Science Fiction Studies


#39 = Vol. 13, No. 2 = July 1986

Paul Brians

Resources for the Study of Nuclear War in Fiction

As of this writing, not a single book devoted to the discussion of nuclear war in fiction had yet been published (although the situation may have changed by the time this sees print). Yet there are many useful resources available for the would-be researcher, some of them in out-of-the-way places. This article will describe the most important ones and signal some of the work in progress which may be expected to appear in the near future.

Background. The logical place for a researcher to begin is I.F. Clarke's admirable history of future-war narratives, Voices Prophesying War 1763-1984 (London: Oxford UP, 1966 ["1984" in the title refers to Orwell's novel, not the period covered]). Most of the volume discusses works of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; but although only a few pages are devoted to nuclear war, the rest is invaluable in familiarizing the reader with the larger genre to which many nuclear-war narratives belong.

Articles on Nuclear-War Fiction. Albert I. Berger published in SFS three related and interesting articles which deal at least in part with nuclear-war fiction. The most useful, although it covers only the period 1940-47, is "The Triumph of Prophecy: Science Fiction and Nuclear Power in the PostHiroshima Period" (3 [1976]:143-50). The others are "Nuclear Energy: Science Fiction's Metaphor of Power" (6 [1979]: 121 -28) and "Love, Death, and the Atomic Bomb: Sexuality and Community in Science Fiction, 1935-55" (8 [1981]:280-95). Andrew Feenberg's "The Politics of Survival: Science Fiction in the Nuclear Age" (Alternative Futures, I [1978]:3-23) strikingly manages to overlook most of the significant SF on the subject while making some intelligent observations.               

More recently, Robert Mielke has presented a suggestive typology based on a small number of texts in his article "Imaging Nuclear Weaponry: An Ethical Taxonomy of Nuclear Representation" (Northwest Review, 22, nos. 1-2, [1984]:164-80). (The entire special issue in which this essay figures— available as Warnings: An Anthology on the Nuclear Peril—focusses on nuclear themes.) Thomas J. Morrissey discusses Ape and Essence, A Canticle for Leibowitz, and Riddley Walker and makes comments on a few other nuclear-war novels in "Armageddon from Huxley to Hoban" (Extrapolation, 25 [1984]:197-213), but some of his generalizations are inaccurate due to an insufficiently large sample. More useful is H. Bruce Franklin's fine "Historical Introduction" to his definitive short story collection, Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War (NY: DAW, 1984). My own article, "Nuclear War in Science Fiction, 1945-59" appeared in SFS, 11 (1984):253-63. I also reviewed a number of recent super-violent nuclear-war novels for the American Book Review in its March 1986 issue.                

Hilary Lambert Renwick's "The Post-Nuclear Landscape: How Science Fiction Compares with Official and Scientific Scenarios" is scheduled to appear in a forthcoming special issue on nuclear war of Antipode: Radical Journal of Geography. My own paper, entitled "Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction 1945- 1982," has come out in Literature and War: Reflections and Refractions, ed. Elizabeth W. Trahan (Monterey, CA: Monterey Institute of International Studies, 1985). An entire issue of Diacritics (Summer 1984) was devoted to "nuclear criticism," but without any of the contributors so much as mentioning a single piece of nuclear-war fiction. Even though he relegates most SF titles to a footnote, those seeking to introduce courses that investigate nuclear war in fiction will garner many valuable suggestions about literary materials and critical methods from Daniel L. Zins' "Teaching English in a Nuclear Age" (College English, 47 [1985]:385-401).

Book-Length Studies of Nuclear-War Fiction. Philip Duhan Segal's unpublished dissertation (Yeshiva University, 1973), Imaginative Literature and the Atomic Bomb: An Analysis of Representative Novels, Plays, and Films from 1945 to 1972, is a pioneering study; but it is hardly definitive. Although Segal unearthed a number of very obscure novels and plays and although his bibliography is valuable for those studying the theme in other media, such as radio, television, and film, his work suffers from a simplistic statistical analysis of themes which is vitiated by the fact that he missed the vast bulk of the relevant works, largely by ignoring most SF. David Dowling's Fictions of Nuclear Disaster, scheduled for 1986 publication by Macmillan in London, though unavailable for preview, promises to be the first book-length study exclusively of our subject to appear in print. University of Rochester graduate student Martha A. Bartter has just completed a detailed dissertation entitled Symbol to Scenario: The Atomic Bomb in American Science Fiction, 1930-1960. She has done particularly interesting work on pre-Hiroshima treatments of nuclear-war themes and deals with such ancillary topics as atomic power and bomb tests. My own forthcoming book, entitled Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction 1914-1984, surveys the history of the field as well as discussing political scenarios for nuclear war and descriptions of the immediate impact and aftermath of atomic attacks. Supplementary checklists cover such topics as nuclear terrorism, nuclear test accidents, and nuclear plant disasters.

