A man who is able to seamlessly blend in with the native cultures of Siberia is sent by the US to infiltrate a hidden Russian base and escape with crucial information on what the Russians are up to.
Can you guess the title? If you guessed Kolymsky Heights, you’d be correct. But if you said Atomsk, written 40 years prior, you’d also be right. In this post I’ll be discussing both books and their similarities and differences.
Atomsk by Carmichael Smith
In 1949 and at the dawning of the Cold War a book titled Atomsk appeared, written by Paul Linebarger under the pen name Carmichael Smith. If it’s not the first Cold War based spy thriller, it’s one of the first.
Linebarger is best known as the author of several science fiction novels under the pen name Cordwainer Smith. Linebarger had a whole different career beyond his writing. He grew up in China and his godfather was Sun Yat-Sen the first president of the Republic of China. Upon moving to Europe, he became a well regarded professor of East Asian studies and was a prominent figure in military intelligence during World War II. He also consulted with the CIA and wrote Psychological Warfare, the book used by the military to train on Psyops for decades.
The book’s story follows Major Dugan, a spy of Aleut background, who is sent into Siberia to find the hidden base called “Atomsk.” His goal? Sneak into the base, determine what the Russians are working on, then sneak back out in such a way that let the Russian know that the Americans were now aware of their secret project.
When we first meet Dugan, he’s a cipher. He was undercover with the Japanese during World War II and is one of the United States’ most successful spies. His features allow him to pass for someone of many different racial backgrounds and growing up he learned how to conform in order to fit in with any group. This has also made him extremely guarded and slow to open up to others about his true thoughts.
“Dugan-the-Japanese must have been just as believable as Dugan-the-American; Japanese must have liked him because he was Japanese; otherwise he would have been found out and killed. How could she like a man who existed only by virtue of his own command, who played perpetually on a stage of make-believe? What was he, anyway? Dugan was no name for a man with black hair, black eyes, olive skin-or was it? Was he a Turk or a Greek, an Italian or an Egyptian, or (wildest chance of all, this) simply an American?”
The story begins with his briefing and slow burning romance with a female officer before turning to how he gets into the USSR and makes his way to the secret Siberian complex. The best part of the book follows his slow progress across Russia as he takes on various guises, from an Uighur to a Russian officer, in order to get into the base.
Although Dugan as a character follows many of the superspy tropes, including having an extremely convenient moment of eavesdropping, what makes this story unique is when Smith switches perspectives. He shows how the people Dugan meets view his various guises throughout his journey into the heart of Russia. It gives Smith the opportunity to dive into what his real subject seems to be – appearances and how our perception of people can shape reality.
While Atomsk is a spy novel with all the typical trappings, the author seems more interested in sneaking in discussions on ways to peacefully coexist.
“Dugan was protesting, “You mustn’t hate the Russians. If you do have to fight them, hating them is no use, medically or psychologically. It reduces your own efficiency.” “And you throw your trump away,” said Swanson. “You know it, too?” Dugan asked the question quickly, eagerly. “You mean,” said Swanson, “that liking people is the only way to win wars, or even better, to get out of them? Certainly. Any scientist will tell you that. America will get sick and weak if it hates. That’s why I’m sorry I hate the Russians right now. I hope I’ll get over it. I’ve got to. If we have humanness on our side, we can be muddled and mixed up and argumentative, and still come out right. If that’s what you mean by knowing it, too, I know it. But the Army doesn’t. Just try to tell them they ought to like their enemies.” Swanson sounded defiant. Dugan sighted Swanson over the top of his glass. “We can’t change everything, doctor. I’m alive right now, because I liked the Japanese while I was doublecrossing them and making their plans go haywire, as far as I dared.””
Love vs. Hate? Sounds just as relevant in our modern times as it did back in the 40’s.
There are also some very perceptive thoughts on spying as a whole. This next quote could easily have appeared in a le Carré novel and was written when few others were adding such depth to their spy thrillers.
