Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction

by Paul Brians


     Nuclear Holocausts is a survey of novels and stories written since 1895 and published in English which depict nuclear war or its aftermath. The earlier date marks the publication of Robert Cromie's The Crack of Doom in the wake of the discovery of radioactivity. Although the atomic weapon is not actually used in Cromie's novel, it is included here as a significant starting point. The bulk of these works naturally appeared after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but a sizable number appeared earlier. The admittedly arbitrary terminal date of 1984 permits inclusion of at least three years' fiction from the period of renewed interest in nuclear disarmament in the 1980s.

     Little has been published on the subject of nuclear war fiction, and the reader will find few references to secondary materials in the following pages. Books and articles on the subject which appeared before and during my research are discussed in the section entitled "Sources." Most of these are scholarly works concerned with science fiction which have proved of use primarily by suggesting titles that needed to be investigated. Not all the works discussed in this volume are science fiction, although the majority are; but because science fiction is not a well‑defined genre, no effort has been made to segregate those works from general fiction. References to science fiction generally reflect the usage of publishers and booksellers.

     This study is distinguished from its predecessors by confining its scope to fiction explicitly depicting nuclear war and its aftermath. A great many works depicting the aftermath of wars not specified as nuclear have been excluded on the grounds that stories of "the future holocaust" form a genre that was well established before 1945, as the reader of I. F. Clarke's Voices Prophesying War (1966) will discover. The fact that civilization seems to have disappeared and the Earth rendered a wasteland does not necessarily indicate that a nuclear war has taken place. Examples of such excluded works would be the novelization by John Boorman of his film Zardoz (1974), Walker Percy's Love in the Ruins (1971), John Crowley's Engine Summer (1979), and Harold Mead's Bright Phoenix (1955). Sometimes authors are so vague about future wars that it is impossible to determine whether the bombs dropped were nuclear, as is the case, for instance, with Dorothy Black in her Candles in the Dark (1954). Were all the works not explicitly dealing with nuclear war included, the bibliography would have been very much longer and my commentary would necessarily have had to trace materials adequately covered in the studies by Clarke and by Warren Wagar in Terminal Visions (1982). Accounts of nearwars (such as Fletcher Knebel's The Night of Camp David [ 1965]) and nuclear reactor accidents (such as that depicted in Lester del Rey's Nerves [1942]) have also generally been excluded, but there are several exceptions chosen either because their authors had also written nuclear war stories or because of their special sign)ficance. Bomb‑test accidents and nuclear blackmail plots in which the bomb is never exploded are also excluded. Partial lists of works of related interest not fully annotated in the Bibliography will be found in the Supplementary Checklists.

     These restrictions may seem arbitrary, but it seemed clear that there was a need for a study exclusively of nuclear war in fiction. The topic is of such intense interest and overwhelming sign)ficance that it deserves to be treated by itself, and not‹as has been done by most of my predecessors‹as a subcategory of fiction depicting various other sorts of catastrophes.

     Although I have attempted to provide a comprehensive guide to and analysis of the published fiction that falls within the limits described above, any study of this nature is necessarily incomplete. I would be grateful to readers bringing to my attention further works falling within these guidelines. This book is conceived of as a two‑part work consisting of five chapters of analysis followed by a bibliography with extensive annotations. Not all the works in the Bibliography are discussed in the text, and it is assumed that the reader interested in pursuing the subject in depth will read both parts. At the conclusion of select bibliographic entries are listed the page numbers on which the works are further discussed. Conventional footnotes are not used because references contained in the text to primary materials refer to the Bibliography. Some readers will miss page numbers in the references to the fiction. The decision to omit them was not taken lightly. Science fiction publishing is a highly disorderly world: the first edition of a novel is often not the standard edition; paperback editions may be followed by hardbound reprints rather than vice versa; separate editions‹often under separate titles‹are frequently issued in Great Britain and in the United States, and multiple issues by various publishers are commonplace. Since there is so little uniformity in the collections of libraries, page references would be only marginally useful. Chapter numbers have been cited where they may be of help.

     Using fiction as a mirror of cultural attitudes toward the dangers posed by the nuclear arms race, this book aims at a better understanding of those attitudes. Nuclear war creates such anxiety in most people that they are prone to all manner of strategies of avoidance in discussing it: despair; unwarranted confidence that "the government" or "the scientists" will take care of the problem; simple selective ignorance of the problem. To some extent, these strategies are also present in fiction, and to the extent that they are, this study tells us something about our fears and phobias. But fiction, because of its concreteness, can treat the subject in such a way that it is difficult to avoid. In addition, the creation of vivid characters and realistic settings can bring home the impact of a nuclear war in a way that is difficult for nonfiction. To this extent, fiction about nuclear war can have an admonitory effect which may be valuable in a world perpetually perched on the brink of an atomic holocaust.

