Science Fiction Studies

#39 = Volume 13, Part 2 = July 1986



Merritt Abrash

Through Logic to Apocalypse: Science-Fiction Scenarios of Nuclear Deterrence Breakdown

Abstract.--Since the US and USSR have not gone to war with each other during the 40 years of the Atomic Era, the logic of nuclear deterrence seems triumphant. However, a few SF novels in which deterrence fails--The Pallid Giant (1927), Red Alert (1958), and Level 7 (1959) - give indications of a hidden logic which promises eventual breakdown of any deterrent system no matter how well it seems to be working. The primary commitment of each possessor of super-weapons is not to the maintenance of deterrence, but to the discovery of a way to undertake a first strike without suffering unacceptable retaliation--a logical policy, given the lack of trust among sovereign entities and the fact that survival itself is at stake. The logical progression from super-weapons to deterrence to eventual apocalypse can be headed off, as in Heinlein's "Solution Unsatisfactory, " but only through abandonment of fundamental political values of Western civilization. The maintenance of nuclear peace by the conventional logic of deterrence is always at the mercy of a broader, subtle logic inseparable from deterrence and tending to undermine it.

Martha A. Bartter

Nuclear Holocaust as Urban Renewal

Abstract.--We hold an ambivalent attitude towards our cities: they represent the epitome of our modern technological culture; they also represent decadence, sin, and decay. We pay lip service to "urban renewal," but in practice we seem to prefer starting anew. Nuclear "war" would strike first at cities. The resulting "return to the wilderness, " despite its horrifying cause, shows up in our fiction as secretly desirable.

Fiction embodies our cultural assumptions in recoverable form. Since we act on our assumptions, they are worth paying attention to. Examining our fiction, we find that our concept of nuclear "war" has barely changed since the 1930s; that we anticipate a continuing rise and fall of the nation-state as symbolized by the city; that we expect to survive this destruction, and even benefit from it despite all evidence to the contrary. We need to develop a new and vital vision of peace.

D.H. Dowling

The Atomic Scientist: Machine or Moralist?

Abstract.--The moral and social obligations of the atomic scientists have been a matter of intense debate since the time of Rutherford, and were particularly debated before and after Hiroshima, 1945. After looking at the attempts of scientists like Einstein and Oppenheimer to reconcile pure research with social application, the essay shows how several SF stories and novels of the period (many before 1945) predicted this debate and offered their own solutions. The essay suggests a movement in these stories from the Superman-scientist through the scientist as victim or madman to the scientist as one part of a complex political and military hierarchy. While exonerating the atomic scientist from unique blame, the last stories I consider implicate the scientist and society at large in responsibility for creating and now living with the bomb.

H. Bruce Franklin

Strange Scenarios: Science Fiction, the Theory of Alienation, and the Nuclear Gods

Abstract.--Having attained access to the forces that shape matter, we now have powers that could either grant us conscious control over our destiny or extinguish all human life. SF has been projecting scenarios of this ultimate contradiction between freedom and alienation ever since the emergence of industrial capitalism. The Marxist theory of alienation, appearing shortly after Mary Shelley's archetypal visions in Frankenstein and The Last Man, assumes a profoundly new significance when applied to modern technological warfare, which took shape in the US Civil War and the Franco-Prussian War. When the new popular literary genre of fiction imagining future wars, itself part of the dialectic of modern war, was appropriated by American authors between 1880 and 1917, they became missionaries of the myth and cult of the super-weapon, thus helping to create the cultural matrix of America's actual wars and our current potentially apocalyptic predicament. Meanwhile, two priests of that cult--Edison and Tesla--were projecting different forms of salvation through weaponry. Both the ideology and the hardware of nuclear weapons were first projected in pre-World-War-One SF, which can be understood most relevantly by a suggested new extension of the Marxist theory of alienation. Some modern SF has penetrated to the essential meaning of the alien forces we have created and of our own identity as creators of the only known monsters capable of annihilating us as a species.

