The Trump Administration recently announced its intention to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, an arms-control agreement reached in 1987 that was intended to prevent the US and Russia from perfecting the capacity to lob atomic bombs at one another from militarily convenient distances. Elsewhere, policy-makers are conducting a strangely muted debate as to whether the US should adopt an explicit “no first-use” policy with regard to nuclear weapons, as though this were a question with more than one sane answer.
Accustomed though we are to troubling news, these developments have a distinctly darker ring to those of us who grew up with a visceral fear of nuclear war and its horrific consequences. But even existential threats lose their capacity to frighten after a time. We’ve been lulled by several lucky generations of exclusively conventional warfare into thinking of nuclear conflict as merely hypothetical, and our fictions reflect that drift away from literalism where the apocalypse is concerned.
To be sure, ever since Hiroshima the theme of survival in the face of global cataclysm has never been far from our cultural consciousness, in movies as silly as “Armageddon” or as wonderful as “Testament,” and in novels of such varied literary merit as Richard Matheson’s seminal I Am Legend (the rather pedestrian granddaddy of every Living Dead permutation ever since); Walter Miller’s delightfully titled but plodding meditation on the irrepressibility of the spirit, A Canticle for Leibowitz; Russell Hoban’s haunting, linguistically brilliant Riddley Walker, with its evocation of a fallen society struggling not to forget entirely what once was; and Cormac McCarthy’s lyrically savage elegy for civilization in The Road, which for my money should be required reading for every head of state and those advising them.
But now the apocalypse has been domesticated, and dystopia has become an entire entertainment genre. Zombies are the current metaphor for our worst fears, and they’ve become such a cliché that they no longer startle, let alone shock. There’s something about CGI that renders even flesh-eaters benign, and hordes of shambling, decayed versions of ourselves are a fine distraction from the much more plausible, utterly inhuman risks of nuclear winter and death by radiation poisoning.
It wasn’t always this way. For a reminder of how intimately popular fiction once grappled with real-world terrors, one must resort to certain novels of the last mid-century, written when nuclear war seemed almost inevitable, novels like On the Beach, Earth Abides, and Alas, Babylon, all written in the decade between 1949 and 1959, all still in print, and each presenting a distinct vision of ordinary people facing an abrupt end of the world as we know it.
I was a voracious and ecumenical reader as a teenager growing up in the mid-Sixties in a suburb of Pittsburgh, and one day I somewhere picked up a copy of On the Beach, Nevil Shute’s bestseller about survivors of a nuclear world war living out their last days in southern Australia. My parents, typically permissive of my wayward reading tastes, were alarmed that I was attracted to such morbid fare, in part because the movie version had been out for a while and they probably associated the title more with Ava Gardner’s steamy seduction of Gregory Peck in the film than with the end of the world as we knew it. I barely knew where Australia was, but I thought it the height of sophistication to be carrying around a book about adults canoodling in the shadow of nuclear annihilation.
On the Beach was published in 1957 and is set in the near-future of 1962. It’s surprisingly short and consists mostly of stiff-upper-lip dialogue among rather thinly-drawn characters – an Australian naval officer and his wife living outside Melbourne, and a hard-drinking local party girl, Moira, who’s attracted to an American nuclear submarine commander, Dwight, aground in Melbourne because there’s nowhere else to take his sub and its crew since the entire northern hemisphere is aglow with radiation following a brief but final world war. While the novel’s descriptions of submarine operations ring true (Nevil Shute was, among other things, an engineer), the dialogue, not atypically for its time, tends to read with the declamatory cadence of a stage play, and the 21st century reader may find her experience of the book rather overly informed – or appropriated – by the movie version, just as Moby-Dick has become impossible to read without visualizing scenes from the classic film which, unforgettably, also stars Gregory Peck.
The book’s enduring poignancy stems from Shute’s imagining of life in south Australia as largely untouched by the nuclear war that has decimated the northern hemisphere. The city of Melbourne carries on as before, though petrol is in short supply and people have begun to revert to horse-drawn carriages. Children are born, the local officers’ club still serves sherry, people dress for parties, elegant dinners are still shared. But it all transpires with the universal awareness, confirmed by the American sub commander’s last mission, that an invisible cloud of deadly radioactivity is advancing steadily southward, and will engulf everyone and everything in a matter of months. The end will not be swift or painless; the symptoms of radiation sickness are described in candid detail.
Each of the main characters meets this reality with his or her own brand of denial, self-delusion, or fatalistic sang-froid; the novel’s narrative momentum is generated not by the question of whether the characters will survive, but by whether and how they will come to terms with the fact that they won’t. There is a rather incongruous scene in which the Australian Grand Prix is run with a hodge-podge of surviving vehicles, the last of the petrol, and an unusually high rate of fatal crashes. Fishing season is declared to begin a month earlier than usual in tacit recognition of the impending doom. Through it all, and in spite of Moira’s ardent availability, Dwight clings to his conviction that somehow he is going home to his wife and children back in Connecticut. In the end, Shute’s penchant for very British understatement, irritating in the early going and risible at times, lends a deeply affecting dignity to his characters’ final gestures of humanity.
