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Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction

by Paul Brians
Chapter Four
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 [1962]).

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 [1956]). 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” [1946]; Herman Wouk, The Lomokome Papers [1956]), on Mars (Pelham Groom, The Purple Twilight [1949]), or an imaginary planet (Alfred M. Young, The Aster Disaster [1958]).

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 [1981]: 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 [1963]). The world of the ruined future outside often has considerably more open attitudes toward sex than the present (Edgar Pangborn, Davy [1962]). Adulterous promiscuity may be just)fied by the need to enlarge the damaged gene pool (Syd Logsdon, A Fond Farewell to Dying [1981]).

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 [1964], and Bertrand Russell, “The Boston Lady” [1972].)

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 p*rnographic or semip*rnographic novels with a nuclear holocaust providing the background for unbridled lust were written during the sixties, when p*rnography 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 [1968]; M. J. Deer, Flames of Desire [1963]; Jane Gallion, Biker [ 1969]; George H. Smith, The Coming of the Rats [1961] )

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 hom*osexuality. 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-), hom*osexual men are sad*stic, 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 hom*ophobic 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 [1983] 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 [1982], 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 hom*o sapiens and hom*o 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 hom*o 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 hom*o 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 [1961], The People: No Different Flesh [1966], and Holding Wonder [1971]).

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 [1956]; Samuel R. Delany’s The Fall of the Towers [1971]). 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 [1978]: 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 [1983]), 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 ChapterThree


Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction

by Paul Brians
Chapter Three
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” [1962], 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. Circ*mscribed 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 basem*nts 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 basem*nt. 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 [1971].) 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.

Go to Chapter Four

Back to Chapter Two

Annotated Bibliography


Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction

by Paul Brians
Chapter Two
The Causes of Nuclear War

Nuclear war in fiction is distinctive not only in the way that its course and aftermath are portrayed, but even in the portrayal of its causes. A number of the more popular causes of holocausts are considered in the following pages: accident, madness, the “bolt from the blue” attack by the Russians or others, terrorism, and—most peculiar of all—the actions of vicious pacifists. The estimate that we make of the likelihood of a nuclear war is linked to our notions of its likely causes, so that these latter provide one of the most significant indices to attitudes on the subject.

In the majority of cases, such wars are presented as beginning by accident or from unspecified causes. So overwhelming is the prospect of a nuclear holocaust that authors rarely provide reasonable justifications for what seems to most people the ultimate act of political madness. Undoubtedly the strong streak of fatalism in our attitudes toward nuclear war helps to create this pattern. The thought that the end of civilization or of life on Earth could be precipitated by a mechanical malfunction or by the impact of a meteor being misinterpreted also appeals strongly to the absurdist mentality of many writers, and a very great number of fictional nuclear holocausts are set off in error.

The best known depiction of an accidentally caused nuclear war is Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail-Safe (1962). Like all such accounts, the detailed criticisms Burdick and Wheeler make of defense equipment and procedures can be and have been answered; but such novels function primarily on the metaphorical level. Any particular accidental war is extremely unlikely, but the fact that accidental war is possible at all is horrifying. In any case, the authors of Fail-Safe demonstrate fairly convincingly that once matters escalate to the level of a red alert, the irrationality inherent in cold war animosity makes the plunge toward oblivion almost inevitable. The least persuasive part of the novel is not the series of mischances which leads to an unintentional attack on Russia, but the resolution by which the president of the United States—in.a parody of the sort of limited war described by Herman Kahn (depicted as Dr. Groteschele in the novel)—agrees to limit the war by sacrificing New York City in exchange for having accidentally destroyed Moscow. A year earlier, in “The Day They Got Boston,” Herbert Gold had also used the idea of an accidental nuclear war being managed through negotiations, but he had treated it satirically, foreseeing that it would be impossible to limit hostilities once begun.

Reports of Strategic Air Command alerts being prompted by meteor showers are reflected in several novels, such as Paul O. Williams’s The Dome in the Forest (1981). In Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959), the danger of what is now called a “launch on warning” tactic is underlined when the enemy (unspecified) accidentally begins a war which is automatically carried on by the machines of the other side. Computer malfunctions of one sort or another trigger some fictional atomic wars, though fewer than might be supposed. More common is the defense computer so intelligent that it assumes control of humanity, as in D. F. Jones’s Colossus series (1966-77). (See Carolyn Rhodes, “Tyranny by Computer,” in Thomas D. Clareson, ea., Many Futures, Many Worlds: Theme and Form in Science Fiction [Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1977], 83-84.)

In a variation on the Frankenstein theme—or better, the theme of the sorcerer’s apprentice—more than one author has depicted battle machines which go on fighting long after their masters have disappeared. Thus nuclear war can be its own cause. The earliest example is Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s story “Dumb Waiter” (1952). Philip K. Dick inverted the theme in “The Defenders” (1953), in which the robots lie to their human masters, creating the illusion of a war which has long since ceased. In the same year Dick followed Miller’s lead in “Second Variety,” in which the robots take over. He returned to that device in 1955 with “Autofac,” and finally developed fully the phony-war theme first explored in “The Defenders” in his 1967 novel The Penultimate Truth.David R. Bunch’s Moderan (1959-70) depicts a world in which atomic war continues of its own momentum long after its rationale has been forgotten. Keith Laumer has accidentally reactivated battle machines running amok in the stories collected as Bolo: The Annals of the Dinochrome Brigade (1976). Battle machinery turning on its masters found its way into the mass media in the 1970s in the television series Battlestar Galactica, albeit without nuclear weapons. The theme reached its most sophisticated development in Gregory Benford’s outstanding 1984 novel, Across the Sea of Suns. Such stories provide a metaphor for the way in which nuclear weapons tend to acquire a life of their own. Strategy is often dictated by the possibilities of technology. A new weapon is invented, then a war must be designed to fit it. Once the technology is in place, it cannot usefully serve its makers except as a deterrent; instead they must serve it.

Conspicuously absent as a cause of nuclear war is the mad scientist. These evil geniuses had populated science fiction since its earliest days, Drs. Frankenstein and Jekyll, H. G. Wells’s invisible man and his Dr. Moreau being famous examples. But by the forties, the mad scientist had been relegated, by and large, to radio and movie serials and to the comic strips. In science fiction short stories and novels the scientist was usually the hero. Few criticized the physicists of the Manhattan Project for their role in developing the bomb. The doubts and fears about their role expressed by Oppenheimer and Szilard have found few echoes in fiction except in the novels depicting the Manhattan Project itself, the best of which is James Thackara’s America’s Children(1984). Even here, these scientists are troubled, but they are neither mad nor evil.

Many science fiction writers understood that the power of the new weapon threatened civilization and perhaps human survival, but they placed the responsibility for the coming holocaust on the shoulders of politicians or military men and argued that science still provided humanity’s best hope for the future. One must search diligently in the years immediately following Hiroshima to discover an unambiguous fictional attack on nuclear scientists, and what one finds—F. Horace Rose’s The Maniac’s Dream: A Novel of the Atomic Bomb (1946)—is eccentric, unrepresentative, and almost unread. In this book, a group of atheistic scientists try to prove the nonexistence of God by destroying most of the world with nuclear weapons. They are foiled by the protagonist and the pious daughter of one of the scientists aided by God himself, who strikes down the maniac of the title.

The mad scientist does not reappear as a cause of nuclear war in fiction until 1963, and then only as a by-product of the film Dr. Strangelove; or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which was subsequently novelized by Peter George and included the bizarre scientist of the title. Note that Strangelove is not the instigator of the war, however; that role belongs to the crazed anticommunist General Jack. D. Ripper. Strangelove himself—an amalgam of Kahn, Teller, and Kissinger—was an invention of Stanley Kubrick and Terry Southern, who wrote the film script. The novel which inspired the film, George’s Two Hours to Doom (1958; American title Red Alert), was a serious treatment of the theme of the danger of war started by a madman.

Philip K. Dick responded to the movie with Dr. Bloodmoney; or, How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965) about a scientist who causes a worldwide catastrophe unintentionally by incorrectly certifying that a high- atmosphere bomb test will be safe. Driven insane, he later sets off more bombs, but the war itself is not directly his responsibility. Dick came closer to blaming the scientist in Deus Irae (1976; co-written with Roger Zelazny), but the theme is treated with great irony: the scientist longs for martyrdom but is instead worshipped by his ignorant victims. These two novels represent perhaps the most negative portraits in science fiction of scientific responsibility for nuclear war, and they seem very moderate indeed.

If mad scientists don’t begin nuclear wars, mad generals occasionally do. The general in Two Hours to Doom must have seemed frighteningly convincing in 1958. If one accepts his premises—that the Russians must be destroyed at almost any cost—then his passionate arguments make a good deal of sense. He reflects the attitudes of many Americans and certainly the public posture of many politicians at the time that the novel was originally written. George’s character fails in his quest to make the world safe for American democracy because he hasn’t realized that the Russians have secretly built but not yet announced a doomsday device which will automatically destroy the world if the USSR is attacked, a circ*mstance which renders his planned first strike suicidal. (This twist in the plot can be criticized as a deus ex machine.) One might be tempted to view this conclusion as a warning against assuming that any first strike can be guaranteed success, since one can never be sure what the other side may do, but George ultimately places his hope in the improvement of the balance of terror.

Whereas in Two Hours to Doom he had avoided the threatened nuclear holocaust by a fortunate accident, in Dr. Strangelove George faithfully follows the movie by having the mad general’s scheme play out to its disastrous conclusion.

It is surprising that the notion of a crazed military man armed with nuclear weapons has not been treated seriously more often. Back in 1949 in “The Long Watch,” Robert A. Heinlein depicted a lunar official who tried to rebel against Earth’s government by using nuclear blackmail. George H. Smith created a Russian counterpart to General Ripper in his 1963 novel Doomsday Wing.The attack on New York in Robert Buchard’s Thirty Seconds Over New York (1969) is the result of a pyromaniac colonel; but he is Chinese, and in thrillers the Chinese are assumed to be capable of any madness, as we shall see.

Despite the fact that George lent his name to the novelization of Dr. Strangelove, whether he actually wrote it or not (see the discussion of this question in the bibliography entry), he obviously took the notion of an insane military officer seriously because he returned to it in his 1965 novel Commander-l. He acknowledged the weaknesses of his original plot, but concentrated this time on the mad submarine commander James Geraghty, who appoints himself ruler of the postwar world but who is in no way responsible for the war itself.

The vision of a submarine commander armed with nuclear weapons and difficult if not impossible to control from headquarters has often been presented in nonfictional discussions of the danger of accidental war; yet only Mordecai Roshwald in A Small Armageddon (1962) has treated the theme in nuclear war fiction, and done so in a farcical manner. Speculation about psychological pressures on the “men whose fingers rest on the button” finds expression in Kris Neville’s “Cold War” (1949), where the stress of serving as the guardians of the ultimate deterrent leads a military crew to crack and set off an attack. The power eats at them, Neville writes, “like marijuana.” Similar tensions seem destined to precipitate the holocaust in Donald Barthelme’s “Game” (1965).

There are plenty of serious novels which search for causes of nuclear war more realistic than technology run wild or generals gone mad. Many of them reflect the assumptions of those who develop United States nuclear war doctrine. The most common of these assumptions is that the Russians might be willing to attempt either a conventional invasion or a first strike against the West. As might be expected, the vast majority of works depicting such an attack were written during the late fifties and early sixties, when the cold war was at its height and the Russians had developed their ICBMs to the point that they posed a genuine if limited threat to our mainland, a threat made graphic by the launching of the first Sputnik in 1957. Although the atomic bomb was first used by the United States against Japan, there are those who still argue that President Truman intended the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki at least partially as a warning to the USSR. Whatever the truth of that theory, it was certainly widely accepted after the war that the most likely target of future nuclear bombings would be Russia, and the fiction of the time naturally reflects that supposition.

Most often it is not considered necessary to propose a rationale for such an attack. The Russians are depicted as single-mindedly bent on dominating the world, even if that world should consist in large part of radioactive rubble. These early works contain little in the way of political theory. Conflict with the Soviet Union is simply viewed as inevitable. In this respect Robert A. Heinlein’s 1953 story “Project Nightmare” is typical. Heinlein, like Wylie more attentive to technical realism than most, realized early on that it would be possible to smuggle small-scale bombs into this country, making a devastating attack possible even before the Russians had perfected the ICBM. When an array of such bombs is discovered, Heinlein’s army uses trained psychics to prevent them from exploding and then sets the same psychics to devastating Russia—with notable glee—by exploding its own bombs on site. Heinlein is an interesting figure in the history of nuclear war fiction. Perhaps the most widely read science fiction author during certain periods, he has been deeply patriotic, extremely hostile to communism, and generally willing to glorify the military and the heroism of combat—see, for instance, his notorious novel glorifying militarism, Starship Troopers (1959). K. A. MacDermott analyzes Heinlein’s politics in an article entitled “Ideology and Narrative: The Cold War and Robert Heinlein” (Extrapolation 23 [1982]: 25~69), finding a fairly direct correlation between cold war politics and the attitudes presented in Heinlein’s fiction. However, Heinlein was no simple jingoist in the fifties. He was genuinely alarmed about the dangers of nuclear war and often wrote articles and stories warning his readers of the impending cataclysm. These are conveniently collected in Expanded Universe: The New Worlds of Robert A. Heinlein (1980). Because of his belief that nationalism and nuclear weapons were a fatal combination, he advocated a world government, as did many in the wake of Hiroshima.

Rabid militarism was far more common in the fifties than Heinlein’s position. Some writers went so far as to advocate that the United States make a first strike against the enemy. Even after the Russians developed (or stole, as was commonly thought), the A-bomb, the prospect of annihilating their country with a devastating nuclear attack was irresistibly attractive to many. Perhaps the most striking elaboration of this fantasy has been mentioned in chapter 1, the special issue of Collier’s magazine for October 27, 1951, entitled “Preview of the War We Do Not Want.” The Russians here are joyously liberated from their cruel Communist masters by a righteous nuclear assault on the Soviet Union, prompted by its invasion of Yugoslavia. It is somewhat alarming to note that in a number of works based more or less realistically on official American foreign policy statements, the United States—while responding to Soviet aggression—is nevertheless the first to use atomic weapons. Edward Teller, “father of the H-Bomb,” offered a scenario called “A Concise History of the Crostic Union War” in his 1962 book The Legacy of Hiroshima. He proposed that a limited nuclear war with the Russians could be fought and won given a sufficiently determined president. For an updated version of such scenarios, see William M. Brown’s 1975 study for the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency entitled The Nuclear Crisis of 1979. From the time of Dulles’s announcement of the massive retaliation strategy for Europe, to the United States government’s current refusal to make a no-first-use statement, the only nation on Earth which has announced it might begin a nuclear war in response to a conventional threat has been the United States. War-gamers are keenly aware of that fact, and use it in their prognostications.

A few liberal novels portray the danger that the United States will strike first because of paranoid fears of attack. John Brunner’s The Brink (1959), in which such an event is narrowly averted, is an unusual anti-cold war story which depicts the world as being endangered more by American anticommunism than by Russian aggression. When a Russian rocket crashes near an American missile site, bombers are sent out to retaliate, but an officer realizes that the missile was simply a misdirected spacecraft and recalls them. Even though he has saved the world from accidental holocaust, he is accused of treason and suspected of being a Communist, as is a liberal minister who has preached against bomb tests. Brunner’s work is a scathing attack on American militarism, chauvinism, racism, and paranoia. A similar theme is treated by S. B. Hough’s Extinction Bomber (1956). Both of these works were published exclusively in Britain, and both depict near-wars rather than actual wars.

