As I’ve mentioned, our short story club is reading Beyond Armageddon edited by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin H. Greenberg. Its specific theme is megawars, which is what Miller calls all-out nuclear conflicts that destroy civilization. Tuesday’s story discussion was on “Tomorrow’s Children” by Poul Anderson which first appeared in the March 1947 issue of Astounding Science Fiction but was probably written in 1946. Coincidentally, today I finished the short novel The Murder of the U.S.A. by Will F. Jenkins (Murray Leinster) which was published in 1946. Both of these stories were written in the year after we bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki and imagine the United States nearly destroyed by a sneak attack using hundreds of atomic bombs.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been consuming science fiction stories, nonfiction, and documentary films about the development of atomic weapons in the 1940s and 1950s. I want to discover where the common ideas we hold today about surviving an atomic wars come from. Are they from science fiction stories or from general public knowledge? As Civil Defense programs emerged after WWII, Americans were told about what an atomic bomb attack would be like and how to prepare and survive it. It was assumed we’d survive such a war. But as the years went by many people started believing we wouldn’t.

Darker assumptions became the norm. Books, and especially movies and television shows, based on a growing list of memes about atomic wars have shaped what we expected. Over the decades, those fears have taken a back seat to other fears, especially about climate change, and occasionally about plagues, cosmic disasters, and the return of gods. For some reason, we all entertain various scenarios about the end of the world.

For some reason, reading all this old science fiction about nuclear war has shown me we were too worried, and mostly scaring ourselves. Sure, such wars were possible, but not as likely as everyone feared. That makes me wonder if we’re too worried about climatic change, or economic collapse, or pandemics? Of course, all these things can actually kill us, but what are the odds that they will kill as many people as fiction imagines?

In “Tomorrow’s Children” Anderson imagines Americans in small towns rebuilding after the war but still suffering from widespread fallout of radioactive dust and germs from biological weapons. Anderson pictures both human and animal births being overwhelmed with horrible mutations. It’s a grim story, but ultimately positive. His solution is we must give up all prejudices about what people should look like. “Tomorrow’s Children” was well anthologized.

Anderson also pictures many of the tropes we’ll see used in most post-apocalyptic novels that have been published since then. I often wonder if the success of AR-15 sales isn’t due to apocalyptic fears? Are survivalists and preppers living with assumptions that are probably more science fiction than fact?

Anderson wrote three other stories that were “sequels” to this one that was collected in a fix-up novel called Twilight World. Radioactivity that caused mutations was a big theme in science fiction in the late 1940s and 1950s. Remember all the movies about giant invading insects or post-apocalyptic novels where normal people battled tribes of human mutants?

Murray Leinster’s novel, The Murder of the U.S.A. has a rather unique plot. America is destroyed by a sneak attack that leaves all the major cities in ruins. However, we don’t know who attacked us because the rockets came in over the poles. This was well before ICBMs were invented, so impressive speculation by Jenkins. However, in this story, Americans built over a hundred deeply buried silos where the military could survive and launch retaliative attacks. The novel is about the men of Burrow 89 who do detective work to find out who murdered the U.S.A. It’s not a very good novel and has been out of print until recently when Wildside Press reprinted it.

After reading all these stories and watching all those documentaries, I’m not sure an atomic war will be like what science fiction imagined. I believe fiction has assumed we’d go to extremes. As far as I know, radioactive fallout has not caused weird human mutations or giant insects. And we haven’t had any all-out wars that destroyed most of humanity. What I’m afraid of is a limited nuclear war. I’m afraid politicians will discover they can get away with using nukes. I believe all this post-apocalyptic fiction has scared us so much that we fear any use of them will destroy everything. I keep reading about the times our presidents considered using nuclear weapons. And we have to assume leaders and other countries have had similar thoughts. What if we start having limited wars with atomic weapons and they don’t destroy the world? Isn’t that something to fear even more?

Science fiction often imagines the worse possible ways for us to destroy ourselves. What I’m beginning to fear are all the ways we can merely make everyday life worse because of these fears. I have to admit, that science fiction has given me a lot to worry about over my lifetime. Science fiction has always been about our hopes and fears for the future. Reading all these stories about nuclear doom shows how we incorporated that one fear into our consciousness.

Here is Hiroshima in 1945 and 2020. Did we imagine such a recovery in 1945? It’s pretty weird that it’s taken me over fifty years to begin to distrust science fiction.

But there is something else we should consider. Why have these stories been so popular for so long? Sure, the causes of apocalypses keep changing, but we still delight in fiction about surviving something big and awful. Maybe they imply another kind of psychological issue. Instead of worrying about the worse than can happen, maybe we subconsciously want cataclysmic change? That deep down we don’t like how civilization has evolved and want a do-over. That’s not healthy either.

Now I’m starting to wonder if my life-long addiction to science fiction isn’t a psychological symptom suggesting I have a problem with reality. Think about it. Why would anyone really want to live on Mars? Why would anyone picture themselves living in a post-apocalyptic world? Why would anyone imagine time-traveling to the past or future? And really, why are dystopian novels so popular as escapist fiction?

James Wallace Harris, 4/5/23

5 thoughts on “The Murder of the U.S.A.

  1. We derive our sense of the apocalypse from Christianity which is thoroughly suffused with this perspective. Even our secularists tend to think in absolutist, binary terms. Good vs Evil, paradise vs dystopia; nobody in the future just has a normal, boring life! The transition from dystopia to paradise or back again is accomplished not through an orderly progression of human effort but by a catastrophe of some sort. And how often this catastrophe is conceived as a judgement on our behavior or depicted as some sort of purgation or cleansing.

    As far as F&SF, maybe the genres have just run out of gas, like westerns or romance novels?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Nuclear Annihilation stories and movies were all the rage in late ’40s to the ’50s for obvious reasons. I am also reading the anthology BEYOND ARMAGEDDON (1985) cover to cover along with the FB Group on short science fiction. “Tomorrow’s Children” involves a pilot, his never-runs-out-of-gas “Atomic Jet”, and his boss the general/pseudo president of the new USA. rather strange story with a few insights.
    Nice article JWH!


  3. Jim,

    thanks for writing about this early (his first released as a novel without prior serialization in a magazine) Leinster novel, written under Will F. Jenkins and not his Leinster pseudonym.

    I read this for the 1946 Project for Chicon 8. While it’s not great, or perhaps even very good, it is the best original SF novel published in 1946 IMHO. (Although it had no or very minimal genre recognition at the time that I could discern, “Titus Groan” was the best speculative fiction novel of 1946). As I noted in my post on Chicon 8 for what I called the Not the Retro Hugos, “Murder in the U.S.A.” was the highest ranked original SF novel first published in the Joe Kennedy 1947 fan poll.

    It was mentioned positively in a quasi-editorial by John W. Campbell, Jr., who seemed offended it was not promoted as SF. It was marketed as “A new Kind of Murder Mystery…”, so I can see his point. Although it was out of print for a long time, it was reprinted in twice, last in 1950.

    My detailed thoughts on it were, “This fairly obscure 1946 novel was noted as ‘A New kind of Murder Mystery…A Whole Nation is the Victim!’ It is about a sneak atomic attack on the US. I think this is a good SF novel, although I don’t think it was positioned as SF. It does not get to great, and I’m not sure it even gets to very good, but definitely at the high end of “Good” for me, at 3.5/5. A bit more work on the characters might have gotten this to “Very good”. Still, it moved along, it made sense, it was pretty riveting. “Titus Groan” is still the best SFF novel of 1946 IMHO that would have been Hugo eligible if there had been Hugos for 1946 works, but this is a very solid second, better than anything else.”


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