by Paul Brians
The History of Nuclear War in Fiction
Throughout the ages—and long before the invention and development of nuclear weapons—there had been those who prophesied that the world would end because of man’s wickedness.
Such prophesies were always believed, no matter how many times they had been proved wrong in the past. There was a wish for, as well as a fear of, punishment. Once nuclear weapons were invented, the prophecies gained plausibility, although now they were couched in lay terms rather than religious ones.
Evidence, the more convincing because governments tried to suppress it, proved that the world could be ended at the touch of a button.
Brian Aldiss, Helliconia Winter (1985)
On the island of Eniwetok, site of the atomic bomb tests of 1947-52, a man named Traven walks among the concrete blocks, searching for something he fears to find. He is haunted by memories of the bombing runs against Japan and by the deaths of his wife and son in an automobile accident for which he blames himself. He has sought out these sands, fused by the weapons tests, as the setting for his expiation, blending his guilt with the larger guilt of humanity in creating the possibility of nuclear war. He wanders through the blocks as through a maze, returning constantly to the center, finding himself there “when the sun was at zenith—on Eniwetok, the thermonuclear noon. . . . Its ruined appearance, and the associations of the island with the period of the Cold War—what Traven had christened ‘The Pre-Third’—were profoundly depressing, an Auschwitz of the soul whose mausoleums contained the mass-graves of the still undead.”
In his classic parable for the atomic age, “The Terminal Beach” (1964), J. G. Ballard uses the imagery of nuclear war to summon feelings of guilt, despair, emptiness, and self-annihilation. The protagonists of Ballard’s stories and novels are often fascinated by impending doom, mesmerized by the end of time; but Traven’s quest is a more thoughtful one, an attempt to reconcile his personal guilt with that of the culture of which he is a product expiating in advance the guilt of destroying the human race in a thermonuclear holocaust. The freezing of time, a constantly recurring theme in Ballard’s work, is expressed in “The Terminal Beach” by a fascination with the melted silica which bears the imprint of the old explosions: “The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudo-geological strata condensed the brief epochs, micro-seconds in duration, of thermonuclear time.”
Many authors have pondered the significance of the bomb in the years since 1945. World War III—the nuclear holocaust—has been fought over and over in the pages of books and magazines. In a way, these are war stories; but nuclear war is different from earlier wars in ways that affect its depiction in fiction. First, it is short. Although some of our fiction depicts lengthy atomic warfare, most of it assumes the war will be over in minutes, or hours at most. Concepts familiar from other wars become irrelevant: conscription, the noble sacrifice of soldiers to defend loved ones at home, the civilian support of the war effort. Indeed, the distinction between civilian and military is largely erased except that the military personnel most directly engaged in conducting the war are the most sheltered, and innocent civilians the most likely casualties. In Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day: A Novel of the Day After Tomorrow (1958), one character comments: “In the old days, men at arms were always sustained through the immoral act of killing by the thought that they were not fighting for themselves, but for their children. Today men ask their children to die for them.”
Because nuclear war leaves no time for the traditional distinctions, many of the qualities central to other modes of war fiction are irrelevant. Courage is of little use, even for the preservation of one’s own life. No amount of loyalty, determination, self-sacrifice or heroism will deflect an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile one jot from its programmed course. The hope of victory, which is all that makes war worthwhile for most, is absent. Mere retaliation can produce at best a pyrrhic victory, at worst, the end of life on Earth. And where traditional war fiction appeals to the notion that in combat human character is tested and the inner self revealed, nuclear war stories are dominated by machinery, not human beings. The rockets and bombs dwarf the officials who launch them, and the logic of battle is dictated by technological considerations as much as it is by the strategic decisions of such officials.
The paradox that the entire point of nuclear war is its own prevention— deterrence—leads to yet other paradoxes. A commander in chief must convince the enemy that he is determined to fight, if necessary, a war which can only be a catastrophe for his own nation. The details of strategy must be carefully laid out so that they may never be used. The more unthinkable the war becomes, the more we must think about it. Unlike in other wars, the enemy must be well informed of our plans and resources, for a secret deterrent is no deterrent at all.
A peculiar feature of the age of nuclear combat is the possibility of accidental war. Wars have in the past been begun on the basis of trivial incidents, misunderstandings, and errors in judgment; but the notion that civilization might be ended or life on Earth be destroyed through a technical malfunction or an error in judgment presents an absurdity of such enormous dimensions that it can scarcely be grasped. The resultant air of futility about much nuclear war fiction is convincing in ways that similar views of conventional war could not be. Even those few writers who try to establish that atomic war might be purposeful or beneficent seem led by its internal logic to depict it as absurd.
The author of a nuclear war story, then, lacks many of the resources of traditional war narratives. The genre it has most in common with is not in fact the war story at all, but the narrative of a great catastrophe: fire, flood, plague. Nuclear war fiction has necessarily evolved its own conventions, the specifics of which will be explored in the following pages. It is disheartening to see how soon the conventions that emerged from this new type of fiction became cliché, how quickly it became possible to write utterly unoriginal works on the subject. To see the potentially most awesome of subjects trivialized enlarges one’s sense of the capacity of the human mind for irrelevance. Yet the genre has also produced thoughtful, powerful works, even a few works of high literary merit.
Hiroshima has had nothing like the literary impact of other great military events. Even thought this study surveys well over fourteen hundred items—even allowing for a generous number overlooked—the number of novels, short stories, and plays depicting nuclear war and its aftermath published in English in any given year since 1945 has seldom exceeded two dozen. Stories of the atomic holocaust have never rivaled in number stories of other conflicts such as the American Civil War or World War II. Even in those years when a good many nuclear war stories were published, they were rarely widely read: most of them are science fiction, and until recently science fiction has had a very restricted audience.
There is another, more important reason for the relative unpopularity of nuclear war fiction: it can be disturbing. Even at its most escapist, it deals with a war many readers felt to be as inevitable and final as death itself. Unlike historical wars, World War III will not stay safely in the past to allow itself to be enjoyed. The armchair general of World War II is reassured by the knowledge that he or she has survived; the armchair victim of World War III had no such assurance.
Nuclear war must be the most carefully avoided topic of general significance in the contemporary world. People are not curious about the details. Once in a decade a book will receive a broad audience: John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982). But whereas Civil War buffs who will consume volume after volume about Bull Run and Vicksburg are commonplace, there are few World War III buffs: almost everyone seems to feel adequately informed by reading one book about nuclear war. So thoroughly neglected is the genre that there are many notable novels which have been almost entirely overlooked or forgotten. This study aims to bring them to the attention of a wider public.
Some authors of this fiction are mere hacks, unthinkingly using the atomic holocaust as just another setting for escapist fiction; but most, talented and untalented alike, are trying to project and thus warn of the danger that confronts us.
Novelists did not wait until August 6, 1945 to begin writing accounts of atomic warfare. The public imagination had been inflamed with all manner of wild fancies in reaction to the discoveries of X-rays by Roentgen in 1895, of radioactivity in uranium by Becquerel in 1896, of radium and polonium by the Curies in 1898, and of the possibility of converting matter into energy according to Einstein’s relativity theory of 1905. Popular fiction was not slow to adapt the new knowledge to military uses.
