Monday 26 July 2010

Children Of The Atom


More universal than AIDS. More terminal than
cancer. More complete than the Black Death.
Nuclear War could roll the final credits on the human race.
And it began at Hiroshima… over half a century ago.
ANDREW DARLINGTON traces the history
of ‘the worst fear that can ever be hurled’…

‘It’s 8:15, that’s the time that it’s always been…/
this kiss you give, is never ever gonna fade away’
(“Enola Gay” by O.M.D. – no.8 October 1980)

‘Planet Of The Apes’ maroons astronaut Charlton Heston on what he believes to be an alien world, where gun-toting gorillas and scientific chimpanzees lord it over debased and passive human slaves. He escapes on horseback, riding north along the seashore. It’s here he discovers the huge skewed Statue of Liberty half-buried in sand and forgotten. It’s only now he realises – collapsing into the surf, his craggy face wracked with guilt and dread, ‘oh my god. I’m back. I’m home’. This is no alien world. Instead, he’s been cast forward in time, into a post-Nuclear-War future. The final long-threatened East-West atomic armageddon has wiped human civilisation from the face of the Earth. ‘We finally really did it. You maniacs, you blew it up. Damn you, god, damn you all to hell…’

The film, based on a Pierre Boulle novel, came in 1968. At the height of nuclear paranoia. Shocking up in movie-myth what we all knew. That at any moment, without reason or warning, by accident or political blunder, the nukes could fall. Ending everything. More universal than AIDS. More indiscriminate than cancer. More complete than the Black Death. Nuclear War would roll the final credits on the human race.

And it all begins at 08:15 on 6th August 1945, when the Enola Gay – a B-29 Superfortress in U.S. military silver, drops a single bomb called ‘Little Boy’ on Hiroshima, south-west of Tokyo. To J.G. Ballard ‘Uncle Sam threw a piece of the sun at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Killed a million people’. An act that ends World War 2, but is also the opening shot in the new war already in progress, a down-payment on a war by instalment plan. Ballard’s alter-ego in ‘Empire Of The Sun’ ‘knew that he’d seen the flash of the atom bomb at Nagasaki, even across the four-hundred miles of the China Sea. More important he’d seen the start of World War 3, and realised that it was taking place around him. The crowds watching the newsreels had failed to grasp that these were the trailers for a war that had already started. One day there would be no more newsreels’.

That first nuclear strike is a firebreak in history. You have to have been born on the wrong side of it to understand.

To be born into the 1950’s and 1960’s was to be born into a Cold War at the end of the world. Time-slip a late-1950’s SF-literate teenage kid into the beating heart of a modern Shopping Mall, and he’ll instantly understand. This city of roofed warrens in this 2000’s future exists in a subterranean complex, with the rest of the world’s surface a post-Holocaust radioactive wilderness. He’ll nod in a grim and knowing satisfaction that the pulps he’s so avidly devoured have been so accurately prophetic.

The Big Bang – so long promised, has happened.

‘The Day The World Ended’ – a low-budget Roger Corman quickie, his first SF Horror film (shot in less than a week for under $40,000) opens with stock shots of atomic explosions, while the narrator’s cold impersonal voice intones ‘TD Day is here. Total Destruction by nuclear weapons. And from this hour forward the world as we know it no longer exists…’
Hiroshima was the start of World War 3. We are all its victims. We are all Children of the Atom. The crucified Statue of Liberty is the perfect icon of a Cold War nuclear nightmare that began in 1945, and only melted in the warmth of Mikhail Gorbachev’s smile forty-five years later. A Cold War ‘Bomb Culture’ that dominated, shaped and poisoned the lives of all the millions who lived through it. A deep and permanent fear of Einstein’s monsters that eventually percolated all levels of society, insinuated itself into all forms of art and infected every aspect of Pop culture.

‘The present is all there is’ writes Martin Amis (in ‘London Fields’). ‘Everything else can be eradicated at the push of a button. It’s hard to love when you’re bracing yourself for impact.’

‘We’ve escaped just in time! The atomic war
has started! All life
on Earth will be destroyed!
Now we scientists must find another
and begin civilisation anew… one of peace, not war’
– the last spaceship leaves an exploding Earth on the
cover of ‘Weird Science no.5’ (January/ February 1951)

Nuclear weaponry has long been a part of the Science Fiction repertoire. SF is the only literature that has the vocabulary of ideas to tackle it. The fabulous megadeaths and overkills of thermo-nuclear war are too big to comprehend. The only way it can be understood is through the wrong end of a telescope, picked up by the eyebrow tweezers of fiction and shoved safely into the matchbox of paper armageddons.

