Our guest blogger is Rod, who says this about himself: "Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been fascinated by history and technology. Instead of reading juvenile literature, I read my father’s military history and aviation books. Somehow, those interests morphed into science fiction as a teen. I guess I liked the technology that didn’t exist yet . . . Today, I read a lot of history because I teach it part-time and not as much fiction as I would like."
I was a teenager in the 1980s and had a morbid fascination with nuclear war. Honestly, I was certain that my short life would end with a brief, brilliant flash followed by radioactive oblivion. That was my realistic understanding of what would likely happen, but I also enjoyed reading the many novels and watching the many films that came out during the Cold War depicting what life would be like in the aftermath of World War III. While many were flimsy background for some sort of monster tale, there were also those that made a serious effort to imagine what the world would look like if the Cold War turned hot. If you have similarly “fond” memories, maybe you’ll find something on this list worth checking out.
On the Beach by Neville Shute This is both a great novel and film. The U.S. and the U.S.S.R. have destroyed each other in a nuclear holocaust. The Northern Hemisphere is a radioactive wasteland and the fallout is slowly moving south. Those living in Australia are faced with the certainty of death. This includes the crew of the USS Scorpion, an American submarine. As the Scorpion prepares to voyage north to investigate an unexpected radio signal, the men and women who have survived contemplate how to spend their final days.
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
Sleepy Fort Repose, Florida is untouched by the bombs but suffers nonetheless. Cut off from the rest of the U.S., the town falls back on the resources it can find gather from the countryside and scrounge from the mechanized world they can no longer support. It is an ultimately hopeful take on the subject.
A Canticle for Liebowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.
This one starts many years after a nuclear war brought an end to modern civilization. A group of Catholic monks in the American desert seek to preserve as much of the world’s knowledge as possible. The story follows the same monastic order over the centuries as a new technological civilization reemerges only to be faced, in the end, with the same threat of nuclear annihilation.
Dr. Bloodmoney, or How We Got Along After the Bomb by Philip K. Dick
Most people blame Bruno Bluthgeld, a physicist, for destroying the world, so he goes into hiding and seeks psychiatric help for his overwhelming feelings of guilt. This is complicated, however, as he believes he has magical powers. He is just one of the many survivors who have, or may have, telekinetic abilities. It isn’t always clear what is real and what the characters imagine to be real. Regardless, it does not stop them from engaging in the same selfish behavior they practiced before the world exploded. Like so many Phillip K. Dick novels, this one has a strong surrealist slant with elements of the absurd.
This is a powerful, understated film about a family trying to cope with the aftermath of a nuclear war. Carol Wetherly lives in a typical suburban city. When the war occurs, her husband is away and she doesn’t know if he is alive or dead. She tries to keep her family together as her neighbors slowly succumb to radiation and despair. This is a grim movie that, similar to On the Beach, makes no effort to sugar coat the likely fate of those who did not perish directly in the war. Despite that, it is still very compelling.
The Wild Shore by Kim Stanley Robinson
A small fishing village has grown up along the California coast in what was Orange County. The older residents remember the world before the war, but their stories are just that, stories,to the succeeding generations. The residents try to be self-sufficient but must scavenge from the ruins at times. While there are those who would like to recreate a technological society, powerful forces work to prevent a resurgent America.
Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg
This is a collection of 21 short stories that imagine a variety of different post-nuclear war futures. There is a mix of well-known and obscure tales collected here. Perhaps best known is Harlan Ellison's "A Boy and His Dog" which was made into a movie starring a very young Don Johnson in 1975. Like most compilations, the quality isn’t uniform but I found all of them to be worth the time.
The Postman by David Brin
This is a great novel and, well, judge the movie for yourself. Gordon Krantz is something of an idealist in a world ten years after a limited nuclear exchange. While making his way to the Pacific Northwest as a modern minstrel, he stumbles upon an abandoned postal vehicle with the unlucky postman inside. To stay warm he takes the deceased occupant’s jacket and, suddenly, those he meets see him as a symbol of hope, a fact he cultivates for his own benefit. This becomes problematic when he finds another group in Corvallis, Oregon with their own secrets. Ultimately, they must all work together to resist an invasion from the south led by a seemingly unstoppable army.
The Last Ship by William Brinkley
USS Nathan James, an American guided missile destroyer on patrol when World War III erupts, finds itself alone at sea after the spasm of nuclear annihilation has eliminated any safe port. After encountering a Soviet nuclear submarine, the two agree to cooperate in their efforts to survive. Maintaining morale and the chain of command become serious problems as the American crew seeks a refuge in the vast Pacific Ocean. Will they succeed? Will the crew destroy themselves? Will the Soviets prove to be reliable allies?