Next: Postholocaust fantasies
Before the end of 1985, when the research for the first edition of this book concluded, very few studies of nuclear war fiction had appeared, but a number of important ones appeared shortly afterward. The very first was Sam Moskowitz’s “The Atom Smashers: Fiction’s Prophetic Parallel to Fact,” in a single-sheet fanzine entitled Fantasy Fiction Field, Whole Number 210 (October 6, 1945). It was reprinted with some revisions and additions in the November 1952 issue of Science Fiction Quarterly. It lists a few nuclear war stories, but most of it is devoted to describing the depiction of atomic science in pre-Hiroshima science fiction. Philip Duhan Segal’s unpublished dissertation (Yeshiva University, 1973), “Imaginative Literature and the Atomic Bomb: An Analysis of Representative Novels, Plays, and Films from 1945 to 1972,” is a pioneering study, but it is hardly definitive. Although Segal unearthed a number of very obscure novels and plays and although his bibliography is valuable for those studying the theme in other media, such as radio, television, and film, it suffers from a simplistic statistical analysis of themes which is rendered useless by the fact that he missed the vast bulk of the relevant works, largely by ignoring most science fiction.
Only one nuclear war novel (O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah) is discussed in Margaret Esmonde’s “After Armageddon: The Post Cataclysmic Novel for Young Readers” (Children’s Literature, Volume 6: The Annual of the Modern Language Association Group on Children’s Literature [Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977], pp. 211-20). Much more useful is Albert I. Berger’s study, “The Triumph of Prophecy: Science Fiction and Nuclear Power in the Post-Hiroshima Period,” Science-Fiction Studies 3 (1976): 143-50, covering only the period 1940-47. Two related articles by the same author are “Nuclear Energy: Science Fiction’s Metaphor of Power,” Science-Fiction Studies 6 (1979): 121-28, and “Love, Death and the Atomic Bomb: Sexuality and Community in Science Fiction, 1935-55,” Science-Fiction Studies 8 (1981): 280-96. I. F. Clarke’s pioneering work,Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984 (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), an excellent study of future wars, devoted only a few pages to nuclear war. Clarke drew upon the first edition of Nuclear Holocausts, which he read in manuscript, to add a number of examples to the second edition, titled Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763-3749 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992).
Robert J. Lifton’s Death in Life: The Survivors of Hiroshima (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1967) contains in its tenth chapter a fine survey of fictional reactions by Japanese authors to the atomic bomb and an appreciation of Ibuse’s Black Rain. German authors are discussed in exhaustive detail in Raimund Kurscheid’s Kampf dem Atomtod! Schriftsteller gegen eine deutsche Atombewaffnung [Fight Atomic Death! Writers Against German Nuclear Armament] (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1981). A Russian view of the theme by Vladimir Gakov (“SF Writers on the March for Peace”) appeared in Soviet Literature 2 (January 1984): 158-65, which praises Western novels like On the Beach but defends the lack of anything similar in Communist nations. After I wrote to him about my work, Gakov arranged for me to participate in the Seventh World Congress of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War in Moscow, 1987, beginning a relationship that produced his bibliography complimentary to this one entitled “Nuclear-War Themes in Soviet Science Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography,” Science-Fiction Studies 16(1989): 67-84. Gakov was able to identify and describe over seventy examples of a genre which I was repeatedly assured by Western experts did not exist.
Harold L. Berger’s Science Fiction and the New Dark Age (Bowling Green, Ohio: The Popular Press, 1976) contains a brief section on nuclear war fiction (pp. 147-55), which discusses Shute’s On The Beach, Wylie’s Triumph, Roshwald’s Level 7, and Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. Postholocaust science fiction is discussed in chapter 9, “By the Waters of Babylon: Our Barbarous Descendants,” of Paul Carter’s The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press., 1977). Andrew Feenberg’s “The Politics of Survival: Science Fiction in the Nuclear Age,” Alternative Futures 1 (1978): 3-23, strikingly manages to overlook most of the significant science fiction on the subject while making some intelligent observations.
Gary K. Wolfe’s The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1979) contains an excellent chapter entitled “Icon of the Wasteland” which covers a number of the works included here as well as others which deal with non-nuclear catastrophes. Wolfe’s emphasis on iconography has relieved me from the necessity of dealing with that aspect of the genre. Warren W. Wagar created a fine survey of apocalyptic fiction in Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982). Wagar’s book ranges farther in time and subject matter than this one, but our views coincide on many points. Like Wolfe, however, Wagar is primarily interested in treating nuclear war fiction as metaphorical, whereas my emphasis, reflected in the structure of this volume, is on fiction as a reaction to and a warning against the actuality of nuclear war. The metaphorical approach is generally shared by the scholars represented in The End of the World, a collection of essays on apocalyptic fiction edited by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander which appeared in 1983 (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press). The present study is offered as a complement to and not a replacement for these books.
A brief discussion of Huxley’s Ape and Essence, Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Hoban’s Riddley Walker, including comments about a few other nuclear war novels, appeared in the Fall 1984 issue of Extrapolation (Thomas J. Morrissey, “Armageddon from Huxley to Hoban,” pp. 197-213). Robert Mielke presents a suggestive typology based on a small sample of nuclear war fiction in his article “Imaging Nuclear Weaponry: An Ethical Taxonomy of Nuclear Representation” on pp. 164-80 of the Warnings anthology listed below H. Bruce Franklin’s anthology of fiction, Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War (New York: DAW, 1984) contains an excellent “Historical Introduction” and authors’ notes. It is certainly a definitive collection of nuclear war short stories, although some of its selections do not meet the guidelines for the present study. My own article, “Nuclear War in Science Fiction, 1945-59,” appeared in Science Fiction Studies 11 (1984): 253-63, and was an early draft of material in this book. Daniel L. Zins’s “Teaching English in a Nuclear Age,” which appeared in College English 47 (1985): 387-406, is useful, although it relegates the few science fiction titles it mentions to a footnote. Thomas M. Disch’s The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World(New York: Free Press, 1998) includes a chapter sharply critical of SF’s treatment of nuclear war themes: “How Science Fiction Defused the Bomb” (Chapter 4, pp. 78-96).
The entire July 1986 issue of Science-Fiction Studies (vol. 13, part 2) is devoted to nuclear war and science fiction. It contains my article, “Resources for the Study of Nuclear War in Fiction” (pp. 193-97), which lists some useful articles not mentioned here. Other studies relating to the topic of nuclear war published after the first edition of Nuclear Holocausts includeDavid Dowling’s Fictions of Nuclear Disaster (London: Macmillan and Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1987), Martha Bartter’s “Symbol to Scenario: The Atomic Bomb in American Science Fiction, 1930-1960” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Rochester, 1985), and Robert Hostetter’s “The American Nuclear Theatre, 1946-1984” (Ph.D. dissertation, Northwestern University, 1985).
Two bibliographies which partially overlap with the present one appeared in 1984. The first is Grant Burns’s The Atomic Papers: A Citizen’s Guide to Selected Books and Articles on the Bomb, the Arms Race, Nuclear Power, the Peace Movement, and Related Issues (Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press). Its thirteenth section, entitled “The Art of Fission: Novels and Stories with Nuclear Themes” (pp. 259-91), includes several dozen of the titles also listed here, with much briefer citations and annotations. More specialized because it deals exclusively with fiction is John Newman and Michael Unsworth’s Future War Novels: An Annotated Bibliography of Works in English Published Since 1946 (Phoenix, Ariz.: Oryx). It lists 127 books which fit the guidelines of the present study, and annotates them in considerable detail. Although the authors have overlooked a great deal, they have uncovered some very obscure works, including a score which were previously unknown to me. Both of these bibliographies include near-wars, atomic test disasters, etc., which are excluded from the present study, and will be of interest to scholars pursuing those subjects, although both are far from complete. Newman and Unsworth do not list short stories. For a list of errors in Future War Novels, see my review in Reference Services Review 13 (1985), “Recent Reference Books” section, p. 20.
It may be helpful for readers unfamiliar with science fiction research to note those reference works which have proved especially useful to this study. The Science Fiction Encyclopedia edited by Peter Nicholls (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1979) contains an excellent article entitled “Holocaust and After.” Donald H. Tuck’s The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (3 vols.; Chicago: Advent, 1974, 1978, 1982), although it contains numerous errors (some of which are corrected in the Bibliography of the present volume), is invaluable in tracking down various editions of novels. Two very helpful surveys of science fiction with extensive annotation and criticism are Frank Magill’s Survey of Science Fiction Literature (5 vols.; Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Salem Press, 1979) and Neil Barron’s Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction (2nd ed.; New York: Bowker, 1981). British science fiction is listed and annotated in I. F. Clarke’s Tale of the Future. The third edition (London: Library Association, 1978) covers the period up to 1976 and provides many titles which would otherwise have been overlooked. Recent titles were discovered by perusing back issues of Fantasy Review, a journal whose review columns and publishing previews are an excellent resource.
The location of short stories is greatly facilitated by William Contento’s Index to Science Fiction Anthologies and Collections (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1978) and its supplement covering the years 1977-83 (from the same publisher in 1984). Short stories which appeared only in magazines may be located through the following three volumes which complement each other: Donald B. Day, Index to the Science Fiction Magazines 1926-1950, second edition, revised by Mrs. Donald B. Day (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1982); Erwin S. Strauss, The MIT Science Fiction Society’s Index to the S-F Magazines 1951-1965 (Cambridge, Mass.: Erwin S. Strauss, 1965); and New England Science Fiction Association, Index to the Science Fiction Magazines 1966-1970 (West Hanover, Mass.: New England Science Fiction Association, 1971).
Critical books and articles on titles and authors listed in the Bibliography were located in the Survey of Science Fiction Literature: Bibliographical Supplement, compiled by Marshall B. Tymn (Englewood Cliffs, N. J.: Salen Press, 1982), in Thomas D. Clareson’s Science Fiction Criticism: AnAnnota ted Checklist (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1972); and Tymn and Roger C. Schlobin’s The Year’s Scholarship in Science Fiction and Fantasy: 1972-1975 (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1979), in their TheYear’s Scholarship in Science Fiction and Fantasy 1976-79 (same publisher, 1982), in Tymn’s The Year’s Scholarship in Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Literature 1980 (same publisher, 1983), in the volumes (same title) for 1981 and 1982 (dates of publication not given), and in the continuations, under the same title, in Extrapolation, the 1983 bibliography in volume 26 (1985): 85-142, and the 1985 bibliography in volume 27 (1986), 123-73.
Although the following collections have only a tangential connection with the subject matter treated here, they will probably be of interest to anyone concerned with nuclear war and literature: the Editors of Northwest Review, Warnings: An Anthology on the Nuclear Peril (constitutes volume 22, numbers I and 2 of Northwest Review, Eugene, Oregon, 1984); Jim Schley, ea., Writing in a Nuclear Age (Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1984, a reprint of NER&BLQ: New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly 5 [Summer 1983]); and Morty Sklar, ea., Nuke-Rebuke: Writers and Artists Against Nuclear Energy and Weapons (Iowa City, Iowa: Spirit That Moves Us Press, 1984). All of these emphasize poetry more than fiction.
Interest in the subject of nuclear war outside the science fiction community seems to have aroused very little interest in fiction depicting nuclear war. An entire issue of Diacritics (Summer 1984) was devoted to “nuclear criticism” without any of the contributors so much as mentioning a single piece of nuclear war fiction. Researchers interested in pursuing the subject of nuclear war as it has been depicted in the movies will want to consult Jack G. Shaheen’s Nuclear War Films (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978) and Mick Broderick’s comprehensive Nuclear Movies: A Critical Analysis and Filmography of International Feature Length Films Dealing with Experimentation, Aliens, Terrorism, Holocaust, and Other Disaster Scenarios, 1914-1989 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1991). This replaces his earlier Nuclear Movies: A Filmography (Northcote, Vic, Australia: Post-Modem Pub., 1988)
An overview of current work and resources on the subject of nuclear war in the humanities is provided in the brief but excellent contribution of Philip N. Gilbertson to the special section of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists entitled “Nuclear War: A Teaching Guide” (see the section titled “Humanities,” 40 [December 1984]: 13s-l5s).
Among many other books on nuclear war itself and the public’s perception of it. the following proved especially useful:
- Peter Biskind, Seeing Is Believing. How Hollywood Taught Us to Stop Worrying and Love the Fifties (New York: Pantheon, 1983);
- Paul Bracken, The Command and Control of Nuclear Forces (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1983);
- Nigel Calder, Nuclear Nightmares: An Investigation into Possible Wars (New York: Viking, 1979);
- John W. Campbell, Jr., The Atomic Story (New York: Henry Holt, 1947);
- Magnus Clarke, The Nuclear Destruction of Britain (London: Croom Helm, 1982);
- Robert A. Divine, Blowing On the Wind: The Nuclear Test Ban Debate 1954-1960 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978);
- Paul R. Ehrlich, Carl Sagan, Donald Kennedy, and Walter Orr Roberts, The Cold and the Dark: The World After Nuclear War (New York: Norton, 1984);
- D. F. Fleming, The Cold War and Its Origins,vol. I (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1961);
- Morton Halperin, China and the Bomb (New York: Praeger, 1965);
- Gregg Herken, The Winning Weapon: The Atomic Bomb in the Cold War, 1945-1950 (New York: Knopf, 1980);
- Stephen Hilgartner, Richard C. Bell, and Rory O’Connor, Nukespeak: Nuclear Language, Visions, and Mindset (San Francisco: Sierra Club, 1982);
- Alice Langley Hsieh, Communist China’s Strategy in the Nuclear Era (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1962);
- Herman Kahn, On Thermonuclear War, 2nd ed. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1969), and Thinking About the Unthinkable (New York: Horizon Press, 1962);
- Fred Kaplan, The Wizards of Armageddon (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1983);
- The Pacific War Research Society, The Day Man Lost: Hiroshima, 6 August 1945 (Tokyo: Kodansha Interna tional, 1972);
- The Editors of Pocket Books, The Atomic Age Opens (New York: Pocket Books, 1945);
- Bertrand Russell, Common Sense and Nuclear Warfare (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959);
- and Martin J. Sherwin, A World Destroyed: The Atomic Bomb and the Grand Alliance (New York: Knopf, 1975).
Other volumes containing fictional nuclear war scenarios are cited in the Bibliography.
An essential source for the study of the pre-Hiroshima period is H. Bruce Franklin’s War Stars: The Super-Weapon and the American Imagination (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988). He discovered a number of early atomic war narratives which my research for the first edition had overlooked. For the period immediately after World War II, I drew on Paul Boyer’s outstanding study, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (New York: Pantheon, 1985). Its wealth of evidence surrounding the impact of the atomic bomb on the culture of the late forties proved invaluable, and helped to shape my discussion of that period. Also helpful are two articles by my colleague Alexander Hammond which appeared in the anthology Warnings, cited above: “God’s Nation Interprets the Bomb: A Collage from the Early Years” (pp. 2-11), and “Rescripting the Nuclear Threat in 1953: The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms” (pp. 181-94).
It has been customary in books of this sort to offer apologies for the study of science fiction as serious literature. None is offered here, but interested readers previously unaware of science fiction’s contemporary stature may wish to consult such scholarly works as the following:
- Thomas D. Clareson, ea., Many Futures, Many Worlds: Theme and Form in Science Fiction (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1977);
- David Ketterer, New Worlds for Old: The Apocalyptic Imagination, Science Fiction and American Literature (Garden City, New York: Anchor, 1974);
- and Robert E. Scholes and Erik Rabkin, Science Fiction: History, Science, Vision (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).
- Bartter, Martha. “Nuclear Holocaust as Urban Renewal,” Science Fiction Studies 13, Part 2 (July 1986): 148-158.
- Berger, Albert I. The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell And the American Response to Technology. San Bernardino, Calif., Borgo Press, 1993.
Lots of useful information about nuclear themes in Astounding and the definitive account of the U.S. government reaction to Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline.”
- Canaday, John. The Nuclear Muse: Literature, Physics and the First Atomic Bombs. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000.