The atom was viewed as harboring world-shattering power as early as 1895: in Robert Cromie’s The Crack of Doom (London: Digby, Long), a group of madmen are barely thwarted in their plot to use an atomic device to undo creation. Novelists were particularly prodigal in the invention of all manner of miraculous rays. In George Griffith’s The Lord of Labour (written in 1906, published in 1911) the Germans invent a ray which can “demagnetize” metal in such a manner that it crumbles into dust on impact. The British fleet is manipulated into destroying itself when it fires its guns at the ray-wielding enemy fleet of wooden ships. But Anglo-Saxon ingenuity and civilization triumph as the English retaliate with helium-radium bullets of stupendous explosive power. The supposed healing powers of radioactivity were touted as early as 1907 in a story titled “Itself” by Edgar Mayhew Bacon (The Black Cat, July; reprinted in Samuel Moskowitz, ea., Science Fiction By Gaslight: A History [New York: World, 1968]). Also in 1907 Upton Sinclair wrote a play concerning atomic weapons which remained unpublished and unproduced until he revised it as a novel in 1924: The Millenium: A Comedy of the Year 2000 (2 volumes, Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius, 1924). In it tiny radium weapons are carried by guards. The new element radiumite, which produces atomic energy, kills all life on Earth when a mad professor smashes a jar full of it. Only eleven humans who happen to be flying in an airplane survive. Edgar Rice Burroughs had his Martians also using radium bullets in 1912 in Under the Moons of Mars (later retiled A Princess of Mars).
Popular articles and books on the mysterious new sort of energy proliferated during the early years of the twentieth century, among them Frederick Soddy’s Interpretation of Radium (1908). Soddy’s lucid explanation of the new science was cited by H. G. Wells in 1913 when he wrote what is usually cited as the first novel depicting a war involving atomic weapons, The World Set Free (published in 1914, on the eve of World War I). As Ritchie Calder points out in his introduction to the Collins edition, Wells made plenty of errors. He imagined bombs behaving rather like reactors, sustaining continuous seventeen-day-long volcano-like explosions. He confused chemical and atomic reactions and erroneously supposed that the end product of radioactivity would be gold (fortuitously destroying the precious-metal monetary standard). Yet, considering that most popular writers saw in radioactivity a form of magic capable of all manner of miracles (see, for instance, Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419, first published 1928-29), and that early science fiction was distracted by variegated rays which could cause invisibility or shrink a man to the size of an atom, it is remarkable that Wells was able to make as much sense out of the knowledge of his day as he did. He understood Einstein’s theory well enough to grasp that atomic energy would be derived from the annihilation of matter; the “Carolinium” used in his bombs bears some resemblance to plutonium; and his atomic bombs are delivered from the air.
The novel, which appeared in 1914, belongs to Wells’s pontificating middle period and is relatively plotless, consisting in the main of lectures on history and an account of a utopian but authoritarian world government with a monopoly on atomic weapons. Wells’s vision of a united world did not, of course, need the new scientific discoveries to prompt it; but he was not to be alone in imagining that the overwhelming power of the atom would force humanity to set aside its petty nationalistic disputes. Indeed this sanguine view was a mere repetition of the hopes expressed upon the invention of weapons such as TNT, which were also supposed to make war inconceivable. Wells’s novel, like Hollis Godfrey’s The Man Who Ended War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1908), and other, similar tales discussed in Merritt Abrash’s “Through Logic to Apocalypse: Science-Fiction Scenarios of Nuclear Deterrence Breakdown” (Science-Fiction Studies 13 : 129-30) anticipated post-1945 works in which atomic blackmail per se forces peace on the world—stories that might best be called “muscular disarmament” fiction.
Growing interest in the theme is illustrated by Wings Over Europe: A Dramatic Extravaganza On a Pressing Theme, a play by Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne (1929). The British cabinet is confronted by a young man, the son of the prime minister, who has penetrated the secrets of the atom sufficiently to create world-wrecking bombs and the transmutation of matter. He envisions a utopia administered by benevolent England, but the greed and militarism of the cabinet members frustrate his endeavor. In despair, he determines to destroy the world, but is killed by a truck just before setting off the explosion. Just as the world seems safe for capitalism and warfare once more, word arrives that the Guild of United Brain Workers has independently discovered the secret and has placed atomic bombs in airplanes circling above all the major capitals of the world, aiming at global rule, underlining the theme that scientific discoveries cannot be kept secret indefinitely. The secretary of state for foreign affairs gains possession of the first discoverer’s triggering mechanism and plans to confront the Guild with it. The ending is left in suspense. The play was staged with some success in New York as well as in London. Also in 1929, Capt. S. P. Meek’s “The Red Peril” depicted the use of atomic weapons against invading airships of the USSR.
In 1932 Harold Nicolson, diplomat and biographer (also the husband of Vita Sackville-West), published another early muscular disarmament novel, Public Faces; in it the British impose universal disarmament through their monopoly of atomic bombs delivered by rockets strongly resembling cruise missiles. Nicolson’s weapons are far more powerful than those of Wells: one dropped off the coast of Florida creates a tidal wave which kills eighty thousand people, shifts the course of the Gulf Stream, and permanently alters the climate. Nicolson was less interested in technical matters than in the political maneuvering of the great powers in which peace and British supremacy are ensured by the boldly illegal stroke of an imaginative, headstrong minister.
In contrast, Eric Ambler, in his first spy thriller, The Dark Frontier (1935), depicted an atomic bomb whose power to dig a mere eighty-foot-wide crater is treated as a terrible threat to civilization. An idealistic and adventurous physicist risks his life to destroy the creator of the weapon and all of his notes in the Baltic dictatorship of Ixania. He does take into account that what has been once invented can always be reinvented later, but imagines that the world might become peaceful enough in the meantime to be able to handle atomic power.
In a 1989 Introduction to the 1990 reprint of his novel, “I lay no claim to special prescience. Having had a scientific education and through it gained access to academic journals, I had read about the early work of Rutherford, Cockcroft and Chadwick in the field, and understood some of its implications. How superficial that understanding was will be apparent now to any high school senior” (“Introduction,” The Dark Frontier, New York: The Mysterious Press, 1990, p. xi). The fuzzy physics described in the novel have nothing to do, however, with the physics of a real atomic bomb.
- B. Priestly escalated the potential carnage in his 1938 novel, The Doomsday Men, in which a group of religious fanatics come close to succeeding in their plot to destroy the world by bombarding a lump of a newly discovered radioactive element with a cyclotron, creating a reaction which would have completely disrupted the Earth’s crust, peeling it like an orange. But throughout the twenties and thirties most popular articles and books on atomic energy focused on its peaceful uses. The utopia of tomorrow would be created through cheap and abundant atomic power, not through atomic blackmail. In 1922 Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large envisioned a cataclysmic world war brought on by the development of a “Karburator” which liberated pure energy from matter; but the new technology is not itself applied to weapons and civilization is destroyed by conventional means.
The U.S.-supported research which led to the Manhattan Project began in 1939 amid the greatest secrecy, and the following year the publication or further articles on atomic theory was prohibited in Britain and America. But just before wartime censorship was imposed, the announcement of the successful splitting of uranium 235 and the possibility of power derived from a chain reaction led to a spate of newspaper and magazine articles hailing the atomic utopia of the future and darkly hinting at the possibility of weapons being designed by Nazi scientists; see, for instance, the front page article by William L. Laurence, “Vast Power Source In Atomic Energy Opened by Science,” The New York Times, May 5, 1940; R. M. Langer, “Fast New World,”Collier’s, July 6, 1940; and “The Atom Gives Up” by Laurence in The Saturday Evening Post, September 7, 1940. In a sense, the Manhattan Project shut the door after the horse had been stolen, as was acknowledged in a September 8, 1945, editorial in The Saturday Evening Post revealing that the War Department tried to prevent the distribution and reading of the Post’s 1940 issue even in public libraries across the country. The basic principles of atomic fission and the possibility of a uranium bomb were common knowledge, and wartime censorship hid little that spies did not already know; but popular articles on the subject ceased to appear and the public seemed to forget about the whole issue during much of World War II.
