Future Hell: Nuclear Fiction in Pursuit of History

By Trevor J. Doherty
2009, Vol. 1 No. 11 | pg. 1/6 |


What is a cyclical history? Why does humanity seem doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Are we doomed to this machine called fate? What is a soul, and how do I express it? Predicting what futures may lay ahead for humanity if we continue on some popular cultural paths, a body of twentieth century authors has created literary experiments designed to test the limits of human imagination. Nuclear warfare, artificial intelligence, inter-galactic travel, and the nature of spirituality itself all come woven together in the texts, which are profoundly affected by enlightened science, the competitive state of twentieth century politics and the eighteenth century German philosopher Georg Hegel.

I. Introduction

The concept of a detonating atomic bomb can be quite unassuming; the image itself can be found on coffee mugs, t-shirts, and has come to represent in popular culture a metaphor for when things get completely out of control, usually in a highly comic fashion. (Think of the little mushroom clouds that erupt from the top of Daffy Duck’s head when he is confounded by that pernicious Bronx tongued rabbit.) It is profligate in song and poetry: Inspectah Deck of the popular group Wu-Tang Clan colloquially touting his masterful ability to rhyme as “bombing atomically,1” stretching the limits of nuclear discourse to describe his lyrical play and metaphorical dexterity. It represents the limits of destruction, and for many, the crowning scientific achievement of humanity

From within our little academic blast bunkers, the ubiquitous symbol of annihilation has the tendency to become a quaint point of discussion, a postcard from a historically and politically isolated reality. No matter how trivialized, the foreboding dome of toxic death elegantly rising upwards into the atmosphere, infusing the biosphere with vast quantities of radioactive poison, has to be taken as seriously as possible. When considering the natural (design or form) of the atom, it is one of cohesion and unity, a balance of huge unseen energies in the most compact of units. To destroy this article of matter is to rip apart the fabric of the cosmos and unleash sublime forces; that once unveiled cannot realistically be contained by any invention or intention of humanity. The science and related literature of atomic industry is as terrifying as it is beautiful.

Luckily, a dedicated and imaginative group of literary artists and philosophical masterminds have stopped to wonder what forces are at work in our current society that could enable the guaranteed destruction of all civilization on earth. Through essays and novels that record the future history of a civilization felled by self induced nuclear warfare, these reflective critics of society are able to thoughtfully examine not only the society in which we live, but also what it is about human nature that could possibly be compelled to recreate such devastating manifestations of technology and culture after the terminal blast.

II. Overview of Literature

It is easy to laugh at the conclusion of Stanley Kubrick’s timeless film Dr. Strangelove.[2] Indeed, by the time Major T.J. ‘King’ Kong is hooting excitedly while he rides the warhead into the heart of Asia, the audience should want the bombs to fall on the heads of the absorbed political animals scuttling among various secret government offices. While this film chronicles one of the many unique ways in which full scale nuclear war can come about the most curious scene in the film shows the heads of state trying to figure out how to endure once the biosphere of earth will be forever altered by the ominous isotope “Bal thorium G.” (Best if said aloud in a deep and menacing Soviet accent.) The dark comedic energy of this scene gains density as the Western protagonists assume that life on earth could be relatively the same following a world wide nuclear conflict. The last laugh of the film isn’t for them so much, as it is the chuckling relief that comes when the credits roll, the final lyrical melody ‘We’ll meet again/Don’t know where, Don’t know when…” foreshadowing that if civilization manages to survive the great war, there is a possibility that this slapstick drama of intercontinental destruction could receive a second billing.

