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Late Cold War Literature

and Culture
Daniel Cordle

Late Cold War

and Culture
The Nuclear 1980s
Daniel Cordle
Nottingham Trent University
Nottingham, United Kingdom

ISBN 978-1-137-51307-6 ISBN 978-1-137-51308-3 (eBook)

DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3
Library of Congress Control Number: 2016951318

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To Emily and Elliot Cordle and Matthew, Rebecca and Adam Gell

I am grateful for the support, interest and camaraderie of academic and other
colleagues in the School of Arts and Humanities at Nottingham Trent
University, particularly Professor Phil Leonard who has put up with sharing
both an office and numerous nuclear conversations. Their commitment to
ideals of knowledge, education and collegiality, in the face of forces in higher
education often antithetical to those things, is deeply heartening. I am
grateful too to colleagues and students on my nuclear literature modules at
NTU who over many years have brought inspiration, insight and delight.
Scholars of nuclear and Cold War culture in Britain and around the
world have taught me much and invigorated my work with their articles,
books, conversation and enthusiasm. Members of the British Society for
Literature and Science have nurtured my understanding of related areas
and provided more general inspiration, and the hard work and profession-
alism of staff at Palgrave Macmillan is also greatly appreciated.
Any project of this scope inevitably draws heavily on love and sustenance
provided by family and friends. My heartfelt thanks go to Celia and Derek
Cordle, Elizabeth Cordle, David and Rebecca Cordle and all the Gells for
their support and patience during the writing of this book, as well as to
friends, many of whom helped me outrun its more trying moments.
My greatest debt of gratitude is, as ever, to Sandra Gell, who has lived
with this project as long as I have and who has borne with patience what is
perhaps most appositely described as its fallout. Thank you.


1 Protect–Protest: Introducing the Nuclear 1980s 1

2 The Most Explosive Love Story Ever: Transatlantic

Nuclear Discourse 25

3 The Politics of Vulnerability: Protest

and Nuclear Literature 47

4 Post-Containment Culture: Gender, Family and Society

in the Late Cold War 77

5 Dust, Winter and Refuge: Environmentalism

and Nuclear Literature 113

6 From the Ashes: Society and Economy

in Nuclear Literature 141

7 Burning Books: Textual Preoccupations of Nuclear

and Postmodern Culture 169

8 Conclusion: Between the Wars 199


Appendix: Timeline 203

Bibliography 211

Index 223

Fig. 1.1 Cover of Protect and Survive pamphlet 11

Fig. 2.1 Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as Rhett Butler
and Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind,
originally published in Socialist Worker (1980) 26


Protect–Protest: Introducing the Nuclear


On 24 October 1981, the British Labour politician Tony Benn took to a

stage in Hyde Park to address a rally organised by the Campaign for Nuclear
Disarmament (CND), protesting NATO plans to deploy US nuclear cruise
missiles to Europe. Greeted by the 200,000-strong crowd with, as The Times
put it, a “hero’s welcome”, he declared that “[t]his is our continent”. There
must be, he told them, “no annihilation without representation”.1 Two
years later, with the arrival of cruise missiles imminent, an even larger
crowd, a “CND Army” that took “London by storm”, marched to Hyde
Park to hear the new Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, call for “an absolute
freeze on the testing, deployment and use of nuclear missiles”.2
Both speakers’ words evoked a transatlantic context, revealing how
relations with the United States shaped British political discourse in the
1980s. Benn’s reworking of the famous protest slogan of eighteenth-
century American rebels against British rule (“no taxation without repre-
sentation”) provocatively reversed international relations, implying the
United States was now itself visiting a colonial project (military, for sure,
but also ideological and economic) upon Britain. Kinnock’s language
drew inspiration from the terminology of the Freeze Campaign, which,
although it had a little traction in Britain, was identified most strongly
with anti-nuclear activism in the United States.3 Freeze’s success was, in
the estimation of the sociologists Frances McCrea and Gerald Markle, to
“define the nuclear arms race as the paramount social problem of the
1980s” in the United States.4 Like CND, it garnered enormous popular

© The Author(s) 2017 1

D. Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3_1

support and in June 1982, with several other protest organisations, Freeze
organised in Central Park, New York, “perhaps the largest political
demonstration in American history, [in which] nearly one million people
gathered . . . to demand an immediate halt to the arms race”.5
The large sizes of the Freeze and CND demonstrations show how
pressing for large numbers of people were the geopolitical and strategic
decisions shaping Cold War nuclear policy. Nuclear issues also shaped
domestic political debate, as the presence of Benn and Kinnock at CND
rallies shows. Indeed, unilateral disarmament was a manifesto commit-
ment in Labour’s disastrous 1983 general election campaign and there was
a more general resistance, particularly in the Nuclear Free Zone move-
ment, of Labour local authorities to the nuclear policy of the national
Conservative government. In the United States, Freeze resolutions were
passed in ten out of eleven state referenda in 1982 and a year later a Freeze
resolution was passed by the House of Representatives.6 Although nuclear
policy was taken up and debated within political parties, political affiliation
was not necessarily an accurate guide to one’s position on the arms race
and other nuclear issues. Hence, although nuclear disarmament and other
anti-nuclear positions were adopted predominantly by those on the poli-
tical left, they were neither exclusive to them, nor universally accepted by
It is against this background of anxious debate on both sides of the
Atlantic that this book reads the 1980s as a nuclear decade and British and
US literature of the 1980s, particularly the fiction and prose genres on
which it concentrates, as a nuclear literature. It is a nuclear literature not
only because an unprecedented number of fictions with a nuclear theme
were published, but because many other fictions not normally read as
nuclear contain revealing flashes of Cold War and nuclear concerns.
Indeed, in some ways these less obviously nuclear texts more accurately
demonstrate the tensions of the decade, for they show how nuclear issues
(particularly, but not exclusively, the threat of nuclear war) were part of
the warp and weft of everyday experience. They were not always at the
forefront of people’s minds, but they haunted the 1980s, periodically
flickering through the preoccupations of everyday life to assert their pre-
sence. As I have argued elsewhere, nuclear literature is much more than
genre fiction explicitly about nuclear war or its aftermath.7
Of course, nuclear issues were not new in the 1980s. What was new was
the insistence with which they imposed themselves on the public imagina-
tion. The whole topography of the decade, comprising cultural, social,

geopolitical, domestic political, economic, technological and scientific

features, was both shaped by and shaped nuclear preoccupations.
The nuclear culture of the end of the Cold War was importantly
different to that of the early Cold War. Yet, while Cold War culture of
the late 1940s and the 1950s has been extensively mapped and theorised,
particularly in the United States (in, for instance, Alan Nadel’s and Elaine
Tyler May’s powerful conceptions of “containment culture” discussed
later and in Chapter 4),8 similar critical rigour has not been brought to
bear on the 1980s as a coherent Cold War moment. The Nuclear 1980s
does not pretend to be comprehensive in its mapping of the decade, but it
begins the project of understanding late Cold War culture. It shows the re-
emergence in public discourse of nuclear anxieties largely suppressed since
the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and indicates the diversity of nuclear
literature that accompanied this re-emergence. It demonstrates how this
new nuclear culture was mapped into the broader politics of the period,
particularly gender politics, environmental politics and the rise of neoli-
beralism in Britain and the United States. Finally, it theorises these devel-
opments through the emergence of what it calls a “protect–protest”
dynamic and the blossoming of a “politics of vulnerability”.


The nuclear 1980s I discuss is a “long” decade but not a very long one. It
begins in earnest in 1979 with NATO’s decision to deploy American
cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe (a strategic decision inspiring,
as we saw earlier, much protest for its potential destabilising of the nuclear
status quo), the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (signalling a heightening of
Cold War tensions and leading to a proxy war, with the United States
arming the Mujahedin resistance) and election victories for two “cold
warriors”, Margaret Thatcher in Britain and (in 1980) Ronald Reagan in
the United States, whose hard-line stances did much to raise the tempera-
ture of the Cold War.
It ends in the early 1990s. Although nuclear anxiety began to peter out
with progress toward arms reduction in the second half of the 1980s, and
despite the dramatic changes of 1989—the fall of the Berlin Wall; the
fragmentation of the Soviet Union—that seemed so definitively to reduce
the possibility of global nuclear war, there was a time lag during which
Cold War nuclear concerns continued to work their way through the
culture and appear in literary texts.

Fears were stoked by the belligerence of both superpowers in the

1980s. Notably, the shift in strategic discourse from the idea that nuclear
war was unthinkable to the assertion that it was “winnable”, or that a
“theatre” or “limited” nuclear war was possible, became more widely
debated, sitting uneasily in the public imagination alongside the older,
clearer, more apocalyptic strategy of deterrence by Mutual Assured
Destruction (popularly known by its acronym). There was a widely shared
perception that nuclear weapons were held in numbers vastly in excess of
those needed to defeat the enemy; in excess, indeed, of those necessary to
destroy the world or, at least, human civilization. The title of John Cox’s
campaigning 1977 book, Overkill, encapsulated this view. Cox takes as
one of his epigraphs the words of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Philip Noel-
Baker, who claimed that “[b]oth the US and the Soviet Union now [in
1971] possess nuclear stockpiles large enough to exterminate mankind
three or four—some say ten—times over”.9
Nuclear anxieties that first emerged in the 1940s and 1950s, but that
had been largely dormant since then, were revived and reconstituted in the
1980s, supplemented by new fears. New models of the effects of nuclear
war—the electromagnetic pulse (EMP) that would wipe out electronic
communications (not entirely new, but more widely understood in the
1980s); “nuclear winter” theory—became part of public discourse.
Accidents at power stations (Three Mile Island in 1979 and Chernobyl
in 1986) and concern about the transport of nuclear waste through
populated areas raised questions about nuclear industry. Indeed, civilian
nuclear power plants, often previously seen as benign alternative uses of
atomic technology, were persuasively portrayed by 1980s activists as
environmentally toxic and as cogs in the machinery of the military–indus-
trial complex.
In the 1980s nuclear protest movements, like CND, quiet since the
1950s (some thought dead: Laurie Taylor reportedly said that “there’s no
CND” on the BBC radio programme Stop the Week, in 1979),10 revived,
recruiting large numbers of people, particularly amongst the young, and
made their voices heard more loudly than ever before. They were supple-
mented by a profusion of new peace and anti-nuclear groups that cam-
paigned on a broad series of fronts: against, variously, nuclear power
plants, the deployment of new American weapons in Europe and the
“Star Wars” Strategic Defence Initiative; for, variously, an arms race
freeze, multilateral disarmament, unilateral disarmament and justice for
“downwinder” victims of nuclear testing; as well as on broader peace and,

in some cases, pacifist agendas. Furthermore, these groups were invigo-

rated by alliances with sympathetic related campaigning constituencies,
particularly those of feminist and environmental activists. Although they
encountered entrenched establishment opposition, they mobilised large
numbers of people, holding demonstrations and actions that often sur-
passed, in size, those staged by anti-Vietnam and civil rights activists in the
1960s, a decade more frequently seen as radical. This was no mean
achievement given that the issues on which they campaigned were often,
by definition, hypothetical, even abstract (as in the undesirability of certain
projected nuclear futures) or bedevilled by woolliness (as when people
evinced a visceral but generalised objection to all things nuclear).
Indeed, it is an important contention of this book that the 1980s was a
radical decade. It was radical in the conventional sense of containing forthright
and generally left wing protest, but it was also radical because it was a period of
hard-line reform by governments of the right. It is the decade in which the
neoliberal worldview became entrenched, shaping the fundamental restruc-
turing of the state by governments in both Britain and the United States. The
British Prime Minister, Thatcher, and the United States President, Reagan,
were important figureheads for these reforms and, as Chapter 2 discusses,
became lightning rods both for support for and opposition to these policies.
The neoliberal worldview is now so dominant, so mainstream, that it is
hard to imagine quite how virulently contested was this period of its
establishment, when opposing, radical visions of society were proposed
and fought over by left and right. That these struggles took place against
the geopolitical backdrop of the Cold War as it moved toward its end is
important because bitterly contested disputes within nation states were
also being played out on the world stage. That the Cold War’s end,
though dramatic, did not involve the nuclear conflagration toward
which many had long imagined the superpowers to be heading can, in
retrospect, give the period a quality of anti-climax, but this is to forget
quite how central and pressing were its nuclear politics—and its politics
more generally—and also naively to assume that the “safe” ending of the
Cold War was somehow always assured.
Nuclear issues frequently crystallised, in the public imagination, the
Cold War confrontation between West and East. Nuclear weapons came
to epitomise a Cold War logic run amok: meant as the ultimate guarantors
of protection, they also produced feelings of intense vulnerability and
inspired active protest. Their representation as a world-ending technology
inspired both acute anxiety and eschatological speculation.

By assessing the nuclear 1980s, this book seeks to add to the emerging
body of scholarship on Cold War culture. In the last few years increasingly
many critics have seen the Cold War as a cultural, as well as a geopolitical,
phenomenon. From these efforts, as through the shadowy images of an x-ray,
a Cold War skeleton, giving structure and shape to the flesh of society and
culture, has emerged. Developing, sometimes even moving beyond, estab-
lished ways of theorising culture since 1945—postmodernism; postcolonial-
ism; late capitalism—a range of important studies have revealed the
embeddedness of cultural production in the geopolitics of Cold War con-
frontation.11 Such an understanding shaped my earlier book, States of
Suspense, but it is becoming an increasingly common critical perspective.
Andrew Hammond has, for instance, shown how “British literary fiction of
the 1945–1989 period was an expressly Cold War fiction” and Steven Belletto
has made a similar point about US fiction, reading the Cold War as a
“rhetorical field that shaped the way reality was understood”.12
Yet the excellent range of work on the cultural Cold War has left the
1980s largely untouched. While 1980s texts are by no means entirely
ignored by critics, they feature far less frequently in analysis of Cold War
culture than earlier literature. Consequently, 1980s nuclear literature has
yet to be theorised as part of a coherent late Cold War moment. This book
seeks to address this deficiency. It incorporates, too, attention to the
dynamics of transatlantic culture and politics in this late period, a topic
explored interestingly by Adam Piette in relation to earlier Cold War
literature in which he reads the “special relationship as a form of paranoid
plotline governing key Anglo-American texts”.13
After a hiatus of nearly two decades, following the Cuban Missile Crisis
of 1962, nuclear issues came strongly to the fore again in the 1980s and a
substantial body of literature, shaped by this nuclear consciousness, was
published. Simply put, the Cold War, and particularly the nuclear Cold
War, became urgent again in the 1980s and it demands our serious critical
Although there are many 1980s texts that are overtly nuclear (by, for
instance, imagining worlds shaped by nuclear war), like Russell Hoban’s
Riddley Walker (1980) and David Brin’s The Postman (1985), we must
also include in our definition of nuclear literature those many texts beyond
the genre confines of apocalyptic fiction that reveal the nuclear context as
part of the lived experience of ordinary life. This includes more “literary”
treatments of nuclear issues, like James Thackara’s America’s Children
(1984) and “mainstream” literature in which the threat of nuclear war

provides an assumed, but largely suppressed, background to the central

narrative concerns, as in Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987), Maggie
Gee’s Grace (1988) and Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989). It also spans
a range of genres in addition to, and overlapping with, the apocalyptic
(and science) fiction and “literary” fiction just mentioned. There are,
amongst others, family sagas, like Gee’s The Burning Book (1983); thril-
lers, like Martin Cruz Smith’s Stallion Gate (1986); action-adventures like
William Prochnau’s Trinity’s Child (1983); horror novels, such as Stephen
King’s The Stand (1978) and Robert McCammon’s Swan Song (1987);
graphic novels, like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins’s
Watchmen (1987) and Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows (1982);
short stories, such as Grace Paley’s collection, Later the Same Day (1985);
and documentary fictions, like Warday (1984), co-authored by a journal-
ist, James Kunetka, and a novelist, Whitley Strieber, and presented as a
travelogue of their imaginary travels around a nuclear-devastated United
States (and including “real” transcripts of interviews, opinion polls and
scientific papers). Nonfiction prose, like Terry Tempest Williams’s memoir
Refuge (1991) and Jonathan Schell’s essays for The New Yorker, “The Fate
of the Earth” (1982) and “The Abolition” (1984), are also an important
part of the nuclear canon.
Included prominently alongside these works is a body of young
adult and children’s nuclear fiction. This deserves special mention, for
it experienced a remarkable boom in the 1980s and forms an important
facet of the imaginative engagement with nuclear technology, though
the extraordinary texts produced as a result are rarely considered by
nuclear and Cold War critics.14 That nuclear themes were so directly
addressed in writing for young people indicates the extent to which the
late Cold War sensibility permeated everyday life. There were, of
course, particular concerns about the psychological impact of fears
about the future, about a pervasive futurelessness, on children. Yet,
many of these texts do not simply seek to reassure children (though the
younger the target age group the greater the tendency to present adults
as trustworthy and working to preserve peace) and some, particularly
those for adolescents, are extraordinarily candid, depicting the deaths
of parents and siblings and the collapse of society. In some cases, as in
Barbara and Scott Siegel’s The Burning Land (1987), such events are
little more than a scenario for an adventure narrative, but in many
other cases texts explicitly question nuclear policy, raise broader issues
about social order and how a fair society should be structured and even

