An alternate apocalypse

My previous post was about Philip Wylie’s 1954 novel, Tomorrow!, about a nuclear attack on the United States, which ends with massive retaliation wiping out two-thirds of the population of the Soviet Union.  It reminded me of a 1947 short story, Thunder and Roses, by Theodore Sturgeon, a less renowned, but more gifted and original, writer, also about the United States in the aftermath of a nuclear attack.

In Sturgeon’s story, the United States was wiped out in a first strike, and the remnants of the population are doomed to die by radiation poisoning.  The means of retaliation still exist, however, if someone can find them.  The result, however, would be to raise the total level of background radiation to such a level as to destroy all life on other.  A beautiful and beloved singer and movie star is traveling across what’s left of the USA to try to persuade the survivors to not retaliate.

She begins her performance with her signature song, which is a reminder of all the reasons that life is worth living.

When you gave me your heart, you gave me the world

You gave me the night and the day

thunder-and-rosesAnd thunder, and roses, and sweet green grass

The sea, and soft white clay

I drank the dawn from a golden cup

From a silver one, the dark

The steed I rode was the wild west wind

My song was the brook and the lark

With thunder, I smote the evil of earth

With roses, I won the right

With the sea, I washed and with clay I built

And the world was a place of light

She then makes her plea against taking justified revenge.

The spark of humanity can still live and grow on this planet.  It will be blown and drenched and shaken and all but extinguished, but it will live if that song is a true one.  It will live if we are human enough to discount the fact that the spark is in the custody of our temporary enemy.  Some—a few—of his children will live to merge with the new humanity that will gradually emerge from the jungle and the wilderness.

The protagonist then discovers the secret missile installation from which massive retaliation can be launched.  His best friend tries to  fire the missiles.  The protagonist (apparently) kills him to stop him, destroys the installation so that the missiles can never be launched and then sits down to die.

“You’ll have your chance,” he said into the far future.  “And, by Heaven, you’d better make good.”

A decade later the anti-war Russell-Einstein manifesto called upon the peoples of the world to “remember your humanity and forget the rest.”   Philip Wylie’s novel Tomorrow!, which describes a U.S. victory through nuclear genocide, is a reminder that the best of us can forget our humanity.  Theodore Sturgeon’s novel reminds us that it is always possible to remember your humanity.

Click on Thunder and Roses for the full short story.   I did not read it when it first appeared, but I read in later, in the 1950s, in anthologies.  I liked it a lot, but I don’t remember if it dawned on me that Sturgeon was saying the exact opposite of what Wylie was saying.

Click on The Theodore Sturgeon Literary Trust and Theodore Sturgeon Page for links about his life and works.

I do not vouch for the accuracy of the fictional science in the science fiction of Philip Wylie and Theodore Sturgeon.  As far as I’m concerned, this is beside the point.  The point is how they responded to the moral challenge of the nuclear age, and what light this throws on our response to the moral challenge of our age.

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