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He skimmed along the tail of the wagon train, ‘landing on’ just ninety seconds after Gus’s arrestor hook had engaged the wire. Behind him, Jodi Kazan’s Skyhawk angled in on the final approach.

The Amtrak Wars book 1, Cloud Warrior, by Patrick Tilley, reviewed by Everard Cunion in October, 2014

The Skyhawks in the story have much in common with the naval attack fighter of that name used in the American war in Vietnam and in the Falklands war. They are single-seat, one-engine, lightweight attack aircraft. However, these Skyhawks – along with the aircraft carriers from which they operate and the society on whose behalf they fight – are the product of a restarted human civilisation 900 years after nuclear war rendered the surface of the earth radioactive.

So what? Aren’t post apocalyptic sci-fi stories two-a-penny? Maybe, but The Amtrak Wars series, of which the first volume was published in 1983, caught on with the reading public more than most. It features powered ultralight aircraft and hang gliding, which were still news then. Even today (2014) as a flying adventure that includes the never-ending conflict between intellectual rigour and stupidity, Cloud Warrior is a compelling story.

One of several paintings used as cover art for Cloud Warrior

One of several paintings used as cover art for Cloud Warrior

The Amtrak Federation is Dr. Strangelove‘s Wing Attack Plan R come to fruition. The story is set 900 years after exploding tactical nukes made the surface of the earth uninhabitable. Uninhabitable, that is, except for the hardy Plainfolk Mutes whose lifestyle and culture resemble those of the plains Indians more than a millennium before.

The Amtrak warriors set out from their underground cities in high-tech ‘wagon trains’ to pacify the overground. Each wagon train, with a drive unit at each end, includes a flight deck car stuffed with powered ultralights armed with air rifles and napalm bombs.

Cadillac’s sightless eyes rolled up under his lids. “The [iron] snake has two bellies filled with pipes that roar with hunger and are full of flame… [Snip..] They send power through its veins to make its body work. A power like the white fire from the sky. It gives life to the snake, it makes its eyes see, and turns its great iron feet.”

“Wheels,” said Mr Snow. “Probably powered by electric motors.”

Wichita linewoman

Dr. Strangelove pointed out that, to reproduce the race, you do not need anywhere near as many males as females. Therefore, each man in the underground city would be required to do heavy and varied duty in that regard. The Amtrak Federation takes that principle to an extreme.

There is plenty of flying action, but there is ground action too in the battle of the Now and Then River, which takes up a large portion of the book.

Ginny Green, the first lineman to clear the mud-slide on the right-hand bank took a bolt through the chest. The impact of the ten-inch long missile lifted her clean off her feet. Arms outstretched, her body did a sloppily executed back-flip and hit the ground like a sack of rivets.

Steve Brickman, a hot shot wingman whose ambitions seem to be thwarted by unknown elements inside the Federation, is shot down, seriously injured, and captured. He plans to escape by building a hang glider from materials scavenged from the several Skyhawks that the Mutes brought down that day. Ironically, a large contingent of the M’call clan – who shot him down — joins in to help.

Aided by Cadillac, Three Degrees, another skilled Mute with the apt name of Air Supply and a score or more of willing go-fers, Steve proceeded to construct a serviceable airframe.

Provenance

CFM Shadow close-up

CFM Shadow close-up

As science-fiction/fantasy often does, Cloud Warrior cannot help but document aspects of society at the time it was written; the height of the right-wing reaction in Britain and the USA.

The Skyhawk’s basic design is similar to that of the CFM Shadow, which first appeared in the same year as this novel (1983). The principal differences are the simpler design of the Skyhawk (tailless and swept wing) and the type of motor. The Shadow’s wing is straight (its airframe is based on the VJ-23 hang glider).

Instead of gasoline, the Skyhawk uses electricity supplied from solar panels covering the wings’ upper surfaces, as did–in real life–the Solar Challenger, which crossed the channel from France to England in 1983 on solar power, cruising at 12000 ft.

Artwork from Aerodynamics & Propulsion

Solar Challenger (artwork from my 1992 PC program ‘Aerodynamics & Propulsion’)


In the nineteenth century, the ‘white man’ spread his influence west across central North America–including the Red Indians’ hunting grounds–by horse-drawn wagon trains and by the expanding rail-road network, of which Amtrak is the most widely known operator.

The Mutes (mutants) of the Amtrak Wars are clearly based on the Red Indians who alternately fought and fraternised with the white settlers. The basic defensive manoeuvre both of horse-drawn wagon trains and of Amtrak Federation wagon trains is to form a circle. However, the weapons (on both sides) are different. Mute tactics are those of the Red Indians. Here, for example, in the battle of the Now and Then river, the wagon train The Lady From Louisiana has its wheels immobilised by debris from a flash flood that struck what had been, an hour before, a dry river bed:

Captain Clay, whose own small command group had been trying to coordinate the action while killing its own share of M’Call Bears, was slow to realise that the lead flank elements had overshot the five hundred yard radius perimeter line ordered by Hartmann. Thus, when the main force Mutes hit and overwhelmed the two eight-man up-river squads and swept down the winding muddy bed towards The Lady, the bulk of his force was spread all over the landscape.

