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 art)fice.

     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. Circumscribed as it is, the domestic drama of nuclear war is more serious than conventional political drama, particularly since personal survival is likely to be immensely more important in the postwar era than politics.

     Philip Wylie is another partial exception to the pattern of avoiding concrete details of suffering under the impact of atomic bombing. Most of Tomorrow! (1954) is devoted to establishing the main characters and their attitudes to ward 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 welldetailed 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 pactfists, but such is not the case. Setting aside the large bulk of popular fantasies in which the world of the new dark age allows free reign for neobarbarian violence, almost every work realistically depicting nuclear war just)fies either retaliation, armed resistance to invasion, or ruthless violence against fellow citizens in the chaotic aftermath of the attack. Among the immediate psychological effects of a nuclear attack one would expect to see guilt and anxiety to avoid more bloodshed, but these are rarely depicted. Even Shute, whose characters in On the Beach often seem exhausted and drained of hostility, depicts some who seek violent thrills, notably in sports car racing.

     Another exceptionally thoughtful work is Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka's Warday (1984), which seems deliberately to address many topics inadequately treated by their predecessors. Warday distinguishes between an immediate phase of rioting and looting mixed with shock, and an extended period of cooperation and charity mixed with self-interest and selfishness. Their depiction of society after the bomb is far more convincing than the nightmare visions of the majority of writers.

     However, it is difficult to believe that an intact California would quite so ruthlessly--or successfully--exclude refugees as Strieber and Kunetka describe. Their point is undoubtedly to establish that even a limited nuclear war from which the United States suffered little direct physical damage would destroy it as a nation. The authors have taken pains both to research their material carefully and to shape it differently from their predecessors. Warday is essentially a postwar novel, with only a few pages devoted to description of the war itself, but those few are well done. Each author, in his own persona, tells of his experience separately. Strieber's version is particularly impressive: the light, the blast, the ensuing chaos and confusion--all are vividly described without any distracting striving for fancy literary effects.

     "Strieber" cannot at first understand what has happened. But he soon does:

     It was the sky over Queens and Brooklyn that enforced the notion of a nuclear bomb. Through the dusty air I could see ash-black clouds shot through with long red flames. These clouds were immense. They stretched up and up until they were lost in their own expanding billows. There was no impression of a mushroom cloud, but I knew that was what it was, a mushroom cloud seen so close that it didn't look like a mushroom.

     The picture is an accurate one, but original because of its point of view. Strieber and Kunetka may also claim to be the first to have treated thoroughly the effects of electromagnetic pulse radiation, first widely discussed while they were preparing their book. They perhaps overdo its effects; but even in this case they carefully distinguish between modern automobiles with electronic starters which are immobilized by the deliberately induced EMP, and older vehicles which can still run. The war they depict is too limited to have precipitated a nuclear winter, even had the theory been fully developed before they finished their novel.

     Warday lacks a real plot, its characters are shallow, and its style is merely serviceable. Its literary importance is neglible. But as a piece of carefully researched documentary-style educational material, it stands head and shoulders above other similar novels which approach the subject of nuclear war realistically such as Tomorrow! or Martin Caidin's The Long Night (1956).

     The fiction of nuclear war uses many settings, but the one uniquely its own is the shelter. During the early sixties, backyard fallout shelters became a controversial fad, and larger shelters improvised from the basements of public buildings became so commonplace that hardly anyone noticed their distinctive radioactivity symbol. Ordinary shelters play little role in fiction: there is an abandoned one in Walter M. Miller, Jr.'s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1955), and another which bounces its inhabitants improbably into the future in Robert A. Heinlein's Farnham's Freehold (1964). Much more common are fabulous, lavishly appointed underground retreats built by far-sighted millionaires. When the scale of shelters is more realistic their effectiveness is often satirized. Civil defense as a truly effective protection against nuclear war is seldom taken seriously. Exceptions are Merril's Shadow on the Hearth and Wylie's Tomorrow!, the latter dedicated "to the men and women of the Federal Civil Defense Administration."

     Although its title leads one to expect otherwise, there is not much to be learned about life in a fallout shelter from Jerry Ahern's series of novels, The Survivalist (1981-1990). Although Ahern also knows a good deal about the technical aspects of nuclear war, he plunges into the wildest fantasy: California and Florida are split off the continent into the sea, for instance. He is more anxious to display his knowledge of various weapons and ammunition than to deal with the reality of nuclear war: Ahern carefully avoids exposing his hero to radiation, which his skill and ferocity would be powerless to combat. Instead, John Rourke's postholocaust adventures become a Wild West romp across America.

     Dean Ing's Pulling Through (1983) is a more practical guide to the survival of a nuclear attack, including detailed plans for air filters, radiation meters, and other items. Its focus on the tools and techniques of survival, however, means that very little is seen of the effects of the bombs on the world outside the hero's basement. Ing seems to be concerned with refuting the survivalist stereotype promoted by writers like Ahern, for his protagonist displays compassion for others, sacrifices himself to aid friends and strangers alike, and ridicules the notion that indiscriminate gunplay is useful. He kills, but reluctantly. Few psychological problems arise among the inhabitants of Ing's shelter, and they are readily dealt with; he is mainly concerned to show that his various devices can save lives.

     It is striking that Ahern's lavishly appointed retreat is not in fact used as a fallout shelter, but merely as a place for recuperating one's forces and gathering supplies before setting out for more adventures. Only Ing, of all these novelists, has tried to provide a detailed, accurate account of what life in a fallout shelter would really be like, complete with the danger of asphyxiation, sanitation breakdowns, and malnutrition. Even so, it is undoubtedly too sanguine.

     During the shelter fad of the early sixties a good deal of debate went on about the morality of fallout shelters, especially when some owners announced they would shoot any neighbors who tried to break into their underground havens. Rod Serling's script for a Twilight Zone episode entitled "The Shelter" (reprinted in From the Twilight Zone [Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962]) explores this possibility, although deaths both by selfdefense 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 sign)ficant 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 in On 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


By Paul Brians