Nuclear Armageddon

I've been reading a lot of nuclear fictions, as I'm writing a book chapter on Nevil Shute's classic novel On The Beach, wherein the last survivors of a global nuclear war, eking out a last few weeks in Melbourne (the southernmost major city), inhabit a slow entropic drift down into death. It's a wonderfully moving book, with several characters taking their own (and their loved ones') life with the onset of radiation sickness. Having watched Peter Watkins's suppressed 1965 BBC film The War Game (, I realised that, although it's very moving in its depiction of a quiet decline into death, Shute's narrative effaces the full horror of nuclear war, and its domesticity verges on the sentimental. The War Game is clearly lensed through Dresden and Hiroshima and doesn't spare the viewer images of radiation burns, children blinded, and the euthanising of casualties who cannot be treated. (In fact, that is a euphemism: armed police officers comfort the terminal patients then shoot them in the head.)

Shute's text does contain a rather Ballardian sequence, however, when a scientist and several racing enthusiasts decide to stage one last Australian Grand Prix, which ultimately involves the deaths of quite a few qualifiers and participants. It's a kind of suicide, but accompanied by a black, almost nihilistic humour. The scientist needs a transporter to carry his damaged Ferrari home for repair: a fellow competitor points him to a lorry, whose owner has been killed on the track. 'He won't be needing it any more,' he says. The seeming callousness, which accompanies Shute's own deadpan enumeration of the violent deaths of several racers, opens up a Ballardian lack of affect and a bracingly cruel strreak of humour which leavens the emotional freight of the narrative.

I also read David Graham's Down to a Sunless Sea this week, which is in a much more heroic vein but with an astonishing sequence as the crew of a super-jumbo jet realise that war has broken out when they're over the Atlantic - radio contacts disappear with large flashes on the horizon. It's very effective in transmitting a kind of dislocated horror, though the ending - where they make it to McMurdo base in Antarctica, and the heroic pilot falls for his female Russian counterpart, is a bit glib, to say the least.

It's all taken me back to the early 1980s, when I was in CND, went on marches to airbases and London, and felt the shadow of the Bomb. Little wonder I did my PhD on American dystopian fiction, which often had nuclear war built into its textual fabric (as a kind of fictional history or break from the past). It's strange: with the 'war on terror', Iraq and Afghanistan military adventurism, and the break-up of the old Soviet Union (with now Russia staging the World Cup in 2018!), we've lost sight of all those nuclear missiles that are still out there.

That is, of course, until WikiLeaks revealed that Middle Eastern Arab states would not be too put out if Israel attacked Iranian nuclear installations, just as they did against Syria in 2007 and against Saddam's Osirak site in 1981. And how does nuclear war begin in Down to A Sunless Sea, published in 1981? An Israeli nuclear attack on Beirut, Damascus and Cairo. Some things seem not to change, much.


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