- Seed, David, ed. Imagining Apocalypse: Studies in Cultural Crisis, London: Macmillan, 2000.
- Seed, David. “H. G. Wells and the Liberating Atom,” Science Fiction Studies, 30, Part 1 (March 2003): 33-48.The World Set Free placed in its historical context.
Seed argues that the overwhelming impact of atomic weapons undermined the possibility of coherent narratives about them, and includes as examples A Canticle for Leibowitz and Riddley Walker plus dealing briefly with a number of other works.
by Paul Brians
The following checklists are provided to aid those in search of texts on themes closely related to nuclear war. They are not as comprehensive as the main bibliography (nothing published since 1984, for instance), and are merely suggestions for further study. The reader wondering why a particular item was not listed in the bibliography may well find his or her answer here.
In this checklist, nuclear war is more or less narrowly averted, usually by the thwarting of the schemes of terrorists or nuclear blackmailers.
In a few cases, the war seems imminent, but does not actually break out during the story. Many of them are cold-war thrillers in which atomic bombs are used as a suspension-building threat, replacing the older threats of poison gas and the like. Often these novels have little to say about nuclear weapons as such, though some may be interesting to scholars. Many are discussed in Martha A. Bartter’s The Way to Ground Zero: The Atomic Bomb in American Science Fiction (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1988).
Ambler, Eric. The Dark Frontier. 1935.Anvil, Christopher. The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun. 1980.Ardies, Tom. This Suitcase Is Going to Explode. 1972.Asimov, Isaac. “Silly Asses.” 1958.Avallon, Michael. The Doomsday Bag. 1969.Ayer, Frederick. Where No Flags Fly. 1961.Bagley, Michael. The Plutonium Factor. 1983.Ball, John. The First Team. 1971.Bass, Milton R. Force Red. 1970.Beliayev, Alexander. The Struggle in Space. 1965Blish, James. “Sponge Dive.” 1956.Boland, John. Holocaust. 1977.Bone, J. F. “Triggerman.” 1958.Boulle, Pierre. “The Diabolical Weapon.” 1966.Boom, Ben. Kinsman. 1979. Millenium. 1976.Bretnor, Reginald. “Maybe Just a Little One.” 1947.Brodeur, Paul. The Sick Fox. 1963.Brunner, John. The Brink. 1959.Buckmaster, Henrietta. The Lion in the Stone. 1968.Bulmer, Kenneth. The Doomsday Men. 1968.Caidin, Martin. Operation Nuke. 1974.Carr, Robert Spencer. “Those Men from Mars.” 1951.Carter, Mary Arkley. The Minutes of the Night. 1965.Chandra, Vikram. Sacred Games. 2007.Chester, Roy. The Damocles Factor. 1977.Christian, John. Five Gates to Armageddon. 1975.Clark, Ronald. Queen Victoria’s Bomb: The Disclosures of Professor Franklin Huxtable, M.A. (Cantab.). 1967Collins, Larry, and Dominique La Pierre. The Fifth Horseman. 1980.Condon, Richard. The Manchurian Candidate. 1959.Conley, Rick. “The Best Laid Plans.” 1980.Cory, Desmond. Sunburst. 1972.Craig, William. Tashkent Crisis. 1971.Creasey, John. The Terror. The Return of Dr. Palfrey. 1964.Crowley, John: The Translator. 2002Cunningham, E. V. Phyllis. 1963.De Camp, L. Sprague. “Judgment Day.” 1955.del Rey, Lester. “Over the Top.” 1949.___. “Shadows of Empire.” 1950.Dick, Philip K. “Foster, You’re Dead.” 1954.Ehrlich, Max. Big Eye. 1949.Fellowes-Gordon, Ian. The Night of the Lollipop. 1979.Fitzgibbon, Constantine. When the Kissing Had to Stop. 1960.Follett, James. The Doomsday Ultimatum. 1976.Forbes, Colin. The Year of the Golden Ape. 1974.Frank, Pat. Forbidden Area. 1956.Freemantle, Brian. The November Man. 1976.Gallery, Daniel J. The Brink. 1968.Gardner, Alan. The Escalator. 1963.Garfield, Brian Wynne. Deep Cover. 1971.Gary, Romain. The Gasp. 1973.Granger, Bill. The Shattered Eye. 1982.Gray, Michael Waude. Minutes to Impact. 1967.Greatorex, Wilfred. The Freelancers. 1975.Griffith, Maxwell. Gadget Maker. 1955.Haggard, William. The Conspirators. 1967.___. The High Wire. 1963.___. Yesterday’s Enemy. 1976.Haining, Peter. The Hero. 1974.Harrington, Robert Edward. The Seven of Swords. 1978.Hodder-Williams, Christopher. Chain Reaction. 1959.Hoppe, Arthur. Miss Lollipop and the Doomsday Machine. 1973.Hough, S. B. Extinction Bomber. 1956.Hunter, Matthew. Cambridgeshire Disaster. 1967.Katz, Robert. Ziggurat. 1978.King, Stephen. The Dead Zone. 1979.King-Hall, Stephen. Moment of No Return. 1960.Knebel, Fletcher. The Night of Camp David. 1965.Kopit, Arthur. End of the World. 1984.Le Guin, Ursula. The Lathe of Heaven. 1971Luke, Thomas. The Hell Candidate. 1980.McCall, Anthony. The Holocaust. 1967.McCutchan, Philip. The Man from Moscow. 1965.MacLean, Alistair. The Golden Rendezvous. 1962.Maine, Charles Eric. Count-Down. 1958.Mair, George B. The Day Khruschev Panicked. 1961.Mason Francis Van Wyck. The Deadly Orbit Mission. 1968.Meadows, Patrick. “Countercommandment.” 1965.Meyer, Bill. Ultimatum. 1966.Milton, Joseph. The Man Who Bombed the World. 1966.Neville, Kris. “Survival Problems.” 1974.Pincher, Chapman. The Eye of the Tornado. 1978.Piper, H. Beam. “Operation R.S.V.R” 1951.Pohl, Frederik. “Critical Mass.” 1961.Poyer, Joe. Operation Malacca. 1966.Quest, Rodney. Countdown to Doomsday. 1966.Reeves, Lynette Pamela. Last Days of the Peacemaker. 1976.Reynolds, Mack. “Sweet Dreams, Sweet Princes. ” 1964.Rothberg, Abraham. Heirs of Cain. 1966.St. Clair, Margaret. Sign of the Labrys.Salinger, Pierre. On Instructions of My Government. 1971.Sambrot, William. “Deadly Decision.” 1958.Sanders, Lawrence. The Hamlet Ultimatum. 1977.Sela, Owen. An Exchange of Eagles. 1977.Serling, Rod. “The Shelter.” 1962.Setlowe, Rick. The Brink. 1977.Shore, Thelma. “Is It the End of the World?” 1972.Smith, Carmichael. Atomsk. 1949.Spillane, Mickey. The By-Pass Control. 1966.Stanton, Ken. Ten Seconds to Zero. 1970.Stewart, Edward. Launch! 1978.Sutton, Jeff. Bombs in Orbit. 1959.Taylor, Ray Ward. Doomsday Square. 1966.Tenn, William. “Will You Walk a Little Farther?” 1951.Terman, Douglas C. First Strike. 1980.Tregaskis, Richard. China Bomb. 1967.Trew, Antony. Ultimatum. 1977.Upward, Edward. The Night Walk and Other Stories. 1987.Van Vogt, A. E. The House That Stood Still. 1953 (rev. 1960 as The Mating Cry).Varley, John. The Barbie Murders. 1980.Vidal, Gore. Visit to a Small Planet. 1957.Wager, Walter. Viper Three. 1971.Walker, Jerry. Mission Accomplished. A Novel of 1950. 1947.Washburn, Mark. The Armageddon Game. 1977.Watts, Peter. Maelstrom. 2001.Way, Peter. Sunrise. 1979.Wheeler, J. Craig: The Krone Experiment. 1986.Wibberley, Leonard. The Mouse That Roared. 1955.Wilhelm, Kate. City of Cane. 1974. . Welcome, Chaos. 1983.Wynd, Oswald. Death, the Red Flower. 1965.
In a surprising number of cases, it is uncertain whether a nuclear war has occurred or not. There are many vague holocausts to which no cause is ascribed. To list them all would be to go far beyond the bounds of this study; but in the case of most of the following works, one could make a reasonable case that the cause of the holocaust might well have been a nuclear war. In almost all cases, these works have been listed by one scholar or another as nuclear war narratives. Many others, erroneously listed as nuclear wars by these same scholars, have been omitted because their texts specifically make such a label inappropriate. Not uncommonly, tales of worldwide pollution (like Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s False Dawn) and ecocatastrophes of other sorts have been misidentified as concerning nuclear holocausts.Bester, Alfred. The Demolished Man. 1952.Bishop, Michael. “Vox Olympica.” 1981.Black, Dorothy. Candles in the Dark. 1954.Boorman, John. Zardoz. 1974.Burns, A. Europe After the Rain. 1965.Dick, Philip K. “Imposter.” 1953.___. “The Turning Wheel.” 1954.Eklund, Gordon. Dance of the Apocalypse. 1976.Erlanger, Michael. “Silence in Heaven.” 1961.Farmer, Philip Jose. A Woman a Day or The Day of Timestop. 1953.Fitzgibbon, Constantine. Iron Hoop. 1949.Forstchen, William R. The Flame Upon the lce. 1984.Gibbs, Lewis. Late Final. 1951.Goldston, Robert. The Shore Dimly Seen. 1963.Groves, J. W. Shellbreak. 1970Harrison, Helga. Catacombs. 1962.Heyne, William R. Tale of Two Futures: A Novel of Life on Earth and the Planet Paliades in 1975. 1958.Kelleam, Joseph E. “The Eagles Gather.” 1942.Key-Aberg, Sandro. “The End of Man.” 1967.LeGuin, Ursula. City of Illusions. 1967.Macauley, Robie. Secret History of Time to Come. 1979.MacTyre, Paul. Midge or Doomsday 1999. 1962Murry, Colin. Phoenix. 1968.Piper. H. Beam. “The Keeper.” 1957.Seabright, Idris. “Short in the Chest.” 1954.Van Vogt, A. E. “Co-Operate–Or Else!” 1942.Wilhelm, Kate. Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang. 1976.Williams, Jay. The People of the Ax. 1974.Wilson, Richard. “A Man Spekith.” 1969.Wongar, B. “Maramara.” 1978.Zelazny, Roger. Today We Choose Faces. 1975.
Nuclear Bomb Tests
In a number of cases a nuclear holocaust is not the result of a war at all, but of atomic bomb testing. These works, because they often closely resemble nuclear war novels, are likely to be of interest to the reader of this study, so they are listed below. A few deal with protests against atomic testing.
Anderson, William C[harles]. Five, Four, Three, Two, One–Pfftt.Anvil, Christopher. “Torch.” 1957.Asimov, Isaac. “Hell Fire.” 1956.___. “Paté de fois gras.” 1956.Ballard, J. G. “The Voices of Time.” 1960.Buzzati, Dino. “A Siberian Shepherd’s Report of the Atom Bomb.” 1963.Compton, David. “Mutatis Mutandis.” In Laughter and Fear. 1960.Dobraczynski, Jan. To Drain the Sea. 1964.Duncan, Ronald. The Last Adam. 1952.Ellanby, Boyd. “Chain Reaction.” 1956.Harrison, Michael. The Brain. 1953.Hatch, Gerald. The Day the Earth Froze. 1963.Lawrence, Henry Lionel. The Children of Light. 1962.Lymington, John. The Giant Stumbles. 1960.McAuley, Jacqueline Rollit. The Cloud.MacGregor, James Murdoch. A Cry to Heaven. 1960.Maine, Charles Eric. The Tide Went Out or Thirst. 1958.Masson, Loys. Barbed Wire Fence or The Shattered Sexes. I95X.Murphy, Robert. “Fallout Island.” 1962.Roberts, Keith. The Furies. 1965.Schary, Dore. The Highest Tree. 1960.Shadbolt, Maurice. Danger Zone. 1 976 .Trevor, Elleston. The Domesday Story.Wood, William. The News from Karachi. 1962.
The following works concern accidents involving nuclear reactors and other nonmilitary atomic installations. Some of them closely resemble the nuclear holocausts listed in the main bibliography.Aldiss, Brian. Greybeard. 1964.Brennert, Alan. “Jamie’s Smile.” 1976.Brown, Jerry Earl. Under the City of Angels. 1981.del Rey, Lester. Nerves. 1942.Fontenay, C. L. The Day the Oceans Overflowed. 1964.Gotlieb, Phyllis. Sunburst. 1964.Heinlein, Robert A. “Blowups Happen.” 1940.Hoyle, Fred. The Westminster Disaster. 1978Jackson, Basil. Epicenter. 1976.Jameson, Malcolm. Atomic Bomb. 1943.Kavan, Anna. Ice. 1967.Levy, D. The Gods of Foxcroft. 1970.McQuay, Mike. Matthew Swain. Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight. 1981.Piper, H. Beam. “Day of the Moron.” 1951Pohnka, Bett and Barbara C. Griffin. The Nuclear Catastrophe. 1977.Queffele, Rodney. Countdown to Doomsday. 1966.Sambrot William “Nine Days to Die ” 1960Samuel, Edwin. “Danger!” 1960.Schroeder, Karl. “The Dragon of Pripyat.” 1999.Scortia, Thomas N. The Prometheus Crisis. 1976.Shiras, Wilmar H. Children of the Atom. 1953.Tubb, E. C. Breakaway. 1975.Warriner, Thurman. Death’s Bright Angel. 1956.Wells, Barry. The Day the Earth Caught Fire. 1962Womack, Jack. Ambient. 1987.Ziemann, H. H. The Explosion. 1979.
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.
by Paul Brians
The Long-Term Effects of Nuclear War
Most nuclear war fiction can be fairly clearly divided into one of two groups: those depicting a conflict and its immediate consequences, and those set in the more distant future, long after the war has taken place. Thanks to the vigorous tradition of postholocaust adventure stories in science fiction, the latter considerably outnumbers the former. The landscape after an atomic war is transformed in fiction in many strange and surprising ways.
Perhaps the most common attitude which people hold toward nuclear war is that such a conflict would be simply the end of the world in some sense or other. The fascination of secular apocalyptic literature, much of it drawing on traditional religious imagery of Armageddon and the Last Judgment, has been widespread in our century since long before 1945. It is no surprise, then, that works depicting nuclear war should be written from the same perspective. Consider some titles: Doomsday Eve, Doomsday Clock, Doomsday Wing, After Doomsday, The Day After Doomsday, The Last Day, The Last Days, On the Last Day, The Seventh Day, Deus Irae, Alas, Babylon, A Small Armageddon, The Dark Millenium. The fact that in none of these works does the world end in any sense comparable to that depicted in the book of Revelation underlines the symbolic nature of this fascination with the apocalyptic theme. Yet, since most of us in our modern secular culture no longer believe in the Last Judgment, and the solar nova which will one day engulf the Earth is too far distant to capture most people’s imaginations, nuclear war is the nearest thing we have to Armageddon, if not to the end of the world proper.
But most authors–including some of those who use apocalyptic imagery– are reluctant to imagine even so modest an end as the annihilation of all human life. The apocalypse is often rumored but seldom portrayed. Stories of the collapse of civilization abound, however, and have abounded long before the atomic bomb was developed. In fiction, the new dark age of the post-nuclear war era cannot always be sharply distinguished from similar dark ages whose causes are different or unspecified, as in Walter Van Tilburg Clark’s “The Portable Phonograph,” Stephen Vincent Benet’s “By the Waters of Babylon,” or, more recently, John Crowley’s Engine Summer (1979). Clark’s story first appeared in 1942 and Benet’s in 1937, but many contemporary readers automatically interpret them as being set in worlds devastated by nuclear war. So pervasive is the notion that atomic Armageddon is our destiny that any book portraying a societal collapse is liable to be interpreted as a post-nuclear holocaust novel, as happened, for instance, in the case of Ursula Le Guin’s 1985 novel, Always Coming Home. Le Guin strenuously refuted the claims of reviewers to see a nuclear war in the background of the work. On occasion, even the jacket copy of a book will signal a nuclear war whereas the text contains no such thing (e.g., Paul MacTyre, Midge ).
