Tuesday, December 26, 2017

On The Beach

     Published in 1957, 'On the Beach' was one of the first novels to try to imagine and portray the aftermath of a global nuclear conflict. The bleakness of the future of the survivors near Melbourne, Australia as the deadly cloud of radioactive fallout makes its way from the Northern Hemisphere to eventually blanket the southern had such an emotional impact on readers that it gave rise to the  disarmament movement. Two years after it was published Stanley Kramer made a film of it and the message of the book reached a wider audience. Here is a great article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the film version.
     The book opens with a line from T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men' - "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper". Eliot's poem has been written about many times and was hugely influential. The last lines of the poem have been connected to nuclear war thanks to Shute's book. The hollow men are dead, the people in Shute's novel are the walking dead, except unlike Rick Grimes' little tribe battling zombies in their own peculiar dystopia, Shute's characters don't get to live once they do what they have to do.
     There were a few things in the novel that bothered me, Commander Towers always addressed Moira Davidson by the term 'Honey' even though he was scrupulously faithful to his dead wife in the novel. It was just irritating and betrays an emotional detachment. Did he not remember her name most of the time? For two people sharing their last moments on earth together and presumably like each other very much, the banal conversation and pleasantries make, what should be an emotional and deeply involved relationship, into one of Austen's comedies of manners. The subtext was always deadly serious in Austen too, but here the epithet is annoying and patronizing.
     The novel also follows Peter and Mary Holmes , a young couple with an infant daughter. What are held to be some of the most emotional scenes from the book and film involve the fate of this child. Peter instructs his unwilling wife on how to inject their child with a government provided poison to end people's lives so they do not have to die of radiation sickness, if the cloud reaches them while he is away. At the end of the book the little girl, named Jennifer, is gravely ill and Peter gives her the injection after which he and his wife take the pills and end their lives. It irritates me a little that the little girl is referred to most of the time as "the baby" and "it". If Shute wanted to elicit an emotional response, he should have written her name more often and referred to her as the Holmes' daughter and make her a breathing human being rather than the doll that Mary Holmes fusses over continually to pass the time.
      Shute got the science wrong. Even in 1957, it was clear that radiation would begin to decay almost immediately and having it dispersed around the entire globe would reduce its power as well. Shute researched his subject and had the radiation grow and increase in intensity as it was being distributed around the globe by making the bombs 'dirty' or cobalt bombs. The science even then did not really back up that contention and accidents like Chernobyl have proved radiation decays faster than we thought and life is more resilient too.
     Shute's nuclear blasts destroyed life without destroying property. The last submarine roaming the world looked through its periscope at cities that were intact only the people were gone. He also claimed that certain mammals like cats and rabbits were more resilient than humans. Not likely and they will not inherit the earth, insects and grass were all that would remain wrote Jonathan Schell in the Fate of the Earth.
     I find the stoicism of the population unbelievable too. When there is no future, the old rules don't apply anymore. There are people in the novel who continued to go to work in cafes and stores right up to the end. Why would people not just leave the doors open and not bother to charge customers for purchases? There was a butler at the men's club who showed up to serve drinks even when the radiation reached Melbourne and the sickness was beginning to be felt. People don't freak out, there is no rash of murders or riots. Everyone accepts their fate, except those that continue to plan gardens and home improvements and talk about the next year as if there would be one. I agree with Kramer who had Dwight Tower consummate his relationship with Moira. His wife and children were dead after all and soon he would be too. Why would a man not take some comfort where he can?
     Shute took the lazy way out, he did not try to predict who would take the first shot or why. The Australians seem to be in the dark about how it happened. It was a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding. The novel's scientist Julian Osborne surmises the first bomb was launched by Albania against Italy. Then someone dropped a bomb on Tel Aviv. The Brits and Americans suspected the Egyptians and made military flights over Egyptian territory, without firing a shot. The Egyptians then sent out all the bombs they had six to Washington and seven to London. The bombers they used were Russian made so the Russians were bombed. With the leading statesmen of most countries dead, decision making devolved down to very junior military leaders and the Chinese released their ICBM to support Russia. The final verdict was that it was not the superpowers that started the nuclear conflict, it was the little ones, "the Irresponsibles".
     Albania was a communist state and officially atheist in 1957, although it was occupied by Italy during WWII there was no reason for there to be hostilities between Italy and Albania. An early strike on Tel Aviv is plausible enough, Israel has so many enemies, from there it gets more unlikely especially as neither Albania nor Egypt have nuclear capability. Shute did not anticipate North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
      It was an important book but it was a long and dull read as nothing happens. People go about their lives and pass the time with stiff upper lips until they have to die. And then they do.
     

