Friday, November 19, 2010

Book Review: 'Steam Bird' by Hilbert Schenck

 2 / 5 Stars

Hilbert Schenck states in his Introduction to 'Steam Bird' that when he received his degree in mechanical engineering in the 1950s, his first job was on the R & D team at Pratt and Whitney, working on the design of the engines for a nuclear reactor-powered aircraft.

The US Air Force had been contemplating building such a plane since the late 1940s. The idea called for a 'small' nuclear reactor to be installed in the fuselage; hot water turned to steam via flowing into and out of the reactor would be piped to engines located in the wings, where a heat exchanger mediated the  transfer of the heat to the air, which in turn was forced through turbojets to provide thrust and propel the aircraft.

Articles on the history of the program are available here and here. Some interesting technologies were developed in the course of the R & D, including what was arguably the world's first 'mech', designed to perform maintenance on the highly radioactive components of the aircraft. A modified B-36 bomber carrying a functioning nuclear reactor actually saw significant flight time. However, the 'nuclear energy for propulsion of aircraft' (NEPA) program was shut down in March 1961 with the proposed plane still only a model on the drawing board.

In 'Steam Bird' (Tor Books, 1988, 213 pp., cover art by Vincent di Fate), Schenck posits an alternate USA where the NEPA program never got canceled and actually produced three huge atomic-powered bombers in the mid-60s. Since once the engine is activated, the bulk of the plane becomes radioactive and essentially a one-time-use piece of equipment, the aircraft are consigned to sit in hangers in an Air Force base in Moosefoot, Maine, Cold War relics too expensive to junk and too dangerous to fly.

Then, in the late 80s, a seeming move by the USSR to place long-range ballistic missiles in Nicaragua gives the Air Force an excuse to send at least one of the antique bombers, the Samuel Langley, into the air as a show of force to the Soviet government. Before President Shamus O'Connell can quite grasp what has happened, the Langley lumbers down its ten-mile runway and takes to the air. But even if the plane succeeds in frightening the Russians into withdrawing from Nicaragua, a major problem awaits: where is the plane to land ? 

The slightest slip-up, and the landing site becomes a radioactive wasteland....

'Bird' is a superficial effort at SF; the real purpose of the book is allow Schenck to write a novel about a family of eccentrics similar to that of the best-selling 1985 book 'The Beans of Egypt, Maine' by Carolyn Chute, or any one of the novels of John Irving. 

Schenck's book features a Maine family called the Muths, and most of the narrative revolves around their humorous interactions with each other, their uncle Congressman Hazelton, and President O'Connell and his aide, 'Happy Jack' Hanrahan. There are times when 'Bird' had me laughing out loud, but if you approach this book thinking it will be like a Tom Clancy novel, you're going to be disappointed.

Also included in the book is a novelette titled 'Hurricane Claude'. Claude is a monster storm bearing down on New England and threatening to cause all kind of mayhem. Techoceanics, a consortium of eccentric, visionary scientists and engineers, has a plan to dissipate the hurricane. It involves sending an aluminum speedboat into the Eye of the storm, while a prop-driven airplane circles above the Eye trailing a long line of metal cable. The idea is that by serving as anode and cathode, the ship and plane will create a column of ionized air in the center of the Eye, which will cause the Eye to collapse, and then the body of the hurricane proper.

It's a daring, even deadly, plan, but the payoff will be huge...if Techoceanics can make it happen....

'Claude' is an engaging story, in many ways a better story than 'Steam Bird', and perhaps the major reason to pick up this book up from the second-hand shelves.

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