Even when nuclear war clearly provides the background of a narrative, it is liable to be more or less optimistic. This is well illustrated by the fact that the vast majority of stories and novels concentrate on the survivors, not on the victims. Those few writers who have dared to suppose that nuclear bombs might literally destroy human life imagine a variety of mechanisms leading to doomsday, one of which is the sterilization of the species through exposure to radiation. Most writers have realized that a degree of radiation sufficient to allow some people to survive but render all of them sterile is extremely unlikely. Yet the concept is an attractive one because it allows an author to make clear the threat to the continued existence of humanity posed by the danger of nuclear war. The earliest statement of this theme occurred in Poul Anderson and F. N. Waldrop’s 1947 story “Tomorrow’s Children.” Even here, mutants will survive. Few authors are willing to consider the end of the human race, and when they do, often no less fantastic means of avoiding the end than mutation is considered.
It is striking that even when extinction threatens, effective political action to end the threat of nuclear war is entirely lacking in these works. Authors shun racial suicide, but they cannot conceive of politics as an alternative. The sense of the utter powerlessness of the ordinary citizen one gets from reading the bulk of these works is overwhelming. The authors may hope to stir their readers to action, but the nearest most of them come to political analysis is in expressing the hope that political leaders will behave wisely. It may be that in the popular mind nuclear war is the symbol of our common death. Folk wisdom tells us that we must accept that fate as inevitable; indeed, it is much easier to resign oneself to extinction than to engage in the complicated and exhausting task of staving off an atomic Armageddon. The mesmerizing power of the threatened end of civilization, if not of all life on Earth, seems to cast a pall over the human will. Even otherwise intelligent people have said, “If the bomb drops, I hope I’m right under it and never know what happened.”
One need not be an advocate of civil defense to deplore such fatalism. Authors are not so pessimistic as the general public in this regard. They seem to believe that nuclear war, though inevitable, is survivable–by a few.
Yet there is a certain grim logic in viewing the human race as rushing headlong into oblivion like the lemmings of folklore. We have, after all, evolved a science which enables us to destroy ourselves, and social systems which make that fate difficult to avoid. These familiar truisms lead many writers to adopt an elegiac tone when writing of the future of the human race. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles (1950), discussed in chapter 1, is the best known of these elegies for humanity. The sequence of early stories placed near the end of the book reflects Bradbury’s brooding on the fate of humanity in the four years following Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In contrast with the earlier stories which are little more than variations on the horror fiction to which Bradbury was devoted early in his career and in which the Martians are the aggressors, the humans the victims, The Martian Chronicles depicts human beings as despoilers, a race which pollutes the pristine canals of Mars, smashes its precious artifacts, and disregards the wisdom left behind by the noble ancient Martian civilization. Only isolated individuals here and there display sensitivity and understanding, at the price of radical alienation from the rest of humanity. It is quite clear that the qualities Bradbury regards as distinctively human are those he scorns most. In War of the Worlds (1898), H. G. Wells had compared the assault mounted by the Martians upon the Earth to the genocide inflicted on other races by Europeans. Bradbury is clearly reversing the pattern to the same end, allowing the Martians to be portrayed as the innocent victims this time.
The defilement created by the human invasion of Mars can be removed only by removing the race itself. This is accomplished, to begin with, by having almost every human settler return to Earth when war breaks out in a rather unconvincing parallel to the flight of emigres from Europe just before each of the world wars (in the brief sections entitled “The Luggage Store” and “The Watchers”). Readers witness the outbreak of nuclear war through the eyes of the despicable Sam Parkhill in the 1948 story “The Off Season.” The sole pair left in the Martian cities in “The Silent Towns” is unworthy of perpetuating the species; and, even though the last man on the planet is kind and sensitive, he dies, survived only by the family of admirable robots which he has created (in “The Long Years,” originally “Dwellers in Silence” [ 1948]).
In The Martian Chronicles, both Martians and human beings are apparently annihilated more than once, only to be revived for one more requiem. The Martians die with a dignity denied most of the humans. The book is one long farewell to the optimistic vision of endless human progress so lovingly depicted in prewar science fiction. Bradbury was not alone in greeting the atomic age with a dirge for the human race. Among others it is worth mentioning Clifford D. Simak and his City stories, published during the same period and written in the same nostalgic, funereal mood, although they do not include the specific theme of nuclear war.
“There Will Come Soft Rains,” which uses the collapse of a highly automated house to depict the death of humanity. The actions of the various servomechanisms reveal the characteristics of the family members who once lived here and who remain only as silhouettes of paint on the house’s blackened exterior. The family dog, which has outlived the humans, dies just before the house destroys itself–a moment reminiscent of the death of Odysseus’ dog upon his return to Ithaca, although in this case the death marks the obliteration rather than the recovery of hope. The poem by Sara Teasdale which gives the story its title (first published in Harper’s, July 1918) captures the mood of estranged mourning which dominates the latter part of the novel: nature will go on, quite unconscious of the disappearance of humanity.
“There Will Come Soft Rains,” one of the last-published stories in the series, forms the natural conclusion to The Martian Chronicles. The much more optimistic tale which follows it, “The Million-Year Picnic,” had appeared in 1946 and represents the more conventional tradition which insists that the human race must always be depicted as surviving and prevailing. Yet as we have seen, Bradbury’s pessimism about humanity finds expression even here as hope rests in making a clean break with previous human history. Bradbury is the most nostalgic of science fiction authors. In most of The Martian Chronicles, his nostalgia is anticipatory: longing for the best that humanity could have been but seems doomed never to realize.
Seven years later Nevil Shute evoked a similar nostalgia in his best-selling depiction of the death of humanity, On the Beach. Whereas many who read The Martian Chronicles undoubtedly overlooked Bradbury’s pessimism, identifying with the lyrical Martians or the few decent humans, the common fate of the human race is not so easily ignored in On the Beach. The book gains its power from the successive elimination of one hope after another, as a last expedition by submarine explores the world in vain searching for signs of life, discovering, for instance, that a radio signal coming from Seattle is caused only by a window shade blowing against an overturned pop bottle, which in turn periodically triggers a radio-telegraph key.
On the Beach depicts the last days of the survivors left in Australia, the last habitable continent to be blanketed with lethally radioactive fallout. Much of the novel reads like a collection of those bittersweet human interest stories in which the terminal cancer patient tastes one last, coveted pleasure before dying–the fishing trip, the automobile race, the love affair. These characters’ desires are touchingly human, the fate which awaits those who desire them touchingly familiar. Only the scale is new: as Jonathan Schell so vividly points out in The Fate of the Earth (1982), in nuclear war we leave no one behind to mourn or remember us; our work is not carried on by the next generation; our deaths lack meaning, serve no purpose. The characters in Shute’s novel are incapable of confronting this prospect. They cope by denying the truth, pretending that life will go on indefinitely. They die, for the most part, individually and quietly.
Several authors have sought to distance themselves from the death of humanity by creating a narrative from the viewpoint of alien observers who muse over the ruins (see, for instance, Richard Savage’s When the Moon Died ). Such authors have solved the problem of creating a narrative of an event which has no surviving human witnesses, but at a considerable cost in credibility. Other writers use the device of setting their world- wrecking holocausts on other planets, whether they depicted a war on the moon (A. Bertram Chandler, “False Dawn” ; Herman Wouk, The Lomokome Papers ), on Mars (Pelham Groom, The Purple Twilight ), or an imaginary planet (Alfred M. Young, The Aster Disaster ).
Few authors try very hard to make their world-wrecking wars scientifically plausible. Only a very few quite recent works deal with the possible depletion of the ozone layer and its possible consequences. Very recently, the possibility of a nuclear winter has begun to creep into the picture, but not usually as an apocalyptic device. So far, most fictional nuclear winters are relatively mild. Less catastrophic versions of nuclear winters based on accounts of cooling caused by volcanic eruptions appeared as early as 1947, in Anderson and Waldrop’s “Tomorrow’s Children,” and 1957, in Christopher Anvil’s “Torch” (Astounding, April 1957); but no one seems to have anticipated fully the findings of contemporary scientists. Only in 1985, with works like Brian Aldiss’s Helliconia Winter, did the theme begin to be developed fully. More world-destroying novels, particularly those published in the fifties, have combined biological with atomic warfare.
Whatever its projected cause, the death of the Earth has been too fearsome a fate for many to consider seriously. Our sense of the naturalness and inevitability of death is rooted in an organic cycle which depends on the continued fertility of Earth. The lifeless cosmos may be contemplated briefly with awe, but human beings cannot feel truly at home in it. If the nuclear optimists are correct, an atomic war need not be a true Armageddon, and the failure of nerve represented by the paucity of true end-of-the-world stories is insignificant. But even if the optimists are wrong, the tendency to overstate the consequences of nuclear war may well make it more difficult to prevent. It is possible to become mesmerized by the awful prospect. Thinking about the unthinkable is something that should be done by others than the likes of Herman Kahn. Appealing as the apocalyptic metaphor may be, it may also be terribly dangerous. People are all too ready to pose the alternatives as global death or the status quo. Since stories of the dying world seem as often to paralyze their readers as to galvanize them to action, perhaps the insistence of most writers on providing a few survivors has a useful function: the existence of ragged remnants of humanity may provide the psychic room needed to contemplate the real danger. Readers seem to discount stories of atomic doom like On the Beach too heavily simply because they take them as overstating the case. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka attempt to make just this point in Warday (1984) by pointing out that even a nuclear war which fell far short of Armageddon would be an unprecedented disaster.
All this acknowledged, the frightening truth seems to be that nuclear war is far more threatening than the average person recognizes, the death of Earth through a nuclear winter or other ecocatastrophe all too probable. What authors have failed to make credible in fiction is perhaps our eventual fate. It is difficult to imagine any electable president choosing, like the hero of Theodore Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses” (1947), to allow his nation to be destroyed without retaliating; but such could be the only chance humanity has of surviving the next war.
If racial death is not common in the postholocaust wasteland, what experience is? The answer is sex. Sex flourishes where death is kept at bay. The phenomenon is familiar: on the brink of battle, with death looming near, a man and woman cling together, asserting life in the face of death. In Mary Arkley Carter’s story of imminent nuclear war, The Minutes of the Night (1965), teenagers terrified of impending death frantically make love. Traditionally, soldiers and their wives and girlfriends conceived children just before they went off to war, affirming that there would be a new generation, even though the current one was threatened. It is not surprising to find their descendants frenziedly copulating in their fallout shelters. Indeed, the subject of sex in nuclear war novels is given far more attention than, for example, radiation sickness. Part of the reason for this preoccupation is simply a function of the conventions of the popular novel which demand a love interest. But the extremes to which authors will go to involve sex in their plots demonstrate an obsession which goes beyond mere convention. They seem to be feverishly battling atomic thanatos with eros. (See Albert I. Berger, “Love, Death and the Atomic Bomb: Sexuality and Community in Science Fiction, 1935-55,” Science-Fiction Studies 8 : 280-90.) ;
It is useless to survey all the vast number of ways in which the erotic infuses the postholocaust novel, but certain aspects of the subject are especially pertinent because of what they tell us about popular attitudes toward nuclear war. One might justifiably expect that people would be somewhat depressed in the wake of the conflict. Indeed, Ibuse’s account of the behavior of the victims of Hiroshima in Black Rain (1967) suggests that one of the effects of experiencing nuclear devastation at close range is a sharp decrease in libido, with most survivors losing interest in sex altogether. While this seems to have been true in fact for Hiroshima survivors such a possibility has rarely occurred to those who write about fictional wars, although the protagonist of Alfred Bester’s “They Don’t Make Life Like They Used To” (1963) has suffered a drastic loss of libido; but his ailment exists merely to be cured with the help of an enthusiastic young woman. The subject is treated in a much more sensitive manner in Edward Bryant’s “Jody After the War” (1971) in which a young woman fears and flees love and marriage because of her all-too-rational fears of the sort of pregnancy she can expect in a radioactive world.
Instead, a nuclear holocaust is portrayed over and over again as liberating the libido, justifying all manner of erotic behavior which would be otherwise taboo. The erotic preoccupations of the characters in some nuclear war fiction are so exaggerated as to be absurd, as when a thermonuclear explosion flings a beautiful young woman into the arms of an appreciative protagonist of Robert Moore Williams’s The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles (1961). So consistent is this coupling of atomic fission and fleshly fusion that H. Beam Piper’s suggestion in Uller Uprising(1952) that one might learn how to build an atomic bomb by reading a sexy best seller named Dire Dawn does not seem far-fetched. (The hyper-erotic Dire Dawn is written by a woman, which illustrates another genre fiction stereotype since modern male pop fiction authors, like their counterparts throughout most of history until the seventeenth century, consistently depict women as being more interested in sex than men.)
Even during the conflict itself, one of the main concerns of the inhabitants of fallout shelters is the nature of the sexual arrangements (Philip Wylie, Triumph ). The world of the ruined future outside often has considerably more open attitudes toward sex than the present (Edgar Pangborn, Davy ). Adulterous promiscuity may be just)fied by the need to enlarge the damaged gene pool (Syd Logsdon, A Fond Farewell to Dying ).
Monogamy is the least of the taboos which nuclear war demolishes. In many stories, the war creates the setting for the classic desert island fantasy, where otherwise guilty sexual deeds make sense, providing a kind of atomic permissiveness. Prominent among the taboos overridden is that against incest. In Wallace West’s “Eddie for Short” (1954), almost the last person on Earth is a young pregnant woman who is thoughtfully provided with a devoted black midwife as a companion. As her pregnancy develops, she studies the Greek classics, as her late husband had requested. Her interpretation of Sophocles is nontraditional, for when her son is born, she happily names him Oedipus (hence the title) and looks forward to bearing his children.
Ward Moore’s “Lot” (1953) also creates a sympathetic setting for incest, as the father of the family in flight from an atomic attack on Santa Barbara abandons his blithering idiot of a wife and his whining sons at a gas station restroom, to drive off into a presumably happy future with his sexy fourteen-year-old daughter, Erika. In the sequel, “Lot’s Daughter” (1954), the protagonist is made to pay for his callousness when Erika abandons him in his turn, leaving him with their child. Whereas the first story insists so strongly on the loathesomeness of the rest of the family that father-daughter incest is made to look like a logical alternative, the second seems to reject that view. A similar case for end-of-the-world incest (the holocaust in question is caused by nerve gas), also modeled on the story of Lot and his daughters, had already been published: Sherwood Springer’s “No Land of Nod” (Thrilling Wonder Stories, December 1952), in which a wife solemnly makes her husband promise to mate with their three daughters and continue the race. (See also Robert A. Heinlein, Farnham’s Freehold , and Bertrand Russell, “The Boston Lady” .)
Sex with young girls is common, notably in Piers Anthony’s Var the Stick (1972) in which Var finds that he can only save a twelve-year-old girl from being destroyed by a mutant minotaur by depriving her of her virginity. She is deeply grateful for this heroic deed and later becomes his lover and companion. Although the book makes token gestures toward equality for women, it is rampant with sexism, as are most novels of the neobarbarian genre. The moralistic hero of Dean Ing’s Pulling Through (1983) manages to denounce his underaged cookie and have her too when the young girl he has arrested for sexual misbehavior winds up in his shelter as the bombs go off outside. Chaperoned by his sister and her family, he is spared the temptation to trifle with the young lady while the rems accumulate; but she proves herself to be such a trooper that he later weds her. Although he’s much older than she, they don’t make such a bad couple: he has lost a good deal of weight through starvation in the shelter, which has improved his looks considerably. It’s an ill war that blows nobody good.
