By Matthew Kresal
Alternate history works seem to come in two varieties. In the first, authors see it as a genre, engaging in world-building to the detriment of actually telling a story. In the latter category, authors instead use it as a setting to tell their story, with plenty of historical allusions and nuggets thrown in. Falling more in the second vein than the first, The Luna Missile Crisis puts a spin on the Cold War tensions of the 1960s with an extraterrestrial twist.
Written by Rhett C. Bruno and Jaime Castle, it opens in April 1961 with the launch of Yuri Gagarin as the first man in space. Except that, at that exact moment, a massive alien spacecraft arrives out of nowhere, destroying Vostok 1 and the cosmonaut. And the Soviets, assuming the Americans killed Gagarin, launch a batch of nuclear missiles at their Cold War enemy. Only things go from bad to worse as their warheads explode over Eastern Europe, mingling with energy from the alien ship, creating the "Dead Curtain," which stretches from Ukraine into East Germany. It's a cosmic car crash, as one character puts it, and one that changes the world overnight.
And that's just the opening pages, to boot.
Having established their point of divergence, Bruno and Castle move their narrative three years later. And it's here that the premise, which could easily have been a Cold War variation on Harry Turtledove's WorldWar series and its sequels, comes into its own. They focus on the McCoy twins, Connor and Kyle. Connor is a former Hollywood bit-player turned con man, looking to make a score with a mobster that goes south. His brother Kyle, meanwhile, is a former Army combat medic turned senior agent in the Department of Alien Relations (DAR), a right-hand man to its director J. Edgar Hoover and a top player in an upcoming summit between the superpowers and the extraterrestrial Vulbathi (known as "toads," to humans because of their amphibious nature). As you may have guessed from the fact their twins, mistaken identities come into play when events soon enough spiral out of control as the détente between America, the Soviets, and the Vulbathi comes apart.
With this being alternate history as setting rather than genre, The Luna Missile Crisis is first and foremost a thriller. It's full of action sequences from gun battles and chases to run-ins with mobsters, all of which hang about on just the right side of plausibility. Not to mention that Bruno and Castle write them with a cinematic eye, making it easy to visualize them playing out. It leaves the novel feeling very much pulpy, not to mention armed a drive that makes it a rather fun page-turner as complications and twists pile atop one another.
All of which isn't to say there's not some neat world-building on display. The Vulbathi themselves come across nicely in the character's interactions with them. The ways their technology crossover with 1960s technology is fun, affecting everything from holographic television to NASA's space program. Not to mention a demand for its uses in other areas, including criminal ones, as evidenced by the mob in one sub-plot. The middle part of the book takes a set of characters behind the Dead Curtain, offering a glimpse into a post-apocalyptic landscape behind a very different Berlin Wall. Many familiar names from the period pop up in the novel as supporting characters, from John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon to Neil Armstrong, who is now flying shuttles to the Moon. Like Hoover now leading the DAR, many of these choices are tongue in cheek, keeping with the pulpy tone rather than plausibility. But with it being as fun a read as the novel turns out to be, it's hard to fault Bruno and Castle for that, even with a few jarring anachronistic terms that pop out in places.
If you're looking for a serious work of alternate history, this is going to disappoint. If you're looking for a pulp-infused roller-coaster ride of an alternate history tale, then The Luna Missile Crisis is just the ticket. It's a page-turner, an immensely fun one at that, full of great action sequences and its tongue firmly resting in its cheek. With a follow-up said to be due out later this year, now is the time to check it out.