actively suggest participation in nuclear protest. It is relevant that

nuclear protest groups were particularly successful in recruiting young
people to their ranks and we should think of nuclear protest in the
1980s as highly charged by a sense of generational awareness. There is
also some anecdotal evidence that teachers used nuclear literature to
educate children and prompt debate about contemporary issues.15
Because of their importance to the central canon of nuclear texts, I
do not separate these books off from the rest of my discussion and they
feature throughout this book alongside adult literature.
The primary focus of this study is on fiction, but we should note the
presence of nuclear issues more widely in literature and culture in order to
locate the significance of this writing, as in poetry collections like Atomic
Ghost (1995), edited by John Bradley, drama like that collected in Plays for
the Nuclear Age (1989) and numerous works of nonfiction prose. Even
where writers do not leave a linguistic trace in their literary works of
nuclear issues, there is likely to be some impact upon them of the late
Cold War climate. For instance, although Alice Walker does not write
directly about nuclear issues in her fiction, her review-cum-essay “Nuclear
Madness: What You Can Do” (1982) in her major collection In Search of
Our Mothers’ Gardens, responds in an impassioned way to Helen
Caldicott’s book Nuclear Madness: “As individuals we must join others.
No time to quibble about survival being ‘a white issue.’ No time to claim
you don’t live here, too. Massive demonstrations are vital. Massive dis-
obedience. And, in fact, massive anything that’s necessary to save our
lives” (Caldicott 1978).16
Also participating importantly in the cultural response to the bomb are
films, like War Games (1983) and Miracle Mile (1988), and televisual
treatments of nuclear issues, ranging from made-for-television films such as
The Day After (ABC, 1983), Testament (PBS, 1983) and Threads (BBC,
1984), to drama series like Edge of Darkness (BBC, 1985). A broader back-
ground of nuclear ephemera, ranging from pamphlets and news reports to
pop songs, situation comedies (like Thames Television’s Whoops Apocalypse
and episodes of the BBC’s Yes, Prime Minister and The Young Ones), board
games (Apocalypse) and early video games (Wasteland—a forerunner of the
Fallout series), is also highly relevant.
As will be apparent from this brief, indicative outline of the literature
with which The Nuclear 1980s is concerned, there was both a large volume
of nuclear literature produced during the long 1980s and a wide diversity
of forms adopted by this literature. My contention is that this is, in a broad

sense, a political literature. This dissents from Andrew Hammond’s view

of nuclear novelists in his otherwise excellent survey of British Cold War
fiction, where he argues that “[a]s oppositional as their work was . . . the
frequent lack of support for the left-leaning peace movement . . . meant a
failure to advance political methods of resistance.”17
Whilst it is certainly true that nuclear literature, in the United States as
well as in Britain, frequently eschewed direct statement of policy positions (it
is rare, for instance, to encounter a novel that directly advocates unilateral or
multilateral disarmament, or debates the relative merits of each), it was
political in the 1980s in more subtle and varied ways. Most importantly, it
was published and read in a context of animated public debate about nuclear
issues and hence its visions of a nuclear future were co-opted, contested and
otherwise used—indeed, were a vibrant dimension of—discourse and think-
ing about policy. These visions could produce contradictory impulses. A
general warning about the effects of nuclear weapons might, for instance, sit
uneasily beside a fetishistic fascination with military technology. Similarly,
visions in fiction of a world devastated by nuclear war might be appropriated
as proving their case both by those advocating arms reduction and those
asserting the need for a strong nuclear deterrent.
Nevertheless, in general Late Cold War Literature and Culture argues
that, with some notable exceptions, nuclear literature functioned most effec-
tively within the discourses of anti-nuclear groups. Its politics also reverber-
ated into wider issues at stake in 1980s culture: debates about gender (the
subject of Chapter 4), the environment (Chapter 5) and the competing
visions of society that emerged from controversies about neoliberalism
(Chapter 6). These indicate some of the special ways in which the general
truism that all literary texts are political (for their identity politics; for the
visions of society they assume and contest) found expression in the 1980s.
Late Cold War Literature and Culture proposes, as a means of thinking
about and theorising this politics, the presence in nuclear culture of what I
label a protect–protest dynamic. The global peril of nuclear war elicited a sense
of vulnerability that was central to broader attempts to reimagine society and
to argue, in ways that have sadly been lacking since the end of the Cold War,
that how things are is not how they have to remain; that conflict, on the
global and on the local scale, is neither necessary nor inevitable.
The remainder of the introduction turns to discourses of protection and
protest. The terminology has its origins in the British experience of the late
Cold War, but the conceptual conflict also found direct expression on the
other side of the Atlantic.18

On 16 January 1980, The Times began a four-part series about the state of
Britain’s planning for protection against nuclear attack, drawing attention,
in the process, to a civil-defence pamphlet, Protect and Survive (1976)
(Fig. 1.1), largely unknown in Britain before this point and designed to
be distributed should the country ever face nuclear war.19 On 10 March, the
BBC investigative news programme, Panorama, ran a documentary on civil
defence,20 broadcasting clips from an animated video version of Protect and
Survive that would be shown on television in the run-up to nuclear attack.
Both the booklet and the films advised householders to prepare themselves
for nuclear war by making small-scale improvements to the home: con-
structing simple “inner refuges”, stockpiling food and water and so on.
Over the next months and years, Protect and Survive became part of the
iconography of 1980s nuclear culture in Britain. The reaction both against
and in defence of the campaign is illustrative of a broader dialectic between
discourses of protection and protest that explains some of the dynamics at
play in British nuclear culture at this time. Across the Atlantic similar
contrapuntal discourses were also in operation, asserting and contesting
the state’s ability to protect its citizens with and from nuclear weapons.
Protect and Survive was significant because it came to denote, for those
opposed to the way in which the Cold War was being conducted, the
absurdity not only of the idea of nuclear civil defence, but of the Cold War
logics of Mutual Assured Destruction and, conversely, “limited” nuclear
war. As much as the advice offered by Protect and Survive was meant to
offer reassurance that nuclear attack could be survived, it served ultimately,
if inadvertently, to highlight the vulnerability of ordinary citizens in a
decade in which the threat of nuclear war came to seem more urgent. As
Joseph Masco put it, in discussing an American context for his major
ethnographic study of the nuclear culture of New Mexico,

[t]he contradiction nuclear arsenals evoke is that as more national-cultural

energy is put into generating “security” through improved weapons sys-
tems, the vulnerability of the nation to new military technology is ever
further revealed; indeed, as the U.S.-Soviet arms race demonstrated, it is
worked out in ever-exacting detail.21

One of the curious logics of the nuclear situation is that the more stress is
placed on the security and protection provided by nuclear weapons, the more
insecure and vulnerable the world seems. On the one hand, the immense

Fig. 1.1 Cover of Protect and Survive pamphlet


power of the weapons—the full might of technological modernity—has to be

stressed in order to bolster the power of the nation state, but, on the other, the
more impossible it seems that anyone would survive should the weapons
actually be used. This produces what Chapter 3 discusses as a politics of
vulnerability, permeating nuclear culture in this period.
The measures advocated in Protect and Survive devolved responsibility for
protection from government to individuals and, more particularly, given the
preponderance of images of parents and children in the cartoons and anima-
tions used to illustrate the advice, to families (to the broader politics of which
I will return in Chapter 4). Rather than advocating public shelters or a
programme of evacuation, for instance, the leaflets encouraged people to
identify and bolster sheltered spaces within their homes. There are complex
reasons for this emphasis, related to the cost and practicality of public shelters
and evacuation programmes, the tacit, semi-conscious understanding of
government that such defence was futile, and the need, nevertheless, to
assert the survivability of nuclear attack so that deterrence seemed credible.
The implication was that government protection of its citizens lay less
in defending the country in the event of attack than in deterrence of that
attack in the first place: if deterrence failed, protection on a national level
would also have failed and people would be on their own. Protect and
Survive thus implied the dissolution, at least temporarily, of the social
contract at the national level. It also seemed, and this was the characteristic
most frequently noted by those who opposed it, to offer comically inef-
fective measures with which to ride out a holocaust: drawing curtains;
painting windows white; sheltering under doors propped against walls. In
counterpoint to this inadvertent comedy, the chillingly neutral tone with
which it dealt with imagined deaths (it was advised that dead relatives
should be wrapped in bin liners, labelled and left outside the house) forced
people to confront an environment in which the ceremonies of grieving
and remembrance of the dead would be suspended.
The phrase “protect and survive” swiftly became more widely asso-
ciated with civil defence. On 22 November 1980, The Times announce-
ments column carried an advertisement for Protect and Survive Monthly,
“the new magazine for everyone considering buying a fallout shelter or
survival equipment”.22 By the following year, according to The Times, the
magazine had 12,000 subscribers and was launching a Survivor’s Wine
Club, “based on the assumption”, in the dry commentary of the news-
paper, “that the average nuclear bunker would double perfectly as a wine
cellar when not more urgently needed”.23

More frequently, Protect and Survive inspired a counter-doctrine of

resistance and protest. In April 1980, the historian and anti-nuclear activist
E.P. Thompson produced the pamphlet Protest and Survive, arguing that
active protest, with the aim of dismantling nuclear and Cold War strategy,
was the only way to guarantee survival. Indeed, Thompson argued, the
very idea of civil defence made nuclear war more likely by creating the
illusion it could be survived: to let the idea of civil defence go uncontested
was to participate in a Cold War logic likely to end in nuclear war. The
only effective form of civil defence was protest, rejecting outright the
nuclear equation locking East and West together in a potentially cataclys-
mic relationship:

We must throw whatever resources still exist in human culture across the
path of this degenerative logic. We must protest if we are to survive. Protest
is the only realistic form of civil defence.
We must generate an alternative logic, an opposition at every level of

The dialectic between these “alternative logics”—these opposed ways of

conceiving of the contemporary Cold War—is fundamental to an under-
standing of late Cold War culture. Thompson’s call for opposition at
“every level of society” implies a wholesale rejection of the status quo
that takes nuclear protest—and many nuclear texts—beyond a single-issue
focus to a broad social engagement, as we’ll see throughout this book.
Nuclear texts do not, of course, necessarily commit themselves to one or
other of the positions Thompson outlines, but they emerge from the
chasms opening up in society between “degenerative” and “alternative”
logics. In the 1980s, in Britain and the United States, a consensus between
state and citizens not only over nuclear policy, but also over much else
besides, was shattered. While protesters did not necessarily ever convince
the majority of their fellow citizens that nuclear policy was erroneous, they
were a sizeable and vocal enough minority to mean that nuclear texts of
the period must be understood in the context of keenly fought battles over
nuclear and other issues.
Thompson’s 1980 pamphlet was far from the end of the story of
protect–protest and survive. On 26 October of the same year, the phrase
“protest and survive” was adopted by a newly revitalised CND for a major
rally in Trafalgar Square, attended by 80,000 people.25 In November
Thompson’s essay was republished in a Penguin collection of anti-nuclear

essays, also called Protest and Survive, edited by Thompson and Dan
Smith. The phrase remained resonant for several years.
In 1982, the Schools Against the Bomb group produced a programme
for the BBC community television series, Open Door, under the title
Protest and Survive, in which they drew attention to what they saw as
the absurdity of civil defence planning, claiming, for instance, that while
three weeks’ warning of nuclear war was expected in which to distribute
the Protect and Survive booklet, “Her Majesty’s Stationery Office say it
will take them at least four weeks just to print enough to go round”.26 In
Threads, the BBC’s 1984 landmark depiction of nuclear attack on Britain,
Protect and Survive was included as part of the assumed experience of
impending nuclear war and can be seen playing on the television in the
background as a man tries desperately to reinforce his home against
nuclear attack. More generally, it entered popular culture: “Protect and
Survive” was the title of songs by Jethro Tull, Runrig and the Dubliners
(“World War Three can be such fun/If you protect and survive”) and
Discharge made “Protest and Survive” the title of one of their songs. It
had become such a commonplace by the mid-1980s that an otherwise
positive review in The Times of John Burrows’s 1984 nuclear musical,
Wartime Stories, confessed to the “heart sinking” when Protect and
Survive appeared onstage and yet another mockery of it was imminent.27
Literary culture, too, was drawn by the seeming absurdity of Protect
and Survive. Robert Swindells’s young adult novel Brother in the Land
(1984) opens with a nuclear attack and the young narrator, Danny,
remembering that, in the suddenly lost world of peacetime Britain, a
teacher had “brought this book to school once, Protect and Survive or
some such title. It reckoned to tell what would happen if H-bombs fell on
Britain. It was pretty horrible, but it didn’t tell the half of it. Not the half
of it.”28 Maggie Gee’s brilliant, searing attack on the nuclear Cold War in
her family saga The Burning Book features a protagonist, Angela, who
becomes preoccupied with the nuclear threat and plans to write a book
against war. On her bookshelf, we are told, along with a range of other
texts likely to feature in the reading of the nuclear-concerned citizen of the
period (Barbara Goodwin’s The K/V Papers, Tatsuichiro Akizuki’s
Nagasaki 1945, John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Nicholas Humphrey’s
Four Minutes to Midnight), sits Thompson’s Protest and Survive.
More famously, Raymond Briggs’s graphic novel When the Wind Blows
(1982), the success of which can be judged by the fact that it was
translated into stage, radio drama and film versions, constructs a derisory

view of civil defence, typical of the period, by the ingenious and heart-
breaking conceit of simply letting its elderly protagonists, Hilda and Jim,
take government reassurance at face value (“Thank Goodness I got those
Official Leaflets today. Suppose I hadn’t! We’d have been totally non-
prepared!”) and then following the consequences as they seek to protect
their home from nuclear attack.29 Although Protect and Survive is not
explicitly named amongst the “Official Leaflets” in Briggs’s book, it is the
clear point of reference and it actually appears in the successful film
adaptation. The book’s success lies in its erasure of a direct voice of protest
(the closest we get to it is the couple’s son laughing cruelly down the
phone at his father’s naivety), leaving the reader to feel outrage on Hilda
and Jim’s behalf.
Of course, most literature published in the 1980s did not directly refer
to Protect and Survive. Its significance is not, then, that it directly inspired
many literary responses (although it certainly inspired some). Rather, the
controversy generated by it emerged from broader divisions in late Cold
War society. Belief in state protection and protest against it frequently
signalled not only differing views on nuclear strategy but a whole host of
other beliefs that would put one on one side or the other of the gulf
between the forces of a new, radical conservatism, epitomised by the
policies of Thatcher’s government (and of those of Reagan in the
United States), and those ranged against it. Opposing views on nuclear
arms and strategy often revealed entirely antithetical conceptions of the
social world.
The controversy Protect and Survive generated was symptomatic of some-
thing deeply rooted in Cold War society and the antagonistic dialogue
between discourses of protection and survival recurs again and again. It is
there, explicitly, whenever civil defence is considered. For example, in 1982
the British government had to cancel “Hard Rock”, a major civil defence
exercise, because many Labour local authorities—some identifying as
“nuclear free zones” and spurning the role in civil protection laid down for
them by national government30—refused to participate. It is there, too, in
broader activism against nuclear weapons. For instance, the mass movement
against the deployment of US cruise missiles in Europe, most famously
epitomised in Britain by the Women’s Peace Camp at Greenham
Common, directly contested the notion that the weapons would strengthen
the protective shield against the Soviet Union, arguing instead that they
would destabilise the Cold War balance, making war more likely. It is
explicitly the idea of protection as conceived by government that is at stake

in these protests. Sarah Green, a protester quoted in Alice Cook and Gwyn
Kirk’s collection of voices from Greenham, makes the point clearly:

