It is, without doubt, the biggest gun I’ve ever seen.
I’m in Barbados doing research, and I’m standing under a 100 caliber barrel. The thing looks big enough to crawl into, but not quite. And the barrel just keeps going and going. Big enough that I have to trudge through the wet grass a ways to get some perspective on the whole thing. This cannon is so damn big it has a structure around the barrel to keep it rigid. It’s mounted on a concrete pad the size of an office building’s foundation. And there’s this huge space for recoil: a dark pit that I don’t want to fall down into, because it’s filled now with stagnant water.
I’m on the coast of Barbados, so there’s a pleasant, salty wind kicking up that’s cutting the heat as I walk around the 119 foot long barrel. It’s pitted with exposure to the corrosive Atlantic, but still majestically aims off over the Atlantic crashing against the low cliffs not too far away.
I was born in Grenada, an island further to the west of Barbados, both of us at the southern tip of the sweep of the Caribbean as it curves down toward South America. Only Trinidad and Tobago lie between Venezuela and us. And all that time growing up, I had no idea that a lost, but no less major and fascinating chapter of humanity’s early attempts to get into orbit lay just one island over from me.
Jules Verne first tinkered with the idea of just shooting things into space with a giant enough gun. In the 1950s and 60s, some scientists actually did the math and realized that, hey, it wasn’t as crazy as you might think. Sure, human beings would get turned to toothpaste. But maybe you could get a satellite up there.
A Canadian scientist named Gerard Bull, the US military, and Barbados all collaborated together to actually try to launch small satellites into orbit from Barbados. They achieved the world record, shooting a micro-satellite up to 110 miles. Alas, the program was shut down due to a too-real-to-fictionalize stew of inter-personal and inter-country politics, and the creation of the rocket-oriented NASA. Gerard Bull, in a sadly-fascinating-maybe-ready-for-film twist, sold his idea to Saddam Hussein and prepared to build the largest cannon in the world for the dictator, and then was assassinated by parties unknown in 1990.
When I set out to write Hurricane Fever, my follow up novel to Arctic Rising, I wanted to explore the role of the Caribbean in a larger world. As someone who grew up in the islands, it was always dispiriting to see the world view my homeland as only a beach, a cocktail, and an exotic location. I enjoyed the James Bond films, but they had a habit of disregarding the people actually living in the far flung regions of the Commonwealth the spies had their adventures in.
I created Prudence Jones to push back at that. A Caribbean spy, trying to help the Caribbean deal with the larger nations throwing their weight around in his backyard, he’s stepping it up. And when I found out about the HARP gun project in Barbados, I knew I had to revive the program, bigger and better, and feature it as the capstone of the book.
Bond has always featured rockets and mega-projects. It’s part of the discussion. And when I walked around the HARP gun project, I thought this was a project a villain would love to take over.
As for what they’re planning to do with one, you’ll have to read Hurricane Fever to find out!
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