Into the Guns by William C Dietz

Into the Guns
William C. Dietz
Titan, 336 pages
Review by Duncan Lunan

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I opted to review Into the Guns because in it, on May 1st next year, 60 meteors enter the Earth’s atmosphere. Having written a book about how to protect the Earth from impacts, including detailed study of what the consequences would be and how to mitigate them (Incoming Asteroid, Springer 2013), I wanted to see how this novel would compare with novels like the Niven and Pournelle Lucifer’s Hammer or John Baxter’s The Hermes Fall, which portray the consequences of impacts in detail.

There turns out to be no comparison. The only SF element in Into the Guns is the meteor shower, and William C. Dietz doesn’t tell us where they come from or what they’re made of. In fact he shows very little interest in the natural phenomena which enable the events of the novel – slightly surprising, when many of us first realised the destructive power of impacts from 1960s articles by Robert S. Dietz in Analog. The Into the Guns objects are described throughout as ‘meteors’, which don’t reach the surface; the only crater mentioned is ascribed to a Chinese missile strike, launched before they realise their mistake. (Even that is odd, because nuclear weapons don’t make craters unless they explode underground.) We can suppose that these meteors are conglomerates of broken rock like the object which exploded over Chelyabinsk in 2013, probably fragments of a larger one which broke up in a collision or a previous Earth flyby.

They explode into dust with about 30 times the energy of the Hiroshima bomb, i.e. about 450 kilotons. That’s equivalent to the airburst over Chelyabinsk, but one causes an earthquake and aftershocks across Washington state, so it must have exploded much nearer the ground than the Chelyabinsk object, which only broke windows. Even so, it’s much less destructive than the Tunguska event of 1908, which occurred about 3 km up with a yield of about 3 megatons, enough to devastate New York City or London out to the radius of the M25. The Tunguska event was in July, so for several days afterwards golf could be played at midnight in St. Andrews due to sunlight reflected by high-altitude dust.

Even then, for dust thrown into the upper atmosphere, we’re only talking about the content of the meteors themselves. The Chelyabinsk object was about 15 metres across, so 60 of them would have a combined volume of about 0.00011 cubic kilometres, less than eight millionths of the Tunguska object – and a lot of the dust from the “Guns” ones settles out right away. Yet they produce a prolonged global dimming equivalent to the ‘year without a summer’ after the Tambora eruption of 1815, which is estimated to have thrown nearly 50 cubic km of dust into the upper atmosphere. Exaggeration by a factor of more than 600,000 is quite a lot of poetic license for me to swallow.

Other than that, Dietz has no interest in the phenomena of the aftermath. An airburst off the coast of Mexico generates a tsunami 50 feet high, twice the average height of the 2011 ‘Fukushima Tsunami’ which the Japanese Prime Minister described as the nation’s worst event since 1945. There is evidence of 50-foot tsunamis on the south coast of Australia, possibly due to an unrecorded Tunguska-scale event off New Zealand c.1200 AD; although this event is smaller, the 2011 wave did reach 30 metres high at some constricted points, so a 50-foot wave is possible. But all Dietz describes is how it carries off an SUV in which some unnamed bad guys are chasing the future US President, who then goes on his way. When he enters a clothing store a mile further on, “he could tell that the proprietors were surprised to see him”. When the heroine’s army unit is hit by a rockslide triggered by an aftershock, she sees it coming, and when she regains consciouness, half her vehicles are gone along with the civilians they’re transporting. After which, we get back to the real business of the novel, which is Americans fighting other Americans – first individuals, then criminal gangs which soon amalgamate under warlords, then other military units, and finally the whole of the South when it secedes again.

Only a third of the airbursts hit ocean, and since Asia, Europe and North America are the only ones we hear about, the implication is that the 40 over land are spread over 280 degrees of longitude in the northrn hemisphere, 7 degrees apart on average – so the USA should get 10 to 12 of them at most. Washington D.C. is flattened, taking out the Pentagon and the President. But the way society and the military fall apart as a result frankly left me gobsmacked.