Langdon Jones’ story “I Remember Anita” appeared in the September 1964 issue of ‘New Worlds’, and was subsequently reprinted just about everywhere, including a soft-porn girlie magazine the name of which I forget. ‘This story may shock you. It’s meant to’ warns the blurb. Deceptively simple in construction there’s only the occasionally pretentious arty allusion to disrupt its emetically-charged first-person narrative. Boy meets girl. They establish their mutual need. But the logical development of love gets grotesquely amputated by the sudden totally irrational intrusion of nuclear holocaust. Detail is horrific, ‘you were naked, save for the concealing blackness of your blistered flesh… as soon as I touched your flesh, clear fluid began to flow from the spot, to run down the craggy surface of your body, and to collect in the little pool of urine that was beneath you.’ The subtext is clear. The characters lives have nothing to do with whatever political lunacy is occurring half a world away. Nuclear weaponry is monstrous, totally beyond reason or understanding. And there’s no escape.

It’s like Martin Amis says, ‘nuclear war is seven minutes away, and might be over in an afternoon.’ It’s like Bob Dylan sings it in “Talking World War 3 Blues”, ‘the whole thing started at 3 o’ clock fast, / it was all over by a quarter past.’

In the decades before Hiroshima, readers of SF were already coming to terms with atomic conflagration. It may seem bizarre to claim greater clarity of vision for the day-dreaming four-eyed spotty adolescent pulp readers of garish ‘Startling Stories’, ‘Amazing’ and ‘Astounding SF’, but at least they were juggling concepts of ‘the planet’ while their contemporaries were still limited to ideas of patriotism and the nation state. Even in the decades after Hiroshima, people – ranging from tabloid readers clear on down to politicians and the military, continue to regard the Doomsday option as merely a bigger club with which to blitz the bad guys. But since at least the 1920’s the SF community has been dealing with world-wreckers and planetary exterminations. A small step. But an evolutionary one.

The potential of Albert Einstein’s equation linking mass and energy (E = MC2) was quickly seized upon by fantasists as a means of deriving limitless energy sources from the annihilation of matter. But as early as 1914 HG Wells’ ‘The World Set Free’ is envisaging its downside, in civilisation’s complete destruction by atomic bombs. The Armageddon Circus is already on the road. Later, a story by otherwise unremarkable Science Fictioneer Cleve Cartmill predicts the atomic minutiae of the bomb so closely that the FBI famously raids the New York offices of ‘Astounding SF’. It is March 1944, and the detail in his story “Deadline” seems to the Military Intelligence of the time to be so accurate that inside information must have been filched from the Manhattan Project, the secret think-tank working towards America’s first A-Bomb. Cartmill’s vindication is seen by smugly gloating SF readers as authenticating its claim to be a genuinely prophetic literature. And perhaps, for a while, it is. Perhaps, for a while, this subterranean cult buying trash magazines, is on history’s leading edge, the only section of the populace familiar with concepts as vast as global destruction. They constitute the world’s first ‘Doomwatch’ team.

It was not to remain so…

‘It’s good-news week, someone’s dropped a
bomb somewhere /
contaminating atmosphere
and blackening the sky’
(“It’s Good-News Week” by Hedgehoppers Anonymous
– no.5 September 1965)

Watching the first nuclear tests resulting from the Manhattan Project, J Robert Oppenhiemer ‘Father Of The Atomic Bomb’, quotes the Hindu Bagavad-Gita – ‘now I am become death. The destroyer of worlds’.

Hiroshima takes humankind over the edge of the precipice. We’ve been falling towards impact ever since.

‘The Cosmic Man’ is a 1954 film directed by Robert A Terry, from an Arthur Pierce story. John Carradine plays Doctor Carl Sorrenson, who shapes Oppenhiemer’s private angst for mass B-movie consumption. ‘How would you feel if you were the man responsible for such a weapon (the A-Bomb)?’ he demands. The military cipher answers pragmatically, ‘I believe it’s a question of which team you’re on’. But the famous astrophysicist, speaking for us all, gets in the killer punch-line – ‘there’s only one team now, Colonel, ever since Hiroshima’. The Cold War is already hotting up. Unpredictably so.