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Swan Song

     Carrying on my quest to see which science fiction writers got closer to predicting the end of the world, while the threat of another catastrophic war hangs over the world. I see some writers still hope that King Arthur is still sleeping in a hill somewhere and will rise up and smite our enemies. Or Jesus. Wittekind. Siegfried. Someone. Aliens. Anyone?
     It might not be fair to call Swan Song a science fiction novel since it is labelled 'fiction' or 'horror' but I think of any novel about a post-nuclear world as 'science fiction'. It may be easily called fantasy since the main character Sue Wanda (Swan) has magical powers as does Sister who is looking for her. One can infer from this that women will be the agents (as givers of life) that will regenerate the devastated world. The character of the man with the scarlet eye is too easily identified with the devil, especially with the flies that come out of his mouth, but this is not the Christian world of A Canticle for Leibowitz. Swan can only be a Gaia figure with Josh and Robin as her Corn Kings. One cannot regenerate the world without one's male counterpart. This makes the man with the scarlet eye something far more primordial than Lucifer. Tolkien's Sauron leaps to mind with a description like that especially knowing that Tolkien based his novels on older heathen tales.
     There is always the assumption that there will be people who will want more than everybody else and will use violence to assert themselves. In a post apocalyptic world, survival will depend so much on mutual co-operation, I would think or hope that violent despots (the Negans of the world) would not arise so quickly. Some people would survive who are authority figures and people would rally around them as we are accustomed now to a certain social structure. One problem with any post apocalyptic world, is most authors ignore the fact that gasoline has a shelf life. In a world like The Walking Dead or Swan Song, people would not be driving around two years later, if only for the reason that the gasoline would not be useable anymore. So large scale movements like in Swan Song with tanks and trucks would not be possible or the type of battles that the Army of Excellence engages in to feed its members. Trebuchet, anyone?
    The book was published in 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, but even then the Soviet Union was coming apart and the Cold War was winding down. It seems too easy to blame tensions between the U.S. and Russia for the use of nuclear weapons; especially when one considers nuclear proliferation and the ideologies that some nuclear countries subscribe to. Even in '87 North Korea was a problem and the world had seen the rise of radical Islam. Globalization has contributed a great deal to social and political instability, income inequality and mass migration. Few authors predicted this; perhaps science fiction(or fantasy) writers tend to be conservative in their views. With the exception of labour unions, few wanted to go against the free trade mantra. Nobody predicted a president like Donald Trump. And, there can be no mistake, someone like Trump was elected because large numbers of the American electorate have been disenfranchised and voted this way in protest.  Will he cause the end of the world? Hard to say. I still think we have a ways to go - 2020, if Professor Turchin's cliodynamics are reliable.
       So what did McCammon get right? I do not think you can approach the novel this way. It is very doubtful that this was intended as a predictor of the future. It seems rather that it is monomyth of the hero's quest in a modern setting and with female heroines.


Next up is Nevil Shute's On the Beach.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Speculated Aftermath of Global Nuclear War

