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Dance of the Vampires


This is a fun little account of the origins of one of my favorite Tom Clancy sequences; the attack on the USS Nimitz in Red Storm Rising:

The level of granularity required to produce a credible account of modern naval warfare is daunting. The fighting usually occurs at great distances, the combatants beyond visual range of one another. In Harpoon, the interplay between sensors, targets, and the actual launching of weapons is intricate and multi-layered, and, as Bond’s referee notes reveal, taxing to track even with the aid of a computer. The referee must know, for example, which ships and planes are “radiating” electronic emissions (i.e., actively utilizing their sensor capabilities), since these emissions are subject in turn to detection by hostile forces who may or may not be radiating emissions of their own. Each set of sensors has unique capabilities and characteristics, and attempting to develop a narrative account of their performance absent an explicit background model is all but impossible. Thus the course tracks and calculations required by the game became invaluable scaffolding for the prose depictions in the novel, many of which are given over to the elaborate task of plotting the location of the American task force: “The raid commander compared this datum with that from the reconnaissance satellite. Now he had two pieces of information. The Americans’ position three hours ago was sixty miles south of the estimated plot for the Hawkeye [aircraft]. The Americans probably had two of them up, northeast and northwest of the formation … So the carrier group was right about … here” (223).

Red Storm Rising gives us an explicit linkage between plot in the narrative sense and a “plot” as a means of navigation, with both of those meanings facilitated by the Harpoon game system. The novel is thus not only a landmark of a certain type of genre fiction, but an artifact of procedural approaches to fiction writing.

We did something similar in my (as yet unpublished) book on the Air Force, gaming out how procurement and warfighting would look different given alternative organizational assumptions and so forth. The nice thing about this kind of approach from a fictional standpoint is that while each game ends with a particular outcome, the contingent points of the exercise are clear and can be put to use in service of whatever the larger narrative demands.

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