Isaac Asimov would open his introductions to each of the 25-volume series, The Great SF Stories (1939-1963) with “in the world outside reality” and then describe actual world events of that year. Several paragraphs later, Asimov would start over with “in the real world” and relate what happened in the subculture of science fiction. Because I grew up addicted to reading science fiction, I actually thought like that. I was born in 1951, and I became aware of atomic bombs and ideas about WWII and WWIII from reading and watching science fiction. I eventually learned differently as I got older in the second half of the 1960s, but still, most of my conceptualizations about nuclear wars came from science fiction. In other words, I learned about reality from science fiction and fiction before studying history.
But even as an adult, I assumed that most people got most of their ideas about what it might be like to survive nuclear war from science fiction. That’s why I wrote “Science Fiction About Surviving a Nuclear Holocaust Pre-1960.” And that might be true for people born after 1950, but in researching my essay I realized that it wasn’t true for people born before 1950. Between 1945 and 1950, and probably for several years into the 1950s, atomic warfare was widely discussed and speculated about in public — in newspapers and magazines, and on radio and newsreels. After that, I theorize people’s conception of what nuclear war would be like was shaped more by fiction and science fiction.
While researching these blog posts about nuclear war and science fiction I discovered I already owned The Beginning Or The End by Greg Mitchell, a 2020 nonfiction book about the making of a 1947 film, The Beginning Or The End. That MGM film is one of the first fictional accounts of the making and use of atomic bombs. What Mitchell’s book shows is how Hollywood and the Army worked together to tell their version of the story while the scientists who built the bomb wanted to tell a very different version — one closer to actual history and fact.
The book’s subtitle is “How Hollywood and America Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” and that’s accurate and inaccurate at the same time. For a short while (maybe 1945-1947), the government and the military tried to convince the American public that the bomb wasn’t as scary as the scientists claimed. The public might have accepted that official view during those years, but soon most people were scared shitless about the bomb. And fiction and science fiction made their fears even worse.
Mitchell’s book is a cold case study proving fiction distorts our understanding of history, and I highly recommend it. The Kindle edition is currently just $4.29 at Amazon. There’s also a hardcover and audiobook edition. The DVD of the 1947 movie is currently $18 but I don’t recommend it. It’s actually a crummy flick even though at the time MGM aimed to make one of the greatest films ever. You’ll be able to discern their lousy artistic effort by watching the equally lousy print of the film on YouTube.
Once I started looking for old documentaries about atomic bombs YouTube started offering what I think must be public service films created to inform the public about atomic warfare. It seems that each test explosion had its own documentation. And watching those films has been immensely revealing in understanding history from that period. I thought I knew more than I did, especially since I grew up in that period. But I realize, what we know about the world before puberty, and in the decade just before we were born, has been highly distorted by pop culture. The older I get the more I realize that my awareness of 1945-1960 is mostly based on science fiction, fiction, television, movies, and rock music. Talk about a reality distortion field!
I thought atomic warfare would be a great test case for studying the influence of science fiction because it’s so recent in history with 1945 being the starting point. I’m discovering science fiction gave me a very low-level kind of awareness of reality while I was growing up. If I’m brutally honest, I’d say SF was just two steps up from comic books, and one step up from television and movies. But as a kid, I didn’t want to believe that. As a twelve-year-old, addicted to sense-of-wonder, I wanted to believe science fiction offered a sophisticated education about reality and future possibilities.
Mitchell’s book let me jump back to 1945 and follow along one path about how the public learned about atomic bombs. The book goes into great detail starting just after the bombing of Hiroshima about how movie studios wanted to make a fictional film about the development and first use of the atomic bomb. The book chronicles how fiction, especially movies created that reality-distortion field I was talking about above.
Mitch does mention science fiction early on, but the book mostly focuses on the making of the MGM film, and for a while, a competing film from Paramount. By the way, the screenwriter hired for the Paramount film was Ayn Rand, and she could be considered a science fiction writer. Here’s Mitchell’s early tip of the hat o science fiction:
However, this was small potatoes compared to what film moguls and screenwriters were already working on. On October 28, 1945, Donna Reed got a letter from her old chemistry teacher, Ed Tompkins. Tompkins was part of a group of scientists working at Oak Ridge that were freaked out about the possibilities of atomic bombs and wanted to warn the public. He asked Donna Reed in a series of letters to give them to someone in power at MGM who could make a movie about their fears. Reed gave the letters to her husband Tony Owen, an agent, who contacted Samuel Marx, a producer, who got them an interview with Louis B. Mayer. Mayer flew Owen and Marx out to Oak Ridge on MGM’s private DC3. Eventually, the movie people got an interview with President Harry S. Truman, who supported the idea but for different reasons.
The Beginning Or The End got quickly made in 1946 and came out in 1947. But it wasn’t the only picture being made on the subject. It did have a rather striking opening. The film begins with a fake documentary of a bunch of actors portraying famous scientists and military men involved with the bomb installing a time capsule that’s supposed to be open in 500 years. What they put in the time capsule is the film The Beginning Or the End.
However, right from the start of making the movie, the scientists involved thought the film distorted their message. The rest of the book is about the problems of making the film. Those details illustrate what I’m talking about how fiction gives us a false conception of history. It’s quite fascinating. As I said, I recommend this book. Vanity Fair picked it as one of the top books of 2020. Read clips of various reviews here.
The book also deals with the argument on whether or not we should have used the A-bomb on Japan. That history has been presented in other books, but it’s an important factor in this one because it was a major motivation for lying to the public. In this case, fiction, the film The Beginning Or The End, intentionally lies. That’s one kind of distortion of history. But I’m also interested in how fiction speculates and become memes that fixate in the public’s minds.
For example, science fiction quickly moved to imagine atomic wars that would wipe out civilization and kill most people. In the early 1950s, it used radiation as a magical reason to create movies about giant insects or horrible mutant humans. A good comparison is science fiction about pandemics. Those stories often imagine a plague that kills 90% or 99% percent of everyone, even though in history, the worse plague events might have killed 25-35% of the population of specific cities. Fiction imagines the worse, for obvious dramatic reasons. But how often does fiction imagine a realistic limited nuclear war? We generally assume that any use of nuclear weapons will lead to all-out global warfare, and that’s because of fiction. Maybe that fiction has kept us from using nuclear weapons again, but isn’t it also another kind of distortion?
What I want to explore in my essays about science fiction and nuclear war is how fiction distorts reality.
James Wallace Harris, 3/22/23
3 thoughts on “History vs. Fiction vs. Science Fiction”
Well I’m going to have to read Mitchell’s book. I was born in 1960 and though my parents never ever really believed me I clearly remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, mostly through their emotions. They were scared sh*tless. I was raised in the rural South and everything was filtered through fundamentalist evangelical religion which was thoroughly apocalyptic. Communism was Satanic and Jesus was coming soon.
Consequently I’ve always been fairly obsessed with ‘After the Bomb’ books and movies. Even the scene of the newspapers blowing down the empty streets of San Francisco in a Hollywood potboiler like ON THE BEACH can still give me the oddest feeling.
I feel the same way about after the bomb stories. I was 10-11 in 1962 and live in base housing on Homestead Air Force Base during the Cuban missile crisis. It was tense. But I loved hearing the B-52s take off.
The worst human plague – the Black Death in the fourteenth century – killed between a third and a half of the human race infected. Animal plagues – most famously myxomatosis – have a death rate of up to 99.8%.