It should be mentioned that the movie version, with a cast including Peck, Gardner, a young Anthony Perkins, and an aging, jaded Fred Astaire, remains well worth a viewing. The script is more faithful to the book than is Hollywood’s habit (though Gregory Peck’s Dwight is rather disappointingly if unsurprisingly persuaded to forget the wife and kids in Connecticut by Ava Gardner’s voluptuous Moira), the photography is startlingly good in the self-consciously modernist way of its time, and the location shots of ‘50s Melbourne and its environs are remarkable.
Almost a decade before Nevil Shute’s novel hit the bestseller lists, a jack-of-all-genres writer named George R. Stewart published a very different apocalyptic novel, Earth Abides. Stewart is often credited with having single-handedly invented the disaster novel with his earlier works, Storm (1941), and Fire (1948), each of which place a catastrophic event at the center of a narrative around which several disparate and less important human characters orbit. But in Earth Abides he took a different tack; by the opening scenes a global disaster has already happened, and the narrative follows the solitary protagonist’s slow realization of his fate and his methodical attempts to deal with it.
Curiously for a book about the end of civilization written within a few years of Hiroshima, but presciently from a current perspective, the cause of mankind’s downfall in Earth Abides is not nuclear, but biological. A deadly epidemic sweeps the earth and wipes out most of humanity, but leaves animals, human structures, and random individuals untouched, like the Rapture without the theology. The resulting scenario has become a cliché, borrowed by countless sci-fi and horror stories since: the lone survivor wandering through a depopulated but otherwise intact world.
Short-term survival for Stewart’s protagonist, Isherwood — called “Ish” in an obvious homage to the survivor in Melville’s classic — is in a sense easy, as all the bounty of American civilization is his for the taking, there in his deserted town in what must be the Berkeley hills, across the bay from an empty, untouched San Francisco. The dangers come from the rotting of hidden corpses, the random human survivors he encounters, and from the populations of animals — rats, dogs, cattle— which, unchecked by humans, begin to ravage the landscape. Eventually there is the inevitable Eve-figure —a black woman, no less —whom Ish takes to calling “Mother of Nations.” Other companions arrive, and a miniature society is reconstructed by guesswork and compromise and ingenuity over the ensuing decades, the years newly counted from Year Zero and named for the significant events that occurred since the last time the sun made its turn north from the Golden Gate Bridge, still standing in the distance.
All this is chronicled with Talmudic detail in a prose style that ranges all over, from italicized news extracts to internal monologue to third-person omniscience to the pseudo-Biblical tone of some future historian recounting an ancient legend of humanity’s fall. But the focus is consistently, deeply interior, in the experiences and musings of Ish as he ages and becomes, almost against his will, the “last American,” the leader of a small civilization and a god to its grandchildren, who have no memory of the “Old Times.” Earth Abides survives the many decades since its publication as a wonderfully humanistic portrayal of the terrible fragility of the lives of individuals and societies, and of their unlikely durability.
In contrast, Alas, Babylon, published in 1959, has all the slick narrative mechanisms of a thriller written by a pro, in this case the pseudonymous Pat Frank. But unlike the top-down geopolitical thrillers that would follow and in some ways emulate it – think Fail-Safe and its close cousin Red Alert — its focus, as in On the Beach and Earth Abides, is on the little guy. In a rural town in Florida, an alcoholic ex-lawyer named Randy Bragg receives a telegram (this is, after all, 1959) from his brother, who happens to be a SAC commander in Omaha, containing the titular phrase from the book of Revelations, long-established between them as code for impending nuclear doom. Randy is to receive his brother’s family, who are being evacuated from the likely blast zone around the SAC base. And sure enough, as Randy goes about stockpiling whatever he can think of and alerting select neighbors, including, predictably, an old girlfriend, we hopscotch thriller-style about the globe and into the bunkers beneath the American plains as a chance air skirmish over Syria spirals out of control and triggers all-out nuclear war between the superpowers.
Here there is none of the moody introspection of Earth Abides, none of the life-in-a-bubble stoicism of On the Beach. Mushroom clouds glow on the Florida horizon as Miami and Orlando meet their fates, bankers put guns to their heads as their livelihoods evaporate overnight, roving gangs of looters must be put down, those who know how to farm (mostly blacks, depicted here with of-its-time condescension) fare best, old skills (spinning, logging) must be re-learned. And eventually, a new way of life emerges, though there is no thought on the author’s or his characters’ parts that things will ever be the same during the coming “thousand year night.”
Apart from a few hours’ diversion, what can one take away from these only mildly dated, chillingly serious novels of the apocalypse? One could argue that they and the many similar books and movies they spawned are in part responsible for the almost callous familiarity we feel toward scenarios of mass destruction, fictional or real, and in this their authors abjectly failed.
For surely what all of them hoped was that these harrowing visions of the end of civilization would be self-negating prophecies, that such stories, if there was anyone left to read them 70 years hence, would seem wildly fanciful expressions of obsolete anxieties, rather than the stubbornly timely and realistic warnings against human folly that they still are.