Sunday, January 10, 2016

Nuclear Age novels

It is probably obvious from the way I construct my reading lists that I like to group books together in twos and threes by some sort of internal logic (though that logic may be so internal that only I really get the point).  For instance, two or three books involving train rides or two books with similar names (or indeed the same name, as in Saramago's and Henry Green's Blindness).  In some cases it is a bit like a game of telephone operator where the connections get a little fuzzy over time.  Going from DeLillo's Amazons to Findley's Dinner Along the Amazon is obvious, but then you have to know a bit about the plot to know that Caryl Churchill's Cloud 9 features explorers and colonialists.  (And that is one of the easier linkages to follow!)

Anyway, I found myself reading Nancy Lee's The Age and was struck by how vividly the main character Gerry dreams of nuclear annihilation.  I believe I mentioned elsewhere how I thought this might certainly happen under the trigger-happy Reagan, though I don't remember ever actually having nightmares about nuclear war.  (I am so thankful that Reagan and Putin weren't in charge at the same time, or there probably would have been a real war, not just a bunch of proxy wars.)  I'll be doing a proper review of The Age sometime next week, but I will say that one thing I find a bit puzzling is why these peace activists are so active in Vancouver in the first place.  It would still have been a mid-sized city (for the U.S. that is, but fairly large by Canadian standards), though Expo '86 did help put it on the map (and the Expo is referred to a few times in the novel).  But more to the point, while children and young adults may well have felt that a missile or two was heading their way either as an actual target* or just due to proximity to Seattle, why would peace activists have bothered targeting Vancouver?  Just possibly Thatcher might have some influence over Reagan, but Mulroney?  (And then again, why Vancouver and not Toronto or Ottawa?)  Their actions just seem deluded and/or completely nonsensical above and beyond the point Ms. Lee seems to be making about the short-sightedness of activists who become radicalized.  (While I don't dwell on it at length in my review, Atwood's Lady Oracle also features a similar group of bungling radicals.)

I also happened to be reading the short novel God's Grace by Bernard Malamud, which features all of humanity wiped out aside for one man. (So we don't even have to go through the motions of wondering whether one couple could restart the human race, aside from all the ickiness that implies for the 2nd and 3rd generations...)  I have no idea how it turns out, but it is an intriguing, if incredibly bleak conceit.

To round things out, even though I am trying only to add to the back-end of my list, I decided to follow-up God's Grace with Vonnegut's Galapagos, since it seems to have a quite similar plot.  (All of Vonnegut's work has an anti-war/pacifist spin, though most of the time the weaponry is more conventional, though the Ice-9 in Cat's Cradle can certainly be read as a stand-in for the terrible things scientists (and nuclear engineers in particular) will release on humanity if not kept in check.)

This got me thinking about how I have read quite a few post-apocalyptic novels, though not all that many about people simply worried about the looming possibility of nuclear war, which is the prime focus of The Age and Dickner's Apocalypse for Beginners.  Obviously (and most fortunately), those that concern themselves with the after-effects of a total nuclear war** are science fiction. 

I'll just list a few key ones, though there are several others worth exploring here.

It's hard to say how much you can SPOIL novels that feature nuclear war, but I suppose it is possible.

So SPOILERS ahead.

A couple are incredibly bleak where people are more or less just waiting to die from radiation, which is how I remember Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank and On the Beach by Nevil Shute.  Cormac McCarthy’s The Road may be slightly less bleak, but it is pretty bleak overall.

Then we have a sort of Mad Max-like scenario in Roger Zelazny's Damnation Alley and the beginnings of civilization returning (perhaps) in Harlan Ellison's A Boy and His Dog.

I'm going to have to be honest and say that the made-up language in Russell Hoban's Riddley Walker defeated me, and I never made it through.  I found it even harder to follow than the slang in Burgess's A Clockwork Orange.

There is a lot of black humor in This Is the Way the World Ends by James Morrow and arguably some in Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick.

Finally, we have some green shoots of hope in A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller and David Brin's The Postman.

As I said, this is only a very partial list, but I was reading more than a few of these in my teens, and that did contribute to a fairly pessimistic world view.  I would say arguably I only shook that off in the late 90s.  Interestingly I didn't succumb to the same level of despair after 9/11.  (Tony Blair seems to have gone off the deep end and actually come to believe in the Islamic terrorist boogeymen that he conjured up.)  However, I would say that in the mid 2010s I have kind of backslid -- the combination of creeping intensification of global warming impacts, the recklessness of Putin and the increasing radicalization of Islamic insurgents (to a large degree set off as chain reaction of the West's meddling) make me wonder just what kind of a world will we leave behind.

I think if I do read (or reread) another trilogy of nuclear war-themed books, I'll plan on ending with A Canticle for Leibowitz, just so that I am not totally despairing by the end.  But it might be best just to take a long break from these kind of novels in the first place...

* I remember there used to be a bit of perverse pride in imagining that my hometown of Kalamazoo was somewhere on the tertiary list of nuclear targets maintained by the Soviets not only because we had pharmaceutical operations, but because we were almost exactly halfway between Chicago and Detroit and taking out I-94 would sever an important supply chain.  I'm a bit surprised we don't hear any of that in this novel (where Vancouver is on "the nuke list"), though Gerry hardly talks to anyone her own age throughout the novel.

** There are quite a few good novels that focus on the impact on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  As horrifying as that was and as powerful as these novels are, here I am only talking about novels where the entire western world is taken out.  I'm not aware of any novel where the breakdown of civilization is limited to North America, Europe, Russia and China.  (Certainly given the shape of post-Cold War history one might well imagine a nuclear war in the Middle East...)  It might be quite interesting to imagine a world in which Africa and South America are more or less untouched by missiles and perhaps even spared clouds of radioactive dust.  Their civilizations return to being the dominant ones while the rest of the world struggles in a new dark ages.  Hmm.  I'll have to think about whether that is worth tackling or not.

I don't want to get too distracted but there is a wiki page listing fiction about the actual bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  I've only read Black Rain, but I remember it being quite powerful.  I might reread it one of these days (particularly if I do tackle the project I just outlined).  I wouldn't say this list is complete, however.  At a minimum, it should have Hiroshima, Mon Amour by Marguerite Duras, as well as the somewhat obscure but very moving Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie.

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