Friday, May 19, 2017

And I’m learning Chinese, says Wernher von Braun

Anarquía by Brad Linaweaver and J. Kent Hastings
Book Review by Michael Isenberg

In 1924, the twelve-year old Wernher von Braun built a rocket-propelled car by mounting fireworks on his toy wagon. He released it into the streets of Berlin, where it caused a major traffic tie up. Von Braun was briefly arrested until his father came to get him. He went on to a notorious career in rocket science, first building weapons for Nazi Germany, then putting a man on the moon for the United States. His dubious loyalties made him the subject of some biting satire by Tom Lehrer.

Some twelve years after the incident with the wagon, Mrs. Fritz Mandl, star of the controversial movie Ecstasy, left her Nazi-sympathizer husband. He was a controlling bastard and she was convinced he would never let her pursue her film career. And so, one evening, after a dinner party where she had convinced him to let her wear all her jewelry, she disguised herself in her maid’s clothes and slipped out of the house, into the streets of Vienna. She eventually ended up in Hollywood, where she took on the stage name Hedy Lamarr (no, that’s not Hedley) and became one of the leading stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age. On the side, she invented a frequency-hopping technique to prevent enemy forces in World War II from jamming the radio controls of Allied torpedoes. Today that technique powers our mobile phones.

In their 2004 alternate history, Anarquía, Brad Linaweaver and J. Kent Hastings ask what if Dr. von Braun and Mrs. Mandl had taken a slight detour along the way? What if instead of merely tying up traffic, von Braun’s wagon had exploded and killed a woman, someone from high society who’s death couldn’t be ignored, resulting in the unraveling of the von Braun family and a stay in Juvenile Hall for young Wernher? What if, during the “Great Escape” from Vienna, Hedy had run into von Braun on the train, and they became so taken with each other that their futures took a very different path from what the history books teach us.

The short version is that von Braun never works for the Nazis, Lamarr takes a break from Hollywood, and they both end up in middle of the Spanish Civil War. There, von Braun puts his rockets, and Hedy her radio expertise (not to mention her skill at inspiring the morale of the troops) in the service of neither the Nazi-backed Franco, nor the Soviet-backed Republicans, but rather, the anarcho-syndicalist, José Buenaventura Durruti—leading to a very different outcome for Spain. Along the way, they run into a host of 1930s celebrities, including Ernest Hemingway, Ayn Rand, George Orwell, and G.K.Chesterton.

Some reviewers criticized Anarquía for putting too much effort into weaving the various celebrities into the narrative, even when it had little to do with the plot. But IMHO that was what made the book fun and entertaining—and what’s wrong with a little entertainment, especially as we head into beach-reading season? (We finally are having our first stint of warm weather here in New England). Hanging out with Hemingway in Spain felt like I was part of one of his novels, and Linaweaver and Hastings captured Rand to a tee—the first thing she said to Hedy Lamarr on meeting her, without pleasantry or preamble, was “They tell me that you have a good mind.” Granted, I’m partial to an alternate timeline where Rand’s husband cheated on her, instead of the other way around (karma), and where her screenplay Red Pawn actually got made into a movie. It’s a compelling story which in the real world never saw any sort of screen, silver or otherwise. (How ‘bout it, Hollywood?)

Adding to the fun are lots of great dialog (Chesterton: “It’s not as easy to be anti-Catholic as you think. Sometimes it requires a career in the Church.”) and plenty of Easter eggs for readers who are paying attention. These include the lines, “I’m learning Chinese!” and “‘That’s not my department,’ said Wernher von Braun.” (If you don’t get it, see the video, above). There’s also a mention of one Rick Blaine, who of course was Humphrey Bogart’s character in Casablanca.

However, Anarquía isn’t all fun and games. It has some serious points to make. One is historical: the Spanish Civil War was very much a rehearsal for World War II, a proving ground for the Nazis and the Soviets to try out the latest technologies of killing, especially air power, with devastating effects.

Another point is philosophical. Linaweaver and Hastings explore the psychology of a German fighter pilot as he strafes the innocents at Guernica: “Thinking about the larger picture always helped on a mission. Ideology made Ernst feel better as he shot down children and watched them fall twitching in his sights. Ideology was not a luxury. It was a necessity when you had to kill people.” The authors contrast that with the libertarian anarchism of Lamarr and von Braun. Their conclusion: when intelligent people are able to innovate in an atmosphere of freedom, they beat the totalitarian a$$holes every time.

Michael Isenberg is editor in chief of Nerds who Read and author of Full Asylum, a James Bond parody with presidential politics and hospital gowns. Available at

No comments:

Post a Comment