by Paul Brians
Avoiding Nuclear War
Avoiding a nuclear holocaust: it might be supposed that such would be the aim of the authors of nuclear war fiction. The issuing of awful warnings. The depiction of Armageddon. Foreshadowing the wretchedness of the new dark age. And for a minority of authors, this is so.
Yet most of those who have depicted nuclear war or its aftermath in fiction have done so in ways that avoid coming to terms with the nature of a nuclear war in the real world. There are sound commercial reasons for this avoidance. The subject has never been truly popular, as noted in chapter 1: realistic depictions of nuclear holocaust are too disturbing to appeal to a mass audience. The experience of reading such a work is too much like staring into one’s own grave. The best-seller status of Shute’s On the Beach was an anomaly, perhaps due in part to the book’s careful exclusion of all aspects of the war except the relatively tidy effects of the blanket of fallout which engulfs the globe. It contains no melted eyeballs, no hanging flaps of skin, no suppurating sores, no cancerous lesions, no mounds of rubble, no deformed babies–in short, no nuclear war. Even so, it scared readers silly. The relative success of Kunetka and Strieber’s Warday may be ascribable in part to the moderate scale of the war it describes, and the same is even more true of the amazingly understated Alas, Babylon.
Aside from these three, few fictional works which have focused primarily on depicting the course or immediate aftermath of a nuclear war have ever attained true best-seller status. In science fiction, by far the greater number of well-known novels and short stories depict the distant future, with the holocaust Iying in the distant past: A Canticle for Leibowitz, Davy, Dreamsnake. And even when they choose nuclear war as their subject, most authors accommodate it to our fears and willful ignorance in one way or another. The strategies of avoidance are many, but it is this form of avoidance that we shall discuss first.
In spy thrillers the holocaust is usually avoided literally. The superagent hero almost always succeeds in thwarting the plot of terrorists or vicious pacifists to plunge the world into atomic Armageddon. When their bomb does explode, as in the cases cited in the Bibliography, it usually does not signal the beginning of a holocaust. The danger of nuclear war provides only a source of suspense, a motivating threat of the sort provided in earlier fiction by the microbes, rays, and poison gases wielded by would-be rulers of the planet.
The political content of thrillers varies, but they are predominantly conservative, depicting the Russians or Chinese as crazed aggressors bent on world domination. Such views do not lend themselves to thoughtful warnings of the dangers of nuclear war, except insofar as such war is precipitated by the failure of liberals to accept the necessity of the policy of deterrence through strength. Because of their need for successful heroes and penchant for conservative politics, thrillers do not provide a hospitable setting for serious examination of the consequences of the nuclear arms race.
An exception to the rule is Nicolas Freeling’s examination of the responsibility of the scientist in the construction of nuclear weapons in his thriller of international terrorism, Gadget (1977). He depicts better than anyone the morbid fascination the bomb can exercise over a man of peace, a man like Robert Oppenheimer. Freeling gives concrete form to the debate over whether the scientist who works on arms can separate himself from responsibility for his products, as a kidnapped physicist finds himself fascinated by the task of constructing the bomb which terrorists have forced him to create. His wife’s reaction fits far better the mold of traditional heroism: she rouses herself from her stupefied lethargy to argue passionately that he must resist, and when she fails, removes the excuse that he must endanger others to save those he loves by escaping along with her children. Her “irrational” views–seen as literal madness by the authorities–are clearly the purest sanity.
But typically, atomic thrillers are nothing like this. The bomb is an arbitrary threat and the morality of its creation and use are not closely examined. Most nuclear war fiction is, of course, science fiction. Although science fiction is capable of thoughtful and sophisticated explorations of political and moral issues, the vast bulk of it is simple escapist fantasy. Far more thoughtful treatments of nuclear war exist in science fiction than in thrillers, but the majority of science fiction authors trivialize the subject in one way or another.
Perhaps most striking is the way in which, as we have seen, radiation-induced mutation becomes a sort of magic wand to justify the creation of marvels and monsters. The notion of mutated superbeings and beasts had been around for a long time before Hiroshima, and even before the bomb went off, Henry Kuttner was putting the new device to work in his “Baldy” stories. The equation radioactivity = mutation = telepathy is one of the most bizarre consequences of the atomic age in fiction, but that did not prevent it from rapidly becoming a cliché. Even when a science fiction author attempted a more sober treatment of the theme of birth defects, as in Judith Merril’s “That Only a Mother” (1948), the equation tended to creep in. The baby in Merril’s story may lack arms and legs, but it has preternatural abilities. Merril may have been satirizing the established pattern by portraying a superbaby who turned out to be defective, but outside of science fiction the combination would have seemed ridiculous. Indeed, outside of science fiction the supernormal maturity of the child would be seen as a delusion of the crazed mother, but the science fiction context suggests that its abilities are real.