Dominic Manganiello

History as Judgment and Promise in A Canticle for Leibowitz

Abstract.--In A Canticle for Leibowitz, Miller explores various ideas of history. Thon Taddeo, because of his skepticism towards biblical myth and the history of the post-atomic age known as "The Flame Deluge, " represents the viewpoint of scientific rationalism. The desire to blot out the history of "The Flame Deluge" recalls certain aspects of Orwell's 1984. Miller's historian recounts how God commanded the making of engines of war in order to test the human race in the 21st century, just as he had done in the beginning. But by a fitting ironic twist, the atomic bomb is nicknamed "Lucifer." Nuclear history is cyclical, as the pattern of destruction continually repeats itself. Human nature, as well as history, repeats itself in Miller's view. As a result, Miller's vision of the demise of the planet has led some readers to conclude that his book is a pessimistic one. Miller's disillusionment counterpoints the "historic optimism" which flourished from the late 18th to the early 20th century; but it also mirrors the "psychosis" of our time--which could be diagnosed as a "nuclear complex." The historical explanations for this "complex" also have a moral dimension: personal evil. Miller conceives of his fiction as having the purpose of a warning. His historical vision at once embraces nuclear catastrophe and transcends the immediate spectacle of tragedy. Like the Hebrew prophets, Miller superimposes the idea of history as promise on the idea of history as judgment. The space exodus, headed by Brother Joshua, acts as a providential sign that the human race, if not the planet, will go on. Miller's eschatological optimism allows for the linear, providential pattern of salvation history to offset the cyclical, destructive pattern of nuclear history. (Leibowitz's life of repentance forms part of this providential pattern.) For Miller, then, repetition is foremost a "recollection forward" to the final coming of the "Integrator, " or Lord of history, who will fit things together again.

Thomas J. Morrissey

Zelazny: Mythmaker of Nuclear War

Abstract.--Roger Zelazny often writes SF in which he merges the myths of many cultures with myths of his own creation. In four major works--This Immortal, "For a Breath I Tarry, " "Damnation Alley, " and Deus Irae--Zelazny applies his flair for myth-making and myth-merging to the subject of nuclear war. He assumes that his audience already knows that nuclear war is unacceptable; hence, he has no need to write sensational shockers. Although his works display the mandatory devastated landscapes and mutated life forms, they also feature vital characters who triumph in the post-war world. Often these characters assume heroic stature because the author wraps them in the mantle of myth. Thus Conrad in This Immortal is a composite of Apollo and Dionysus; he is chosen to rule the post-war Earth because of his perfect psychological balance. When Frost, an intelligent machine of "For a Breath I Tarry, " becomes a human long after humankind has committed atomic suicide, he is, metaphorically, a risen god, a new Adam, and the mythic founder of the Incas rolled into one. Hell Tanner of "Damnation Alley" is an American super-hero who embodies the best and worst traits of an Old West sheriff and a Hell's Angel. His brand of heroism is about the best that could be hoped for in the devastated world in which the tale is set. Deus Irae pictures a world in which nuclear war survivors create a new myth and a new religion to explain the folly that ruined the planet. In all of these works, Zelazny uses myth to explore and express the glorious but perilous blend of Apollonian and Dionysian psychic elements that yields in humans both creativity and irrational self-destruction. His heroes must find positive ways to live with the misery caused by the creative perversity of their forebears. In This Immortal and "For a Breath I Tarry," the balanced genius of Conrad and Frost may lead to a new Golden Age, while in "Damnation Alley" and Deus Irae, the best efforts of the most creative minds might not be enough to insure the survival of the race. Implicit in Zelazny's mythic explorations of the nuclear menace is a warning that there may be no mythic or folk hero big enough to save us if we succumb to our baser instincts and blow up the world.

Daniel L. Zins

Rescuing Science from Technocracy: Cat's Cradle and the Play of Apocalypse

Abstract.--Kurt Vonnegut employs SF to help his readers face problems that they might not otherwise be able to face directly. In Cat's Cradle, Vonnegut turns to SF to help us to stop and think about our most important problem, and the one we seem to have the most difficulty confronting: the increasing possibility of nuclear war. Vonnegut examines the life of Felix Hoenikker, one of the "fathers" of the atomic bomb. A solipsistic and profoundly "innocent" man, Hoenikker, because of his perverted sense of play, remains utterly oblivious to the moral implications of his discoveries and the purposes for which they are used. Rather than a neo-luddite indictment of science itself, Cat's Cradle is a warning of the apocalyptic consequences of failing to rescue science from technocracy. This can only happen if the individual scientist refuses to be an accomplice in the preparation for Armageddon. The novel also asks us to consider the possibility of our own complicity.

In Cat's Cradle, the purpose of the Bokonist religion is to provide the miserable inhabitants of San Lorenzo with better and better lies. Conscious of his responsibilities as a writer in a nuclear age, Vonnegut also provides his readers with better and better lies, or fictions. If we act as if we can prevent nuclear war, we increase our chances for survival. Although one finds little optimism in Vonnegut that we can avoid destroying ourselves by our own stupidity and our deification of science and technology, his writing continues to exhort us to resist becoming passive, willing victims like Billy Pilgrim, the pitiful protagonist of Slaughterhouse-Five. The Billy Pilgrims of the world, no less than the Felix Hoenikkers, imperil our planet.

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