ell, this one jolted me in surprise – written in the mid-eighties by Hilbert Schenck, who worked on feasibility studies for the USAF for a nuclear-powered bomber (impractical, given that conventional bombers could do the job easier, cleaner, and didn’t radiate like the bombs they’d just dropped when they returned home). Anyway, what caught me is that the story opens in a model train operations session (where, before Digital Command Control, they are using “microcomputers” (whatever that means in 1985) to simulate how steam engines work in their session). Overall, I really enjoyed the tension and repartee most sessions have. It’s going to be a great book.
So I thought.
Turns out there is a “Cuban Missile Crisis II” going on and the president (in a snap decision) launches one of the three steam birds in his arsenal into the air before realizing the environmental dangers such a move means – worse, the plane isn’t even carrying a bomb. So Captain Bob Muth (avid model railroader and bomber pilot) flies out over the North Pole waiting for the president to determine what to do with this white elephant circling the pole.
Possibly a different angle could have pulled this off. But we have Bob’s brother-in-law (a congressman with absolutely degenerate sexual tastes and a low bar to political corruption) attempting to PR the Ruth family (who all smoke like chimneys, drink like bowery bums and casually do drugs whenever they can). Possibly the author was making a point about the times, the people in those times, the drug culture, whatever, but it didn’t come off as funny or insightful. Frankly, it is unlikely that a family this dysfunctional would find any sort of interest in steam or steam history, but all of them are walking encyclopedias on the topic. So, of course, they are running their own PR campaign to make steam an important factor again (for just how or what, I’m not sure). But the Samuel Langley ends up orbiting the globe before landing on the northern ice pack, a nice peaceful gesture that seems odd in that we never get an understanding of the Russian’s reaction to having this dangerous airborne reactor clanking along.
In the end, I’m not sure what the point of this whole story was – to bring back steam? Train engineers were more than happy to switch over to diesel once it became available. A simpler time? Muth’s family shows that’s not possible, given their own corruptions. I’m not sure what the point was to have this bomber, to fly it, and then to land it on the ice pack.
But the model railroading bit was fun.