In Burdick and Wheeler’s Fail-Safe the United States attacks first, of course, but blame is evenly distributed since the technical failure which leads to the catastrophe is caused by Russian jamming of our radio communications. America was simply not pictured as an atomic aggressor by anyone. To the average novelist, especially in the cold war era, a war of conquest against the West launched by the Russians seemed far more probable, or even inevitable.

During the Vietnam era, America’s trustworthiness was occasionally called into question, notably in Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash” (1969), which draws inspiration from the apocalyptic imagery of much psychedelic rock music (particularly that of The Doors). In Spinrad’s tale, the scheming military uses the mesmerizing power of electric rock to gain approval of the younger generation for the use of nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia. (This premise recognizes the odd contradiction between the antimilitary mood of youth in the late sixties and the extremely violent imagery of many of its most popular songs.) The cynical generals underestimate the power of music, however, and the story ends not in the wave of sympathy they had hoped for but in the unleashing of World War III. The story captures vividly the apocalyptic mood of the end of the decade in which many in a generation impatient with politics as usual longed for instant solutions. Spinrad’s story makes no claims to realism, but as a metaphor it is quite striking.

Yet there are those who—while not supporting a preemptive strike—nevertheless believe that a nuclear war could be survivable, and even beneficial to the interests of the West. An up-to-date Russian invasion scenario has been depicted by a retired British general, formerly of NATO, Sir John Hackett. In collaboration with his military colleagues, he has produced two volumes of nuclear age war-gaming entitled The Third World War: A Future History (1978) and The Third World War: August 1985 (1982). These works, replete with maps, photographs, and detailed descriptions of every major weapon in the arsenals of both sides, are hardly novels at all. They are rather lightly fictionalized essays on the probable course of a European war initiated by Russian aggression. Without much in the way of characters or plot, the books are almost unreadable; but they provide a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of the military strategists associated with NATO.

The war begins in Germany in 1985 and escalates slowly (a major assumption of Hackett’s, and one which he shares with few other novelists). Only toward the conclusion of the book, almost as an afterthought, are atomic weapons used, destroying—not Moscow, London, or New York—but first Birmingham and then Minsk. The nuclear warning shot across the Soviet bow precipitates the same sort of nationalist rebellions which dismember the USSR in Collier’s 1951 World War III issue and in Philip Reynolds’s When and If (1952), with much less justification.

Hackett’s main aim seems to be to make a case for preparing for a conventional war in Europe, but he rather undermines his own cause by creating a situation in which the superior weapons of the West leave the Russians no choice but to retaliate in desperation with nuclear bombs. Clearly if superior conventional weaponry is no deterrent to a nuclear war and the Russians are foolish enough to ignore the nuclear deterrent, nothing can be done to prevent them from launching a suicidal attack on the West.

Hackett takes such pains to make his work up-to-date, setting it in the very near future, that parts of it are already dated. The sequel, which gives details skimmed over or ignored in the first volume, considerably revises his view of the world situation. While he was the first author to deal with the danger of electromagnetic pulse radiation (EMP), he disposes of it cavalierly and unconvincingly by stating that it was successfully barred by the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963. In an odd way, Hackett trusts the Russians. He trusts them not to launch the sort of war he would find impossible to fight. He also assumes a massive, deep- seated hatred by the Russian people toward their government, which needs only slight stimulus to set off a revolt. The heartening prospect of a disintegrated Soviet Union and a largely intact Western Europe makes a brisk nuclear exchange almost attractive, although in a postscript Hackett acknowledges that the Russian decision not to launch an all-out strike to defend itself is almost incredible, an admission which underlines the weakness of his whole scenario.

One chapter of the sequel depicts the dismantling of the Russian nuclear arsenal. Striving for realism, Hackett allows China to keep its bombs while the Europeans agree to disarm if other Third World nations follow suit. (In addition, Hackett shows himself to be no hidebound conservative by praising the deeds of a female bomber pilot and generally supporting the use of women in combat.) In general, Hackett’s combination of technological sophistication and political naiveté is frightening because it suggests the state of mind prevalent among many who hold in their hands the fate of humanity. What is even more frightening is the warm reception Hackett’s work received in many powerful conservative circles, and its commendation by President Ronald Reagan, who was greatly impressed with it.

Again and again it is assumed that the Russian nuclear arsenal is intended for aggressive use. Never—except in Bertrand Russell’s “Dean Acheson’s Nightmare” (1954—are the Russians seen as primarily on the defensive. Indeed, their aggressiveness often verges on madness. Philip Wylie, in his 1963 novel ironically entitled Triumph, proposes that the Russians will deliberately sacrifice the Northern Hemisphere, including their own nation, in order to use their remaining nuclear weapons to blackmail the rest of the human race into submission. A remnant of the Communist party will rule over a remnant of humanity. Although the Russian scheme fails only in one crucial respect—all the Russians are killed—Wylie clearly intends his novel, like his other, similar works, to be a warning. But how can a nation of kamikazes be deterred? In common with several other authors, Wylie depicts an enemy so crazed by the lust for world domination that no conceivable action can prevent it from executing its schemes.

Deterrence is treated more credibly in certain other novels. Pat Frank wrote two works in which he warned of a pair of “missile gaps”: Forbidden Area (1956) and the much better known Alas, Babylon (1959). In the former, he suggests that the Russians might launch a preemptive strike before our ICBMs can be based; and in the latter he echoes Kennedy’s concerns that the Russians could successfully pull off a first strike (they are prevented from succeeding only by the fortuitous defection of a Russian turncoat). Oddly enough, in the final pages of Forbidden Area, the United States rejects the opportunity to launch its own unilateral attack—which would definitely defeat the USSR—because of fears by government officials that such an all-out attack might result in ecocide, a consideration not previously mentioned. Frank was careful not to raise this prospect in Alas, Babylon, where the war is relatively benign. Ultimately Frank imagines, with many of his contemporaries, that the Russians are far less rational than the Americans. He grants that nuclear war is madness on a global scale in these novels, but nevertheless feels that such a war, deliberately instigated by the Russians, is probable if our deterrent is inadequate.

Forbidden Area is an essay in military preparedness, depicting the army and air force as incredibly reluctant to consider warnings of the danger posed by a mid-fifties window of vulnerability. Similarly, Alas, Babylon begins as an essay in civilian preparedness, preaching the need for an effective civil defense program. Yet Frank cannot resist the logic of nuclear war. In his farcical first novel, Mr. Adam (1946), as noted in chapter 1, he had depicted the sterilization of every human male but one through a nuclear accident. He criticizes his own frivolousness in Forbidden Area:“Years ago a fellow wrote a story about all the men being sterilized by a big nuclear explosion. If there had been a war, I don’t think anything so quick and simple would have happened. It would have been much worse. A big bang, and then a long, long whimper.” As Frank continued to write about the subject of nuclear war, the prospects he depicted became more and more grim, although his main aim remained to warn his readers to preparedness. It is a common pattern, recalling Philip Wylie’s development in particular. The serious contemplation of atomic warfare has a sobering influence on some minds.

One of the best known accounts of a European war escalating to a nuclear holocaust is Hans Hellmut Kirst’s The Seventh Day (1959). For the most part it is a slick political thriller which—like Ewart C. Jones’s Head in the Sand (London: Arthur Baker, 1938)—was written in response to the Hungarian uprising of 1956. Similar events in Poland cause a war in Germany, the setting of most of the novel, which is only natural considering that Kirst is German. He creates a large, sympathetic cast of characters and then destroys them one by one, an effective technique which, however, is seldom used by other writers of nuclear war fiction. Normally they concentrate on a relative handful of characters, usually located in a single area. But in many other political novels and in a host of spy stories, the threat of a Russian nuclear attack functions primarily to heighten the tension of a crisis, as in Fletcher Knebel’s Night of Camp David(1965), and nuclear war is simply a peripheral interest.

In distant second place as an attacking nation is China. Occasionally, as in Mervyn Jones’s On the Last Day (1958), the Chinese figure as allies of the Russians; but after the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, this ceased to be a realistic scenario. However, one of the clichés of American foreign policy during the sixties was the belief that when Mao said that a nuclear attack could not destroy China because millions of its immense population would survive, he was demonstrating a near-suicidal recklessness. (It seems more likely that he was merely whistling in the dark, since the only realistic “deterrent” China had to a nuclear attack by one of the two superpowers was its mere ability to survive.) This analysis of the Chinese point of view turns up occasionally in fiction. While no author has suggested that China is capable of devastating the United States with its own small atomic arsenal, more than one has presumed that her leaders might engineer a war between the Soviet Union and America which would leave them unchallenged rulers of the world.

I have already mentioned Bernard Newman’s The Blue Ants: The First Authentic Account of the Russian- Chinese War of 1970 (1962). It is an extreme example, but it well expresses the paranoia which suffused American views of the Chinese in the sixties. Bound in a lurid yellow cover, this bizarre work tells of the plot by the fiendish Feng Fong to trigger an East-West war which will leave China master of the Earth. This is perhaps the earliest example of a fictional Russo-Chinese nuclear war, a theme which has become more common in recent times as border skirmishes have lent some credibility to such a scenario.

In the 1970s and 80s tensions in the Near East rendered the Arab-Israeli conflict as the precipitating cause of a nuclear war credible. See, for instance, Thomas N. Scortia’s Earthwreck!(1974), David Graham’s Down to a Sunless Sea (1979), and Luke Rhinehart’s Long Voyage Back (1983). More often than not the Israelis are depicted as striking first—probably because they are the Middle Eastern nation most widely suspected of having nuclear warheads— although in Dean Ing’s Pulling Through (1983), the Iraqis institute the use of such weapons. Other combinations of combatants are rare. Originality of political alignment is, however, a distinguishing feature of the absurd The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 (1973) by Jake Saunders and Howard Waldrop. The Irish attack Britain with LSD, which leads a crazed prime minister and parliament to launch a nuclear attack. The unlikely coalition of Ireland, China, and South Africa is formed, fighting against a British-American-Russian coalition. The bizarre politics of these alliances are not explored, their main function being to leave the Israelis the sole relatively untouched nuclear power so that the authors can send Jewish mercenary soldiers in tanks across the southwestern deserts to rescue the president of the United States, kidnapped by rebellious Texans.

It would be inaccurate to leave the impression that the Russians are usually portrayed as the primary instigators of fictional nuclear wars. As noted at the outset of this chapter, most often no political cause is specified; rather the war is either an accident or a cataclysm of the distant past whose details are lost to human memory. Clearly authors are hard pressed to create a credible political scenario in which the decision to use nuclear weapons can be depicted as rational; most prefer to describe a “bolt from the blue” or simply evade the question. In a few cases, such evasion is purposive, as in Roshwald’s Level 7, which avoids specifying either the victim or the aggressor nation so that he can concentrate on human suffering, not on international politics. And Will F. Jenkins creates a mystery around the theme “Who launched the attack?” in his novel The Murder of the U.S.A. (1946). He outlines a method by which a sneak attack could be launched by a nation wishing to conceal its identity but never identifies the attacking country. Jenkins, unlike Roshwald, is extremely nationalistic and strongly argues for retaliation, but it is difficult to see why he does not specify the identity of the attacker unless he simply found the task of drawing up a credible scenario beyond him.

In thrillers, terrorists of various stripes, including apolitical atomic blackmailers, threaten to precipitate nuclear war, but they are almost always foiled at the last minute. One exception to this rule is the excellent account of clandestine bomb-building by Nicolas Freeling entitled Gadget (1977), which ends with most of the world’s leaders being killed. Another variety of terrorist —the violent pacifist—poses a more serious threat in muscular disarmament novels. Usually written from a conservative anti-Communist perspective, such works see anti-bomb crusaders as likely to precipitate the very sort of war they claim to want to prevent. Figures loosely based on repentant nuclear scientists like Szilard and Oppenheimer threaten the world with nuclear holocaust unless it agrees to disarm in Alan Gardner’s The Escalator (1963) and John Briley’s The Last Dance (1978). A similar mad scientist-pacifist menaces human survival in Bob Shaw’s Ground Zero Man(1971). And as noted in chapter 1, there are no more violent, vicious, and treasonous antiwar activists than those in Allen Drury’s portrait of the Vietnam era movement, The Promise of Joy(1975).

In right-wing fiction, muscular disarmament is admirable only if it is carried out by the right people. Bernard Newman, for instance, mercilessly mocks the British Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and United States antiwar groups in Draw the Dragon’s Teeth (1967), but endorses the scheme of the Legion of a Thousand to force disarmament on the world. China’s reluctance to cooperate forces the legion to smuggle nuclear bombs into that country to destroy its plutonium processing plant. In Martin Caidin’s The Mendelov Conspiracy (1969), a similar group uses superpowered flying saucers to enforce its demands. Again the Chinese are reluctant, and this time Russia and the United States must threaten a joint invasion to get them to cooperate.

A few authors seem to endorse the schemes of pacifists. James MacGregor’s A Cry to Heaven (1960) depicts a wealthy eccentric who kidnaps prominent people and flies them into the area of a planned H-bomb test to bring it to a halt, with seeming success. And in William C. Anderson’s farcical Pandemonium on the Potomac (1966) the British hoax the world into disarming by sending emissaries claiming to be from Venus who—like the aliens in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)—claim to have irresistible powers at their command. The best known of all muscular disarmament novels is, of course, Leonard Wibberley’s The Mouse that Roared (1955); but in that instance the superweapon turns out to be a dud.

Pacifism has not fared well, then, in nuclear war fiction. Several novels depicting the period after Hiroshima involve scientists who campaign for peace, but these are mostly Oppenheimer/Szilard figures concerned to prevent a holocaust (they also pay for their activism by being treated as security risks); they are not pactfists as such. Only Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day (1959) articulates a consistently pacifist view of nuclear war. An advocate of the doctrines of Gandhi, Clarkson points out that the usual clichés about dying for one’s country make no sense when one’s government is engaged in ensuring the death of its own citizens and the destruction of its territory. Clearly analyzing the qualities which make nuclear war distinctly different from traditional war, Clarkson anticipated many of the arguments used by Jonathan Schell in The Fate of the Earth (1982). But rarely in these liberal works do pacifists succeed in gaining power. That happens mainly in the nightmares of conservatives, as in the pacifist dystopias to be discussed in chapter 4.

Other sorts of civil revolt—including race riots in W. D. Pereira’s Aftermath 15 (1973) and youth rebellions in G. R. Kestavan’s The Pale Invaders (1974) have precipitated fictional nuclear wars. In fact almost any political position or movement a writer finds obnoxious, left or right, has been shown to be liable to lead the world to an atomic death. What more clinching argument could one wish for in a political argument than a rousing holocaust? Yet though there is an abundance of candidates for most likely instigator of the end of the world, most authors care little who begins the war. The very possibility of a holocaust may render such considerations irrelevant in many people’s minds: a large proportion of readers and writers alike were convinced that we were doomed to destroy ourselves in a nuclear war, that it was only a matter of time until the holocaust came.

Go to Chapter Three

Back to Chapter One

Annotated Bibliography


Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction

by Paul Brians
Chapter One
The History of Nuclear War in Fiction

Throughout the ages—and long before the invention and development of nuclear weapons—there had been those who prophesied that the world would end because of man’s wickedness.
Such prophesies were always believed, no matter how many times they had been proved wrong in the past. There was a wish for, as well as a fear of, punishment. Once nuclear weapons were invented, the prophecies gained plausibility, although now they were couched in lay terms rather than religious ones.
Evidence, the more convincing because governments tried to suppress it, proved that the world could be ended at the touch of a button.

