The Game

The Game

If you liked Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (our review here), you’re going to love The Game. This little-known, underappreciated 2014 spy series has a plot worthy of John le Carré and an impressive cast.

Brian Cox, who stars as the Rupert Murdoch-inspired media mogul Logan Roy in Succession, is the director of MI5. Victoria Hamilton, who played the Queen Mother Elizabeth in the first two seasons of The Crown, is the secret service’s Soviet expert. Paul Ritter, who so brilliantly portrayed the man most responsible for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in the eponymous 2019 HBO miniseries (our review here), and who sadly died of a brain tumor earlier this year, is cast perfectly as an sly, ambitious bureaucrat.

The central character is Joe Lambe (Tom Hughes), a young MI5 agent who stumbles on a communist plot to undermine British democracy.

Set in 1972 (Tinker Tailor takes place in 1973), the six episodes of The Game are a treasure trove of Cold War tropes. There are defectors and moles, secret American nuclear weapons, the “letters of last resort”: the prime minister’s instructions to the commanders of Britain’s four nuclear submarines in case of a Soviet nuclear attack. The IRA is involved.

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The Art of Harold McCauley

Harold W. McCauley (1913-77) was a prolific illustrator of pulp and science-fiction magazines, drawing covers for the likes of Amazing magazine, Fantastic Adventures, Imaginative Tales and Mammoth Detective.

McCauley studied at the Art Institute of Chicago with James Allen St John, who stirred a passion for fantasy and science fiction in the younger man. McCauley later also studied at the American Academy of Art in Chicago.

He was unable to serve in World War II due to poor health. Immediately after the war, he was hired by the Chicago-based publishing house Ziff Davis, where he drew the many covers and illustrations he is now remembered for in the retro-futurist community.

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The Centurions

The Centurions

For a book that allegedly helped revive the novel in France, The Centurions is not terribly well-known. Not unlike Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers, the book has resonated with modern audiences, many in the armed services of various nations, about the nature of irregular warfare. That book is Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel about French soldiers in Vietnam and then in Algeria, dealing with the travails that come from fighting the wars of a dying empire.

This is not a thriller. It is a contemplative, oftentimes intimate book. There is a very strong emphasis on what these men have done to acculturate themselves to the savage wars of peace that they have been thrown into. Lartéguy is clear about how they are changed by the experience; an interlude between Vietnam and Algeria, in France itself, has all the men struggling to adapt to civilian life. They do what many aimless veterans do: reenlist.

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What If Callaghan Survived the 1979 Motion of No-Confidence?

There are few moments in history where you can pinpoint a single decision that brought about momentous changes as a direct result. Even when they are pinpointed, more often than not you find it is not so simple to change it. If a war or an election had gone the other way, it may seem like a single change, but it is so broad as to essential warrant hundreds if not thousands of little changes to actually happen.

Stanislav Petrov deciding not to report a nuclear alarm to his superiors that turned out to be a false alarm is one of these pinpoint moments. A few thousand voters in some marginal constituencies changing their mind thus altering the results of an election is less of a pinpoint and more of a pincushion.

Sometimes, though, an election result can depend on the decision of one person. In 1979, a motion of no-confidence in the Labour Party government led by James Callaghan was passed by a single vote, the resulting general election would be won by the opposition Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher. She would lead the United Kingdom as prime minister for eleven years and her party form the government for seven further years.

A single changed vote and the government would have survived the no-confidence vote… but would it have made a difference in the long term? There are numerous possibilities for the vote to be tied. What changes would they have wrought to the history of the United Kingdom if any of them had voted differently on the evening of March 28, 1979?

In a lot of examinations of alternate history, there is a temptation to try and just avoid the event altogether, but in the instance of a no-confidence vote in the Callaghan government it was perhaps inevitable without enough changes in the events of 1978-79 to stop the opposition from calling it.

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The Bridge at Andau

The Bridge at Andau

If James Michener is remembered for anything these days, it is for his epic historical novels that regularly pass the thousand-page mark. He was an historical writer in a grand tradition, one that has suffered from the declining attention spans of the digital age.

But he was also capable of writing leaner books that were just as gripping as his generational sagas. Caravans, his novel about Afghanistan, is one. Another is The Bridge at Andau, which is somewhat hard to categorize.

I found this book in the nonfiction history section of my local library, but the interior note with the publication information says it is a work of historical fiction. It is, puzzlingly, both.

Michener was a journalist covering the events around which the book is based; he was standing there at the titular bridge at one point. He interviewed a great many survivors of the events he covers, and the book is in large part based on their testimonies. Many of his sequences involve anonymized versions of real people, or composites thereof.

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Lebanon

Lebanon

Not all wars are as quick and decisive as the Six Day War. Some drag on and on and on. Such was the Lebanese Civil War, which ran from 1975 to 1990. In 1982, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin ordered his army, under General — and future prime minister — Ariel Sharon to enter Lebanon to retaliate against rocket strikes launched by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. As Israeli tanks and infantry rolled into that powder keg, they embarked on a long, pitiless savage war of peace.

This is the backdrop to the 2009 film Lebanon: an Israeli example of a war movie told from the perspective of the invaders, who are sent to die in a foreign land where life seems cheap. Americans like to make these films about Vietnam: Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are classic examples. More recently, American Sniper brought this type of film into the twenty-first century. The Spanish-made 1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines (review here) and Britain’s The Bridge over the River Kwai arguably count as well.

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Last Flight of the Arrow

The Last Flight of the Arrow

The Avro Arrow is one of those incredible what-if stories to come out of the Cold War. A Canadian-built fighter for the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), the Arrow was a plane ahead of its time in the 1950s, not to mention the pride of Canada. And, like the British TSR-2 in the following decade, cut down before its time in circumstances that remain controversial and mysterious decades later.

It’s perhaps no surprise then that Canadian author Daniel Wyatt reimagined the fate of this famous aircraft for his 1990 alternate-history technothriller novel The Last Flight of the Arrow. Taking place across the late 1950s, Last Flight of the Arrow puts the fighter straight into the Cold War standoff between NATO and the Soviet Union.

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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

The American space program has been tarred as the home of white scientists who didn’t care for anyone who wasn’t white and male. Certainly there were problems in that regard, as there were in American society generally at the time. You had Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon calling the space program a theft from African Americans. This is a strain that has continued; Scott-Heron’s poem was used in the 2018 film First Man, about Neil Armstrong and the Moon landing.

Enter Hidden Figures, the 2016 film about the African American “computers” (as it was a person’s job in those days) Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Overlooked and forgotten by popular history, this film shines a spotlight on the women who did the math that took John Glenn to space.

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The Courier

The Courier

Benedict Cumberbatch is predictably outstanding in The Courier, a Cold War thriller about an accidental British spy. Rachel Brosnahan, of The Marvelous Mrs Maisel fame, puts in a strong performance as his CIA handler. The production design is gorgeous; the story almost unbelievable, but it’s true.

Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch), a seemingly unremarkable businessman, really was recruited by the British secret service at the height of the Cold War to ferry messages from a Soviet defector in Moscow: Oleg Penkovsky (played aptly by Merab Ninidze), a colonel in the military intelligence GRU.

Penkovsky, the highest-ranking Soviet defector at the time, provided the West with crucial information about the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal and strategy at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It’s not a stretch to argue, as the movie does, that the Penkovsky intelligence Wynne brought to London helped avert World War III in 1962.

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