Only in science fiction did speculation continue, principally in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction. Editor John W. Campbell, Jr. was by far the most influential editor in science fiction during the thirties and forties, fostering new approaches to science fiction, introducing new writers, and assigning story topics to his authors. He was fascinated by things atomic, and continually urged others to create stories on the theme. Throughout the 1930s he had written stories depicting the atomic weapons of the future. While often upstaged by various rays and beams, atomic blast weapons and bombs appear again and again in stories written both under his own name and under his pseudonym, “Don A. Stuart.” Sometimes the atomic weapons are capable of ending civilization, or even obliterating the human race, but ultimately they prove in almost every case to be a means of liberation.
Evidently unaware of the wartime ban, Campbell published in May 1941 a story with a more alarmist view, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which came very close to describing the Manhattan Project itself: “Someone in the United States government had realized the terrific potentialities of uranium 235 quite early, and, as far back as the summer of 1940, had rounded up every atomic research man in the country and sworn them to silence.” Heinlein overestimated the difficulty of controlling an atomic explosion, so that what his scientists develop by 1945 is not an atomic bomb, but radioactive dust, which they drop with devastating consequences on Berlin.
Heinlein’s technical errors are unimportant. More significantly, he understood that atomic weapons research could not be kept a secret, and that America’s nuclear monopoly would be unlikely to create international stability unless it imposed a new world order. Accordingly, the President issues a peace proclamation, that, “divested of its diplomatic surplusage,” says, “The United States is prepared to defeat any power, or combination of powers, in jig time. Accordingly, we are outlawing war and are calling on every nation to disarm completely at once. In other words, ‘Throw down your guns, boys; we’ve got the drop on you!’ ”
Unfortunately, the scientists of the USSR—in the story dubbed the “Eurasian Union”—have also discovered the uses of atomic dust, and the result is the devastating Four-Days War. (If Heinlein’s understanding had been more widely shared by his countrymen, the U.S. might have been spared the atom spy hysteria of the postwar era in which politicians seemed to think that the secrets of fission could be patented and kept secret.) In the war the enemy is destroyed, but power is seized by the colonel who conceived of using the radioactive dust in the first place. The world is now at peace, but it has become a vast dictatorship; hence the story’s title.
Comic books do not come under the purview of the present study, but it is interesting to note that the July, 1942 issue of Bill Barnes: America’s Air Ace, published by Street & Smith, featured a lead story titled “BILL BARNES WIPES THE JAPS OFF THE MAPS!!!
The story, probably written by Earl and/or Otto Binder and illustrated by their brother Jack, details a project to design a plausible U-235 bomb with highly implausible effects: dropping it into a Japanese harbor triggers earthquakes and an ensuing tsunami that sink the entire nation into the sea in a most spectacular fashion. It’s a delirious fantasy of genocide against the Japanese, mostly presented as a dry technical lecture on the project of building and delivering the bomb. The story is remarkable being more technically sophisticated than any preceding one, and one assumes it must have slipped unnoticed past the FBI.
In May 1942 a story entitled “The Incredible Slingshot Bombs” by Robert Moore Williams appeared in Amazing Stories. A retarded boy nicknamed “Tommy Sonofagun” stumbles through a time warp created by a high- tension line tower into a factory which makes pebble-sized atomic bombs; bringing some of them back to his own time, he creates havoc with his slingshot. He is blown up on a return trip when he stumbles with his pockets full of the miniature bombs. This story is notable mainly because of the reaction of a pair of Russian critics, Viktor Bokhovitinov and Vassilij Zakhartchenko, who were doing an article on American science fiction for the Literaturnaya Gazyeta (“The World of Nightmare Fantasies,” March 23, 1948, translated and reprinted in Astounding, June 1949): “A hooligan with an atomic slingshot, isn’t this the true symbol of modern imperialism?” The authors failed to note the pre-Hiroshima date of the story. In retranslation, the title became “The Incredible Pebbles.”
So long as the Manhattan Project security remained in force, stories of atomic doom remained rare. Another notable exception is Lester del Rey’s Nerves (originally in Astounding, September 1942; expanded, New York: Ballantine, 1956), which describes a near-disaster in a malfunctioning atomic power plant which threatens to destroy several states. The scientists who keep the true extent of the danger secret from the public are depicted as heroes whose titanic efforts preserve the future of atomic energy by preventing the unscientific hysteria which would inevitably result were the nature of the threat to become generally known.
Another and much more fantastic atomic plant disaster story was Malcolm Jameson’s “The Giant Atom,” in which a device resembling a cyclotron creates an ever-growing atom which threatens to consume the entire planet. Published in Startling Stories in 1943, it was reprinted posthumously after Hiroshima and Nagasaki under the opportunistic title Atomic Bomb, although Jameson’s variation on the Frankenstein’s monster theme bears little relationship to the new weapon. Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory” demonstrates clearly that during the early 1940s anyone possessing a more than casual familiarity with the material published on atomic science before the imposition of censorship could extrapolate the possibilities more accurately than Jameson had.
A crisis of sorts was reached in the publication of pre-Hiroshima atomic war fiction with the appearance in Astounding, March 1944, of Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” containing a description of an atomic bomb accurate enough to cause agents from the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps to call on both Cartmill and editor Campbell. (This story has been told many times with little variation. See, for instance, H. Bruce Franklin, Countdown to Midnight [New York: DAW, 1984], 15-16; but the definitive version would seem to be Albert I. Berger’s, in The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology, San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1993. Campbell claimed that he argued with the government agents that his readers were so used to reading stories involving atomic science that if he were to ban such tales from Astounding in the future they would become conspicuous by their absence. In February of 1945, the magazine published “The Piper’s Son”—the first of Henry Kuttner’s “Baldy” tales, later collected as Mutant— depicting telepathic mutants whose powers are the result of radiation from an atomic war. One can hardly avoid the conclusion that Campbell was preparing himself a reputation as a prophet as he continued to publish Kuttner’s sequels in June and July. The fourth tale, “Beggars in Velvet,” undoubtedly also written before Hiroshima, was published in December in the same issue with an editorial by Campbell hailing the advent of the atomic age.
Kuttner’s stories hardly posed a threat to national security: the war was placed in the distant past, and its effects, though they were later to become commonplace in fiction, were thoroughly fantastic. Campbell was treading on thinner ice in publishing Robert Abernathy’s “When the Rockets Come” in March 1945. It depicts the atomic bomb as a horrifying weapon whose effects expose its users as morally bankrupt. Abernathy’s story anticipated the liberal reaction to the bomb which would be fully developed in fiction only years later.
In Fritz Leiber’s “Destiny Times Three” (Astounding, March, April 1945), Heinlein’s fears that the new technology may be incompatible with democratic government are reflected as “subtropic” weapons are developed on three alternate versions of Earth. On one world the knowledge is public property; on another an attempt is made to suppress it; and on a third it is monopolized by a dictatorship. The dictatorship invades the other two. Just as America was reaching the pinnacle of its power in the world, these science fiction writers were warning that the new atomic age was as likely to prove a disaster as a triumph. Their warnings went unnoticed by the general public, of course, and were probably unheeded even by most seasoned science fiction fans, jaded by decades of stories of planet-busting beams and rays depicted with casual bravado.
Author Philip Wylie, not fortunate enough to be working for the privileged Campbell, found that when he wrote a story depicting a Nazi conspiracy to rule the world through atomic bombs he could not get it published. According to records in agent Harold Ober’s files, Wylie submitted “The Paradise Crater” to him on January 13, 1944; Blue Book, a popular men’s fiction magazine, bought the story, then canceled its publication. A note dated July 3, 1945 explains the cancellation as prompted by security considerations: “War Dept. objects to the use of this. President Conant of Harvard is working on something similar. He promised not to offer to any magazine. Cancel sale.” (James Conant was chairman of the National Defense Research Committee and very much a part of the Manhattan Project. The source of the quote is a letter from Alice Miller of Harold Ober Associates.) According to H. Bruce Franklin, Wylie was placed under house arrest and even threatened with death for his indiscretion (see Countdown to Midnight, p. 15). A month later, the magazine repurchased the story, and a note was added to the file reading, “Atomic bomb released on Japan Aug. 6, 1945.” So Blue Book accomplished the coup of publishing the first atomic bomb story after Hiroshima even though it had been written over a year and a half before. Thus inadvertently began Wylie’s long collaboration with the government’s nuclear weapons planners which was to result in four short stories and three novels relating to nuclear war.