The myth that’s been put around so long that we need armies, we need these
missiles, men must protect women and children from other men in other
countries. That’s just completely out of hand. Women must come out and say
“We don’t want this type of protection. It’s this type of protection which
is actually endangering our lives.”31

As with Thompson, protest is presented here as the only realistic form of

civil defence. What emerges, too, is not simply a perspective on nuclear
policy, but an “alternative logic” that sees nuclear weapons as sympto-
matic of something much broader, in this case patriarchy.
Although the phrases “protect–protest and survive” were a specifically
British phenomenon, similar debates, in which the logics of protection
were met with counter-logics of protest, were occurring in the United
States. On 17 November 1980, women surrounding the Pentagon as part
of a Women’s Pentagon Action against nuclear weapons drew attention to
what they saw as the fallacy of protection. The writer and activist Grace
Paley drafted a statement to accompany the protest, which was refined
collectively by participants and directly contested the rhetoric of nuclear
protection: “‘We will protect you . . . ’ they say, but we have never been so
endangered, so close to the end of human time”.32 Further Women’s
Pentagon Actions followed in subsequent years.
Often, protest groups’ opposition was manifested not only by overtly
contesting nuclear policy, but also by adopting organisational structures that
embodied alternative models—alternative logics—of society. Protesters at
the Greenham Common Peace Camp, at its American sister camp at Seneca,
New York, at actions against nuclear power plants by the Clamshell Alliance
and the Abalone Alliance in New Hampshire and California, and against
nuclear weapons research by the Livermore Action Group in California, all
sought structures of decision making that eschewed hierarchy, embraced a
nonviolent ethos and expressed their belief that the nuclear state manifested
fundamental structural flaws in the social order.
For instance, the Clamshell Alliance confronted implicit and potential
state violence (in the presence of police lines and the sanction of imprison-
ment) not with resistance through strength (force of numbers; breaking
through police lines) but through nonviolent direct actions that accepted,
even flaunted, their vulnerability in the face of state power. Such an

approach was not without its difficulties, nor without its critics amongst
activists: decision-making was a lengthy and difficult process because
leadership was seen as an inherently problematic concept, and there were
passionate and drawn-out divisions about seemingly minor issues like
whether taking wire-cutters to fences erected to keep protesters away
from key sites was an implicitly violent action.33 Nevertheless, this
approach was at the heart of an alternative vision of society, based on
discussion, compromise and the avoidance of hierarchical concentrations
of power and symbolic or actual violence. Such a vision contested precisely
the type of “protection”, manifested in the possession of nuclear weapons,
traditionally afforded by the state.
While reasonably large numbers of people participated in actions by
these groups and others like them, the majority of those who aligned
themselves with anti-nuclear positions of one sort or another sought
less radical solutions. A good example is the “Ribbon Around the
Pentagon” action, which is also discussed in Chapter 2 and which,
through churches and community groups and an army of willing
volunteers, mobilised tens of thousands to participate in an event that
was part protest, part art project. Justine Merritt, a retired school-
teacher and poet who had initiated the project three years earlier,
cited as its origin a period of intense, personal, spiritual anxiety that
had blossomed into a poem, “The Gift”, focusing on the problems of
protection and the vulnerability of “little ones” who are both children
and parents: “We too are the little ones, /Asked to protect children
from more than busy streets”.34
The admission of adults’ inability to provide security, of themselves
being infants in the face of the nuclear threat, unable to protect their
children, is a neat expression of the politics of vulnerability discussed in
Chapter 3, which subtly undermines the discourses of protection of the
nuclear state. The Ribbon’s success in generating support from a wide
constituency resulted perhaps in part from Merritt’s ostensibly apolitical
aspiration that the event serve as a “gentle reminder . . . that we as a nation
had better rethink nuclear war if the planet is to survive.”35 Merritt sought
not a particular policy position or set of actions to reduce the nuclear
threat, just to push it to the forefront of political discourse so that such
policies might be found and implemented; hence, those worried about
nuclear war—those dismayed at the lack of protection they could provide
their children, for instance—could participate in the project regardless of
their more conventional political affiliations.

More dramatically pacifist were the teachings of the self-named Peace

Pilgrim (born Mildred Lisette Norman), who like Merritt was inspired by
her Christian faith. Pilgrim criss-crossed the United States, walking in an
ongoing peace pilgrimage that lasted from 1953 until her death in 1981,
shortly after which her life was commemorated in a book of her collected
thoughts, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words (1982).
Her attempt completely to renounce violence (not only military violence,
but personal and psychological violence) chimed with a geopolitical situa-
tion in which we “can no longer think in terms of military victory” for
“nuclear war would mean mutual annihilation”. This led her explicitly to
reject the doctrine of protection: “I have never met anyone who built a
bomb shelter and felt protected by it.”36
As in Europe, nuclear protest was—for a time at least—a mass move-
ment in the United States. While, like in Britain, there was never a majority
in favour of disarmament, a sizeable minority made their voices heard
loudly enough to shape public discourse and they engaged in a wide
range of protests and actions. The Freeze campaign, mentioned earlier,
provided the most widely endorsed challenge to the nuclear Cold War.
However, its electoral success had the paradoxical effect of diluting its
radical potential, as politicians of all stripes signed up to the general
principle of no additional nuclear weapons, but neutered it with the
proviso that such a freeze could not take place unless the Soviet Union
made a similar commitment.
As with European resistance to the deployment of US missiles in
Europe, the American Freeze movement, initially at least, saw more mis-
siles not as producing greater protection through increased military
strength, but compromising protection. In an era in which both sides
already held many more missiles than were necessary to devastate their
opponents, and in which civil defence did not seem viable, more nuclear
weapons seemed to signal less protection.
Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI, but popularly referred to as
“Star Wars” for its evocation of science fiction fantasies of the future)
sought to recover control of the discourse of protection by proposing the
construction of an umbrella against nuclear attack, with satellites based in
space that would coordinate with other technologies to shoot down
incoming Soviet missiles with lasers. In announcing it, in March 1983,
Reagan sought directly to respond to the Freeze campaign’s rhetoric of
protest (“I know . . . many of you seriously believe that a nuclear freeze
would further the cause of peace. But a freeze now would make us less, not

more secure”), countering it with one of protection (“What if free people

could live secure in the knowledge . . . that we could intercept and destroy
strategic ballistic missiles”).37 In a memorable line, the historian Paul
Boyer parodies this as a version of the “Duck and Cover” classroom drills
of the 1950s writ large: “The sky is to be converted into one vast school-
room desk under which we will collectively huddle while Teacher hurls
erasers at the marauding invaders.”38
Reagan’s discourse of protection assumed a nationalist perspective that
did not chime with the more globalised thinking of many protesters. From
the perspective of an American citizen viewing the Soviet Union as an
aggressive, expansionist power, a shield of defensive missiles or lasers
around the country might seem a strong protective measure. But from
the point of view of someone defining themselves as a global citizen—as
part of a globalised human race, embedded in ecological and cultural
systems networked through and beyond his or her country’s borders—a
shield over one part of the planet would not offer the same sense of
security because the planet would remain vulnerable. Indeed, by offering
the prospect of a near future in which the United States might consider
itself able to protect itself against nuclear attack, it made fighting nuclear
war more likely and offered an incentive to the Soviet Union to provoke
war before the balance of protection shifted.39
Protesters often appealed to a globalised conception of humanity, at
risk from the tendency of nuclear fallout and effects to evade geographical
containment and permeate the planet’s ecosystems. By invoking a shared
vulnerability to nuclear effects, such thinking called up an idea of the
human above and beyond the nation state. While it defined the human
in ways that were open to criticism for being localised and partial (con-
cealing, for instance, a Western-centric bias), it allowed for a powerful
articulation of a shared humanity within the rhetoric of protest. Protection
of one part of the planet at the expense of another was not seen as viable or
desirable. Hence, the global vulnerability of all peoples had to be
addressed by nuclear protest. This broadly ecological perspective (in the
sense not only of being environmentally concerned, but also of under-
standing humans to be globally connected in systems transcending con-
ventional national and political borders) is the subject of Chapter 5.
There was, then, a fundamental instability produced by nuclear culture
of the late Cold War. Nuclear weapons were offered as the ultimate
protective shield, deterring attack through the unprecedented horror
they would unleash, but they simultaneously evoked anxieties about the

vulnerability not only of individuals, but also of society, the species and
even the planet. It is this sense of instability that produces the politics of
vulnerability, a politics to which literary texts contribute by producing
images of frightening nuclear futures.
Chapter 2 lays the groundwork for this analysis, explaining the focus on
British and US texts by discussing transatlantic nuclear discourse in the 1980s.
Because of the close relations between the Thatcher and Reagan administra-
tions, and the shared ideological stances of those Britons and Americans
contesting their brands of radical conservatism (as well as the more prosaic
reason of a shared language in which ideas shuttled rapidly back and forth
between the countries), this transatlantic dialogue is manifested particularly in
British and American nuclear literatures, even though it is not entirely con-
fined to them. Chapter 3 elaborates on the politics of vulnerability in 1980s
literature. It looks at the representation of protest and protesters in literature,
explores the benefits and problems of the focus on vulnerability in the 1980s
and focuses on nuclear literature for children and young adults as a type of
writing in which these issues come into particularly sharp focus.
Chapters 4–6 tease out connections to the wider politics of the period
through the treatment of gender, environmental and socio-economic issues
that were pressing areas of debate in and of themselves, as well as being linked
to nuclear concerns. Visions of society in 1980s texts refract wider debates and
we see in nuclear literature not just an expression of, say, nuclear anxiety, but a
complex manifestation of a whole host of other fears and preoccupations.
Chapter 7 turns to the issue of writing itself. A recurrent preoccupation
in nuclear texts is the fragility of the written word, manifested in, for
instance, the image of the destroyed or ransacked library, which crops up
frequently in texts set after nuclear war. The focus on the survival or
destruction of the archive of our society relates to a broader anxiety
about the persistence and meaning of civilisation. The chapter maps this
concern into the formal and thematic preoccupations of postmodernism,
showing how a textual politics engages with the nuclear, gender, environ-
mental and socio-economic politics explored earlier in the book.
It is the claim of The Nuclear 1980s that, while reading literature of the
decade as a nuclear literature allows us better to situate it historically
within a Cold War framework, it also allows us better to see its continuing
relevance. It is relevant today partly because nuclear issues persist and the
literature of the 1980s makes visible what we all too easily forget: that a
technology of catastrophic destruction remains housed in missile silos,
submarines and military arsenals around the world; that we must plan

safely to contain the nuclear waste our industry generates for tens of
thousands of years into the future. It is relevant too because the final
decade of the Cold War was the one in which the shape of our political
landscape was sculpted in key battles between neoliberalism and its oppo-
nents. Finally, it is relevant, indeed pressing, because the glimpses of
catastrophic human conflict and the end of the world emerging from
nuclear culture also produced alternative visions, imagining different,
more peaceable means of existence that have been all but lost in the
quarter century since the Cold War’s end. It reminds us of a period
when the peace movement was meaningful and perhaps provides clues as
to how it could become meaningful again.

1. Tony Samstag and David Cross, “Protests Grow in CND Campaign”,
The Times, 26 October 1981, 1, 24. It is notoriously difficult to deter-
mine the size of protests. The Times says police claimed 150,000 people
participated, but the article notes that estimates ranged from 100,000 to
2. “CND Army Takes London by Storm”, The Times, 24 October 1983, 10.
The crowd was “[m]ore than a quarter of a million people”, according to
The Times.
3. About this time there was a brief dalliance with Freeze ideas in the British peace
movement. As David Cartwright and Ron Pagnucco comment, “A British
freeze campaign surfaced briefly during the 1983–1984 period . . . but it was
unable to compete with the substantial following enjoyed by CND and quickly
dissolved.” Cartwright and Pagnucco, “Limits to Transnationalism: The
1980s Freeze Campaign”, in Smith, Chatfield and Pagnucco, Transnational
Social Movements and Global Politics, 168 (Smith et al. 1997).
4. Frances B. McCrea and Gerald Markle, Minutes to Midnight: Nuclear
Weapons Protest in America (London: Sage, 1989), 18 (McCrea and
Markle 1989).
5. McCrea and Markle, Minutes to Midnight, 15. Thirteen groups organised
the event, with Mobe (Mobilization for Survival) playing a central role.
McCrea and Markle, Minutes to Midnight, 112 (McCrea and Markle 1989).
6. For more details of Freeze election successes, see McCrea and Markle,
Minutes to Midnight, 15 (McCrea and Markle 1989).
7. Daniel Cordle, States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism, and
United States Fiction and Prose (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
2008) (Cordle 2008).

8. Alan Nadel, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism,

and the Atomic Age (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995) (Nadel 1995).
Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War
Era, 2nd edn. (New York: Basic Books, 1999) (May 1999).
9. Philip Noel-Baker, quoted in John Cox, Overkill: The Story of Modern
Weapons (Middlesex: Penguin, 1977), 10 (Cox 1977).
10. John Minnion and Philip Bolsover, Introduction, in The CND Story, ed.
Minnion and Bolsover (London: Allison & Busby, 1983), 34 (Minnion and
Bolsover 1983).
11. The reading of the cultural Cold War dates back at least to the 1990s, but it
is remarkable how resistant literary studies (and cultural studies generally)
has been to acknowledging the shaping influence of the Cold War. In recent
years, critical momentum has built and become more insistent about the
importance of the Cold War. Any footnoted list must be indicative and err
by omission, so I note here just two examples not covered in the following
three footnotes: Daniel Grausam, On Endings (Grausam 2011); David Seed,
Under the Shadow (Seed 2013).
12. Andrew Hammond, British Fiction and the Cold War (Basingstoke: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2013), 1 (Hammond 2013). Steven Belletto, No Accident
Comrade: Chance and Design in Cold War American Narratives (Oxford:
Oxford University Press, 2012), 10 (Belletto 2012).
13. Adam Piette, The Literary Cold War, 1945—Vietnam (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2009), 11 (Piette 2009).
14. The exception is Millicent Lenz’s useful Nuclear Age Literature for Youth: The
Quest for a Life-Affirming Ethic (Chicago: American Library Association, 1990)
(Lenz 1990) but, published partly as a guide for those wrestling with the
teaching of nuclear issues to children, it is very much of the late Cold War and
there has been nothing systematic on the subject since.
15. Perhaps the most enigmatic and intriguing evidence I encountered is the
school library stamp, “Lakenheath Elementary School, Base Media Centre,
RAF Lakenheath”, in a second-hand copy of the American writer Lynn
Hall’s If Winter Comes, a young adult novel highly sceptical of nuclear
strategy, that arrived as part of my research for this book. RAF Lakenheath
was used as a US Air Force Base and the school was, presumably, for the
children of US personnel. Nuclear weapons were stored at Lakenheath; it
was a site for anti-nuclear protests. It is intriguing to speculate about who
ordered the book, the children who read it, whether it was discussed with
teachers and what they made of it.
16. Alice Walker, “Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do”, in Walker, In Search of
Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (London: The Women’s Press, 1984),
345 (Walker 1984). The predominant “whiteness” of nuclear literature is not
something there is room to explore in this book, though it is an important issue

and worthy of further investigation. A good starting point is Paul Williams, Race,
Ethnicity and Nuclear War. Alice Walker addresses black antipathy to the anti-
nuclear movement in “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse”, in Reweaving the Web of
Life, ed. McAllister, 262–265 (McAllister 1982).
17. Hammond, British Fiction and the Cold War, 81 (Hammond 2013).
18. Some of the ideas that follow first appeared in my article, “Protest/Protect:
British Nuclear Fiction of the 1980s”, British Journal of the History of
Science 45.4 (2012): 653–669 (Cordle 2012). As the title indicates, this
didn’t include the more expansive discussion of American literature that is
included in this book.
19. Peter Evans, “SS 20 Russian Missiles Expose Britain’s Weakness to Attack”,
The Times, January 16, 1980, 4 (Evans 1980).
20. At the time of writing, this episode of Panorama can be viewed on YouTube
under the title “Panorama: If the Bomb Drops”, <
com/watch?v=milbW4RDIco> [accessed June 22, 2016].
21. Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-
Cold War New Mexico (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 3
(Masco 2006).
22. “Announcements Column”, The Times, 22 November 1980, 24.
23. Ross Davies, “Bunker Bouquet”, The Times, 16 September 16 1981, 19.
24. E.P. Thompson, “Protest and Survive”, in Protest and Survive, ed.
Thompson and Dan Smith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1980), 57
(Thompson 1980).
25. Admittedly, these are CND’s own figures. Minnion and Bolsover,
Introduction, CND Story, 36 (Minnion and Bolsover 1983).
26. Protect and Survive, BBC 2, January 30, 1982. This phrase is lifted almost
directly from the Panorama programme of 10 March 1980.
27. Irving Wardle, “Reviews: Drill Hall”, The Times, 1 August 1984, 8.
28. Robert Swindells, Brother in the Land (London: Puffin, 2000), 9 (Swindells
2000). No italicization of Protect and Survive in original.
29. Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1983),
no page numbers in text (Briggs 1983).
30. Nuclear Free Zones are parodied in Brian Bethell’s The Defence Diaries of W.
Morgan Petty (1984) in which the eponymous diarist, with the help of his
gardener, Roger, declares his suburban home, 3 Cherry Tree Lane,
Canterbury, a Nuclear Free Zone, though he worries that the sign they
put up declaring this fact is not visible to Russian aircraft and that its position
leaves unclear the status of his privet hedge within the zone (Bethell 1984).
31. Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk (eds), Greenham Women Everywhere: Dreams,
Ideas and Actions from the Women’s Peace Movement (London: Pluto,
1983), 88 (Cook and Kirk 1983). Punctuation missing from end of para-
graph in original.