When Merril explored the consequences of radiation more thoroughly, in Shadow on the Hearth (1950), which is hardly a science fiction novel at all, she depicted a mild case. And Merril’s treatment of the subject is one of the best. The protagonists of most nuclear war science fiction are spared the horrors of radiation disease entirely. It is almost entirely outside of science fiction–in the novels depicting the victims of the Hiroshima bomb–that detailed descriptions of the course of radiation disease are presented from the point of view of the sufferer. Given the claims of science fiction to scientific accuracy, the avoidance of this topic is remarkable. One would not expect the theme to appear in science fiction adventure stories, for there is nothing heroic about wasting away in agony, but radiation disease is absent even from most of the more thoughtful nuclear war science fiction. Indeed, cancer, blindness, even loss of hair and skin lesions–all of these ordinary consequences of exposure to high levels of radioactivity are extraordinarily rare in fiction. Radiation is often mentioned as a threat, but one which is successfully avoided by the principal characters.
Traditional science fiction sees itself as a problem-solving genre, and this attitude can lead to a peculiar sort of avoidance in which the problems posed by nuclear weapons are disposed of in a cavalier fashion. Impenetrable shields or other superatomic technology is developed, aliens invade and impose disarmament or computers do the same, nuclear war turns out not to be as bad as had been thought and can be lived with, or humanity is replaced by something less belligerent: superhumans or supermachines.
Less traditional writers (Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, Damon Knight, for instance) often treat the subject in a satirical manner. There is something to be said for the argument that the concept of nuclear war is so irrational that only a satirical treatment of it is adequate. Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash” (1969) is both absurd and telling. But there are problems with this point of view as well. Often the writer seems to be considerably more concerned with working out a particular conceit than with exploring the absurdity of nuclear war (see Knight’s “Not With a Bang” ). And the absurdist approach can be a sophisticated form of avoidance.
Surely one of the reasons for the relative popularity of the film Dr. Strangelove was that it echoed people’s feelings that the military was insane, the bombs uncontrollable, and doomsday inevitable. If these feelings accurately depict reality, the appropriate reaction would seem to be panic or despair rather than sardonic humor. Instead, absurdism is often a coping mechanism which allows one to shelve nuclear war mentally as simply one of life’s insoluble quandaries. This attitude is akin to the fatalism of people who cavalierly hope to be the first to go when the bombs fall. If nothing can be done about the danger of nuclear holocaust, then one is released from responsibility for doing anything whatever about it and is better off not thinking about the subject at all. Absurdist treatments of the theme then become not courageous explorations of what terrifies us but a form of not thinking.
Almost entirely absent from fiction, both science fiction and otherwise, is effective political action to prevent nuclear war or its recurrence, as noted earlier. When action is taken, it is usually by high government officials and not by ordinary citizens. There are very few works in which there is any sort of organized protest against nuclear weapons; and when common people do act, their deeds are usually either foolish or villainous. In those few cases in which the protesters seem intelligent and well motivated they are ineffectual. The effect of the vast majority of this fiction is not to inspire protest but to plunge readers into despair.
In part, this result may be an artifact of the parameters of this study. A truly successful protest movement would prevent a nuclear war from taking place, and therefore a novel that depicted one would necessarily be excluded from examination. Yet I have read hundreds of near-nuclear war novels as well, and the dearth of effective protest is universal. There are exceedingly few nuclear war novels which articulate pacifist positions. Insofar as writers express pacifist sympathies, they do so by imagining the worst of horrors, not by providing alternatives. There is some question whether the reading of more nuclear war fiction, if that could be promoted, would inspire more people to action or simply reinforce their tendency toward despair.
Such matters are, of course, outside the realm of literary criticism. An artistically successful novel can be morally and politically irresponsible. In the twentieth century the two go hand-in-hand more often than not. Yet political questions impose themselves in reference to this particular theme more than most others. It is safe to say that most writers decide to write about nuclear war at least partly because they wish to prevent one from happening. Such motivations have been cited to me personally by Brian Aldiss, Helen Clarkson, and Theodore Sturgeon. It is not irrelevant to ask how well they succeed, quite apart from artistic questions.