“The Paradise Crater” is an unexceptional counterespionage story in which the hero sabotages the Nazi villains’ store of atomic bombs. An enormous explosion results: flames shoot forty thousand feet into the air; an earthquake wreaks havoc throughout much of the western United States and Canada; a tidal wave roars west from the shores of California and inundates thousands of “Japanese savages on distant Nippon” (the defeated Asian enemy having evidently reverted to barbarism). The mountain within which the bombs were built becomes a crater two miles deep and thirty across. Ever since writers began to grasp the significance of Einstein’s E = mc2, they had been enthusiastically predicting that a cupful of coal could power an entire city. It is not surprising that Wylie supposed that the detonation of a large number of nuclear weapons would create a cataclysm.
As we have seen, the tendency to think of atomic weapons in apocalyptic terms existed even well before the first one was detonated; it has persisted ever since, although this is not a universal pattern, nor even the dominant one. The earliest reactions to use of the bomb on Japan were fraught with ambivalence. For example, Wylie’s first post-bomb article, published in Collier’s,September 29, 1945, was entitled “Deliverance or Doom?” The first published fictional response to Hiroshima was a brief sketch written by Theodore Sturgeon and entitled “August Sixth 1945,” which appeared in the letters column of the December issue of Astounding. According to a personal conversation with the author, it had been intended as a regular submission, and Sturgeon remained to the end of his life disgruntled that Campbell avoided paying him for the piece by treating it as mere correspondence. It encapsulates and gives classic expression to the science fiction community’s ambivalent reaction to the bomb: self-congratulation on having predicted the astonishing new technology, mixed with apprehension about the threat it posed to civilization. Man, wrote Sturgeon, “knows—he learned on August 6, 1945, that he alone is big enough to kill himself, or to live forever.” Atomic science threatens universal extinction, but it also holds out the promise of immortality.
Albert I. Berger has shown how widespread was the self-congratulatory mood among science fiction writers at that time in an important article, “The Triumph of Prophecy: Science Fiction and Nuclear Power in the Post-Hiroshima Period.” (Science-Fiction Studies 3 : 143-50). The jubilation with which so many writers greeted the new era matched the general American euphoria over the defeat of Japan. Brian Aldiss, who was to write one of the most moving accounts of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust in his 1964 nuclear accident novel Greybeard, recalls with what relief he and his fellow soldiers poised to invade the islands greeted the news of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (personal conversation with author). The generally optimistic mood of the popular press is reflected in an anthology hastily assembled by Pocket Books in August of 1945, The Atomic Age Opens. The cover blurb conveys the same message as Sturgeon’s little sketch: “THE END OR THE BEGINNING? When the United States Army Air Forces dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, it meant the end of Japan as a war-making power—and the beginning of a new age. For, with this newly-released force, man can destroy himself or create a world rich and prosperous beyond all previous dreams.”
Campbell immediately began to publish editorials about the wonders of the atomic age. The following year Pat Frank—later more well known for his sobering account of atomic war, Alas Babylon—reduced the threat of universal sterilization through radiation to a joke in his best-selling Mr. Adam. In this work, a nuclear accident leaves only one man fertile, and he is pursued by millions of desperate, would-be mothers. At about the same time, Captain Walter Karig of the U.S. Naval Reserves produced a little pamphlet partly aimed at arguing for the continuing importance of the navy in the atomic era, but which provided his sailors with all manner of Buck Rogers gimmickry suddenly made plausible by the new technology. A. E. Van Vogt, like Kuttner before him, seized on the notion of war-induced radiation creating superhuman traits in his series of stories begun in 1946 and later collected as Empire of the Atom. Arthur C. Clarke treated the invention of the bomb whimsically, as an example of human feistiness and gumption, in “Loophole” (Astounding, April 1946). Henry Kuttner’s “Rain Check” (Astounding, July 1946) was hardly more serious.
Outside of science fiction, the bomb was greeted with a mixture of exhilaration and alarm which led to an intense discussion of its significance in the first years following the war (an interest which was not to be maintained for long). Yet, although some Americans and Britishers viewed the dawning of the atomic age sanguinely, and although the major outlet for fiction on atomic themes was tightly controlled by John Campbell, who not only strongly favored science and technology but also insisted on a generally optimistic mood in the works he published, plenty of stories in a grimmer mood found their way into print in 1946. New Yorker writer Roger Angell expressed his disgust with the military’s infatuation with the bomb in “Some Pigs in Sailor Suits.” Herman Hagedorn, author of popular boys’ books and jingoistic follower of the precepts of the Moral Re-Armament Movement, was appalled at the devastation wrought at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He created a book-length denunciation in verse of America’s use of the bomb as a crime against humanity and a sin against God, a volume popular enough to go through many printings and two editions (The Bomb that Fell on America). Science writer Louis Nicot Ridenour warned of atomic Armageddon in the pages of Fortune magazine (“Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse”), as did Ray Bradbury in Planet Stories (“The Million-Year Picnic”), and Philip Wylie in Collier’s (“Blunder”). Isolated, unknown authors were stirred to issue warnings here and there (Benjamin Belove in America, F. Horace Rose in England). Will Jenkins dedicated his cautionary Murder of the U.S.A. to John Campbell, whose March 1946 editorial may well have suggested the idea for the novel, although he avoided using his science fiction pseudonym (“Murray Leinster”) and published the novel first in Argosy, not in Astounding. And Campbell himself occasionally published cautionary (or, to use the more vivid science fiction term, “awful warning”) atomic war stories during 1946, by Paul Carter, A. Bertram Chandler, Chan Davis, and Theodore Sturgeon. The mood of euphoria which dominated so much writing about the atomic age was based in large measure on America’s monopoly of that power. These writers, whose business was prognostication and who knew only too well that scientific secrets cannot be long preserved, quickly realized that the bomb posed as much of a threat to its inventors as to their enemies.
During 1947 Astounding overwhelmingly dominated the publishing of nuclear war fiction with over a dozen stories, many of them awful warnings sharply in contrast with Campbell’s generally optimistic editorial stance. Poul Anderson’s first published story, “Tomorrow’s Children,” written jointly with F. N. Waldrop, took a less sanguine view of radiation-induced birth defects than preceding stories like those of Kuttner. The best known story published that year was Theodore Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses,” which—despite the fact that most of its literary merit resides in its title—remains a striking argument against the theory of nuclear deterrence.
But Campbell’s taste reasserted itself forcefully in the following year, in which the number of atomic war stories in Astounding dropped by three quarters and only one (Judith Merril’s memorable “That Only a Mother”) could be considered an awful warning. Despite this fact, a correspondent complained in the September 1948 issue of the excessive number of nuclear war stories appearing in the magazine. Campbell reassured him and other concerned readers: “We have specified to our authors that the ‘atomic doom’ stories are not wanted….”
Despite this announced change in policy, Campbell published some “atomic doom” stories in 1949 (Alfred Coppel, “Secret Weapon”; Kris Neville, “Cold War”) and succeeding years, but most of the atomic war tales in Astounding were either frivolous (like Van Vogt’s continuing “Empire of the Atom” series) or absurdly upbeat. An atomic war story perfectly reflecting Campbellian optimism—though it departs from the realistic style which Campbell preferred—is A. E. Van Vogt’s “Resurrection” (published as “The Monster” in August 1948). When creatures from another world investigating the cause of Earth’s destruction resurrect a man in order to question him, he uses a nuclear device to battle them in an atomic duel from which he emerges triumphant. The resuscitated hero will use the technology of the defeated aliens to revive and grant immortality to the entire human race. Lest the preceding holocaust raise any doubts about the goodness of human nature, it is strongly hinted that Earth had been devastated not by people but by the ancestors of these very aliens.