Broader Studies Which Include Some Nuclear War Fiction. There are sections on post-holocaust fiction in several books. Most of them discuss fictional nuclear holocausts together with other forms of disaster. A brief section (pp. 147-55) in Harold L. Berger's Science Fiction and the New Dark Age (Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green UP, 1976), covers On the Beach, Triumph, Level 7, and Canticle. "Icon of the Wasteland," a chapter in Gary K. Wolfe's The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Kent, OH: Kent State UP, 1979), should be consulted by anyone interested in the subject. It represents an outstanding discussion of symbols predominant in apocalyptic fiction, including nuclear-war fiction. Scattered passages in W. Warren Wagar's survey of apocalyptic fiction, Terminal Visions: The Literature of Last Things (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1982) address nuclear war; but although he pays homage to the popularity of the theme during the 1950s, he underestimates its importance since then and pays relatively little attention to it. Nevertheless the book is useful for the background it provides.
                The End of the World is an uneven collection of essays on apocalyptic fiction edited by Eric S. Rabkin, Martin H. Greenberg, and Joseph D. Olander (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1983). None of its chapters focusses exclusively on nuclear war, but useful discussions of the subject are included in the chapters by Gary K. Wolfe ("The Remaking of Zero"), Robert Plank ("The Lone Survivor"), Brian Stableford ("Man-Made Catastrophes"), and W. Warren Wagar ("Round Trips to Doomsday"). It is notable that many of the authors stress the essentially optimistic nature of SF's depiction of apocalyptic themes, in which survival, renewal, and rebirth are constant motifs. This pattern will be the subject of a forthcoming volume of 22 essays edited by Carl Yoke for Greenwood Press: Phoenix. Several chapters will be devoted to individual novels, including Battle Circle, Canticle, The Caves of Steel, The Dying Earth, Level 7, The Long Tomorrow, and The World Set Free. My own contribution will analyze the theme of the proscientific bias in post-holocaust SF. Some films are also discussed. The volume promises to be a major contribution to nuclear-war fiction studies. Post-holocaust SF is also discussed in chapter 9 ("By the Waters of Babylon: Our Barbarous Descendants") of Paul Carter's The Creation of Tomorrow: Fifty Years of Magazine Science Fiction (NY: Columbia UP, 1977). Peter Nicholls wrote an excellent article entitled "Holocaust and After" for his Science Fiction Encyclopedia (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979).
                A brief chapter entitled "Visions of the Atomic Future in Science Fiction and Speculative Fantasy" in Paul Boyer's By the Bomb's Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (NY: Pantheon, 1985) adds little to the 1976 Berger article which is its main source; but the book as a whole is an extraordinarily well-researched and useful survey of attitudes toward the atomic bomb in the period 1945-50. It is must reading for anyone working on this material.

Criticism of Nuclear-War Fiction in Other Languages. Thus far we have confined ourselves to criticism of fiction published in English or in English translation. Raimund Kurscheid's Kampf dem Atomtod: Schriftsteller gegen eine deutsche Atombewaffnung (Cologne: Pahl-Rugenstein, 1981) is an exhaustive study both of the involvement of German writers in the antinuclear-arms movement and of their fictional and dramatic works dealing with the subject. A Russian view of the theme is offered by Vladimir Gakov in "SF Writers on the March for Peace" (Soviet Literature, 2 [Jan. 1984]: 158-65). He praises Western novels like On the Beach but defends the lack of similar apocalyptic fictions from authors residing in Communist nations. He does list a number of Soviet and East European authors who have dealt with the danger of atomic war, but regrettably does not specify story or book titles. Scholars wishing to extend their range beyond purely fictional nuclear wars to fictional accounts of the atomic bomb as used against Japan (as I have done in my own book) should consult the 10th chapter of Robert J. Lifton's Death in Life: The Survivors of Hiroshima (NY: Simon & Schuster, 1967), where Japanese treatments of the theme in all of the arts are surveyed. The chapter contains a particularly fine appreciation of Masuji Ibuse's outstanding novel, Black Rain.