A number of graphically pornographic or semipornographic novels with a nuclear holocaust providing the background for unbridled lust were written during the sixties, when pornography publishing houses encouraged, for a brief period, experimentation with standard conventions of the genre. The combination of sex and nuclear war achieves its apotheosis in these peculiar hybrids. (See Gyle Davis, Sex ’99 ; M. J. Deer, Flames of Desire ; Jane Gallion, Biker [ 1969]; George H. Smith, The Coming of the Rats  )
Yet not everyone celebrates the coming of sexual liberation in the wake of an atomic war. Judith Merril rejects the typically male vision of a permissive postholocaust world in Shadow on the Hearth. One of the many difficulties with which the young mother of the story has to deal is the unwanted attentions of a civil defense official. The persistent courtship carried on by this man is depicted as absurd considering the holocaust through which the characters are living. The last thing on the woman’s mind is sex. The novel’s ending reaffirms monogamy as her husband successfully makes it home.
Male authors as well as female sometimes reject the vision of the nuclear wasteland as a rationale for male sexual aggression, as evidenced by Robert C. O’Brien’s Z for Zachariah (1974), in which a teenaged girl needs all the resources at her command to avoid being raped by the violent, abusive older male who may be the only other person alive. In a very large number of stories, rape is a prominent feature of the immediate postholocaust scene, and some stories are built entirely around the rape theme, such as “The House by the Crab Apple Tree” (1964) by S. S. Johnson. But rape is almost always presented as a horror, just one more aspect of the atomic catastrophe; it is not celebrated like the other forms of taboo sex discussed.
Similarly, postholocaust fiction almost never legitimizes male homosexuality. And the exceptions which do depict gay sex sympathetically, such as James Sallis’s “Jeremiad” (1969), do not present it as a consequence of postholocaust sexual liberation. Typical is Derek Ingrey’s Pig on a Lead (1963), the young protagonist of which flees the disgusting desires of a sanctimonious but lustful dirty old man and finds excitement with a young woman. In Robert Adams’s Horseclans series (1975-), homosexual men are sadistic, brutal pedophiles. And in Patrick Wyatt’s Irish Rose(1975) and Suzy McKee Charnas’s Walk to the End of the World (1974), men confine most of their lovemaking to males out of contempt for women. But the ultimate homophobic atomic war tale is Henry Slesar’s “Ersatz” (1967), in which a soldier flees a transvestite offering him sex in a bar, preferring to return to the nuclear war raging outside. Better dead than taint oneself with gay sexuality, it would seem.
An important subcategory of the postholocaust love story is the Adam and Eve formula, in which the two survivors of a holocaust must mate to ensure the continuation of the human race. The genre is a large one, including many stories not depicting a nuclear war, and was well established long before the atomic era. One of the best known early examples is Alfred Noyes’s 1940 novel No Other Man, mercilessly satirized in Ronald Duncan’s 1952 atomic test catastrophe novel The Last Adam (London: Dobson). Satiric treatment of the formula also figures in Damon Knight’s “Not With a Bang” (1950; note the punning title), which is little more than a joke criticizing female prudishness. At the end of the story the last man stands paralyzed and dying in a men’s room while the last woman waits outside, too proper to enter and see what is taking him so long.
So insistently carnal are the relationships in most nuclear war novels that there is little room for romance; most of their love stories are little more than sexual encounters. Yet from time to time love blossoms in the postholocaust landscape and takes on special meaning. In a moving scene in an otherwise forgettable novel, Virginia Fenwick’s America R.l.P. (1965), a young nurse spends her honeymoon caring for the blackened body of her bridegroom, scorched by the blast of an atomic weapon as they left the wedding. When he dies, she at first refuses to believe it, then allows herself to die as well.
Perhaps the most significant function of love in the atomic ruins is as a force reconciling former enemies, signalling an end to hostilities. In Philip Wylie’s “Philadelphia Phase” (1951), the hero, abandoned by his frivolous society girlfriend, falls in love with a young Russian woman named Tanya who urges the rebuilding of Independence Hall (destroyed by earlier Russian attacks) as a symbol of freedom. She is, of course, beautiful: “She had been lovely in overalls. In a low-cut evening gown, she was astonishing.” He patriotically proposes at Valley Forge; but Tanya, in despair of ever having children because she has been sterilized by the bombing, kills herself. The former girlfriend redeems herself by throwing herself into the work of reconstruction and is reunited with her lover. Wylie treats the theme of Russian-American reconciliation with extreme caution; the early cold war period of the story suggests an obvious rationale for the author’s timidity. Tanya is Russian, but not an enemy (she is one of those liberated by the American assault on the USSR depicted in Collier’s “Preview of the War We Do Not Want”); more American than some Americans, she steps conveniently out of the way at the appropriate moment–after having proved the point that Americans and Russians can love each other–to leave the reader with a red, white, and blue ending to which even the most rabid anti-Communist could not object.
The reconciliation in David Graham’s Down to a Sunless Sea (1979) is more unflinching. Almost the only survivors of a world-enveloping holocaust are a planeload of refugees from New York and another planeload of Russian refugees, mostly women. The captain of the American plane (male) falls in love with the captain of the Russian plane (female), and together they will help found a new and better world from their place of refuge in newly warming Antarctica.
In neobarbarian fiction featuring the typical conflict between a highly technical and a primitive culture, love is often the key to reconciling the adversaries to one another–see, for instance, Robert Coulson’s To Renew the Ages (1976), Paul 0. Williams’s The Dome in the Forest (1976), and Patrick Tilley’s Cloud Warrior (1984). Even racial conflicts have been reconciled through the power of love in this genre. In Edmund Cooper’s The Last Continent (1969), the primitive white survivors of a cataclysmic nuclear race war live in Antarctica while the victorious blacks live on Mars. A new and final genocidal war is prevented by a black-white pair of lovers who persuade the leaders of the two races that they can live in peace and reclaim the Earth with newly rediscovered technology.
Perhaps the ultimate story of an amorous armistice is Albert Compton Friborg’s “Careless Love” (1954), in which the defense computers of the two opposing nations fall in love and create universal disarmament and peace. Most stories of romantic reconciliation in this sense are only slightly less absurd. Nuclear war is not a hurt that can be made well by a kiss, as Edita Morris recognizes in The Seeds of Hiroshima (1965). A young American tries to brush aside the fears of an attractive Hibakusha (survivor of the atomic bombing) in his love for her. Their romance is doomed, however. They first embrace while on a trip to protest atomic weapons in Tokyo and return to Hiroshima to find that the woman’s sister has just given birth to a horribly deformed son. In shame and bitterness, the sister leaps off a cliff with her newborn child and the narrator resolves never to marry, dedicating her life instead to struggling for a peaceful world. Morris’s thoughtful treatment of the theme makes clear by contrast how superficial are most reconciliations in these works.
Science fiction has been revolutionized since the early seventies by the emergence of a number of talented female writers who do not share the traditional male attitudes about sex and sex roles. One of them is Suzy McKee Charnas, whose Walk to the End of the World, mentioned earlier in this chapter, depicts a savagely antifeminist postholocaust world in which women are blamed for the war and made into slaves, beasts of burden, and even fodder. In the 1978 sequel, Motherlines, a much more complex sexual picture emerges in which two rival clans of women, the Free Fems and the Riding Women, roam the desert, making lesbian love. The latter group stimulates parthenogenesis by mating with stallions. This feminist separatist utopia is clearly a reply to the misogynist dystopia of the first volume. Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978), although it includes rape and the sexual abuse of a child, also depicts a romance, untraditional in that it is the heroine who is the assertive, dominant figure. She makes love with a beautiful young man, for instance, though her heart belongs elsewhere, and she falls into the arms of the smitten lover who has pursued her throughout her adventures only after she has rescued herself and her adopted daughter.
Some male writers have been affected by changing attitudes toward sex roles as well. One is Paul O. Williams, whose Pelbar Cycle presents various models for male-female relations, implying that equality is best. Especially noteworthy in this regard are the second and fourth volumes, The Ends of the Circle (1981) and The Fall of the Shell (1982). However, unlike Charnas’s novels, these works establish no logical relationship between the sexual patterns and the war which lies in the background.
One expects more or less irrelevant romances in popular fiction, but even among the more serious nuclear holocaust tales, few lack a love story–or at least a dose of sex. The new revisionist novels have had an impact, for recent
authors seem self-conscious about adhering to the traditional exploitative, essentially irrelevant sex subplots (see, for instance, Trinity’s Child  by William Prochnau). Yet the sex theme remains mandatory and so dominant that one is led to conclude that however irrelevant many of these erotic encounters are, the contemplation of the nuclear holocaust arouses fears of annihilation so intense that only a human embrace offers a shield. On the Beach is in this regard not much different from “Dover Beach,” depicting a world in which love presents the main consolation of people living in a world emptied of transcendent meaning.
Another way in which atomic warfare is connected with sexuality is in its effect on reproduction. In The Man with Only One Head (1955), Densil Barr depicts universal sterilization from cobalt-bomb-induced radiation as creating a frenzy of illicit copulation (one would suppose no contraception was available in 1955); adultery is consequently made a capital crime, despite the fact that 43 percent of the married population is indulging. Barr satirizes the values of his time by stating that men would rather see the human race die out than have their wives impregnated by the one man left fertile on Earth.
Other effects of radiation are more commonly depicted, but the most immediate and dramatic of these, radiation poisoning, is rarely described; even when a character is heavily dosed with radiation, he or she usually lives, in keeping with the tendency of authors to concentrate on survival. The longer-term effects of radiation include cancer, which is seldom touched on (Pangborn is an exception, as are Kunetka and Strieber), sterility, which we discussed earlier, and birth defects. Genetic changes induced by radiation, in contrast, are extremely commonplace, taking a variety of forms: defects such as might be expected, and also fantastic animals and human-animal hybrids, and, most commonly of all, superhumans with extraordinary powers, especially mental telepathy.
Fantastic monsters abound. In Margot Bennett’s The Long Way Back (1954) there are two-inch long ants and huge carnivorous plants. In Philip K. Dick and Roger Zelazny’s Deus Irae (1976), and in Zelazny’s This Immortal (1965) and Damnation Alley (1969) (also in The Cursed Earth , modeled on the latter), the heroes must battle mutated beasts of various sorts; radiation seems little more than a convenient excuse for introducing fantasy creatures into these otherwise realistic narratives. In A. M. Lightner’s The Da’ of the Drones (1969), villagers herd and worship giant bees. Gigantism, in fact, seems to be the most popular result of mutation in animals, in fiction just as in Hollywood monster movies. Tyrone C. Barr, author of The Last Fourteen (1959), specializes in gigantic mutants, most of which are good to eat: shrimp, salmon, toads, various fruits. One of the fourteen survivors of the holocaust is killed by a huge featherless duck. In this, as in many other cases, the new species have evolved and established themselves far too rapidly to be biologically credible.
Arno Schmidt’s The Egghead Republic (1979) features giant spiders and sexy centaurs. We have already mentioned the minotaur in Piers Anthony’s Battle Circle (1978), and there are satyrs in Zelazny’s This Immortal. The extreme unlikelihood of the evolution of creatures precisely resembling those in Ovid’s Metamorphoses points up the fantastic manner in which most of these works deal with the theme of genetic damage. Even more absurd mutations are the result of deliberate gene manipulation in D. B. Drumm’s Traveler series (1984-), where such creatures abound as Cen-cars (half human, half automobile).
Yet such frivolity does not mark the extreme of irrelevance, for many works actually depict the beneficial evolutionary effects of a combination of increased radiation and competition for survival: the holocaust becomes, in effect, a felix culpa. In Banle Circle one character develops the convenient ability to sense radioactivity, enabling him to avoid dangerously hot areas. It will be remembered that some of Daniel F. Galouye’s cave dwellers in Dark Universe (1961) could see infrared. And the mutants in Raymond F. Jones’s The Secret People (1956) enjoy increased lifespans of 250 to 300 years. In fact, it is a striking example of psychological denial that longevity and even immortality are such common side effects of radiation from a nuclear war.
Frequently the superhuman mutants pose a threat to ordinary humanity. The theme of the struggle between homo sapiens and homo superior had been developed in fiction long before Hiroshima; radiation-induced mutation creates such a division in Cleve Cartmill’s 1942 story “With Flaming Swords,” in which genetic change is induced by the “L-ray” used in a war three centuries earlier (rays imply atomic energy in the fiction of the thirties and early forties). The change, a luminiscence of the body tissue, creates an aura which the mutants use to intimidate everyone else, preying on the superstitious reverence of the ignorant and meting out punishment with ray guns hidden in their turbans until a rebel develops a counter-ray which destroys the aura.
Humanity is punished for its crime in using the bomb by inadvertently creating the race which will replace it in in James Blish’s “Struggle in the Womb” (1950), in which mutants evolved in radioactive Nagasaki menace homo sapiens. The Iron Dream (1972) by Norman Spinrad depicts a race of telepathic Doms who can mentally dominate others at will. The hero, a Hitlerian motorcycle gang leader, embarks on a genocidal crusade to rid the Earth of them using perfectly cloned S.S. men as an army. He cannot prevent the Doms from launching a devastating salvo of nuclear weapons left over from a previous conflict, but proposes to solve the ensuing genetic problems by sterilizing everyone, then repopulating the world with clones and sending them out in ships to conquer other star systems. The novel, presented as a fantasy by an alternate-world Adolph Hitler, is supposed to be a satire on the sanguine accounts of human evolution after atomic holocaust and on the violent fantasies so common in fiction, though most of the book lacks the qualities of satire.
In stories depicting the evolution of superhumans–a long science fiction tradition which includes such works as Olaf Stapledon’s Odd John (1935) and A. E. Van Vogt’s Slan (1940)–the point of view of science fiction is generally sympathetic to the mutants. Such is the case, for instance, in M. John Harrison’s The Committed Men (1971) in which a group of ordinary folks undergo a savage odyssey to deliver a mutant baby to its kind, adapted to survive in a blasted world where humanity has been rendered obsolete. The best-known work of science fiction featuring this stance toward mutants is Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End (1950), which looks forward with sympathy to the desertion of Earth as the human race evolves into a nonphysical form. For Clarke, in this and many other works, as for Nietzsche, man is something to be overcome.
That the myth of the sympathetic superior race, unthinkable in most genres, is a commonplace of science fiction may have much to do with the composition of its audience during its formative period: young, bright, but often socially awkward, males with an exceptional interest in science. For such readers, science fiction offered the fantasy that although they may have been seen by their contemporaries as misfits, they were in actuality superior beings. (A favorite slogan in older science fiction circles was “Fans are slans,” referring to the superbeings of Van Vogt’s novel, Slan.) Whereas democratic American culture has a long-standing prejudice against intellectual superiority, science fiction evolved a set of myths which allowed its readers to identify with races which outpaced mere humans. This elitist attitude, pervading much science fiction of the forties and fifties, explains the prevalence of stories in which the reader is expected to sympathize and identify with superior beings rather than feel threatened by them–even when they plan the destruction of their predecessors. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) is thus almost unique in imagining the entire race as being reduced in intelligence because of the holocaust.
The most common side effect of radiation is not blindness, hemophilia, or limblessness; it is the ability to read minds. Such stories were being published long before Hiroshima, and one remarkable series began appearing in Astounding Science Fiction early in 1945, before its author could have known about the Manhattan Project: the “Baldy” stories later collected in Henry Kuttner’s Mutant (1953). Confronted with the master race theories of Hitler, Kuttner tries to adapt the traditional theme of the emerging super-race to the new conditions, but with decidedly mixed results. His telepathic mutants, created by radiation from an atomic war, are divided into two groups: benign (the ordinary Baldies) and malign (the Paranoids). Both are relentlessly and ruthlessly persecuted, but whereas the Paranoids advocate an immediate and violent Final Solution, the other group counsels patience and guile: the normals will gradually dwindle and Baldies will inherit the Earth. They oppose the rash plans of the Paranoids because they fear that the result will be an anti-Baldy pogrom (a term Kuttner uses repeatedly). Hence the new master race is made a potential victim, and not the perpetrator, of genocide. Kuttner manages to denounce Hitlerism (which he does, explicitly, in the first of these stories), and to envisage the elimination of homo sapiens by a superior race at the same time. He must have had second thoughts about the wisdom or consistency of this stand, for in Mutant humanity is arbitrarily granted a lastminute reprieve when a device proves effective in inducing telepathy in all humans, a feat earlier pronounced impossible. Kuttner’s Tomorrow and Tomorrow (1947), to be discussed below, suggests that his views of radiation effects changed little in the wake of Hiroshima.
