Last week, my thoughts turned to civil war and what might be coming our way. In the week before, I couldn't stop thinking about thermonuclear war--during that week, I started reading War Day, and I'm close to finishing it.
The book tells about the aftermath of a limited nuclear exchange between the U.S. and the Soviet Union in 1988. Several U.S. cities are obliterated, and San Antonio is nuked into a black glass wasteland. Two writers, ostensibly the book's authors, Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, take a trip across the U.S. five years later to see how the country is doing.
I've reread the novel several times. When I first read it, when it was published in 1984, it felt like prophecy--and of a future that would be arriving momentarily. When I last read the book in late fall of 2001 I thought that the authors had missed the boat in the horrors that were coming, because of course the terrorist events of September 11 were fresh in my mind, and nuclear war seemed a distant possibility. Some people worried about terrorists with a backpack nuke, but I didn't--the materials to assemble such a thing would be expensive and volatile and probably lethal to those constructing it. And the aftereffect wouldn't be as extensive as one might expect. Recent world events have taught us that one can use much cheaper ways to terrorize us.
Of course, I'm not naïve. I know that since the break up of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons are less easy to control. I've always worried about rogue nations like Korea, but until recently, I didn't worry about rogue minds being in charge of U.S. weapons.
The book offers a cold comfort: even with stable brains in charge, events can go terribly wrong.
As I've been reading the book, I've been struck that it's set in 1988-1993--big changes were coming, but not the ones that the book predicts. The book does posit that the Soviet Union was weaker than the U.S. thought, which was what led to the nuclear exchange, but those 1984 authors would not have believed the changes that actually did happen. Some days, I still can't believe it.
It's an interesting vision of a population weakened by exposure to radiation and partly wiped out by famine and flu that followed. The book shows how fragile our communities are--even nations who aren't part of the nuclear exchange and collapse that follows have struggled in the aftermath.
When I first read the book, I was fascinated by the survival aspects. These days, I'm intrigued by how economies were wiped out because of the electromagnetic pulse--whole fortunes just vanished. And what happens in the aftermath? Some economies swoop in and prosper, while others will never recover. And regular people just limp along--they weren't that rich to begin with.
I've continued to read dystopias in the decades since this book was published. I've always thought that dystopias tell us a lot about larger societal fears. I'm sure that future literary critics will spend great amounts of ink/pixels analyzing why zombie narratives were so popular in our current day. I watch people behaving like zombies once their smart phones have gotten ahold of them, so I'm not surprised that zombies are more popular than vampires, which were the predominant monster narrative in the days of the AIDS crisis.
I'm seeing lots of narratives about ecological collapse, which is well underway. But the events of the past weeks have reminded me that a nuclear nightmare will never be completely put to bed.