English-speaking writers generally lack the kind of political traditions so well established in countries like France and Germany. The remarkable degree to which German writers, for instance, have involved themselves with protests against nuclear arms is well documented in Raimund Kurscheid’s admirable study, Kampf dem Atomtod!: Schriftsteller im Kampf gegen eine deutsche Atombewaffnung [Fight Against Atomic Death!: Writers in the Fight Against German Nuclear Arms]. Not only have many German fiction writers and dramatists signed petitions, marched, and spoken out directly on the issue of nuclear war, but they have also frequently written nonfiction articles on the subject as well. However it is notable that few of them have written fiction depicting such a war (Hans Hellmut Kirst is one of the few well-known exceptions). Apparently nothing like the proliferation of nuclear holocaust tales in English has taken place in German-speaking countries. German writers may have been more committed and outspoken than their British and American counterparts, but aside from a handful of novels and plays aimed primarily at direct agitation, their concerns have not been expressed in their creative work.
There are individual English-speaking authors who have become directly involved in the antinuclear movement. Brian Aldiss is a striking example. As a young soldier who was spared the necessity of invading Japan by the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb, Aldiss felt grateful for the weapon, and during the fifties he remained critical of the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, whose motives he suspected were contaminated by its leftist leanings. His first story dealing with the subject, “Basis for Negotiation” (1962), was actually a satire on the CND’s widely publicized Aldermaston marches. Even when, in 1964, Aldiss included in Greybeard a note of sympathy for the protesters, privately he was far from sure that they should be supported.
Later events changed Aldiss’s mind. Living as he did in the 80s a few scant miles from the Greenham Common encampment where British women have been protesting the placement of American cruise missiles, he became directly involved in the protest in person and in statements to the press, including a letter to the London Times. The issue that concerned him most directly was the danger of a nuclear winter. Having been at work for several years on his Helliconia novels, in which a planet goes through a multimillenial change of seasons, he found a fortuitous opportunity to treat the nuclear winter theme in Helliconia Winter. Although Helliconia’s winter is natural and not artificially induced, he parallels it with nuclear winter on Earth in a fascinating and most effective fashion. Even more strikingly, he satirizes the arms race by depicting the political leaders who insist on the ruthless extermination of the enemy as fools who fail to realize the essential interdependence of all Helliconian life. Helliconia Winter does a fine job of connecting ecological concerns to the danger of nuclear war. The novel is highly recommended, along with the two preceding volumes, Helliconia Spring (1982) and Helliconia Summer (1983).
The achievements of Aldiss and others demonstrate that artistry and political effectiveness cannot be entirely separated. Perhaps the politically most useful sort of tale is one in which the characters are so attractive and vividly realized that one identifies with them deeply and wishes them not to undergo the suffering entailed in an atomic conflict. Surely that is one of the secrets of the impact of Ibuse’s Black Rain (1967). The notorious failure of most science fiction to create vividly realized characters makes it generally an inhospitable genre for this sort of protest.
Another characteristic of science fiction leads to another form of avoidance: most science fiction is popular fiction which places heavy emphasis on adventure. Being vaporized in a millisecond is not an adventure. It is not even an experience. Therefore most science fiction dealing with nuclear war depicts the aftermath and not the war itself. A large number of these adventure stories take the postholocaust setting for granted as a well- established background, the exact nature of which need not be explained. The causes of the war which transformed the world are usually vague or unknown, the number of bombs dropped and their design are similarly not specified, and only those aspects of the war which relate directly to the plot (the mutation of monsters, a surviving supercomputer) are likely even to be mentioned.
Stories of grisly hand-to-hand combat in the wake of a nuclear holocaust can have a moral purpose, even when badly written. Leonard Fischer’s inept 1950 pulp novel, Let Out the Beast, is clearly intended as an awful warning. Its protagonist keeps insisting on the need for ruthlessness in the struggle to survive, but it is apparent by the end of the novel that the very qualities which have made him a survivor have also rendered him less than human. As the title implies, the Darwinian struggle has turned man into beast. In such works, tales of the struggles between postholocaust neofeudal tribes may become metaphors for the political struggles of our own time, as in the novels of Williams’s Pelbar Cycle.