To poet/ artist Jeff Nuttall, ‘with the post-Hiroshima teenager, disaffiliation was always automatic rather than deliberate… no longer could Teacher, Magistrate, Politician, Don, or even loving parent, guide the young. Their membership of the H-Bomb society automatically cancelled anything they might have to say on questions of right or wrong’. It was Nuttall who coins the term ‘Bomb Culture’. By which he means that, although the metaphor of science fiction had seized upon the awesome significance of what exactly had been unleashed by the Enola Gay, that awareness has now entered the popular consciousness. And lodged there.
‘When the button is pushed, there’ll be no running away, / there’ll be no-one to save / with the world in a grave.’ A no.1 hit from 1965, “Eve Of Destruction” by Barry McGuire. A more abrupt and less subtle facsimile of a Bob Dylan lyric, but it feeds off the same source as ‘you’ve thrown the worst fear / that can ever be hurled, / fear to bring children / into the world’ (“Masters Of War”). Beat poet Allen Ginsberg razors it all down to the even more precise ‘America, go fuck yourself with your atom bomb’. No nukes, he says, is good nukes.

On 1st March 1954 America explodes its second H-Bomb at Bikini Atoll, unleashing six-hundred times more power than that of the Hiroshima A-Bomb (equivalent to twelve-million tons of TNT). A Japanese fishing boat called ‘The Lucky Dragon’ is seventy miles from the test site and well outside the US-designated exclusion zone. Yet it gets caught in the resulting drift of white powdery rain. Within days the crewmen begin suffering from sickness, dizziness and burnt flesh. Within a year they’re all dying of incurable cancers.

Indian President Nehru calls for a halt to the build-up of nuclear arsenals. But US President Eisenhower’s top-secret response is to order ‘greatly increased production of (atomic) weapons’. The race is on…

‘The Atom Bomb proved as adaptable
as the Wrath of God’
(Brian Aldiss in ‘SF Art’)

In Lindsay Anderson’s ‘If’, a bratty Malcolm McDowell muses about ‘black brittle bodies peeling into ash’. By the end of the sixties what had been a scenario of stark horror to Langdon Jones’ “Anita”, has now become merely the subject of morbid fascination. Stanley Kubrick makes ‘Dr Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb’, in which reality has become so ludicrous that the only response is (literally) hysterical laughter. The movie, with Peter Sellers in multiple roles, is allegedly based on the character of Hermann Kahn, the man who wrote ‘Thinking The Unthinkable’ about thermo-nuclear war. Its subject is accidental war. A WHOOPS APOCALYPSE!!! But its tone is the blackest of black humour as an American strike-force mistakenly A-Bombs Soviet Russia to the strains of Vera Lynn singing “We’ll Meet Again”. Thinking the Unthinkable? – but one slight nervous step from the Cuba Missile Crisis, where American Defence Secretary Robert McNamara later claims (on BBC2-TV) that ‘if we carried out an attack (on Cuba) there was a 100% probability of nuclear exchange’. Not 50%. Nor even 99%. But no uncertainty whatsoever. And that ‘nuclear exchange’ is polite politico-speak for TD Day – Total Destruction Day.

‘The TV announcer said ‘here comes the President, / but first this word from Pepsodent – / ‘Have Whiter Teeth, Have Cleaner Breath / when you’re facing nuclear death’’ satirises radical song-writer Phil Ochs on his “Talking Cuban Crisis”. The Atomic Bomb hadn’t come with a Government Health Warning. But it was at our collective nerve-ends. It says the present is all there is. All else is cancellable.

One response is nihilism. The Beat Generation’s We-Didn’t-Ask-To-Be-Born existentialism flourishes in the shadow of the mushroom cloud. Christopher Logue’s poem ‘to my fellow artists’ laments that soon all serious poetry, art and sculpture will be destroyed by the ‘on-coming megaton bombardment’.

And there’s protest. Even more powerful than the skewed Statue of Liberty is the CND symbol. A motley coalition of churchmen (Canon Collins), philosophers (Bertrand Russell), Lefties (Michael Foot), Beatniks and Trad Jazzers lead the ‘Committee of 100’ to Aldermaston. And each step takes them nearer to the mass rejectionist Alternative Counter-Culture. Its Play-Power insurrectionist Revolution-For-The-Hell-Of-It as much the product of fast-breeding Bomb Fever as it is the product of LSD or Vietnam.