     I could go on about literary allusions in 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' which would be fun but I want to discuss his predictions about our future. While I was growing up, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over us all. The nukes are still here but the powers that held them seemed to realize that there was no winning a nuclear engagement. So the Iron Curtain fell, Russia became if, not an ally, no longer our enemy.
     Part of the reason for nuclear pacts between Russia and the U.S. was due to the emotional impact of a 'made for television' film called "The Day After" made by Nicholas Meyer. Meyer had the idea of showing in as realistic way as possible what the aftermath of a nuclear war would look like. It appears from articles written about the production that he faced an uphill battle in showing the best guesses with no embellishment of any kind. It aired on ABC on November 20, 1983 to the largest audience a movie ever had. Its record stands. I was one of the audience that day.
     Walter Miller started his story six hundred years after the war with few snippets of information of what took place to devastate the planet. The reason for the 'flame deluge' is not given except that the Church taught that pride lead to world leaders ignoring their wise men and using the weapons given to them that were to guarantee lasting peace. Miller states the war ended within weeks or days. The film would give it but less than one day. Cities became puddles of glass, surrounded by vast acreages of broken stone. The strikes killed all life human, animal, fish and avian near the cities. Fallout killed large numbers of the rest. The few survivors roamed in search of safe places to live. In the years following, there was plague, hunger and madness and then came the Simplification, in which anyone who had any kind of learning was blamed for the bombs and killed.
     Meyer's film deals with the immediate aftermath of the war. He created a number of characters near a small city, Kansas City, and a possible prelude to war is reported in the background on radio and television as these characters go about their lives. Twenty-five years separate the creation of the two stories. The film is an accurate snapshot of a point in time six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It does not try to predict the future, it attempted to show what would happen if war broke out that year. For those of us following today's news, the U.S. mobilizations near the border of Russia and the invasion of Germany give one that sense of deja vu. The U.S. claims to hold the moral high ground and that it holds the right to police the rest of the world's nuclear ambitions and yet it is the only country to have used a bomb against a civilian population.
     Unlike Miller, Meyer knew the strikes would not just target large urban centers; they would also target military installations like missile silos, which were located in remote rural locations, so the devastation would be total. Meyer follows a few survivors as they bury their dead and slowly one by one succumb to radiation sickness.  The last scene is of one of the women giving birth in a clinic with no doctor and her scream at the sight of her child, who is not shown. It is a chilling for those who saw the intercontinental missiles leave and knowing they had 30 minutes at most before the response came. A professor rigs up a geiger counter and listens as the numbers climb, "Here it comes", he says.
    Miller felt that the radiation would cause many children born in the aftermath to be mutants and monsters. The aftermath of the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not show this to be the case. There was a slight increase in some defects but no two headed or otherwise deformed children were born. Agent Orange, a tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, used as a defoliation agent in the Vietnam War created worse defects in the offspring of those exposed to it.
     Meyer, too, felt that the radiactive fallout would doom people to a short life and a death by cancer although the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lived full lives and experienced only a slightly higher level of cancer. Of course the entire surface of the world had not been carpeted with bombs, nor is it to be expected that the entire world surface would be destroyed. Some countries will not be targets.
    In 1982, Jonathen Schell published The Fate of the Earth, a look at nuclear war and its aftermath. He began by explaining the science behind nuclear fission, and the destructive effects of a bomb which, unlike a conventional explosive, has many. At the moment of explosion, the heat would be as hot as the stars and the pressure many times that of the atmosphere. Immediately radiation, i.e. gamma rays, would stream out as an electromagnetic pulse. Above the earth, this pulse would have the effect of knocking out electrical equipment by inducing a huge surge of voltage but that has never been tested. When fusion and fission have worn themselves out, a fireball takes shape. It absorbs xrays from the environment as it grows which then radiates back into the environment as a thermal pulse, a wave of blinding light and intense heat. This lasts about ten seconds and as it expands it emits a blast wave in all directions, flattening all but the strongest buildings and condensing air from the surrounding environment to create the mushroom cloud. A crater would be formed and the dust and dirt would mix in with the cloud. This dust and dirt is what will be the fallout as it returns to earth. Then there are the secondary effects on society and the environment which Schell (and Miller) thought might be even more destructive. There is also delayed worldwide fallout, the lofting of tons of debris from earth into the atmosphere and a resulting nuclear winter, and the third longterm effect would be the destruction of the ozone layer. He felt the primary concern was not how many people would die in the initial blast but if the ecosphere, particularly the ozone layer, could survive. He admitted to the true results not being known; it would still be better to speculate than to find out by experience.
     He went on to describe first hand accounts from survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the added info that the bombs did not touch the ground so very little dirt mixed into the cloud and the fallout was thereby minimal. Schell predicted that much of the U.S. would become a republic of grass and insects as these would survive the high doses of radiation. For most of life, he states a nuclear war would be a global extinction event.
      So the questions for most are - would there be any survivors and would that life be worth having and there is no answer for those.
     Ironically in the film, a pastor thanks God for destroying the destroyers of the earth. The president undaunted, releases a broadcast stating there had been no surrender, no retreat from principals of freedom and democracy. At a meeting of farmers discussing a government pamphlet to reconstruction generates some anger at the incongruities of the information but the film maker does not speculate if there would be a later backlash against science. One suspects people will be too desperate for medical aid and other comforts to want to destroy what little is left. 