     The analysis begins with a historical survey of the development of the theme and proceeds to examine the phases of nuclear war as they are commonly treated in fiction. The bulk of the book is given over to the Bibliography, which is intended to provide scholars, librarians, and general readers alike with ready access to a great variety of information about this body of writing. The Subject Index will be particularly useful for those seeking to trace various themes in these works.

     A note on usage: I have followed science fiction practice in capitalizing the word "Earth" when it is used as the name of our planet. The words "nuclear" and "atomic" are used interchangeably, no distinction between them being intended. ("Atomic" was more commonly used in the forties and fifties, "nuclear" thereafter.) I was reluctant at first to use the term "holocaust" for nuclear war. It originally designated a particular form of burnt offering in ancient Hebrew worship and has, of course, been used with bitter irony to label the murder of millions by the Nazis during World War II; but the term is also well established as a label for a devastating atomic war, and I have followed that usage here.

     I would like to acknowledge my indebtedness to Dr. Lois B. De Fleur, Dean of the College of Sciences and Arts of Washington State University, for providing two grants which were of great assistance in doing this study; to Dr. John Elwood, Chair of the Department of English at W.S.U., and to the Jerard Fund of the W.S.U. Department of English for additional support. Work on this project would have been dauntingly difficult had it not been for the word‑processing facilities of the W.S.U. Humanities Research Center, and the assistance of its director, Dr. Thomas Faulkner, and his assistant, Rhonda Blair. For a brief period I had the able assistance of Joy Graves, who performed several tedious tasks in connection with the organization of the Bibliography. I owe a special debt to the entire staff of the Interlibrary Loan Department of the W.S.U. Holland Library headed by Kay Kinkead, which performed Herculean labors in locating obscure novels and short stories and making them available to me. The reference librarians at Holland were also of great. help, including Paula Elliot, Pauline Lilje, Alice Spitzer, Auda Taylor, and Siegfried Vogt. Library staff member Bob Freebern also provided invaluable help.

     The single greatest source of suggestions has been Bob Brown of Moye, Polley, and Brown, a Seattle bookselling firm. His extraordinary knowledge of apocalyptic fiction and his untiring efforts in securing copies of books both for myself and for Holland Library have made this book possible. Thanks to his work, the library has assembled a truly impressive collection of nuclear war fiction which will be available to future scholars. Warm thanks are due the English Department's Library Committee, Librarian Ann Wierum, and Interim Director of Libraries Donald Bushaw for their efforts in building the Holland collection.

     Several authors were kind enough to discuss their own writings with me in person or by mail, including Brian Aldiss, Poul Anderson, Ben Boom, Helen Clarkson, Hugh Hood, S. B. Hough, Judith Merril, Joe Ashby Porter, Theodore Sturgeon, George Turner, and Jack Williamson. An extraordinarily helpful contribution was made by University of Rochester doctoral candidate Martha A. Bartter, who had been working on the nuclear war fiction of the period up to 1960 and suggested many titles, particularly of short stories. Several science fiction fans and students contributed suggestions or lent me books, including Andrew Brackbill, Denver Burtenshaw, Alan Cairns, Jon Davis, Steve Fahnestalk, Joy Graves, Jo Ann Rattey, Dean Smith, and Douglas Stentz. A few books were screened by Joy Graves, my sister Cindy Richards, and Alice Spitzer. Publishers and authors' agents proved to be a valuable source of information, including The Bodley Head, Cassell, the Chicago Daily Defender, Robert Hale, Ltd., G. K. Hall & Co., Harold Ober Associates, The New English Library, Signature magazine, and the University of lowa Press.

     Many scholars have made helpful suggestions, including Neil Barron, A1bert I. Berger, Grant Burns, Mario A. Charles of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, James A. Emanuel, Rich Erlich, H. Bruce Franklin, Phil Gilbertson, Egbert Kryspin, Arthur O. Lewis, Joseph Marchesani, Sam Moskowitz, Bill O'Connor, Eric S. Rabkin, George Slusser of the library at the University of California at Riverside, Marshall Tymn, Gary K. Wolfe, and Carl Yoke. I owe a special debt to three scholars who read an earlier version of this book and made numerous helpful suggestions: Brian Aldiss, I. F. Clarke, and Alexander Hammond. None of them was in a position to check each and every reference, and the correctness of information in the book is entirely my responsibility.

     The completion of this work was greatly facilitated by the patience and support of my wife, Paula Elliot, and my daughter, Megan.

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By Paul Brians