It wasn’t until I tried to do business in the USA that I realised how fragmented it is. In some respects it’s more like 50 different countries, even less integrated than our ‘United’ Kingdom. They each have their own way of doing things, and are often hostile to intervention by Federal government. The emphasis on State Lines in books and movies is not just a plot device: crossing one moves you into a separate legal system under a separate state government, and it is simply impossible for 10-12 Chelyabinsk-scale explosions, even at low level, to knock all that structure out. In the USA as here, provision for Civil Defence was mostly done away with, to counter the absurd Soviet claim that steps to protect the civilian population were proof of hostile first-strike intent. The inadequacy of the provision that was left to cope with natural disasters was all too clearly demonstrated by Hurricane Katrina, and supposedly all states’ governments have now been required to put systems in place to cope – but there’s no sign of that here. The Civil Air Patrol, which is tasked with ‘provision of significant emergency services capabilities’, does nothing, nor do Chambers of Commerce, Veterans, Daughters of the American Revolution, the Scouts, or any of the organisations one might expect to rally and hold things together. Similarly, although radio communications are unaffected (no nationwide EMP blackout as in Whitley Strieber’s “Warday”), the military command chain collapses, leaving individual units under junior officers and NCOs free to do what they like, many of them selling their services to the highest bidder.

The Vice-President survives and announces a programme of heavy taxation and gun control, which falls completely flat, and with that central government disappears, pending the later attempt to restart it from scratch. We’re told several times that private citizens must keep their weapons to protect themselves, but they don’t do it, at least not collectively – looters and other criminals are in charge from day one, and they quickly hoover up all the available firepower. Police forces make no attempt to deputise and organise law-abiding citizens, and the National Guard is mentioned only when one of its arsenals is seized by a warlord. If such anarchy is a serious fear, then the time for gun control is before disaster, to prevent weapons falling into wrong hands afterwards, but I suspect that wouldn’t go down well with this book’s intended readers.

The most imaginative touch is that the new rebellion in the South is engineered by oil company oligarchs, who have the resources to do it, and who cleverly sell their new feudal system as ‘freedom’ – unrestrained capitalism, in which everyone has ‘shares’, which they can sell to buy food and medicine, after which indentured service is their only option. Again the extent of the Armed Forces’ acquiescence is astonishing. Not only does the novel make an excellent case for gun control before any nationwide disaster, it also makes an equally unintended case for monarchy. ‘England’ has taken hits from meteors (nice to know Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are OK), but the recovery could be surprisingly rapid, as outlined by Peter Laurie in Beneath the City Streets (Penguin, 1972), and the loyalty of the British Armed Forces to the Queen, or the next nearest heir to the throne, could be crucial in preventing the conflicts into which Dietz has the USA descend. It’s a pity that Nevil Shute wrote On the Beach on the presumption that fallout was unsurvivable, instead of tackling this sort of post-disaster scenerio – In the Wet is perhaps the novel of his that comes closest, and it includes no firefights at all.

That brings us to whom this novel is intended for. A late friend of mine in the Navy could not discuss any social or political issues except in terms of the weapons he would use to summarily resolve them. Another friend’s yardstick for quality, in every film that he watches, is how accurately the weapons in them are portrayed. A former member of my family, by marriage, tried unsuccessfully to convert me to a genre of post-World War III novels which consisted of nothing but sustained bloodbaths, as far as I could see. I could see readers like those not only enjoying Into the Guns, but skipping the Constitutional debates to get to the next battles, and I gather there is a large readership for what the publisher calls ‘military science fiction’. But for SF readers who did enjoy the treatment of similar themes in Lucifer’s Hammer, Inferno by Fred and Geoffrey Hoyle, or any of the ‘Home Counties SF’ by John Wyndham or John Christopher, I fear that Into the Guns will be a disappointment.