Telepathy also figures in works such as Galouye’s Dark Universe, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids (1955), and Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow (1955). In both of the latter novels prejudiced normals bent on exterminating all deviants threaten the survival of the new race. The Chrysalids, already discussed in Chapter 1, presents an especially affecting portrait of the sufferings of mutant children struggling to hide their difference from their parents and friends, in the tradition of Zenna Henderson’s stories of “The People” (collected in Pilgrimage: The Book of the People , The People: No Different Flesh , and Holding Wonder ).
In a variation on the theme, genetic experiments are sometimes undertaken in the wake of a war specifically to ensure the breeding of a new race which can survive in the new environment. Such is the case, for instance, in Carl Biemiller’s The Hydronaut Adventures (1970-74). Genetic manipulation allows the women in Charnas’s Motherlines to produce children parthenogenetically, stimulated into fertility by mating with their stallions. In Kate Wilhelm’s Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang (1976), a world devastated by pollution and nuclear war produces a sterile generation of higher mammals, and clones are developed to continue the human race. Unfortunately, their psychology is not that of human beings, and the experiment is a failure. Wilhelm’s novel is considerably more thoughtful and intelligent than most of these works, and takes the position that there is no substitute for ordinary humanity once it has destroyed itself.
Outside of the science fiction context in which they are familiar, stories depicting the ordeals of heroic superhumans at the hands of bigoted ordinary folks reveal their inherently elitist and antidemocratic qualities. The form of hope that they offer consists of the obsolescence of the common run of people, if not genocide: the human race is judged to be too stupid to live.
But in the post-Nazi era, eugenic breeding was frequently depicted in fiction, either as a horror likely to be imposed by a dictatorship, as in Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence (1948), or in caricature, as in Spinrad’s The Iron Dream. In many cases, however, eugenic laws are depicted as being unjustly applied against newly evolved superior forms of human life. But the evolutionary leaps depicted in these works are not always advances; radiation causes the human race to de-evolve into lower forms in a few books (Nick Boddie Williams’s The Atom Curtain ; Samuel R. Delany’s The Fall of the Towers ). Were such views stated ironically, with the aim of satirizing the self-destructive tendencies of a race which has hung an atomic sword of Damocles over its own neck, they might be more interesting. However, many novels present atomic supermen as serious alternatives to ordinary humanity merely because they possess psychic powers, not superior wisdom. As a result, most of these mutant heroes are at best a mere irrelevance, at worst Fascist fantasies.
A nuclear holocaust is not a rite of passage, nor is it an apocalyptic cleansing of the Earth to prepare the way for a new and better life, as is suggested by Re-Birth, the American title of Wyndham’s The Chrysalids. It is simply the end. Clearly mutation is a form of magic in most of these tales. Kansas has a bomb dropped on it and becomes the Land of Oz. Wishful thinking and denial cannot go further. As with the sexuality rampant in nuclear war fiction, the sorts of mutation figuring in most of these works are ways of avoiding thinking realistically about the probable consequences of atomic warfare. Far more appropriate to the theme is Philip K. Dick’s ironic image in his 1953 short story, “Second Variety,” where rats mutated in the radioactive wasteland have learned to construct their own shelters out of ash. The rats and robots will survive, but not hapless humanity which has brought destruction down on its own head.
But more often, nuclear war in fiction seems to signal the end of democracy, not of humanity as such. Whereas the authors shy away from depicting racial death, they are fascinated by the prospect of the postholocaust social collapse. The simplest method of representing this is by depicting society as having reverted to the sort of savagery portrayed in traditional adventure fiction. Yet more anthropologically sophisticated readers are likely to be put off by the unthinking portrayal of preliterate cultures as inevitably degraded. Our own violent urban landscape provides a relatively neutral model for a distinctive brand of postcivilized barbarism in such works as Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog (1969) and Zelazny’s Damnation Alley. But a more common strategy for depicting future Europeans or Americans as decayed culturally, without offending those sensitive to ethnocentrism, is to create an ironic reversal, as Huxley did in Ape and Essence,in which a scientist from New Zealand comes to excavate the ruins in Southern California and investigate the curious customs of the natives. In Bruce Ariss’s Full Circle (1963), American Indians inherit the entire Earth, proving that their ancestral ways are the only real path to survival. Even more pointed is William Tenn’s satirical “Eastward Ho!” (1958), in which whites petition the ruling Indians in vain to preserve their treaty rights as they are being driven slowly but surely out of the few reservations set aside for the Caucasian survivors. In the end, the white protagonist sets sail for Europe, proclaiming that he will voyage “until we discover a new and hopeful world,–a world of freedom!”
The author who created the richest treatment of such ironic reversals, however, is Margot Bennett. In The Long Way Back, black African explorers–descended from survivors of an ancient, long-forgotten atomic war which destroyed European civilization–mount an expedition to England where they encounter savage whites who worship the god Thai, cause of the “big bang.” The explorers propose to colonize Britain and mine its coal but are distracted by a quest for a fabled city of gold. What they discover in the ruins of London is a past that illuminates their present condition: that the Northern Hemisphere was devastated by the very sort of war which the Africans are now preparing to fight themselves. It is implied that they will learn the lesson. More than a mere adventure story, The Long Way Back is a witty meditation on the ironies of the postwar future.
When society is portrayed as having collapsed in disorder, it often congeals into a dystopia. Such dystopias–postatomic or not–have proliferated in science fiction since the early fifties, and continue to be a staple of the field. Frequently the atomic war in the background of these works seems an arbitrary marker for a historical turning point, and most of them are highly unrealistic. The focus here is not on the relatively realistic portraits of Russian rule in the United States discussed in the last chapter, but on a variety of fantastic nightmare states created after an atomic conflict.
Sometimes the postwar dictatorship is the product of subversive forces, particularly those associated with the antiwar movement. As was noted in chapter 2, many authors consider muscular pactfists to be likely candidates for precipitating a nuclear war; similarly, such figures are sometimes depicted as the tyrannical masters of pactfist dystopias. One such grim dystopia may bc found in Harold Mead’s Bright Phoenix (1955), which seems to preach the essential healthiness of war, though the novel’s violence is so extreme it is difficult to sympathize with its viewpoint. In Jim Harmon’s “The Place Where Chicago Was” (1962), a vicious pacifist dictatorship enforces peace through broadcast mind control, causing widespread malnutrition because most of the population can no longer bring itself to eat meat. The protagonist must join forces with a violent youth gang and use a hidden cache of H-bombs to liberate his fellow citizens.
The best known of such dystopias is Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo (1952). On the literal level, this is a powerful if bizarre antipacifist novel in which the world responds to an abortive nuclear war by adopting voluntary amputation as a means of literal disarmament: people actually have their limbs cut off to demonstrate their dedication to peace. Extreme fear of war is presented as the worst sort of violence in this caricature in which the postwar dictatorship is portrayed as a failure of nerve, and the forces working to maintain peace are despicable and tyrannical. As a satire on pacifism the novel seems remarkably odd in its emphasis. It is hardly likely to appear probable to most of us living today–let alone readers in 1952–that the world is about to be submerged by a tidal wave of vicious pactfists who must be fought at all costs. Wolfe’s novel represents the the farthest extreme of antipacifist muscular disarmament fiction. (It should be noted that some readers consider Limbo to be a heavily ironic work which satirizes these themes, but I cannot agree.)
As noted in chapter 2, scientists are rarely blamed for the nuclear wars they help make possible. No more often are they depicted as the dictators in the postwar future, although tyrannical computers created by scientists do impose postholocaust tyrannies in works such as Delany’s Fall of the Towers trilogy or D. F. Jones’ Colossus (1966), and immortal scientists are classic villains in Robert Adams’s Horseclans novels. Richard Savage’s When the Moon Died (1955) is unique in portraying a group of scientists whose notion of preventing a nuclear war is to blow up the moon as a demonstration of the awesome power of atomic weapons to impose a technocratic dictatorship on the world and send clouds of radioactive dust descending on cities that resist. Even in this genre, it is bizarre to find an author who considers scientists who have tried to prevent the use of nuclear weapons as more of a threat to civilization than those who have urged their use, yet such seems to be the case here. The more typical writer in this mode vigorously defends science and scientists from responsibility for the collapse of civilization and presents the reintroduction of technology into the postholocaust world as a desideratum. Of course, high technology is often introduced into the neobarbarian landscape simply to achieve colorful effects such as duels between laser pistols and swords. But it also plays an important role in the theme of the revival of learning after the fall of civilization, a theme which has run through postholocaust science fiction since the forties. Typically, scientists are depicted as heroic figures struggling to recreate the glories of preholocaust civilization in a world of bigotry and superstition. Despite the fact that in the post-Hiroshima era very few people blamed science as such for the bomb and the danger of Armageddon it brought with it, science fiction writers anticipated such a response and wrote story after story defending scientific knowledge from the expected backlash of ignorance.
There is something of a mystery about the stimulus for this tradition of strenuous defense of science in the postholocaust world. Most people were more prone to congratulate the phycisists for their creation of the atomic bomb than to criticize them. Yet, as Paul Boyer’s By the Bomb’s Early Light (1985) makes clear, a certain degree of ambivalence toward science, new to American culture, emerged in the post-World War II era. Science fiction writers, predisposed to be hypersensitive to criticism of science, probably overreacted to these occasional expressions of antipathy toward science generated by the bomb’s use. Once the first few stories had been written, the image of the new dark age had been formulated, and from that point it probably fed on itself. Science fiction remained ghettoized during the forties and fifties, and it is not difficult to imagine that such a view of public attitudes toward science could be maintained for a considerable length of time with relatively little confirmation from the world outside.
The theme was established first, as one might have expected, in the pro-science pages of John Campbell’s Astounding. One of the earliest examples is A. M. Phillips’s “An Enemy of Knowledge” (April 1947), in which a boy and his grandmother are able to satisfy their thirst for books when the roaming band they are with conquers a fortress. In the library which they discover, the boy is horrified by the scenes of war he finds in picture magazines, and as a representative of the barbarian backlash, wants to destroy all of the printed materials there. His grandmother, however, represents the eternal values of civilization and discreetly chooses some to be preserved.
Another typical example of the genre is Poul Anderson’s 1952 juvenile novel, Vault of the Ages. Young boys defy the taboos imposed by their elders to explore an ancient time capsule and discover a technology (in this case, black powder bombs) which helps the tribe defeat invading barbarians. This success causes the tribe to reevaluate its ban on preholocaust learning. Anderson does not explain how such an ancient and deeply held taboo could be overcome so lightly, but clearly he feels that even the violent effects of science, if kept to the appropriate scale and handled in the appropriate manner, should not be shunned. Says the newly enlightened tribal leader: “There is no evil in the vault. There is only evil in the hearts of men. Knowledge, all knowledge is good.”
Just as clear is the message of J. T. McIntosh’s Born Leader (1954), in which the peaceful colonists sent out to preserve the race on a dying Earth must overcome their conditioning against atomic weapons in order to survive. Peace is equated with stagnation, and atomic war with progress–even in the wake of a nuclear holocaust.
The abdication of humanity represented by the retreat to a sheltered life underground is powerfully conveyed in a fine novel contrasting ways of life below and above ground: Galouye’s Dark Universe. Survivors living generation after generation in caves deep under the surface have forgotten the meaning of light and the true nature of their former natural environment. Most of them manage to get around by using acutely developed hearing, like certain blind people; others “ziv” (see infrared light). A few, like the hero, have evolved extrasensory perception. The inhabitants of this dark universe have developed a religion and a culture which prevents them at first from taking advantage of the opportunity to reemerge into a now-safe world. The points of view of the various characters are imaginatively depicted and effectively conveyed. One gets a real feeling for the sensations experienced by those who live out their lives in the dark. But darkness is obviously more than a mere inconvenience in Galouye’s novel; it is a metaphor for any rigid dogmatism which traps its victims in a life less rich than they might otherwise have. It is also a part of the proscientific antireligious tradition in science fiction which affirms the continuing importance of objective knowledge in the postholocaust world.
Poul Anderson is unique in having devoted an entire fictional cycle, the Maurai series, to exploration of the problems of the rebirth of scientific technology in a culturally inverted postholocaust world. For over twenty years he has been writing stories describing how the descendants of New Zealand’s Maoris, spared by their isolation in the Southern Hemisphere when the holocaust came, have made themselves masters of the rest of the world, working to prevent the rise of the sort of scientific technology which destroyed earlier civilization. In some of the stories the Maurai are presented as quite sympathetic figures, preaching an ethic of ecological responsibility. But Anderson’s essentially proscientific and anti-authoritarian leanings have led him to develop the theme in another direction in his most recent work in this series, the 1983 Orion Shall Rise.
Part of this novel is set in a refeudalized Europe (“Uropa”), benevolently ruled by a caste which controls the only remaining “aerostat”–a stratospheric station suspended by solar-heated air. Although the time is much later than most of the stories in the series, the Maurai still maintain their ban on nuclear research and development and generally encourage an ecologically sound low technology. In the course of the novel, rebels throw off the mixed blessings of their rulers to claim the benefits of space colonies and high technology. More subtle and complex than can be conveyed briefly, the novel could nevertheless be justly summed up on one level as a brief against the back-to-the-soil faction of the conservation movement in favor of technological solutions to problems. Anderson seriously attempts to present both sides of this conflict, but he gives the best arguments to his rebels, leaving those who oppose them to point only to the catastrophic errors of the past. He manages to contrive peculiar situations in which nuclear power, limited nuclear war, and whaling are justified. As in his 1963 story “No Truce with Kings,” Anderson rejects authoritarian government, no matter how benevolent, in favor of individual freedom, no- matter how dangerous. Consistent with his conservative libertarian philosophy, he points out that citizens’ firearms play a vital role in the successful revolution of a portion of the former United States against the Mong (a mixture of Chinese and Russians who overran America after the war).
Although Anderson justifies even nuclear warfare, he does not try to disguise its horror in Orion Shall Rise, which includes a vivid scene of a young woman suffering and eventually dying from the effects of direct exposure to the rebel bomb (in chapter 23, section 2). Despite the fact that Anderson’s sympathies clearly lie to one side in the debate, he has tried to be fair, but the result is an odd lack of focus that leaves the reader in doubt about his position throughout much of the book, the politics of which are a little too complex for a mere adventure story and not complex enough for a superior political novel.
Anderson is by no means alone in defending even the revival of atomic knowledge in the postholocaust dark age. Jeff Sutton’s The Atom Conspiracy (1963) depicts the efforts of a heroic band of mutant telepaths to restore nuclear science for the good of humanity but against its will.
Many of the early versions of the postholocaust revival of learning endorse the technology of the atomic bomb in and of itself as a force for good–either explicitly or metaphorically. A good example is A. E. Van Vogt’s series of stories collected in Empire of the Atom (1946-47) and The Wizard of Linn (1950). Although the world has been devastated centuries earlier by a cataclysmic atomic war, the decayed contemporary civilization continues ignorantly to worship the fissionable elements which it associates with unlimited power. This “holy” radiation is responsible for the mutant Clane, who battles alien invaders in the second volume using an advanced technology which outweighs even the enemy’s monopoly on nuclear weapons. What might have been an opportunity for satire on the worship of the very force which destroyed their ancestors and threatens to annihilate them is negated by the fact that the ignorant priests who maintain the worship of atomic energy direct their devotion toward an appropriate technology; they simply lack sufficient scientific knowledge to understand the real potential of the materials they handle. Since the product of the ancient atomic war–radiation–gives birth to a mutant savior of the human race, the war proves to be a sort of felix culpa. The moral of such a story is that of the serpent in Eden: the human race is advised to eat of the fruit of knowledge so that it will become like gods, knowing evil, to be sure, but also knowing good.
