My Shameful Fictional History

Well now, this is going to be tricky. Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon is a shameless tribute to all the cold war paranoia, post-apocalyptic fiction of my youth. Over on the Rebellion blog I recently wrote about the music of the era and how fears of a Third World War permeated even the poppiest of pop songs. (Nuclear war flavoured music wasn’t just for the angst ridden goth or metalhead). So what’s so shameful about the fiction of the era? Well let’s just say some of it was a bit… dodgy and you can make up your own mind as to why.

So first up:


The Survivalist, by Jerry Ahern, tells the story of CIA weapons expert and I-told-you-so-survivalist John Rourke. Rourke is a man who still finds himself searching post apocalyptic America for his wife and kids despite having made painstaking preparations for the inevitable nuclear war. (Which is just poor planning if you ask me: “Honey, if WW3 breaks out can you and the kids meet me at the survival retreat?” Job done.) During his quest for his family he befriends mild-mannered, everyman Paul Rubinstein (and teaches him to become a prolific killer), there are romantic complications with the deadly KGB major, Natalie Tiemerovna, and he finds himself battling bikers, mutants, cannibals, and of course the invading Russian army. (Why the Russian army would want a radiation scarred wasteland of bikers, mutants, cannibals and well armed recalcitrant survivalists, however, is beyond me.)

Now I loved these books as a kid, thankfully I grew out of them pretty quickly. I suspect one of the reasons I liked them was that, despite their pulpiness, the characters weren’t nearly as cardboard as they could have been. There were strong female characters, particularly John’s wife, Sarah, and later his daughter Annie. There were also positive Jewish and African-American supporting characters. The Russian/Soviet characters could very easily have descended into grotesque caricatures, and the villain of the piece, Vladimir Karamatsov, is evil with a capital E. There were, however, sympathetic Russian characters like the aforementioned Natalia, and her uncle, General Ishmael Varakov. There was an understanding that the Russians/Soviets were people, rather than the objectified subhuman monsters they are depicted as being in a lot of other books in the Survivalist Fiction sub-sub-genre. (And if you want to see an example of this, then the Doomsday Warrior is breath-taking in its racism)

So where do we go next? Well how about a film were the stars of the burgeoning Brat Pack meet libertarian politics, a film that, upon it’s release, was considered the most violent film ever by the Guinness Book of Records, a film so notorious that the USSR actually complained about it. I am of course talking about:



I love John Milius, there I’ve said it. I couldn’t care less about his politics. He’s responsible for the TV series Rome, he wrote Apocalypse Now, he directed the surf film Big Wednesday, and he gave a certain Austrian muscle man his first big screen break in Conan the Barbarian. (Ever wonder why people my age like Conan? It’s because we didn’t grow up with the likes of LOTR. Conan was the only good fantasy film around.) Red Dawn is the story of a group of plucky American teens, members of the Wolverines high school football team. They form a resistance unit when their small Colorado town is, somewhat inexplicably, invaded by the Russians, and their Cuban and Nicaraguan allies. As you can imagine all sorts of heroic hijinks ensue, but despite the jingoism (even Milius felt it was too jingoist) it has something of a zero-sum-game ending. To my mind Red Dawn is one of most iconic of eighties movies. It perfectly sums up the ridiculousness of the propaganda of that particular era of the Cold War, the Reagan years. Ironically Milius has since stated that the Communists in the film are actually supposed to represent centralised government.

Gun nut, surfer, libertarian, maverick film maker, John Milius is a fascinating character. I would very much recommend the documentary Milius directed by the same Zak Knutson who gave a donkey a blowjob in Clerks II.

It should go without say that you should ignore the remake (the film that I suspect Chris Hemsworth wishes didn’t exist). It’s difficult to imagine anything dumber than North Korea invading America.

