Richard Paolinelli

Superversive Sunday Spotlight: Ken Prescott

Welcome to this week’s Superversive Sunday Spotlight. Every week we will chat with a Superversive author that you really should be reading.

This week we welcome Superversive author, Ken Prescott:

How long have you been writing?

I began writing in 1989, during a Mediterranean deployment with a Marine Corps Hornet squadron on a tramp aircraft carrier. I was “working” 12-hour days as an aircraft maintenance administration clerk—in reality, I had next to nothing to do for about six of those hours, so I started writing fiction on the shop computer to keep myself occupied and sane. The final product was probably the worst novel ever written in 1989—it had every last sin of bad fiction before it, and I am confident that I even invented some new ones. Thankfully, the core plot of an East Berlin Marine embassy guard having to get over the Berlin Wall was overtaken by events right after I got back from post-deployment leave, so I just tossed the manuscript in the trash and never tried to submit it. I’ve been writing on and off since then.

Which writers inspire you?

Tom Clancy and the late Stuart Slade are strong inspirations, in terms of researching the nuts and bolts—describing the tools of the trade, the tradesmen, and the operational environment as accurately as possible. Robert Heinlein’s heroes were, for the most part, variations on the theme of The Competent Man, and I find myself writing highly competent heroes. Frederick Forsyth is a master of plotting—I am nowhere near his level, but I keep studying his work. David Drake is an influence in that he doesn’t shy away from showing what happens when metal hits flesh; I try to avoid sanitizing the effects of violence, direct or indirect, short or long term.

So, what have you written?

My one commercially published work is Not By Sight, a Cold War espionage/covert operations thriller. The plot revolves around Dennis Sandoval, a clandestine operator dropped into East Germany to rescue a Bible smuggler and thus allow the May 1988 Moscow Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev to go forward without incident. Naturally, things go very, very wrong.

I’ve also recently published a guest piece at Matthew Quinn’s blog, The World According to Quinn, where I discuss my notions of SDI-Punk, a genre that I describe as, “It’s morning in America, it’s high noon in the Cold War, and America is on the HIGH-WA-AY TO . . . THE DAN-GER ZONE!” (Admit it: you sang along with me there.) It’s an ’80s retrofuturism akin to Steampunk or Dieselpunk, with the centerpiece being advanced aerospace technologies—Stealth, the Strategic Defense Initiative, cheap access to space (which, back then, was coming Real Soon Now), and the legendary Aurora hypersonic spyplane. All this is embedded within the entire 1980s zeitgeist of Yuppies, the rise of CNN, corporate raiding, big hair and shoulder pads, grand and glorious benefit concerts for worthy (or mostly worthy) causes, media-induced moral panics, and MTV actually playing music videos. Imagine William Gibson writing in the Tom Clancy Cold War technothriller genre, with Jack Nicholson’s Joker asking where America gets all of those wonderful toys.

What draws you to Superversive writing?

I’ve always been what Sarah Hoyt described as an “Odd.” It’s easy to get very depressed and nihilistic when you’re like that. I was fortunate in that my whole family was and is a bunch of Odds, so I thought I was normal and my classmates were the weirdos. I was introduced to reading at a young age and was a full-blown biblioholic by the time I was in high school. Fiction became an escape from a very weird world — because, as Mark Twain put it, fiction has to make sense — but I found as time went on that the escape was less and less because writers and editors were putting out more nihilistic material. Now, the espionage genre as a whole can easily become depressing and nihilistic — spying and covert ops are often nasty, dirty, and dangerous work — but it doesn’t have to be. People don’t go into that business because they hate the world; they generally go into it because they love their country and wish to protect it. I decided to take some of the depressing and nihilistic tropes of covert operations fiction and subvert them into something uplifting and inspiring. So, I built Dennis Sandoval, an extremely competent hero who’s had something horrible happen in his life as a result of a decision he made. It was the only decision he could make at the time. He accepts the consequences of that decision because, to him, it serves a higher purpose — not an abstraction like “patriotism” or “national security,” but something very real that is extremely important to him. He isn’t broken, he refuses to be broken, and he’s still going to fight the good fight.

What are you working on at the minute?

I am working on the sequel to Not By Sight, tentatively titled Knight’s Fork. It will go further into the background of Dennis Sandoval through his work with another operator, and it will have some SDI-Punk elements. Hilarity shall ensue—for varying values of hilarity, of course. Beyond that, I am planning two more books to bring Sandoval’s character arc to a proper close. In the longer run, I am working on an idea for a space opera inspired by the 1943-44 Central Pacific campaign, and a couple of SDI-Punk concepts.

Do you read much and if so who are your favorite authors?

I do read a lot. Aside from the authors I’ve mentioned above, I’ve always appreciated Don Pendleton’s original Executioner series—each novel is a complete story, with meaningful characterization and plot, in just 200 pages. That’s something to remember in today’s door-stop novel (or even trilogies-of-doorstops) world, especially when spare time is scarce. Dean Ing’s Ted Quantrill and Aerospace Systems trilogies have excellent blending of tropes from speculative fiction and espionage; they’ve aged very well considering they were written roughly from 1979-1992. Jerry Pournelle’s entire body of work, fiction and non-fiction alike, was always thought-provoking; when I was a Marine, I always had his There Will Be War anthologies in my seabag when I went on deployment. David Gledhill’s Phantom Air Combat series is based on his experiences in the RAF in Germany during the endgame of the Cold War; they are very well-written, and give you a feel for what it was like in that time and place. On the nonfiction side, I tend to read a lot military history. Norman Friedman is one of my favorite military historians; he gives you an overview of how technology, tactics, operations, and strategy all co-evolved.

How can readers discover more about you and your work?

They can check out my book’s Facebook page, where I (very irregularly) post about my writing or related topics in Cold War history (my New Year’s resolution is to post at least once per week to that page in 2021), or they can visit my book’s Amazon page.

Thanks for sharing Ken. Be sure to check out Ken’s books and be sure to check back next Sunday for our next chat with a Superversive author.

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