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Literature / Operation Chaos

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Operation Chaos is an Alternate History Magitek novel by Poul Anderson. It takes place in a world where technology never advanced past a primitive combustion engine, so instead magic takes its place in all things in an otherwise modern (for the time the book was written) setting. Cars and trucks are replaced by flying brooms and carpets, crystal balls act as televisions, radios, and telephones, were-creatures use flashbulbs created by the Polaroid corporation to transform at any time instead of just by the light of the moon, and Ivy League colleges have courses in witchcraft.

Steven Matuchek, a werewolf and the narrator, recounts a series of tales (originally four separate short stories, "Operation Afreet", "Operation Salamander", "Operation Incubus", and "Operation Changeling") involving various paranormal adventures, from World War II (which took place against an Arab Caliphate that invaded the United States) through the Sixties, culminating in one that links them all together. They're also tales of meeting, dating, marrying, and having a child with the red-headed witch Virginia "Ginny" Graylock.

There is a sequel, Operation Luna, concerning the alternate history's first manned expedition to the moon. A character from this series also makes a cameo in Anderson's A Midsummer Tempest, in the chapters set in the Inn Between the Worlds.

Tropes found in this work:

  • All Animals Are Dogs: Steve as a wolf is really very dog-like, even moreso than a wolf should be. He enjoys playing fetch and responds to whistles.
  • All Witches Have Cats: Virginia has a cat named Svartalf as a familiar. He's about as smart as a human, capable of planning and foresight, and using tools.
  • Awesome, but Impractical: War Basilisks. As our hero Steven points out, they're really more trouble than they're worth.
  • Basilisk and Cockatrice: Basilisks are used as weapons during the War. It's mentioned in passing that, as a double whammy, any creature they turn to stone is dangerously radioactive as a side-effect of the physical process that converts carbon to silicon.
  • Beast of Battle: The Allied forces utilized basilisks as war machines during World War II. Also dragons (the phrasing leaves it uncertain whether they're flying dragons or the equivalent of tanks) and, in the Navy, krakens for an amphibious assault.
  • Big Damn Heroes: The Old Gods who come to the heroes' aid in Hell.
  • Cats Are Mean: Played with: Svartalf treats Steve like dirt in most social situations, but when it comes to a fight, they're an unstoppable team, especially if they're fighting to protect Virginia.
  • Children Are Innocent: Steve and Ginny have many run-ins with evil forces. The final one, which shocks them to the core despite all they have seen, is the kidnapping of their baby daughter to Hell.
  • Creepy Cathedral: The cathedral and surrounding town of Siloam are extra creepy, including nonstop chanting of Barbarous Names.
  • Deadly Gaze: Background details include contact lenses that let people with the "Evil Eye" live normal lives, and a medical technique that combines the Evil Eye with sympathetic magic to zap infections by having someone glare at bacteria through a microscope.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Virginia is cold, brisk, and businesslike when she and Steven first meet. By his own narration, he couldn't stand her. When they get a chance to actually talk about things outside of military operations, she thaws.
  • Elemental Embodiment: A college student summons a salamander, which goes rampaging across the campus. The fight to bring it down involves discussion of the other types.
  • Fat Bastard: An enemy weretiger Steve encounters early on is monstrously fat in human form, because of the conservation of mass.
  • Flying Broomstick: A common mode of transport (approximately equivalent to cars, or maybe motorcycles)
  • Geas: A common form of magic, often used to ensure employees adhere to the guidelines their employers place on them. In the first story arc, it's mentioned that all soldiers, Steve included, have a geas on them preventing them from panicking. Later, when Ginny accepts a job at a university, she has a geas placed on her preventing her from fraternizing with students.
  • Genie in a Bottle: Literally in the World War II chapter, figuratively in the college chapter.
  • Good Cop/Bad Cop: Steven is captured and questioned harshly, then offered a drink and saluted for his courage. He recognizes it and takes advantage of the breather to plan.
  • Got Volunteered: In World War II, all US soldiers were enchanted to be fearless and obey orders.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: Each arc has its own villain or set of villains (the Caliphate and the Afreet, the Salamander, and the Incubus), but a scene in each reveals there's an evil being, implied to be the Adversary himself, orchestrating these events to prevent Steven and Ginny from ruining the plan in the final story. The Adversary doesn't know what they'll do or even what his own plan will be at that point, he just knows that killing and/or corrupting them will prevent it from failing.
  • Guile Hero: Steve and Virginia tend to defeat their foes via applied psychology. Against the Efreet, for example, she casts a truth spell on herself, asks whether he knows about the principle of "the name is the thing" (he does, though Steven knows it's been disproven), and then truthfully asserts "My name is Ginny". He thereafter begrudgingly treats her as an equal (since he thinks she's a genie). Then she gives him advice, which she couldn't lie about; but she never said it'd be good advice. She eventually defeats him by psychoanalyzing him and playing on his fears.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Those members of the Johannine Church who were there for sincere reasons take control of their faith after the leadership's demonic corruption is rooted out and turn it into a rather more noble faith.
  • Historical Villain Upgrade: While invading hell to get their daughter back, the Matucheks run afoul of a high-ranking demon lord who takes the form of an unremarkable brown-haired human with a toothbrush mustache, a brown uniform, and "a red armband with the ancient and honorable sign of the fylfot", and who speaks only in German. Since their World War II was against the Saracen Caliphate, they don't recognize him at all.