More frequently the struggle is presented for its own sake. The nuclear war novel is often only a lightly disguised western or old-fashioned war yarn. Even in these cases, writers of postholocaust action tales have generally felt impelled to deplore the cataclysm which provides the background for their protagonists’ adventures. Or at least that has been true in the past. Recently a more ominous sort of combat-oriented nuclear war fiction has burgeoned. The seventies produced a spate of conservative thrillers denouncing the Left and the young, but the values reflected in these works were relatively conventional and the authors clearly deplored the wars they described. Only Robert Adams’s long-running Horseclans series and, to a lesser degree, Piers Anthony’s Battle Circle novels, both of which began in 1975, display a consistent enthusiasm for ferocious bloody combat. In Adams’s books the holocaust is barely mentioned. In the foreground is an unending round of rape, torture, mutilation, and gruesome slaughter. The Horseclans novels are also unusual in depicting surviving scientists as villains bent on world domination (although it is difficult in this sort of fiction to distinguish heroes from villains).
With the advent of the eighties, this became the dominant variety of nuclear war fiction, changing the aspect of the genre radically. Although more thoughtful works like Yorick Blumenfeld’s Jenny (1981) and Strieber and Kunetka’s Warday received notice from reviewers, the taste of readers of popular fiction seems to have undergone a shift which resulted in the greatly accelerated production of enthusiastically vicious, brutal, and gory nuclear war novels. Suddenly the postholocaust landscape, like the Wild West or the Dark Ages, has become a legitimate and popular landscape for combat stories. The success of films like The Terminator (1984) and the Mad Max movies from Australia (specifically Road Warrior  and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome) reflects the same phenomenon, as does the popularity of roleplaying and video adventure games modeled on nuclear war, and comics with postholocaust settings, like the Judge Dredd series. Especially among younger readers, avoidance of nuclear war as a realistic possibility now takes the peculiar form of plunging gleefully into the radioactive landscape in search of adventure. More than forty novels of this type have been published in the period from 1980 to 1984. In previous decades it was unusual to find more than one or two a year. In the 80s they made up over half of the nuclear war fiction being published.
Typical is Jerry Ahern’s Survivalist series (1981-), discussed in chapter 3 and described in length in the Bibliography. Like most of the heroes of these works, Ahern’s hero is a combat veteran whose main survival skills are marksmanship and ruthlessness. These novels may reflect the frustration of the generation of young men who returned from Vietnam to find their experiences not only unappreciated but detested. They reflect the frustration and rage of young people who seem to have adopted the view that the only sensible politics is: waste the other guy before he wastes you. A speech by one of Ahern’s protagonists who learns to enjoy slaughtering villains with Rourke sums up the spirit of the whole series:
I know this sounds horrible, with all that’s happened–I mean, World War Three began two days ago. But here I am, wearing a cowboy hat, riding in a fire-engine red ’57 Chevy, out to rescue some people trapped in the desert. Two days ago, I was a junior editor with a trade magazine publisher and dying of boredom. Maybe I’m crazy–and I’m sure not happy about the War and all–but I’m almost having fun.
Ahern’s novels are fairly trivial entertainments for men who enjoy combat stories, yet they are disturbing because they demonstrate that there is still a significant audience for stories which follow one of the deepest- held American patterns in our Wild West mythos: the story of the Wimp Who Picks Up the Gun and Becomes a Man. Even Rourke’s squeamish wife learns to shoot and stab with the best of them, and is the better for it. Posing as a tough-minded confrontation with facts softer folks try to forget, Ahern’s survivalist fiction evades coming to grips with the likely consequences of a nuclear war in any realistic way.
In William W. Johnstone’s Ashes novels (1983-), the politics are even more extreme. The protagonist rages against gun control, the ACLU, Big Government, welfare, labor unions, newscasters, and pacifists. He creates a sort of right-wing utopia and eventually becomes the object of religious worship. Yet Johnstone is eager to demonstrate that he is no simple-minded redneck. He rails against racism (even while depicting blacks in rigidly stereotyped ways), endorses some liberal causes (profit sharing), and opposes some conservative causes (censorship of pornography, religion in the public schools–although he’s not consistent on the latter point). The protagonist has certain pretensions to culture: one of his favorite symphonies is “Wagner’s Ring,” and he reads poetry by “Wadsworth.” The cover of each volume features an alert figure holding an automatic rifle while over him hovers a phoenix, symbol of the bright new right-wing hope which will emerge from the ashes of corrupt liberal America.
