By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker, Tom Kasey and Jack Steel)
I’ve always been interested in how writers come up with ideas for books. I remember reading a very long time ago that Agatha Christie created one of her gentle murder mysteries with the title Why didn’t they ask Evans? simply because one of her acquaintances put down the book he had been reading with an expression of disgust and uttered that line as a comment on the novel. She also famously remarked that all you needed for a novel was ‘a title and a plot – the rest is mere spadework’.
I imagine that in many cases, an author is simply struck by a line of text or an overheard remark or some other entirely unrelated piece of information and that starts a train of thought which culminates in a book.
The idea for one of my ‘James Barrington’ novels – Foxbat – arrived in a somewhat circuitous fashion when I still had a proper job in the Royal Navy. Some of my work involved the investigation of incidents involving military aircraft. As part of this I had to study classified documents relating to Russian aircraft, and one incident in particular stuck in my mind.
This was the landing at Japan’s Hakodate airport of a Russian fighter pilot named Viktor Belenko, who arrived there in a somewhat spectacular fashion flying the USSR’s fastest combat aircraft, the MiG-25 Foxbat. Just as an aside, the NATO convention for naming aircraft means that all fighters are given a name beginning with the letter ‘F’, like Fulcrum, Flogger, Foxhound and so on, while bombers are given names starting with a ‘B’, for example Bison, Badger and Blinder.
Anyway, the Foxbat’s arrival was the most significant intelligence coup of the period, because it meant that the Americans could reduce the aircraft to its component parts and properly assess its capabilities, which they duly did, before returning it to the Russians. The reports – several of which were then classified at Top Secret and above – made interesting reading. In particular, the American experts were surprised at how primitive its avionics were, because they still used valve technology instead of solid-state circuitry. They were also surprised at how fast it was. The Mach meter was redlined at 2.8, but on at least one occasion Israeli radar had tracked a MiG-25 at Mach 3.2.
But in summary, the Americans were relieved by what they had discovered, and basically wrote off the aircraft as fast but clumsy, and decided it probably wouldn’t be a match in air combat for any of the current US air superiority fighters.
It was only some years later that I saw another report which pointed out that the Russians hadn’t built the MiG-25 to fight against any American aircraft, and explained just how clever the design actually was. The authors of that report concluded that the Foxbat employed valve technology for a very good reason. The aircraft was designed to survive a nuclear exchange, and when an atomic bomb explodes the electromagnetic pulse, the EMP, fries solid-state circuitry, but has no effect on valves. In short, the reason for the basic avionics and the very high speed of the MiG-25 was because its primary task was the interception of ICBMs in their terminal phase, when they’re essentially freefalling towards their targets.
Whether or not the aircraft, even equipped with the latest missile systems, would have been able to achieve this tasking is something of a moot point, and as far as I know the Russians never officially confirmed this analysis.
But that possibility set me thinking about using the aircraft in a book, and I decided that the obvious country to make use of the MiG-25’s abilities was North Korea, whose leadership apparently believed they could take on America – and win. Granted, at the time the book was set, one of those leaders – Kim Il-sung –was dead, though still officially in charge, as he still is today in fact, as the ‘Eternal President’, and his son Kim Jong-il, the then current ruler, was very possibly insane.
That idea was the basis of the book. Just in passing, I had to do quite a lot of research about the North Korean regime and the situation inside the country – or what little was known about it – and I very quickly came to the conclusion that, although the leadership was deluded and the people there really little more than slaves, the country’s military ability and defensive capability is actually very impressive. If America did ever decide to invade North Korea, they would find it almost impossible to prevail without resorting to nuclear weapons.
Compared to taking on North Korea, Vietnam would just have seemed like a walk in the park.
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