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 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 clichÃ©, 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 : 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, Cockcroft 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.
J. 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.
In 1942 a story entitled "The Incredible Slingshot Bombs" by Robert Moore Williams appeared in Amazing Stories. A retarded boy nicknamed "Tommy Sonofagun" 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.