The Cold War is over, and with it the golden age of atomic fiction. But are we really over our fear of nuclear war?
Some thoughts on the end of days, survival narratives, and teething babies.
Three AM with a teething baby. It may not surprise you to learn that my thoughts turned to the end of world.
Making the most of the insomnia that followed, I sat up to watch Threads (1984). Imagine “Little Boy” mushrooming into Ken Loach’s Kes and you’ve got a pretty good idea of how Threads goes down. Set in Sheffield in the mid-eighties, it follows the members of two connected families before, during, and after a devastating nuclear attack. With its kitchen-sink concerns—teenage pregnancy, unemployment, working class families making ends meet in Thatcher’s Britain—the first half of Threads has the feel of a Look and Read serial, or a public information broadcast (”Do you know where your lad’s going tonight?”). There are only the vaguest hints of the looming disaster: the radio in the kitchen, the headlines in Dad’s paper, the six o’clock news on the pub telly. The breakdown of communication between the global superpowers is just background noise, to both characters and audience. It is something happening somewhere else, to someone else. Even as tensions mount and war of some kind becomes inevitable, no one can take it seriously. Mum gives Dad a bollocking for taking down the kitchen door to make a shelter. The young parents-to-be are decorating their flat, planning for the future. No one believes this war will amount to anything. It will all just blow over.
But, of course, it doesn’t.
Most apocalypse narratives are tales of survival. We get the same thrill from them as watching Bear Grylls make fire from a heap of wet seaweed or chew the beak off a renitent squid. It is the vicarious experience of competence in a hostile landscape, of escape from our increasingly inactive, monotonous, and apparently meaningless existence. Civilisation’s-end fantasies, like John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids, Stephen King’s The Stand, or the seventies TV serial Survivors, offer us a world that is dead but intact. It is an empty playground for the last living beings, where the sense of omnipresent danger is as titillating as the wish-fulfilment of looting—when there is no queue at the supermarket, no sneering sales assistant in the department store, and, best of all, no limit on your wallet-full of extinct credit cards, you have retail therapy with no consequences. Our current and lasting obsession with the zombie apocalypse takes this survival fantasy and beats its brains in with weapon-porn, giving us the thrill of mass murder that is socially acceptable because its victims are already deceased. In all of these narratives, the arrival of the outside agency, be it killer virus, vegetable space invader, or legion of undead, initiates a cataclysmic change, abruptly terminating life as we know it, yet leaving room enough for the protagonists to scratch out a new, perhaps even a better, life. This offers an escapist fantasy that, although bleak, is motivated by hopeful idealism: let’s wipe away all the crap that we hate in the world—bankers, politicians, class and gender divisions, demoralising jobs, that homework due on Monday—and rebuild everything from the ground up. It’s The Good Life, with a laser-sighted compound bow.
Threads, on the other hand, is remorseless, utterly devoid of hope. It’s not just the end of civilisation, it’s the end of life. To have survived the blast is neither a mercy nor a blessing, but a sentence worse than the instant vaporisation at ground zero. You inherit a scorched, dead world: of toxic soil and poison water; of rubble cities and corpse forests, of dustbowl landscapes bristling with charred limbs; of scarcity and sickness; of degeneracy and devolution. What scraps of life persist are impossible to sustain. As in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, where the only food is tinned, preserved, or human, the world of Threads is a Boschian nightmare, in which the survivors are not heroes of agency and resilience, but skeletal phantoms with parchment skin and hollowed eyes, animals led by their stomachs through ruined cities and desolate moors, where degenerate offspring grunt in bastard pidgin and babies are stillborn from malnourishment and the invisible sickness. There are no heroes, only victims. The survivors are, themselves, the undead.
I never saw Threads when it first came out, but watching it brought back a ground wave of grim nostalgia. It wholly embodies the paranoia of the Cold War’s last days and evokes it with a realism so stark as to be almost irresponsible. Watching it thirty-odd years after the fact transported me back to that time, to the inchoate anxieties of my childhood, to the whispers of annihilation which, irrespective of their basis in reality, set the emotional tone of my life in Britain in the early eighties.
I must have absorbed these fears by osmosis, for the anxiety about human extinction was latent in me before I ever read or watched anything about it. At the age of seven or eight, I had apocalyptic dreams of flying toward the Earth from space, zooming into the atmosphere, closing on the planet’s surface, a desert crosshatched with gravestones. I remember conversations at the dinner table: Would my mother go down into the council shelter? Or come home to die with us? I thought a lot about the three-minute warning: What would it sound like? Would I hear it in time? Where was I going to hide? Books like Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows or James Herbert’s Domain fleshed out my nascent anxiety, giving form to those formless terrors. By the time I reached ten I was obsessed with the imminence of nuclear destruction, I even began writing atomic vignettes, rich with gruesome detail: of flesh melting from bone; of brick-glass-metal fusing with bodies in the flash of impact; of suppurating sores and ichor-spouting eye sockets; of toothlessness, vomiting, and the leprous decay of radiation sickness. Perhaps I was too young to be reading about this stuff, but what I read only gave shape to that shapeless fear already inside of me. Before everything, this fear existed. It was like an impenetrable cloud of black smoke, or a vacuum, in which my young imagination blossomed with dead flowers and noxious vines. If anything, those tales of horror brought the fears out of the shadows and into the light of the known.
The golden era of nuclear fiction died with the eighties. There will be no other Dr Strangelove, no new Akira, no more Canticle For Leibowitz, Riddley Walker, or On The Beach. And even though the fin de siecle fizzled with our nightmares unfulfilled—Y2K, the Mayan calendar, and the predictions of Nostradamus came and went without effect on the world that persists even when we stop believing in it—we still dream of the apocalypse, long for it even (if only in fantasy). Apocalyptic fiction grants us the clean slate that the ever-increasing complexity of life on Earth consistently fails to deliver. As fantasy, it gives us a reason for life’s cruel pointlessness, pulling down the dehumanising scaffolding of the modern world to remind us what it means to be simply human. And there are no shortage of post-apocalyptic universes for us to lose ourselves in, no end to our secret longing for civilisation’s collapse. Although these days we prefer our cataclysms vague: think “The Fall” in David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, or the unspecified fire in The Road. It would be frightfully passé to refer to it directly, and downright gauche for it to be atomic in origin. With the end of the Cold War and the slow cross-fade into our present age of media-friendly warfare, the unspoken nightmare of generations has become an outmoded form. Nuclear war is now a cliché.
A little ironic, that, in an age where the actual risk of nuclear attack is probably greater than during the Cold War. We live in a time when more nations have nuclear capability than ever before—more unstable, borderline-psychotic nations, looney-bin nations run by narcissist despots with low self-esteem and a fight to pick. This is also a time when global fundamentalism and the black–white polarisation of beliefs makes calm, rational debate impossible, where exponents of every position are primed to explode—like grenades with the pins pulled—ready to defend to the death their own rightness. And those calling for tolerance and understanding are labelled traitors to this or that cause, ridiculed at best, fire-bombed at worst. It is a time, argues Astronomer Royal, Martin Rees, where humanity has to decide: work together to confront the existential risks of runaway technologies, fundamentalist violence, and destruction of the biosphere (or a terminal shit-storm of all three); or succumb, and witness the extinction of humankind within the next 85 years. The paranoid simplicity of the Cold War days would be a relief by comparison.
What new landscapes of fear, I wonder, will our children inherit? A mouthful of emergent molars might seem, now, like the end of the world, but it’s got nothing on what’s around the corner.