Countdown to Midnight

It’s Bobbie Burns’ birthday. Grandpa MacDowall would not be happy I’m not doing anything to celebrate it.

Sorry, instead of something Burns related material, you get this, a continuation of the Norman Spinrad series.

Raw Feed (1991): Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories About Nuclear War, ed. H. Bruce Franklin, 1984.countdown-to-midnight

Nuclear War and Science Fiction“, H. Bruce Franklin — I read this book after reading Peter Collier and David Horowitz’s Destructive Generation which included a perhaps apocryphal story about leftist Franklin saying he was taking up scuba diving because the revolution will need frogmen. I wanted to read it when I’d be most sensitive to Franklin’s insinuation of politics into the collection. Franklin talks about the early (pre-1945) sf depiction of nuclear weapons and the feedback between sf and science, and vice versa, in the development of these weapons. (Franklin has also written an entire written book on this subject.) That part’s interesting, but Franklin’s politics began to show. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg become “alleged” spies. Franklin makes the patently false claim that the U.S. did not warn Japan prior to using the first A-Bombs. In fact a warning and appeal to surrender were given before each of the two detonations. Various military officials, including Eisenhower, are quoted as stating that the A-Bombs were unnecessary. Their saying this does not automatically make it true. The claim, probably partly true, that A-Bombs were used to have a better bargaining position with Russia is made. The tacit assumption here is that Russia was no real threat to U.S. or world freedom when the opposite was proved true before and after WWII. It is alleged that the U.S. could have ended nuclear terror by destroying its bombs when only it had some. This ignores other nations’ research efforts which had, or would have, started and the effect of spies like the Rosenbergs. [To say nothing of all the other Soviet agents who had penetrated the Manhattan Project.] Franklin sees no difference between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. The U.S. is chastened for its efforts to maintain superiority in nuclear weapons. Franklin apparently choses to ignore Soviet post-WWII belligerent imperialism. Its disarmament efforts are sincere while evil America threatens the whole world, in Franklin’s eyes, by not capitulating. Franklin also cites the hard to believe assertion that American military thinkers were convinced each technological advance in nuclear weapons systems would lead to permanent superiority. I doubt they were ever that naïve.

To Still the Drums“, Chandler Davis — This very political story (circa 1946, I suppose the title’s “drums” are war drums) has not dated well. It involves a soldier stopping a military plot to involve the U.S. in a war — with atomic weapons much like ICBMS — against Congressional wishes. This story cites the old chestnut that preparing for war and building weapons ultimately leads to war and the use of the weapons, not necessarily consciously but almost as an inevitable social dynamic and metaphysical precipitation. More than forty years of atomic cold war has proven this supposition wrong as has the almost universal restraint in the use of chemical and biological weapons. As for Congress being a naïve dupe of alleged militaristic technophilia for nuclear weapons, that most definitely is not true. Congress has often said no to new nuclear weapons systems.

Thunder and Roses“, Theodore Sturgeon — This is the second or third time I’ve read this superb story. Franklin is right in that it does call into question the moral, psychological, and philosophical assumptions of the doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction. What I appreciated most in this story was his characterization of men under pressure and the knowledge of approaching doom for themselves and civilization. Sturgeon does a good job of showing the main character on the edge of insane despair and suicide. Equally moving is the realization that man’s destiny rests in his own two hands. This story is a perfect example of James Gunn’s description of sf as species fiction, the good and bad of man is assayed here. But the story movingly focuses on one man’s plight.

That Only a Mother“, Judith Merril — Much of this story’s shock lies in its end which works once but not on re-reading.

Lot“, Ward Moore — This unpleasant little story is very much a retelling of the biblical story of Lot. In short, a family fleeing from the breakdown of urban, Southern California civilization in the wake of a nuclear war with the father prepared and wanting to flee to a prepared place in the country but the mother not wanting to leave the associations and possessions of her past and neither do two of her children. Like Lot’s wife in the Bible, she can not break with her past and, like Lot’s wife, she is punished. Here her husband and daughter leave her and the two boys to an unspecified, but presumably nasty, fate. What makes this story so unpleasant is the father, Mr. Jimmon. It’s not that he’s necessarily wrong in his perceptions or preparations. He’s right in thinking that the trappings and accouterments of civilization are dying, that the old rules do not apply, and in preparing a rural survival hideout. But he’s so despicable. He’s seems less someone who reluctantly prepares for apocalypse but hopes to never put his plans into effect than someone who really looks forward to it. He is a coward in his relations with his wife, mentally rehearsing, but never uttering his verbal challenges. He despises his wife and reviles his children and regards one as little better than a juvenile delinquent yet he is oblivious to the fact he is responsible for this as an indulgent parent. He has an easy violent streak which never quite materializes. He chastises the other son for seeing the new order of things as a license to violence and lawlessness while having just finished ignoring the orders of a policeman. When his wife suggests he may not have the physique for the life of a pioneer survivalist, he blithely says it’s a matter of life. He paranoid suspects his wife of infidelity. I thought this story would end with incest between the father and daughter but that, a further biblical parallel, is done in “Lot’s Daughter”, the sequel. According to Franklin, it’s an indictment of the sterility, futility, and destructiveness of the individualistic survival philosophy of Jimmon.