Brian Aldiss, Helliconia Winter (1985)

On the island of Eniwetok, site of the atomic bomb tests of 1947-52, a man named Traven walks among the concrete blocks, searching for something he fears to find. He is haunted by memories of the bombing runs against Japan and by the deaths of his wife and son in an automobile accident for which he blames himself. He has sought out these sands, fused by the weapons tests, as the setting for his expiation, blending his guilt with the larger guilt of humanity in creating the possibility of nuclear war. He wanders through the blocks as through a maze, returning constantly to the center, finding himself there “when the sun was at zenith—on Eniwetok, the thermonuclear noon.... Its ruined appearance, and the associations of the island with the period of the Cold War—what Traven had christened ‘The Pre-Third’—were profoundly depressing, an Auschwitz of the soul whose mausoleums contained the mass-graves of the still undead.”

In his classic parable for the atomic age, “The Terminal Beach” (1964), J. G. Ballard uses the imagery of nuclear war to summon feelings of guilt, despair, emptiness, and self-annihilation. The protagonists of Ballard’s stories and novels are often fascinated by impending doom, mesmerized by the end of time; but Traven’s quest is a more thoughtful one, an attempt to reconcile his personal guilt with that of the culture of which he is a product expiating in advance the guilt of destroying the human race in a thermonuclear holocaust. The freezing of time, a constantly recurring theme in Ballard’s work, is expressed in “The Terminal Beach” by a fascination with the melted silica which bears the imprint of the old explosions: “The series of weapons tests had fused the sand in layers, and the pseudo-geological strata condensed the brief epochs, micro-seconds in duration, of thermonuclear time.”

Many authors have pondered the significance of the bomb in the years since 1945. World War III—the nuclear holocaust—has been fought over and over in the pages of books and magazines. In a way, these are war stories; but nuclear war is different from earlier wars in ways that affect its depiction in fiction. First, it is short. Although some of our fiction depicts lengthy atomic warfare, most of it assumes the war will be over in minutes, or hours at most. Concepts familiar from other wars become irrelevant: conscription, the noble sacrifice of soldiers to defend loved ones at home, the civilian support of the war effort. Indeed, the distinction between civilian and military is largely erased except that the military personnel most directly engaged in conducting the war are the most sheltered, and innocent civilians the most likely casualties. In Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day: A Novel of the Day After Tomorrow (1958), one character comments: “In the old days, men at arms were always sustained through the immoral act of killing by the thought that they were not fighting for themselves, but for their children. Today men ask their children to die for them.”

Because nuclear war leaves no time for the traditional distinctions, many of the qualities central to other modes of war fiction are irrelevant. Courage is of little use, even for the preservation of one’s own life. No amount of loyalty, determination, self-sacrifice or heroism will deflect an incoming intercontinental ballistic missile one jot from its programmed course. The hope of victory, which is all that makes war worthwhile for most, is absent. Mere retaliation can produce at best a pyrrhic victory, at worst, the end of life on Earth. And where traditional war fiction appeals to the notion that in combat human character is tested and the inner self revealed, nuclear war stories are dominated by machinery, not human beings. The rockets and bombs dwarf the officials who launch them, and the logic of battle is dictated by technological considerations as much as it is by the strategic decisions of such officials.

The paradox that the entire point of nuclear war is its own prevention— deterrence—leads to yet other paradoxes. A commander in chief must convince the enemy that he is determined to fight, if necessary, a war which can only be a catastrophe for his own nation. The details of strategy must be carefully laid out so that they may never be used. The more unthinkable the war becomes, the more we must think about it. Unlike in other wars, the enemy must be well informed of our plans and resources, for a secret deterrent is no deterrent at all.

A peculiar feature of the age of nuclear combat is the possibility of accidental war. Wars have in the past been begun on the basis of trivial incidents, misunderstandings, and errors in judgment; but the notion that civilization might be ended or life on Earth be destroyed through a technical malfunction or an error in judgment presents an absurdity of such enormous dimensions that it can scarcely be grasped. The resultant air of futility about much nuclear war fiction is convincing in ways that similar views of conventional war could not be. Even those few writers who try to establish that atomic war might be purposeful or beneficent seem led by its internal logic to depict it as absurd.

The author of a nuclear war story, then, lacks many of the resources of traditional war narratives. The genre it has most in common with is not in fact the war story at all, but the narrative of a great catastrophe: fire, flood, plague. Nuclear war fiction has necessarily evolved its own conventions, the specifics of which will be explored in the following pages. It is disheartening to see how soon the conventions that emerged from this new type of fiction became cliché, how quickly it became possible to write utterly unoriginal works on the subject. To see the potentially most awesome of subjects trivialized enlarges one’s sense of the capacity of the human mind for irrelevance. Yet the genre has also produced thoughtful, powerful works, even a few works of high literary merit.

Hiroshima has had nothing like the literary impact of other great military events. Even thought this study surveys well over fourteen hundred items—even allowing for a generous number overlooked—the number of novels, short stories, and plays depicting nuclear war and its aftermath published in English in any given year since 1945 has seldom exceeded two dozen. Stories of the atomic holocaust have never rivaled in number stories of other conflicts such as the American Civil War or World War II. Even in those years when a good many nuclear war stories were published, they were rarely widely read: most of them are science fiction, and until recently science fiction has had a very restricted audience.

There is another, more important reason for the relative unpopularity of nuclear war fiction: it can be disturbing. Even at its most escapist, it deals with a war many readers felt to be as inevitable and final as death itself. Unlike historical wars, World War III will not stay safely in the past to allow itself to be enjoyed. The armchair general of World War II is reassured by the knowledge that he or she has survived; the armchair victim of World War III had no such assurance.

Nuclear war must be the most carefully avoided topic of general significance in the contemporary world. People are not curious about the details. Once in a decade a book will receive a broad audience: John Hersey’s Hiroshima (1946), Nevil Shute’s On the Beach (1957), Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982). But whereas Civil War buffs who will consume volume after volume about Bull Run and Vicksburg are commonplace, there are few World War III buffs: almost everyone seems to feel adequately informed by reading one book about nuclear war. So thoroughly neglected is the genre that there are many notable novels which have been almost entirely overlooked or forgotten. This study aims to bring them to the attention of a wider public.

Some authors of this fiction are mere hacks, unthinkingly using the atomic holocaust as just another setting for escapist fiction; but most, talented and untalented alike, are trying to project and thus warn of the danger that confronts us.

Novelists did not wait until August 6, 1945 to begin writing accounts of atomic warfare. The public imagination had been inflamed with all manner of wild fancies in reaction to the discoveries of X-rays by Roentgen in 1895, of radioactivity in uranium by Becquerel in 1896, of radium and polonium by the Curies in 1898, and of the possibility of converting matter into energy according to Einstein’s relativity theory of 1905. Popular fiction was not slow to adapt the new knowledge to military uses.

The atom was viewed as harboring world-shattering power as early as 1895: in Robert Cromie’s The Crack of Doom (London: Digby, Long), a group of madmen are barely thwarted in their plot to use an atomic device to undo creation. Novelists were particularly prodigal in the invention of all manner of miraculous rays. In George Griffith’s The Lord of Labour (written in 1906, published in 1911) the Germans invent a ray which can “demagnetize” metal in such a manner that it crumbles into dust on impact. The British fleet is manipulated into destroying itself when it fires its guns at the ray-wielding enemy fleet of wooden ships. But Anglo-Saxon ingenuity and civilization triumph as the English retaliate with helium-radium bullets of stupendous explosive power. The supposed healing powers of radioactivity were touted as early as 1907 in a story titled “Itself” by Edgar Mayhew Bacon (The Black Cat, July; reprinted in Samuel Moskowitz, ea., Science Fiction By Gaslight: A History [New York: World, 1968]). Also in 1907 Upton Sinclair wrote a play concerning atomic weapons which remained unpublished and unproduced until he revised it as a novel in 1924: The Millenium: A Comedy of the Year 2000 (2 volumes, Girard, Kansas: Haldeman-Julius, 1924). In it tiny radium weapons are carried by guards. The new element radiumite, which produces atomic energy, kills all life on Earth when a mad professor smashes a jar full of it. Only eleven humans who happen to be flying in an airplane survive. Edgar Rice Burroughs had his Martians also using radium bullets in 1912 in Under the Moons of Mars (later retiled A Princess of Mars).

Popular articles and books on the mysterious new sort of energy proliferated during the early years of the twentieth century, among them Frederick Soddy’s Interpretation of Radium (1908). Soddy’s lucid explanation of the new science was cited by H. G. Wells in 1913 when he wrote what is usually cited as the first novel depicting a war involving atomic weapons, The World Set Free (published in 1914, on the eve of World War I). As Ritchie Calder points out in his introduction to the Collins edition, Wells made plenty of errors. He imagined bombs behaving rather like reactors, sustaining continuous seventeen-day-long volcano-like explosions. He confused chemical and atomic reactions and erroneously supposed that the end product of radioactivity would be gold (fortuitously destroying the precious-metal monetary standard). Yet, considering that most popular writers saw in radioactivity a form of magic capable of all manner of miracles (see, for instance, Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419, first published 1928-29), and that early science fiction was distracted by variegated rays which could cause invisibility or shrink a man to the size of an atom, it is remarkable that Wells was able to make as much sense out of the knowledge of his day as he did. He understood Einstein’s theory well enough to grasp that atomic energy would be derived from the annihilation of matter; the “Carolinium” used in his bombs bears some resemblance to plutonium; and his atomic bombs are delivered from the air.

The novel, which appeared in 1914, belongs to Wells’s pontificating middle period and is relatively plotless, consisting in the main of lectures on history and an account of a utopian but authoritarian world government with a monopoly on atomic weapons. Wells’s vision of a united world did not, of course, need the new scientific discoveries to prompt it; but he was not to be alone in imagining that the overwhelming power of the atom would force humanity to set aside its petty nationalistic disputes. Indeed this sanguine view was a mere repetition of the hopes expressed upon the invention of weapons such as TNT, which were also supposed to make war inconceivable. Wells’s novel, like Hollis Godfrey’s The Man Who Ended War (Boston: Little, Brown, 1908), and other, similar tales discussed in Merritt Abrash’s “Through Logic to Apocalypse: Science-Fiction Scenarios of Nuclear Deterrence Breakdown” (Science-Fiction Studies 13 [1986]: 129-30) anticipated post-1945 works in which atomic blackmail per se forces peace on the world—stories that might best be called “muscular disarmament” fiction.

Growing interest in the theme is illustrated by Wings Over Europe: A Dramatic Extravaganza On a Pressing Theme, a play by Robert Nichols and Maurice Browne (1929). The British cabinet is confronted by a young man, the son of the prime minister, who has penetrated the secrets of the atom sufficiently to create world-wrecking bombs and the transmutation of matter. He envisions a utopia administered by benevolent England, but the greed and militarism of the cabinet members frustrate his endeavor. In despair, he determines to destroy the world, but is killed by a truck just before setting off the explosion. Just as the world seems safe for capitalism and warfare once more, word arrives that the Guild of United Brain Workers has independently discovered the secret and has placed atomic bombs in airplanes circling above all the major capitals of the world, aiming at global rule, underlining the theme that scientific discoveries cannot be kept secret indefinitely. The secretary of state for foreign affairs gains possession of the first discoverer’s triggering mechanism and plans to confront the Guild with it. The ending is left in suspense. The play was staged with some success in New York as well as in London. Also in 1929, Capt. S. P. Meek’s “The Red Peril” depicted the use of atomic weapons against invading airships of the USSR.

In 1932 Harold Nicolson, diplomat and biographer (also the husband of Vita Sackville-West), published another early muscular disarmament novel, Public Faces; in it the British impose universal disarmament through their monopoly of atomic bombs delivered by rockets strongly resembling cruise missiles. Nicolson’s weapons are far more powerful than those of Wells: one dropped off the coast of Florida creates a tidal wave which kills eighty thousand people, shifts the course of the Gulf Stream, and permanently alters the climate. Nicolson was less interested in technical matters than in the political maneuvering of the great powers in which peace and British supremacy are ensured by the boldly illegal stroke of an imaginative, headstrong minister.

In contrast, Eric Ambler, in his first spy thriller, The Dark Frontier (1935), depicted an atomic bomb whose power to dig a mere eighty-foot-wide crater is treated as a terrible threat to civilization. An idealistic and adventurous physicist risks his life to destroy the creator of the weapon and all of his notes in the Baltic dictatorship of Ixania. He does take into account that what has been once invented can always be reinvented later, but imagines that the world might become peaceful enough in the meantime to be able to handle atomic power.

In a 1989 Introduction to the 1990 reprint of his novel, “I lay no claim to special prescience. Having had a scientific education and through it gained access to academic journals, I had read about the early work of Rutherford, co*ckcroft and Chadwick in the field, and understood some of its implications. How superficial that understanding was will be apparent now to any high school senior” (“Introduction,” The Dark Frontier, New York: The Mysterious Press, 1990, p. xi). The fuzzy physics described in the novel have nothing to do, however, with the physics of a real atomic bomb.

  1. B. Priestly escalated the potential carnage in his 1938 novel, The Doomsday Men, in which a group of religious fanatics come close to succeeding in their plot to destroy the world by bombarding a lump of a newly discovered radioactive element with a cyclotron, creating a reaction which would have completely disrupted the Earth’s crust, peeling it like an orange. But throughout the twenties and thirties most popular articles and books on atomic energy focused on its peaceful uses. The utopia of tomorrow would be created through cheap and abundant atomic power, not through atomic blackmail. In 1922 Karel Capek’s The Absolute at Large envisioned a cataclysmic world war brought on by the development of a “Karburator” which liberated pure energy from matter; but the new technology is not itself applied to weapons and civilization is destroyed by conventional means.

The U.S.-supported research which led to the Manhattan Project began in 1939 amid the greatest secrecy, and the following year the publication or further articles on atomic theory was prohibited in Britain and America. But just before wartime censorship was imposed, the announcement of the successful splitting of uranium 235 and the possibility of power derived from a chain reaction led to a spate of newspaper and magazine articles hailing the atomic utopia of the future and darkly hinting at the possibility of weapons being designed by Nazi scientists; see, for instance, the front page article by William L. Laurence, “Vast Power Source In Atomic Energy Opened by Science,” The New York Times, May 5, 1940; R. M. Langer, “Fast New World,”Collier’s, July 6, 1940; and “The Atom Gives Up” by Laurence in The Saturday Evening Post, September 7, 1940. In a sense, the Manhattan Project shut the door after the horse had been stolen, as was acknowledged in a September 8, 1945, editorial in The Saturday Evening Post revealing that the War Department tried to prevent the distribution and reading of the Post’s 1940 issue even in public libraries across the country. The basic principles of atomic fission and the possibility of a uranium bomb were common knowledge, and wartime censorship hid little that spies did not already know; but popular articles on the subject ceased to appear and the public seemed to forget about the whole issue during much of World War II.

Only in science fiction did speculation continue, principally in the pages of Astounding Science Fiction. Editor John W. Campbell, Jr. was by far the most influential editor in science fiction during the thirties and forties, fostering new approaches to science fiction, introducing new writers, and assigning story topics to his authors. He was fascinated by things atomic, and continually urged others to create stories on the theme. Throughout the 1930s he had written stories depicting the atomic weapons of the future. While often upstaged by various rays and beams, atomic blast weapons and bombs appear again and again in stories written both under his own name and under his pseudonym, “Don A. Stuart.” Sometimes the atomic weapons are capable of ending civilization, or even obliterating the human race, but ultimately they prove in almost every case to be a means of liberation.