But saturating Johnstone’s works, and making them typical of the type, is a pornographic concentration on extreme violence, in his case particularly on rape and sexual torture, especially of children. In this new atomic action fiction, violence is both a horror and a source of intoxication. Johnstone dissects the phenomenon in the eighth chapter of Part Three of Out of the Ashes:
Sometimes a soldier will fire his weapon until it’s empty and will never reload, so caught up in the heat and the horror of combat is he. Pull the trigger over and over; feel the imaginary slam of the butt against the shoulder; kill the enemy with nonbullets. The yammering, banging, metal against metal makes it difficult to think. So you don’t. The screaming, the awful howling of the wounded and the yelling of the combatants blend into a solid roaring cacophony in your head. An hour becomes a minute; a minute is eternity. God! will it never end? No! don’t let it end; the high is terrific, kind of like a woman moaning beneath you, reaching the climax.
Because for once Johnstone is not merely whipping up the bloodlust but truly trying to explain what it feels like for a soldier to be caught up in a killing frenzy, he adds: “One soon learns the truth: you didn’t climax, you shit your pants.” Aside from this one remarkably honest passage, however, most of the novel is a chain of sadistic sex, torture, and bloodshed, each incident thoroughly deplored, of course, then followed by the next, the whole profusely interlarded with right-wing editorializing.
Johnstone takes sadistic sex further than any ol the other later novelists of nuclear violence but he is not untypical of the rest in his emphasis on rape. These are quintessentially masculine novels aimed at a male audience. The fascination of rape haunts these works, recurring again and again. In fact, the entire atomic adventure drama is strikingly masculine. It is notable that whereas protagonists created by male authors normally set out on a quest when the bomb drops, the protagonists of women authors generally stay close to home, caring for the sick and the dying. Men sometimes rescue children in the course of their adventures (although more often than not children fail to be rescued), but they rarely settle down to care for them. That is the role of women. Vonda McIntyre’s Snake (in Dreamsnake) is a successful attempt by a feminist to combine the adventurous, erotic spirit of the traditional hero with the compassionate and nurturing qualities of the traditional heroine. The novel is admirable. But it was the macho swagger of the male writers captured the public imagination. The adventure stories continued to pour out. Others cited in the Bibliography are by D. B. Drumm, Frederick Dunstan, L. Ron Hubbard, Dean Ing, Dennis Jones, Luke Rhinehart, James Rouch, Ryder Stacy, and the indefatigable Robert Adams, who published the long-running Horseclans series. Not all of their books are as ferocious as those of Ahern and Johnstone, and most of them are better writers, but the same themes unite them: fatalism about nuclear war, extreme individualism in which survival for its own sake is the highest ideal, and–in most cases– bloody sadism.
In one of 1984’s most popular films, The Terminator, the audience is invited to regard nuclear war as inevitable and to suppose that the best way to prepare for the future is to arm oneself and prepare for the internecine combat which will surely ensue in the wake of the holocaust. Most of the new fiction takes the same view. It depicts political action to prevent a nuclear war as at best irrelevant, and at worst suicidal. These novels suit perfectly the 80s mood of revived cold war animosity toward the Soviet Union apparent in films such as Red Dawn, Rocky IV and White Nights.Although fiction writers preceded filmmakers in expressing this mood, they were clearly part of the same phenomenon. Nuclear saber-rattling was definitely in vogue.
Despite the title of Ahern’s Survivalist series, most of these novels are not about survivalism as such. Indeed, in one of Drumm’s Traveler books (1984-)–which in many ways seem like a parody of the whole genre–the hero destroys a villainous group of survivalists. (Dean Ing’s Pulling Through  is a true survivalist tract, and it lacks most of the qualities we have been discussing.) In these stories, killing is not part of an integrated philosophy of survival; it is depicted for its own sake.
Atomic sadism does not entirely dominate the current crop of fictional nuclear holocausts, however. Several thoughtful and carefully researched works have appeared recently. The most significant are Strieber and Kunetka’s Warday and William Prochnau’s Trinity’s Child (1983). None of these authors was content to repeat the clichˆ©s of his predecessors, and all engaged in considerable background study and larded their works with fact. They take a firmly antiwar stance as well.
Prochnau’s novel is perhaps the more interesting. Its title refers, of course, to the code name for the first atomic bomb test in 1945, “Trinity.” The novel illustrates only too convincingly how a nuclear war once begun can become nearly impossible to control, and how close to holocaust we live on a daily basis. The novel also has a contemporary emphasis in that the president it depicts is in some ways similar to Ronald Reagan: he is an elderly hawk who refuses to believe that the Russians would ever dare to defy his firm stance. It is in fact his aggressive posturing which has triggered their decision to attempt a limited preemptive strike. He is not entirely a negative figure, however; his native common sense and good judgment save much of the country in the end. But for most of the novel, he is unfortunately unconscious, and the idiotic kneejerk reactionary secretary of the interior who is mistakenly assigned the duties of commander-in-chief almost precipitates Armageddon.