I Kill Myself“, Julian Kawalec — This is one of those absolute-power-corrupts-absolutely stories. Here our character goes from the unheralded, quiet, unacknowledged, contemplated sacrifice of being killed by the government to destroy the doomsday device of the Zeta bomb and thereby preserve all life to, at story’s end, regarding himself as the only good, the only human who deserves to live. It’s not that the transition from selflessness to egomania isn’t handled well in a compressed sort of way. It’s just that the theme is hardly novel.

The Neutrino Bomb“, Ralph S. Cooper — This isn’t really a story. It’s a satirical article from the July 13, 1961 issue of Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory. (Cooper, according to Franklin’s introduction, worked at Los Alamos.) The satire seems to be directed at a certain paranoia in the arms race, at least according to Cooper. The article talks about evidence of a Russian neutrino bomb. It doesn’t leave blast damage and creates a vacuum which air fills with a large pop. Evidence of no blast damage in Russia and reports off loud bangs lead the article’s author to believe America is dangerously behind in developing what is ultimately an impotent weapon.

Akua Nuten (The South Wind)“, Yves Thérialut, trans. Howard Roiter — This story does, as the introduction indicates, show how a Third Worlder might react to the destruction of Western civilization in a nuclear war. The Third World, at least parts of it, might be delighted but, as the story shows, they would still be affected by the aftermath. However, this story does not have the effect on me that I suspect Franklin wants it to have: to consider the effect of nuclear war on Third World “innocents” and abandoning the alleged evil of our ways out of concern for ourselves and those innocents. I appreciate the Third World’s plight in this but if America was ever destroyed in nuclear war my sorrow and thoughts would be for it and not others.

I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream“, Harlan Ellison — This story horrifies me every time I read it. As the introduction says, this story has many themes. There is alienation and love and hate. The narrator at times hates and is hated by — though this may be the paranoia of creeping insanity — the other four humans left alive but at the same time he kills three of them at story’s end to free them from AM’s tyranny — at a horrible price to himself. There are questions on the nature of reality. AM creates his own reality and solipsism is reflected in the typographic device of the computer punched tape spelling out “I think therefore I AM”.) As Franklin points out, “‘I Am’ is synonymous with Yahweh, god of the Old Testament”. Besides nuclear war, there is an element of religion, specifically gnosticism with the creator of the story’s world as an evil god. Franklin does bring up an interpretation supported by the story: that man has invested in AM (who, incidentally, is a metaphor, in its evolving acronyms, of man’s evolution: Allied Mastercomputer, Adaptive Manipulator, and Aggressive Menace) his unique capability to create. Unfortunately, AM, a creature designed to coordinate destruction, can not create, can not “wander” or “wonder”. And, so, develops a terrifying hatred of humanity.

Countdown“, Kate Wilhelm — This is one of those stories that cheats: it follows around some characters, describing their actions, and, only at the end, gives us the full truth as to what they’ve been up to — here launching orbital nuclear weapons. Usually this is done to show people engaging in some horrible behavior with workaday casualness or, conversely, blaise about some future wonder. This sort of thing can work — it did here — or it can fail miserably like in Wilson Tucker’s The Year of the Quiet Sun. Wilhelm’s descriptions are minute, evocative. She captures the flavor of disillusionment of the story’s characters, intimately involved in the space program, using their talents to launch nukes in space. However, the idea wasn’t new, the story not that powerful, and it left me rather unmoved.

The Big Flash“, Norman Spinrad — Technically, this story is brilliant. Spinrad uses a series of first-person viewpoints — which only repeat at the end — to tell his story without losing its frenetic pace. The prose is cinematic. You can visualize the band and video and feel a little like launching the nukes yourself. (Considering the primitive state of 1969 music videos, the predictive imagination of Spinrad was pretty good.) Ideologically the story is silly, a hyped up version of the pretentious notion of art’s great power. Scientifically, it’s based on a false idea of subliminal advertising’s power. I’m sure leftist Franklin likes the very un-Sixties notion of the counterculture, here rock music, being the pawn of the military-industrial complex. I find the fact that the Milford Science Fiction Writers Workshop seriously pondered not publishing the story lest it give the government ideas laughably naïve. Socially — do I detect signs of the Weathermen in the chant “Do It!”?

Everything But Love“, Mikhail Yemstev and Eremei Parnov — As Franklin says, I was surprised by the many ideas in this Soviet story: ersatz girls (the idea of a fake woman modelled on a lover to relieve the loneliness of a military life was interesting and creepy), possible physics of the paranormal, and the poignant thoughts of a dying man. However, I found the sub-theme of building weapons as being spiritually and physically lethal to be not very interesting or memorable.

To Howard Hughes: A Modest Proposal“, Joe Haldeman — This nifty story is grittily told though I’m not sure if the world’s governments would cave-in that quickly — particularly the totalitarian governments of China and Russia. Each time I’ve read it, I’m even more impressed with the Dos Passos-style on the scale of a short story. The elements of character description, history, and documentary fit together well.


More reviews of fantastic fiction are indexed by title and author/editor.

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