Alternate Histories

The Cold War, and particularly the space race, is a period of history I think about quite a bit. So, when I was visiting my grandmother last month in D.C., I made it a priority to get myself to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and see some of their space race artifacts. I had fun.

Here is a Soviet space suit from the moon landing that wasn’t.

Soviet Space Suit

Here are me and my friend T. showing how to properly pose as a space explorer.

explorers

The Air and Space Museum is kind of weird. Its collection of artifacts is stunning, but the presentation is often tonally strange. It’s a patriotic endeavor, funded by the government with the help of large contributions from American air and space companies. There are a lot of sly digs at the Soviet space program. Sputnik may have been the first satellite in space, say the placards, but the Discovery was far superior in design.

I kind of wanted to go through the museum with a fine-toothed comb and a Wikipedia search bar open. The museum didn’t lie, exactly, but it certainly glossed over some pretty critical, if unsavory, elements of the American space program.

One of which is the import of Nazi rocket scientists to the United States after the end of WW II.

The fact that the U.S. poached Nazi scientists to work on American projects is by no means a secret. It was common knowledge even in the 60s. The character of Dr. Strangelove, for instance, is one long joke about Americanized Nazi scientists.

A comic I have been enjoying lately is  The Manhattan Projects,  a mad science fictional take on the Cold War. I have my particular nerdy nitpicks about the series, but overall I think it’s great. The Manhattan Projects is an alternate history that includes aliens, robots, and transdimensional Toji gates powered by death Buddhists.

Wernher von Braun appears in the series with a robot arm.

von Braun w/ robot arm

Wernher von Braun appears frequently in the Air and Space Museum. There is no mention of his Nazi origins, or Operation Paperclip. In fact, it’s never even mentioned that he was originally from Germany. Wernher von Braun suddenly appears in the post-war pictures, with no mention of his origins. For anyone with a basic knowledge of space race history, it’s a pretty glaring omission.

In  The Manhattan Projects, von Braun’s Nazi origins are gleefully examined. Nazi scientists are a staple of the sort of pulp adventure stories the series draws from, and The Manhattan Projects portrays von Braun as a ruthless pragmatist whose primary loyalty is to science.

mp01

I think history is important. American history, in particular, often gets distorted through a patriotic lens. It’s especially telling, however, when an enthusiastically absurd comic book is willing to address elements of history that a national museum is not. The Air and Space Museum tells its own alternate history, one in which Soviet engineering is always inferior, the American moon landing was predestined, and Wernher von Braun coalesces from the ether after World War II and helpfully takes us into space.

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The Spaces They Inhabit

Was it overly ambitious for me to set the goal of writing, finishing, and editing a science fictional yarn for the Clarion West Write-a-thon this year?

Probably. I’m spending July 3 – July 15 travelling across the country, and before that I packed my entire house into a relocation cube and shipped it off the rural Massachusetts, where I’ll be spending the next few months. Despite all this, or perhaps because of all this, I’ve actually been doing a quite a bit of writing. I have a 6,782 word skeletal draft of “Man of War”. It will probably get longer before it’s done, and then shorter as I edit it down.

I’ve never had much of an interest in writing hard science fiction, though I recently read Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy and loved it to pieces. Usually, though, I like it when things get weird.

I like the Kirby sort of cosmic. As I visualize the people and places and things in this story I’m writing, I’m finding myself drawn repeatedly to animation and comics. Kirby, yes, but I’ve also been really enjoying the contemporary Prophet and Saga. I’m revisiting shows about sad kids in giant robots and machine ladies.

The nice thing about immersing myself in other mediums, as opposed to focusing on prose fiction, is that I don’t have to worry so much about voice creep. I also find that studying the visual language of comics is very helpful to me as a writer of prose. Good comics are lessons in economy: a single issue can convey reams of information in 20-30 pages. They build worlds, fantastic or otherwise, with incredible efficiency. Comics also remind me to think about physicality more often. What are people doing as they spit dialogue back and forth? Where are they in the spaces they inhabit? What are their bodies communicating that their words aren’t?

Comics are also great about zooming in about mundanities of the fantastic in a way that completely knocks my socks off. X-men has always been as much about interpersonal drama as it is about punching bad guys. Chadwick’s Concrete is certainly the most realistic story about an invulnerable rock man ever written. It always impresses me when a story manages to balance space aliens  and ray guns with unrequited crushes and empty afternoons. I like big ideas, but I like my big ideas mixed with small moments that tell me who these people are and why I’m supposed to care about them.

Anyway, I should really get back to working on this thing. Maybe I’ll just read a few issues of Before the Incal first?