32. Anon [Grace Paley et al.], “Pentagon Action Unity Statement”, Peacework
Magazine, Social Justice 27.4 (2000), 161 (Anon 2000).
33. For an excellent account of these protest groups see Barbara Epstein,
Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the
1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991) (Epstein
1991). The debate about fence cutting is described on 71–75.
34. Justine Merritt, “The Gift”, in Marianne Philbin and Lark Books staff (eds),
The Ribbon: A Celebration of Life (Asheville, North Carolina: Lark Books,
1985), 15.
35. Justine Merritt, quoted in Linda Pershing, Ribbon Around the Pentagon:
Peace by Piecemakers (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1996), 42
(Pershing 1996).
36. Peace Pilgrim and friends of Peace Pilgrim, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and
Work in Her Own Words (Santa Fe: Ocean Tree Books, 2013), 97–98, 115.
37. Ronald Reagan, “Address to the Nation on National Security” (23 March
1983), Miller Center of Public Affairs <
archive/speeches/detail/5454> [accessed April 21, 2010].
38. Paul Boyer, Fallout: A Historian Reflects on America’s Half-Century
Encounter with Nuclear Weapons (Columbus: Ohio State University Press,
1998), 176 (Boyer 1998). Boyer’s piece originally appeared in The Nation
in 1987.
39. In John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany (1989), the narrator, John, writes
of his distress at Reagan’s policies, including SDI, which he claims
encourages the Soviets to ignore the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.
Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany, 228.

The Most Explosive Love Story Ever:

Transatlantic Nuclear Discourse

In a famous image (Fig. 2.1), that first appeared in 1980 in the far
left British paper the Socialist Worker and was subsequently widely
reproduced, Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are depicted in a
spoof film poster for Gone with the Wind.1 Playing on Reagan’s career
as an actor, it shows him as Rhett Butler, with Thatcher as Scarlett
O’Hara, reclining submissively in his arms. A mushroom cloud bil-
lows in the background and the poster bills this version of Gone with
the Wind as “the film to end all films” and “the most EXPLOSIVE
love story ever”. Its tag line, running across the bottom of the poster,
is “She promised to follow him to the end of the earth. He promised
to organise it!”
There is much that is interesting about the poster, not least its depiction
of transatlantic relations. It makes a familiar connection between sexuality
and the bomb in order to turn the notoriously close working relationship
between Thatcher and Reagan, and the long-standing “special relationship”
between Britain and the United States, into a love story. Revealingly, Britain
is portrayed, through Thatcher as Prime Minister, as the minor partner in
the relationship, swooning in Reagan’s arms and following him—and by im-
plication the consequences of his hard-line Cold War policies—to the nuclear
end of the earth. The poster also contextualises nuclear policy in terms of the
broader radical economic and ideological conservatism for which Thatcher
and Reagan were such powerful figureheads in the 1980s: the film credits
reveal that it is presented (“in association with Pentagon Productions”)

© The Author(s) 2017 25

D. Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3_2

Fig. 2.1 Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan as Rhett Butler and Scarlett
O’Hara in Gone with the Wind, originally published in Socialist Worker (1980)

by Milton Friedman, the free-market economist on whose brutal vision

both leaders’ economic and social policies were based.
The depiction of Thatcher and Reagan is, of course, a caricature, and it
is a caricature that is definitively British in its outlook. It is about Thatcher
more than it is about Reagan; about, simultaneously, the “iron lady”
toughness of her nuclear policies and what it sees as her submissiveness
to Reagan (the poster lambasts her both for her unladylike usurpation of a
male role and for her excessively ladylike submission to Reagan’s charms).
Although the poster’s fake film credits include “Hank Kissinger” as
director, references to a screenplay by “Kid [Keith] Joseph” and “Eddy
[Edward] Heath” were less likely to make sense to Americans.2 Most
crucially, because of the much greater power of the United States on the
world stage, it is hard to imagine the relations between the President and
the Prime Minister being a subject of satire for Americans in quite the
same way. While the United States, as the dominant Western world power,
was inevitably the key focus for Britons when thinking about their country’s
role in the world, for Americans, notwithstanding the special relationship,
Britain made little more sense as a subject for satire than any other European
NATO ally.
This inequality of interest works its way into representations of trans-
atlantic relations in British and United States nuclear literature. In British
texts, the United States is almost always there in one form or another,
whether in an explicitly worked through transatlantic theme (as in the
house swap that brings the narrator of Martin Amis’s London Fields to
Britain), in depictions of protest against US missiles on British soil (as in
Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book) or, at the very least, in the implication
that deteriorating relations between the United States and the Soviet
Union explicitly threaten Britain. In US texts, Britain is far less frequently
a focus although it is not entirely absent, as we will see in the section on
the “Nuclear Transatlantic” later in this chapter.
This chapter considers the impact of these transnational contexts on
our understanding of 1980s British and American literature. The first part
makes the case for reading texts through the prism of the nuclear transat-
lantic, arguing that the rise of Thatcherism and Reaganomics, accompa-
nied by hard-line Cold War policy and rhetoric from both leaders, shaped
the meanings of contemporary literature. Not only are depictions of
nuclear issues mediated by this context, but frequently the competing
social visions at stake in arguments raging between left and right during
the decade erupt onto the page and are manifested in texts’ treatment of

issues—the subjects of later chapters in this book—of gender, the envir-

onment and social and economic organisation. The second part of the
chapter examines the reworking of the transatlantic theme—a concern
of literature that goes back at least as far as the nineteenth century—in
1980s texts.


To focus, as this book does, on Britain and the United States is to suggest
neither that nuclear culture nor the concept of the transatlantic are limited
to relations between these two countries. It is important to acknowledge
that cultural connections between them were made more complex by their
existence within a framework of relationships constituting the broader
Western alliance against the Soviet Union (NATO, of course, but also
the web of economic, political and cultural ties to other countries, parti-
cularly European ones), as well as broader global nuclear cultures. This
complicated not only the rhetoric of protection—of conformity with Cold
War policy—but also that of protest. Hence, dissidence from nuclear
policy did not only travel between Britain and the United States.
Indeed, continental Europe had a thriving and influential protest move-
ment. As Barbara Epstein points out, it was a model of direct action from
West Germany (the long-running and, in 1975, successful campaign to
prevent the construction of a nuclear power plant at Whyl) that inspired
the protest tactics in America of the Clamshell Alliance (opposing a pro-
posed nuclear power station at Seabrook, New Hampshire) and, via this
conduit, also the Abalone Alliance (protesting a power station at Diablo
Canyon, California) and the Livermore Action Group (against nuclear weap-
ons research at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, California) in
the late 1970s and early 1980s.3
The focus on Britain and the United States is adopted then, not because
it encompasses the full extent of transnational cultural, social and political
relations, but because it provides a first step toward such a fuller under-
standing. Analyses of Cold War culture have, with one or two exceptions
(see, for instance, Andrew Hammond’s edited collection Cold War:
Writing the Global Conflict), tended to confine themselves to single
national traditions. While such traditions are important, it makes increas-
ingly less sense, not only in relation to the Cold War but more generally
in a period of increasing communication, travel, economic and (more
recently, particularly via the web) direct cultural exchange across national

boundaries, to consider them in isolation. Texts should surely be seen as

multidimensional, engaging simultaneously with national, transnational,
generic and other traditions. Literary texts are prisms that refract and split
the light in different ways as we hold and rotate them in our mind’s eye.
Hence, for the purposes of this book, there are distinct British and US
traditions informing the meanings of, respectively, British and US writers,
but rotate a text on one of its axes and we see new meanings produced by
generic traditions crossing the Atlantic; spin it again and we see it partici-
pating in thematic conversations generated by the global Cold War.
There are two compelling reasons for selecting, amidst the panoply of
options available to a transnational approach to late Cold War culture, to
read British and US texts next to each other for their representation of
nuclear issues. The first is the way in which the decade was defined in both
countries by charismatic and divisive leaders—Thatcher and Reagan—who
set the late Cold War tone, instituted radical free-market economic and
social transformation on the model of the Chicago School and became a
focal point for protest against both nuclear issues and broader socio-
economic policy. They were figureheads, in the popular iconography of
the period, for a particular nuclear strategy, emerging out of neoliberal
policies and a hawkish Cold War stance. For both supporters and oppo-
nents of their policies they defined the decade. Reading British and US
literature as part of a single conversation with many voices, opens up
resonances between texts that would otherwise be muffled and facilitates
the mapping of nuclear literary texts within a broader landscape of debate
about socio-economic issues.
The second, more prosaic, reason for reading British and US literary
texts together is that the overlapping Anglophone communities from
which they were produced facilitated, in the relatively short period of
time in which late Cold War nuclear anxieties blossomed, flourished and
dissipated, their rapid transport across the Atlantic. In general, nuclear
(and other) culture flowed predominantly from the United States to
Britain, but it could move swiftly in the opposite direction too. For
example, in 1985 the American writer Walter Miller drew, in a polemical
introduction to Beyond Armageddon (a collection of short stories co-
edited with Martin Greenberg), on Threads, the BBC’s dramatisation of
nuclear attack, first broadcast only months before (in September 1984 in
Britain and in January 1985 in the United States). For Miller, Threads is
“state-of-the-art in portraying cataclysm” and clearly shapes his sense of
what is aesthetically possible in the portrayal of nuclear war, for he returns

sporadically to the drama throughout his introduction and in the notes

accompanying each story.4 It is not that transatlantic connections between
other European and American countries were impossible or did not hap-
pen, but the circumstances of the late Cold War meant that there was a
particularly rapid and productive cultural traffic between Britain and the
United States.
As noted already, in the discussion of the Gone with the Wind parody of
Thatcher and Reagan’s relationship, the countries were not equal players
on the world stage and this affected the response to nuclear issues. This is
nicely captured in Barbara Goodwin’s The K/V Papers (1983), where K, a
high-ranking Pentagon official, confides to his Soviet counterpart that it is
central to their strategy that nuclear weapons “are restricted . . . to reliably
subordinate countries like Britain”.5 The relationship—political; economic;
cultural—was charged by the decline in British power, following the loss
of Empire, and the concurrent rise of the United States as an economic,
military and atomic superpower.
In Britain, the rhetoric of protection (and consequently of protest) was
complicated by the position of the country vis a vis a dominant and much
more powerful United States. Despite the relative independence of Britain’s
own nuclear deterrent, protection from real or imagined Soviet threat was
split between British and other (principally US) forces. Contesting the
viability of protection therefore involved taking on both the British govern-
ment and the United States. The Greenham Common protests against the
deployment of American cruise missiles in Britain illustrate this: the target
was both the United States and its nuclear forces, soon to be trundling
around the British countryside, and a British government represented as
ideologically attuned and overly deferential toward the United States,
whose police forces were deployed to defend the American base. When,
in Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book (1983), women protest at Greenham
and at another US airbase, Lakenheath, it is both a US nuclear presence
and British complicity with it to which they are objecting; when forces go
onto high alert, during an international crisis in Ian McEwan’s The Child
in Time (1987), the “missiles [that] bristled in the hot shrubbery of rural
Oxfordshire” are those of the United States.6
In contrast, of course, British forces were not present in the same way
on US soil and Americans were hardly likely to protest the nuclear policy
of Britain per se, although they might engage with broader NATO strate-
gies of nuclear deterrence. Nevertheless, the overlapping worldviews and
policy objectives of Thatcher and Reagan, as well as their countries’ shared

language and overlapping cultural preoccupations, made Britain a parti-

cularly crucial point of contact for the United States with its NATO allies
in Europe. Protest groups, too (and dissenting discourse more generally),
enjoyed a complex transatlantic relationship. Although there were more
formal links between British and European protest groups than between
British and US groups, the United States remained an important shaping
influence upon them. For instance, the European Nuclear Disarmament
(END) Appeal, launched in April 1980 and leading to several coordinated
actions across the continent calling for disarmament on all sides, was pro-
voked by the 1979 NATO decision to site US cruise and Pershing II
missiles in Europe.
Also, though formal relations between British and US protest groups
were limited, there was a shared culture of protest that meant actions in
one country reverberated across the Atlantic to shape protest in the other.
When, during the Greenham Common “Embrace the Base” action of
December 1982, women surrounding the American airbase decorated its
perimeter with “symbols of life, children’s toys and pictures”, they were
enacting a creative confrontation with the military establishment that drew
on methods used at the 1980 and 1981 Women’s Pentagon Actions, when
women encircled the Pentagon and symbolically wove its doors shut with
yarn.7 Indeed, as Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk acknowledge in their 1983
compilation of peace camp voices, Greenham Women Everywhere, British
feminists and peace campaigners knew that their counterparts in the United
States had pioneered these methods.8
Similarly, British protests resonated with American women. The
Greenham Peace Camp itself inspired a sister camp in the United States,
at the Seneca Army Depot in upstate New York, where it was believed that
cruise missiles bound for Greenham were being stored prior to transit.9
Such actions on both sides of the Atlantic provided an important con-
text for a broader culture of political crafts and fabric arts, turned to anti-
nuclear ends, as in the “Ribbon Around the Pentagon” protest of August
1985, in which a fifteen-mile ribbon, comprised of individual panels in
which (mostly) women illustrated (through embroidery, appliqué and
other crafts) “what I cannot bear to think of as lost forever in nuclear
war”, was stretched around the Pentagon, the Capitol and the Lincoln and
Washington memorials.10 While this event was significantly more moder-
ate in intent and execution than the protests at Greenham, Seneca or
the earlier Women’s Pentagon Actions (its constituency was more con-
servative, for instance, and it was executed with the permission of the

authorities, rather than in defiance of them), it drew on a similar language

of creative and artistic expression to articulate horror at the thought of
nuclear war.
So, while neither policies nor resistance to them were homogenously
replicated between the United States and Britain, similar ideas and con-
cerns arose in each country and shuttled back and forth between them,
shifting and mutating as they traversed the Atlantic. It is in tracing
literature’s treatment of these debates, particularly in the areas of gender
and the family, the environment, social structures and organisation, and
textual engagement with the nuclear threat, that later chapters are con-
cerned. What we will see resurfacing periodically throughout these chap-
ters, in a wide range of texts, is the period’s signature protect–protest
The nuclear transatlantic this book investigates then is less a direct focus
on transatlantic relations in texts, than it is a manifestation of a shared
nuclear fate erupting within societies that, though distinct, were facing
similar social, cultural and economic challenges. Nevertheless, there are
some 1980s nuclear texts with an overt transatlantic theme and, although
they would not normally be read as transatlantic texts, reading them with
this dimension in mind helps us to understand how literature more
broadly is situated by its production on either side of the Atlantic.