  • Language of Magic: Magic works much more effectively if the caster uses an esoteric language — esoteric to his/her culture, that is (Steven at one point creates a minor but effective spell in Pig Latin). So student mages come to the U.S. from Africa or Asia to learn spells in American street slang. Simple Law of Similarity, obviously; you can not expect to get extraordinary results from ordinary language.
  • The Legions of Hell: At the novel's climax, Steven and Virginia end up storming Hell and facing down the legions to recover their daughter.
  • Magical Foreign Words: Parodied.
    "exotic tongues are necessary for the more powerful spells—which is why so many African and Asian students come here to learn American slang...."
  • Magical Incantation: Magic is more potent if an incantation is spoken in a language foreign to the caster. Although a real language is preferable, Pig Latin will work in a pinch.
  • Magic Carpet: Used as vans and trucks, when a broomstick is just too small.
  • Magic Pants: Steven has a near-literal example in a specially-designed combat suit that stretches with him when he transforms. Subverted in a scene in which he transforms while wearing normal civilian clothes and is completely naked when he changes back. Luckily, Ginny is there to lend him her coat, which is barely big enough to cover his... ahem... attributes.
  • Ninja Pirate Zombie Robot: Steve Matachuk is a werewolf, a Hollywood actor, and an engineer. Virginia is a psychologist, an ad executive, and a witch.
  • Ominous Latin Chanting: Not Latin, but the Creepy Cathedral of the sinister Cult (which is really a Religion of Evil in disguise) is pervaded by ominous chanting of Barbarous Names (from an obscure pseudepigraphical book.)
  • Otherworldly and Sexually Ambiguous: The incubus and the succubus are actually a single being which takes male or female form depending on who it's attempting to seduce.
  • Our Genies Are Different: The genie is sealed in a bottle (with Solomon's Seal no less) but does not have to grant wishes. Virginia must use psychological tricks on it.
  • Our Werebeasts Are Different:
    • It's a recessive gene, not a curse, and can't be transmitted by biting. They transform fully into an animal, with no intermediate forms.
    • Were-creatures keep the personality and memories of their human selves, but have the instincts and approximate intelligence level of the animal. (Or, as Steven himself puts it: " a wolf I'm a rather stupid man.") They're trained from birth to hold on to their human selves while in animal form, but that can start to fail if they're very weary (at one point, Ginny tries to call an exhausted Steve by his name, but he doesn't recognize the word; she whistles instead, and that does it).
    • Physically, they're difficult to injure because of near-instantaneous regeneration, though lost limbs or tails can't be regrown and they have the traditional silver weakness ("biochemical poison", which can't be easily regenerated if at all).
    • The transformation conserves mass, so our hero is either a 180-pound man or a 180-pound wolf.
      • Played with, when the swift, deadly 500-pound tiger becomes an obese, sluggish 500-pound man.
  • Phantasy Spelling: The Caliphate uses real-world words that have fallen out of use (eg. afreet for ifrit). This is either playing the trope straight, or a holdover of being written in 1971.
  • Public Domain Artifact: The seal of Solomon.
  • Ragtag Bunch of Misfits: Steven and Virginia gather one together to storm Hell at the climax. Looking them over, Steven concludes that it's the devil who has no sense of humor; God must love to laugh.
  • Shapeshifter Baggage: Partially averted. It's explicitly stated that were-creatures have the same mass in both forms, but transformation spells play it straight.
  • Significant Green-Eyed Redhead: Virginia, Steven's Love Interest and co-protagonist.
  • Silver Bullet: Automatic weapons can be used against were-creatures, by making "every tenth round argent".
  • Smoking Is Cool: Steve notes that he prefers to smoke Philip Morris cigarettes, because they come with a little red smoke imp that can also mix you a drink.
  • Succubi and Incubi: An Incubus and a Succubus, who turn out to be the same being.
  • Sufficiently Analyzed Magic: It's a civilization entirely based around this, to the extent that much of it seems perfectly normal and modern (for 1970). Furthermore, all the magic is described in very scientific terms, and many scientific principles still hold. For example, as noted, Conservation of Mass is in full effect for were-creatures, silver hurts them because it's a "biochemical poison" to their "semifluid state", and turning someone to stone leaves the victim radioactive due to the molecular alteration. Discussed several times throughout:
    Steve: "How on Midgard would — oh, say alchemy, be practical without a thorough grounding in nuclear physics? You'd either get a radioactive isotope that could kill you, or blow up half a county."
  • Taken for Granite: Basilisks are used as weapons during the War. It's mentioned in passing that, as a double whammy, any creature they turn to stone is dangerously radioactive as a side-effect of the physical process that converts carbon to silicon.
  • To Hell and Back: At the climax of the novel, one of the devil's henchmen kidnaps their baby daughter and they use experimental magicks to invade Hell and snatch her back.
  • Villainous BSoD: Ginny inflicts one on the afreet, by exploiting his pathological fear of water.
  • Virgin Power: During the War, Virginia had developed the magics that went with being a virgin. After her marriage, she has to retool her skills. Also since there are no horses, but unicorns, you have to be a virgin to serve in the Cavalry Corps.
  • Voluntary Shapeshifting: In many different flavours of were, activated via a special flashbulb.
  • Weather Dissonance: The section set during the War opens in the rain because the enemy had taken out the (magician) Weather Corps with a lucky shot. The sole survivor was keeping off the dangerous weather, but other than that, they had to take what the enemy threw, and this time, it was rain.
  • Youth Is Wasted on the Dumb: During the section set at a college, a student prankster conjures up a fire elemental, and it escapes his control and starts wreaking havoc. To be somewhat fair, it's stated that the devil literally made him do it, or at least suggested it.