Dystopia: Post-apocalyptic/Post-nuclear, part 1

Post-nuclear novels from the ’50s Red Scare Years

Dystopian novels, what-if stories of the world’s worst-case scenarios, come in many flavors. In these next two posts, I’ll be discussing post-apocalyptic novels depicting the aftermath of nuclear disaster. Today’s post will discuss post-nuclear novels published during the years when Americans were never sure day-to-day whether the dystopian visions of these novelists might become reality.

Here are the eight novels I’ll discuss in this and the following post, in alphabetical order by author:

  • One Second After, William Forstchen
  • Alas, Babylon, Pat Frank–discussed in this post
  • Lord of the Flies, William Golding–discussed in this post
  • Riddley Walker, Russell Hoban
  • Fiskadoro, Denis Johnson
  • The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  • A Canticle for Leibowitz, Walter M. Miller, Jr.–discussed in this post
  • On the Beach, Neville Shute–discussed in this post

In some future post, I may have to discuss other types of dystopian fiction. The great classic dystopian stories, such as George Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, are tales of political, societal, and moral collapse. True, 1984 is set after a great war that ends the world as everyone knows it, and it was written post-Hiroshima and published in 1949, but Orwell didn’t seem to have had nuclear war in mind. More recent novels of this type include Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, and even more recently published fiction such as the novels of Christopher Brown and Claire North. Others situate dystopia in environmental collapse. Atwood’s Oryx and Crake (although Handmaid’s Tale‘s societal collapse does seem to have originated in an environmental disaster) and Octavia Butler’s The Parable of the Sower are two notable examples. There are other kinds of dystopia–the horrific vision of a world in ruins because of pandemic in Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, for instance. I may talk about some of these in another post. I’m also leaving out YA dystopia such as The Hunger Games and Divergent.

Here are four notable dystopian novels published in the 1950s:

Lord of the Flies, by William Golding


Let me start with an outlier, William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, published in 1954. It’s a great book. If you were made to read it in school, and if that gave you a bad feeling about the book, do yourself a favor, set that aside and re-read it. Actually, Lord of the Flies belongs more to the moral/societal collapse sub-genre than the post-nuclear. Nevertheless, the children on Golding’s island are isolated there because of nuclear war. Apparently the backdrop of nuclear conflict was much more prominent in Golding’s unedited manuscript, reflecting the rising anxiety of the times about the consequences of such warfare, but he agreed to follow his editor’s advice to strip the book to the essentials of human nature.

So does Golding’s novel even belong in my post? It’s one of the earliest post-apocalyptic, post-nuclear novels of note to be published, a great distillation of what a catastrophe like nuclear war would do to our sense of humanity. By the way: if you watch a film version, please let it be Peter Brook’s masterful 1963 one and not the schlocky re-makes.

Now to the books that really do fit the sub-genre. I’ll start with three very popular books written and published in the late 1950s, the run-up to the Cuban missile crisis, when the world seemed poised on the cusp of nuclear holocaust, and little children like me were made, absurdly, to hide beneath their desks at school in preparation. This would be a good place to discuss Eugene Burdick’s and Harvey Wheeler’s Fail Safe (1962), too. Sorry to leave it out! Too many books, too little time.

On the Beach, by Neville Shute (Neville Shute Norway)

Published by Penguin/Random House’s Vintage International imprint.

On the Beach originated in a serialized story Shute wrote for a London newspaper. William Morrow published it in 1957, it was made into a big splashy Hollywood movie in 1959, and the novel has never gone out of print. Shute wrote the novel when he left his native Britain for Melbourne, Australia. The plot is this: a nuclear war, begun accidentally, has poisoned the entire globe with the exception of the Southern Hemisphere. As the novel opens, atmospheric conditions are driving radioactive fallout inexorably toward Australia and the remnants of humanity. A varied cast of characters reacts to the impending arrival of certain death with various degrees of acceptance or denial, in spite of a few last-ditch efforts to find out whether any safe spots remain on the globe.

