Apocalypse then

A friend of mine recently lent me a novel about World War Three as imagined in 1954 by Philip Wylie, an author who is virtually forgotten now, but famous in his time for his iconoclasm about American political, social and sexual taboos.  Tomorrow! was enjoyable to read, and a reminder of a very real danger which we escaped.

tomorrowHe wrote Tomorrow! to advocate for a better U.S. civilian civil defense program.  The characters live in twin fictional Midwestern cities, resembling Kansas City, Kansas, and Kansas City, Missouri.  One city has a functioning civil defense program; the other does not.

Wylie sketches his characters, and their struggles and hypocrisies, as in a Sinclair Lewis novel, and then the atomic bombs fall, and their reactions reveal their characters, as in a Hollywood disaster movie.   The characters who support and participate in civil defense are self-defined liberals.  The main opponent is a wealthy businesswoman who admires Senator Joe McCarthy and thinks the real Communist enemy is within.

The climax is that the surviving members of the U.S. government decide to unleash their secret Doomsday weapon against the Soviet Union—a superbomb in a nuclear submarine on a suicide mission in the Baltic Sea.

The rays, the temperatures, vaporized Finland’s Gulf in a split part of an instant.  The sea’s bottom was melted.  The Light reached out into the Universe.  Finland (!!) was not.  Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, they were not.  Kronstadt melted.  Leningrad.  …   On the wind currents … a thick dust that widened to a hundred miles and then five hundred, moving, spreading, descending, blanketing the land … The further it surged from the reshaped Finland Gulf, where the sea had come sparkling back, the longer men took to perish.  But they perished. … Men swallowed, ate, breathed, sickened and died in a day, a week, two weeks—men and women and children, dogs and cats and cattle and sheep, all of them. … There was no refuge from the death, it took them all, the birds of Arctic winter, the persistent insects who had survived geologic ages, the bacteria—all.

Everyone in the USSR dies except a remnant in its southern fringes.  Although this is a greater mass slaughter of human beings than carried out by Hitler, Stalin or Mao, it is regarded as a happy ending in the novel.

The last great obstacles to freedom had been removed from the human path.

We then see scenes of rebuilding, with Americans, instead of being condemned for having committed history’s greatest crime, receiving foreign aid from a grateful world.   Of course this was only fiction, but it is sobering to think about what was regarded as acceptable thinking back then, and how easy it is to accept enormities as normal.   I first read the novel back in the 1950s.  I don’t remember my exact reaction, but I was not as appalled as I should have been.

Theodore Sturgeon, another writer of that era, had a similar theme, but opposite conclusion in his 1947 short story Thunder and Roses.   I’ll write about this in my next post.

Click on Philip Wylie wiki for his Wikipedia entry.

In fairness, I should mention that Philip Wylie wrote another novel, Triumph, in 1963 (which I haven’t read) depicting mutual nuclear annihilation.

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