Fredric Brown’s 1949 story “Letter to a Phoenix” also matched Campbell’s philosophy, mixing positivism with the power of positive thinking. Brown’s protagonist is made nigh-immortal by exposure to bomb radiation and thus can report that the holocausts which periodically almost annihilate the human race are actually necessary to perpetuate the species, which—without this invigorating tonic—would die out like every other race in the universe.
Henry Kuttner’s 1947 Astounding story, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” similarly argued that atomic war might prove a fine method of birth control and stimulate scientific research, creating a utopia. Irrelevance could go no further, and the magazine soon almost ceased publishing atomic war stories altogether, with occasional exceptions reminiscent of the immediate postwar period (Walter M. Miller, “Dumb Waiter” ; Morton Klass, “In the Beginning” ). The 1951 Twentieth-Century Fox muscular disarmament fable, The Day the Earth Stood Still, was based on a pre-atomic age Astounding story (“Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, October 1940), but the original tale entirely lacked the antiwar message of the film. The film-makers would have been hard pressed to find a real anti-nuclear war story in the fifties version of the magazine. The days when Astounding had dominated nuclear war fiction were over.
The magazine itself went into a steep decline in the early fifties as it faced stiff competition from two new competitors, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy. Atomic doom stories by authors such as Damon Knight, Cyril M. Kornbluth, James Blish, and Fritz Leiber, which might have appeared earlier in Astounding, were published in the new magazines. Although Campbell had published the early work of Walter M. Miller, Jr., the stories which were later to become the first widely known science fiction treatment of the atomic war theme, A Canticle for Leibowitz, appeared instead in Fantasy and Science Fiction (1955-57). But Campbell’s refusal to adopt a negative tone about the danger of nuclear war meant that superior stories appeared even in pulps ranked far inferior to Astounding in its glory days, like Future Science Fiction (H. Beam Piper’s “Flight from Tomorrow,” September, October, 1950) and Thrilling Wonder Stories (Fritz Leiber’s “The Foxholes of Mars,” June 1952).
Outside of science fiction, novelists and short story writers were slow to respond to Hiroshima. Aside from Wylie, who maintained a connection for many years with science fiction, the only generally well known author to write an atomic war novel by 1948 was Aldous Huxley, whose Ape and Essence was more of a restatement of the anti-utopian themes of Brave New World than a serious meditation on the probable consequences of a future holocaust. He did grasp the genetic danger, and remains one of the few writers to treat seriously the problems of radioactive soil for agriculture. In fact, few novels depicting nuclear war either outside or inside of science fiction were published before 1950. Those that were not well known or not widely reviewed or sold. Some of the reluctance of authors to explore the new theme may be attributed to war- weariness. In the five years after Hiroshima, not much conventional war fiction was published either. Of course, George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) uses atomic war as part of its background, but nuclear weapons play such a minor role in the novel that most readers have probably forgotten that he touched on the subject at all.
However, during this same period Ray Bradbury was writing a series of stories which would appear knitted together in book form in 1950 and become for many years (until Shute’s On the Beach ) the best known fictional work dealing with nuclear war: The Martian Chronicles. Indeed, it was for over a decade the best- known piece of modern science fiction writing. Although the immense success of Bradbury’s book can be attributed mostly to the sensuous exoticism of his Martian setting and characters, the book is significant for the political development it marked. The Martian Chronicle. turns its back on the postwar vision of the American Century. It deplores our crass commercialism, reminds readers of the nation’s crimes against the Indians and blacks, and battles against the forces of censorship, albeit in a distinctly bizarre fashion, in the tale entitled “Usher II.” No modern writer is more typically American in his themes and attitudes than Bradbury; yet repeatedly his fiction hints at or clearly depicts the monstrous crimes that lurk beneath the Norman Rockwell exteriors of his protagonists.
The Martian Chronicles is the story of humanity which is punished for its genocidal deeds by committing genocide on itself. Having killed off most of the Indians, having driven desperate blacks to flee the lynch-law South for Mars, and having contemptuously—almost without noticing—annihilated the wise, gentle Martians, humanity destroys itself in an atomic holocaust which is one last act of typical, unexplained stupidity. It is not necessary to explain why nuclear war consumes the Earth: it is the logical consequence of the parochialism, bigotry, and greed which are displayed in the earlier chapters.
The book concludes on a muted note of hope as the human race survives in two families who have fled to Mars. In Bradbury, any hope for the future lies not in society at large, but in the decency of individuals. This story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” had been his first published response to Hiroshima, and it comes close to condemning humanity in toto. So anxious is the protagonist to eradicate the past that he resorts to censorship, burning various papers and volumes in a way that clashes curiously with the theme of “Usher II,” and even more with Bradbury’s passionate denunciation of book-burning, Fahrenheit 451 (earliest version, 1951). Ironically, book-burning is the solution to the failure of civilization caused by nuclear war in The Martian Chronicles whereas a nuclear war ends the tyranny which instituted book-burning in Fahrenheit 451.
It is inconceivable that John Campbell could have published “The Million-Year Picnic,” even if Bradbury had offered it to him. In fact it is surprising to find such a work widely read and appreciated by a nation which we have been told was undergoing The Great Celebration. But even in the early fifties, there were plenty of Americans who abstained from the nation’s love affair with itself, and a disproportionate number of them were science fiction fans.
The reasons for this phenomenon are not difficult to discover. Since the thirties, science fiction writers had encouraged their readers to think of themselves as superior beings like the mutant telepaths in A. E. Van Vogt’s Slan (Astounding, September, October, December 1940) or Henry Kuttner’s “Baldy” stories. When homo superior emerged in the world of science fiction, he was almost always more sympathetic than the ordinary humans who formed bigoted mobs bent on his destruction. Undoubtedly such stories had strong appeal for the largely adolescent male readership of bookish social misfits who purchased much of the science fiction of the forties and fifties, and who exercised a powerful influence over its content through their highly organized and articulate fan organizations, publications, and conventions. The evidence of published accounts of fandom clearly points to a profound sense of alienation from American mass culture and a fervent belief that the reading of science fiction provided a superiority often experienced with religious intensity. The cult-like of nature of American science fiction cut it off from a wider audience for decades, but in the early fifties it provided a haven for heretical and potentially threatening writings like Bradbury’s.
The traditional formula for science fiction had been to pose a problem and find a technical development which would solve it. In the early 1950s, the formula for many Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction stories was to posit a technical development and discover what could go wrong with it. Atomic war stories with a distinctly jaundiced cast to them poured forth: Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction” and “A Bad Day for Sales,” Damon Knight’s “World Without Children,” Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “With These Hands,” Ward Moore’s “Flying Dutchman” and “Lot,” Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence, Ray Bradbury’s “The Garbage Collector,” Philip K. Dick’s “The Defenders” and “Second Variety,” and James Gunn’s “The Boy with Five Fingers.” So powerful was the trend that editor H. L. Gold complained in the January 1952 issue of Galaxy, “Over 90% of stories submitted still nag away at atomic, hydrogen and bacteriological war, the post-atomic world, reversion to barbarism, mutant children killed because they have only ten toes and fingers instead of twelve…. Look, fellers, the end isn’t here yet.”