And on to tabletop roleplaying games… Games Designer’s Workshop was a war and role-playing game company started in 1973. GDW published simulationist-style games, the most famous being Traveller, which, if it wasn’t the first science fiction RPG, then it was certainly the most influential. Their naval warfare miniatures game, Harpoon, was influential in the writing of Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. GDW released Twilight 2000 in 1984. The players were members of various military units who had banded together to survive and return home in the aftermath of a ‘limited’ nuclear war, which had resulted the break down of society. Depicting a Broken-Backed War (as does Special Purposes), Twilight 2000 had ‘realistic’ rules for everything from PTSD to dysentery, bubonic plague to radiation poisoning. (Fun huh!?) Upon its release, however, it was subject to criticism for it’s perceived flag waving, pro-West/anti-Russian stance. Now I’m actually going to defend Twilight 2000 here. It is my honest belief that the point of the game was an accurate (if playable) depiction of a possible WW3 scenario. I never really picked up on the politics. It had much more in common with the likes of Band of Brothers, Platoon, Saving of Private Ryan etc., than Rambo, Commando or even Red Dawn. The drama came down to playing characters in a very difficult situation trying to survive, rather than ideological battles. (Though for an example of a much more jingoistic role-playing game see The Price of Freedom, which I never played.)

Moving away from the troubling nature of 80’s pulp fiction and into the much more ideologically sound world of the flesh eating undead, I give you my favourite zombie film George A. Romero’s follow up to Night of the Living Dead: 1978’s Dawn of the Dead:

A number of the reviews of Special Purposes have pointed out how tired the zombie sub-genre has become (whilst going on to make it clear that First Strike Weapon rises above the ennui currently associated with the walking corpse oeuvre). I wonder if this has to do with fear. Zombies used to scare the living shit out of me (children and mirrors still do). Now, however, zombies are so commonplace in pop-culture that they’ve become familiar. It’s what I call the plushCthulhu effect. Actual contemplation of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, it’s alien terrors and the vast horror of the cold, unfeeling cosmos itself, is actually pretty grim. If, however, we condense that all down to a small cuddly toy, then we no-longer have to contemplate the meaninglessness of our existence in the face of a hostile and uncaring universe. With all the parodies and zombie rom-coms we’ve done the same thing with undead hordes. (This is why we must burn plush Cenobites on sight.)

Mini-C says: “FEAR ME!”

Dawn of the Dead tells the story of a group of disparate survivors of the IZA[1] who take refuge in a shopping mall. Despite special effects that might not stand up to today’s exacting standards, despite it’s dated look and arguably hokey acting, Dawn of the Dead comes from a time when zombies were still frightening. This was all the more so because they held a mirror up to our consumer society. They frightened us because they were the mob that, through our fantasies of social alienation, we suspect will eventually turn on us, and that’s good horror.

28 Days Later isn’t my favourite horror film (that’s The Thing if you’re interested) but for my money it is the most effective. It has just the right mix of visceral unpleasantness, jump scares, and most important of all: tension. During the early scenes of Cillian Murphy wandering around a deserted London (to the discordant sound of East Hastings by the superb Godspeed You! Black Emperor) I found myself praying for something horrible to happen, just to break said tension. To my mind 28 Days Later is an extension of the works of the Splatterpunks of the 80s and 90s, in the truest sense of the movement: that of unflinching horror that reflected “the moral chaos of our times”[2] rather than how it was depicted by its detractors, as gore for the sake of gore. (Zombies are inexorably tied to the Splatterpunk sub-genre.)

If nothing else then Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon has this in common with Dawn of the Dead, 28 Days Later and all good zombie stories. The zombies aren’t the enemy. The zombies are more like a destructive force of nature, something to be endured, survived. The real malign intent, the real evil in these stories comes from us, humans. Perhaps that’s the irony of the pulp survivalist fiction of the eighties, most of which involved heroic gun-toting, white guys fighting the cruel oppression of the communists in the radioactive ruins: once the word is a destroyed, smoking mess wouldn’t that be the moment to reflect that perhaps conflict has already gone too far?

Author’s own (somewhat dusty) shoebox of post apocalyptic pulp fictional shame.

Special Purposes: First Strike Weapon can be found on Amazon UK in paperback and Ebook, Amazon US in paperback and Ebook, Barnes & Noble, Google, iBooks, Kobo and the Rebellion Store.

[1] Inevitable Zombie Apocalypse.

[2] Rob Latham, “The Urban Horror”, in S. T. Joshi, ed., Icons of Horror and the Supernatural: an Encyclopedia of our Worst Nightmares (Greenwood, 2007), (p. 591-618)

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