Nowadays you can look up the original battle between the Indians and the US Army on the web. Tilley’s research, before the internet became a world-wide web, was undoubtedly more laborious.

The Vietnam war had much in common with the Indian wars. Skyhawks dropping napalm on Iron Age villagers are familiar to those of us who remember the 1960s.

…[a] fourteen-year-old Bear whose left leg had, in places, been burned through to the bone. He placed his hand on the boy’s forehead and put the point of his knife on the slim chest… [Snip…]

“Will I go to the High Ground, Old One?”

“Yes,” said Mr Snow. “When the sun goes through the western door, you will walk the golden islands in the sky and when you are rested you will come again to our people as a child of the earth and do mighty things in our name.”

Criticisms

The use of magic can render a story pointless. Whenever the hero is in a jam, all he need do is wave a magic wand or whip out a sonic screwdriver – and the required thunderstorm or earthquake happens. (Both those phenomena come to the rescue in this story.) However, while the Red Indians and Vietnamese might have believed in magic, I never heard of any evidence that they had a working version. To be fair, belief in the supernatural can cause strong enough psychological effects as to affect the individual to the same extent that the actual magical effect would have. But thunderstorms and earthquakes? I don’t think so.

However, I found that the book carried me along with its adventure and wanting to know what happens next, which more than compensates for that particular shortcoming.

Cover of another book in the Amtrak wars series, Blood River

Cover of another book in the Amtrak wars series

There is too much ‘telling.’ What I mean is Tilley explains things in narrative instead of getting the characters’ actions to illustrate the point he is trying to make. The result is that, in places (fortunately not too many places) it reads like notes you would make while preparing a novel.

Tilley was, it seems to me, in two minds about whether to fit Steve’s hang glider with an engine and propeller or leave it as a pure glider. Steve fits the engine, takes it off, and puts it back on… It would have made a simpler and faster-paced story if the whole pointless power unit was omitted.

The book ends with the story unfinished. It is fair enough in that there is a whole series of Amtrak wars novels to read, but (in my opinion) the others are not as good as Cloud Warrior.

Dark Visions

Although this review is about the first novel, I feel it worth mentioning that, if you do get into the whole series, you might like Dark Visions: An Illustrated Guide to the Amtrak Wars by Patrick Tilley and Fernando Fernandez.

Cadillac wearing Steve’s flight suit (for some reason)

Cadillac wearing Steve’s flight suit (for some reason)

Dark Visions came out part way through the series, so it covers only the first three books. However, it contains many more illustrations than those provided as cover art on the novels, even when you include the different covers used on both hardback and soft back editions.

One double-page spread features a set of two-dimensional looking figures illustrating the uniforms of the Amtrak Federation. The book’s main content, set out as a dictionary titled People/Places/Things, includes a description of each role.

Uniform code of military justice...

Uniform code of military justice…

Provo (TR) Provost-Marshal. A member of P-M Division, the uniformed branch of the Federation’s military police force, whose task is to maintain order and discipline at all levels… [Snip…] Basic rank is Deputy P-M (D-P) rising to State Provost-Marshal. Popularly known as shit-heads

Conclusion

I do not know whether Patrick Tilley is a pilot, but if he is not, he has researched well. His descriptions of flying the Skyhawk remind me of a familiarisation hop I took in the back seat of a powered ultralight some years ago. I found the hang gliding less convincing, but it is likely perfectly OK for most readers.

The technology of the Amtrak Wars is refreshing because it is (as far as I know) unique, yet familiar. A wagon train that is also an armoured personnel carrier and an aircraft carrier! And hunter-gatherers whose names and folklore are derived from 20th century western civilisation, such as Seven-Up, Burger-King, and Awesome Wells…

Men of the Old Time, said Mr Snow, were obsessed with speed. They had built a huge crossbow that had shot a bolt with men inside it all the way to the moon. They had other bolts with wings like huge arrowheads that could cross the sky faster than the sun… [Snip…] And so, through their ignorance and hatred, the world had died in the War of the Thousand Suns.

Publication info

The Amtrak Wars book 1, Cloud Warrior, by Patrick Tilley, is published by Sphere Books, 1983, ISBN 0-7221-8516-2

Dark Visions: An Illustrated Guide to the Amtrak Wars by Patrick Tilley and Fernando Fernandez is published by Sphere Books, 1988, ISBN 0 7474 0270 1

Related (internal links)

Among friends, my review of The Alien Way by Gordon R. Dickson, 1965

Cloud warrior in Hang gliding 2014 part 1; contains another quote from the book (about Section Leader Jodi Kazan).

Science fiction/fantasy in Plastic Models > Various: Photos of my 1/48th scale Amtrak Federation Sky Rider Mark 2

See also (external link)

The Talisman Prophecy: The story is (or was in 2009) being made into a movie.

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