Evidently unaware of the wartime ban, Campbell published in May 1941 a story with a more alarmist view, Robert A. Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory,” which came very close to describing the Manhattan Project itself: “Someone in the United States government had realized the terrific potentialities of uranium 235 quite early, and, as far back as the summer of 1940, had rounded up every atomic research man in the country and sworn them to silence.” Heinlein overestimated the difficulty of controlling an atomic explosion, so that what his scientists develop by 1945 is not an atomic bomb, but radioactive dust, which they drop with devastating consequences on Berlin.

Heinlein’s technical errors are unimportant. More significantly, he understood that atomic weapons research could not be kept a secret, and that America’s nuclear monopoly would be unlikely to create international stability unless it imposed a new world order. Accordingly, the President issues a peace proclamation, that, “divested of its diplomatic surplusage,” says, “The United States is prepared to defeat any power, or combination of powers, in jig time. Accordingly, we are outlawing war and are calling on every nation to disarm completely at once. In other words, ‘Throw down your guns, boys; we’ve got the drop on you!’ ”

Unfortunately, the scientists of the USSR—in the story dubbed the “Eurasian Union”—have also discovered the uses of atomic dust, and the result is the devastating Four-Days War. (If Heinlein’s understanding had been more widely shared by his countrymen, the U.S. might have been spared the atom spy hysteria of the postwar era in which politicians seemed to think that the secrets of fission could be patented and kept secret.) In the war the enemy is destroyed, but power is seized by the colonel who conceived of using the radioactive dust in the first place. The world is now at peace, but it has become a vast dictatorship; hence the story’s title.

Comic books do not come under the purview of the present study, but it is interesting to note that the July, 1942 issue of Bill Barnes: America’s Air Ace, published by Street & Smith, featured a lead story titled “BILL BARNES WIPES THE JAPS OFF THE MAPS!!!

The story, probably written by Earl and/or Otto Binder and illustrated by their brother Jack, details a project to design a plausible U-235 bomb with highly implausible effects: dropping it into a Japanese harbor triggers earthquakes and an ensuing tsunami that sink the entire nation into the sea in a most spectacular fashion. It’s a delirious fantasy of genocide against the Japanese, mostly presented as a dry technical lecture on the project of building and delivering the bomb. The story is remarkable being more technically sophisticated than any preceding one, and one assumes it must have slipped unnoticed past the FBI.

In May 1942 a story entitled “The Incredible Slingshot Bombs” by Robert Moore Williams appeared in Amazing Stories. A retarded boy nicknamed “Tommy Sonofa*gun” stumbles through a time warp created by a high- tension line tower into a factory which makes pebble-sized atomic bombs; bringing some of them back to his own time, he creates havoc with his slingshot. He is blown up on a return trip when he stumbles with his pockets full of the miniature bombs. This story is notable mainly because of the reaction of a pair of Russian critics, Viktor Bokhovitinov and Vassilij Zakhartchenko, who were doing an article on American science fiction for the Literaturnaya Gazyeta (“The World of Nightmare Fantasies,” March 23, 1948, translated and reprinted in Astounding, June 1949): “A hooligan with an atomic slingshot, isn’t this the true symbol of modern imperialism?” The authors failed to note the pre-Hiroshima date of the story. In retranslation, the title became “The Incredible Pebbles.”

So long as the Manhattan Project security remained in force, stories of atomic doom remained rare. Another notable exception is Lester del Rey’s Nerves (originally in Astounding, September 1942; expanded, New York: Ballantine, 1956), which describes a near-disaster in a malfunctioning atomic power plant which threatens to destroy several states. The scientists who keep the true extent of the danger secret from the public are depicted as heroes whose titanic efforts preserve the future of atomic energy by preventing the unscientific hysteria which would inevitably result were the nature of the threat to become generally known.

Another and much more fantastic atomic plant disaster story was Malcolm Jameson’s “The Giant Atom,” in which a device resembling a cyclotron creates an ever-growing atom which threatens to consume the entire planet. Published in Startling Stories in 1943, it was reprinted posthumously after Hiroshima and Nagasaki under the opportunistic title Atomic Bomb, although Jameson’s variation on the Frankenstein’s monster theme bears little relationship to the new weapon. Heinlein’s “Solution Unsatisfactory” demonstrates clearly that during the early 1940s anyone possessing a more than casual familiarity with the material published on atomic science before the imposition of censorship could extrapolate the possibilities more accurately than Jameson had.

A crisis of sorts was reached in the publication of pre-Hiroshima atomic war fiction with the appearance in Astounding, March 1944, of Cleve Cartmill’s “Deadline,” containing a description of an atomic bomb accurate enough to cause agents from the Army Counter-Intelligence Corps to call on both Cartmill and editor Campbell. (This story has been told many times with little variation. See, for instance, H. Bruce Franklin, Countdown to Midnight [New York: DAW, 1984], 15-16; but the definitive version would seem to be Albert I. Berger’s, in The Magic That Works: John W. Campbell and the American Response to Technology, San Bernardino, Calif.: Borgo Press, 1993. Campbell claimed that he argued with the government agents that his readers were so used to reading stories involving atomic science that if he were to ban such tales from Astounding in the future they would become conspicuous by their absence. In February of 1945, the magazine published “The Piper’s Son”—the first of Henry Kuttner’s “Baldy” tales, later collected as Mutant— depicting telepathic mutants whose powers are the result of radiation from an atomic war. One can hardly avoid the conclusion that Campbell was preparing himself a reputation as a prophet as he continued to publish Kuttner’s sequels in June and July. The fourth tale, “Beggars in Velvet,” undoubtedly also written before Hiroshima, was published in December in the same issue with an editorial by Campbell hailing the advent of the atomic age.

Kuttner’s stories hardly posed a threat to national security: the war was placed in the distant past, and its effects, though they were later to become commonplace in fiction, were thoroughly fantastic. Campbell was treading on thinner ice in publishing Robert Abernathy’s “When the Rockets Come” in March 1945. It depicts the atomic bomb as a horrifying weapon whose effects expose its users as morally bankrupt. Abernathy’s story anticipated the liberal reaction to the bomb which would be fully developed in fiction only years later.

In Fritz Leiber’s “Destiny Times Three” (Astounding, March, April 1945), Heinlein’s fears that the new technology may be incompatible with democratic government are reflected as “subtropic” weapons are developed on three alternate versions of Earth. On one world the knowledge is public property; on another an attempt is made to suppress it; and on a third it is monopolized by a dictatorship. The dictatorship invades the other two. Just as America was reaching the pinnacle of its power in the world, these science fiction writers were warning that the new atomic age was as likely to prove a disaster as a triumph. Their warnings went unnoticed by the general public, of course, and were probably unheeded even by most seasoned science fiction fans, jaded by decades of stories of planet-busting beams and rays depicted with casual bravado.

Author Philip Wylie, not fortunate enough to be working for the privileged Campbell, found that when he wrote a story depicting a Nazi conspiracy to rule the world through atomic bombs he could not get it published. According to records in agent Harold Ober’s files, Wylie submitted “The Paradise Crater” to him on January 13, 1944; Blue Book, a popular men’s fiction magazine, bought the story, then canceled its publication. A note dated July 3, 1945 explains the cancellation as prompted by security considerations: “War Dept. objects to the use of this. President Conant of Harvard is working on something similar. He promised not to offer to any magazine. Cancel sale.” (James Conant was chairman of the National Defense Research Committee and very much a part of the Manhattan Project. The source of the quote is a letter from Alice Miller of Harold Ober Associates.) According to H. Bruce Franklin, Wylie was placed under house arrest and even threatened with death for his indiscretion (see Countdown to Midnight, p. 15). A month later, the magazine repurchased the story, and a note was added to the file reading, “Atomic bomb released on Japan Aug. 6, 1945.” So Blue Book accomplished the coup of publishing the first atomic bomb story after Hiroshima even though it had been written over a year and a half before. Thus inadvertently began Wylie’s long collaboration with the government’s nuclear weapons planners which was to result in four short stories and three novels relating to nuclear war.

“The Paradise Crater” is an unexceptional counterespionage story in which the hero sabotages the Nazi villains’ store of atomic bombs. An enormous explosion results: flames shoot forty thousand feet into the air; an earthquake wreaks havoc throughout much of the western United States and Canada; a tidal wave roars west from the shores of California and inundates thousands of “Japanese savages on distant Nippon” (the defeated Asian enemy having evidently reverted to barbarism). The mountain within which the bombs were built becomes a crater two miles deep and thirty across. Ever since writers began to grasp the significance of Einstein’s E = mc2, they had been enthusiastically predicting that a cupful of coal could power an entire city. It is not surprising that Wylie supposed that the detonation of a large number of nuclear weapons would create a cataclysm.

As we have seen, the tendency to think of atomic weapons in apocalyptic terms existed even well before the first one was detonated; it has persisted ever since, although this is not a universal pattern, nor even the dominant one. The earliest reactions to use of the bomb on Japan were fraught with ambivalence. For example, Wylie’s first post-bomb article, published in Collier’s,September 29, 1945, was entitled “Deliverance or Doom?” The first published fictional response to Hiroshima was a brief sketch written by Theodore Sturgeon and entitled “August Sixth 1945,” which appeared in the letters column of the December issue of Astounding. According to a personal conversation with the author, it had been intended as a regular submission, and Sturgeon remained to the end of his life disgruntled that Campbell avoided paying him for the piece by treating it as mere correspondence. It encapsulates and gives classic expression to the science fiction community’s ambivalent reaction to the bomb: self-congratulation on having predicted the astonishing new technology, mixed with apprehension about the threat it posed to civilization. Man, wrote Sturgeon, “knows—he learned on August 6, 1945, that he alone is big enough to kill himself, or to live forever.” Atomic science threatens universal extinction, but it also holds out the promise of immortality.

Albert I. Berger has shown how widespread was the self-congratulatory mood among science fiction writers at that time in an important article, “The Triumph of Prophecy: Science Fiction and Nuclear Power in the Post-Hiroshima Period.” (Science-Fiction Studies 3 [1976]: 143-50). The jubilation with which so many writers greeted the new era matched the general American euphoria over the defeat of Japan. Brian Aldiss, who was to write one of the most moving accounts of the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust in his 1964 nuclear accident novel Greybeard, recalls with what relief he and his fellow soldiers poised to invade the islands greeted the news of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (personal conversation with author). The generally optimistic mood of the popular press is reflected in an anthology hastily assembled by Pocket Books in August of 1945, The Atomic Age Opens. The cover blurb conveys the same message as Sturgeon’s little sketch: “THE END OR THE BEGINNING? When the United States Army Air Forces dropped the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima, it meant the end of Japan as a war-making power—and the beginning of a new age. For, with this newly-released force, man can destroy himself or create a world rich and prosperous beyond all previous dreams.”

Campbell immediately began to publish editorials about the wonders of the atomic age. The following year Pat Frank—later more well known for his sobering account of atomic war, Alas Babylon—reduced the threat of universal sterilization through radiation to a joke in his best-selling Mr. Adam. In this work, a nuclear accident leaves only one man fertile, and he is pursued by millions of desperate, would-be mothers. At about the same time, Captain Walter Karig of the U.S. Naval Reserves produced a little pamphlet partly aimed at arguing for the continuing importance of the navy in the atomic era, but which provided his sailors with all manner of Buck Rogers gimmickry suddenly made plausible by the new technology. A. E. Van Vogt, like Kuttner before him, seized on the notion of war-induced radiation creating superhuman traits in his series of stories begun in 1946 and later collected as Empire of the Atom. Arthur C. Clarke treated the invention of the bomb whimsically, as an example of human feistiness and gumption, in “Loophole” (Astounding, April 1946). Henry Kuttner’s “Rain Check” (Astounding, July 1946) was hardly more serious.

Outside of science fiction, the bomb was greeted with a mixture of exhilaration and alarm which led to an intense discussion of its significance in the first years following the war (an interest which was not to be maintained for long). Yet, although some Americans and Britishers viewed the dawning of the atomic age sanguinely, and although the major outlet for fiction on atomic themes was tightly controlled by John Campbell, who not only strongly favored science and technology but also insisted on a generally optimistic mood in the works he published, plenty of stories in a grimmer mood found their way into print in 1946. New Yorker writer Roger Angell expressed his disgust with the military’s infatuation with the bomb in “Some Pigs in Sailor Suits.” Herman Hagedorn, author of popular boys’ books and jingoistic follower of the precepts of the Moral Re-Armament Movement, was appalled at the devastation wrought at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He created a book-length denunciation in verse of America’s use of the bomb as a crime against humanity and a sin against God, a volume popular enough to go through many printings and two editions (The Bomb that Fell on America). Science writer Louis Nicot Ridenour warned of atomic Armageddon in the pages of Fortune magazine (“Pilot Lights of the Apocalypse”), as did Ray Bradbury in Planet Stories (“The Million-Year Picnic”), and Philip Wylie in Collier’s (“Blunder”). Isolated, unknown authors were stirred to issue warnings here and there (Benjamin Belove in America, F. Horace Rose in England). Will Jenkins dedicated his cautionary Murder of the U.S.A. to John Campbell, whose March 1946 editorial may well have suggested the idea for the novel, although he avoided using his science fiction pseudonym (“Murray Leinster”) and published the novel first in Argosy, not in Astounding. And Campbell himself occasionally published cautionary (or, to use the more vivid science fiction term, “awful warning”) atomic war stories during 1946, by Paul Carter, A. Bertram Chandler, Chan Davis, and Theodore Sturgeon. The mood of euphoria which dominated so much writing about the atomic age was based in large measure on America’s monopoly of that power. These writers, whose business was prognostication and who knew only too well that scientific secrets cannot be long preserved, quickly realized that the bomb posed as much of a threat to its inventors as to their enemies.

During 1947 Astounding overwhelmingly dominated the publishing of nuclear war fiction with over a dozen stories, many of them awful warnings sharply in contrast with Campbell’s generally optimistic editorial stance. Poul Anderson’s first published story, “Tomorrow’s Children,” written jointly with F. N. Waldrop, took a less sanguine view of radiation-induced birth defects than preceding stories like those of Kuttner. The best known story published that year was Theodore Sturgeon’s “Thunder and Roses,” which—despite the fact that most of its literary merit resides in its title—remains a striking argument against the theory of nuclear deterrence.

But Campbell’s taste reasserted itself forcefully in the following year, in which the number of atomic war stories in Astounding dropped by three quarters and only one (Judith Merril’s memorable “That Only a Mother”) could be considered an awful warning. Despite this fact, a correspondent complained in the September 1948 issue of the excessive number of nuclear war stories appearing in the magazine. Campbell reassured him and other concerned readers: “We have specified to our authors that the ‘atomic doom’ stories are not wanted….”

Despite this announced change in policy, Campbell published some “atomic doom” stories in 1949 (Alfred Coppel, “Secret Weapon”; Kris Neville, “Cold War”) and succeeding years, but most of the atomic war tales in Astounding were either frivolous (like Van Vogt’s continuing “Empire of the Atom” series) or absurdly upbeat. An atomic war story perfectly reflecting Campbellian optimism—though it departs from the realistic style which Campbell preferred—is A. E. Van Vogt’s “Resurrection” (published as “The Monster” in August 1948). When creatures from another world investigating the cause of Earth’s destruction resurrect a man in order to question him, he uses a nuclear device to battle them in an atomic duel from which he emerges triumphant. The resuscitated hero will use the technology of the defeated aliens to revive and grant immortality to the entire human race. Lest the preceding holocaust raise any doubts about the goodness of human nature, it is strongly hinted that Earth had been devastated not by people but by the ancestors of these very aliens.

