Reading Charles Stross is like trying to stand on top of a beach ball. Quickly shifting and counter-shifting left, right, and forward, a person cannot stop even for the briefest of moments to question what they are doing, or they will lose their balance. The author’s stories appreciable by those who don’t mind tagging along to mimic the changes in direction, any deeper examination distracts a person to the point of falling off; you just have to accept it for what it is. After all, what is the point of trying to stand on a beach ball?
Stross’s 2005 novella Missile Gap is a good example of his work. Repainting reality, it tells the story of government officials in 1971 trying to figure out what has happened to the Earth. No longer a sphere, our world has been transposed onto a massive disk hundreds of thousands of years in the far future. The disk so huge in fact, moving east and west beyond the limits of our world’s map reveals new continents and lands, not all of which are readily explainable. The Cold War put on hold for numerous reasons, not the least of which related to the inability of nuclear ICBM missiles to traverse the Arctic on their way to Russia or the US, each seeks to take advantage of the new found situation and lands. Discoveries made one at a time, the secret behind what has brought Earth to its flat Earth scenario is shocking.
It is also incredibly cheesy. I can respect entertainment for entertainment’s value, but when a relatively sober look at an alternate history Cold War reveals itself to be, well, what it is, it’s difficult to take the effort seriously. To put this another way, when a story which appears to have relevancy deteriorates into cartoon land, the question is begged: what was the point beyond a larff? Lovecraft fans, on the other hand, will love it.
Stross cannot be faulted for style, however. In fact, this is one of his more restrained, and therefore cohesive efforts. By holding back the gusto of lingoism, devil-may-care storytelling, and whatever idea pops into his mind at the moment, the novella benefits. It’s obvious there was an outline and a structure, allowing Stross to effectively deliver the narrative portion of the story. Likewise, a lot is written between the lines, which at least engages the reader, regardless of story outcome.
In the end, Missile Gap is an alternate physics/history/Earth scenario played out with the Cold War as the main motif. There are plenty of characters and scenes, all logically fitted together into a puzzle that is resolved adeptly but cheesily a la Lovecraft. I have read reviews that complain Stross did not develop the world enough. I would disagree; it is, in fact, very efficient getting from point a to b in engaging fashion. Some of the leg work must be done by the reader between the lines, but the picture created is concrete. Indeed it’s even clever. But to what end?