I was a child of the cold war. I loved science, science fiction and I studied atom bombs with a gleeful avidity that embarrasses me as I look back on it. Our nearest city was Tulsa, which would probably have been a target, but we were forty miles away and no one took the Russian threat seriously except me; and I wasn’t scared, just fascinated.
Eventually my high school spent an hour on Civil Defense training. I was a sophomore, but they gave it to me to present. That kind of thing could happen fifty years ago in a small school when none of the teachers knew anything about a subject and didn’t want to learn, but just wanted to check off an obligation to the state bureaucracy.
It was my first experience with a captive audience. I can still see the looks of massive boredom as I explained what we could expect if Tulsa got hit.
In literature, this period saw the beginning of a subgenera that might be called what terrible tragedy will technology visit upon us next? Next. Not someday, but tomorrow. This immediacy drove some of these novels into best seller status, and fed Hollywood with movie plots.
Fail-Safe detailed an inadvertently launched airstrike by the US against Russia. It’s ending was chilling, but unbelievable. On the Beach was all too believable, a slow downsliding as nuclear survivors in the far southern hemisphere succumb one by one to fallout. In its final pages, the elegiac tone resembles the empty Earth after all the transformed children have gone in Clarke’s Childhood’s End.
Believability was not an issue in Level Seven. Told in academic prose, the story of a group of scientists sent to the deepest level of the most advanced fallout shelter unfolds with the unemotional certainty of an equation as these men of science carry on their lives deep underground while all life on the surface has been destroyed.
I had read these books and understood their messages, but I was a teenager. I wanted light and life and excitement, interesting technical exposition, and a hopeful ending. That’s what Philip Wylie provided.
Wylie’s novel Tomorrow is the book I liked best. Most of what I gave to my long-suffering fellow students at that high school event came from it. There were bombs, there was massive destruction, but there was also survival. Wylie’s Tomorrow ended with hope.
A real nuclear strike would not have been so benign. Looking back over fifty years, I still can’t believe any of us got out of the twentieth century alive.