Thursday, 3 July 2008

Apocalypses: A Self-Justification

I'm currently reading a short-story collection called Wastelands, from Night Shade Books. Inevitably, it's a collection of apocalypse and post-apocalypse stories. My opinion on it will have to wait until I've finished it. There have been a couple of good stories so far, but on the other hand it opens with a Stephen King story. King gives me the shits: his combination of folksy prose, half-baked ideas, determination to be disgusting whether or not it fits the mood of the story, and deus ex machina solutions to apparently intractable problems are all serious and repetitive flaws in his work.

I like the cover, though: an appropriately ruined cityscape digitally painted by Daniel Kvasznicza.

So why this obsession with the end of the world?

When I was a child, in the early ‘80s, there was an advertisement that occasionally came on television, amidst the kids’ shows on the Australian Broadcasting Commission (as it then was). My memories are a little vague—I was only young—and nobody else seems to recall the ad. It was very effective, though, and it scared the pants off me.

In this advert, sponsored by some anti-nuclear organisation, a small boy in pyjamas is looking out of his bedroom window at the night sky. One star in particular is obvious, glowing brightly in the sky. The boy starts singing “Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are..,” to himself, and as he does so the star gets brighter and brighter. Then there’s a flash of white light and white noise; the boy, the room, the world all fade into darkness.

It was an effective bit of media work. Sadly, it did nothing to stop the ridiculous escalation of the arms race which was then going on. It is, however, my earliest nuclear memory. There are plenty of others.

At school we once took part in a nation-wide survey about childhood fears. What scared us the most? Bullies, spiders, teachers, the death of parents? My answer was obviously a common one; when the survey results were reported in the paper, the fear of nuclear war was the top response. Fully three-quarters of children and teenagers actually expected to die in a radioactive holocaust. I was part of a generation raised in fear of the conceivable death of everything, and still the arms race escalated.

My own childhood nuclear fear took the form of obsessive fascination. A fanatical reader, my staple diet of science-fiction included many a post-holocaust wasteland full of struggling survivors, slow death and dangerous mutants. Many of these books were rubbish, of course; schlocky blockbusters whose authors were half in love with the idea of it all (there was such potential for a hack in all those ravening mutant beasts, and plenty of opportunities for the survivalist heroes to display their machismo and rescue their helpless womenfolk). A few of these books, though, were very good indeed. Z For Zachariah and Brother in the Land still stand up well today, even for an adult audience. I even had a plan—if the war started, somehow I’d get to the middle of the city. Better to be vaporised in a fraction of a second than to survive to live in a world of nothing but ash and death and cancer and fallout. But I didn’t think this was at all odd, being an eight-year-old with a death plan. It seemed an eminently sane reaction to the circumstances.

In 1986, when I was 10, there was the Chernobyl disaster. Hundreds and then thousands of locals and soldiers died in the aftermath; people are still dying today. After this I learned of the American Three Mile Island accident in 1979, the year of my brother’s birth. There were others, too, I later discovered in my voracious nuclear readings. I borrowed books from the local and school libraries; my little head reeled with waste leaks, rems and millirems, the electromagnetic pulse (planes will fall from the air, radios and watches and computers will die, pacemakers will cease), the Strategic Defence Initiative, radiation sickness, every aspect of the nightmare. My mother had Raymond Briggs’ When The Wind Blows removed from my primary school library after it reduced me to nausea and tears--in this comic book, a couple of old dears die lingeringly of radiation sickness in post-holocaust Britain, touchingly naive about the dangers of nuclear war, having believed all the ‘Protect and Survive’ pamphlets Thatcher’s government produced. But I couldn’t stop reading these things. It was like picking at a scab; I just couldn’t leave it alone.

One day, almost proudly, I told my father that nobody had ever lived in such danger of nuclear war as we did then; he contradicted me, and for the first time I learned about the Cuban Missile Crisis, a cocked gun in the mouth of the world. He’d been studying for his uni exams in those two weeks, not even sure if he’d live to sit them. I must admit that my pride was severely dented.

Now, of course, nobody even seems to consider these things, as though the danger has somehow lessened, as though the nukes aren’t still out there, deteriorating, leaking, getting lost. But after a childhood living with the idea, and this a not untypical childhood, part of me is always expecting to see that mushroom cloud bloom on the horizon.


Steerforth said...

I remember Chernobyl. I went out for a walk in the countryside the following day, which was apparently when the fallout hit Britain. I should have stayed in the pub.

I was also terrified by the prospect of nuclear war, particularly after seeing The War Game in the 80s.

I don't know if you've seen my blog entry about visiting a nuclear bunker, but if not, here's the link

JRSM said...

Thank you for pointing me to that post: fascinating stuff, and quite moving, too. It also reminded me of that scene in 'Threads' where the public servants are all work in their bunker and then the roof falls in, killing them all. We were actually shown 'Threads' in class by our English teacher--I don't think I ever quite recovered from that.

Steerforth said...

'Threads' must be the most terrifying thing I've ever watched. The ending with the kids watching the video is about as bleak as it gets.

Have you seen the film 'By Dawn's Early Light'?

JRSM said...

Yes, another scary one. Other nuclear movie "favourites" would have to be 'Fail-Safe', 'Testament', 'Special Bulletin', 'La Jetee' and, for real nightmare stuff, the Soviet movie 'Pisma myortvogo cheloveka' ('Letters from a Dead Man'). If you can watch that one and 'Threads' you should get some sort of a medal.

Unknown said...

Hey, great blog. I just came across it through goodreads.

From what I can tell you focus more on modern cover design but I thought you might be interested in taking a look at some of the covers from from my collection early SF.

JRSM said...

Wow--you've got some wonderful images there. Thank you for the link. Some of those books, like 'Earth Abides' and 'Day of the Triffids', will be the subjects of upcoming posts. And I love the crime covers as well. Great stuff.