Starting March 16th I’m going to lead a book discussion on Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg for our Facebook group, Best Science Fiction, and Fantasy Short Fiction. We had voted on reading a science fiction theme anthology and Miller’s anthology won for the Post-Apocalypse theme. Y’all are welcome to come read along and discuss the stories. Here is a link to the thread on this group read.
I thought the book would be about post-apocalypses in general, but it turns out Miller was riled up about Reagan’s Star Wars and nuclear proliferation back in the 1980s and the anthology focuses mainly on surviving a nuclear holocaust. (Read his intro.) This got me thinking. How many different kinds of post-apocalypses are there? Most of the famous ones deal with nuclear war, an extreme plague, or a catastrophic encounter with an astronomical object.
Since Miller wanted to focus on nuclear war I would too. I’ve always wanted to create a database of science fiction themes. I’ve pondered creating a theme taxonomy or even developing a Dewey Decimal type system for identifying each specific theme. Recently, I played around with ChatGPT to see if it could help with this task. The job would be a big one. So, focusing on one narrow theme would be a great start.
For our discussion of Beyond Armageddon, I decided to study short stories, novels, movies, and TV shows about surviving a nuclear war. I figured I’d bring up these precedents as we discussed the stories. Over the weeks we’ll be discussing the stories I’ll build up a timeline about this theme. I also want to use the same time to learn about Walter M. Miller, Jr., but that’s for another post.
Even with the narrowed focus on nuclear war apocalypses, there are many ways to cover the subject. A crude beginning would be to divide them into Before the Bomb (warnings), Being Bombed (surviving), and After the Bomb (new societies).
Famous movies like Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove end with the bombs going off. Their focus was on how to avoid a nuclear war.
Then there are stories that feature characters that live through an atomic war and the immediate aftermath, like the movie Threads. These stories usually begin just before bombs start falling, and usually end after the devastation showing us how bad nuclear war could be.
Finally, there are novels like A Canticle for Leibowitz, The Long Tomorrow, or movies like Mad Max, where the war is in the past and new societies are emerging. Often these kinds of stories use their creativity to imagine how humanity adapts to new situations.
For this essay, I want to be very specific. I’m looking for short stories, novels, television shows, and movies about people surviving worldwide all-out nuclear war. I’m going to exclude fiction about the anxiety of a pending war, such as Dr. Strangelove, and also ignore stories about new societies developing after a nuclear war, such as A Canticle for Leibowitz and The Long Tomorrow. I want to specialize in fiction about people who survive a nuclear war and what they do immediately afterward, maybe including the first generation born after the war. The film Threads is a perfect example.
However, my research is turning into a very large project. For this post, I’m going to focus on the fiction that came out before 1960. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were in August 1945. I’ve yet to discover any science fiction that deals with surviving a nuclear war before then. However, Beyond Armageddon includes “By the Waters of Babylon” by Stephen Vincent Benét, which was originally published in the July 31, 1937 issue of Saturday Evening Post. It describes civilization being destroyed by fire, that poisoned the earth and air. That’s good enough for me. But it’s an afterward story, a long afterward story, where our descendants have forgotten the past and assume the beings who fought this great war were gods. Like many stories of this kind, people live in primitive tribes and talk like cliches of Native Americans.
Even though America had dropped atomic bombs on Japan in 1945 it took a while for science fiction writers to imagine nuclear war, especially one that could destroy human civilization. Russia didn’t explode its first fission bomb (A-bomb) until 1949 and its first thermonuclear bomb (H-bomb) until 1953. That was the same year they began the development of their first ICBM. We started the Atlas missile program in 1954. Russia’s first successful launch was in August 1957, and ours was in late November 1958.
(Revision: Thanks to Joachim Boaz’s comment below I now know about Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction by Paul Brians. It’s online here. Evidently, there have been a number of articles and monographs on this subject. I’ll make further revisions to my list below as I get to read more.)
“By the Waters of Babylon” (1937) might be the first story about a nuclear holocaust, but it’s not for sure, and not the specific kind I’m looking for. Remember, I want stories about people experiencing a nuclear war.