Fredric Brown’s 1949 story “Letter to a Phoenix” also matched Campbell’s philosophy, mixing positivism with the power of positive thinking. Brown’s protagonist is made nigh-immortal by exposure to bomb radiation and thus can report that the holocausts which periodically almost annihilate the human race are actually necessary to perpetuate the species, which—without this invigorating tonic—would die out like every other race in the universe.

Henry Kuttner’s 1947 Astounding story, “Tomorrow and Tomorrow,” similarly argued that atomic war might prove a fine method of birth control and stimulate scientific research, creating a utopia. Irrelevance could go no further, and the magazine soon almost ceased publishing atomic war stories altogether, with occasional exceptions reminiscent of the immediate postwar period (Walter M. Miller, “Dumb Waiter” [1952]; Morton Klass, “In the Beginning” [1954]). The 1951 Twentieth-Century Fox muscular disarmament fable, The Day the Earth Stood Still, was based on a pre-atomic age Astounding story (“Farewell to the Master” by Harry Bates, October 1940), but the original tale entirely lacked the antiwar message of the film. The film-makers would have been hard pressed to find a real anti-nuclear war story in the fifties version of the magazine. The days when Astounding had dominated nuclear war fiction were over.

The magazine itself went into a steep decline in the early fifties as it faced stiff competition from two new competitors, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and Galaxy. Atomic doom stories by authors such as Damon Knight, Cyril M. Kornbluth, James Blish, and Fritz Leiber, which might have appeared earlier in Astounding, were published in the new magazines. Although Campbell had published the early work of Walter M. Miller, Jr., the stories which were later to become the first widely known science fiction treatment of the atomic war theme, A Canticle for Leibowitz, appeared instead in Fantasy and Science Fiction (1955-57). But Campbell’s refusal to adopt a negative tone about the danger of nuclear war meant that superior stories appeared even in pulps ranked far inferior to Astounding in its glory days, like Future Science Fiction (H. Beam Piper’s “Flight from Tomorrow,” September, October, 1950) and Thrilling Wonder Stories (Fritz Leiber’s “The Foxholes of Mars,” June 1952).

Outside of science fiction, novelists and short story writers were slow to respond to Hiroshima. Aside from Wylie, who maintained a connection for many years with science fiction, the only generally well known author to write an atomic war novel by 1948 was Aldous Huxley, whose Ape and Essence was more of a restatement of the anti-utopian themes of Brave New World than a serious meditation on the probable consequences of a future holocaust. He did grasp the genetic danger, and remains one of the few writers to treat seriously the problems of radioactive soil for agriculture. In fact, few novels depicting nuclear war either outside or inside of science fiction were published before 1950. Those that were not well known or not widely reviewed or sold. Some of the reluctance of authors to explore the new theme may be attributed to war- weariness. In the five years after Hiroshima, not much conventional war fiction was published either. Of course, George Orwell’s 1984 (1949) uses atomic war as part of its background, but nuclear weapons play such a minor role in the novel that most readers have probably forgotten that he touched on the subject at all.

However, during this same period Ray Bradbury was writing a series of stories which would appear knitted together in book form in 1950 and become for many years (until Shute’s On the Beach [1957]) the best known fictional work dealing with nuclear war: The Martian Chronicles. Indeed, it was for over a decade the best- known piece of modern science fiction writing. Although the immense success of Bradbury’s book can be attributed mostly to the sensuous exoticism of his Martian setting and characters, the book is significant for the political development it marked. The Martian Chronicle. turns its back on the postwar vision of the American Century. It deplores our crass commercialism, reminds readers of the nation’s crimes against the Indians and blacks, and battles against the forces of censorship, albeit in a distinctly bizarre fashion, in the tale entitled “Usher II.” No modern writer is more typically American in his themes and attitudes than Bradbury; yet repeatedly his fiction hints at or clearly depicts the monstrous crimes that lurk beneath the Norman Rockwell exteriors of his protagonists.

The Martian Chronicles is the story of humanity which is punished for its genocidal deeds by committing genocide on itself. Having killed off most of the Indians, having driven desperate blacks to flee the lynch-law South for Mars, and having contemptuously—almost without noticing—annihilated the wise, gentle Martians, humanity destroys itself in an atomic holocaust which is one last act of typical, unexplained stupidity. It is not necessary to explain why nuclear war consumes the Earth: it is the logical consequence of the parochialism, bigotry, and greed which are displayed in the earlier chapters.

The book concludes on a muted note of hope as the human race survives in two families who have fled to Mars. In Bradbury, any hope for the future lies not in society at large, but in the decency of individuals. This story, “The Million-Year Picnic,” had been his first published response to Hiroshima, and it comes close to condemning humanity in toto. So anxious is the protagonist to eradicate the past that he resorts to censorship, burning various papers and volumes in a way that clashes curiously with the theme of “Usher II,” and even more with Bradbury’s passionate denunciation of book-burning, Fahrenheit 451 (earliest version, 1951). Ironically, book-burning is the solution to the failure of civilization caused by nuclear war in The Martian Chronicles whereas a nuclear war ends the tyranny which instituted book-burning in Fahrenheit 451.

It is inconceivable that John Campbell could have published “The Million-Year Picnic,” even if Bradbury had offered it to him. In fact it is surprising to find such a work widely read and appreciated by a nation which we have been told was undergoing The Great Celebration. But even in the early fifties, there were plenty of Americans who abstained from the nation’s love affair with itself, and a disproportionate number of them were science fiction fans.

The reasons for this phenomenon are not difficult to discover. Since the thirties, science fiction writers had encouraged their readers to think of themselves as superior beings like the mutant telepaths in A. E. Van Vogt’s Slan (Astounding, September, October, December 1940) or Henry Kuttner’s “Baldy” stories. When hom*o superior emerged in the world of science fiction, he was almost always more sympathetic than the ordinary humans who formed bigoted mobs bent on his destruction. Undoubtedly such stories had strong appeal for the largely adolescent male readership of bookish social misfits who purchased much of the science fiction of the forties and fifties, and who exercised a powerful influence over its content through their highly organized and articulate fan organizations, publications, and conventions. The evidence of published accounts of fandom clearly points to a profound sense of alienation from American mass culture and a fervent belief that the reading of science fiction provided a superiority often experienced with religious intensity. The cult-like of nature of American science fiction cut it off from a wider audience for decades, but in the early fifties it provided a haven for heretical and potentially threatening writings like Bradbury’s.

The traditional formula for science fiction had been to pose a problem and find a technical development which would solve it. In the early 1950s, the formula for many Galaxy and Fantasy and Science Fiction stories was to posit a technical development and discover what could go wrong with it. Atomic war stories with a distinctly jaundiced cast to them poured forth: Fritz Leiber’s “Coming Attraction” and “A Bad Day for Sales,” Damon Knight’s “World Without Children,” Cyril M. Kornbluth’s “With These Hands,” Ward Moore’s “Flying Dutchman” and “Lot,” Wilson Tucker’s The Long Loud Silence, Ray Bradbury’s “The Garbage Collector,” Philip K. Dick’s “The Defenders” and “Second Variety,” and James Gunn’s “The Boy with Five Fingers.” So powerful was the trend that editor H. L. Gold complained in the January 1952 issue of Galaxy, “Over 90% of stories submitted still nag away at atomic, hydrogen and bacteriological war, the post-atomic world, reversion to barbarism, mutant children killed because they have only ten toes and fingers instead of twelve…. Look, fellers, the end isn’t here yet.”

Meanwhile most American writers were ignoring the entire subject. There were two principal reasons for this fact. One was that the ghettoization of science fiction in the United States tended to prevent mainstream authors from writing stories set in the future. The other was that most Americans feared communism far more than the bomb, and were not prone to criticize the maintenance of a nuclear balance of terror which seemed to favor the West. Some even urged a preventative war, a first strike in which America’s God-given might would crush the evil Soviet empire, as in the hypocritically titled October 27, 1951 issue of Collier’s magazine, “Preview of the War We Do Not Want.”

In England the situation was very different. Since long before the days of H. G. Wells, British writers had felt free to address their tales of times to come to a general audience with an expectation of being well received. In addition, although Britain had shared in the Allied victory and was led by Churchill, a formidable voice in the cold war, its people had personally experienced the effects of Nazi bombs and rockets and had seen large areas of their most important cities laid waste by them.

In addition, whereas the bulk of the early American nuclear war fiction appeared in small-circulation magazines, most of the British fiction was published as novels which were accessible to a wider and more varied audience. Much of their writing was mawkish in tone and scientifically ludicrous, but the British authors conveyed a sense of terror and despair usually lacking in the works of their transatlantic colleagues who were often bent on demonstrating that the impending holocaust could be survived, averted, or even turned to profit. In 1948 alone George Borodin’s The Spurious Sun, Roald Dahl’s Sometime Never, J. Jefferson Farjeon’s Death of a World, and Pelham Groom’s The Purple Twilight were published in Britain. The output of British nuclear war fiction remained for many years spasmodic and idiosyncratic. It did not sort itself readily into identifiable genres, as did that of the Americans, and it did not form a tradition, so that each author seems to be unaware that he or she has any predecessors.

On both sides of the Atlantic the publication of nuclear war fiction remained at a very low level (except for the anomaly of 1947 created by John Campbell’s temporary enthusiasm) until 1952. The Russians had tested their first bomb in 1949, creating in this country a hysterical search for the villains who had sold them our atomic secrets. The mania for finding spies everywhere is reflected in Judith Merril’s outstanding 1950 novel, Shadow on the Hearth, in which—although fifth columnists are responsible for aiding the Russians to home in on American targets—the blind anti-communism of the general public deprives the nation of the aid of a suspect but brilliant scientist: a striking prognostication of the fate of J. Robert Oppenheimer three years later. In 1950 Julius Rosenberg was arrested as well, but the search for someone to blame diverted attention from the danger posed by the weapons themselves.

It was the explosion of the first American thermonuclear device in November of 1952 and of the first Russian hydrogen bomb a year later, obviously the product of independent research not inferior to our own, which reawakened public concern. Whereas some public officials like Bernard Baruch had spoken of the atomic bomb in apocalyptic terms immediately after Hiroshima, the general public seemed to be unable to comprehend the magnitude of the destructive potential it represented. (See Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age [New York: Pantheon, 1985], 54). If the average reader happened upon one of the narratives depicting a cataclysmic atomic war, he or she probably dismissed it as wildly hyperbolic. This judgment might not have been too far wrong, considering that a writer as sober as Philip Wylie was depicting a chain reaction capable of consuming in a flash both Earth and Moon (in “Blunder” [1946]). But the H-bomb had a somewhat different effect on the public than had the A-bomb. Whereas the threat posed by the latter had been somewhat obscured by its role in ending World War II, the new weapon was developed by both East and West during a period of extreme tension highlighted by the ongoing Korean War and by the appointment of John Foster Dulles to the post of U.S. secretary of state. Dulles developed the doctrine of “massive retaliation” and harbored fantasies of “rolling back” the Russians from Eastern Europe. Despite the fact that fans and editors alike had complained that nuclear war was an exhausted theme, 1953 proved a record

year for science fiction dealing with the subject. In Britain, John Wyndham reflected the tensions of the time in The Kraken Wakes, in which the Americans and Russians almost fail to defeat invading tentacled sea monsters because each is convinced their predations are the work of the other side.

The next year another event marked the decisive point in turning public attention to the danger of atomic war. On March 1, 1954, the Bravo H-bomb test near the Marshall Islands fatally contaminated sailors aboard a Japanese fishing vessel known as the Lucky Dragon. That their citizens—now our allies—should once more be victims of American radioactive fallout created an uproar which destroyed forever the conspiracy of silence which had made the topic taboo in postwar Japan. In the West, people finally realized that even when one was not exposed to the direct effects of the bomb, its fallout could be deadly.

The year 1954 had provided an abundance of other news stories calculated to attract the attention of the public to atomic warfare. After long delays, negotiations about the uses of atomic power began seriously, although no agreement was to be reached for four more years. A new version of the Atomic Energy Act was passed. On March 31 Atomic Energy Commission Chair Lewis Strauss aroused a furor by commenting to the press that a single bomb could destroy any city on Earth. Robert Oppenheimer’s security clearance was removed in April, and interest in the atomic spy theme was revived. On September 24, Aikichi Kuboyama, fisherman, died of the radiation disease to which he had fallen victim on the Lucky Dragon during the Bravo H- Bomb test.

Interest was sustained by related events the next year. On January 31, 1955, the Russians modified their long-held position disparaging the effectiveness of atomic bombs when they pointed out that only a few weapons would be needed to destroy crucial Western centers of power. The United States continued to test bombs in Nevada that spring. In March, Dulles and Eisenhower threatened the Communist Chinese with tactical nuclear weapons if they should attempt to seize the islands of Quemoy and Matsu, although Leo Szilard had warned the previous month that such an act would likely precipitate a devastating holocaust in which both sides would be destroyed. And Federal Civil Defense Administrator Val Peterson speculated about the possibility of creating a cobalt doomsday bomb, a device which was to find a prominent place in much later fiction (probably as much because of its repeated discussion by Herman Kahn as for any other reason). In Great Britain the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, spearheaded by philosopher Bertrand Russell, was claiming headlines. Russell wrote a number of fictional sketches on the theme of atomic war about this time, although some of them remained unpublished until after his death. At no time until the Cuban missile crisis did the world seem poised so close to the brink of nuclear war.

The result of all this activity and concern was the publication in 1955 of a large number of novels depicting atomic war or its aftermath, including such notable works as Leigh Brackett’s The Long Tomorrow, C. M. Kornbluth’s Not This August, John Wyndham’s The Chysalids, and the first part of Walter M. Miller, Jr.’s A Canticle for Leibowitz. The nuclear war novel had come of age. Magazine editors may have wearied of the subject, but book publishers were becoming interested and would dominate the genre henceforth. In no year before had so many novels been published depicting nuclear war.

During the next year’s presidential campaign, Democratic candidate Adlai stevenson called for an atomic test ban, with considerable initial support from the public. The long debate which followed kept public attention focused on the bomb, but to some extent the test-ban debate was a distraction which directed attention away from any attempt to deal with the greater danger of nuclear war itself. Even in the midst of this debate, authors were not able to sustain readers’ interest in nuclear war: 1956 marked a low point in the publication of such fiction, although two mainstream works attracted some attention—Martin Caidin’s The Long Night and Herman Wouk’s The Lomokome Papers.

Though Eisenhower had abandoned the notion of beginning negotiations for a test ban treaty when the Russians publicly supported Stevenson’s proposals—thus laying the administration open to the possibility of charges that it was not being sufficiently anti-Communist—the debate continued, as did the test. America exploded no fewer than twenty-four bombs in Nevada in 1957. In April, Khruschev boasted that the Russians possessed a superbomb capable of melting the polar icecap. But the impact of all of this was slight compared to the shock created by the Russian launching of the world’s first satellite, Sputnik 1, on October 4. Clearly, if the USSR had rockets good enough to place a satellite in orbit, they were a serious threat to our security. When they followed up their fear by launching even heavier satellites, the effect was shattering.

For the first time Americans felt themselves to be in an inferior position, although in fact their atomic arsenal still enormously outweighed that of the Soviet Union. Russian proposals for some kind of treaty began to look more attractive. Not much nuclear war fiction of significance was published in English that year (although Agawa Hiroyuki’s important Devil’s Heritage was published in Japan). In fact there was just one novel which was widely read, and it was to prove the most influential work of its kind for the next quarter of a century and the only one most people ever read: Nevil Shute’s On the Beach.

