Friday, May 12, 2017

Review: Village of Stars, by Paul Stanton

New York: M.S. Mill & Company and William Morrow & Co., 1960, pp. 241.

Paul Stanton's Village of Stars is interesting as an example of the military techno-thrillers (or if you prefer, "proto-techno-thrillers") that appeared between World War I, and the genre's revival in the 1970s in the hands of writers like Martin Caidin, Craig Thomas, John Hackett and (in a different way) Frederick Forsyth.

Stanton's Village is set in the dozen years between Suez (1956) and the announcement of the end of British military commitments east of Suez (1968), when Britain had clearly been relegated to a tier below the U.S. and Soviet Union in the global power rankings, but still considered "a world power and a world influence" in its own right, without any other peer on that level.

As it was Britain had the world's only nuclear arsenal apart from the superpowers; and after France and then China got the bomb, still its most formidable for quite some time, carried in its fleet of over a hundred strategic bombers (the V-bombers). It was still imagined that exceptional statesmanship, or perhaps technological "innovation" might further narrow the gap between itself and the U.S. and Soviets, perhaps a breakthrough in the nuclear field (a theme seen in such prior novels as William Haggard's Slow Burner). In the meantime, Britain's special province within the Western military alliance was regarded, certainly by both Britain and the United States, as the "policing" of the Indian Ocean region, because of the many colonies and closely associated ex-colonies about the region, from Australia and Malaya to Kuwait and Aden to Kenya and Tanzania.1

All of this, of course, is at the heart of the plot, in which Britain has developed a 100-megaton hydrogen bomb, a weapon neither of the other superpowers has, and which therefore makes it stand a bit taller than it otherwise might.2 It also happens that Britain is the key ally of Kanjistan--a (fake but real-sounding) country in the southwestern Caucasus, with the Soviet Union to its north, the Black Sea to its west, Iran to its south, in which a Soviet-backed revolt against the monarchy is underway, in support of which Soviet tanks are rolling south of their mutual border. The United States is unsupportive of British military action there (shades of Suez), but nonetheless Britain redirects ships to the area, and sends paratroops to the country, while the Air Force loads one of the 100-megaton bombs into a V-bomber dispatched to patrol off the Crimean peninsula to make clear to the Soviets that Britain is quite serious about protecting its client.

As the crisis threatens to escalate the bomber crew gets orders to fuze the device, and does so--but then when the matter is resolved diplomatically and they are told to unfuze it, they cannot do so, which is problematic because the device is set to go off if the plane descends below 5,500 feet. Naturally the question becomes how to prevent the giant bomb from going off disastrously despite the fact that the vehicle must eventually stop moving. (I remember how before the movie came out 1996's Broken Arrow was once described to me as "Speed on an airplane." It wasn't quite that, of course, but the premise of Village suggests how it could have been.)

In all this the focus is overwhelmingly on the men in the bomber at the story's center, rather than the larger picture. Tellingly the first chapter offers five pages of oblique glimpses at the emerging situation--and then seventeen about Air Vice Marshall Chatterton's personal assistant Helen Durrant attending a base dance the night of their arrival at the facility, where she happens to meet the bomber's pilot, John Falkner. Subsequent chapters continue in much the same fashion, showing the personal lives of Falkner and especially his crewmates, through lengthy scenes of their home lives showing them with their wives and their children (copilot Dick Beauchamp's failing marriage, Canadian-born Electronic Officer McQuade's happier one, Pinkney's bringing up his children on his own), with only an occasional glance at the crisis in Kanjistan and the events in 10 Downing Street (let alone Washington, New York, Moscow), much more often sketched than painted--even as the narrative increasingly emphasized the thriller plot.

I must admit that this is the opposite of what I expect of techno-thrillers. Certainly in my days as a fan snapping up the genre's latest releases, I personally favored the style of the older Larry Bond, up through Cauldron--and this did make for rather a slow start to the story. Nonetheless, some of the characterization was interesting--even if it was the relatively minor figure of the expert on the British super-bomb (the physicist Dr. Marcus Zweig, his careerism and compromises, his interactions with the military personnel he must work with and the gulf of misunderstanding between them, which were fairly intelligently written) that held my attention, rather than the interactions of the principals. Additionally, if its treatment often felt overlong the relationship between Helen and John proves to be a bit more than just a love story tossed into the mix to pad out the book and broaden the market.

Meanwhile, even if the time devoted to the characters was not matched by its contribution to the interest of the story, the unfolding of the premise did provide the requisite suspense, which, if less well-detailed in many respects than I would have liked, struck me as competently thought out. In fact, the aspects of the story to which Stanton was more attentive seemed drawn with greater verisimilitude than any comparable thriller dealing with the '60s-era British armed forces of which I know.3 The interest of all this as novelty was enhanced by the novel's time capsule-like quality--a tanker navigator guiding his plane by the sun in particular coming to mind. Similarly conventional to the genre, but unique in being presented in a Britain-centered work, is the stress on the world power standing of the protagonist nation--as a country which has forces active all around the globe, which takes the lead in dealing with crises so far from home, which develops super-bombs other nations cannot match. (As the bomber bearing the deadly burden makes its way from Britain to the Crimean peninsula, Stanton rather strikingly describes the lands it flies over, the people who look up in awe at this display of British power and reach.)

1. This string of possessions originally grew out of the old imperial interest in India, now lapsed, but had since acquired an interest in their own right. (Malayan rubber became surprisingly important to Britain's balance of payments; while the value of the Persian Gulf oilfields exploded.) Plus the U.S. was too absorbed in East Asia (dealing with Korea, China, Vietnam) to pay this region so much mind.
2. At the time 100-megaton bombs were a genuine preoccupation of the participants in the nuclear arms race, though the largest device ever actually detonated was the 50-megaton Soviet Tsar Bomba.
3. By contrast, in Ian Fleming's story of the hijacking of a V-bomber, Thunderball, some aspects of the technology's handling appear very credible, as with hijacker Giuseppe Petacchi's navigation of his plane, while others--like the seating arrangement in the aircraft--come off as awfully hazy.

My Posts on William Haggard's Slow Burner
2/5/17
Review: Warfare State: Britain, 1920-1970, by David Edgerton
12/18/16
Just Out . . . (The Many Lives and Deaths of James Bond, 2nd edition)
11/12/15
The Post-Ian Fleming James Bond Novels
11/4/15
Just Out. . . (James Bond's Evolution)
10/10/15
Just Out . . . (The Forgotten James Bond)
9/24/15
My Posts on James Bond
11/9/12

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