“Thunder and Roses” (1947) by Theodore Sturgeon is a short story with a very unique perspective on atomic war. The link is to a copy of the original magazine publication.
You Can’t Beat the Atomic Bomb (1950) was a public service documentary about atomic bombs. The link is to YouTube in case you want to watch it.
Shadow on the Hearth in 1950 by Judith Merril is the earliest science fiction novel I know about that deals with surviving an atomic war. In 1954 it was televised as “Atomic Attack” on Motorola TV Theater, see below. If you know of others leave a comment below.
It took time for science fiction writers to put two and two together and imagine an atomic war that could create total annihilation of our species. I’m having trouble discovering when the public first encountered ideas about atomic war in the news and popular science and when science fiction writers used the ideas. Were the writers first? Could Nevil Shute have been the first to imagine self-extinction in On the Beach?
Judith Merril might be the earliest science fiction writer who explored a limited atomic war. However, I haven’t read her book yet, but in the TV drama, many of the major American cities are destroyed, and we destroy many of the enemy’s big cities, but people in small towns survive. CONELRAD was established in 1951 and is featured in the TV drama, but I think it was too early for the novel. That means the public was well aware of the atomic war possibility, I’m just not knowledgeable by how much. What did science fiction writers have to work with at this time?
According to Wikipedia, Five (1951) is the first film to portray people surviving an atomic war. I have not seen it yet, and I guess it ignores the television drama “Atomic Attack.” It is available to rent.
“There Will Come Soft Rains” (1950) by Ray Bradbury imagines an automated home in the future continuing to function after humans have died in an atomic war. We don’t know how universal the deaths are in this story.
“Lot” (1953) by Ward Moore is one of my favorite science fiction short stories. It’s “Cold Equations” type brutality hits you hard in the end. I’ve always felt that Panic In Year Zero! a 1962 film with Ray Milland might have been inspired by “Lot.” Moore story had a sequel, “Lot’s Daughter” which is even more Biblical and daring.
“Atomic Attack” (1954) was an episode on Motorola TV Theater based on Judith Merril’s 1950 novel – see above. I’d love to have a DVD of Motorola TV Theater series. This episode is available to watch on Tubi and YouTube and for sale on DVD from Amazon. Even though the production quality is low by today’s standards, I thought the 1954 television tale was an A+ story for what I was looking for. The link is to YouTube, but this version is part of a mix of videos about atomic war. See items on the right side. (I’m curious, is this just a bad film copy, or is it a kinescope?)
Project XX: Three, Two, One, Zero (1954) television documentary on the atomic bomb. Part 1 below. Part 2 is linked at YouTube upper right.
Tomorrow! (1954) by Philip Wylie compares survivors in two smaller towns that weren’t bombed in a nuclear attack, one with prepared civil defense and the other not.
On the Beach (1957) by Nevil Shute was a bestselling novel by a mainstream writer. Shute imagined radioactive clouds circling the globe slowly killing off life. Because the war took place in the northern hemisphere, radioactive clouds took weeks to get to all of the southern hemisphere with Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and the lowests parts of South America. Everyone dies. Is this the first novel of total nuclear annihilation?
“Doomsday For Dyson” (1958), a televised play by J. B. Priestley. Can’t find much about this but it appears to have been a dream about surviving a nuclear war. Love to see it if anyone knows where I could watch it. J. B. Priestley was a mainstream English novelist, playwright, screenwriter, broadcaster, and social commentator. It seems that so far, mainstream writers were more interested in writing about nuclear war than science fiction writers. However, there might be many SF novels and stories I don’t know about yet.
Red Alert (1958) by Peter George was the basis for Dr. Strangelove.
“Underground” (1958) was a 1958 episode of Armchair Theatre, a British TV show on ITV. I doubt I’ll ever get to see it. I’ve read British TV producers didn’t try and save stuff like American producers. Still, it’s another clue in how much the general public was interested in this subject.