‘The War Game’ is a shock documentary produced by the BBC in 1965, and then banned by them when they get cold feet. Only to be taken up and subsequently shown as a CND promo at Art Labs, Folk Clubs and Colleges. An agit-prop movie, it shows in clinical detail what Langdon Jones has already fictionalised, ‘the blast-wave from a thermo-nuclear explosion has been likened to an enormous door slamming in the depths of hell’. But its measured tone is no longer the only voice. Military tacticians sketch out Doomsday First Strike / Second Strike scenarios. They use a self-contradictory terminology of Pre-Emptive Retaliation, Neutron Bombs, and Strategic Battlefield Atomic Weaponry (filched from Space Opera’s regalia of nuclear bazookas and atomic handguns). Until others vomit it all back in outraged disgust, to discover that you can dance in the Fall-Out. The Children of the Atom have by now OD’d on serio-horror factoid shock-fictions. The catastrophe awful-warning theory is almost becoming mainstream entertainment…

Nevil Shute, a writer with only a tenuous connection to SF, writes ‘On The Beach’ (1957). The world is in the process of self-destruction. As yet uncontaminated, Australia alone waits for the radiation clouds from the devastated continents beyond to finally engulf it. Walter M Miller’s ‘A Canticle For Leibowitz’ (1960) fast-forwards into a more distant post-Holocaust future where a new monastic society is dedicated to suppressing all traces of the technology which it holds responsible for Einstein’s Monsters. John Wyndham’s ‘The Chrysalids’ (1955) uses the mutagenic effects of radiation positively, its young rebels in their dour conformist future society have developed psi abilities.

Beyond them, Brian Aldiss’ ‘Barefoot In The Head’ (1969) psychedelically transfigures Europe into a travelling armageddon circus. In Harlan Ellison’s ‘A Boy And His Dog’ (1964) a scavenger in the radiation-ravaged wasteland co-exists with a wise telepathic mongrel. And Michael Moorcock uses nuclear meltdown to wipe out history so he can build magical skewed empires beyond the firestorm, or else uses it playfully as a Day-Glo backdrop to his Swinging London-in-extremis ‘Jerry Cornelius’ experiments. Stories that dance as the Strontium 90 pellets of poison swirl and billow…

‘Don’t say you’re easy on me, /
you’re about as easy as a Nuclear War…’
(“The Reflex” by Duran Duran – no.1 April 1984)

Suddenly, this post-Holocaust future can be a new radioactive frontier, acrawl with Special-FX Muties. A rad-wasted Theme Park of hideous thrills dressed up in new Skip-Culture barbarism. Mutational fiction, once the literature of angst, becomes an entertainment sub-genre. ‘Mad Max 3’ maps out the terrain. Australia is a glowing desert of neo-tribal savagery. But ‘Judge Dredd’ got in there before him. The ‘Cursed Earth’ outside the fortress walls of Megacity One is an endless desolation of monstrous mutation and bizarrely comic-strip deformities. While Roger Zelazny’s ‘Damnation Alley’ (1969) precedes them both.

Nuclear war has become a smart couplet in a Duran Duran Pop song, or the exploitational theme to a Frankie Goes To Hollywood video – their “Two Tribes” has to be the last great Cold War hit record! But oddly this coincides with a mass revival of CND protest, and two major TV sequels to ‘The War Game’. America’s ‘The Day After’ gives nukes a Soap Opera sheen that enables the message to penetrate to audiences who’d previously have switched off. While the starker British ‘Threads’ introduces the concept of the Nuclear Winter – suspended post-Holocaust atmospheric dust layers shutting out the sun and ushering in new Ice Age conditions. With the persistent horror of birth-defects occurring even generations later. Not cute telepaths or comic-book grotesquery, but the grinding deprivation of relentless squalor.

And even President Reagan, who admits to believing that the literal truth of the Biblical prophecy of Armageddon would happen during our lifetime – instigated by the benevolent nuclear apocalypse, plunders the SF image-bank for the Cold War’s final countdown – the ‘Star Wars’ project. Reagan’s vision is of an invulnerable dome of force surrounding and protecting America. An old ‘Astounding SF’ idea. The fact that its implementation in reality is totally beyond the technological capability of the US Military-Industrial-Scientific complex is an irrelevance. Reagan is sufficiently detached from the real rational world. He believes in such fictions. And that’s enough. Its threat forces the arms race escalation one ratchet higher than the Soviet Union is prepared to go. Mikhail Gorbachev smiles. The Cold War melts.

I’m sitting here with a headful of ideas that are driving me insane. Sitting in the beating heart of a modern Shopping Mall where it’s so easy to imagine that this roofed warren is part of a subterranean complex from a 1950’s SF novel, with the rest of the world’s surface a post-Holocaust radioactive wilderness.

