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July/August 2020
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The Contaminant, by Leonard Reiffel (1978)

So, let me see if I've got this straight. This guy Reiffel (1927-2017):

  •  Invented the Telestrator, that device beloved by television sportscasters who want to draw charts on the screen?

  •  Headed Project A119, the U.S. government's secret plan to detonate a nuclear bomb on the Moon (working with a fellow named Carl Sagan)?

  •  Won a Peabody Award and an Emmy nomination for children's science shows?

  •  Wrote science fiction?

Yup. It's all true—though that last point might depend on your definition of "science fiction."

The Contaminant was set in the future when it was published in 1978, but it's really a technothriller, a story intended to show what could happen today more than what might happen tomorrow. It concerns a new head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff who is working with a super-secret high-power government computer and discovers project M10, a Deep State effort to destroy the Soviet empire by poisoning them with carcinogens. If news of this project gets out, it could lead us right into nuclear war! (Swelling music, that's your cue.)

The story is scientifically plausible and cutting-edge by the standards of 1978…which is to say that it's largely outdated in 2020. That and the book's heavy reliance on melodrama make it a curiosity today. Perhaps the most curious item in it is tucked away on page 182, where we find a description of something that could transport a full page of print twenty-five thousand miles in less than two millionths of a second: the "information highway." Was Leonard Reiffel sharing notes with the congressman from Tennessee's fourth district?

Thomas Kaufsek

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