Alas, Babylon (1959) by Pat Frank was another novel about people surviving an atomic war. It’s still very readable today. When I was a teenager in the 1960s prowling used bookstores I constantly saw used copies of On the Beach, Alas, Babylon, and Limbo. I figured they must have been very popular. Limbo wasn’t about nuclear war, but cybernetics.
Level 7 (1959) by Mordecai Roshwald. I just learned about this novel yesterday when I mentioned to my old friend Connell I was writing about books about atomic war. He said our buddy George gave it to him back in the 1960s and he still vividly remembers it. I’m going to get a copy.
On the Beach (1959) was a popular film starring Gregory Peck.
The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) was a film starring Harry Belafonte as the sole survivor of a nuclear war using radioactivity dispersed aerially. This film deserves a lot more attention than it gets. However, it’s more about being the last man on Earth, a kind of Robinson Crusoe story.
“Time Enough at Last” (1959) was one of the most popular Twilight Zone episodes that featured Burgess Meredith as Henry Bemis, another sole survivor of an atomic war. The Twilight Zone often dealt with nuclear war, but this entry was an ironic humorous one.
How To Survive An Atomic Bomb in the 50s. Not sure when this film was made.
If you know of other works of fiction that cover this topic leave a comment below.
If you are old enough to remember the late 1940s and 1950s and can tell me how you learned about the idea of nuclear war, please leave a comment. Did it come from television, newspapers, word-of-mouth, or science fiction?
21 thoughts on “Science Fiction About Surviving a Nuclear Holocaust – Pre-1960”
Paul Brians has a bibliography of THOUSANDS of examples in his book Nuclear holocausts: atomic war in fiction, 1895-1984. You can peruse the bibliography here (it’s hundreds of pages): https://archive.org/details/nuclearholocaust0000bria
It’s what I have been using for the tons of nuclear war fictions I’ve been reviewing on my site.
Great!!! I went looking for a book on this subject but couldn’t find one. I just looked this one up. It’s from 1987 and the cheapest copy I can find is $75. Have you read it?
Yes, I own a copy. There are so many books James — this might be the most studied time element of science fiction.
I recently read David Seed’s American Science Fiction and the Cold War (1999) and Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives (2012). And I have many more lined up to read…
The Brians book is free on Internet Archive. And it’s digitized on his webpage online as well.
Older yet still interesting are David Dowling’s Fictions of Nuclear Disaster and Martha Bartter’s articles and monographs. I’ve read Bartter’s “Nuclear Holocaust as Urban Renewal” (1986) and The Way to Ground Zero: The Atomic Bomb in American Science Fiction (1988) — the latter I put on the best SF academic reads list of my post on my year in review.
When I went looking for books on this topic I went because I thought I had recently read about a book on the topic. Maybe I read about it on your site.
I went to the Internet Archive, but I can only check out the book for one hour. If I can find a copy I can afford I think I’d like one for reading. Although I can read Paul Brians’s website copy on my iPad easily enough.
Thanks for letting me know about this. I’m going to revise my post with this link.
The Brians’ book remains vital due to the immense bibliography where he gives summaries of all the nuclear fictions he’s tracked down. I recommend the David Seed books I mentioned although they don’t focus as much as I would want on the lesser known stuff. The Bartter book is best pre-Hiroshima formulations of nuclear war imagined by authors (I must confess that’s less interesting to me than post-Hiroshima visions).
The cheapest used copy of the Bartter book that I can find is $50. Did you pay those prices? Is that what I’ve got to expect?
Why don’t monograph writers put their out-of-print stuff on Amazon for the Kindle? They could be making some money.
I have a vast list of books that I spy on. When I cheap copy appears I snatch it up — I doubt I spent more than $20 on the Brians and $15 on the Bartter.
Good to know. I’ll set up a notification on ABE.
Remember The Visual Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1976)? I haven’t looked at that book recently, but it has numerous thematic chapters, and I feel there’ll be useful info in there.
Being a Roger Corman fan the one that comes to mind is Day the World Ended from 1955. Low budget with the inevitable man in a rubber monster suit at the end, it nevertheless has some truly creepy moments.
I came across other Corman films I planned to check out so I’ll watch this one too. Thanks.