There exists today a body of literature known as ‘post nuclear fiction’ that attempts to realistically address what kinds of issues will face humanity following a world wide nuclear conflict. Because these works of fiction tackle the entire history of our own culture through the lens of futuristic characters, the concept of history itself is invented as means to construct the plots of these novels. Frequently investigating how the adventitious survivors will rise again from the ashes, these authors investigate what roles language, recorded history, and the innate trait of rationality will play in the reconstitution of civilizations following a major world wide catastrophe. Unlike an asteroid the size of Manhattan plunging into the Hanford Site3, Tokyo, or an earthquake tearing China in half, an intercontinental nuclear war has the facet of being human made. Whether or not the survivors in post nuclear fiction will rebuild to the point that a second round of nuclear warfare is the inevitable outcome is a chilling question that cannot be so easily swept from the table of possibilities. We laugh at the delusions of grandeur harbored by Dr. Strangelove and his silly compatriots even though little provision is made by him to accommodate a realistic and sustainable plan for civilization once it is razed by fire. “Mr. President,” hollers a general, “We cannot have a mineshaft gap!”

There are a few things that one must take into consideration when considering what it takes to build weapons of such awesome, god-like, power. First, the population of earth must reach such a critical mass that elaborate bodies of government are in place to manage the affairs and political machinations of humankind. Second, the great ongoing dialogue of science will have had to evolve to the point where computers and technology are available to safely control the fission of weaponized atoms. For the authors of many post-nuclear texts, even the usurpation of human skills by machines of varying intelligence signifies that technology probably plays a determining role in the every day cause and effect of culture and politics, and thus could enable war by gradually replacing our evolved instruments of rational decision.

These evolved instruments of the mind4 that suffer the possibility of being replaced by machines find their reflection in externalized ordered forms; thus religion, the humanist arts, and the concept of a structured code of morality in a divine universe are constantly featured as plot devices and character signifiers. Lastly, there exists around the margins of these two groups people, who under the guise of rationality, will seek to employ these weapons for political or social gain, not unlike Dr. Strangelove yelling “Mein Furher, I can walk!” as the bombs rain down, simultaneously paying homage to his master and personal interests. What happens next is already a give-in for authors of post-nuclear fiction, the beginning of these fictional worlds is the annihilation of our own.

Patricia Warrick explains how the discovery of nuclear technology not only raised the stakes of expression in post-nuclear fiction, but also redefined the responsibilities of artists to create the bomb as a cultural and epistemological focal point: “The explosion of the first atomic bombs in August of 1945, now recognized as a watershed date in man’s history,  provoked a powerful literary response: an outpouring of holocaust and post holocaust literature dramatizing the realization that the world would never be the same. We came to understand we had been expelled from the garden of simplicity where we lived before the fall of the bomb” (Warrick, Cybernetic, 10). Viewers of Dr. Strangelove may chortle and guffaw at the zany antics of Peter Sellers’ title role of the hamstrung Dr. Strangelove, but the fusion of the coldly logical and calculating idealism of the politically allied nuclear physicist not only serves as an archetypical protagonist in many of the post nuclear texts, but also a major catalyst in creative process of post-nuclear writers. Allusions to Satan frequently accompany this brand of confidence peddlers. I want to focus on two texts that best represent the artistic possibilities of this provocative body of literature.

In both Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) and Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980), two novels that elegantly sit atop a substantial body of post nuclear fiction, the intertwined fates of humanity, rationality, and technology are explored through the model of future histories. These novels most clearly articulate three fundamental questions thematically related to the three parameters of nuclear society listed above, questing to explore the nature of humanity and the fate of civilization.

The questions that these cyclical post nuclear fictions pose are best framed by evoking the Hegelian model of the dialectic. Hegel5 writes in Verstand[6] “Thus understood the Dialectical principle constitutes the life and soul of scientific progress, the dynamic which alone gives immanent connection and necessity to the body of science; and, in a word, is seen to constitute the real and the true, as opposed to the external, exaltation above the finite” (Hegel 95). What Hegel has captured in the lens of the dialectic is that once a concept can be handled rationally in the mind, the only due course of action will be name what it is, then proceed to deconstruct it into its constituent parts or even prove the opposite. Vice versa, the continuing dialectic is the process by which competitive or complimentary ideologies are synthesized in the rationally cultivated mind. These methods inform, sometimes unconsciously, the styles and quarries of the featured texts.

III. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz

In Canticle7, the entire history of the civilization on Earth that follows our own is tracked in three independent, but thematically united novellas, forming a neat trilogy of visions that span the course of an entire civilization. The first of these, “Fiat Homo,” chronicles the early stages of society following a nuclear war, when most people are illiterate and superstition is rampant, living in diseased hovels and caves like our own Western ancestors did as civilization steadily awakened from the Dark Ages8. Albert Einstein once quipped that World War IV would be fought with sticks and stones, Miller allows civilization following World War III to grow a bit further than Einstein’s imaginative projection.

Beginning with a world plunged into a primitive state devoid of any government or technological sophistication, a band of Judeo-Christian monks in the desert of Utah, known as “bookleggers,” strives to keep a tiny flame of literacy and historical knowledge vital in a world that is darkly illiterate and culturally barbaric, patrolled by mythic monsters, ironically called “Fallouts,” and mutants alike (Miller Canticle 4). Brother Francis becomes the main protagonist of this moment in history while trying to build a shelter in order to survive a Lenten fast in the volatile desert. Prompted by a strange wanderer named Benjamin, who casually marks a stone with Hebrew runes, he accidentally uncovers a bomb shelter left over from our own time. Supposedly, the remains of a twentieth century engineer named Leibowitz are entombed within, and the discovery of this crypt and the texts within prompt the substantiation of the Abbey and the mission of the monks to preserve texts and literacy. Brother Francis must endure a hellish trial to authenticate the documents he has discovered, and he finds meaning in the illumination of preserved texts. The gears of civilization are already in motion, but the canonization of Leibowitz ensures the rediscovery of our technological legacy. The governing body of the Judeo-Christian church known as New Rome is astride one of the seedling nation states known as Texarkana, which fosters and represents the secular discourses of this history.

The second section of the triptych, “Fiat Lux,” tells the story of the cultural renaissance and popularization of mechanical comforts that precipitates a troubled discourse between the secular and religious ideologies of the novel. Thon Taddeo, a renowned Texarkanian scholar, is a comedic reflection of the European humanist scholars such as Galileo, Descartes, and Newton9, who propelled our own culture forward in search of truth and technological innovation. He represents the scientific/political animal who lays the track for the modern nuclear nation, a humble yet enthusiastic model for Dr..Strangelove. An interesting character that will be further discussed is the Poet, who exists as a literary consciousness in the novel, and one of the few characters possessing both artistic and animalistic qualities as foil to the archetype of the rational scientist. In this moment in history, the monks at the abbey have managed to build an electric lamp by extrapolating data from the texts and documents they have preserved, ennobled by the legacy of Leibowitz. This astounds Thon Taddeo, who feels legitimate professional and personal insult to have been surpassed by the monks, who have been quietly working without political assistance for centuries. As a secondary plot, the seeds of the modern nation-state are allowed to bloom. The culture of warring factions competing for land and influence in the ravaged North American continent reflects the rise of the European nation state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thon Taddeo takes the copies of the “memorabilia” back to his society, reintroducing the revelations of Einstein, Oppenheimer, and Bohr10 unto the world.

The third and final installment in this trilogy of novellas is “Fiat Voluntas Tua,” wherein Miller envisions a world much like our own, where nuclear technology has been rediscovered, travel to the stars is possible, and humankind is in a perpetual state of warfare refereed by Orwellian bodies of government. Civilization has completed another full cycle, and the only possible refuge from the war torn planet is escape to an interstellar colony. The main protagonist of the third novella is Brother Joshua, who manages to escape Earth moments before the world’s governments recreate their own destruction. It is his duty to transport the preserved texts and history of earth to a struggling colony, far off in another galaxy. The few remaining survivors on earth act out a morality play about assisted suicide before they are consumed by atomic fire and the limits of Miller’s vision for humanity. It is widely considered to be a landmark of both popular and science fiction literature, scoring a Hugo Award in 1961, and a radio adaptation for National Public Radio in 1981.

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