It’s over fifty years since Enola Gay delivered a megaton kiss that’s never ever gonna fade away. Its ripples and aftershocks continue around the Mururoa Atoll where France’s Pacific Nuclear Tests continued…

‘If it’s not love, then it’s the Bomb
that will bring us together…’
(“Ask” by The Smiths – no.14 November 1986)

Science Fiction frequently saw the atomic threshold as a survival test for humankind. Alien intelligences observe, from a distance. Anticipating the Big Bang. If so, by a hair’s breadth, and more likely by luck than political skills or vision, we’ve scored a sneaking pass-mark. In George Pal’s 1960 movie of H.G. Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’, war from atomic satellites destroys London on 17th August 1966. An old guy heading for the Fall-Out Shelter warns the Time Traveller ‘hurry, or the mushrooms will be sprouting’. Well – August 1966 came and went. We’re still here.

Chernobyl. Three-Mile Island. Selafield. Hey – Blow-Ups Happen!

But the Atom-Geddon recedes with the implosion of Communism. Nuclear terrorism persists. The mafia sell off the former USSR stockpile to the highest Third World bidder. France mutilates Mururoa in pursuit of its own independent deterrent. But the full End-Of-The-World Superpower atomiconfrontation conflagration depends on the existence of two (more or less) equally balanced power-blocks armed to the teeth and primed for MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction). That situation no longer exists. When the Cold War melted in the warmth of Gorbachev’s smile, we crossed over the alien’s racial survival test. The clarity of vision of the day-dreaming four-eyed spotty adolescent pulp reader of ‘Startling Stories’, ‘Amazing’, and ‘Astounding SF’ has been vindicated.

‘The Bomb, so long awaited, is gone’ says William Gibson reassuringly.

Chances are, on a cosmic scale, in the technological development of all sentient species, there must come a point where they can access into sources of power so vast that it threatens their own survival. If not nukes then it would have been something else. Something perhaps we’ve yet to stumble across. Matter and Anti-Matter fusion? Dylithium Crystals? Whatever. We’ve passed that first test. A small step. But an evolutionary one.

And as we shamble collectively into the third millennium, Armageddon has been postponed.

The Final Countdown:
Steps On The Road To The End Of The World

17 July 1945 – A-Bomb Test in USA
6 August 1945 – Hiroshima bombed
9 August 1945 – Nagasaki nuked
25 July 1946 – US detonates ‘Baker’ Atomic Bomb at Bikini Atoll
October 1946 – ‘Action Comics no.101’ – ‘In This Issue! Superman covers Atom Bomb Tests!’
30 October 1948 – ‘Hotspur no.630’ – cover story “The Silent City” blurbed ‘the last man alive when the Atom Bomb strikes New York’
29 August 1949 – USSR tests its first A-Bomb
19 October 1950 – General McArthur requests A-Bomb support following US troop reversals in Korea
3 October 1952 – Britain tests its first A-Bomb off Monte Bello, Western Australia
19 June 1953 – Julius Rosenberg and wife Ethel executed in Sing Sing New York prison for Atom Spying
1960 – USSR shoots down American U2 Spy Plane and captures pilot Gary Powers
1961 – Berlin War erected, flash-point for a divided Europe
1962 – Cuban Missile Crisis, USA demands USSR remove missile bases from Cuba ‘or face the consequences’. Soviet premier Khrushchev backs down at the 11th hour
1963 – Nuclear Test Ban Treaty signed by USA, USSR and UK
1966 – A US B-52 crashes near the Spanish coast, ‘losing’ four H-Bombs. The last is only retrieved from the sea three months later
1967 – China explodes H-Bomb
1968 – US explodes H-Bomb underground, 100-miles North-West of Las Vegas
1971 – US Atomic Energy Agency explodes H-Bomb beneath Amchitka Island, Alaska
1973 – Leonid Brezhnev and Richard Nixon sign treaty designed to limit nuclear proliferation
1974 – India becomes sixth nation to explode a nuke. UK, France, and China also conduct tests
24 August 1978 – Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Research Establishment closes down its plutonium facilities until staff are checked for contamination
28 March 1979 – Disaster narrowly avoided at Three Mile Island nuclear plant, Pennsylvania
18 June 1979 – Jimmy Carter and Brezhnev sign SALT-2, Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty, in Vienna
1983 – President Reagan calls USSR ‘the Evil Empire’, and proposes Strategic Defence Initiative (‘Star Wars’). Also, the first US Cruise Missiles arrive at Greenham Common. And France tests Neutron Bomb
1985 – Mikhail Gorbachev achieves power in Moscow
9 November 1989 – Berlin Wall comes down
31 December 1991 – Soviet Union ceases to exist. End of Cold War

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