The writing is so-so, but the concept is compelling. And depressing. I found the novel pretty dated. The brittle main female character reminded me of a ton of ’30s and ’40s brash and snappy but ultimately vulnerable dames (and from the evidence of Shute’s novel, this stereotype lasted almost to the ’60s. You’d think I’d know that, as a product of the era, but I have no doubt repressed it.). The other important female character is pathetically dim-witted and clingy. The noble American submarine captain is particularly annoying, because Shute tries for “American” slang that is mostly cringe-inducing. Did his attempt to reproduce these American colloquialisms seem that tin-eared in the ’50s? Nevertheless, the ending is affecting, and the premise, chilling.

Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank (Harry Hart Frank)

Alas, Babylon was published in 1959 by Lippincott. Too bad it came after Shute’s, because I think it’s much better. But Hollywood had already popularized Shute’s novel, and–I don’t know–maybe the Hollywood powers-that-be thought movie goers would spring for only one ticket to a big splashy post-nuclear movie. Nevertheless, Alas, Babylon reached a wide readership and continues to be read. It too, like Shute’s novel, depicts a hardy band of survivors having to come to terms with a world in the aftermath of nuclear war.

Alas, Babylon is not as depressing as Shute’s novel, and maybe not as realistic about the outcome of such a horrific situation. Nevertheless, I thought the characters were a lot more interesting and believable. This novel is in some ways as dated as Shute’s in its depiction of take-charge males, but the female characters have a lot more agency and gumption, and I found the writing style of Alas, Babylon more contemporary and engaging. I really liked reading it (as opposed to reading Shute’s novel, which I found kind of a chore).

I’m amazed I never read either On the Beach or Alas, Babylon as a teenager. I do remember all the hullaballoo about Shute’s movie. I’m glad I’ve read both novels now.

Here’s a book I did read, although a bit later than the year it was published. I can’t remember when, exactly, but within a decade of publication:

A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller, Jr.

I was reading a lot of SF at the time, and this book was definitely marketed to SF readers, whereas On the Beach and Alas, Babylon were both marketed to mainstream readers. Miller’s novel is what’s known as a “fix-up.” That is, Miller wrote several stories in the mid-fifties (published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction) inspired by his own experiences as an American airman in World War II, where he bombed a monastery in Italy during the Battle of Monte Cassino. Later, he took the three loosely associated stories and retro-fitted them into a coherent novel, although the three sections of the novel take place centuries apart. The novel won the 1961 Hugo Award.

I love this novel in spite of itself. The whole end of it seems to be a propagandistic brief against euthanasia, and you have to sit through a whole lotta Latin. My advice? Just kind of browse through the Latin parts. The meanings usually become obvious from the context. If you are a Catholic of the old-school type and grew up with the Latin Mass, you may breeze through it. My long-decayed schoolgirl Latin wasn’t up to it. I didn’t let that stop me.

The plot of the novel takes place in a world very much post-nuclear. The story opens on a desert landscape where nuclear war had destroyed civilization–and the U.S. as we know it–many centuries in the past. A naive young monk discovers a trove of puzzling documents that the Catholic Church decides are relics of St. Leibowitz, an electronics specialist who was somehow–or so people believed–martyred for his faith by barbarians rampaging through a lawless post-apocalyptic, post-nuclear world. The reader comes to understand that “St. Leibowitz” was probably Jewish and secular, and the “documents” are blueprints for various mundane devices. Considering them holy relics, the monks carefully illuminate them in the manner of medieval manuscripts and preserve them faithfully. As the centuries (and the other two parts of the novel) go by, Miller shows us a world where fallible human beings gain the technical knowledge to destroy themselves and then, over and over again, because their spiritual self-knowledge never keeps pace, can’t resist using that technical knowledge to disastrous effect.

This is a very ingenious novel with a somewhat old-fashioned and sometimes pretentious style, one that sometimes seems to me more of a futuristic religious tract than an SF novel. Nevertheless, it is pretty brilliant. I really enjoyed re-reading it. (Disclaimer: I’m not a Roman Catholic, so that might color my views.)

NEXT: Four later post-nuclear novels, three of them “literary” and one appealing more to a popular audience.

2 thoughts on “Dystopia: Post-apocalyptic/Post-nuclear, part 1

  1. nineband16

    The novel I am working on now has a Mexican/Maya witch as the progenitor for a cult attempting to create a dystopian world where magic reigns supreme over reason. She tried this in the past (500 years earlier) but only with limited success in a limited environment. Does anyone know of a book or story similar to this? I don’t want to appear to be copying anyone’s idea.


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