“He would, he suspected, have been dead or heartbroken or imprisoned long ago if he had had to stay in the United States. Yet comfortable people, in their unbelievably safe and friendly homes, might well turn the pages of a book or magazine and wish that they too could be spies for awhile. To be a bad spy meant being dead, or humiliated. To be a middling spy meant that you went on for a while, like “Captain Stearns,” until somebody a little smarter than yourself came along and killed you. But to be a good spy meant that you were willing to go to war with the universe, willing to abandon the decent good things of life for a road which led away from reason. How many people had he killed thus far, on his way to Atomsk? He could not count them and be sure. He knew, with a deep unhealing sense of pain, that his ability to forget killing was itself bad, a flaw in himself, and that it was worse than the killing.”
In the overall view of Linebarger’s work, Atomsk is viewed as an interesting failure before he went on to more layered work in science fiction. However it deserves a bit more credit than that. World War II was still quite fresh for readers and Linebarger had zeroed in on what the next great conflict would be, the US vs. USSR. Although there are a certain amount of unbelievable moments, there is actually very little violence and he seems more interested in the effect spying has on his agent than any action heroics.
His daughter runs a wonderful website dedicated to all of his novels that I highly recommend checking out. When I contacted her, she wasn’t sure why her father pivoted from thrillers to the science fiction for which he became better known, but she did see quite a bit of him in Atomsk. If you’ve never read it, it’s a fast read and worth searching out the inexpensive Kindle edition for an early version of the Cold War spy story.
Kolymsky Heights by Lionel Davidson
“In the school atlas the long range of peaks showed up in purple, with only a general title: “Kolymsky Heights.” A tremendous journey. He didn’t know if a bobik could do it. And this was a Mickey Mouse bobik, untried, put together in a cave.
But if he couldn’t?”
Here’s where it gets interesting. Over forty years later, thriller author Lionel Davidson wrote what some have called the definitive thriller – Kolymsky Heights. It’s a wonderful book, but if you’ve read Atomsk, you’ll find some striking similarities. In each book the protagonist is a native of the Northwestern territories of Canada. They have the unique ability to blend in with a wide variety of ethnicities. They are sent by the military undercover to Siberia to get into a secret base to determine what those wily Russians are up to.
I’m not saying there was direct word for word plagiarism here, I’ve read both and didn’t see any overlapping descriptions or dialogue. It’s more of a similarity of plot, say two jazz musicians playing the same riff in two completely different ways. It’s enjoyable to see the ways they are similar and the ways they are different.
The protagonist of Kolymsky Heights is Johnny Porter, a member of the Gitksan tribe, a group that is based in British Columbia not far from the Aleutian Islands that are part of Dugan’s background. Similarly Porter has a knowledge of multiple languages and is able to disguise himself quite easily. However, where Dugan is a spy who is sent as a willing participant, Porter is reluctant to drop everything to do the bidding of the US government. He fought the government for the rights of the native Canadian population and was looked at as a radical by the establishment. We see a much more straightforward and blunt distrust of the government that was possible in the 1980’s but would have been shocking in Atomsk, a book coming on the heels of World War II.
The book’s MacGuffin, what Porter is sent to find out, is the weakest part of the book. A scientist in the secret Siberian research facility has been working on improving the intelligence of apes and got a message out to the CIA that he would be willing to provide Porter information about what he is doing. Overall, it’s a rather ludicrous setup that never makes any sense, but once past that, the book takes off and doesn’t look back.
Similar to Dugan, Porter works his way closer and closer to the facility taking on a number of different identities and blending in with the local population. He also manages to find time to fall in love which leads to further complications when he later needs to make his escape. However, the details of how he gets there diverge from Atomsk. Where Dugan gets airdropped into China and poses as a Russian soldier left behind as the Russian army left, in Kolymsky Heights, Porter takes a freighter and then makes his way to shore.