Meanwhile most American writers were ignoring the entire subject. There were two principal reasons for this fact. One was that the ghettoization of science fiction in the United States tended to prevent mainstream authors from writing stories set in the future. The other was that most Americans feared communism far more than the bomb, and were not prone to criticize the maintenance of a nuclear balance of terror which seemed to favor the West. Some even urged a preventative war, a first strike in which America’s God-given might would crush the evil Soviet empire, as in the hypocritically titled October 27, 1951 issue of Collier’s magazine, “Preview of the War We Do Not Want.”
In England the situation was very different. Since long before the days of H. G. Wells, British writers had felt free to address their tales of times to come to a general audience with an expectation of being well received. In addition, although Britain had shared in the Allied victory and was led by Churchill, a formidable voice in the cold war, its people had personally experienced the effects of Nazi bombs and rockets and had seen large areas of their most important cities laid waste by them.
In addition, whereas the bulk of the early American nuclear war fiction appeared in small-circulation magazines, most of the British fiction was published as novels which were accessible to a wider and more varied audience. Much of their writing was mawkish in tone and scientifically ludicrous, but the British authors conveyed a sense of terror and despair usually lacking in the works of their transatlantic colleagues who were often bent on demonstrating that the impending holocaust could be survived, averted, or even turned to profit. In 1948 alone George Borodin’s The Spurious Sun, Roald Dahl’s Sometime Never, J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Death of a World, and Pelham Groom’s The Purple Twilight were published in Britain. The output of British nuclear war fiction remained for many years spasmodic and idiosyncratic. It did not sort itself readily into identifiable genres, as did that of the Americans, and it did not form a tradition, so that each author seems to be unaware that he or she has any predecessors.
On both sides of the Atlantic the publication of nuclear war fiction remained at a very low level (except for the anomaly of 1947 created by John Campbell’s temporary enthusiasm) until 1952. The Russians had tested their first bomb in 1949, creating in this country a hysterical search for the villains who had sold them our atomic secrets. The mania for finding spies everywhere is reflected in Judith Merril’s outstanding 1950 novel, Shadow on the Hearth, in which—although fifth columnists are responsible for aiding the Russians to home in on American targets—the blind anti-communism of the general public deprives the nation of the aid of a suspect but brilliant scientist: a striking prognostication of the fate of J. Robert Oppenheimer three years later. In 1950 Julius Rosenberg was arrested as well, but the search for someone to blame diverted attention from the danger posed by the weapons themselves.
It was the explosion of the first American thermonuclear device in November of 1952 and of the first Russian hydrogen bomb a year later, obviously the product of independent research not inferior to our own, which reawakened public concern. Whereas some public officials like Bernard Baruch had spoken of the atomic bomb in apocalyptic terms immediately after Hiroshima, the general public seemed to be unable to comprehend the magnitude of the destructive potential it represented. (See Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age [New York: Pantheon, 1985], 54). If the average reader happened upon one of the narratives depicting a cataclysmic atomic war, he or she probably dismissed it as wildly hyperbolic. This judgment might not have been too far wrong, considering that a writer as sober as Philip Wylie was depicting a chain reaction capable of consuming in a flash both Earth and Moon (in “Blunder” ). But the H-bomb had a somewhat different effect on the public than had the A-bomb. Whereas the threat posed by the latter had been somewhat obscured by its role in ending World War II, the new weapon was developed by both East and West during a period of extreme tension highlighted by the ongoing Korean War and by the appointment of John Foster Dulles to the post of U.S. secretary of state. Dulles developed the doctrine of “massive retaliation” and harbored fantasies of “rolling back” the Russians from Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that fans and editors alike had complained that nuclear war was an exhausted theme, 1953 proved a record
year for science fiction dealing with the subject. In Britain, John Wyndham reflected the tensions of the time in The Kraken Wakes, in which the Americans and Russians almost fail to defeat invading tentacled sea monsters because each is convinced their predations are the work of the other side.
The next year another event marked the decisive point in turning public attention to the danger of atomic war. On March 1, 1954, the Bravo H-bomb test near the Marshall Islands fatally contaminated sailors aboard a Japanese fishing vessel known as the Lucky Dragon. That their citizens—now our allies—should once more be victims of American radioactive fallout created an uproar which destroyed forever the conspiracy of silence which had made the topic taboo in postwar Japan. In the West, people finally realized that even when one was not exposed to the direct effects of the bomb, its fallout could be deadly.
The year 1954 had provided an abundance of other news stories calculated to attract the attention of the public to atomic warfare. After long delays, negotiations about the uses of atomic power began seriously, although no agreement was to be reached for four more years. A new version of the Atomic Energy Act was passed. On March 31 Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis Strauss aroused a furor by commenting to the press that a single bomb could destroy any city on Earth. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance was removed in April, and interest in the atomic spy theme was revived. On September 24, Aikichi Kuboyama, fisherman, died of the radiation disease to which he had fallen victim on the Lucky Dragon during the Bravo H- Bomb test.
Interest was sustained by related events the next year. On January 31, 1955, the Russians modified their long-held position disparaging the effectiveness of atomic bombs when they pointed out that only a few weapons would be needed to destroy crucial Western centers of power. The United States continued to test bombs in Nevada that spring. In March, Dulles and Eisenhower threatened the Communist Chinese with tactical nuclear weapons if they should attempt to seize the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, although Leo Szilard had warned the previous month that such an act would likely precipitate a devastating holocaust in which both sides would be destroyed. And Federal Civil Defense Administrator Val Peterson speculated about the possibility of creating a cobalt doomsday bomb, a device which was to find a prominent place in much later fiction (probably as much because of its repeated discussion by Herman Kahn as for any other reason). In Great Britain the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, spearheaded by philosopher Bertrand Russell, was claiming headlines. Russell wrote a number of fictional sketches on the theme of atomic war about this time, although some of them remained unpublished until after his death. At no time until the Cuban missile crisis did the world seem poised so close to the brink of nuclear war.
The result of all this activity and concern was the publication in 1955 of a large number of novels depicting atomic war or its aftermath, including such notable works as Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, C. M. Kornbluth’s Not This August, John Wyndham’s The Chysalids, and the first part of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. The nuclear war novel had come of age. Magazine editors may have wearied of the subject, but book publishers were becoming interested and would dominate the genre henceforth. In no year before had so many novels been published depicting nuclear war.
During the next year’s presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Adlai stevenson called for an atomic test ban, with considerable initial support from the public. The long debate which followed kept public attention focused on the bomb, but to some extent the test-ban debate was a distraction which directed attention away from any attempt to deal with the greater danger of nuclear war itself. Even in the midst of this debate, authors were not able to sustain readers’ interest in nuclear war: 1956 marked a low point in the publication of such fiction, although two mainstream works attracted some attention—Martin Caidin’s The Long Night and Herman Wouk’s The Lomokome Papers.
Though Eisenhower had abandoned the notion of beginning negotiations for a test ban treaty when the Russians publicly supported Stevenson’s proposals—thus laying the administration open to the possibility of charges that it was not being sufficiently anti-Communist—the debate continued, as did the test. America exploded no fewer than twenty-four bombs in Nevada in 1957. In April, Khruschev boasted that the Russians possessed a superbomb capable of melting the polar icecap. But the impact of all of this was slight compared to the shock created by the Russian launching of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4. Clearly, if the USSR had rockets good enough to place a satellite in orbit, they were a serious threat to our security. When they followed up their fear by launching even heavier satellites, the effect was shattering.
For the first time Americans felt themselves to be in an inferior position, although in fact their atomic arsenal still enormously outweighed that of the Soviet Union. Russian proposals for some kind of treaty began to look more attractive. Not much nuclear war fiction of significance was published in English that year (although Agawa Hiroyuki’s important Devil’s Heritage was published in Japan). In fact there was just one novel which was widely read, and it was to prove the most influential work of its kind for the next quarter of a century and the only one most people ever read: Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.