A devastated Earth is saved through a similar use of the nuclear technology which destroyed the ancient civilization in Van Vogt’s “Resurrection” (1948) and in Edmund Hamilton’s City at World’s End (1951). In the latter tale an Earth spokesman tells a tribunal of our distant descendants who have come from other stars to decide the fate of the last outpost of humanity on the dying Earth, “Yes, we fought our wars! We fought because we had to, so that thought and progress and freedom could live in our world. You owe us for that! You owe us for the men that died so there could one day be a Federation of Stars. You owe us for atomic power, too. We may have misused it–but itts the force that built your civilization, and we gave it to you!”
Henry Kuttner takes the idealization of nuclear war and the scientists who promote it to an absurd extreme in his short novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow, mentioned earlier. In the twenty-first century a Global Peace Commission represses independent research in order to maintain the status quo. A rebel underground hopes to use prescient mutants created by an earlier atomic war’s fallout to bring back designs for arms from the future; their plan is to annihilate most of the human race and build a utopia with the survivors. The mutant they are using turns out to be in touch not with our Earth’s future but with an alternate Earth which had a full-scale war in 1950. The result in that world has been vast scientific progress, prolongation of life, and the end of disease. (This must be the only time anyone has ever suggested that nuclear war might provide a cure for cancer!) The implication is strong that nothing would help more to create a better and stronger United States than a healthy dose of nuclear war. This bizarre plot line clearly conflicts with the theme enunciated early in the book: that politicians cannot be trusted with the bomb because, unlike scientists, they do not truly understand its power.
Pro- and anti-science dualism is often reflected in novels which, like Dark Universe, depict life in a long-term shelter and contrast it with life on the surface. Ordinarily the shelter-dwellers maintain a fairly high level of technology while the surface-dwellers revert to barbarism. The contrast between the two cultures and between their attitudes and abilities provides a rich source of conflict. Whereas in the books we have just been discussing, science is portrayed very sympathetically, it is striking that in most of these cases the author’s sympathies lie clearly with the barbarians, not because the authors reject science as such, but because they prefer the excitement of barbarism to the tedium of civilization.
In Anthony’s Battle Circle the scientifically oriented “crazies” prevent civilization from rising again by ruling over a regulated barbarism. A war against them is launched by a more intelligent and more-able-than-average barbarian. The crazies must be overthrown because the barbarian culture they seek to regulate is essentially healthier, if deadlier, than their own; here, freedom is valued over security, even though the coming of freedom means that aggressive instincts will be unleashed once more. The hero lives long enough to experience some regret at what he has done, as he realizes that technology has its advantages. Anthony clearly depicts the barbarians as the more sympathetic group, celebrating the “simplification” of civilization that nuclear war produces, but has to acknowledge realistically that the crazies have acted intelligently, by their lights, successfully channeling the self-destructive tendencies of the masses.
Anthony’s novels are typical of a number of dark age works which belong loosely to the category known as “heroic fantasy” or “sword and sorcery”–labels which are not entirely synonymous, but which describe overlapping types of stories. The genre is exemplified by the non-postholocaust Conan novels of Robert E. Howard and his successors or–much better–the tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser by Fritz Leiber (collected in volumes whose titles always bear the word “sword” or “swords”). Although they are often marketed as such, these works are not really science fiction, but a kind of fantasy which blends elements of historical barbaric ages with the stuff of medieval romance. They are a sort of alternative form of western, using the familiar theme of the lonely, restless man with superb fighting skills who roams a hostile landscape battling evil and briefly romancing beautiful women before setting out once more on his adventures. The setting is sometimes another planet, with science fiction elements being blended in so that high technology can be introduced into the barbarian landscape. (The prototype for works which introduce modern weapons into a medieval environment is, of course, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.) More often the setting is a kind of alternative vision of our own Earth’s past, with real dragons, demons, and witchcraft (hence “sword and sorcery”). The genre is enormous, though little known to anyone except its fans except through the recent films based on the Conan books. (For more on sword and sorcery, see Hans Joachim Alpers, “Loincloth, Double Ax, and Magic: ‘Heroic Fantasy’ and Related Genres,” trans. Robert Plank, Science-Fiction Studies 5 : 19-32 )
Not all of these works are simple celebrations of Wagnerian vitalism, however. In Paul O. Williams’s The Dome in the Forest, the shelter is the habitat of a group of pathetic inbred geneticists who have lost the knowledge of their true relationship to the outside world. Misled by an anomalously high reading on their radioactivity sensor, they have maintained a miserable underground existence for centuries while the rest of the world evolved a new culture. Blaming men for the tragedy of the war, they have established a femaledominated society, but the technology which has supported it for so long is breaking down, and they are forced to emerge. They encounter the hardy but primitive tribe which dwells nearby in a confrontation reminiscent of the contrast between Eloi and Warlocks in H. G. Wells’s The Time Machine. As it out (in the sequel, An Ambush of Shadows ), the dome-dwellers’ main contribution to the new dark age is a variety of chemical weapons which make the battles of the tribes far more lethal. Williams expresses a considerable degree of ambivalence about barbarian warfare in the Pelbar Cycle. In these novels relationships between characters and cultures dominate. The battle scenes remain, but they are justified by the ultimate aim of reconciling the warring tribes of postholocaust North America with each other. True, this is also the justification for endless scenes of carnage in less sophisticated works such as Adams’s Horseclans novels, but Williams often manages to convey a real sense of tragedy in his stories of tribal conflict.
Many of these novels constitute an alternate tradition, not precisely opposed to the other, but certainly articulating a vision which might be labelled countercultural. Their frequently favorable view of the virtues of tribal life as opposed to the sterile technocracy of shelter-dwellers reflects the counterculture values of the late sixties and early seventies. The authors of most of these books belong to a generation shaped by that era, and they constitute only a small part of the flood of science fiction depicting the abandonment of modern civilization for a richer life which combines the blessings of technology on an appropriate scale with the intimacy of preliterate cultures. Outstanding examples of such novels, usually written from a feminist perspective, include Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed (1975), Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia (1975), and Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of T,me (1976). On a nuclear-related theme, there is Demeter Flowerby Rochelle Singer (1980), in which a lesbian communal utopia struggles against male madness in a world devastated not by war but by multiple atomic reactor breakdowns.
Whereas in the sixties the counterculture claimed the underground, in the seventies it established itself on the surface of the Earth and condemned technological civilization to the infernal regions. This new myth seems to have considerable staying power. New novels utilizing it continue to appear regularly. What distinguishes the more recent ones is a more ambivalent perspective which acknowledges the limitations of primitivism and the advantages of technology. Such works owe a great deal to the sort of vision articulated in The Whole Earth Catalog: appropriate technology combined with mysticism; computers, compost heaps, and cosmic rapture.
For instance, in Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake, the shelter-city Center is a source of technology sorely needed by the barbaric world outside; but the city-dwellers can be capricious and arbitrary, and their cruel denial of aid to the heroine, Snake, forces her to rely on her own resources in a way that produces a major advance for her culture as a whole. Hope for the restoration of the wonders of the past will not come from underground storage rooms; the inhabitants of the wasted world will have to develop a science and technology to their own environment. That the culture of Center is like the Emerald City of Oz in this regard–only a place to be reminded to rely on yourself–is not surprising to those who have read the earlier novel The Exile Waiting (1975) to which Dreamsnake is a sequel. Life in Center is not utopian; it is rather a dismal parody of life under the most decadent of the Roman emperors. Dreamsnake also promotes the view that love and compassion are more important than access to high technology. When the heroine, Snake, finds that the technically advanced but decadent culture of Center will not supply her needs, she is thrown back on her own resources. Science thus consists not merely of the preserving of knowledge, but of the making of new discoveries; and Snake contributes to science when she learns how to breed a steady supply of the serpents she uses to treat illnesses. What is significant about Snake’s contribution is that it is undertaken in a spirit of compassion by a courageous woman whose techniques are those of healing rather than war.
In the sixties and seventies, then, it had become possible to depict the survival of science in a postholocaust landscape more ambivalently. Ariss’s Full Circle (1963) is typical of the new attitude in that although the peaceful Indians who have inherited the Earth are persuaded to accept some of the ancient technology stored for centuries underground, their social patterns and love for nature are seen as necessary to counterbalance its destructive qualities. Similarly, the highly technical City Underground (1963) by Suzanne Martel must be complemented by the impoverished but wholesomely natural society of the surface-dwellers, and a similar symbiosis develops between the wretched technicians and healthy barbarians in Williams’s Dome in the Forest. Currently, Patrick Tilley’s Talisman Prophecy trilogy (1984-) seems destined for a such a resolution. These contemporary revisionist treatments of the theme of the encounter between high- and low- technology cultures reflect to a certain degree the romanticization of the primitive and the distrust of science which became so widespread in the counterculture of the sixties. Science fiction is too heavily oriented toward science for many writers ever to treat science straightforwardly as the enemy, but the liberal revisionists seek to redress the imbalance of earlier authors who sought to shield science from all blame for the advent of nuclear war.
An important pioneer in the revisionist dark age was Edgar Pangborn, a large part of whose writing is devoted to depicting a richly detailed neofeudal version of the postholocaust world. In Davy (1964), Pangborn creates a classic picture of a culture deeply imbedded in fearful superstition, clinging to a cruel faith in hopes of avoiding a repetition of past tragedies, stifling the energy and hope of its young hero. The essential good humor of the work in no way trivializes the nuclear war which provides its background; but in the other works in the series–The Judgment of Eve(1966), The Company of Glory (1975), and the stories collected posthumously as Still I Persist in Wondering (1978)–Pangborn adopts a much more somber tone, creating a warmly sympathetic cast of characters whose fates are not utterly hopeless but whose lives are clearly the worse for being acted out in a world cursed by the lingering effects of atomic war.
The most complex novel to explore these issues is Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980). On the one hand, it rejects the vision of postholocaust barbarism as an idyllic pastoral; on the other, it rejects the proscience bias of so much science fiction which oversimplifies the problems posed by a return to a technological culture. The novel concerns a young visionary on a pilgrimage to Canterbury in search of the secret of nuclear fission, which his people do not understand but associate with the power of the ancient mythical figure of Eusa (U.S.A. and St. Eustace combined). Riddley Walker is rich in folktales, myths, traditions, and superstitions, beautifully knit into an interesting quest tale. The beauty of the style does not soften, however, the horror of the content: these are a people so ravaged by radiation, disease, wild dogs, and malnutrition, that all their myths are tales of horror–of cannibalism, mutilation, and death. The jovial tone in which these are narrated drives home the shocking contrast between the degraded existence of new barbarians and the prosperous culture now taken for granted. Hoban creates a sympathetic hero and an all-too-believable neobarbarian culture without in the least romanticizing them.
The climax of young Riddley’s search is reached when he witnesses the rediscovery of gunpowder, the “1 Littl 1,” which legend relates to the “1 big 1,” the atomic bomb. His friend Erny Orfing views this event glumly, predicting that their contemporaries will fall into the same error as their ancestors of destroying themselves through infatuation with a technology which they vainly imagine can give them power. The technology is different, but people haven’t changed for the better and are still liable to get carried away by the prospects for a new kind of killing. Erny comments, in the distinctive dialect of the work: “You can get jus as dead from a kick in the head as you can from the 1 Littl 1 but its the natur of it gets peopl as cited [excited]. I mean your foot is all ways on the end of your leg innit. So if youre going to kick some 1 to death it sent all that thrilling is it” (p. 201).
To a certain extent, the revisionist novelists such as McIntyre, Pangborn, and Hoban depend for their impact on their less progressive predecessors. Clearly the former constitute critiques of traditional dark age fiction rather than statements that nuclear war is in any way a desirable path to social change. The neobarbarian genre is so well established that the war in the background can simply be taken for granted, much as the modern western writer takes late nineteenth century Texas for granted. Read in isolation, they might seem a bizarre attempt to soften the impact of Armageddon; but in the context of the tradition, they represent an attempt to assert humane values in the face of the threat of universal savagery.
One final feature of the new dark age of the postholocaust world is pervasive enough to deserve separate treatment: the role of religion. Most science fiction, including postholocaust fiction, either neglects religion altogether or takes a dim view of it. (See Tom Woodman’s article “Science Fiction, Religion and Transcendence” in Science Fiction: A Critical Guide, ed. Patrick Parrinder [London & New York: Parrinder, 1979] and the essays in The Transcendent Adventure: Studies of Religion in Science Fiction, ed. Robert Reilly [Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1985].) The contents of the present bibliography feature over two dozen items which direct substantial criticism at religious beliefs or practices–and if each of the stories touching on religion in the world of Pangborn’s Davy were counted separately, another dozen could be added. In contrast, only four items listed are unequivocally religious in authorial perspective, while another half dozen portray the religious beliefs of some of the characters in a sympathetic or ambivalent light although the authors themselves do not seem to share those beliefs.
The few nuclear war novels which celebrate traditional religion are exceedingly obscure (see Carol Balizet, Gary G. Cohen, Herman Hagedorn, Riley Hughes, F. Horace Rose). A certain amount of sympathy is extended to religion in a few others. For instance, the Catholic church plays a positive role in Keith Roberts’s lovely Pavane (1966). In a world whose history varies from ours because Queen Elizabeth was assassinated and the Church succeeded in prolonging the Middle Ages into the twentieth century, ecclesiastical authorities have deliberately held back scientific progress so that civilization will be mature when nuclear power is discovered. A concluding “Coda” notes that our Earth was devastated by a nuclear war which can be avoided in Pavane. Roberts clearly belongs to the younger generation of science fiction writers which does not feel compelled to defend science at all costs.
In contrast, Edgar Pangborn’s “My Brother Leopold” (1973), the story of a male pactfist Joan of Arc, is actually an antireligious satire aimed at the pious bigots who reject him. In most of Pangborn’s stories, religion is equated with fear, ignorance, and intolerance, like in most science fiction which touches on the subject. The dominant faith in the world of Davy is a new religion whose symbol is the wheel and whose central principle is the acceptance of suffering. In such works as John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids and Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, religious bigotry modelled on witch-hunts rationalizes prejudice against the superior children who have evolved in the radioactive environment. In many others, this bigotry, as we have seen, is directed against science and scientists.
But one of the few books concentrating on Christianity in a fairly sympathetic manner is among the most widely read and famous nuclear war books of all time: Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1955-57). Uneven as a novel, it is best considered in its original form, as a series of three loosely linked novellas. “A Canticle for Leibowitz,” first published in 1955, is an affectionate satire on the revived role of the Catholic church during the dark age some six hundred years after the nuclear war. “Fiat Lux,” originally published as “And the Light Is Risen” (1956), the weakest of the three, is a less vivid depiction of the renewal of learning over five hundred years later. The final story, six hundred years later yet, tells both of the human race’s plunge into a second nuclear war and of the Church’s struggles to maintain its traditional stands on suicide and euthanasia in face of the massive suffering wrought by radiation. It is entitled “Fiat Voluntas Tua”–originally “The Last Canticle”–and was first published in 1957.
The first of these novellas features the monks in the abbey of the Blessed Leibowitz–named for a Jewish electronics repairman who converted to Catholicism after the nuclear war; a circuit diagram blueprint is considered a sacred relic, as is his shopping list containing bagels, pastrami, and sauerkraut. Life in the abbey is stern and difficult, but the novel is far from being a denunciation of monasticism. The story is so rich in detail and so sympathetic characterization that one cannot help but feel for the poor monks even while one is laughing at them. Yet their naivete creates an irony which makes religion clearly an unsatisfactory or at least incomplete mode of thought. The reader understands their theology, but they do not understand today’s science. The contrast renders them charmingly quaint rather than inspiring.
When the arc light is reinvented in the rather blasphemously titled “Fiat Lux,” the new technology is presented as farcical, with sweating monks laboring away on a treadmill to produce a glaring and dangerous light which is hardly a practical source of illumination. And yet it symbolizes a new Enlightenment: the restoration of physics as well as of engineering. By encouraging preservation of knowledge and, ultimately, scientific experimentation, the Church helps to recreate the world which will once more relegate it to obscurity.