In a telling conceit, two nuclear novels—British writer David Graham’s
Down to a Sunless Sea (1979), and the American writers Whitley Strieber
and James Kunetka’s Warday (1984)–imagine a world so changed by
catastrophe that, with a resurgent empire, Britain has usurped the United
States’ geopolitical dominance. In Warday, Strieber (best known for horror
fiction) and Kunetka (a science writer) co-author a sort of future documen-
tary, a travel narrative in which they imagine themselves journeying around
a near-future United States economically, socially and environmentally
crippled by a thirty-six-minute nuclear war that had occurred five years
previously in 1988.
Almost everywhere they go they encounter the ambiguous presence of
Britain’s aid mission, the British Relief, which has come in to prop up
American society, but is taking over key functions of government and
shaping American lives and aspirations. In the Midwest, for instance,
they meet a teacher, Amy Carver, who tells of a visit to her school by

Prince Andrew, who flew in by helicopter with an entourage of lords and

generals to see the work of the British Relief in action. The visit reveals the
new status quo. The British guests are important (a local Relief General
Officer manages to secure shoe polish, hard to come by since the war, so
pupils and staff look smart) and the Prince’s gift of two suitcases of books,
along with a request that they form a Shakespeare society and read a poem
a day from The Oxford Book of American Poetry, indicate the ideological
underpinnings of the educational work being done by the Relief. Britain,
through the medium of education and literature, is shaping American society.
Britain, represents, too, the most available hope for a better life for
American schoolchildren: an eleven-year-old student, interviewed by
Strieber and Kunetka, and inspired by the visit, tells them how he “love[s]
the King”, because of all the good things the British monarchy has done for
what remains of the United States. The boy’s dream is to go to Britain and
become a British subject.11
Elsewhere on their journey, Strieber and Kunetka encounter similar
evidence of changed relations between Britain and the United States. In
Dallas, the local headquarters of the British Relief is “some say . . . the true
seat of government of the Southwestern United States”, indicating the
extent to which governance of the United States has fallen out of American
hands.12 In San Francisco, an economist talks with awe of a booming,
prosperous Britain (“one vital, alive, active, country”) he encountered on
a trip: “The Thames is jammed with shipping. The airports are full of
planes. . . . I never saw so many Rolls-Royces and Bentleys in my life. My
God, London is like some kind of a high-tech jewel.”13
This is a reversal of the normal and expected relations between the two
countries, a mark of how low the United States has been brought by the
brief war with the Soviet Union (in the world imagined by the novel,
Britain, Germany and France are protected from nuclear war by a secret
treaty, seizing American military assets in order to spare themselves from
Soviet attack). Instead of the familiar stories of European immigrants
heading west to find a new life in the new world, Britain—constitutional
monarchy and all—represents the future and it is to a new life in the east,
in Britain, that many young Americans aspire. (Dreams of heading west
are not entirely lost in the novel: California, benefitting from booming
trade as a result of a strong Japanese influence—a manifestation of 1980s
anxieties about the power of the Far East in the new global economy—is
by far the richest area of the United States, with many Californians agitat-
ing for secession from the Union.)

In Warday, British usurpation of the United States captures, for the

novel’s American readers, the traumatic reshaping of the world and of
their country’s standing that nuclear war might bring. In Graham’s Down
to a Sunless Sea, a similar near-future scenario of British supremacy is
presented with considerably more relish. In its imagined near future of
1983, US society, crippled by acute oil shortages, has collapsed. As the
novel begins, its narrator, airline pilot Jonah Scott, is landing his Air Britain
jumbo jet in New York, where refugees, seeking a new life in Britain, rush
the plane and are shot by its military guards. As with Warday, the dream of a
prosperous New World out west has been supplanted by a future located
back in Europe. Graham revels in the contrast between a United States riven
by poverty and crime and a globally ascendant, prosperous, “nearly normal”
Britain. (In fact, a highly disturbing, almost fascistic Britain in which the
monarchy has assumed more power and the justice system is extraordinarily
brutal: Jonah tells us approvingly that “a daylight mugger in Hyde Park
could be doing his stuff on the hour, be tried and sentenced by a kerbside
Vigilante court at fifteen minutes past and be dancing on air from a nearby
tree on the half hour. Really hard deterrents work—every time”).14 The
vision of social and economic chaos in the United States is followed, later in
the novel, by a nuclear war that wipes out the rest of the planet.
What is revealing about these two novels’ representation of changed
relations between Britain and the United States is that their conceits func-
tion to the extent to which they surprise us. For all that they reveal latent
American anxieties about the fragility of their economy and the dangers of
international entanglements, and for all that they signal the persistence of a
rather wistful, if dangerous, British nostalgia for Empire, they also affirm the
unlikelihood of these anxieties or desires being fulfilled. By presenting us
with preposterous futures (only a global cataclysm can bring them about),
they reaffirm the normality of a status quo in which Britain is forever (apart
from in flights of the imagination) a junior partner to the United States.
In general, in 1980s nuclear literature, it is the norm of the contem-
porary international status quo—with the United States and the Soviet
Union as the significant global forces—that is reproduced. If these two
superpowers do fall, it is in a global nuclear cataclysm that takes the rest of
the world with them. The geopolitical structures of the Cold War, espe-
cially the superpower status of the United States, and the sense of a shared,
planetary nuclear fate that produces the first glimmerings of the idea of
global community, result in significant shifts in the treatment of the trans-
atlantic theme in literature.

Historically, a focus on the transatlantic was a cultural preoccupation of

US, not British, literature. This was particularly the case in the nineteenth
century when US writers were both tied to models of cultural excellence
inherited from the Old World and sought to break from them by finding
new, distinctively American, forms and voices. Yet by the late Cold War,
the cultural dominance of the United States was such that a transatlantic
theme (though rarely discussed as such) was manifested predominantly in
literature from the other side of the ocean. This is particularly the case in
nuclear texts, as their subject matter dictates an, at least implicit, concern
with geopolitical affairs.
It is not that Britain and the rest of Europe are entirely absent from
United States texts, but when they appear they are often considered of
lesser significance because of an assumption of the military, economic
and, crucially, cultural pre-eminence of the United States. When Martin
Cruz Smith’s novel Stallion Gate (1986), a thriller set around Los
Alamos where the atomic bomb was built, has J. Robert Oppenheimer,
the scientific director of the Manhattan Project, looking forward hopefully
to the atomic age as a “world without war”, it is significant that General
Groves, in overall charge of the project, calls this a “Pax Americana”.15 The
“American” peace Groves imagines is a global order founded on American
atomic power.
Smith’s novel is a fine example of how the transatlantic theme in
American texts reconfigures Europe, for historical fidelity dictates that
it include amongst its cast of characters European physicists who fled
violence and persecution in Europe and contributed to the Manhattan
Project. Yet when it turns to the European immigrant experience it pre-
sents it with suspicion. While Anna Weiss, a Jewish physicist refugee from
Nazi Europe, provides a love interest for the Native American protagonist,
Joe, it is Klaus Fuchs, afforded less space but more central to the plot in his
(real, historical) role as spy and traitor, leaking secrets to the Russians, who
signals the marginalisation of European experience as other and threaten-
ing. The novel swiftly dismisses Fuchs for his appearance (“a bland and pasty
face, straw-coloured hair and rimless glasses”) and his haughty attitude to
Joe and other Native Americans, before it later fixes him for his treason.16
As General Groves puts it, before Fuchs’s treachery is known, he is “an
enemy alien”, “German and British”.17 The narrative role of his accomplice,
Harry Gold, a “New York Jew”, though also a European immigrant, is
similarly located by his appearance (“short, swarthy and so fat he looked
inflated inside his double-breasted suit”) before it is fixed by his actions

(the stereotype of his Jewishness perhaps dictating, as a redemptive neces-

sity, the more sympathetic portrayal of Anna Weiss’s Jewish ancestry).
Yet perhaps the primacy afforded to American experience is most fully
revealed by the fact that the novel focuses more overtly on characteristically
American frontier themes (particularly the struggle over Native American
identities) than on transatlantic ones: the experience of Europeans at Los
Alamos is either marginalised or treated with suspicion. In another 1980s
nuclear text set around the Manhattan Project, James Thackara’s revealingly
titled America’s Children (1984), the presence of Europeans is more overtly
addressed, although this is only to assert more strongly the greater primacy
of US culture: the American experience, even the American landscape,
redeem European shortcomings.
Oppenheimer himself is the protagonist of America’s Children. His first
appearance in the novel is in a 1929 visit to the New Mexico desert to
which, a decade and a half later, he will return to lead the scientific and
engineering quest to build the bomb. He comes back after travelling and
studying in Europe. This encounter with the Old World is detrimental to
him, for he returns with his “pride devastated by a European girl, his mind
by the New Physics of the German universities, and his body by an alpine
consumption.”18 It is in the definitively American landscape of New Mexico
that Oppenheimer convalesces: “making love to the lonely desert . . . [his
health] was given back.”19 Even though, then, the New York family home
of the young Oppenheimer, with his German father, is described as an
“immigrant household”, it is through American experiences, like horse-
riding in the frontier landscape of the desert west, that Oppenheimer finds
his identity.20
The novel also deals with the experiences of the European physicists,
many of them Jews fleeing Nazi oppression in Europe, who work at Los
Alamos. When they arrive Oppenheimer thinks to himself how alien they
seem in the American landscape: “What a lot of European gentlemen they
seemed, walking about in this wild scenery.”21 Yet in the process of making
the bomb they become American. For instance, Thackara has Enrico Fermi,
the great Italian physicist, say that he “only used to be” a foreigner and that
“I feel so American now.” “Soon”, he says, “the whole world will be
American. It will solve everything.”22
Instead of the Americans of a novelist like Henry James, travelling in a
Europe that eventually destroys them, we have Europeans—both first and
second-generation in America’s Children—being reborn as American in
the New World and, pointedly, furnishing the United States with the

atomic technology that will cement its place as a superpower. The novel,
like many of those set in and around the Manhattan Project, narrates the
dawn of the atomic age as the dawn of US hegemony, with Los Alamos a
place in which people (like Thackara’s fictionalised Oppenheimer) reaffirm
their American identity or become (like the fictionalised immigrant phy-
sicist bomb-builders of many Los Alamos texts) American.
Thackara’s and Strieber and Kunetka’s novels aside, the transatlantic
theme is generally a minor consideration in US nuclear texts of the 1980s.
In British ones, however, it is a more powerful presence. Even though
Britain was an independent nuclear power, key components of its military
nuclear technology, Polaris (and later Trident) were bought from the
United States. Further, this nuclear deterrent was part of a NATO alliance
in which the United States was by far the major player (and this distin-
guished it from France, the other European nuclear power, which had a
more complex relationship with NATO).Hence, were conflict to arise it
seemed likely that it would be as a result of a confrontation between the
United States and the Soviet Union. Perhaps most of all (and certainly a
source of controversy that generated much of the publicity surrounding
nuclear issues in the 1980s), the NATO strategy decision of 1979 meant
that the United States was due, in the 1980s, to upgrade its ability to strike
against the Soviet Union with cruise missiles housed in American bases in
Britain and elsewhere in Europe. Symbolically, this was a powerful state-
ment of the relations between, and the relative strategic power of, the two
countries, resonant of the decades-old Orwellian nightmare of Britain as
“Airstrip One”, an outpost against a hostile continental Europe for a
Western power centred in North America.23
As a result of all this, it was impossible in the 1980s to think of nuclear
issues in Britain without thinking of the United States. Consequently,
various facets of the cultural and political relations with the United States
feature in British nuclear texts. Riddley Walker (1980), by Russell Hoban
(an American living in Britain), depicts a world so devastated by nuclear war
that centuries later England’s (or “Inland’s” as the novel has it) inhabitants
have only just begun to move from a nomadic, scavenging existence to
settled, farming communities; have only the vaguest concept that there
might be land over the English channel, let alone across the Atlantic; and
can only guess at the technological sophistication of their forebears. Yet
their legends preserve in the collective cultural memory something of the
technology and geopolitics that brought them to this place. In the “Littl
Shyning Man the Addom” (who is, as I discuss in Chapter 7, a sort of

trickster figure in the stories they tell), we find both a linguistic trace of
nuclear technology (the atom) and a key figure in a story of origins that
derives, though they cannot know it, from the Judeo-Christian tradition
(Adam). A key figure in their mythology is Eusa, who wields the power of
the Addom and, in his name, invokes both the legend of St Eustace, as
depicted in Canterbury Cathedral, one of the settings for the novel, and also
the United States (Eusa/USA). Although British political traditions are
preserved in the roles of powerful figures (the “Prymincer” and
“Wesmincer” who tour Inland in an attempt to assert their authority), it
is an inflection of the 1980s context of the novel’s publication that they are
struggling to invoke and control the power of Eusa/USA.
Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987) is set in a near-future that is an
exaggerated version of the 1980s, foreseeing a British society in which the
Milton Friedman-style economic revolutions, beloved of the Thatcher and
Reagan governments, have been pushed to their extremes. It is a society
in which, as Chapter 6 discusses, the welfare state has shrunk (state
benefits seem to have been replaced by a system in which the very poor
are given licenses to beg) and in which it is hinted that state provision of
healthcare, education and transport has largely been devolved to the private
sector. It is also a world in which the Cold War is ongoing and dangerous.
For a novel that is so heavily populated with characters who are part of, or
connected to, the British political establishment (Stephen, the central pro-
tagonist, is a children’s author sitting on a parliamentary committee
writing a childcare manual and is even visited by the Prime Minister; his
friend, Charles Darke, is part of government), it is striking that this estab-
lishment is situated, with a couple of deft touches, as being in a relationship
of inferiority to the United States.
Stephen had a Cold War childhood: the son of a military father, his
early years were spent in various countries to which his father was posted.
It is, surely, no coincidence that the recounting of this period of his life
includes his experience during the Suez Crisis, the moment relatively early
in the Cold War that encapsulated the decline of British imperial power
and confirmed the United States’ superior global clout.24 As an adult,
Stephen’s work on the committee and his connections to Darke bring him
into contact with the Prime Minister, an encounter that reinforces the
vulnerability of Britain, a weakness affirmed precisely through its entan-
glement with nuclear weapons.
The Prime Minister’s visit to Stephen’s home is preceded by an en-
tourage of security and technical personnel who install four telephones