Shute used an Australian perspective ideally situated to address the fears about fallout which had been mounting since 1954. As his novel begins, the atomic war is already over. The powerful effect which this slickly written tale had on its readers can be attributed to its insistence on the relentless, inescapable advance of the zone of radioactivity, removing all trace of human life from latitude after latitude on its way south. Inferior to the 1959 film based on it, the novel is unconvincing in its plot, its characters are stereotypes (too many of them deny the inevitable in the same way), and the love story is mawkish. But what makes On the Beach nevertheless one of the most compelling accounts of nuclear war ever written is its almost unique insistence that everyone—without exception—is going to die. Shute directly addresses the most primal fears of the human race, which has spent most of its history denying or compensating for the fact of personal death, and does so with a relentlessness which the complex technique of a more sophisticated writer might have muted. For once, there are no distractions: no invading aliens, no super-fallout shelters to protect the protagonists, no struggle back from a dreadful but exciting postwar barbarism. There are simply a man and a woman reaching the agonizing decision to kill their only child in its crib and commit suicide as the rest of the human race expires around them.

The number of novels and stories in which everyone dies in a nuclear war is negligible. It is quite irrelevant that the sort of universal extinction through fallout which Shute depicts is almost impossible (indeed, most critics have been so quick to denounce his hypothesis that they have failed to note that he specifies that both sides made extensive use of doomsday-style cobalt weapons, though he provides no rationale for this insane act). Nor does it matter that the recently developed theories of nuclear winter make Shute’s pessimism seem somewhat more realistic. What gives the novel its significance is the fact that it forced the general public to focus on atomic war as a threat to personal existence at a time when there was widespread concern about fallout from testing. The experience was a harrowing one for many readers, and most of them seem to have considered it sufficient. Although many nuclear war novels superior to Shute’s were to be published in succeeding years, none of them would be nearly as widely read. Its closest competitor was Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon in 1959, which was considered shocking in its day but which is remarkable mainly for the good fortune of its principal characters who survive nicely with only a minimum of preparation on the bare fringes of a distantly depicted holocaust.

The worldwide success of On the Beach finally caught the attention of mainstream writers who began to turn out holocaust novels, innocent of the fact that the theme was considered exhausted by many in the science fiction community. The year 1958 saw the publication of such works as Peter Bryant’s Two Hours to Doom (later to be transformed into Dr. Strangelove), Helen Clarkson’s The Last Day, and Mervyn Jones’s On the Last Day. Although interest in the topic began to revive in the science fiction magazines as well, it was no longer the property of the science fiction community. In 1959 mainstream realistic works written in a serious vein dominated the field. John Brunner, who wrote mostly science fiction and who was then involved in British bomb protest activities, suggested in his political novel, The Brink, that Western paranoia about the Russians was more hazardous to world peace than the Russians themselves. In Britain, where left-wing politics were not absolutely beyond the pale, the novel could be marketed; but it is unique among his many books in never having been published in the United States.

During 1959 the history of the bomb was explored in Pearl S. Buck’s fictional account of the Manhattan Project, Command the Morning. Edita Morris, like Brunner an anti-bomb activist, movingly depicted the impact of the bomb from the Japanese point of view in The Flowers of Hiroshima. Hans Hellmut Kirst’s best-selling The Seventh Day made the escalation of a war over Germany all too credible. And in England, Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 made the death of the human race even more compelling than had Shute; the novel does not strive for scientific credibility but succeeds as a parable.

This was also the year in which the most nuclear war fiction of high quality appeared until 1984. It also marked the definitive end of the illusion fostered for so long in the science fiction community that the theme had been exhausted. The nuclear war science fiction of the early 1960s rose to new heights as writers took up the challenge signified by the achievements of authors in 1959, and as the field as a whole matured with the advent of a new generation of writers bent on wrenching science fiction out of the pulp ghetto. Along with a large number of inconsequential works, some important ones appeared, including Edgar Pangborn’s Davy (1962) and Philip K. Dick’s Dr. Bloodmoney; or, How We Got Along After the Bomb (1965). Science fiction writers may have temporarily lost their ascendancy in the nuclear war novel in the late 1950s, but they reclaimed it in the sixties and have retained it ever since.

The year 1960, marked by the U-2 incident and the Sino-Soviet split, produced few notable works other than Alfred Coppel’s Dark December (one of the best nuclear war novels ever published) and H. A. Van Mierlo’s By Then Mankind Ceased to Exist (probably the worst). The next year was dominated by discussion of fallout shelters in the public press, as the Russians built the Berlin Wall and resumed testing in the atmosphere, and the United States undertook its first major shelter program. Shelters both natural and artificial are prominent in the fiction published in 1961 and 1962, in works like Gina Berriault’s The Descent (New York: Atheneum), a marvelous satire on the entire civil defense craze; Daniel F. Galouye’s moving Dark Universe, in which refugees have lived in the dark underground for so many generations that they have forgotten what light is; James White’s Second Ending, with its fantastic automated hospital which preserves the single specimen from which the human race will be recreated; Robert Moore Williams’s absurd The Day They H-Bombed Los Angeles, in which ordinary folks mingle with movie stars in Los Angeles fallout shelters; and George H. Smith’s The Coming of the Rats. Novels set in various sorts of shelters had been published at intervals before this, but not in such numbers.

The Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 did not find much resonance in nuclear war fiction. After reaching the brink of a real nuclear war, most people seemed to want to forget the subject as quickly as possible; and a year later Kennedy’s assassination rendered fiction which might imply criticism of his nuclear diplomacy in bad taste. Pierre Salinger did not publish his novel loosely based on the missile crisis until nearly a decade later (On Instructions of My Government [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1971]). Out of the considerable amount of nuclear war fiction published in 1962, the most notable literary achievement was the beginning of Edgar Pangborn’s Davy in which he created the postholocaust world in which he was to work for the rest of his life. The dangers of brinksmanship were illustrated in 1962’s best-selling Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler.

The United States, Great Britain, and the USSR finally signed a treaty banning testing in the atmosphere in 1963, and there was for a time a general easing of tensions with the Soviet Union. But all during the early sixties there arose in the West an extreme paranoia about the Chinese, no longer on the leash of the Russians, who were perceived as being far more reasonable. This paranoia finds its quintessential expression in Bernard Newman’s absurd classic of Sinophobia, The Blue Ants (1962).

Now permanently established as a subgenre of science fiction, nuclear war stories and novels of merit continued to appear throughout the sixties from such authors as Ray Bradbury (“To the Chicago Abyss” [1963]), Philip K. Dick (The Penultimate Truth [1964] and Dr. Bloodmoney), Edgar Pangborn (besides Davy, mentioned above, The Judgment of Eve [1966]), Thomas M. Disch (“Casablanca” [1967]), and Harlan Ellison (“I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream” [1967]), among many others. But the nuclear war science fiction of the sixties had no focus. There was no equivalent of the old Astounding (now retitled Analog and still rejecting atomic doom stories) to develop a tradition. In any case, the magazines were ceasing to play an important role in developing new themes as paperback books began to dominate the market.

The nuclear war theme flourished in the sixties at least partly because of the “New Wave” phenomenon in science fiction which involved many younger writers who were drawn to apocalyptic and anti-technological themes. They found in nuclear war the perfect expression of what disgusted them in much traditional science fiction. In the 1940s science fiction had promoted itself as prophetic and inspirational. In the 1950s it had been diagnostic and critical, but typically provided some sort of happy ending. But in the 1960s the dominant mood of much of the best writing could only be described as nihilistic. At last science fiction found a fictional voice appropriate to the nightmare of nuclear war.

As had been true since 1945, isolated individuals outside of this tradition or any other tradition passionately turned out deeply felt warnings against atomic Armageddon which went almost entirely unread. Among the better idiosyncratic sixties novels are Derek Ingrey’s absurdist Pig on a Lead (1963), Stephen Minot’s sternly intellectual anti-intellectual Chill of Dusk (1964), Virginia Fenwick’s uneven but interesting America R.l.P. (1965), and John R. Vorhies’s remarkable study of nuclear strategy and politics, Pre-Empt (1967).

Public attention was briefly captured by the antiballistic missile debate of 1969, a year which witnessed the publication of more nuclear war fiction than any other between 1965 and 1974. But throughout most of the latter sixties the U.S. was preoccupied with Black Power, psychedelia, student protest and—above all—Vietnam. Traditional nuclear war fiction seemed incongruent in this setting. Nuclear blackmail and sabotage novels proliferated, especially in Britain, for an audience that yearned for simpler days; but the younger generation which dominated the readership of science fiction and therefore of nuclear war fiction was absorbed in other pursuits. Few of the young American antiwar protesters knew of or cared about the earlier generation of ban-the-bomb protesters in the U.S. and Britain.

The protesters’ concerns were reflected in nuclear war fiction through heavy irony in 1969 in Harlan Ellison’s A Boy and His Dog and Norman Spinrad’s “The Big Flash,” but these stories were not expressions of the youth movement, merely observations on it. Authors on the Right worked out their frustrations over the Vietnam era after the youth revolt was stifled, in works such as Clive Egleton’s A Piece of Resistance (1970) and its sequels, Last Post for a Partisan (1971), and The Judas Mandate (1972), Oliver Lange’s Vandenberg (1971), Mario Pei’s “1976” (1971), Christopher Priest’s Fugue for a Darkening Island (1972), W. D. Pereira’s Aftermath 15 (1973), and General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: A Future History (1978).

The most dyspeptic—nay, apoplectic—of these nuclear war novels which used the holocaust to berate duped, treasonous, destructive youth is Allen Drury’s culmination of the series he began with Advise and Consent, titled The Promise of Joy (1975). In this delirious attack on the late antiwar movement, a courageous president battles almost alone against a spineless Congress, gruesomely violent pacifists, and a wildly leftist partisan press to defeat the Reds and avert the holocaust by negotiating from strength. If in the early sixties the rage of the young in revolt found its expression in nuclear war themes, the same themes were used in the seventies to express the rage they had aroused in their elders.

The outstanding achievements in science fiction during the seventies were James Blish’s The Day After Judgment ( 1971), James Tiptree, Jr.’s “The Man Who Walked Home” (1972), Edgar Pangborn’s The Company of Glory (1975) and Still I Persist in Wondering (1978), Brian Aldiss’s The Eighty-Minute Hour (1974), Suzy McKee Charnas’s Motherlines (1978), and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978). It is no coincidence that half of these authors (including Tiptree, whose real name is Alice Sheldon) are women; during the seventies the women’s movement profoundly influenced science fiction. Stars like Ursula LeGuin and Joanna Russ attracted unprecedented numbers of young female readers, and many outstanding women writers began using science fiction to address the concerns of a new audience profoundly influenced by feminism. Writers like Charnas and McIntyre are part of a revisionist movement within the field which has been reshaping the postholocaust landscape along with every other element in science fiction in recent years. They have concentrated in particular on rejecting the traditional misogynistic neobarbarian fantasy, an endeavor in which they have been joined by male feminist writers like Paul O. Williams (The Pelbar Cycle [1981-85]).

Aside from right-wing thrillers and science fictional treatments of the postholocaust world, however, the last half of the seventies marked a low point in the creation of nuclear war fiction. In absolute numbers, never had so little been published since 1945. By way of an exception, one of the finest of all postholocaust novels, Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, appeared in 1980 and sold well.

Not until protests in Europe and America over the deployment of new missiles and agitation for a weapons freeze reawakened public concern with the issue did nuclear war fiction began to revive, with works like Yorick Blumenfeld’s Jenny (1981), Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows (1982), and Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday (1984), its title suggestive of the controversial 1983 made-for-television movie The Day After. The most recent development is the proliferation of right-wing adventure novels with postholocaust settings, a trend which will be discussed in detail in our concluding chapter. Whether the current flurry of interest in the subject can be sustained remains to be seen. The year 1984 marked the all-time high point of nuclear war fiction publishing in terms of numbers of works. The past pattern has been a sharp peak of activity followed by a decline, and 1985 saw the appearance of a somewhat smaller, though still substantial, number.

This survey would be incomplete without reference to what I consider the finest novel ever published in English depicting the consequences of nuclear war, Ibuse Masuji’s Black Rain. Written in 1965 and translated from the Japanese in 1967, the historical event to which this work responds is the bombing of Hiroshima. Ibuse is a journalist who drew on the diary of an acquaintance and the memories of other survivors to recreate the experience of the hibakusha, the victims of the Hiroshima bombing. Written in an understated tone, and with a thread of subtle irony running through it, this novel is nevertheless by far the most devastating account of the effects of nuclear war ever written. The destruction, the wounds, and the effects of radiation disease are depicted in minute detail. A host of powerful images is presented: telephone poles burn like candles, lead from melted power lines has left a trail of silver droplets, a baby girl plays with her dead mother’s breasts. The main psychological reaction of the victims is shock. Some try to go on about their business as usual, absurdly attempting, for instance, to report to offices which have been vaporized. The traditional modesty of Japanese women prevents many of them from seeking medical attention, as this example highlights:

At one sundry goods store this side of Mitaki Station on the Kobe line, they had found a woman who had got in unnoticed and died in one of their closets. When the owner of the store dragged the body out, he found that the garment it was wearing was his daughter’s best summer kimono. Scandalized, he had torn the best kimono off the body, only to find that it had no underwear on underneath. She must have been burned out of her home and fled all the way there naked, yet still—being a young woman—sought something to hide her nakedness even before she sought water or food.

The vast bulk of accounts of imaginary nuclear wars pales in contrast to such touching, vivid reports of human suffering. There are a number of works containing such stories: Agawa’s Devil’s Heritage; Joy Kogawa’s Obasan (1982); Morris’s Flowers of Hiroshima and The Seeds of Hiroshima (1965); Edwin Lanham’s The Clock at 8:16 (1970); and the stories collected in Oe Kenzaburo’s The Crazy Iris and Other Stories of the Atomic Aftermath (New York: Grove, 1985). All of them are affecting, but none possesses the powerfully simple artistry of Black Rain.Nuclear war fiction has been written from the perspective of politicians who started it, of our descendants who may undergo it, and of investigating aliens from the distant stars; but the perspective which makes the experience a vivid reality is that adopted by Ibuse, of the real-life victims. Most other authors have written about nuclear war without really confronting it. They show how it can be prevented or survived, use it as a club to thrash a political foe, fantasize about it as a source of magic, revel in the disorder which follows in its wake, wield it to clear the way for a future utopia, or create through it a kind of nostalgic—albeit radioactive—pastoral.

The authors cannot be blamed entirely. Their readers have a very low tolerance for realism on this subject. If the relatively benign holocausts of Alas, Babylon and The Day After are considered shocking by their contemporary audiences, clearly not many people have been paying attention even to the facts available since August 1945. To acquaint people with the facts, all the fantasies of the future lumped together are not as valuable as Black Rain.

In the chapters which follow, the various features of nuclear war as they have been depicted in a selected number of novels and short stories are surveyed. Because relatively few works contain thorough depictions of the course such a war, some names like Wylie’s and Clarkson’s will of necessity come up in various contexts. Their books are simply too valuable as resources to be disposed of in a single chapter. On the other hand, there are a great many interesting works discussed in the Bibliography which are nowhere mentioned in the following chapters. There was simply not space for an exhaustive treatment of all the worthy authors.