Shute used an Australian perspective ideally situated to address the fears about fallout which had been mounting since 1954. As his novel begins, the atomic war is already over. The powerful effect which this slickly written tale had on its readers can be attributed to its insistence on the relentless, inescapable advance of the zone of radioactivity, removing all trace of human life from latitude after latitude on its way south. Inferior to the 1959 film based on it, the novel is unconvincing in its plot, its characters are stereotypes (too many of them deny the inevitable in the same way), and the love story is mawkish. But what makes On the Beach nevertheless one of the most compelling accounts of nuclear war ever written is its almost unique insistence that everyone—without exception—is going to die. Shute directly addresses the most primal fears of the human race, which has spent most of its history denying or compensating for the fact of personal death, and does so with a relentlessness which the complex technique of a more sophisticated writer might have muted. For once, there are no distractions: no invading aliens, no super-fallout shelters to protect the protagonists, no struggle back from a dreadful but exciting postwar barbarism. There are simply a man and a woman reaching the agonizing decision to kill their only child in its crib and commit suicide as the rest of the human race expires around them.
The number of novels and stories in which everyone dies in a nuclear war is negligible. It is quite irrelevant that the sort of universal extinction through fallout which Shute depicts is almost impossible (indeed, most critics have been so quick to denounce his hypothesis that they have failed to note that he specifies that both sides made extensive use of doomsday-style cobalt weapons, though he provides no rationale for this insane act). Nor does it matter that the recently developed theories of nuclear winter make Shute’s pessimism seem somewhat more realistic. What gives the novel its significance is the fact that it forced the general public to focus on atomic war as a threat to personal existence at a time when there was widespread concern about fallout from testing. The experience was a harrowing one for many readers, and most of them seem to have considered it sufficient. Although many nuclear war novels superior to Shute’s were to be published in succeeding years, none of them would be nearly as widely read. Its closest competitor was Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon in 1959, which was considered shocking in its day but which is remarkable mainly for the good fortune of its principal characters who survive nicely with only a minimum of preparation on the bare fringes of a distantly depicted holocaust.
The worldwide success of On the Beach finally caught the attention of mainstream writers who began to turn out holocaust novels, innocent of the fact that the theme was considered exhausted by many in the science fiction community. The year 1958 saw the publication of such works as Peter Bryant’s Two Hours to Doom (later to be transformed into Dr. Strangelove), Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day, and Mervyn Jones’s On the Last Day. Although interest in the topic began to revive in the science fiction magazines as well, it was no longer the property of the science fiction community. In 1959 mainstream realistic works written in a serious vein dominated the field. John Brunner, who wrote mostly science fiction and who was then involved in British bomb protest activities, suggested in his political novel, The Brink, that Western paranoia about the Russians was more hazardous to world peace than the Russians themselves. In Britain, where left-wing politics were not absolutely beyond the pale, the novel could be marketed; but it is unique among his many books in never having been published in the United States.
During 1959 the history of the bomb was explored in Pearl S. Buck’s fictional account of the Manhattan Project, Command the Morning. Edita Morris, like Brunner an anti-bomb activist, movingly depicted the impact of the bomb from the Japanese point of view in The Flowers of Hiroshima. Hans Hellmut Kirst’s best-selling The Seventh Day made the escalation of a war over Germany all too credible. And in England, Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 made the death of the human race even more compelling than had Shute; the novel does not strive for scientific credibility but succeeds as a parable.
This was also the year in which the most nuclear war fiction of high quality appeared until 1984. It also marked the definitive end of the illusion fostered for so long in the science fiction community that the theme had been exhausted. The nuclear war science fiction of the early 1960s rose to new heights as writers took up the challenge signified by the achievements of authors in 1959, and as the field as a whole matured with the advent of a new generation of writers bent on wrenching science fiction out of the pulp ghetto. Along with a large number of inconsequential works, some important ones appeared, including Edgar Pangborn’s Davy (1962) and Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney; or, How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965). Science fiction writers may have temporarily lost their ascendancy in the nuclear war novel in the late 1950s, but they reclaimed it in the sixties and have retained it ever since.
The year 1960, marked by the U-2 incident and the Sino-Soviet split, produced few notable works other than Alfred Coppel’s Dark December (one of the best nuclear war novels ever published) and H. A. Van Mierlo’s By Then Mankind Ceased to Exist (probably the worst). The next year was dominated by discussion of fallout shelters in the public press, as the Russians built the Berlin Wall and resumed testing in the atmosphere, and the United States undertook its first major shelter program. Shelters both natural and artificial are prominent in the fiction published in 1961 and 1962, in works like Gina Berriault’s The Descent (New York: Atheneum), a marvelous satire on the entire civil defense craze; Daniel F. Galouye’s moving Dark Universe, in which refugees have lived in the dark underground for so many generations that they have forgotten what light is; James White’s Second Ending, with its fantastic automated hospital which preserves the single specimen from which the human race will be recreated; Robert Moore Williams’s absurd The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles, in which ordinary folks mingle with movie stars in Los Angeles fallout shelters; and George H. Smith’s The Coming of the Rats. Novels set in various sorts of shelters had been published at intervals before this, but not in such numbers.
The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 did not find much resonance in nuclear war fiction. After reaching the brink of a real nuclear war, most people seemed to want to forget the subject as quickly as possible; and a year later Kennedy’s assassination rendered fiction which might imply criticism of his nuclear diplomacy in bad taste. Pierre Salinger did not publish his novel loosely based on the missile crisis until nearly a decade later (On Instructions of My Government [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971]). Out of the considerable amount of nuclear war fiction published in 1962, the most notable literary achievement was the beginning of Edgar Pangborn’s Davy in which he created the postholocaust world in which he was to work for the rest of his life. The dangers of brinksmanship were illustrated in 1962’s best-selling Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.
The United States, Great Britain, and the USSR finally signed a treaty banning testing in the atmosphere in 1963, and there was for a time a general easing of tensions with the Soviet Union. But all during the early sixties there arose in the West an extreme paranoia about the Chinese, no longer on the leash of the Russians, who were perceived as being far more reasonable. This paranoia finds its quintessential expression in Bernard Newman’s absurd classic of Sinophobia, The Blue Ants (1962).
Now permanently established as a subgenre of science fiction, nuclear war stories and novels of merit continued to appear throughout the sixties from such authors as Ray Bradbury (“To the Chicago Abyss” ), Philip K. Dick (The Penultimate Truth  and Dr. Bloodmoney), Edgar Pangborn (besides Davy, mentioned above, The Judgment of Eve ), Thomas M. Disch (“Casablanca” ), and Harlan Ellison (“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” ), among many others. But the nuclear war science fiction of the sixties had no focus. There was no equivalent of the old Astounding (now retitled Analog and still rejecting atomic doom stories) to develop a tradition. In any case, the magazines were ceasing to play an important role in developing new themes as paperback books began to dominate the market.
The nuclear war theme flourished in the sixties at least partly because of the “New Wave” phenomenon in science fiction which involved many younger writers who were drawn to apocalyptic and anti-technological themes. They found in nuclear war the perfect expression of what disgusted them in much traditional science fiction. In the 1940s science fiction had promoted itself as prophetic and inspirational. In the 1950s it had been diagnostic and critical, but typically provided some sort of happy ending. But in the 1960s the dominant mood of much of the best writing could only be described as nihilistic. At last science fiction found a fictional voice appropriate to the nightmare of nuclear war.
As had been true since 1945, isolated individuals outside of this tradition or any other tradition passionately turned out deeply felt warnings against atomic Armageddon which went almost entirely unread. Among the better idiosyncratic sixties novels are Derek Ingrey’s absurdist Pig on a Lead (1963), Stephen Minot’s sternly intellectual anti-intellectual Chill of Dusk (1964), Virginia Fenwick’s uneven but interesting America R.l.P. (1965), and John R. Vorhies’s remarkable study of nuclear strategy and politics, Pre-Empt (1967).
