlightened liberal democracies and “the end of history.” The invasion of Kuwait, the terrorist attacks on the U.S. a decade later, and the wars that have been waged throughout the Middle East since then have showed that the new world would not be free of violence and conflict. Since then, Russia’s move into Crimea and the Eastern Ukraine is an alarming violation of European borders, and there has been a disturbing return to totalitarianism, with repressive regimes on the rise in far too many countries

After the end of the Cold War, there was a bit of consternation among fiction writers: No longer was the overall shape of the future predictable. Some of the venerable authors of the Cold War kept on, with their spy heroes simply facing slightly different threats in a familiar vein. Middle Eastern terrorists became a common foe in many books. And in science fiction, where authors prided themselves on their future histories, many found that their previous books had instead become alternate histories, no longer matching up with the past, present, nor the foreseeable future. Some began steering away from the near future altogether in order to avoid writing something that would soon become obsolete.

James Davis Nicoll recently did an interesting article for Tor.com on films that depicted nuclear war, which generated some good discussion. You can find it here. And the Encyclopedia of Science fiction, or SFE, has interesting articles on the themes of the Cold War and World War Three.

I remember talking in the 1990s to a nuclear arms expert, and telling him that I had been amazed that when the Soviet Union finally fell, it didn’t trigger a nuclear exchange, since we’d braced for the possibility for so long. He looked sad, and replied to me with one word: “Yet.” That word haunts me still.

 

Armageddon Blues

The book is built around various short vignettes that bounce back and forth in time. In the year 2052, a woman pursues her runaway daughter into the radioactive wastelands known as the Burns. She brings the girl back, but dies of radiation poisoning. The girl not only survives, but eventually gives birth to three children, all mutants with silver eyes. In the year 1917, a young man named Georges Mordreaux is fighting in Verdun, and is killed by a German bayonet. He comes back to life, and surprises his comrade (who had thought him only wounded), by talking about events he remembers from the 1790s.

In the year 711 ABC (After the Big Crunch), a woman named Ralesh is having trouble with her willful young daughter, Jalian D’Arsennette. They are of the Clan Silver-Eyes, and Jalian has the eyes that give the clan its name. They are a matriarchal society that, since men were the ones who led humanity into nuclear war, keeps those men in barracks, limiting their activities to manual labor and interacting with women only for procreation. Jalian is obsessed with running away and exploring the Big Road. We’re given a short aside explaining that Georges is not only a man with many lives, but there are eight versions of him (that he knows of) living in different alternate timelines; also that entropy decreases in his vicinity.

Jalian finds an alien spaceship in the middle of the Big Road. In 1968, Georges drives down the Pacific Coast Highway. It seems unlikely that he will encounter a time traveler—but then, he is a locus for improbability. He picks up a silver-eyed hitchhiker named Jalian, who connects with him using telepathic powers.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, the narrative in this book bounces around, revealing little facts that seem insignificant when first presented, and teasing us by withholding the information we are most curious about. And I will be more cursory in my summary, here, since the book quickly moves into spoiler territory. We learn about the alien creatures who have arrived on Earth, and are studying the Clan Silver-Eyes. We find that Jalian has not only befriended the aliens, but has learned how to communicate telepathically. There is a battle with the Real Indians, the Clan’s chief rivals, and many of Clan Silver-Eyes are killed. Jalian becomes a Hunter, or adult, and steals a time machine from the aliens, using it to travel back before the nuclear wars. As she becomes an adult, it becomes clear that her character was designed with the male gaze very much in mind, as she is repeatedly referred to as “erotic” and depicted both as both attractive and unapproachable. Her mission in the past is to prevent the coming nuclear war. She and Georges plot to influence politics and technology in both the United States and the Soviet Union, which puts them in conflict with intelligence agencies on both sides of the Iron Curtain. There are many adventures and close shaves along the way, as the clock inevitably ticks down to the date Jalian knows marks the end of civilization. She must even face down her own mother, who is sent back in time to kill her and stop her efforts. Every special ability Jalian and Georges can muster are required in the struggle to change history. And when Jalian realizes that the timeline is diverging from the one she left behind, there is a real poignancy to the tale, as she realizes she is effectively destroying her people by changing the history that led to the Clan’s creation.

The story builds to a thrilling climax as their efforts can’t prevent the great powers from lurching toward the brink of Armageddon. Once the book is over, the reader might ponder why the time travelers didn’t figure out a way to stop things a lot more quickly…but then, that would have produced a much less exciting tale.

 

Final Thoughts

For a first novel from a young author, Armageddon Blues is surprisingly strong. Moran obviously did a lot of research when preparing to write his tale, although at times he throws in so many science fiction elements that they threaten to overwhelm the narrative. His characterization is sometimes thin and melodramatic, but the story zips along with great speed and great intensity, and any flaws are easy to overlook. While its premise is obsolete, it is an enjoyable book, and a quick read. It was perfect for outdoor reading on a summer afternoon. In fact, if you haven’t yet encountered them, all of his books make for fun reading.

And now, as always, it’s your turn: Have you read Armageddon Blues, or any of Daniel Keys Moran’s other works? What were your thoughts on those books? And what other books from the Cold War era did you enjoy?

 

Alan Brown has been a science fiction fan for over five decades, especially fiction that deals with science, military matters, exploration and adventure.

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