In “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” Miller shows the weaknesses of both sides. In a world of grotesque mutations and radiation disease the Church’s stands on abortion, euthanasia, and suicide–although they are thoughtfully considered and not merely caricatured–are presented as ultimately inhumane. Religion has adapted to the postnuclear world, considering Fallout a sort of monster begets deformed children. The war itself is called “The Deluge,” and the antiscience hysteria which followed it “The Simplification.” The Church commands that all children–no matter how deformed–must be allowed to live. These genetically damaged offspring are called “The Pope’s Children.” Outside the Church, pagan tribes have inverted the ancient practice of ancestor worship: they curse their forbears, responsible for creating the hellish world in which they live.
Despite the affection Miller displays for his slightly comic but terribly earnest monks, it is obvious that his sympathies rest on the middle ground between pure science and religious dogmatism. The Catholic church in this work cannot save civilization by itself: only a revived science tempered by the values religion offers can do that. The headlong plunge into a politically controlled scientific technology creates the very disaster which the Church must confront. In the end the author tries to give both sides their due by placing hope for the future of humanity in the missionaries sent out to spread the gospel–and the human race–on other worlds, a version of the traditional science fiction panacea for the world’s problems, the exploration of space.
By and large, religion flourishes in these works in proportion to the decline of civilization and serves as a sorry substitute for scientific rationalism. The bigoted opposition of these religions to science is a major theme of many postholocaust science fiction novels. Religion is constantly depicted as going hand in hand with tyranny, hatred, and fanatical violence. Clearly these authors imagine that in the coming dark age, religious faith, far from being a consolation, will be one more curse in a cursed world.
by Paul Brians
The Short-Term Effects of Nuclear War
One might suppose that the depiction of the immediate consequences of a nuclear war would be a primary subject of the fiction under consideration here. Far from it. Aside from those few authors whose subject is the atomic bombing of Japan, only a relative handful of authors concern themselves with the detailed description of the effects of atomic bombing. Many are more interested in the politics or long-range social effects of the war. The images so haunting from John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946) are rare in fiction, although that work obviously is a source for some writers.
Of those images, the ones preferred are those with symbolic portent: the shadows etched permanently on walls and sidewalks; the bizarrely juxtaposed fragments of urban civilization, blown out of context; the melted eyeballs, like Oedipus’, having seen too much. Writers do not flinch from depicting the savagery and violence of the post-nuclear war age, but they are not eager to describe the moment of impact or to explore the rubble left behind. Metaphor too often becomes a tool for evading realism, moderating the horror by transforming it into artifice.
This passage from the rather frivolous novel, The Texas-lsraeli War: 1999, grimmer than most, is a good example:
The bodies of ’93 [the date of the war] were usually found quietly at home. You remember the stale beer and the husks of popcorn on a TV tray beside a man, who was himself a dry husk, glued by decay to the velvet cushions of a recliner. You remember the child who had spasmed and died on the stairs of a split-level in Modesto. A body goes liquid and sometimes runs like jelly. These, like the child in Modesto, were the worst to find. You never stopped finding them. The corpses of lovers, glued together belly to belly, becoming one. The old ones who died in the park and poisoned pigeons with their gray flesh. Homes became funeral vaults. Skyscrapers became elaborate, gleaming mausoleams.
Such insistent irony calls attention to itself and not to the reality it purports to describe. Wildly forced surrealistic images of the effects also abound, as this one from Richard Wilson’s “Mother to the World” (1968): “Several times he found a car which had been run up upon from behind by another. It was as if, knowing they would never again be manufactured, they were trying copulation.”
As has been noted, one of the features which distinguishes nuclear from conventional warfare is the brevity of the period of combat. There is not time for the leisurely depiction of complex battle scenes. The nervous tensions which mount during the period before an attack are well depicted in such suspense novels as Fail- Safe and Two Hours to Doom, but in many of these the suspense takes the place of the action: the attack is in fact thwarted.
Although some authors strain credibility by stretching nuclear war out over a long period of time (Fritz Leiber, “Creature from Cleveland Depths” , David Bunch, Moderan [1959-70]), even a slight commitment to realism forces most of them to concentrate not on combat, but on survival after the attack. Even those authors most concerned to stress that nuclear war can be winnable find themselves spending little time on battle scenes.
A few authors set themselves the task of seriously depicting the likely impact of a nuclear war on ordinary people. One of the earliest and still one of the most interesting is Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth (1950). A young mother is trapped in her home with her two daughters when the bomb drops. Her panic and fear are well detailed. The fact that she is a stereotypically timid and irrational female is somewhat compensated for by the mature, intelligent competence of her teenaged daughter. In fact, an important theme of the novel is the process through which she is forced to acknowledge that her daughter is growing up. Worry about food and water, gas and electricity are dealt with in detail, more thoroughly than in Pat Frank’s much better known Alas, Babylon (1959). And Merril concentrates, as Frank does not, on the danger of nuclear fallout. Merril understands how terribly difficult it is to persuade a young child that the front yard is no longer a safe place to play, and she movingly depicts the anguish of the older members of the family when the little girl is struck down by radiation disease, described in great detail. Consciously and deliberately a woman’s view of nuclear war, Shadow on the Hearth is a far more universally pertinent story than a political thriller like Two Hours to Doom because it confronts the inescapably personal nature of the war’s impact. As the family is confined to its home, a high-pressure atmosphere develops in which emotions flare repeatedly and relationships are strained and redefined. The battleground is the neighborhood; the war throws its blighting shadow across the domestic hearth. Circumscribed as it is, the domestic drama of nuclear war is more serious than conventional political drama, particularly since personal survival is likely to be immensely more important in the postwar era than politics.
Philip Wylie is another partial exception to the pattern of avoiding concrete details of suffering under the impact of atomic bombing. Most of Tomorrow! (1954) is devoted to establishing the main characters and their attitudes toward civil defense. Once the attack comes, there is no question of an effective military defense—only retaliation. The task of the survivors is to recover from the catastrophe of the war. Yet Wylie does something quite unusual: he depicts moment by moment the events which occur during the explosion of a thermonuclear weapon. This is a difficult task for several reasons. In describing such a brief event the novelist is robbed of many of his most effective tools, particularly when dealing with victims near ground zero. There is no time for character development, even for dialogue, spoken or interior; human beings cannot react in so brief a time. The story must be told on the level of physics and chemistry, and to do this well, one must have the sort of scientific sophistication which Wylie acquired in his work on civil defense, and which few other authors have shared or bothered to acquire.
Wylie knows that if there is to be a human reaction to the experience of standing on ground zero it will have to be very brief indeed:
There it is, he thought strangely. It was quite long, dark, but with a flare of fire at the tail end that shone palely against the winter sky. It had a place to go to, he supposed, and it must be near its place. The nose end was thin and very sharp.
Then, where it had been, almost overhead by that time, a Light appeared.
It was a Light of such intensity that Coley could see nothing except its lightness and its expanding dimensions. He felt, at the same time, a strange physical sensation—just a brief start of a sensation—as if gravity had vanished and he, too, were a rushing thing, and a prickling through his body, and a heat.
And he was no more.
Wylie goes on for several pages to describe how the buildings melt, then vaporize; how the light and heat of the impact rush out through the city; how the fireball ignites distant objects: “Clothing caught fire, the beggar’s rags, the dowager’s sables, the baby’s diapers, the minister’s robe. Paper in the gutter burst into flame. Trees. Clapboards. Outdoor advertising signs. Pastry behind bakery windows. In that second, it burned.” The fires are then blown out by the shockwave which accompanies the blast of lethal radioactivity, and the second generation of fires begins.
Various details in Wylie’s description can be quibbled with, yet in the decades which have passed since the publication of Tomorrow!, no author has equalled this description. Wylie’s achievement demonstrates that strained metaphors and heavy-handed irony are not necessary to convey something of the force of a nuclear explosion: an informed and detailed delineation of the facts can be quite adequate.
The city so vividly annihilated here is a typical American city, its streets given the names of thousands of towns and cities. Whereas particularization is ordinarily a virtue in fiction, here the general nature of the setting increases the impact of the description by forcing the readers to think in terms of their own hometowns. Wylie does not spare his readers details of the aftermath, either. In both Tomorrow! and Triumph (1963), he goes out of his way to provide gruesome descriptions of the carnage caused by the bombing. A man runs down the street on bloody stumps, his feet blown off, a woman’s arm is converted to “bloody pulp,” a woman carries her dead baby, its intestines leaking from its back. In a later passage in Tomorrow!, the protagonist sees a woman sitting down on some steps across the street, bleeding profusely, and vainly trying to thrust an unborn baby back within her rent-open abdomen. Gore like this is almost unparalleled; where it occurs outside of the Hiroshima novels, it is the consequence of postattack violence, and not the bomb.
Wylie is unusual in another way. Like Merril and a few others, he depicts ordinary people as being kind and helpful to each other after the bomb drops. Immediate mob violence or gang warfare is far more common in other works.
The collapse of national unity has been depicted in many novels, but nowhere more harshly than in Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence (1952), in which the eastern half of the country has not only been bombed, but sown with pneumonic plague. The surviving western half has quarantined everything east of the Mississippi and left the inhabitants to die. The story depicts a surviving former soldier’s quest to cross the river. Although a well-detailed account of the effects of the war is presented early in the novel, the protagonist himself is so brutal and violent that it is difficult to identify with his quest for safety. He is clearly as much aggressor as victim.
Among the novels which followed the popular success of Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957) perhaps the best of all is Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day: A Novel of the Day After Tomorrow(1959). She accomplishes in a much more impressive fashion what Frank’s Alas, Babylon tried to do the next year: to depict the effects of a nuclear attack on a small group of ordinary people struggling to survive on the fringes of the nuclear war. The setting is a summer home on an island off the New England coast. As in Alas, Babylon, some of the inhabitants continue to think in terms of World War II. Others are at first glad to think that the art)ficiality of modern civilization has been swept away, restoring primitive simplicity; but the author clearly dismisses such nostalgia as nonsense.
What is particularly striking about Clarkson’s novel is its careful delineation of the effects of radiation disease on the various characters as they die one by one. Since they have been well drawn, the reader feels their sufferings acutely. Realistically but horribly, the children die first. The novel argues persuasively the futility of fallout shelters and civil defense in general and provides a detailed picture of the inadequacy of medicine to deal with radiation poisoning. The novel reads as if it might have been commissioned by an activist group like Ground Zero or Physicians for Social Responsibility. The domestic details, emphasis on the suffering of children, and rejection of the anti- Communist hysteria of the fifties are reminiscent of Judith Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth. But The Last Day is a much grimmer novel in that the main characters do not survive—indeed, it is implied that all life down to the microscopic level will be extinguished. Like On the Beach and only a handful of others, this novel concentrates not on survival but on death.
Some of her technical details can be faulted: even if all radio stations were blasted off the air (unlikely), one would still hear plenty of static and other noise on a properly functioning radio; and microbes, insects, and even more complex forms of life can be expected to thrive in a world irradiated by the worst nuclear war (setting aside such possible effects as the destruction of the ozone layer and a nuclear winter, which are not considered by Clarkson).
Nevertheless, her work contains far fewer incongruities and scientific lapses than most. Whereas Wylie tries to argue that nuclear war can be prepared for and survived, Clarkson insists that such a war is suicidal. The Last Day is unique in combining technical accuracy with humane values.
As shown in the last chapter, the antiwar stance of Clarkson is rare. One might suppose that the authors of these works would frequently have been pacifists, but such is not the case. Setting aside the large bulk of popular fantasies in which the world of the new dark age allows free reign for neobarbarian violence, almost every work realistically depicting nuclear war just)fies either retaliation, armed resistance to invasion, or ruthless violence against fellow citizens in the chaotic aftermath of the attack. Among the immediate psychological effects of a nuclear attack one would expect to see guilt and anxiety to avoid more bloodshed, but these are rarely depicted. Even Shute, whose characters in On the Beach often seem exhausted and drained of hostility, depicts some who seek violent thrills, notably in sports car racing.
Another exceptionally thoughtful work is Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday (1984), which seems deliberately to address many topics inadequately treated by their predecessors.Warday distinguishes between an immediate phase of rioting and looting mixed with shock, and an extended period of cooperation and charity mixed with self-interest and selfishness. Their depiction of society after the bomb is far more convincing than the nightmare visions of the majority of writers.
However, it is difficult to believe that an intact California would quite so ruthlessly—or successfully—exclude refugees as Strieber and Kunetka describe. Their point is undoubtedly to establish that even a limited nuclear war from which the United States suffered little direct physical damage would destroy it as a nation. The authors have taken pains both to research their material carefully and to shape it differently from their predecessors. Warday is essentially a postwar novel, with only a few pages devoted to description of the war itself, but those few are well done. Each author, in his own persona, tells of his experience separately. Strieber’s version is particularly impressive: the light, the blast, the ensuing chaos and confusion—all are vividly described without any distracting striving for fancy literary effects.
“Strieber” cannot at first understand what has happened. But he soon does:
It was the sky over Queens and Brooklyn that enforced the notion of a nuclear bomb. Through the dusty air I could see ash-black clouds shot through with long red flames. These clouds were immense. They stretched up and up until they were lost in their own expanding billows. There was no impression of a mushroom cloud, but I knew that was what it was, a mushroom cloud seen so close that it didn’t look like a mushroom.
The picture is an accurate one, but original because of its point of view. Strieber and Kunetka may also claim to be the first to have treated thoroughly the effects of electromagnetic pulse radiation, first widely discussed while they were preparing their book. They perhaps overdo its effects; but even in this case they carefully distinguish between modern automobiles with electronic starters which are immobilized by the deliberately induced EMP, and older vehicles which can still run. The war they depict is too limited to have precipitated a nuclear winter, even had the theory been fully developed before they finished their novel.
Warday lacks a real plot, its characters are shallow, and its style is merely serviceable. Its literary importance is neglible. But as a piece of carefully researched documentary-style educational material, it stands head and shoulders above other similar novels which approach the subject of nuclear war realistically such as Tomorrow! or Martin Caidin’s The Long Night (1956).
The fiction of nuclear war uses many settings, but the one uniquely its own is the shelter. During the early sixties, backyard fallout shelters became a controversial fad, and larger shelters improvised from the basements of public buildings became so commonplace that hardly anyone noticed their distinctive radioactivity symbol. Ordinary shelters play little role in fiction: there is an abandoned one in Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1955), and another which bounces its inhabitants improbably into the future in Robert A. Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold(1964). Much more common are fabulous, lavishly appointed underground retreats built by far-sighted millionaires. When the scale of shelters is more realistic their effectiveness is often satirized. Civil defense as a truly effective protection against nuclear war is seldom taken seriously. Exceptions are Merril’s Shadow on the Hearth and Wylie’s Tomorrow!, the latter dedicated “to the men and women of the Federal Civil Defense Administration.”
Although its title leads one to expect otherwise, there is not much to be learned about life in a fallout shelter from Jerry Ahern’s series of novels, The Survivalist (1981-1990). Although Ahern also knows a good deal about the technical aspects of nuclear war, he plunges into the wildest fantasy: California and Florida are split off the continent into the sea, for instance. He is more anxious to display his knowledge of various weapons and ammunition than to deal with the reality of nuclear war: Ahern carefully avoids exposing his hero to radiation, which his skill and ferocity would be powerless to combat. Instead, John Rourke’s postholocaust adventures become a Wild West romp across America.
Dean Ing’s Pulling Through (1983) is a more practical guide to the survival of a nuclear attack, including detailed plans for air filters, radiation meters, and other items. Its focus on the tools and techniques of survival, however, means that very little is seen of the effects of the bombs on the world outside the hero’s basement. Ing seems to be concerned with refuting the survivalist stereotype promoted by writers like Ahern, for his protagonist displays compassion for others, sacrifices himself to aid friends and strangers alike, and ridicules the notion that indiscriminate gunplay is useful. He kills, but reluctantly. Few psychological problems arise among the inhabitants of Ing’s shelter, and they are readily dealt with; he is mainly concerned to show that his various devices can save lives.
