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Weapons of unspeakable madness

By Dave Menendez
Saturday, February 12, 2005, at 4:35 PM

Summary: Hey, you got your Cthulhu mythos in my Cold War! Or, What’s scarier than an ICBM?

A recent article about H.P. Lovecraft at Salon reminded me of something I’ve been meaning to mention.

For a long time, I knew the Cthulhu mythos came from secondary or tertiary sources, mostly parodies from Superguy and other amateur writing. Recently, I came across an on-line archive of Mr Lovecraft’s work and I’ve found the original materials to be something of a let down. I’m not sure if it’s because I had the wrong expectations or that his writing doesn’t live up to his ideas.

In any case, this isn’t my point. Last September, on the advice of a post at Crooked Timber, I read Charlie Stross’s novella A Colder War, which is available on-line and answers the question, “What if the Cold War had involved the threat of nuclear destruction and the unknowable power of the Old Ones?” This is one of the few stories I’ve read which actually managed to instill a sense of dread in me, possibly because it isn’t that implausible, once you get past the central conceit. (Alternately, I might just be reading the wrong books, and nothing here will unnerve people steeped in horror.)

In the story, one of the weapons the United States has devised to counter the Soviet threat and “reduce the risk of a unilateral preemption escalating to an exchange of weakly godlike agencies” is XK-PLUTO, a sort of cross between an unmanned bomber and a guided missile. Propelled by a nuclear-heated ramjet, it files around enemy territory below radar range, delivering thermonuclear bombs to multiple targets before smashing itself—and its reactor—into its final target. Even its shockwave is potentially deadly.

Now that in itself is a pretty scary idea. Want to know something scarier? It isn’t fictional. Last month, Mark Frauenfelder pointed to an article about the Supersonic Low-Altitude Missile (SLAM), “a locomotive-size missile that would travel at near-treetop level at three times the speed of sound, tossing out hydrogen bombs as it roared overhead.” The project to build its engine was named “Pluto”, which came to refer to the weapon itself.

We never actually built one, thankfully. A proof-of-concept test showed that the engine could work, but the problem of flight-testing an unstoppable nuclear death-missile—and the development of ICBMs—sank the project. Its designs lie dreaming deep in the Air Force archives, until the stars are right….