The analysis includes a discussion of the causes of nuclear war in fiction, the nature of fictional attacks and their immediate aftermath. The fourth chapter covers a variety of ways in which a fictional nuclear war is commonly depicted as performing important transformations: the complete destruction of all life; radically transformed social mores; new social systems; and the creation of new types of people and animals. The final chapter considers the political effects of nuclear war fiction and tries to draw some conclusions for the future. This volume is organized in such a way as to concentrate on the phenomenon of nuclear war as it is commonly depicted, exploring the ways in which mass consciousness is molded and reflected by the writers of popular fiction.

Go to Chapter Two

Annotated Bibliography

This chapter has been translated into Danish by Anna Polonski.


Japanese Creation Myth (712 CE)


From Genji Shibukawa: Tales from the Kojiki

The following is a modern retelling of the creation story from the Kojiki, Japan’s oldest chronicle, compiled in 712 CE by O No Yasumaro. This version is easier for the modern reader to understand than the original, but its essential features are preserved. The quest for Izanami in the underworld is reminiscent of the Greek demigod Orpheus’ quest in Hades for his wife, Euridice, and even more of the Sumerian myth of the descent of Innana to the underworld.

How does this story reflect the sense of its creators that Japan is the most important place in the world?

The Beginning of the World

Before the heavens and the earth came into existence, all was a chaos, unimaginably limitless and without definite shape or form. Eon followed eon: then, lo! out of this boundless, shapeless mass something light and transparent rose up and formed the heaven. This was the Plain of High Heaven, in which materialized a deity called Ame-no-Minaka-Nushi-no-Mikoto (the Deity-of-the-August-Center-of-Heaven). Next the heavens gave birth to a deity named Takami-Musubi-no-Mikoto (the High-August-Producing-Wondrous-Deity), followed by a third called Kammi-Musubi-no-Mikoto (the Divine-Producing-Wondrous-Deity). These three divine beings are called the Three Creating Deities.

In the meantime what was heavy and opaque in the void gradually precipitated and became the earth, but it had taken an immeasurably long time before it condensed sufficiently to form solid ground. In its earliest stages, for millions and millions of years, the earth may be said to have resembled oil floating, medusa-like, upon the face of the waters. Suddenly like the sprouting up of a reed, a pair of immortals were born from its bosom. These were the Deity Umashi-Ashi-Kahibi-Hikoji-no-Mikoto (the Pleasant-Reed-Shoot-Prince-Elder-Deity) and the Deity Ame-no-Tokotachi-no-Mikoto (The Heavenly-Eternally-Standing-Deity). . . .

Many gods were thus born in succession, and so they increased in number, but as long as the world remained in a chaotic state, there was nothing for them to do. Whereupon, all the Heavenly deities summoned the two divine beings, Izanagi and Izanami, and bade them descend to the nebulous place, and by helping each other, to consolidate it into terra firma. “We bestow on you,” they said, “this precious treasure, with which to rule the land, the creation of which we command you to perform.” So saying they handed them a spear called Ama-no-Nuboko, embellished with costly gems. The divine couple received respectfully and ceremoniously the sacred weapon and then withdrew from the presence of the Deities, ready to perform their august commission. Proceeding forthwith to the Floating Bridge of Heaven, which lay between the heaven and the earth, they stood awhile to gaze on that which lay below. What they beheld was a world not yet condensed, but looking like a sea of filmy fog floating to and fro in the air, exhaling the while an inexpressibly fragrant odor. They were, at first, perplexed just how and where to start, but at length Izanagi suggested to his companion that they should try the effect of stirring up the brine with their spear. So saying he pushed down the jeweled shaft and found that it touched something. Then drawing it up, he examined it and observed that the great drops which fell from it almost immediately coagulated into an island, which is, to this day, the Island of Onokoro. Delighted at the result, the two deities descended forthwith from the Floating Bridge to reach the miraculously created island. In this island they thenceforth dwelt and made it the basis of their subsequent task of creating a country. Then wishing to become espoused, they erected in the center of the island a pillar, the Heavenly August Pillar, and built around it a great palace called the Hall of Eight Fathoms. Thereupon the male Deity turning to the left and the female Deity to the right, each went round the pillar in opposite directions. When they again met each other on the further side of the pillar, Izanami, the female Deity, speaking first, exclaimed: “How delightful it is to meet so handsome a youth!” To which Izanagi, the male Deity, replied: “How delightful I am to have fallen in with such a lovely maiden!” After having spoken thus, the male Deity said that it was not in order that woman should anticipate man in a greeting. Nevertheless, they fell into connubial relationship, having been instructed by two wagtails which flew to the spot. Presently the Goddess bore her divine consort a son, but the baby was weak and boneless as a leech. Disgusted with it, they abandoned it on the waters, putting it in a boat made of reeds. Their second offspring was as disappointing as the first. The two Deities, now sorely disappointed at their failure and full of misgivings, ascended to Heaven to inquire of the Heavenly Deities the causes of their misfortunes. The latter performed the ceremony of divining and said to them: “It is the woman’s fault. In turning round the Pillar, it was not right and proper that the female Deity should in speaking have taken precedence of the male. That is the reason.” The two Deities saw the truth of this divine suggestion, and made up their minds to rectify the error. So, returning to the earth again, they went once more around the Heavenly Pillar. This time Izanagi spoke first saying: “How delightful to meet so beautiful a maiden!” “How happy I am,” responded Izanami, “that I should meet such a handsom youth!” This process was more appropriate and in accordance with the law of nature. After this, all the children born to them left nothing to be desired. First, the island of Awaji was born, next, Shikoku, then, the island of Oki, followed by Kyushu; after that, the island Tsushima came into being, and lastly, Honshu, the main island of Japan. The name of Oyashi- ma-kuni (the Country of the Eight Great Islands) was given to these eight islands. After this, the two Deities became the parents of numerous smaller islands destined to surround the larger ones.

The Birth of the Deities

Having, thus, made a country from what had formerly been no more than a mere floating mass, the two Deities, Izanagi and Izanami, about begetting those deities destined to preside over the land, sea, mountains, rivers, trees, and herbs. Their first-born proved to be the sea-god, Owatatsumi-no-Kami. Next they gave birth to the patron gods of harbors, the male deity Kamihaya-akitsu-hiko having control of the land and the goddess Haya-akitsu-hime having control of the sea. These two latter deities subsequently gave birth to eight other gods.

Next Izanagi and Izanami gave birth to the wind-deity, Kami-Shinatsuhiko-no-Mikoto. At the moment of his birth, his breath was so potent that the clouds and mists, which had hung over the earth from the beginning of time, were immediately dispersed. In consequence, every corner of the world was filled with brightness. Kukunochi-no-Kami, the deity of trees, was the next to be born, followed by Oyamatsumi-no-Kami, the deity of mountains, and Kayanuhime-no-Kami, the goddess of the plains. . . .

The process of procreation had, so far, gone on happily, but at the birth of Kagutsuchi-no-Kami, the deity of fire, an unseen misfortune befell the divine mother, Izanami. During the course of her confinement, the goddess was so severely burned by the flaming child that she swooned away. Her divine consort, deeply alarmed, did all in his power to resuscitate her, but although he succeeded in restoring her to consciousness, her appetite had completely gone. Izanagi, thereupon and with the utmost loving care, prepared for her delectation various tasty dishes, but all to no avail, because whatever she swallowed was almost immediately rejected. It was in this wise that occurred the greatest miracle of all. From her mouth sprang Kanayama- biko and Kanayama-hime, respectively the god and goddess of metals, whilst from other parts of her body issued forth Haniyasu-hiko and Haniyasu-hime, respectively the god and goddess of earth. Before making her “divine retirement,” which marks the end of her earthly career, in a manner almost unspeakably miraculous she gave birth to her last-born, the goddess Mizuhame-no-Mikoto. Her demise marks the intrusion of death into the world. Similarly the corruption of her body and the grief occasioned by her death were each the first of their kind.

By the death of his faithful spouse Izanagi was now quite alone in the world. In conjunction with her, and in accordance with the instructions of the Heavenly Gods, he had created and consolidated the Island Empire of Japan. In the fulfillment of their divine mission, he and his heavenly spouse had lived an ideal life of mutual love and cooperation. It is only natural, therefore, that her death should have dealt him a truly mortal blow.

He threw himself upon her prostrate form, crying: “Oh, my dearest wife, why art thou gone, to leave me thus alone? How could I ever exchange thee for even one child? Come back for the sake of the world, in which there still remains so much for both us twain to do.” In a fit of uncontrollable grief, he stood sobbing at the head of the bier. His hot tears fell like hailstones, and lo! out of the tear-drops was born a beauteous babe, the goddess Nakisawame-no-Mikoto. In deep astonishment he stayed his tears, a gazed in wonder at the new-born child, but soon his tears returned only to fall faster than before. It was thus that a sudden change came over his state of mind. With bitter wrath, his eyes fell upon the infant god of fire, whose birth had proved so fatal to his mother. He drew his sword, Totsuka-no-tsurugi, and crying in his wrath, “Thou hateful matricide,” decapitated his fiery offspring. Up shot a crimson spout of blood. Out of the sword and blood together arose eight strong and gallant deities. “What! more children?” cried Izanagi, much astounded at their sudden appearance, but the very next moment, what should he see but eight more deities born from the lifeless body of the infant firegod! They came out from the various parts of the body,–head, breast, stomach, hands, feet, and navel, and, to add to his astonishment, all of them were glaring fiercely at him. Altogether stupefied he surveyed the new arrivals one after another.

Meanwhile Izanami, for whom her divine husband pined so bitterly, had quitted this world for good and all and gone to the Land of Hades.

Izanagi’s Visit to the Land of Hades

As for the Deity Izanagi, who had now become a widower, the presence of so many offspring might have, to some extent, beguiled and solaced him, and yet when he remembered how faithful his departed spouse had been to him, he would yearn for her again, his heart swollen with sorrow and his eyes filled with tears. In this mood, sitting up alone at midnight, he would call her name aloud again and again, regardless of the fact that he could hope for no response. His own piteous cries merely echoed back from the walls of his chamber.

Unable any longer to bear his grief, he resolved to go down to the Nether Regions in order to seek for Izanami and bring her back, at all costs, to the world. He started on his long and dubious journey. Many millions of miles separated the earth from the Lower Regions and there were countless steep and dangerous places to be negotiated, but Izanagi’s indomitable determination to recover his wife enabled him finally to overcome all these difficulties. At length he succeeded in arriving at his destination. Far ahead of him, he espied a large castle. “That, no doubt,” he mused in delight, “may be where she resides.”

Summoning up all his courage, he approached the main entrance of the castle. Here he saw a number of gigantic demons, some red some black, guarding the gates with watchful eyes. He retraced his steps in alarm, and stole round to a gate at the rear of the castle. He found, to his great joy, that it was apparently left unwatched. He crept warily through the gate and peered into the interior of the castle, when he immediately caught sight of his wife standing at the gate at an inner court. The delighted Deity loudly called her name. “Why! There is some one calling me,” sighed Izanami-no-Mikoto, and raising her beautiful head, she looked around her. What was her amazement but to see her beloved husband standing by the gate and gazing at her intently! He had, in fact, been in her thoughts no less constantly than she in his. With a heart leaping with joy, she approached him. He grasped her hands tenderly and murmured in deep and earnest tones: “My darling, I have come to take thee back to the world. Come back, I pray thee, and let us complete our work of creation in accordance with the will of the Heavenly Gods,–our work which was left only half accomplished by thy departure. How can I do this work without thee?Thy loss means to me the loss of all.” This appeal came from the depth of his heart. The goddess sympathized with him most deeply, but answered with tender grief: “Alas! Thou hast come too late. I have already eaten of the furnace of Hades. Having once eaten the things of this land, it is impossible for me to come back to the world.” So saying, she lowered her head in deep despair.

“Nay, I must entreat thee to come back. Canst not thou find some means by which this can be accomplished?” exclaimed her husband, drawing nearer to her. After some reflection, she replied: “Thou hast come a very, very long way for my sake. How much I appreciate thy devotion! I wish, with all my heart, to go back with thee, but before I can do so, I must first obtain the permission of the deities of Hades. Wait here till my return, but remember that thou must not on any account look inside the castle in the meantime. ” I swear I will do as thou biddest,” quoth Izanagi, ” but tarry not in thy quest.” With implicit confidence in her husband’s pledge, the goddess disappeared into the castle.

Izanagi observed strictly her injunction. He remained where he stood, and waited impatiently for his wife’s return. Probably to his impatient mind, a single heart-beat may have seemed an age. He waited and waited, but no shadow of his wife appeared. The day gradually wore on and waned away, darkness was about to fall, and a strange unearthly wind began to strike his face. Brave as he was, he was seized with an uncanny feeling of apprehension. Forgetting the vow he had made to the goddess, he broke off one of the teeth of the comb which he was wearing in the left bunch of his hair, and having lighted it, he crept in softly and- glanced around him. To his horror he found Izanagi lying dead in a room: and lo! a ghastly change had come over her. She, who had been so dazzlingly beautiful, was now become naught but a rotting corpse, in an advanced stage of decomposition. Now, an even more horrible sight met his gaze; the Fire Thunder dwelt in her, head, the Black Thunder in her belly, the Rending-Thunder in her abdomen, the Young Thunder in her left hand, the Earth-Thunder in her right hand, the Rumbling-Thunder in her left foot,-and the Couchant Thunder in her right foot:–altogether eight Thunder-Deities had been born and were dwelling there, attached to her remains and belching forth flames from their mouths. Izanagitno-Mikoto was so thoroughly alarmed at the sight, that he dropped the light and took to his heels. The sound he made awakened Izanami from her death-like slumber. For sooth!” she cried: “he must have seen me in this revolting state. He has put me to shame and has broken his solemn vow. Unfaithful wretch! I’ll make him suffer, for his perfidy.”

Then turning to the Hags of Hades, who attended her, she commanded them to give chase to him. At her word, an army of female demons ran after the Deity.

Translated by Yaichiro Isobe

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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Examples of Filial Piety (14th Century CE)


According to Chinese tradition, filial piety (hsiao) was the primary duty of all Chinese. Being a filial son meant complete obedience to one’s parents during their lifetime and–as they grew older–taking the best possible care of them. After their death the eldest son was required to perform ritual sacrifices at their grave site or in the ancestral temple. A son could also express his devotion to his parents by passing the Civil Service examinations, winning prestige for the whole family. Most important of all, a son had to make sure that the family line would be continued. Dying without a son therefore was one of the worst offenses against the concept of filial piety. If a marriage remained barren, it was a son’s duty to take a second wife or adopt a child in order to continue the family. Since Chinese women became part of their husband’s family through marriage, filial conduct for a woman meant faithfully serving her in-laws, in particular her mother-in-law, and giving birth to a son. By fulfilling these duties, she also gained prestige for her own family. If the mother and daughter-in-law did not get along, filial piety demanded that a man should get rid of his wife in order to please his mother. He could always get another wife, but he would only have one mother. While continuing the family line was probably the most important issue for the vast majority of the Chinese, Buddhist monks and nuns were required to remain celibate. Their refusal to fulfill the obligations of filial piety made them suspect in the eyes of other Chinese. Along with the eunuchs at the emperor’s court and Taoist priests they were often believed to conduct themselves in an immoral or criminal manner.

Stories about exemplary filial conduct abound in Chinese history. The Twenty-Four Examples of Filial Piety (Er-shih-ssu hsiao) were chosen and compiled by Kuo Chü-ching during the Yuan Dynasty (1280-1368 CE) while he was mourning the death of his father. Other collections followed. Even today, these stories form an important part of Chinese folklore. You may be surprised at how brief these stories are and how little background is given. Two reasons may explain this: On the one hand, everyone was so familiar with the heroes of these examples that it was unnecessary to give any details about their lives. On the other hand, brevity is considered to be good style in the classic Chinese tradition.

