The Luna Missile Crisis
Rhett C Bruno & Jaime Castle
The concept of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union going ‘Hot’ and leading to all-out war between the two superpowers is hardly a novel scenario. Indeed my friend and book reviewer colleague Coiler has an entire blog dedicated to reviewing novels and short stories based on that conflict, collectively referred to as the ‘Fuldapocalypse’ genre after the infamous Fulda Gap in (what was) West Germany. From the Able Archer exercise leading to nuclear apocalypse, to more straight-forward invasions of Western Europe by the armoured juggernauts of the Warsaw Pact, billions of words have been written imaging the Third World War breaking out; and yet, to my knowledge, until now no novel in the genre has imagined the trigger for that conflict coming not from humanity, but rather from inhumanity. To my delight – seeing my two favourite genres of Science Fiction and Alternate History blended together – that is the very scenario posited by authors Rhett C Bruno and Jaime Castle in The Luna Missile Crisis, their new novel from publisher Aethon Books.
At the height of the Cold War in 1961, famous Soviet Cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin undertakes his legendary flight into space; but instead of breaching the earth’s atmosphere and heading into orbit, his flight is tragically cut short when it slams into something gigantic hovering in near-earth orbit. Vostok 1 falls back to the ground as nothing more than flaming debris, and believing it to be the result of American treachery, the Soviet Union launch a brace of nuclear missiles. However rather than soaring through the atmosphere and impacting in the continental United States, they instead detonate above Eastern Europe after hitting a mysterious vessel, spreading radiation across the Iron Curtain. The stage is set for a complex and multi-faceted conflict between the United States, the Soviet Union, and the mysterious visitors orbiting above the planet.
Bruno and Castle certainly know how to write a fast-paced and engaging thriller – this novel hits the ground running in the Prologue and then never stops, grabbing your attention and refusing to let go. After Gagarin plummets to the earth, we fast-forward to American forces clashing with Soviets in what is now termed The Dead Curtain, an apocalyptic, radiation-soaked area devastated both by the Soviet nuclear weapons as well as strange alien energy called riftwake. Kitted out in clumsy, barely-functional radiation suits, the soldiers explore the region for debris and technology from the alien mother-ship damaged by the impact with Vostok 1 and the subsequent nuclear weapons, as well as continuing the struggle between the two superpowers. During a brutal short-range battle between the two human sides over an alien artefact, a surprise appearance by a UFO and its immensely powerful passenger leads to combat medic Sergeant Kyle McCoy making an immense discovery about the aliens and their reason for orbiting the planet.
Several years later the aliens – the Vulbathi – are an integral part of human culture and society, to the extent that their powerful weapons and technology are much sought after by governments and gangsters alike. Sergeant McCoy’ twin brother Connor, a low-life confidence trickster who sells counterfeit versions of Vulbathi technology, finally gets caught out by some particularly vicious mobsters in New York, only managing to escape by the skin of his teeth. Meanwhile his brother is now a senior agent in the Department of Alien Relations, a government agency dedicated to smoothing over diplomatic relations with the Vulbathi, though his actual role in First Contact with a member of the alien race has been deliberately lost in the mythology already being generated by the US government. Now he’s tasked with assisting in the preparations for high-level diplomatic meetings between humanity and the Vulbathi on their new homeworld Luna – what was once our moon. Before long, the two brothers will have an utterly unwanted reunion with impossibly high stakes, one that hurls them into the chaotic maelstrom of negotiations between the Vulbathi and the Cold War powers on earth.
