Review: “The Lucky Strike” (1984) by Kim Stanley Robinson

Cover art for the anthology, “The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century

I’ve been reading the anthology The Best Alternate History Stories of the 20th Century edited by Harry Turtledove and Martin H. Greenberg. The edition I have was published in 2001. I checked it out of my local library, and besides a bit of water damage, it seems to be missing the table of contents.

The very first story presented is Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Lucky Strike (1984). The premise is what would have happened if Paul Tibbets and the Enola Gay crashed during a training flight and they weren’t able to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima?

In Robinson’s novella, fictional Captain Frank January is the bombardier who joins the replacement team on the B-29 “The Lucky Strike.” It explores the classic trope about how one man wrestles with his conscience over dropping a single bomb that could potentially kill hundreds of thousands of civilians. He thought that dropping “the bomb” on an uninhabited area as a demonstration of America’s nuclear power would have been enough to make the Japanese surrender.

In Robinson’s tale, it works. January deliberately delays dropping the bomb until it doesn’t land in Hiroshima. Of course, he’s arrested, court-martialed, and shot as a war time traitor. But not before the second mission launches, which, because he changed the timing of history, also fails to strike its target.

January dies, but as a martyr, the anti-nuke “January Society” is born and amazingly wields enough influence to reverse the nuclear arms race, reducing the number of atomic weapons world wide to zero.

It’s wishful thinking.

Yes, The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists records the same recommendation. It’s also true that then President Harry S. Truman wrestled with the decision to drop the bomb on populated areas. For his part, Tibbets, the Enola Gay’s pilot had no regrets about dropping the bomb, and he died at the age of 92 still believing that it significantly shortened the war in the Pacific and saved countless lives.

However, I can see Robinson projecting his own personality into Captain January, and I don’t doubt he truly believes that if his fictional story had been reality, it would have worked out exactly as he predicted.

Of course we’ll never know.

I liked the story. I thought it was well written and the suspense built up beautifully. Of course the ending was hopelessly schmaltzy, but again, this is Robinson’s wish fulfillment.

I’m no stranger to Robinson’s works. I’m sure I read him decades ago. More recently, I attempted to read and review Red Mars, the first novel in his classic trilogy.

It was one of the few books I stopped reading and took back to the library. I found it not only boring, but totally preachy. Yes, I know, plenty of authors use their works to promote their own philosophies and belief systems. But the minute you catch them doing that, it pulls you out of the narrative and, in this case, ruined the story.

I knew Robinson was doing that with “The Lucky Strike”, but it was short enough and interesting enough that I pressed on until the end.

While I thought this novella was better written than “Red Mars”, it still suffered from the author’s “enlightened” perspective. Yes, it’s a compelling idea, but it might have been more interesting if Japan didn’t surrender due to these two “demonstrations,” and the war continued for bloody years to come. That, or with no Japanese surrender, America was forced to destroy one or more Japanese cities after all. That would have been more interesting, delivering futility and tragedy as well as victory.

As far as January is concerned, the story states that as a bombardier, he participated in the annihilation of numerous German and Italian cities, so it’s not like he didn’t already have blood on his hands. Whether killed by conventional explosives of a fission device, the people are still dead.

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