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.
Go to Chapter Five
Back to Chapter Three