Bruno and Castle have excelled themselves with The Luna Missile Crisis, creating a fast-paced and action-packed thriller that deftly blends together political intrigue, science-fiction elements and an alternate history background to create something relentlessly pulls the reader along with it until it reaches an explosive conclusion with far-reaching and genuinely astonishing consequences for both humanity and the Vulbathui. Whether the action is taking place in the irradiated hinterlands of what remains of Eastern Europe, the claustrophobic urban rat-maze of New York City, or the Vulbathi-occupied Luna, the two authors never let up the pace, mixing up tense gun-fights and fist-fights with political machinations and back-stabbing without pause and artfully blending multiple genres together to create something that transcends all of them. There’s obviously a long-term plot here, one that will stretch across multiple books in a series, and the two authors are highly skilled at putting in clues here and there across the narrative that result in twists and turns as the book comes to a close.
In addition to an impressive and engaging narrative, there’s some great world-building going on as the plot progresses. An uneasy peace develops amongst the superpowers as the Fallout Conflict amidst the ruins of Eastern Europe leads to confrontation with the Vulbathi, but mutually-assured destruction is merely replaced by rampant xenophobia, as elements of humanity across the planet become highly suspicious of the secretive aliens and their motives. Cleverly, Bruno and Castle ensure that the political plotting and machinations that dominated the Cold War don’t disappear; they simply mutate into terrifying new forms that encompass many of the existing personalities in our own timeline, albeit with far more terrifying implications than mere nuclear war. I particularly admired the detail and thought that the authors have put into the hybrid blends of technology that begin appearing in the wake of the Vulbathi appearing, as well as new cultural concepts and even slang. We see the ‘toads’ lead to technology like ‘Holo-tubes’ replacing televisions, with the chrono-nausea of seeing the Ed Sullivan show appear in three-dimensional holographics so real it seems like the host is in the person’s living room. There’s also the matter of the horrifyingly high-powered Vulbathi weapons that make an appearance, with genuinely nauseating lavishly-described NASA rocketships, which come across as John Berkey paintings brought to glorious multi-colour life. And while it lurks in the background, we even get some details like the ominous appearance of mutated humans living in The Dead Curtain that lies across Eastern Europe, an extended Berlin Wall built by Americans and Russians to keep out the ‘radmons’ that lurk in the irradiated ruins.
The narrative and world-building are cemented by the high-quality, three-dimensional characters that appear throughout the novel. The McCoy brothers are obviously front and centre of the narrative as the dual protagonist of the novel, and they’re very well developed, with their own personality quirks and faults and positives that are deftly brought out as the narrative progresses. They might be identical twins, but the authors are at pains to demonstrate just how different they are – sober, honourable, straight-laced Kyle, burnt out by his experiences in the Fallout Conflict and utterly determined to try and do the best he can for humanity, even if humanity refuses to do the same for him and themselves; and former drug addict Connor, slick conman and with a streak of arrogance running through him that hides just as much pain as Kyle, and with some hidden depths that take their time to emerge. The support characters are just as well written, especially the historical personalities that litter the landscape and appear on both earth and Luna; I was particularly taken by Bruno and Castle’s development of JFK in this alternate timeline, as well as the parallel yet subtly different career path given to Neil Armstrong. And of course they are mirrored by the alien Vulbathi, whose development by the two authors cleverly subverts many of the genre tropes of the ‘alien invasion’ scenario. While they possess fearsome weapons and advanced technology, the Vulbathi are not your usual depiction of an alien race; they’re far from the usual genre stereotype of the aggressive, warmongering species with an unknowable culture. Instead, the two authors create a deeply spiritual and traumatised species that have hidden secrets that heavily influence the narrative, but often in surprising and unconventional ways.
The Luna Missile Crisis is a first-rate piece of science-fiction and alternate history fiction by Bruno and Castle, the two authors creating a novel that transcends many of the stereotypes and tropes that litter those two genres and subverts many others, creating a fast-paced, multi-layered and often thought-provoking narrative that had me hooked from the very first page. Superbly written, with an engaging cast of characters and some interesting things to say about a number of different elements of the ‘alien invasion’ scenario within the science-fiction genre, The Luna Missile Crisis is a superb achievement by the two authors, and one that I can’t wait to see continued in the planned sequel coming in 2021.