There’s a great scene where Porter shows his strength and ruthlessness. He has worked his way on to a freighter that will get him to Russia when the ship’s bosun decides to make an example of him and show him who is in charge –
“He kicked him as hard as he could, and when the man grunted and held himself, he chopped him in the neck and kicked his feet away, sending him crashing to the deck again. Then he jumped on him with both boots. Then he knelt beside the bosun.
“Bosun,” he said humbly. “Leave me alone. I’m a hard man. I fought many fights, very dirty, and I always win. Pick on me, and I’ll cripple you for life. . . . They say I’m maybe crazy. Okay, I’ve done crazy things and I’ve done time, it’s there in my papers. But it’s only when people pick on me. I can’t take that, Bosun. You understand me?”
In each book both men make it into their respective targets but again, the methods and results are quite different. Kolymsky Heights culminates in a long sequence where Porter, having taken on the cover identity of a driver near the secret facility has built his own truck, called a “bobik,” out of spare parts he has managed to smuggle out of the camp his is working in, makes his way across the vast Siberian wilderness to the Bering Strait.
“[T]here it was: end of the peninsula, Cape Dezhnev. End of the peninsula but not the map, or of Russia. For the deeper knowledge of Kolymsky students the school atlas showed the boundary of Russia, and of its nearest neighbor. The boundary was in the sea, eighty-five kilometers wide at this point: the Bering Strait. The neighbors had forty-two and a half kilometers each, and the boundary ran through the middle. It ran between two islands. The Greater Diomede Island was Russian, the Lesser Diomede American. Only four kilometers between them . . .”
The Strait is the shortest distance between the Russia and Alaska and when frozen offers a way to freedom. Compared to Atomsk, where Dugan has a much easier time getting out of the country and we see flashes of his various interactions with the local population,
the journey out of Russia for Porter is the biggest set piece of the book. Porter has the entire army chasing him as he attempts to make it back to the US.
Kolymsky Heights author, Davidson, was an interesting character. He only wrote a handful of books and none of them fell neatly into the spy or even thriller category. They were adventure stories where the lead character got caught up in a different world with some quasi-mystical aspects. Even if the stories were fantastical, they were still grounded in reality and were so different, you couldn’t put them down. He lived in Britain before moving to Israel. Among his other books were The Rose of Tibet and The Menorah Men, both of which were later turned into films.
His works have seen a recent resurgence with a reprint of Kolymsky Heights carrying a rave pull quote from Philip Pullman. It was announced earlier in the year that plans were afoot to adapt Kolymsky Heights for television. According to his son, he isn’t aware of him being knowing of Atomsk and wrote Kolymsky Heights while working through the loss of his wife. It does have a sense of loneliness and grief throughout, especially in the professor character who is the cause of the instigating action. I encourage folks to visit his website that looks at his father’s work. Both Davidson’s and Linebarger’s children are doing the honorable job keeping the memory of their father’s work alive.
I recommend everyone to search out both novels. Although similar in concept, both are interesting reads in vastly different ways.
I’ll leave with a quote from Atomsk that feels as true now as it did then –
“The visit to Atomsk showed that the Russian people are a proud and lovable people. They are kind to one another. Their present political system is extremely tyrannical and oppressive. It is only the good humor and patience of the common people of Russia which permits such a system to survive. A less admirable people would have died under such oppression; a more liberty-minded people would have revolted. It is the personal conclusion of the observer that the freedom of Russia is the hope of the world. If the Russian people escape the deceptive propaganda and police suppression of the Communist dictatorship, they will contribute mightily to the peace and culture of the world. I’ll leave that in, Major. I really mean it.”
“Thank you,” said Dugan, “I want to say that. The government is rotten but the people are wonderful. Czars and Stalins come and go, but the Russian people live on.”
Special thanks to Jeremy Duns for a consult on what does and does not constitute plagiarism.