It is striking that Ahern’s lavishly appointed retreat is not in fact used as a fallout shelter, but merely as a place for recuperating one’s forces and gathering supplies before setting out for more adventures. Only Ing, of all these novelists, has tried to provide a detailed, accurate account of what life in a fallout shelter would really be like, complete with the danger of asphyxiation, sanitation breakdowns, and malnutrition. Even so, it is undoubtedly too sanguine.
During the shelter fad of the early sixties a good deal of debate went on about the morality of fallout shelters, especially when some owners announced they would shoot any neighbors who tried to break into their underground havens. Rod Serling’s script for a Twilight Zone episode entitled “The Shelter” (reprinted in From the Twilight Zone [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962]) explores this possibility, although deaths both by self-defense and by nuclear devastation are avoided when the alert proves to be a false alarm. The moral dilemma which confronts a shelter inhabitant is thoughtfully considered in Sven Holm’s Termush (1967), in which the residents of an exclusive hotel/shelter are besieged by other, less fortunate survivors seeking medical attention. In the end it becomes clear even to some of the wealthy residents that they cannot expect to escape the fate of the rest of humanity, and they are driven out into the war-blasted world. Since most authors do not think that any reasonable civil defense program can be truly successful, there are not many serious proposals for shelters which could feasibly protect a very large portion of the population. What we do find instead are varieties of supershelters, designed and paid for by the rich for their own protection. The supershelter which evolves into the complete underground habitat is the truly distinctive setting of the fiction of nuclear war.
In Philip Wylie’s Triumph, a classic supershelter proves effective, although the author stresses that similar protection could not conceivably be afforded any significant number of Americans. Wylie’s faith in civil defense would seem to have been somewhat shaken between 1954, when he wrote Tomorrow!, and 1963, when he wrote Triumph. He depicts ordinary shelters as death traps incapable of saving the lives of the minority which has the presence of mind to take refuge in them. His supershelter is very deeply buried and exceptionally well appointed, being provided with massive protective doors, diesel generators, air treatment and filtering facilities, fresh water from artesian wells, a sewage treatment plant, a machine shop, a library, roller skates for recreation, and a wine cellar for the builder’s alcoholic wife. Wylie avoids the moral dilemmas raised by the shelter debate by making his refuge so roomy that it can accommodate two stranded children and a passing meter reader, as well as the host’s family and friends.
Shelters are satirized in “Fresh Guy” (1958) by E. C. Tubb, in which all human beings have hidden underground in “tombstones,” abandoning the Earth to a host of vampires, ghouls, and werewolves who eagerly await their reemergence. The story is little more than a grisly joke, but the image of shelters as mere food storage lockers is a striking one. British civil defense plans and public ignorance about nuclear war are treated with bitter irony in Raymond Briggs’s cartoon book When the Wind Blows (1982), in which a middle-aged working class couple is depicted trying vainly to follow the government’s directives before and after a nuclear attack.
The entire civil defense enterprise was mercilessly and hilariously satirized by Gina Berriault in her novel The Descent (1960), in which the military masks its aggressiveness by promoting an extensive diversionary publicity campaign featuring such absurdities as Miss Massive Retaliation singing:
slow my heart to little bits
Never, never call it quits Mister,
send your missile my way.
A simple professor who has been recruited to represent the government’s humanitarian concern for its citizens throws himself sincerely into promoting world peace, but when his daughter dares publicly to plead for disarmament, he is deprived of his post, attacked as a subversive, and hounded from job to job, his academic career in ruins. He finally gets a job in construction as a result of an ever-escalating shelter-building race. Berriault’s insistence that only the young girl has the courage to speak out underlines the fact that she views the rejection of civil defense as an issue of special concern to women. And indeed, almost all survivalist writing is heavily male-oriented. The Descent, like The Last Day, calls into question the sanity of the entire defense establishment and makes clear that no shelter plan can make nuclear war tolerable.
There are shelters for the military from which leaders can conduct the war, of course. They provide the setting for most of Will F. Jenkins’s The Murder of the U.S.A. (1946) and large parts of both the film and Peter George’s novelization of Dr. Strangelove. The latter satirizes the ambitions of military shelter builders by having Dr. Strangelove himself propose a century-long underground period for the leaders, to be provided with sexy women in a ratio of ten to one. However even the building of shelters in abandoned mineshafts is not a purely defensive measure to the military mind, but part of the arms race: in General Turgidson’s words, “Mr. President, we must not allow a mine-shaft gap.” George’s novel is more typical than Jenkins’s in using the military supershelter as a vantage point from which to criticize the military.
One of the most elaborate military shelters is the setting for Mordecai Roshwald’s memorable and powerful novel Level 7 (1959). The work derives its power not from scrupulous scientific accuracy—it is more Kafkaesque fantasy than realistic speculation—but from the sense of oppressive claustrophobia and ever- advancing doom which its setting evokes. The work consists of the diary of a button pusher—one of those responsible for launching nuclear missiles—living four thousand feet underground at the lowest level of a sevenlevel shelter. Level 7 is a somber account of the loss of hope and growth of terror as the levels above the narrator one by one succumb to the effects of the war and fall silent, a seven-stage holocaust that deconstructs, as it were, the results of the seven days of creation in Genesis.
The novel, sardonically dedicated “to Dwight and Nikita,” mocks the pretentions of political leaders of both sides. Each claims to have won the war and both spend a good deal of time trading insults. The militaristic culture of Level 7, a portrait of neither contemporary Russian nor American society, is strikingly similar to the oppressive world of Evegeny Zamiatin’s We (1921), especially in its denial of individual privacy and identity (in both works people have numbers instead of names, for instance). And the death of the Earth is even more absolute in Level 7 than inOn the Beach, and more powerfully conveyed.
Roshwald has a metaphorical turn of mind, and his work contains many striking images of the war. One key example is a parable written by the depressed and anxious narrator at the end of his diary entry for April 26, and addressed to the coming generations. The narrator has not yet consciously realized how much he detests his situation, but the parable reveals his growing doubts. In it the Promethean ambition of the human race has led it simultaneously to shut itself off from nature in cities and to transcend its natural habitat by creating a gigantic mushroom which can take it high above the surface of the Earth. Unfortunately, the scheme backfires:
As time went by, the mushroom grew so big, and its smell grew so strong, that some people began to be afraid of it. So they looked for a place to hide. There was no place they could find on earth where they could not smell the mushroom, so they started to dig down. Down they dug, down down, down . . . until they arrived at Level 7. And when they got to Level 7 they could not smell the mushroom any more.
But the thing they had escaped from was still growing and growing, swelling and covering the whole earth with shadow and stink, until one day—it burst.
In a split second the mushroom exploded into millions of little pieces, and the air carried the particles into the people’s boxes, into their flying gadgets, everywhere. And everyone who was touched by a particle, or who smelled the bad odour, died. And it was not long before there was not a single person left alive on the surface of the earth. Only the few who had dug into the earth survived. And you, children, are their offspring.
The bomb is here not a weapon of liberation, but a tool of self-entrapment, dooming its possessors to entombment which sacrifices the very freedom it was constructed to defend.
A more light-hearted parable of the absurdity of nuclear war using shelters as a thematic center is Philip K. Dick’s “The Defenders” (1953), in which the people, having lived underground for eight years and leaving the atomic war to be conducted by automatic machinery and highly intelligent robots, find that their mechanical servants—wiser than they—have decided that the war is pointless except as an exercise in mass psychotherapy. As a result, they have faked the war, constructing elaborately detailed models of various cities and demolishing them on television. Their main task has been the restoration and maintenance of the planet until such time as the human race shall have purged itself of its war madness and become fit to emerge and live in harmony. The optimism of this story is striking, especially for Dick, who wrote other, bleaker tales on the theme of automated warfare. Whereas war machinery is usually depicted as a metaphor of the inevitability and irreversibility of war in the modern age, this story presents it as a source of salvation, albeit a satiric one insofar as the human race must be rescued from its own stupidity by its own creations.
Fallout shelters have been used in a number of ways in fiction: as a high-pressure environment for the blossomimg of love affairs, as a refuge for religious cultists, as emotional pressure cookers provoking violent conflict, and even as time-travel machines. Indeed they have usually served every purpose except that for which real shelters are ostensibly designed: the protection of their inhabitants from blast and radiation. Whatever their perspective, all but a handful of authors writing about shelters view them as metaphors for racial suicide, a symbol of the self-defeating nature of nuclear weapons, which make us our own prisoners of war.
Again and again the shelter is portrayed as a trap. It provides only the illusion of safety, or such protection as it affords comes at an intolerable cost. On the simplest level, such stories represent objections to the notion that the problems posed by the prospect of nuclear war can be readily solved by technical means. On another level, they express a refusal to accept confinement as a satisfactory mode of existence. In Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His (1969), for instance, the underground world represents the rigidly repressed conformism of middle-class America, while the barbarian surface represents the dangerous but invigoratingly anarchic world of the youth subculture.
Once the survivors have emerged from their fallout shelters, their suffering is often only really beginning. Looting, rape, gang warfare, and random violence are all commonplace. Almost every writer depicting the immediate postholocaust world imagines the swift collapse of civilization and a more or less definitive reversion to barbarism, perhaps to be mitigated in the long run by the development of a new feudalism.
But an alternative fate awaits many fictional holocaust survivors, and it is a fate much on the minds of Americans today in popular books and films, as it was during the 1950s: a vicious dictatorship imposed by invading Russians. The ruthlessness of these invaders could hardly be bettered by H. G. Wells’s Martians; indeed, as Susan Sontag first noted and others have repeated often since, many of the monster movies of the fifties are barely veiled allegories of Communist conquest (see “The Imagination of Disaster” in Against Interpretation [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1966]). This motif does not seem to have played any prominent role in novels and short stories, however. Fiction writers who wish to depict the Russians invading New York or London do so directly, rather than disguising them as dinosaurs or giant ants. Another motif noted by Sontag in fifties monster movies does occur in fiction: when monsters appear, they are usually products of the bomb itself and therefore symbols of nuclear science run amok.
Russian invasion stories almost always focus on the efforts of a resistance organization or at least of an individual to overthrow the oppressor. One of the best known is C. M. Kornbluth’s Not This August (1955), which has the following epigraph from “Notes On the Next War” by Ernest Hemingway: “Not this August, nor this September; you have this year to do what you like. Not next August, nor next September; that is still too soon. . . . But the year after that or the year after that they fight” ( Scholastic, November 9, 1935). In the novel, war in fact breaks out in 1965, a full ten years in the future. The Russians and Chinese have invaded the United States at the conclusion of a lengthy nuclear exchange in which missiles routinely lobbed in are routinely destroyed. Kornbluth uses many motifs from World War II: rationing of food and electricity, ersatz chocolate, censorship, women filling traditional male jobs as mail carriers and fire control technicians. Like many others, Kornbluth understands at some level that a nuclear war cannot be successfully fought. The typical nuclear holocaust is an uncongenial environment for anti-Communist posturing; but the postwar setting creates a situation in which conservative Red-fighting fantasies can be fully elaborated. The “real” war in this novel begins when the Russian army moves in.
In Not This August, the Russian invaders at first cultivate the goodwill of the American population, convincing many citizens of their basic decency. But soon the mask of civilization is tossed aside and the Communists reveal themselves in all their tyrannical savagery, engaging in mass executions (members of the American Communist party are among the first to be shot) and imposing impossibly harsh quotas on farmers, whose crops they export back to their own country while leaving native Americans to starve.
In what initially seems like a move prompted by pure paranoia, the Russians scour the countryside for fissionable materials; but, the United States Army has in fact stashed two tons of plutonium, and an underground resistance is engaged in smuggling this material and assembling bombs. The protagonist becomes involved in this plot and discovers a secret underground rocket site with a satellite fully armed with nuclear weapons and ready to launch. The group which built it was killed there by its own commanding officer to preserve the secret of the satellite, its 364 ordinary atom bombs (one for each day of the year?), and its two cobalt bombs, following the surrender of the government to the Russians.
The resistance stages its armed uprising on the night before Christmas (hence the British title, Christmas Eve) and threatens the bombing of China and Russia unless they surrender. The novel ends on a note of muted hope, but it is hardly possible to conceive that the underground plot will succeed: the Russians have been shown to be too ruthless, Kornbluth has argued persuasively in mid-novel that nuclear deterrence will not work (an argument he never answers), and it is predicted at the conclusion of the work that the Russians will build their own satellite and perpetuate the balance of terror. What began as an account of fierce resistance becomes fatally bogged down by the inherent logic of nuclear war. The best that can be hoped for is an unstable, and thus potentially deadly, stalemate.
Despite its contradictions and the crude caricature of the Russians it contains, Not This August is a superior example of its kind, containing vividly drawn portraits of various American types, carefully depicting the ambivalences of its hero, and avoiding the typical love-interest cliches which abound in this sort of fiction. The details describing the actions of the occupying army and of the struggle for survival of ordinary citizens are often striking. Especially effective are the portraits of people earnestly engaged in denying the reality of what has happened to them, pretending that life can go on much as it always has. (For a portrait of the American public as still more incurably passive see Oliver Lange’s Vandenberg .) The resistance Kornbluth urges may, in the end, be futile. Nonethless, he makes it more appealing than most other authors because he grounds it in the lived experiences of his characters and not in vaguely defined patriotism or abstract politics.
Robert Shafer’s The Conquered Place (1954) handles the theme of post-nuclear war resistance against Russian invaders even more effectively by exploring the conflict between the point of view of those living in occupied territory and the exiled American military commanders who want to use the resistance for their own strategic ends—going so far as to strike with atomic weapons the city they have fought so hard to save. Collaborators called “snooks” are the principal target of the resistance.
The building of a classic underground resistance is detailed in Samuel Southwell’s fairly sophisticated If All the Reloels Die (1966). On the fantastic side is Theodora DuBois’s Solution T-25(1951), in which the cruel invaders are subdued when the resistance doses them with a niceness drug. A more credible weapon—secretly stored missiles—does the trick in Mervyn Jones’s On the Last Day (1958), but to more ambiguous effect. The focus on collaborators in many Russian occupation novels evidently results from their authors’ belief that the Communists are so ruthless and powerful that actions aimed directly at them are likely to prove fruitless. The struggle is aimed instead at the more attainable target of the collaborators.
D. G. Barron’s The Zilov Bombs (1962) contains a plot similar to that of On the Last Day. The foolish Western Europeans, believing Russian lies, have abandoned their nuclear weapons and subsequently been conquered and occupied by the USSR. The narrator reluctantly becomes involved in a plot to assassinate the chief Russian leaders with a smuggled A-bomb. Finally he abandons his moral scruples and pushes the button after his co-conspirators have been killed. The book ends abruptly with the pressing of the detonator. It is striking that the notion of nuclear revenge, though appealing, is difficult to present convincingly. At the last moment authors often experience a failure of nerve and cannot bring themselves to describe the success for which they so obviously hope. The invaders have usually been depicted as so powerful and so ruthless that it is impossible to imagine any convincing device that will dislodge them.
The immediate postwar world is almost always presented in bleak terms. Fantasies of triumphant limited wars are confined to the imaginations of wargamers like Kahn and Hackett. Conservatives also tend to regard nuclear war as a catastrophe. Even the wildly nationalistic militarist Jerry Ahern ends by seeing some good in some Russians, and declaring the war an act of stupidity which has resulted only in an ecocatastrophe which all but wipes out life on Earth (see the ninth volume of The Survivalist series, Earth Fire ).
The fantasies of an improved, or at least more interesting, world, which abound in tales set longer after a nuclear war, are missing in the works discussed in this chapter. To the uninitiated reader, this will come as no surprise: who would expect cheerful optimism in the wake of a holocaust? Yet this fact strikingly differentiates this group of stories and novels from the bulk of the works with which this study is concerned.