What Joachim B. says: there were *literally* many thousands of SF stories from the 1950s through to, say, mid-1960s that featured nuclear war or the post-nuclear landscape.
At a rough guess, for instance, at least half and maybe two-thirds of Philip K. Dick’s 1950s-era output — not just the enormous number of short stories and novelettes he wrote then, but novels like THE WORLD JONES MADE (1956) —
— have some kind of post-nuclear setting, usually enabling Dick to bring on the particular variation of mutants, robots, and/or bizarre social customs he’d come up with for that story.
A late Dick post-nuclear novel is 1965’s DOCTOR BLOODMONY, OR HOW WE GOT ALONG AFTER THE BOMB, which you might want to look at, because it’s an interesting variation in that he somehow manages to do the post-nuclear landscape as a California pastoral set in Marin and Berkeley (though with mutants, naturally, and an astronaut who’s been trapped in orbit for a couple of decades).
“Post-nuclear landscape as a California pastoral”–now that jogs a couple of memories. Carol Emshwiller’s “Day at the Beach” (F&SF 1959) and Carolyn See’s GOLDEN DAYS (1987)–weird and weirder, catastrophes of a different sort of coziness altogether.
I’ve been meaning to reread The World Jones Made. I first read it back in the 1960s and don’t really remember it. Nuclear war was a regular theme with PKD.
I mean, check out the wild plot summary —
And cast of characters —
I read Dr. Bloodmoney last year I believe and was quite impressed, pushing it to be one of my favorite PKD novels.
Dr. Bloodmoney was one of the stories I was considering for my list for Surviving a Nuclear War: 1960s. PKD often dealt with nuclear war, but Dr. Bloodmoney is a good example of people before and after surviving a nuclear war.
I came across your interesting blog today, and enjoyed your seeing your March 8, 2023 post on stories related to nuclear war. As a life-long science fiction fan, I also was interested to see your picks of SF stories meeting the criteria of having been written in the 1945-1960 time period about people surviving the near-term following a nuclear exchange.
I think some of the more sophisticated SF stories regarding nuclear holocaust came after that period, as people-including science fictions writers—began to grasp the fuller implications of a nuclear exchange. As you suggested in your blog, it took time for the human imagination to create fictional worlds in which a startlingly new technology could bring about an apocalyptic end to the real one.
As for the stories on your list, however, Red Alert doesn’t seem to meet your strict criteria of people surviving an all-out global nuclear war, because the novel portrays a nuclear exchange being averted by the shootdown of the sole surviving U. S. bomber crew attacking a target in the Soviet Union. The war never happens.
I also wonder whether On The Beach fits in your project framework, because in that novel and in the film, no one survives the global nuclear war. The radiation cloud simply takes longer to extinguish human life in the southern hemisphere. I do enjoy seeing this book mentioned on your blog, as in my opinion, it remains in the top rank of post-apocalyptic fiction.
The World, The Flesh and the Devil is still a fascinating film after all these years, not only for its post-nuclear apocalyptic themes, but for the social and interpersonal questions it tentatively explores. However, the movie does not show Harry Belafonte as the sole survivor of a nuclear war. He doesn’t even think he’s the only survivor, as the movie shows him trying to contact other people by radio. His eventual encounters with two other people provide the conflict and suspense that propel the plot forward.
Perhaps science fiction is now turning from nuclear calamity to other apocalyptic scenarios: genetically engineered infectious disease, runaway artificial intelligence, human-caused climate collapse. New disasters for a new age.
Thanks for the thought-provoking post!
Paul, you are right in fact-checking some of my details. I mentioned Red Alert because it inspired Dr. Strangelove, and it doesn’t meet my criteria. It doesn’t meet my criteria but Red Alert was important for the time period. I hope to eventually go back from 1945-1960 and look at the other ways science fiction used atomic bombs.
I considered On the Beach to meet the criteria because humans do survive for a while. But yes, they die in the end.
I didn’t mention that Harry Belafonte meets other people because I didn’t want to spoil the show for anyone who hasn’t seen the picture.
I do think as the decades move along we evolve in how we imagine how an atomic war will play out.