Public attention was briefly captured by the antiballistic missile debate of 1969, a year which witnessed the publication of more nuclear war fiction than any other between 1965 and 1974. But throughout most of the latter sixties the U.S. was preoccupied with Black Power, psychedelia, student protest and—above all—Vietnam. Traditional nuclear war fiction seemed incongruent in this setting. Nuclear blackmail and sabotage novels proliferated, especially in Britain, for an audience that yearned for simpler days; but the younger generation which dominated the readership of science fiction and therefore of nuclear war fiction was absorbed in other pursuits. Few of the young American antiwar protesters knew of or cared about the earlier generation of ban-the-bomb protesters in the U.S. and Britain.
The protesters’ concerns were reflected in nuclear war fiction through heavy irony in 1969 in Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog and Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash,” but these stories were not expressions of the youth movement, merely observations on it. Authors on the Right worked out their frustrations over the Vietnam era after the youth revolt was stifled, in works such as Clive Egleton’s A Piece of Resistance (1970) and its sequels, Last Post for a Partisan (1971), and The Judas Mandate (1972), Oliver Lange’s Vandenberg (1971), Mario Pei’s “1976” (1971), Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), W. D. Pereira’s Aftermath 15 (1973), and General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: A Future History (1978).
The most dyspeptic—nay, apoplectic—of these nuclear war novels which used the holocaust to berate duped, treasonous, destructive youth is Allen Drury’s culmination of the series he began with Advise and Consent, titled The Promise of Joy (1975). In this delirious attack on the late antiwar movement, a courageous president battles almost alone against a spineless Congress, gruesomely violent pacifists, and a wildly leftist partisan press to defeat the Reds and avert the holocaust by negotiating from strength. If in the early sixties the rage of the young in revolt found its expression in nuclear war themes, the same themes were used in the seventies to express the rage they had aroused in their elders.
The outstanding achievements in science fiction during the seventies were James Blish’s The Day After Judgment ( 1971), James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Man Who Walked Home” (1972), Edgar Pangborn’s The Company of Glory (1975) and Still I Persist in Wondering (1978), Brian Aldiss’s The Eighty-Minute Hour (1974), Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines (1978), and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978). It is no coincidence that half of these authors (including Tiptree, whose real name is Alice Sheldon) are women; during the seventies the women’s movement profoundly influenced science fiction. Stars like Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ attracted unprecedented numbers of young female readers, and many outstanding women writers began using science fiction to address the concerns of a new audience profoundly influenced by feminism. Writers like Charnas and McIntyre are part of a revisionist movement within the field which has been reshaping the postholocaust landscape along with every other element in science fiction in recent years. They have concentrated in particular on rejecting the traditional misogynistic neobarbarian fantasy, an endeavor in which they have been joined by male feminist writers like Paul O. Williams (The Pelbar Cycle [1981-85]).
Aside from right-wing thrillers and science fictional treatments of the postholocaust world, however, the last half of the seventies marked a low point in the creation of nuclear war fiction. In absolute numbers, never had so little been published since 1945. By way of an exception, one of the finest of all postholocaust novels, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, appeared in 1980 and sold well.
Not until protests in Europe and America over the deployment of new missiles and agitation for a weapons freeze reawakened public concern with the issue did nuclear war fiction began to revive, with works like Yorick Blumenfeld’s Jenny (1981), Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows (1982), and Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday (1984), its title suggestive of the controversial 1983 made-for-television movie The Day After. The most recent development is the proliferation of right-wing adventure novels with postholocaust settings, a trend which will be discussed in detail in our concluding chapter. Whether the current flurry of interest in the subject can be sustained remains to be seen. The year 1984 marked the all-time high point of nuclear war fiction publishing in terms of numbers of works. The past pattern has been a sharp peak of activity followed by a decline, and 1985 saw the appearance of a somewhat smaller, though still substantial, number.
This survey would be incomplete without reference to what I consider the finest novel ever published in English depicting the consequences of nuclear war, Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain. Written in 1965 and translated from the Japanese in 1967, the historical event to which this work responds is the bombing of Hiroshima. Ibuse is a journalist who drew on the diary of an acquaintance and the memories of other survivors to recreate the experience of the hibakusha, the victims of the Hiroshima bombing. Written in an understated tone, and with a thread of subtle irony running through it, this novel is nevertheless by far the most devastating account of the effects of nuclear war ever written. The destruction, the wounds, and the effects of radiation disease are depicted in minute detail. A host of powerful images is presented: telephone poles burn like candles, lead from melted power lines has left a trail of silver droplets, a baby girl plays with her dead mother’s breasts. The main psychological reaction of the victims is shock. Some try to go on about their business as usual, absurdly attempting, for instance, to report to offices which have been vaporized. The traditional modesty of Japanese women prevents many of them from seeking medical attention, as this example highlights:
At one sundry goods store this side of Mitaki Station on the Kobe line, they had found a woman who had got in unnoticed and died in one of their closets. When the owner of the store dragged the body out, he found that the garment it was wearing was his daughter’s best summer kimono. Scandalized, he had torn the best kimono off the body, only to find that it had no underwear on underneath. She must have been burned out of her home and fled all the way there naked, yet still—being a young woman—sought something to hide her nakedness even before she sought water or food.
The vast bulk of accounts of imaginary nuclear wars pales in contrast to such touching, vivid reports of human suffering. There are a number of works containing such stories: Agawa’s Devil’s Heritage; Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1982); Morris’s Flowers of Hiroshima and The Seeds of Hiroshima (1965); Edwin Lanham’s The Clock at 8:16 (1970); and the stories collected in Oe Kenzaburo’s The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath (New York: Grove, 1985). All of them are affecting, but none possesses the powerfully simple artistry of Black Rain.Nuclear war fiction has been written from the perspective of politicians who started it, of our descendants who may undergo it, and of investigating aliens from the distant stars; but the perspective which makes the experience a vivid reality is that adopted by Ibuse, of the real-life victims. Most other authors have written about nuclear war without really confronting it. They show how it can be prevented or survived, use it as a club to thrash a political foe, fantasize about it as a source of magic, revel in the disorder which follows in its wake, wield it to clear the way for a future utopia, or create through it a kind of nostalgic—albeit radioactive—pastoral.
The authors cannot be blamed entirely. Their readers have a very low tolerance for realism on this subject. If the relatively benign holocausts of Alas, Babylon and The Day After are considered shocking by their contemporary audiences, clearly not many people have been paying attention even to the facts available since August 1945. To acquaint people with the facts, all the fantasies of the future lumped together are not as valuable as Black Rain.
In the chapters which follow, the various features of nuclear war as they have been depicted in a selected number of novels and short stories are surveyed. Because relatively few works contain thorough depictions of the course such a war, some names like Wylie’s and Clarkson’s will of necessity come up in various contexts. Their books are simply too valuable as resources to be disposed of in a single chapter. On the other hand, there are a great many interesting works discussed in the Bibliography which are nowhere mentioned in the following chapters. There was simply not space for an exhaustive treatment of all the worthy authors.
The analysis includes a discussion of the causes of nuclear war in fiction, the nature of fictional attacks and their immediate aftermath. The fourth chapter covers a variety of ways in which a fictional nuclear war is commonly depicted as performing important transformations: the complete destruction of all life; radically transformed social mores; new social systems; and the creation of new types of people and animals. The final chapter considers the political effects of nuclear war fiction and tries to draw some conclusions for the future. This volume is organized in such a way as to concentrate on the phenomenon of nuclear war as it is commonly depicted, exploring the ways in which mass consciousness is molded and reflected by the writers of popular fiction.
This chapter has been translated into Danish by Anna Polonski.