There’s something that’s common to best selling authors like Frederick Forsyth, Larry Collins and Dominique LaPierre, Leon Uris, James Michener and Tom Clancy – they research their subject painstakingly, in order to render a degree of authenticity to their novels.
There was another ‘researcher-novelist’ who was the capo-di-tutti-capi Of them all – Arthur Hailey, who wrote a string of blockbuster novels in the 1960s and 70s that stand tall as classics of research-driven story telling. Wheels is the result of a comprehensive study of the inner workings of Ford, GM and Chrysler. Overload is on the American electricity company ConEd, Moneychangers is about a bank, Strong Medicine – a pharmaceutical company, The Final Diagnosis – a hospital and Hotel – a 5-star boutique hotel.
In Hailey’s novels, each chapter is a seemingly stand-alone mini narrative having its own protagonist but you know all along that in the end, these narratives will fit perfectly together in a shattering cliffhanger of a climax.
In one of Hailey’s best works, Airport, events are quickly escalating inside and around a fictional Lincoln International Airport (based upon his research of Chicago’s O’Hare).
In Airport too, the chapters are seemingly separate narratives that are running side by side.
- A jobless suicidal loser has boarded a US to Rome flight. A highly experienced demolition expert, he is carrying a briefcase that is rigged with a bomb, the trigger a string attached to it’s handle. He plans to pull the string and end it all while the plane is over mid-Atlantic, so that his wife gets the insurance payout and he ‘redeems’ himself in her eyes.
- Another airliner that just touched down, took a wrong turn taxiing in. It’s front wheels slid off the asphalt into the soft slushy snow and it is now stranded with its tail and nearly half it’s fuselage sticking into the runway, blocking incoming traffic.
- A tiny municipality abutting a runway is threatening to sue the airport authorities because pilots are refusing to follow hazardous noise abatement procedures which require airliners to bank steeply away after take-off, increasing the chances of a stall.
- The airport general manager and his wife are going through a heart wrenching separation. She is having an affair and he is getting cozy with the comely customer relations agent of a major airline.
- A stewardess has informed the married airline pilot she is fucking that she is pregnant and wants to keep the baby.
- An old woman is a habitual stowaway who often slinks into a plane while it is boarding and the crew are too busy to notice. She does this whenever she gets lonely and wants to visit a her daughter in Seattle. Early tonight she was caught trying the same thing but she managed to escape and gain entry into the first flight that was boarding, the one to Rome that has the suicidal guy. Her seat is next to his.
- The worst snowstorm in history is threatening to shut down the airport. A blizzard is raging outside the large panoramic plate glass windows. Winds are in the excess of 60 knots. While a jet liner can take a lot of headwind, it cannot remain steady in crosswinds above 40 knots. Tonight that limit is breached and has rendered all but one runway functional (The one that is blocked by the airliner that plowed into the snow).
Surely, now you can see why Arthur Hailey’s stories turned into blockbusters.
It usually took Hailey three years to write a book. The first 12 months were spent on researching the subject, the next 6 months he reviewed his notes and the remaining 18 months he sat at his typewriter writing the novel. The result was a plot-driven, character-driven, research-driven masterpiece of fiction.
Arthur Hailey’s distinctive storytelling style first emerged in 1962, with In high places, novel that is a melange of three seemingly separate chains of events. One is the professional and personal lives of the Canadian Prime Minister and his right-hand man who is having an affair with the PM’s secretary. The second is an illegal immigrant who is a stowaway inside a ship docked at Vancouver whose lawyer is trying to gain him entry as a refugee into Canada.
The third storyline is what this post is about. It is the chilling depiction of the threat of a Soviet nuclear attack on the US. Seemingly these three narratives are unconnected but they are, indirectly.
There have been many novels on nuclear armaggedons but let me assure you, In high places is special. Let me start the chills for you –
North America is preparing to defend itself against an imminent nuclear first strike by the Soviet Union, an act of aggression brought on by a paranoid ultra left-wing nationalist Russia which is beginning to recognize that it‘s communist utopia is actually a sham. More nations are turning to the western style democracies than the Soviet system and the Russians have decided it is time to stop the trend.
All intelligence from assets deep within Moscow point toward an attack that will come over the North Pole. A barrage of 10 to 20 R-36 Vovoda ICBMs will launch from Kozel’sk, Pervomaysk, Kostroma and Tatischevo and the 5-minute boost from their first stages will send them soaring 250 kms into space in an elliptic path whose major axis is vertical.
The missiles will rapidly gain altitude to 1200 kms and then fly through space 5265 kms over the North Pole before their noses dip to reenter the earth’s atmosphere somewhere over Canada’s Baffin Island inside the Arctic Circle. They will cross Canadian airspace, still so high up in the upper atmosphere as to be indistinguishable to the naked eye.
Somewhere around Northern Alberta, the ICBMs will bear downward, rapidly losing altitude and diverging toward separate destinations deep within the heart of America.
Each reentry vehicle will have a single 25-Megaton thermonuclear warhead, 1700 times more powerful than the “Little Boy”.
Let me digress a bit here and enlighten your starved brain. The 1950s and 60s were the decades when the two superpowers carried out tit-for-tat nuclear tests of ever increasing yield. In the year before In high places hit the bookstores, the Soviets had detonated the most powerful thermonuclear device ever built – the 50 Megaton ‘Kuz’kina Mat’.