Reference Works and Bibliographies. Until recently, researchers seeking the titles of novels depicting nuclear war were limited to combing through Donald H. Tuck's massive Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy (3 vols., Chicago: Advent, 1974, 1978, 1982), I.F. Clarke's Tale of the Future (3rd edition, London: Library Association, 1978), Neil Barron's Anatomy of Wonder: A Critical Guide to Science Fiction (2nd edition, NY: Bowker, 1981), and the five-volume Magill Survey of Science Fiction Literature (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: 1979). The first two are limited in their usefulness by the necessary brevity of their annotations, which often do not reveal whether a particular book depicts a nuclear war or not; and all of them are confined to SF, omitting many nuclear thrillers which will be of interest to anyone pursuing the subject. Only Tuck lists any short stories—in anthologies edited by authors he includes—and he seldom annotates them.
                Two specialized bibliographies have recently appeared which are much more useful for our purposes. John Newman and Michael Unsworth's Future War Novels: An Annotated Bibliography of Works in English Published Since 1946 (Phoenix, AZ: Oryx, 1984) lists and analyzes in considerable detail 191 books, including over 125 dealing with nuclear war. The authors have overlooked a great deal, but they have uncovered some very obscure works. Unfortunately, the book is marred by a large number of errors and some peculiar aesthetic judgments (see my detailed review in Reference Services Review, 13 [Spring 1985]:20), and it is not a reliable substitute for examining the books it lists. Its focus on "realistic" treatments of the subject renders it of limited use to SF scholars, but the authors do not adhere rigidly to this standard and admit a number of fantastic works. More reliable, if more limited in some ways, is Grant Burns's The Atomic Papers: A Citizen's Guide to Selected Books and Articles On the Bomb, the Arms Race, Nuclear Power, the Peace Movement, and Related Issues. Its 13th section, entitled "The Art of Fission: Novels and Stories with Nuclear Themes" (pp. 259-91), includes 123 titles, with much briefer citations and annotations than Newman-Unsworth. Burns goes beyond them, however, by including short fiction as well as novels.                

My own bibliography (in Nuclear Holocausts, mentioned above) aims at being a comprehensive listing of fiction and drama (little of this exists in English, although Kurscheid lists several German examples) from Wells's The World Set Free through the bumper crop of 1984 works depicting nuclear war or its aftermath. Unlike Burns or Newman-Unsworth, I have placed bomb-test narratives, atomic plant disasters, and such related themes in a series of brief appendices and concentrated on nuclear war proper. Well over 500 titles are listed, with detailed publishing histories and descriptions of their contents. Thrillers eventuating in the explosion of atomic bombs and Hiroshima narratives are included. The lengthy annotations focus on the typical or unique ways in which authors depict the subject, and although not every work is evaluated, particularly outstanding titles are identified. At the time of writing I was engaged in final revisions and hope to see the book appear in 1986.

Items of Related Interest. Two other recent publications may be of some interest, although neither discusses nuclear-war fiction as such. The first is Writing in a Nuclear Age, edited by Jim Schley (Hanover, NH: UP of New England, 1984), a reprint of the Summer 1983 issue of New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly. The second is Nuke-Rebuke: Writers and Artists Against Nuclear Energy and Weapons, edited by Morty Sklar (Iowa City, IA: Spirit That Moves Us Press, 1984). These and many other resources are listed in Philip N. Gilbertson's helpful section covering the humanities in "Nuclear War: A Teaching Guide," edited by Dick Ringler, in Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 4O, no. 10 (Dec. 1984):13s-lSs. In fact, the entire Guide is likely to be of interest to academics pursuing the theme of nuclear war in fiction.                

The introduction to Janet Morris's anthology of nuclear-war tales supposedly inspired by the "Strategic Defense Initiative"—Afterwar (NY: Baen, 1985)—illuminates the difficulties SF authors have in coming to grips with such themes as nuclear war in a realistic way.                

Films depicting nuclear war have attracted considerably more public attention than novels and short stories. A rather patchy compilation of articles on most of these is Nuclear War Films, edited by Jack G. Shaheen (Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1978). The spate of recent films, from Testament to Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdrome, has rendered it somewhat dated. The Warnings volume, cited above, contains Alexander Hammond's interesting "Rescripting the Nuclear Threat in 1953: The Beast from 2O,000 Fathoms" (pp. 181-94). Also of interest is Steven Stark's recent article in the Boston Globe (Aug. 4, 1985), entitled "Nuclear Holocaust Is Big at Box Office," which surveys a number of films from the '50s to the present. Like Hammond, Stark emphasizes the essentially escapist nature of most of these movies.                

Outside the world of SF, few are aware of the vast number of fictional depictions of nuclear war which have appeared. Whether the publication of this issue of SFS and the expected appearance of the forthcoming studies will change this situation remains to be seen. Most non-SF readers seem unaware of much beyond On the Beach or War Day. The increasing number of college courses on the subject may do something to raise the level of knowledge about hypothetical nuclear wars. But it is at least clear that SF scholarship has finally acknowledged nuclear-war fiction as a distinct and important topic for discussion.

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