Fiction Science Club

True-life spy story gets an alien twist in sci-fi tale

What if one of the CIA’s most secretive and expensive Cold War operations was actually a cover story for an even more secretive, even more expensive operation … involving aliens?

That’s the question explored by science-fiction author Harry Turtledove in a new novel, “Three Miles Down.” The plot is only moderately wilder than the $800 million CIA operation on which it’s based: Project Azorian, which involved trying to raise a sunken Soviet sub from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

And as if a tale of aliens and the CIA isn’t wild enough, Turtledove works in references to the Watergate scandal and President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, which was happening at the same time as Project Azorian. Turtledove says he couldn’t resist drawing parallels between the tumult of those times and today’s political tensions.

“There are enough parallels that it sort of leaps out at you, and you aren’t really being honest with yourself or your readers if you don’t,” he says in the latest episode of the Fiction Science podcast, which focuses on the intersection of science and fiction. “The only real difference is, what’s going on now is so much worse.”

Turtledove knows a thing or two about how historical events can get so much worse: He’s often been called the “master of alternate history” — thanks to science-fiction stories in which, for example, the South wins the Civil War, or aliens invade in the midst of World War II.

That ability to twist history into knots draws upon Turtledove’s academic background — which includes getting a Ph.D. in Byzantine history. His natural tendency to find strange loops in historical timelines sometimes leads to an Ouroboros-like circularity.

For example, Turtledove became interested in the Byzantine era as a teen when he read about it in a time-travel tale, “Lest Darkness Fall” by L. Sprague de Camp.  He was eventually able to put that knowledge to good use in a collection of short stories titled “Agent of Byzantium.”

Harry Turtledove
Harry Turtledove (Photo via Macmillan)

“This is alternate history on the micro-historical level,” he said.

In another historical quirk, “Three Miles Down” is coming out just as there’s renewed interest in unidentified flying objects — which are now referred to in official circles as unidentified aerial phenomena or UAPs. Last month, NASA said it would set up an independent panel to study UAP reports. And in May, the Pentagon’s efforts to destigmatize UAP sightings were the subject of a congressional hearing held in May.

Just this week, the Department of Defense announced that it was establishing a new office to expand the effort to catalog and identify UAPs — and to “mitigate any associated threats to safety of operations and national security.”

The All-domain Anomaly Resolution Office, or AARO, will be headed by Sean Kirkpatrick, who was the chief scientist at the Defense Intelligence Agency’s Missile and Space Intelligence Center. The Pentagon says the AARO will look into reports about “anomalous, unidentified space, airborne, submerged and transmedium objects.”

Underwater anomalies were mentioned briefly during May’s congressional hearing. U.S. Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., came right out and asked witnesses whether the Pentagon had any underwater sensors watching out for anomalous objects.

“I think that would be more appropriately addressed in closed session, sir,” Ronald Moultrie, under secretary of defense for intelligence and security, said in reply. “OK,” Krishnamoorthi replied.

Turtledove says he didn’t write “Three Miles Down” to take advantage of current events. Instead, the seeds of the novel were planted while the author was leafing through a bookseller’s remainder catalog.

"Three Miles Down" book cover
“Three Miles Down: A Novel of First Contact in the Tumultuous 1970s,” by Harry Turtledove (Tor Books / Macmillan)

“I saw a book on Project Azorian, and it occurred to me to wonder, what if the sub didn’t sink itself by accident?” he says. “What if there was something on the bottom of the sea that sank it? And that was the idea. I got the book, and I read the book, and I read a bunch more books. And in about six weeks I started writing, and I wrote.”

We won’t say anything more about the plot, except for one last spoiler: Turtledove says he’s not planning a sequel to “Three Miles Down,” even though some reviewers have assumed there’s one in the works.

“Right at the moment, there is no plot going forward,” Turtledove says. “I wrote this as a stand-alone.”

Turtledove has seen a lot in his 73 years, and he’s seen even more in his centuries’ worth of twisted timelines. So, what sorts of twists would the master of alternate history add to our current timeline? Believe it or not, Turtledove has thought about that.

“I did a Twitter thread back a couple of years ago now, imagining if author me were pitching a book to an editor about 2020 in, say, 1998,” he says. The plot would include the coronavirus pandemic, and the fact that people don’t want to wear masks or get vaccinated because those issues have turned into political controversies.

“And I said, it gets worse, because cellphones are much more advanced in 2020 than they are in 1998,” Turtledove says. “It’s like having a little computer in your pocket, and there’s all kinds of information on them, and disinformation, and misinformation.”

“Ooh, this is pretty dark, isn’t it?” the imaginary editor would say.

“And then I went, oh, and there’s one thing I didn’t tell you,” Turtledove says. “While all this is going on, Donald Trump is president of the United States.”

“GET THE F*** OUT OF MY OFFICE!!!” the editor would shout.

Cosmic Log Used Book Club

Turtledove says he didn’t feel the need to base his alien contact plot on the latest revelations in astrobiology, but he has read plenty of books about first contact, starting with “First Contact,” a 1945 novelette by Murray Leinster that he considers the first example of the genre.

“We and the aliens trade starships with each other so we can go back to our home worlds,” Turtledove recalls. “And our interpreter and their interpreter decide that we’re going to be friends, because they’ve spent the time telling each other dirty jokes once they understood each other well enough.”

"First Contact" audiobook art
“First Contact” is a novelette by Murray Leinster that’s also available as an audiobook. (Art via

Dirty jokes aside, that sounds like a story worth recommending for the Cosmic Log Used Book Club. The CLUB Club highlights books with cosmic themes that have been out long enough to show up at your local library or secondhand book shop.

Another author who’s on Turtledove’s list is William Sanders, who wrote a string of alternate-history tales including “Journey to Fusang,” “The Wild Blue and the Gray” and “The Undiscovered.” That last story supposes that William Shakespeare is captured by Cherokees in Virginia and puts on a production of “Hamlet” for them.

Sanders passed away in 2017. “He was in his mid-70s then, a very fine writer who just never got the notice, and it ate at him,” Turtledove says.

Thankfully, Turtledove says there’s nothing eating at him. “I’m 73 years old,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere fancy, for God’s sake. I know better. That’s not going to happen. It just isn’t.”

For more about Harry Turtledove, check out the Harry Turtledove Website and the Harry Turtledove WikiMy co-host for the Fiction Science podcast is Dominica Phetteplace, an award-winning writer who is a graduate of the Clarion West Writers Workshop and currently lives in Berkeley, Calif. To learn more about Phetteplace, check out her website, (One of her yet-to-be-published stories will give a shout-out to Turtledove.)

Use the form at the bottom of this post to subscribe to Cosmic Log, and stay tuned for future episodes of the Fiction Science podcast via Anchor, Apple, Google, Overcast, Spotify, Breaker, Pocket Casts, Radio Public and Reason. If you like Fiction Science, please rate the podcast and subscribe to get alerts for future episodes.

By Alan Boyle

Mastermind of Cosmic Log, contributor to GeekWire and Universe Today, author of "The Case for Pluto: How a Little Planet Made a Big Difference," past president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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