(one red—presumably the nuclear hotline) in Stephen’s kitchen.25 Yet

the authority to launch nuclear weapons does not confer power. Instead,
it is described as an entanglement in bureaucratic and technological
systems that, it is rather tetchily explained to Stephen, makes it impos-
sible for the Prime Minister to go anywhere alone: “I have to take the
nuclear hotline and that means at least three engineers. And an extra
driver. And someone from Joint Staff.”26 This episode rather confirms
Stephen’s previous impression, when he first met the Prime Minister, of
someone of limited power (“a neat, stooped, sixty-five-year-old with a
collapsing face and filmy stare, a courteous rather than an authoritative
presence, disconcertingly vulnerable”).27 If this is the “nation’s par-
ent”,28 it is a fragile, ageing parent and the lack of power is indicative
of the decline both of Britain’s global clout and of the efficacy of the state
that has, in this imagined future, abandoned the notion that it can
improve the lot of the nation and embraced the assumption that its
role is merely managerial.
For all the detailing of the Prime Minister’s nuclear responsibilities, it is
notable that when the novel’s nuclear crisis occurs it is because of a con-
frontation at the Olympics between an American athlete, not a British one,
with his Russian counterpart. In the post-Suez world, it is impossible—or
at least very difficult—to imagine a confrontation between a Briton and a
Russian sweeping the world into nuclear crisis. The American sprinter,
whose ill-advised punch on the starting blocks almost causes war, is a
signifier of the new transatlantic relationship. The whole crisis is presented
as a sort of chain reaction, prefiguring the nuclear chain reactions that the
missiles threaten. “Violence, and the idea of violence, spread outwards,
then upwards through intricate systems of command” as team-mates,
coaches, spectators, the press and eventually military forces around the
world (including British ones) are brought into play.29 In this reading,
the Russian and American sprinters are the point at which things go critical,
their coming together, like the coming together of sufficient quantities of
uranium or plutonium, is the moment at which a self-sustaining chain
reaction spreads throughout the system.
It is not that the American President is presented as a stronger figure
than the British Prime Minister; rather, it is that the country over which he
presides makes him more significant. He is prey to the foibles of politi-
cal expediency, “anxious to demonstrate that he was not the weakling
in foreign policy that his opponents frequently claimed”, so his conse-
quent escalation of the crisis as a rebuff to these opponents demonstrates

precisely the extent to which his decisions are at the whim of political
self-interest.30 However, he is at the political apex of a country that is
globally significant, unlike his British counterpart. Although members of
the British political establishment populate the novel and the Prime
Minister’s connection to the nuclear hotline is noted—although, indeed,
Britain would be drawn into any conflict by its NATO commitments—we
never hear about the British government’s dilemmas and decisions during
this crisis, presumably because it could play a role neither in its escalation
nor its resolution.
While The Child in Time cannot be said to take the relationship
between Britain and the United States as its main focus, this brief incident
encapsulates, perhaps all the more devastatingly because it is so naturally
assumed, the changed relations between the two countries. The British
political establishment is powerless in this crisis to do anything other than
tacitly endorse US global strategic priorities.
Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989), set in contemporary London, more
fully explores the transatlantic theme. Its American narrator, Samson
Young, could be seen as a contemporary version of a Henry James character,
travelling to London where he is destroyed (through illness; through his
involvement in the murder of Nicola Six) by his encounter with the Old
World; although it becomes clear that a newer, brasher transatlantic relation-
ship is in place.
Young, a writer, has swapped his New York apartment with Mark
Asprey, a successful British author. At first, he thinks he has “gotten the
better of the deal” and “well and truly stiffed Mark”,31 for, in contrast to
Young’s grotty Hell’s Kitchen apartment in New York, Asprey’s home is
gloriously, if rather garishly, opulent (“[a]fter a few weeks here even the
great Presley would have started to pine for the elegance and simplicity of
Graceland”).32 Yet he never overcomes his jealousy of Asprey’s continued
success, he struggles and fails to control the narrative of the novel he is
writing (and we are reading, for London Fields is a self-reflexive, postmo-
dern fiction) and he is drawn into the dangerous world of the Black Cross
pub and Keith Talent, the novel’s cockney criminal.
The story takes place against the background of the “Crisis”, an unde-
fined but clearly Cold War and nuclear phenomenon (elusive references to
“Quiet Wall” evoke the secrecy, paranoia and conspiracy attending Cold
War technology and espionage). Although various characters—Young,
Asprey, Talent and Guy Clinch—criss-cross, or dream of criss-crossing,
the Atlantic, these journeys are shaped by the Crisis.

Talent, desperate for success, imagines the lives of a plutocratic aris-

tocracy who can afford to fly between Britain and the United States, a
“heavenly elite, cross-hatching the troposphere like satellite TV—above it,
above it all.”33 However, very little “cross-hatching” is taking place because
of the Crisis. In the novel’s opening pages Young is almost the only
passenger on a plane from New York to London and arrives at Heathrow
Airport to find that everyone is trying to get out to the United States:
“nobody in their right mind wants to come to Europe, not just now, not
for the time being; everybody wants to go the other way.”34 The precise
characteristics of the Crisis are unclear (in contrast to the Olympic crisis
in The Child in Time, where the escalation is carefully detailed), but it is
global, as Cold War nuclear crises were, and the specific threat to Europe
evokes both a confrontation with the Soviet Union and the talk in the
1980s of “limited” nuclear war, in which the wider and more distant
spaces of the United States offered at least some hope of escape from a
destruction that would be absolute and swift in Europe. Indeed, the
nebulousness of the Crisis speaks to the Cold War as a state of mind: a
perpetual sense of being on the brink of something cataclysmic.
In the novel, London is part of “slum-and-plutocrat” Great Britain,
an exaggerated version of the popular representation of Thatcher’s
Britain as a post-imperial power characterised by a gulf between rich
and poor (and an echo, too, of the neoliberal near future of McEwan’s
The Child in Time).35 For Young, London has not so much changed
from when he last visited it a decade ago, as it has become a more
concentrated version of itself: “London’s pub aura, that’s certainly
intensified: the smoke and the builders’ sand and dust, the toilet
tang, the streets like a terrible carpet.” As his description goes on, it
draws a contrast with the United States where the future is, if not
exactly promising, at least undefined: “I always felt I knew where
England was heading. America was the one you wanted to watch”.36
Leaving London becomes increasingly difficult as the novel progresses:
travel agents have “brutally upped” their prices and by the end Missy
tells Young that there is “[n]o way in” to the United States.37
The United States might be, as Dr Slizard puts it, “[c]razy like an X-ray
laser”,38 but it is a significant craziness, in a way that Britain’s is not, for it
shapes the world’s future. At one point, Young dreams of returning to his
country and in his dream he passes the “Pentagon, the biggest building on
earth, visible from space . . . every last window was burning bright”.39 With
the Crisis intensifying, the United States and its military nerve centre, the

Pentagon, is where the world’s fate will be decided. Indeed, the Crisis is
located at the very heart of American government for it is obscurely bound
up with the health of the President’s wife.
So, while, as in McEwan’s novel, the United States in London Fields is
not a source of security in the world (indeed, it is quite the opposite) it is—
and this marks out the transatlantic relationship very clearly—the definitive
source of global insecurity. It matters in a way that Britain does not. It is
the centre that must hold if the world is to hold, and if it does not then the
Britain of Amis’s novel, along with the rest of the planet, will be sucked
down with it. Hence, as the international situation becomes more fraught,
US capital is withdrawn from financial systems elsewhere and Guy re-
alises that “all American money was leaving the City [of London]”.40
America is, in Young’s assessment, “going insane”, and this matters
because the country “was never like anywhere else” and so much rests
on its recovery.41
The transatlantic focus of London Fields (a preoccupation in other Amis
novels, such as Money) is not as obvious in other texts, but a similar sense of the
fate of Britain being determined elsewhere is apparent. For instance, despite
the overt anti-nuclear politics of Gee’s The Burning Book, which ends in nuclear
war, there is little explicitly about British policy. Indeed, once again British fate
is determined by the United States’ confrontation with the Soviet Union. The
apocalyptic final chapter, “The Chapter of Burning”, is punctuated with news-
paper headlines, contextualising the personal lives of the novel’s protagonists
within a growing nuclear crisis. Of the nine headlines included in the chapter,
all mention Russia or the Soviet Union directly and seven mention the United
States; the British stance does not feature at all (except, by implication, in one
that mentions NATO). In this most politically committed of British nuclear
novels, then, British nuclear policy is of interest as part only of a broader
Western Cold War strategy. The major nuclear powers, the United States
and to a lesser extent the Soviet Union, are the focus of its political protest.
When, near the end, Henry and Lorna argue about the news and who is at fault
for the impending nuclear war, they divide over whether Russia or the United
States is to blame; neither comments on their own country’s complicity.
These texts make explicit, then, what was more generally implicit in 1980s
literature: that Britain and the United States were bound together by the
involvement of both countries in the globalised systems and alliances of
the late Cold War. While such systems obviously involved many countries,
both politically and culturally, a focus on these two can be a rich starting

point for unpicking the tangled webs of global Cold War culture. The
shared language, the historical ties between the countries, the “special
relationship” (undoubtedly rather more special for Britain than for the
United States) and the economic and ideological continuities between
Reagan’s and Thatcher’s policies, as well as the protest movements their
brands of conservatism inspired, energised British and US nuclear cul-
tures. The lynchpin of these nuclear cultures in the late Cold War was a
latent vulnerability: the sense, not universally shared but strongly fostered
in the discourse of the time, that the world was one unresolved crisis away
from disaster.

1. The Victoria & Albert Museum lists Christmas 1980 as the date of original
publication. V&A Search the Collections: Gone with the Wind <http://
ton-john/> [accessed 20 January 2016]. The image became a well-known
satirical poster.
2. Henry Kissinger, a former US National Security Advisor and Secretary of
State, was still influential in public life. Edward Heath was the Conservative
British Prime Minister from 1970–1974. Keith Joseph was Secretary of State
for Social Services under Heath and later became Secretary of State for
Education and Science under Thatcher.
3. Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent
Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1991), 61 (Epstein 1991).
4. Walter M. Miller, Jr., “Forewarning (An Introduction)”, in Beyond
Armageddon, ed. Miller and Martin H. Greenberg, new edn. (Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 2006), xii (Miller 2006).
5. Barbara Goodwin, The K/V Papers (London: Pluto, 1983), 90 (Goodwin
6. Ian McEwan, The Child in Time (London: Vintage, 1992), 34 (McEwan
7. Kate Hudson, CND—Now More Than Ever: The Story of a Peace Movement
(London: Vision, 2005), 138 (Hudson 2005). For a fuller description of the
Pentagon Actions see Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution,
161–163 (Epstein 1991).
8. “Women at the 1981 women’s Pentagon action wove webs around the
doors of the Pentagon, symbolically closing them, and this activity has
been used elsewhere.” Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, Greenham Women

Everywhere: Dreams, Ideas and Actions from the Women’s Peace Movement
(London: Pluto, 1983), 126 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
9. Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, 163 (Epstein 1991).
10. Don Willcox, “The People”, in Marianne Philbin and Lark Books Staff
(eds), The Ribbon: A Celebration of Life (Asheville: Lark, 1985), 17
(Willcox 1985). For a discussion of the history of political fabric art out of
which the Ribbon emerged, see Linda Pershing, Ribbon Around the
Pentagon, 70–86 (Pershing 1996).
11. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Warday and the Journey Onward
(London: Coronet, 1985), 332–335 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
12. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 50–51 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
13. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 223–224 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
14. David Graham, Down to a Sunless Sea (London: Pan, 1980), 15, 46
(Graham 1980).
15. Martin Cruz Smith, Stallion Gate (London: Pan, 1996), 57 (Smith 1996).
16. Smith, Stallion Gate, 15 (Smith 1996).
17. Smith, Stallion Gate, 47 (Smith 1996).
18. James Thackara, America’s Children (London: Chatto & Windus, 1984), 4
(Thackara 1984).
19. Thackara, America’s Children, 4 (Thackara 1984).
20. Thackara, America’s Children, 15 (Thackara 1984).
21. Thackara, America’s Children, 82 (Thackara 1984).
22. Thackara, America’s Children, 87–88 (Thackara 1984).
23. George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (London: Penguin, 2013) (Orwell
2013). In Orwell’s 1949 vision of a world ruled by totalitarian states,
Airstrip One is part of Oceania, constantly at war with Eurasia and Eastasia.
24. McEwan, Child in Time, 76 (McEwan 1992).
25. McEwan, Child in Time, 204 (McEwan 1992).
26. McEwan, Child in Time, 209 (McEwan 1992).
27. McEwan, Child in Time, 88 (McEwan 1992).
28. McEwan, Child in Time, 88 (McEwan 1992).
29. McEwan, Child in Time, 33 (McEwan 1992). McEwan’s choice of an
Olympic moment as one that, absurdly, nearly sparks nuclear war reflects
the way in which the United States and Soviet Union used the Games for
Cold War posturing in the 1980s: both the 1980 Moscow and 1984 Los
Angeles Olympics were marred by superpower boycotts.
30. McEwan, Child in Time, 32 (McEwan 1992).
31. Martin Amis, London Fields (London: Vintage, 2003), 2 (Amis 2003).
32. Amis, London Fields, 13 (Amis 2003).
33. Amis, London Fields, 13 (Amis 2003).
34. Amis, London Fields, 2 (Amis 2003).
35. Amis, London Fields, 137–138 (Amis 2003).

36. Amis, London Fields, 3 (Amis 2003).

37. Amis, London Fields, 70, 233 (Amis 2003).
38. Amis, London Fields, 78 (Amis 2003).
39. Amis, London Fields, 263 (Amis 2003).
40. Amis, London Fields, 365 (Amis 2003).
41. Amis, London Fields, 366 (Amis 2003).

The Politics of Vulnerability: Protest

and Nuclear Literature

The central existential fact of the nuclear age is vulnerability.

Robert Jay Lifton and Richard Falk, Indefensible Weapons (1982)
Nothing is more disarming than vulnerability.
Helen Caldicott, Missile Envy (1984)

It is the argument of this book that 1980s nuclear texts constitute a political
literature, but that their politics—even their nuclear politics—is neither uni-
form nor straightforward. Whilst we might reasonably infer from their books
that many (but not all) writers were “against” the nuclear policies of both
Soviet and, particularly (given it was more obviously within their remit to
comment upon it), Western, governments, their opposition to these policies
was frequently nebulous. Certainly, we are unlikely to find in nuclear litera-
ture the steps necessary to move from nuclear standoff to a world without
nuclear weapons. While writers often expressed horror at what nuclear war
might involve and sometimes drew attention to the absurdities of nuclear
deterrence or civil defence, on the whole they did not advocate explicit ways
to ameliorate the nuclear threat. Hence, although texts were involved in
raising consciousness about the nuclear issues that became compelling in the
1980s, they usually eschewed particular policy positions.
Nevertheless, a powerful effect of representing nuclear technology (parti-
cularly nuclear weapons, though also, to a lesser extent, potential hazards of

© The Author(s) 2017 47

D. Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3_3

nuclear power stations) was to intensify what I explore in this chapter as a

politics of vulnerability. In part this is a profound and acute consciousness
of vulnerability in the face of the nuclear threat: not simply awareness of
the dangers of nuclear disaster, but, paradoxically, a sense of increasing
and heightened insecurity the more the “protection” discourses, explored
in Chapter 1, sought to stress the security provided by nuclear policy.
So, for instance, it is clear that, far from providing assurance that one
could ride out nuclear attack, civil defence preparations had the unin-
tended effect for many people of increasing their awareness of their
vulnerability to such an attack; similarly, for some (though not all)
Britons, the arrival of US cruise missiles made the possibility of nuclear
war both more visible and more likely, even though the missiles were
intended to send a message of strength, increasing the sense of protection
from Soviet attack.
To this extent, the politics of vulnerability was a crisis of faith in the
militaristic discourse of protection. It was a response to, and an articula-
tion of, a feeling of intense insecurity. Fragility in the face of the over-
whelming power both of nuclear missiles and of the nuclear state became a
defining motif of political activism against nuclear weapons.
By representing and exploring this vulnerability many nuclear fictions
contextualised and contributed to debates about nuclear policy raging at
the time. By offering visions of a nuclear world they provided, in a period of
controversy and dissent about nuclear policy, material on which more overtly
and conventionally political discourse could draw. Indeed, with the only
available images and experience of actual atomic war being the film footage,
photographs and testimony left from Hiroshima and Nagasaki (a terrible but
in so many ways more limited experience than that threatened by global
thermonuclear war), imaginative constructions of nuclear near futures were
particularly important in furnishing the public with their sense of what was at
stake in the Cold War.
It is worth noting, too, the cross-fertilisation between these conven-
tional fictions and other hypothetical nuclear futures. More factually
inclined genres of futurology—scientists’ models of climatic consequences
of multiple nuclear explosions, strategic planners’ predictions of the likely
courses of nuclear war, civil servants’ plans for post-nuclear reconstruction
and so forth—provided rich material for writers. The long list of scientists
and other experts credited at the end of the BBC docudrama Threads
(1984) shows how important such projections of nuclear futures were to
novelist Barry Hines, who scripted the film,1 but even in less rigorously

researched fictions ideas like nuclear winter (as Chapter 5 discusses) and
government planning for post-nuclear society were crucial.
The politics of nuclear texts are complicated immensely by the generally
complex and multifaceted nature of 1980s nuclear politics more generally.
With a few disturbing exceptions (for instance, those fundamentalist
Christians who, if not necessarily welcoming nuclear war, nevertheless
saw it as precipitating the Apocalypse through which the world would
enter the end times prophesied by the Bible),2 no-one was “for” nuclear
war per se. Hence, being “against” it hardly seemed like a radical position.
If you were for nuclear armament it was almost certainly on the basis that
you felt that it deterred attack and hence made nuclear war less likely.
Being a nuclear protester, then, meant less that one was against nuclear
war itself (though, of course, it included that) than that one more broadly
contested nuclearism, defined by Andrew Hammond, as “the ideology
that conceives nuclear technologies as a necessary adjunct of modernity.”3
This could mean a whole range of specific positions. Nuclear protesters
might be against a particular aspect of nuclear policy (the decision to site new
cruise missiles in Europe, for instance), they might call for their country to set
an example by unilaterally disarming itself of nuclear weapons (as CND in
Britain did), or by capping its stocks of those weapons at their current level (as
the Freeze movement in the United States did), or they might urge greater
global efforts toward multilateral disarmament. Alternatively (or as well), they
might challenge weapons testing, either on the grounds of a generalised
opposition to militarism or on the basis of its impact on a particular landscape
and those occupying it. Such positions might or might not be part of a
broader pacifist philosophy. In the distinct but related area of civilian nuclear
power, protesters might contest nuclear energy in general, or simply be
against a particular nuclear power plant planned for their vicinity.
Often, the specific anti-nuclear position might not be precisely defined.
Nuclear protest could be a generalised expression of outrage and fear, a
nebulous desire to challenge the assumption that nuclear weapons were an
inevitable part of contemporary experience.
Frequently and significantly, too, nuclear protest was part of a much
broader challenge to the status quo. Metonymically, nuclear weapons (or
nuclear power, or a specific nuclear policy) often stood for a worldview, a
set of assumptions and values, in opposition to which protesters more
broadly defined themselves. As I noted in Chapter 1, E.P. Thompson’s call
to “protest and survive” was a plea not only to oppose the specifics of
nuclear policy, but to challenge a broader “degenerative logic” by

formulating an “alternative logic, an opposition at every level of society”.