The book is filled with details concerning the difficulties of planning and communicating inside the military during a nuclear war, including a good deal of emphasis on the dangers of electromagnetic pulse effects–something Prochnau’s book has in common with Strieber and Kunetka’s. Unlike the latter, however, Prochnau does not assign EMP an overwhelmingly important role. A host of highly credible mishaps cause the course of the war to go wildly out of control. (In many ways the plot illustrates the weaknesses of the usual nuclear war scenarios produced by Pentagon experts as they are discussed in Paul Bracken’s The Command and Control of Nuclear Forces, published the same year.) The Russian missiles prove to be highly inaccurate and their commanders incapable of keeping accurate track of the damage they are causing. Less technically sophisticated nations like China and Pakistan cannot be certain even of the identity of their attacker. The presidential helicopter is all too probably destroyed in flight, EMP partially disables the command plane, and the war escalates in a blundering, idiotic fashion, beyond the control of anyone. Prochnau underlines the danger of destroying the leadership of one’s enemy when that very leadership is the only force capable of bringing a halt to the war and preventing ecocide. He even hints at the possibility of a nuclear winter by speculating that dust in the atmosphere might trigger a new ice age. This is an exaggeration but is remarkable considering that the novel was written before the first paper on the subject appeared: R. P. Turco, O. B. Toon, T. P. Ackerman, J. B. Pollack, and Carl Sagan, “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of Multiple Nuclear Explosions,” Science 222 (December 23,1983):1283-92. This seminal study is commonly referred to as the “TTAPS paper” from the initials of its authors.
The novel is interesting politically as well, as NATO refuses to sacrifice itself by coming to the aid of the U.S., the government of the USSR is depicted as torn by internal debate, and the mentality which insists on victory at all costs is seen as the most dangerous possible stance that the nation’s leader can take. Prochnau is unique in combining a high degree of political sophistication with a thorough knowledge of military hardware and strategy.
His treatment of women, however, is idiotic (few male authors of popular fiction who want to be modern about women seem to have any notion of how to go about it), but otherwise his characters are appealing and vividly portrayed, and the rather complex action is clearly conveyed. One of the most striking features of Trinity’s Child is the way in which the holocaust is finally prevented after a limited but devastating nuclear exchange. A long chain of improbable fortuitous coincidences and a great deal of simple good luck results in the president reestablishing command over the the military and calling a halt to the the plunge toward holocaust which his replacement has inaugurated. At one point, the mutiny of a crucial B-52 bomber crew plays an important role in averting disaster. Given the initial “bolt from the blue” attack by the Russians–itself highly improbable–the rest of Prochnau’s scenario convinces in its detailed depiction of disaster and fails–cleverly–to convince in its depiction of the rescue of humanity from annihilation.
During the years of research on this book I have often been asked which works I recommend most highly. In Chapter 1 I cited a number of them which I consider the most significant literary works depicting nuclear war or its aftermath. Here it is appropriate to list those works with the greatest potential for political impact on readers still uninformed about or unmoved at the threat posed by the world’s nuclear arsenals. Avoiding a holocaust in this sense is, after all, the most serious purpose such fiction can perform. For its persuasiveness and contemporaneity, Prochnau’s book certainly ranks high on the list. No other novel is as effective in depicting the probable course of a nuclear war. In portraying the effects of fallout, no one has done a better job than Helen Clarkson in The Last Day. And the work which best conveys the tragedy of the destruction of civilization is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker.
But if I were to single out one work which should be read with attention by persons concerned with nuclear war, it would be Masuji Ibuse’s Black Rain. No writer has more affectingly depicted the human tragedy that is nuclear warfare. Nuclear deterrence remains an acceptable policy of national defense largely because of the failure of imagination which our leaders willfully impose on themselves. The cloud of “nukespeak” which surrounds the atomic arms debate obscures the reality of the danger confronting us. Creative writers like Ibuse make the abstractions of the scenario writers concrete and remind us that nuclear war cannot be other than a crime against humanity and against the Earth itself. Blunted by decades of professional jargon and simple avoidance of the topic, the best of the fiction writers can reawaken our sensitivity to the holocaust that has loomed over the horizon for the past four decades and which threatens to shadow the future of our children unless we are stirred, at last, to do something to prevent it.