Choose a western fairy tale which involves children’s relationship to their parents and compare the attitudes in that tale with the attitudes expressed here. What strikes you as familiar? Where do you see differences?

Freezing in a Thin Coat in Obedience to His Stepmother

Min Tzu-chien had lost his mother at a young age. His father remarried and had two more sons with his second wife. She always dressed her own sons in thickly padded robes. But to her stepson she gave only a thin coat padded with cattails [instead of cotton]. One winter day, when Min Tzu-chien was told to hold the reins of his father’s cart, he was shivering so badly that he dropped the reins. This way his father found out that his wife dressed his oldest son very poorly. In his rage he decided to dismiss his second wife. But Min Tzu-chien said: “If she stays, one son will be freezing. But if she leaves, all three sons will suffer from the cold.” When his stepmother heard this, she changed her attitude towards Min Tzu-chien.

Allowing Mosquitoes to Feast on His Blood

During the Chin Dynasty (4th-5th Century CE), a boy named Wu Meng (1) was already serving his parents in exemplary filial piety although he was just eight years old. The family was so poor that they could not even afford a gauze net against the mosquitoes. Therefore every night in the summer swarms of mosquitoes would come and bite them. Wu Meng let them all feast on his naked stomach. Even though there were so many, he did not drive them away. He feared that the mosquitoes, having left him, would instead bite his parents. His heart was truly filled with love for his parents.

Sacrificing His Son for the Sake of His Mother

Kuo Chi, who lived during the Han Dynasty (200 BCE-200 CE) and his family were very poor. He had a three-year-old son. Even though there was little food, Kou Chi’s mother would always give part of her share to her grandson so that he did not suffer hunger.

One day Kuo Chi said to his wife, “We are so poor and needy that we cannot give mother enough to eat, and on top of this our son is eating part of mother’s share. It were better if we buried our son.” (2) He started digging a grave. When he had dug a hole of about three chih (3), he discovered a pot filled with gold and the inscription: “Officials may not take it, people may not steal it.”

Wearing Children’s Clothes to Amuse His Parents

During the time of the Chou Dynasty (11th-3rd Century BCE), there was a man named Lao Lai-tzu (4) who was by nature extremely filial. He took care of both his parents and provided for them with the choicest delicacies. After he himself turned seventy, he never spoke about his age. (5) He often wore clothes striped in five colors and acted like an infant in front of his parents. He would carry a bowl of water to them, and then stumble on purpose. Lying on the floor he would cry like a little child in order to make his parents laugh.

Crying in the Bamboo-Grove and Making the Bamboo Sprout

During the era of the Three Kingdoms (3rd Century CE) there lived a man named Meng Sung, also known as [Meng] Chien-wu (6). He had lost his father during his childhood. When his mother was old and sick she craved fresh bamboo-shoots even though it was winter. Sung had no idea how he could get them. In desperation, he went into a bamboo grove, clasped a bamboo stem and broke into tears. His filial devotion moved heaven and earth and they forced the earth to crack open. Numerous shoots of bamboo came out. Meng Sung carried them home and made them into a soup for his mother. As soon as she had eaten she felt much better.

Cleaning his Mother’s Chamberpot

Huang T’ing-chien (7) of the Sung Dynasty, also known as [Huang] Shan-gu, became a member of the Hanlin academy (8) during the Yuan-Yu reign (1086-1094 CE) (9).

He was by nature extremely filial. Even though he was such an esteemed and famous person, he served his mother with utmost devotion. Every evening he would personally clean his mother’s chamber pot. Not a moment passed without his fulfilling his filial duties.

(1) According to Chinese tradition, Wu Meng later in life studied black magic and could cross a river without a boat, waving a fan of white feathers over the water. His body did not decompose after death and finally disappeared.

(2) Chinese texts sometimes continue this conversation: “We can always get another son, but it is impossible to get another mother.”

(3) One chih is approximately 11 inches long.

(4) Lao Lai-tzu lived during the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 CE) of the Chou Dynasty and was a native of Ch’u in South-West China. According to Chinese tradition, the king of Ch’u eventually heard of his ability to make people laugh and gave him a post in his court.

(5) In China it is quite unusual even today for both men and women above seventy not to mention their age with pride. In some colloquial versions of this story it is said that he does not mention his age so that his parents would not be sad and realize that both their son and they themselves might be near death.

(6) Meng Sung eventually became keeper of the imperial fish ponds under the first emperor of the succeeding Chin dynasty.

(7) Huang T’ing-chien (1050-1110 CE) was a well-known poet and calligrapher.

(8) The Hanlin academy was the central institution of learning in Imperial China. This appointment was very prestigious for any scholar.

(9) Upon his ascension to the throne and whenever he considered it beneficial, a Chinese emperor proclaimed a new maxim for his reign. “Yuan yu” means “great protection.”

Translated by Lydia Gerber

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SearchCommon Errors in English Usage and More (2)This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers, Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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The Trial and Crucifixion of Jesus: (Matthew 27: 15-54)


The most original contribution of Christianity to the concept of the Messiah is the concept of the suffering and dying savior. Whereas orthodox Jews would have considered a dying Messiah a contradiction in terms, in Christianity Jesus’ death was portrayed as a necessary and inevitable part of his mission, and his resurrection from death was to provide the example for his followers. In its most fully-developed form, the doctrine holds that his death actually functions as a sacrifice which wipes out the sin of those who believe in him. Unlike other dying and resurrected Mediterranean and Mesopotamian gods, Christ’s death is not linked to annual cycles of planting and harvest, but is seen as a unique event which begins a new era in history. It is not surprising then, that though two of the gospels do not even mention his birth, they all devote a great deal of space to his trial and death. Every aspect of this story has been illustrated in every artistic medium throughout Christendom. Unfortunately, the desire of the early church to emphasize the role of the Jews and deemphasize that of the Romans led historically to violent persecutions of Jews by Christians throughout later history.

What aspects of this account seem to lessen the responsibility of the Romans for Jesus’ death? How does Jesus react to the various sufferings he goes through?

Now at the festival (1) the governor was accustomed to release a prisoner for the crowd, anyone whom they wanted. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Jesus Barabbas. (2) So after they had gathered, Pilate (3) said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Messiah?” For he realized that it was out of jealousy that they had handed him over. While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, “Have nothing to do with that innocent man, for today I have suffered a great deal because of a dream about him.” Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took some water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” Then the people as a whole answered, “His blood be on us and on your children!”(4) So he released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified. (5)

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole cohort around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on his head. They put a reed in his right hand and knelt before him and mocked him, saying “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. After mocking him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him. . . .

From noon on, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And about three o’clock Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (6) When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” (7) At once one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” Then Jesus cried again with a loud voice and breathed his last. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. (8) After his resurrection they came out of the tombs and entered the holy city and appeared to many. Now when the centurion (9) and those with him, who were keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were terrified and said, “Truly this man was God’s Son!”

New Revised Standard Version

(1) Passover.

(2) Perhaps a popular anti-Roman agitator.

(3) Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor of Judaea.

(4) A line unfortunately quoted frequently in history to excuse persecution of Jews.

(5) Nailing to a cross was one of the most common forms of execution used by the Romans, designed to cause a protracted, agonizing death. There were instances of people having survived quite lengthy periods of crucifixion. According to Mark 15: 44, Pilate was astonished that Jesus had not survived into the evening.

(6) Although the four gospels give strikingly similar accounts of the trial and crucifixion, they each report different “last words.” Some see these words as stressing the humanity of Jesus. Others argue that since these are the opening words of Psalm 22, which ends by expressing confidence in God, that confidence is implied in the quotation.

(7) An ancient prophet whom Jews believe will return in the time of the Messiah.

(8) Jesus’ sacrifice is portrayed as producing life after death immediately. This incident is not mentioned elsewhere.

(9) Roman officer.

SearchCommon Errors in English Usage and More (3)
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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The Beatitudes (Luke 6: 20-26)


These famous sayings must have exercised a powerful attraction for the downtrodden people who made up much of the early Christian community. Quite specific rewards are offered in compensation for present suffering. The emphasis on the wickedness of the rich is very much in the tradition of Jewish prophets like Amos. Political liberals have generally preferred this version of the Beatitudes, conservatives, the more spiritual version in Matthew 5.

What rewards are promised to those that suffer in this life?

Blessed are you who are poor,
for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are you who are hungry now,
for you will be filled.
Blessed are you who weep now,
for you will laugh.
Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. (1)
Rejoice in that Day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. (2)
But woe to you who are rich,
for you have received your consolation.
Woe to you who are full now,
for you will be hungry.
Woe to you who are laughing now,
for you will mourn and weep.
Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.

New Revised Standard Version

(1) Jesus himself, a Messianic title of disputed meaning.

(2) Many passages in the Christian Scriptures seem aimed at strengthening the faith of those under persecution for their beliefs. It had become a tradition to believe that all the ancient Jewish prophets had been persecuted.

SearchCommon Errors in English Usage and More (4)This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books. This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.

The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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On forgiveness, Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5: 38-48)


In contrast to Mark, Matthew contains far fewer miracles and a great deal of teaching, including the famous collection of sayings called “The Sermon on the Mount,” some of them quite extreme. As we saw earlier, Jewish law required the fair treatment of enemies, and by no means called upon all crimes to be punished by “an eye for an eye;” but it did not require forgiveness to extend as far as this.

In your opinion, which of these is the most extreme commandment? Why?

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” (1) But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. (2) But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. (3) Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.

You have heard that it was said, ” You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” (4) But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward to you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? (5) And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles (6) do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (7)

New Revised Standard Version

(1) See Exodus 21:23-25.

(2) This statement is so strong, seeming to leave no room for police, judges, or even self-defense, that some scholars have argued that it must envision a very near end of the world. In that case, civil society need not be maintained because all will shortly be judged by God. A more traditional view applies Paul’s theory that salvation by works (good deeds) is literally impossible. These commandments would then be uttered because they are impossible to obey, in order to force the hearer to accept that only faith can save.

(3) This commandment has been explained by some as an extension of the much-resented Roman law which required subjects to carry the spear and shield of a soldier for one mile whenever requested. The early church was anxious to avoid any appearance of being hostile to Rome, unlike the Jews who rebelled against the imperial government. “Going the second mile” has come to be a popular expression for making an extra effort.

(4) This saying occurs nowhere in the Hebrew Bible. It may be simply an expression of popular attitudes.

(5) Tax collectors were hated representatives of Rome, all the more so because their income depended on charging taxpayers more than was actually due the central government.

(6) Non-Jews.

(7) With the exception of some saints, few Christians have taken this commandment literally, seeing in it an inconsistency with Paul’s doctrine of original sin. Jewish law, of course, expected perfection in that the worshiper was supposed to be able to observe all of God’s law without superhuman efforts.

SearchCommon Errors in English Usage and More (5)This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

This is just a sample of Reading About the World, Volume 1. Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

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The Baptism of Jesus


Background from the Jewish Bible (Isaiah 40: 1-5)

The authors of the Gospels evidently knew little or no Hebrew, for they consistently quote from Greek versions of the Hebrew Bible which sometimes differ from it in significant ways. However, they lay great stress on the idea that the major events in Jesus’ life can be seen as predicted by the Jewish prophets, especially Isaiah. In the following passage, Isaiah announces the coming of the Messianic age, in which the earth will be radically transformed. Probably the original context was the impending return from the Babylonian Captivity, which the poetic vision of the writer imagines as involving the creation of a highway through the wilderness back to Jerusalem. These words were memorably set to music in George Frederick Handel’s Messiah.

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, (1)
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins. (2)

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”

(Matthew 3)

The following passage illustrates the early church’s use of the Hebrew Bible. Lacking anything like modern quotation marks they felt free to read the text from Isaiah above as if it were the voice that was crying in the wilderness rather than the highway that was to be built in the wilderness. Such differences go a long way toward explaining why most Jews did not accept Jesus as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy. Matthew’s reading is not wilfully distorted; it merely comes from a tradition which views the texts in a quite different way than did the orthodox Jews of his time. The scene is the very beginning of Jesus’ career, where he is ritually baptized by the fiery preacher John in a ritual which involved pouring water over him. In Christian thought this was comparable to the Jewish tradition of anointing the head of a king, which gave rise to the term “Messiah” and its Greek translation, “Christ,” both of which mean “he whose head has been anointed with oil.” The scene has been frequently depicted in art.

What is John’s attitude toward the Jewish Sadducees and Pharisees who have come to be baptized? What is the meaning of the imagery of the grain and the chaff?

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘ Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'”

Now John wore clothing of camel’ s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. (3) Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing t heir sins.

But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees(4) coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (5)

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, ” Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.(6) And a voice from heaven said, ” This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” (7)

New Revised Standard Version

(1) That is, the people of Jerusalem, the Jews.

(2) Various prophets had earlier seen the Jewish defeat by Babylon as punishment for various sins, especially insufficient faithfulness to monotheism.

(3) The Baptist is usually recognizable in his traditional portraits by this clothing, even when he is depicted as a small child.

(4) Although Matthew groups them together, the Pharisees were innovative scholars (rabbis) whose beliefs came closer to those Jesus is depicted as preaching than the traditionalist Sadducees, who rejected the belief in the coming Messiah, the notion of a last judgment and of a heaven and hell. That said, it should be noted that the Pharisees viewed themselves as purists, and the Sadducees as compromisers.

(5) The early church considered that all converts, Jewish or not, could be considered a sort of adopted “chosen people,” covered by many of the statements about them in the Hebrew Bible. The fire referred to is traditionally interpreted as being the eternal fire of Hell in which all unbelievers are to burn.

(6) In art the Holy Spirit is usually literally depicted as a dove. After much debate the majority of the early Church decided to consider the term “Holy Spirit “not as simply as a manifestation of God but as a distinct “person.” The formula ” three persons in one God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” led to endless arguments about the relationships of these persons to each other (collectively called “the Trinity”) and to the view by many Muslims and Jews that Christianity is not a strictly monotheistic religion.

(7) The relationship of Jesus to God the Father has been the most hotly debated issue concerning the Trinity. Traditional Christians have taken the phrase literally and maintained that Jesus was divinely begotten. Some argue for “adoptionalism,” that Jesus was singled out in maturity by God as his instrument, pointing out that the idea of a God producing a child through a human mate was a commonplace in Greco-Roman mythology, and alien to the beliefs of Judaism. At any rate, all interpretations agree that this story is meant to portray Jesus as a divinely-chosen figure destined to accomplish great things.

SearchCommon Errors in English Usage and More (6)This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Books. This is an excerpt from Reading About the World, Volume 1, edited by Paul Brians, Mary Gallwey, Douglas Hughes, Azfar Hussain, Richard Law, Michael Myers Michael Neville, Roger Schlesinger, Alice Spitzer, and Susan Swan and published by Harcourt Brace Custom Publishing.The reader was created for use in the World Civilization course at Washington State University, but material on this page may be used for educational purposes by permission of the editor-in-chief:

Paul Brians
Department of English
Washington State University
Pullman 99164-5020

Reading About the World is now out of print. You can search for used copies using the following information:Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 1, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-567425-0 or Paul Brians, et al. Reading About the World, Vol. 2, 3rd edition, Harcourt Brace College Publishing: ISBN 0-15-512826-4.

Try Chambal: (vol. 1) (vol. 2)

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