Nuclear issues thus came to embody and concretise much broader societal
conflicts and various alternative logics emerged. Hence, for many feminist
campaigners, nuclear technology and militarism symbolised and encoded
the destructive logics of patriarchy; for some environmentalists, nuclear
technology was part of a generalised assault upon nature, a logic in which
the planet was conceived as a resource for human exploitation; and for
many campaigning on social issues on the left, the nuclear state embodied
the logic of a hierarchical, authoritarian form of social organisation to
which they were opposed.
These broader visions are the subjects of Chapters 4, 5 and 6, which
explore how alternative logics emerged to contest a degenerately nuclear
one. However, it is important to note that such positions were not
absolute: you could be a feminist and uninterested in nuclear issues; you
could be an environmentalist and see nuclear power as a clean alternative
to fossil fuels; and you could be for nuclear disarmament but on the
political right (there were some Republican and Tory anti-nuclear cam-
paigners, though nuclear protest tended to be a leftist position). We must,
then, conceive of opposition to nuclearism not as singular and monolithic,
but as embracing a plurality of potential positions.
Nuclear literature—and film, music and other facets of nuclear culture—
both reflected and constituted the broader discourse within which these
various positions coalesced, even though it generally eschewed direct
engagement with specifics like, say, the comparative benefits and drawbacks
of unilateral and multilateral disarmament. Taken collectively the body of
nuclear literature is, perhaps precisely because of its refusal to be tied to
specific policy positions, deeply political. It is political partly in the way in
which all literature is political: it reproduces, sometimes challenges, assump-
tions about how society operates; it reaffirms or contests roles and identities
ascribed to particular people in particular situations. But its politics is also
generated by the specific technologies with which it deals.
By representing technologies imagined as world-ending, it sharpens our
sense of the vulnerability of the human, understood corporeally (the
fragility of individual bodies), environmentally (as a species within vaster
natural systems) and even philosophically (as an ephemeral category of
being). At its most radical it can challenge the status quo in such a way that
our sense of who we are and of our place in the world is reconstituted.
Such assaults on ideas of the human can, paradoxically, revitalise them
even as they expose their limits. Nuclear literature frequently invokes the

idea of a common, imperilled humanity, transcending political and geo-

graphical boundaries in order to demonstrate the futility and horror of
nuclear disaster. Although such appeals are often rooted in localised con-
ceptions of humanity (least generously, these could be seen as reinforcing
myopically Western norms), the potency of the assertion of what we have
in common, rather than what divides us, should not be lightly ignored.
In other words, the peril of threatened nuclear war—the rude illumina-
tion of the impermanence of our existence—gives birth to a more vigorous
sense of the human, which is defined in such ways that it transcends national
and political difference. A revitalised but fragile humanity is at the heart of
protest discourses, imperilled, as they see it, by the ostensibly protective, but
in reality deeply threatening, discourses of the nuclear state.
Before turning to the politics of vulnerability that thus emerges, map-
ping its landscape, its means and bounds, we must note that texts are not
consciously or uniformly supportive of this politics; rather, collectively
they tend to contribute toward it. Hence, it is not a reading that removes
the productive ambiguity from texts. Indeed, depictions of nuclear tech-
nology and events are frequently traversed by competing impulses. At the
end of Stephen King’s novel, The Stand (1978), the “[s]ilent white light”
of the nuclear explosion that destroys Flagg’s evil forces in the post-
apocalyptic Las Vegas of a world ravaged by disease, is rendered in a
biblical single-sentence paragraph: “And the righteous and unrighteous
alike were consumed in that holy fire.”4 Nuclear fire, here a manifestation
of what Peter Hales has called the “atomic sublime”,5 is both redemptive
and destructive, protecting and killing at the same time as it provides
narrative resolution.
Some texts might even be read as antithetical to the politics of vulner-
ability, or at least as so blasé in their treatment of nuclear war that they
undermine it. For instance, when David Graham depicts the end of the
world in Down to a Sunless Sea (1979), he is ostensibly “against” nuclear
war, but it also provides the narrative excuse for libidinous release and
male fantasy. The narrator, Jonah, the pilot of a jumbo jet, airborne when
war erupts, meets Valentina, a conveniently attractive female pilot of a
Russian plane that also survives the holocaust. At Valentina’s insistence,
the two “work in love together” to rebuild the world,6 a plan rather
tiresomely literalised through a love affair that too conveniently provides
narrative compensation for the death of almost everyone else on the
planet. Similarly, William Brinkley’s The Last Ship (1988), about a missile
destroyer after nuclear war, is more excited by the presence amidst the

282-strong ship’s company of thirty-two women and the dilemma this

poses for how sex, relationships and childbearing will be organised, than
it is particularly concerned with what has happened to the rest of the
In Firebrats 1: The Burning Land (1987), the first in a series for teen-
agers by Barbara and Scott Siegel, nuclear war is of course ghastly, but the
death of family and collapse of society provide an adventure scenario in
which the adolescent protagonists, Matt and Danielle, can (inevitably)
begin to fall in love and start negotiating the transition from adolescence
to adulthood. We should avoid the temptation to write off such fictions as
somehow less important than those that are more earnest about, and
engaged with preventing, nuclear war. They are fantasies of rebirth born
of the particular, contemporary images of calamity available in the 1980s,
and they illustrate quite how far nuclear consciousness penetrated culture
of the period.
They also draw our attention to an important, disturbing facet of
nuclear culture: nuclear war is frequently compelling, even horrifically
attractive, particularly for the promise it gives of wiping out the familiar
that we may start again. In the popular, loosely anti-nuclear, film
WarGames (1983), in which a computer hacker inadvertently brings the
world to the brink of World War III, there is a revealing exchange between
disaffected Seattle teenagers David and Jennifer. After hacking into the
NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) mainframe,
believing it to be that of a computer games company, David asks it to
play “Global Thermonuclear War”. Choosing to play as the Soviet Union
and, unaware that they are fooling US defence systems into thinking there
is a real attack, David and Jennifer have a gleeful conversation in which
they choose the primary nuclear targets:

“How about Las Vegas?”

“Las Vegas—great.”
“How about Seattle?”

Revealingly, their fantasies are not the destruction of the Soviet Union,
but of America; of, indeed, the very city in which they live. The destruc-
tion of home and the chance to erase the dull, suburban existence mapped
out for them by school and family is the most instantly appealing fantasy,
and nuclear war is the most available means by which it might be effected.

Even, then, in this film in which the plot is built to warn against nuclear
danger, there is a brief, liberating moment of nuclear glee, a disturbing
flash of the death drive far from uncommon in nuclear culture.
Also generally inimical to the challenge to nuclearism is a tendency
in some fiction to techno-fetishism. So, for example, Tom Clancy’s
focus on the minutiae of real and imagined military hardware in the
gripping nuclear thrillers The Hunt for Red October (1984) and Red
Storm Rising (1986) makes the military and intelligence services
machine, understood as a composite of human actors and technological
artefacts, the solution to Soviet aggression and (in the earlier novel) the
means by which the mysterious actions of a Soviet missile submarine
might be accurately identified as preliminary to defection to, rather
than attack on, the United States. Such texts typify many nuclear
thriller narratives by being strongly rooted in protection, rather than
protest, discourse. They toy with the possibility of protection failing—
the aggressive or deceitful Soviet or (as in Clancy’s 1991 novel The Sum
of All Fears) terrorist enemy, seeking to launch a nuclear attack; the
misunderstandings or malfunctions by which nuclear war might be
triggered—but then resolve that anxiety through the heroic actions of
individuals who galvanise the architecture of protection (the military;
the secret services; the technologies at their disposal) to provide pro-
tection from attack. In former British General John Hackett’s The
Third World War: 1985 (1978), a book cited by Reagan as influential
upon him,8 the depiction of war is overtly aimed at showing the
necessity of military strength.
Even a novel like William Prochnau’s Trinity’s Child (1983), more
sceptical of the military mindset than Clancy’s Cold War thrillers (in
Prochnau’s novel military thinking is flawed and nuclear war breaks
out), is predicated on a reading pleasure derived from the detailed
delineation of convincing military artefacts and systems. It might
expose militarism, but it remains invested with the romance of lives
gambled in martial peril amidst the deadly, sinister glamour of military
technology and systems.
While such examples are not the norm, we must, nevertheless, under-
stand 1980s nuclear literature as a complex body of work encoding a range
of socio-political positions. The politics of vulnerability I read in it is not a
position uniformly held by every text; rather, it is a composite impression
of human fragility emerging collectively from the texts, particularly in the
context of the late Cold War moment.


At Greenham Common, at Lakenheath, the wire was wrapped round with
bodies. Women, no longer gentle, were out in the freezing open. Women
slept out in the freezing winter under the freezing rain. They lay in front of
the missiles, wrapped the barbed wire with flesh. The policemen carried the
bodies away but the women kept coming.
Maggie Gee, The Burning Book (1983)9

One place in which we might look for political commitment in nuclear

texts is in their depiction of protest movements against nuclear war. Given
how powerful nuclear protest movements were in the 1980s, there are
surprisingly few depictions of nuclear protesters and frequently nuclear
protest appears only briefly, as in the disputes with his father about wear-
ing a CND badge that Jonathan Raban mentions in Coasting (1986), his
travel book about circumnavigating Britain.10 Indeed, as this chapter goes
on to show, the issue of nuclear protest, debating exactly what citizens
might do to prevent nuclear war, crops up most frequently in children’s
and young adult fiction. Where protest does appear, it frequently emerges
from a politics of vulnerability.
Maggie Gee’s novel The Burning Book, both addresses the peculiar
difficulties of political activism against nuclear weapons and illustrates
this politics of vulnerability. The most nuclear-conscious of the novel’s
protagonists, Angela, who “knew she should protest more”, “knew she
ought to do more” and is “trying to write her book against war”, never
completes her anti-war book and her engagement with peace activism
remains limited.11 Angela’s struggle and failure to engage perhaps indicate
some of the reasons why so little textual space is afforded to nuclear
protesters in 1980s literature more generally.
The novel suggests two reasons for Angela’s inability to put her desire
to participate in activism into practice. First, “she sometimes felt frozen
with fear.”12 This is a version of the “psychic numbing”, identified by the
psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton as a generalised psychological response to
the threat of nuclear war. The subject of nuclear war is so traumatic
because of the horror it portends, because of the relentless and over-
whelming machinery of Cold War geopolitics in the face of which indivi-
dual action seems futile and, most of all, because nuclear war threatens our
common assumptions about human continuity. Lifton specifically identi-
fies a psychological tendency to resist engaging in political activity as a

result of this numbing (indeed, Indefensible Weapons, the book he co-

authored with Richard Falk, sought to break through this numbing of
response in order to generate political debate).13
Gee’s depiction of Angela suggests a similar struggle to translate her
overwhelming fear into action. This is like the disengagement of William
Cowling, the former 1960s radical of Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age
(1985), about whom I have written elsewhere and to which I return later
in this chapter,14 who is so paralysed by fear late in the Cold War that he
disengages from political activism in favour of a defensive “digging in”,
trying to retreat to a personal bomb shelter rather than challenge the
political and military climate that makes such a shelter necessary. Unlike
William, Angela continues to want to act, but like him she finds herself
incapable of so doing.
The second reason for Angela’s political disengagement, related to the
first, is her struggle cognitively fully to process the knowledge that nuclear
war is possible. Angela feels that “[s]omething comforting, like the weight
of past time, said that nothing final would happen. That time would always
lurch on, that there would be time to grow in.”15 Angela knows war can
take place, is terrified by the possibility, but this potential future feels like
an abstraction, feels unlikely, when set against the tangible experience of
the everyday. It is a struggle to conceive of the absence of the quotidian.
Even when Angela’s partner, John, implores her to take action (“Let’s
just do more about it. We never go to local meetings, we never write letters
to the Press. Let’s . . . go down to one of the Peace Camps”) she refuses,
overwhelmed by a feeling of impending apocalypse: “I just have the sense
things are ending. And it just makes everything so pointless. I mean, loving
you, and writing.”16 It is not that Angela is uninterested in or entirely
passive about nuclear war—her thoughts are dominated by it, she wears a
CND badge and she does at least attend a rally at Hyde Park—but she is
unable fully to engage. She can see the problem but not any means to a
solution, and this is perhaps a dilemma that bedevils nuclear literature more
generally. Rationally, one knows the possibility of nuclear war is there, but
the continued “ongoingness” of everyday reality makes it seem unreal. Even
when you do process the possibility, and express the horror of nuclear war,
what then? Is not the recognition of nuclear doom so overwhelming as to
seem inevitable? What effective actions can individuals take in the face of the
massive global bureaucracy of the Cold War machine? What is the solution
to a nuclear world? What meaningfully can writers offer in the face of an
intractable contemporary problem?