The story goes that when the Americans tested what was for them their most powerful thermonuclear device yet (an H-Bomb code-named Castle Bravo with an yield of 15 megatons), the Soviets gave it a name of their own – Kuzka (”pipsqueak” in Russian).
Khrushchev is reported to have sneered at the American test derisively at a Politburo meeting, “My obirayemsya pokazat’ im Kuz’kina mat!” (That’s it? 15 Megatons? Kuzka!! We are going to show them Kuzka’s mother).
And the 50-Megaton Kuz’kina Mat was born. Officially named “Tsar Bomba”, the 27-ton thermonuclear device was dropped from a Tu-95 strategic bomber from a height of 34000 ft over the archipelago of Novaya Zemlya in the Barents Sea, north of the Russian mainland. An 800-kg, 17000 sq.ft parachute retarded the bomb’s descent to give the bomber and it’s companion, a Tu-16 observer aircraft, time to get the fuck out of the area.
The blast was so powerful that it shattered windows as far west as Norway and produced an earthquake-like tremor that registered 5.2 in the Richter scale and a shock wave that went round the earth three times. The devastation was so widespread that the Soviets decided against pursuing the program any further. Another Tsar Bomba was never built. Phew!
Getting back to “In high places” Hailey correctly surmises that the Soviet attack won’t use Kuz’kina Mat-type “airdrop” bombs that have to be dropped from subsonic Tu-95 bombers – sitting ducks for the US Air Force’s new Lockheed F-104 Starfighters. His plot goes for ICBMs instead.
The Soviet missile barrage will be swift – 23 times the speed of sound kinda swift. However, it is still expected to give America around 10 minutes to respond – enough time to launch interceptor missiles from their silos in North Dakota, Montana and Wyoming. Since the Soviet warheads are of the contact-detonation type, America doesn’t need the interceptors to be very high yield. Fission-type MIRV warheads with 750 kiloton yields should be sufficient to blow the incoming Soviet ICBMs to smithereens.
The missiles will be transiting Canadian airspace, so the Americans have shared with Canada the results of numerous simulations (done on gigantic IBM mainframe computers of the day), which show that the intercepts will occur over some of the most industrialized and densely populated regions of Canada – Quebec and Ontario to the east, Alberta in the mid-west and British Columbia on the western seaboard.
The Soviets are expected to target food sources – American food sources. But given the intercepts, those food sources shall unfortunately be Canada’s vast mid-western farmlands that seem to stretch to eternity. A sure way to ensure the demise of a nation is to contaminate its farms.
If the intercepts go through as planned, the central Canadian provinces of Saskatchewan and Manitoba will be hit with fallout from the intercepts. And in order to ensure that every square mile is blanketed with heavy fallout of highly radioactive debris, the detonation of these warheads is going to be ‘airburst’, set off automatically at a height of 5000 feet.
It’s population decimated, industry shattered and farmlands rendered untouchable for at least a century, Canada as a nation will cease to exist.
The US will not go unscathed but the damage, in the form of contaminated landmass, is expected to be marginal. If at all, only the far corners in the North-West (around Washington state) and the North-East (around Vermont and Maine) will be marred by those deadly wind-blown white flakes that folks will mistake for snow. This is because the wind patterns over Canada are almost invariably lateral – in the east-west direction.
Most major industrial cities and coastal population centers in the US shall remain untouched. One analysis shows that below the 35th parallel, America won’t suffer any radioactive fallout at all.
The Canadian military has always been a toothless, token force and now, as the gloves begin to come off, it looks as if Canada might turn to look like a collateral damage statistic in the Phd thesis of some fresh faced political science graduate student.
There is of course NORAD – North American Aerospace Defense Command – the new US/Canadian joint defense initiative that is supposed to ward off an airborne assault. But this is 1962 and NORAD is still nascent, having been made operational only a year earlier. NORAD’s base of operations is under construction – a sprawling, heavily fortified underground bunker deep inside the Cheyenne Mountain, a 3000-metre triple peak outside Colorado Springs, in Colorado.
NORAD is not yet capable of staving off a thermonuclear first strike that will be so massive that it will be beyond the pale of human understanding.
Now the good news (if you can call it that). To prevent Canada’s demise, In high places delivers a chilling twist……
America has made Canada a Corleonesque offer, one that Canada cannot refuse – America will annex Canada as an integral part of the US (it’s 51st state), immediately becoming world’s largest country in terms of both, landmass as well as mineral wealth.
In return, those interceptor missile batteries will be moved north and stationed along the northern Canadian tundra. Now the intercepts shall happen over mostly uninhibited, ice-bound wasteland. Sure, the polar bear and caribou population will be decimated, but shit happens. And thanks again to the lateral wind patterns, hopefully most of Canada will be spared the fallout.
If you haven’t read the book, I won’t spoil your fun. As is typical of Arthur Hailey, In High Places has many parallel narratives running side by side, each fascinating in its own right, all of them inexorably advancing toward the central Cold War background story and the climax.
But what if we Canadians did face annihilation and the only choice left was annexation by a Trump-governed America? We would be in a nasty pickle and for that, Canada has itself to blame, for never attempting to go nuclear and never trying to build up its own independent military and firepower.
Maybe annexation will happen anyway, with or without any external threat. Even before Trump happened, the US annexation of Canada (by force, if required) had already been a reality waiting to happen. A bill is in the US Congress, called ‘Bill to Annex Canada’. It is technically still an active proposal, awaiting deliberation and has been waiting to go into law since it was first tabled – in 1866.