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Review - A Canticle For Leibowitz

     I cannot believe I never heard of this book before a couple of days ago. It is brilliant. I don't even understand the criticism that the part in the middle Fiat Lux is plodding.
    The book is divided into three sections, Fiat Homo (Let there be man), Fiat Lux (Let there be light), and Fiat Voluntas Tua (Let your will be done).
     Fiat Homo is about a small monastery in a desert dedicated to a holy man, amusingly the Jewish Isaac Leibowitz, who had been an engineer at Los Alamos and who had attempted to save as much of science and books as he could before he was murdered by mob bent on ridding the world of the people who made the nuclear war possible. Indeed, a backlash against any scholar ensues and anyone who is literate is killed. The story begins with Brother Francis who is making his lonely vigil in the desert, fasting and meditating for the forty days of Lent, 600 years after the war. A pilgrim appears who, as time passes, becomes more apparently Isaac Leibowitz himself, raised up from the dead by God and doomed to wander the earth until the return of the Messiah. He remains near the shrine that honors his memorabilia (or relics) and occasionally interacts with the inhabitants of the monastery who maintain the shrine. The shrine was erected where he had been burned alive.
     Due to the intercession of the soon to be sainted Leibowitz, Brother Francis finds his vocation but also discovers a fallout shelter that proves the existence of Leibowitz and contains more of his writings as well as the remains of his wife. The process of canonization takes years and when it is completed Francis is sent alone to New Rome as his reward for creating a beautiful illuminated parchment as well as having been the witness to the saint's miracles. On his way to Rome, he is accosted by thieves who steal his parchment and on his way home, he is accosted by cannibals who steal his life. What remains of him is buried by the saint.
     Fiat Lux takes place 600 years after the canonization of Leibowitz. The world is experiencing an industrial revolution of sorts or renaissance. Humans have progressed to the point where technology is possible and the 'memorabilia' that the monastery has guarded and reproduced is now desired by the secularists who would built a new empire and, being illiterate and untutored, cannot benefit from the examples of the past. Leibowitz makes an appearance as an old hermit Benjamin. A mysterious one eyed Poet lives at the monastery. His name is unknown, he is a wanderer and non religious. Interestingly he considers his eye to be his conscience and claims it helps him to 'see' things that are hidden. These are attributes of Odin and one has to wonder if Miller intended him to be the god. If Leibowitz can wander the earth for 1800 years, why not Odin too? The Poet can see that the visiting scholar, who is a scion of the ruling dynasty of Texarkana, and the officers that accompany him are a danger to the monastery and its mission and leaves to avoid sharing the fate of the Brothers.  The fate of the monastery is not openly stated however, the Poet sees warriors in pursuit of refugees which includes three clergymen. The leader who wants to unite the continent under his own rule, pens a letter to Rome that is not dissimilar to one Henry VIII penned when he broke away from the Church over its' refusal to grant him a divorce. The dissolution of the monasteries and seizure of their treasures followed. At first not wanting to be involved but merely observe, the Poet assaults their leader who is hacking at a defenseless woman with a blunt sword. He is shot and dies contemplating the cavalry officer to whom he delivered last rites and a blow.
     Fiat Voluntas Tua takes place 600 years after the death of the Poet. The passage of time has made him a holy man like Francis and his bawdy poems are included in the sacred writings preserved at the monastery which still maintains its mission after 1800 years but the world is threatened by nuclear war once again. The Church has made provision for the continuation of faith by building a rocket and manning it with a priest, several brothers of the Order of St. Leibowitz, some bishops to consecrate new priest and some women and children. The one priest who will minister during the trip was chosen from the monastery, Brother Joshua. Joshua is one of the earthly names of the Son, an Anglicization of Jesus. Small wonder that Leibowitz, having come to the monastery as the rumblings of catastrophe have reached him, is struck by a rock thrown in the dark by Joshua at what he thinks is something slithering towards him. Leibowitz, having finally met the new Messiah, is inadvertently killed by him. Joshua has no idea what he had done but the author could have chosen many sounds to frighten Joshua and slither would be the sound of the devil. Get thee behind me Satan. Joshua and the chosen survivors leave for Rome and cast off just as the nuclear bombs proceed to extinguish all life on earth. It is left for the abbott to be the witness of the end of days, something that is the duty of all Catholic clergy - to serve as witness for the community and to keep its records.
      Walter M. Miller Jr. chose not to write a postscript to tell how successful the trip to the stars was. It is a bleak and yet humorous look at human history and speculate from the mistakes of the past that the future will include those same mistakes. The main difference will be the scale of those mistakes. One can laugh or cry about it. Miller does both.