The Spider Strikes is the third story in Atoms for Peace (available for purchase at Amazon in paperback and multiple retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble as an ebook). Like the others in the collection, I wrote it with an eye to setting things up for (the still-unfinished) Brains From Outer Space. Specifically, this would introduce Steve Flanagan, my primary protagonist, and introduce him to Gwen Montgomery who appeared in the initial story in the collection. It proved a lot of work, because there was a lot to introduce.
For one thing, in the two years since Atoms for Peace, Gwen’s becoming a science investigator for the Technology and Science Commission. The federal government has decided that to avoid the kind of mad-science research that figured in the first story (or in movies such as I Was a Teenage Werewolf or Fiend Without a Face), researchers must apply for a federal license. The TSC reviews them, deciding thumbs up or down. This can be based on potential risks (nuclear research is very unlikely to pass muster) or the character of the applicant (will they follow the rule). The guys behind the TSC (Senators Jack Kennedy and Richard Dorman pushed the bill that created it) realized that some researchers might just go ahead unlicensed, or start exceeding parameters once they got the license. Someone needed to investigate and prevent that, so the TSC suddenly acquired an investigating arm.
While I don’t go into a lot of detail, I had to explain the basics. And then there was Steve, whose backstory is a lot more complicated than Gwen’s or Dani Taylor’s. He and his brother Tommy grew up in a tenement, got taken away by social workers (this was largely accepted practice until decades later when it began affecting middle-class Americans) and raised in an orphanage (their parents, by the 1950s, are both dead). Tommy was a good, quiet kid; Steve pushed back against bullies, including the bullies on the staff. He got beat up a lot and went for couple of short stays in reform school. After he realized the orphanage doctor was putting something bad in the shots he was giving the kids, he tried to smash all his equipment. That got him a long stay (what was in the injections? Well, that’s a key part of Brain).
Tommy got adopted by two Soviet agents who were caught working against the country. He disappeared. Steve, now all grown up, is determined to find him, somehow. While following up a trail in Philadelphia, he winds up helping Gwen against a killer robot spider. He doesn’t know it but his life path just changed …
One of the reasons Gwen recruits Steve to help her is that while some branches of Science Investigations allow women agents, they all insist on pairing them with men who can handle “the rough stuff.” Gwen is perfectly capable of handling trouble, but rules are rules; with her partner hospitalized early on, the only available alternative is a sexual harasser, so no. Telling her boss she’s found someone to handle the “rough stuff” so the harasser can stick to his current investigation solves that problem.
Throughout the book I’ve tried to acknowledge the sexism of the time without making it unpleasant to read. Hopefully I found the sweet spot (I feel better after reading Robert Jackson Bennett’s argument that “realism” isn’t a good reason to show lots of rape).
*A minor alt.history point is my reference to the computer company Eckert-Mauchly. It’s named for the inventors who built ENIAC, the original computer, but wound up losing control and credit for their work. In this timeline they hung on to both. Philadelphia’s “Engineers’ Row” will wind up becoming the Silicon Valley of this timeline.
*A true history detail is the derogatory “slopie” for the North Koreans (Steve’s a Korean War vet). It occurred to me people might think it’s some kind of mutant, but no, just racist slang of the day.
#SFWApro. Cover by Zakaria Nada, rights are mine.