Monday, September 12, 2011

Under the Shield—Stephen Kotowych

The genesis of “Under the Shield” was my own realization that I knew
far too much about Nikola Tesla.

I’ve been writing a novel that involves Nikola Tesla, so I’ve read
under-the-shieldpretty much every biography of Tesla over the last couple of years (asa former grad student in History, I feel uncomfortable unless I can
cite my sources.) So given the chance, I will talk your ear off about
the man, and what a tragedy it is that he and his scientific accomplishment are not better known. He should be mentioned in the same breath as Einstein and Thomas Edison as a giant who helped shape the modern world (the phrase used by several of his biographers—that Tesla invented the 20th Century—is not far off.) Yet if Tesla is remembered at all today it’s more for eccentricity than electricity (he gave the world alternating current, amongst other innovations.)

Now, I won’t deny that Tesla had his peculiarities. He really did have
under-the-shieldphobias and neuroses focused on (amongst other things) human hair and pearls on women, as I mention in the story. And Tesla didn’t do his legacy any favors toward the end of his life when, once a year on his birthday, he would invite reporters to interview him. The newsmen were rewarded with fantastic headlines about Tesla’s theory on how to split the world in two like an egg using its own resonance, or the death ray he’d been tinkering with, which would end war for all time.

These interviews would invariably end with Tesla’s assurances that the designs were complete, the testing almost finished, and that all he
needed was funding to make the devices into practical realities (Tesla
was forever in need of cash—making and spending several fortunes in
his life, before dying utterly destitute in 1943.)

So I realized that I knew all this stuff about him, much of which
wouldn’t even feature in the novel. What do you do with that as a
writer? A short story, of course.

What would have happened, I wondered, if Tesla had found the money he said he needed? What if his backer had all the money in the world—the United States military—and began to develop his fantastic
technologies. How would the world have changed?

The departure point that starts off this alternate history is the
explosion in Siberia’s Tunguska river valley in 1908. Now, the
under-the-shieldincident was likely caused by the air burst of a meteoroid or comet
fragment (some have theorized a small black hole collapsing) but in
the darker corners of the internet (the moon-landing-was-a-hoax-fluoride-in-tap-water-is-CIA-mind-control kind of corners) people have postulated that the Tunguska explosion was a test of Tesla’s death ray. And if it had been, I wondered, what would have been the result?

The rest of the story unfolded from there.

As I wrote and began to work out the implications of my “What if?” I
noticed certain patterns emerging in the story that to my mind echoed not only the Cold War, but also the War on Terror. The novel I’m writing about Tesla also involves his close friend Mark Twain, and was reminded of his quote that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it
does rhyme.

So “Under the Shield” tries to examine some of the motivations of
those who employ terror as a weapon, and of those who sympathize with them; of those who might be radicalized by geo-political
circumstances; of those people who suffer an unjust assumption of
guilt-by-association, simply because they share the same ethnicity or
religion as those we call our enemies. And I wanted to try and find
out how it feels to be torn between feelings of duty and loyalty to
two opposing worlds, and what it’s like to consider doing the wrong
thing for the right reason.

Once you’ve had a chance to read the story I hope you’ll be in touch
at my blog ( and let me know how you think I did.

- Stephen Kotowych

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