Elsewhere in the novel, Gee acknowledges that not everyone is as sty-

mied by nuclear fear or denial as Angela and other, more active, protesters
are an important background presence. Angela’s racist brother, Guy, joins
members of the Empire Party (an extreme-right group loosely modelled on
the National Front) in trying to disrupt the massive anti-nuclear rally she
attends. In the pubs around Marble Arch he finds himself overwhelmed by
the number of nuclear protesters: “There were so many of the anti-nuclear
berks that you couldn’t even lift your elbow. It was hateful, seeing
how . . . happy they looked. And all those good-looking girls: sort of shining,
laughing and shining.”17 The fault lines drawn here run more deeply than
simple approval or disapproval of nuclear policy: they are gendered (the
implied sexual unavailability of the women indicates a withdrawal from di-
rect engagement with Guy, which is an act blending personal and political—
elsewhere he experiences his penis as a technology of war, a “wonderful
machinery; heavy as a weapon”)18; they separate fundamentally different
modes of engagement by contrasting his anger with the protesters’ happiness;
and they politically divide Guy from the protesters through his allegiance to
the far right and the protesters’ implied association with the political left.
More fundamentally, though, the division between those in favour of
the Cold War establishment and those contesting it comes down, in the
novel, to a difference between those who believe in a discourse of nuclear
protection and those who protest it by flaunting their vulnerability to
nuclear war and to the nuclear state. On the tube, Angela is accosted by
a “man with a big red face”, who sees her CND badge and insists that
bombs “stop [Russian] tanks . . . That’s why they call it a nuclear umbrella.
Keeps off Russian reign. R-E-I-G-N, geddit?”19 His boorishness, his
insistence on asserting his masculine authority on a stranger, recalls
Guy’s inner rage when confronted with the female protesters at Hyde
Park. The image of the umbrella invokes the discourse of protection,
constructing nuclear policy as a shield that repels the weapons of hostile
states as if they were mere raindrops.
Contrast this with Gee’s description of the women protesting at the
USAF airbases at Greenham and Lakenheath, quoted in the epigraph to
this section, in which a discourse of vulnerability—to the weather and to
much else besides—predominates. At the peace camps protest seeks a
different mode of engagement to that of the man on the tube and Guy.
While the women are angry, are “no longer gentle”, their protest does not
seek conventional confrontation with the police protecting the bases, but
finds a mode that embodies their pacifism. Hence the delicacy of their flesh

in the face of rain and barbed wire is deliberately exposed. Their bodies are
in the “freezing open”, vulnerable to the “freezing rain”; their “flesh” is
set against “barbed wire” that will tear it. They strip away the illusion of
protection and survival and gamble their bodies against the nuclear holo-
caust that awaits. While Angela herself may ultimately fail to engage
politically, Gee’s novel, by showing the softness of all her characters’
flesh—indeed of all our flesh—in the face of nuclear attack, is a literature
of vulnerability that chimes with the modes of nuclear protest of the late
Cold War.
Gee’s description of the Greenham and Lakenheath protesters echoes
other accounts of the actions at US airbases in Britain. Lynne Jones, one of
the protesters, rebutted criticisms that an action at Greenham reinforced
stereotypes of women’s passivity by saying that forming a human chain
with which police physically had to engage “directly confront[ed] these
people [the police] with our bodies . . . with the comprehension of what
violence and power meant in human terms.”20 Guy Brett, writing at the
time, saw the Greenham protest as a form of popular art, countering a
discourse of power and aggression with an entirely other worldview.
Hence, in describing the symbols of life with which women decorated
the airbase’s fence, he draws attention to the rejection of a logic of
aggressive assertion of strength in favour of one that seeks to evoke
human empathy by rooting itself in vulnerability:

Anyone looking at the Greenham fence would have been struck by the way
the might of the weapons was opposed by the most fragile things: personal
possessions, baby clothes, wool. Someone left an egg in the mesh of the
fence, inscribed “For peace”. Aggression was met not by closing oneself in,
armouring oneself, but by exposing one’s vulnerability, by making visible
what the dominating power excludes or denies.21

Similarly, accounts from the women themselves stressed a philosophy of

protest exploiting vulnerability in the face of nuclear weapons in order to
disable the idea that they afford protection. Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, in
their anthology of women’s voices from Greenham Common, defend
this philosophy of protest against accusations that it is self-defeating.
Discussing women “being dragged by the police” from nonviolent, sit-
in protests, they say that “[s]ome people take issue with what they see to
be passive, ‘feminine’ behaviour, self-denigrating and subservient”, but
point out that this “is not at all what the women involved in the actions

feel.” Although “you appear to be surrendering your body, you are in

complete control.”22 It involves putting the body, particularly the female
body, on the line. Rebecca Johnson, one of the women included in their
anthology, recalls being badly bruised at a demonstration, but argues that
the willingness to expose oneself to potential harm, instead of harming
others, is an important rhetorical and ethical move, because it says to those
policing the demonstrators, “‘This is my body. I’m protecting my life with
my body because I don’t feel protected by you and these weapons. . . .
Aren’t you more threatened by cruise missiles?’ I’ve not found a policeman
able to use violence after that.”23
This echoes the rejection of a discourse of protection by Sarah Green,
quoted in Chapter 1, who claimed that women “don’t want this type of
protection [afforded by armies and missiles]”. I will discuss the gender
dimensions of these protest discourses in the next chapter, but the
women’s insistence that their vulnerability is strategic is striking. It
denotes a mode of political engagement that rejects the forms of violent
oppression it sees as implicit to the arms race.
The counter to the rejected discourses of nuclear protection was less
conventional confrontation, then, than a series of creative protests under-
pinned by a philosophy of nonviolence. As Cook and Kirk saw it, “When
taking nonviolent action, your very vulnerability is your strength.”24 The
idea is not to overwhelm strength with greater strength: the force of the
nuclear state is such that this is impossible and, more importantly, violent
struggle undermines the ethos on which nuclear weapons are being
rejected. Johnson saw it like this: “We must constantly put the responsi-
bility for the use of violence back in the hands of the authorities, and this is
only possible if we completely disown violence ourselves.”25
As Helen Caldicott, the Australian physician and anti-nuclear cam-
paigner (and resident in the United States in the early 1980s where,
amongst other things, she founded Women’s Action for Nuclear
Disarmament), put it: “Nothing is more disarming than vulnerability.”26
For all the range of actions in which nuclear activists participated—and
they were extraordinarily imaginative in the ways in which they sought to
make their case—perhaps then the quintessential form of protest was the
“die-in”, lying on the ground to rehearse the role one was expected to play
in nuclear conflict.
The purpose was to disengage from a logic of violent opposition to
those things with which one disagreed in order to maintain a position of
ethical superiority. The crux of the challenge to power and conventional

definitions of strength (through arms; through the ultimate sanction of

violence) was the refusal to be drawn into a worldview based on domina-
tion of the other. Hence, there were often tortured debates within protest
groups about how they should be structured, whom they should include
and how they should reach decisions. They sought, in their modus oper-
andi, to model alternative forms of society. Indeed, often their forms,
their structures, were as intrinsic to their protests as the issues that had
brought them into being.
Gee’s description of the women lying down in front of the missiles
therefore needs to be understood in the context of these modes of protest:
it is a tactical vulnerability, flaunting the fragility of flesh in the face of
power. It explains, too, the novel’s broader politics of protest, which are
similarly predicated on exposing weakness. This is a weakness that is not
only represented in the fates of the protagonists (all dead by the end),27
but is also conveyed by the metafictional strategies through which it
exposes the inability of literary fiction to deal with the reality of human
experience in end times.
Gee’s structuring of the novel around the familiar and familial con-
ventions of the multi-generational saga (it follows three generations of a
family over the course of the twentieth century) deliberately enacts this
disconnect between our psychological and cultural expectations of con-
tinuity and the dramatic break in experience nuclear war would bring.
The family saga implies continuity and closure. Yet, Gee’s novel frus-
trates our generic expectations by setting up family stories and, instead of
delivering the narrative arcs we think likely (for instance, it steps outside
itself to say that “a novel about Ange would have had its events. The plot
of her life proceeded in order. She lost her virginity, she started an
‘affair’, she got a First”),28 it truncates them with the sudden eruption
of nuclear war.
A shared, public narrative, made suddenly, horrifyingly real as the
discourse of Cold War confrontation explodes within the book, extin-
guishes the private narratives that our reading experience erroneously tells
us will move toward conventional closure. Although individual deaths are
normal in a novel, they are usually contextualised within broader conti-
nuities: the survival of other characters, for sure, but also the survival of the
narrative that frames and makes sense of them. Yet the novel plays with
the possibility of no survivors and no narrative: the extinction of the
human perspective by which the passing of the human species might be

The novel is haunted from the beginning by the atomic attacks upon
Japan that, in the context of world-ending nuclear war, must be understood
as a prelude to the Cold War’s most terrible possible conclusion. Voices from
Hiroshima erupt sporadically and, as the novel progresses, with increasing
frequency onto its pages. Indeed, the material text itself begins to fail because
at the end we are asked to imagine the very book we are holding bursting
into flames as the first missiles strike. The Burning Book—on fire by its final
pages—flaunts the vulnerability of people and of literature.
This is a politicised literary response to the nuclear age, an engage-
ment with the vulnerability of the Derridean concept of the archive to
which I will return in Chapter 7. The complexity of Gee’s portrayal of
nuclear protest, its attempt both to represent protesters and to express
the difficulties that stymie protest, is unusual in nuclear literature and
also reveals why it is unusual: the dilemmas Angela faces (the sense both
of urgency and of impotence in the face of the global systems and logics
of the Cold War; the numbing effects of imagining nuclear horror; the
difficulty of abstraction, of engaging with a hypothetical future far
removed from everyday experience) are those faced by writers and by
the population more generally. The complex mixture of anger, protest
and frustration coursing through The Burning Book, as well as the direct
reflection on what this means for political protest, is perhaps matched
only by Terry Tempest Williams’s extraordinary memoir, Refuge (1991),
which intertwines accounts of Williams’s work at the Bear River
Migratory Bird Refuge, in Utah, with her family’s experience of breast
cancer and the discovery that these cancers may be caused by nuclear
Notwithstanding these powerful accounts by Gee and Williams,
nuclear protesters are generally invisible, or at least marginalised, in
other nuclear texts. Sometimes more conservative texts even construct
protesters as naïve and dangerous. For instance, Dudley Bromley’s Final
Warning (1982) imagines a nuclear war precipitated by pacifist radicals,
whose plan to set off a bomb, to highlight nuclear danger, goes horribly
The one genre where nuclear protesters do appear both prominently
and sympathetically (but almost entirely ignored by nuclear critics) in the
1980s is in children’s and young adult nuclear literature.29 This may be
because vulnerability is particularly acutely realised when parents, writers
and educators consider the potentially fraught issue of children’s first
realisation that they live in a nuclear world.


In general, as one might expect, books aimed at younger children seek to
offer reassurance in the face of their dawning nuclear knowledge. Judith
Vigna’s picture book Nobody Wants a Nuclear War (1986), which appears
to be aimed at six or seven-year-olds, is a good example. It shows both the
traumatic moment of realisation by a child that she and the adults meant
to protect her are vulnerable and the ways in which her fear might be
assuaged. It begins with the young narrator’s fear (“Sometimes I’m scared
there’ll be a nuclear war and I’ll never grow up”), fed by gruesome stories
told by her brother (“If there’s a nuclear war . . . the whole world will blow
up. There’ll be no more houses or trees or animals or parents. Only a dark,
smoky desert like we saw on television”).30 The mention of the television,
reflecting a common concern of the time about the psychological effects
on young people of encountering the prospect of nuclear war through the
media, is an acknowledgement that children’s induction into nuclear
knowledge may not be in the direct control of those responsible for them.
The girl and her brother run from home and build a hideaway in a cave,
which they stock with tinned food. When their mother finds them she
provides reassurance by telling them about her own childhood fears (dur-
ing duck-and-cover drills she was “so scared . . . that she thought she
would never live to grow up”) and how adults around the world work
to prevent nuclear war. Although this involves a trust in the political
establishment (“The president meets with people from many countries
to try to keep the peace”), it also involves some low-level campaigning
(“Mr. Green next door writes letters to newspapers. I [mother] belong to
a group that sometimes has rallies”). The book ends with the narrator
making a banner from the comfort blanket under which she had hidden in
the cave, inscribed with a message of peace comprised of scraps of material
from her mother’s sewing basket. They take a picture of the banner and
send it to the president.
Although this seeks (not unreasonably, given its target audience) to
assuage fears (both conventional childhood anxieties about the death of
parents and the specific fear of nuclear war) with reassurance about the
good intentions of adults, and might thus seem to work counter to the
politics of vulnerability, it both acknowledges the nuclear threat and advo-
cates activism. This activism, rooted in domestic crafts, may seem gentle and
even stereotyped in its gendering, but it is more quietly subversive than it

first appears. The focus on the fabric arts places it in a long-standing tradition
of what Linda Pershing calls “political needlework”, which found expres-
sion, as discussed elsewhere in this book, in nuclear politics in the Ribbon
Around the Pentagon protest, but also in other forms at the Women’s
Pentagon Actions, Greenham Common and elsewhere.31 Also, the material
transformation of the security blanket into a peace banner, dismantling an
object that provides psychological, but illusory, protection, enacts a chal-
lenge to the state’s discourse of nuclear protection.
Of course, the protest in Nobody Wants a Nuclear War remains muted:
it reveals rather than challenges the channels through which people
express concerns to government and it does not question whether their
political representatives will listen. Such assurance about the means by
which young people’s concerns might make themselves heard is given in
several other children’s and young adult texts, yet these texts do generally
acknowledge that making oneself heard can be problematic.
In Arnold Madison’s It Can’t Happen to Me (1981) the teenage
protagonist Sandy’s letter to the local paper about the nearby Rocky
Falls Nuclear Power Plant (named presumably to evoke Rocky Flats
where there were various nuclear and environmental scandals between
the 1950s and 1980s) provokes embarrassment and outrage from her
family, boyfriend and the conservative small town in which she lives. A
book for younger children, Jane Langton’s The Fragile Flag (1984),
begins with the failure of an adult protest against the “Peace Missile”, a
new nuclear weapon due to be based in outer space (and thus evoking
Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative, announced in 1983), and ends with
a successful children’s protest march. It deals in quite complex ways with
contested versions of American nationalism, countering the discourse of
patriotic protection against outside threats, which it casts as a betrayal of
long-standing American republican ideals, with one of vulnerability.
The president has redesigned the Stars and Stripes into a new flag that
“stands for strength”, and tries to engage children with this version of
what it means to be American by inviting them to write in to say what the
flag means to them. This version of Americanism is tied to the president’s
claim that the “only deterrent to global war is military strength”.32 The
children’s march carries the older, “fragile” flag of the book’s title and the
final confrontation is between this fragile flag and the “strong” flag of the
The triumph is provided by the children’s vulnerability. As the children
approach the White House, the president wishes they “were a throng of

grown men and women” whom he could ignore or “an assaulting army of
tanks and guns” that could be defeated militarily.33 Yet it is precisely
because they are children, because their vulnerability is, in Caldicott’s
phrase, “disarming”, that he cannot take conventional action:

Once again the President wished with all his heart that they were a battalion
of enemy soldiers or a horde of angry adults. But they were not. They were
infants, not infantry and that was the whole trouble. . . . [I]t was because they
were young that they were strong. . . . How on earth could he fight back
against innocence?34

Although the book does not state it explicitly, this contest between the
vulnerable and the strong maps clearly onto contemporary controversies
about the Reagan administration’s hawkish conduct of the Cold War. The
book does not by any means reject American exceptionalism (indeed, quite
the opposite: it is the values of Old Glory, carried by the children to the
White House, that triumph), but it contests precisely what American values
might be and asserts an earlier, radical tradition rooted in transcendentalism
(the children march from Concord and pass Walden Pond on their way),
encapsulated in the book’s epigraph, taken from Henry David Thoreau: “It
is not an era of repose. We have used up all our inherited freedom. If we
would save lives, we must fight for them.”35
A very similar narrative resolution is provided in James Forman’s Doomsday
Plus Twelve (1984), although in this case the children’s “Doomsday
Crusade” takes place twelve years after nuclear war. In a bid to stop militants
provoking a nationalist revival by attacking the Japanese, now the preeminent
world power, Val leads a pacifist march to San Diego where they are based.
As in The Fragile Flag, the philosophy underpinning their march is to
counter force not with greater force, but with vulnerability. As Val tells a
friend who is tempted to fight back when they are threatened, “If you’re
too afraid to die, you’re too afraid to live . . . Listen, if we take guns, they’ll
have twice as many, but if we keep coming on, a bunch of unarmed kids,
what can they do?”36
Similar in intent is Bernard Benson’s The Peace Book (1981), which is
framed by a narrative set in a future, harmonious world, when Peace Day is
being celebrated. A storyteller narrates for children how the world found
peace, when the children of weapons scientists on both sides, a boy and a
girl, started asking questions and created a movement to rid the world of
military technology. As in The Fragile Flag and Doomsday Plus Twelve, the

child protagonists tactically exploit their own vulnerability (the boy threa-
tens to go on hunger strike, for instance)37 and rework what protection
might mean, replacing a philosophy based on military strength (“Protecting
ourselves from our neighbours is the path of arms and leads to WAR!”) with
one renouncing militarism (“Protecting our neighbours from ourselves is
the path of disarmament, and leads to PEACE”).38
Such convenient solutions to the complexities of Cold War nuclear
standoff may seem—perhaps are—terribly naïve. They also, of course,
involve adult authors investing children with simplistically realised values
of innocence that draw on Romanticist visions of the child as close to a state
of grace. The most extreme version of this is Gerald Jampolsky’s Children as
Teachers of Peace (1982), an anthology of prose and pictures about peace by
American children, built on the rather saccharine principle that adults will
be moved to action by these young people’s pleas. Nevertheless, such works
show authors prioritising peace as an important topic and seeing the need to
reassure children both about the legitimacy of their nuclear fears and the
responsiveness of the adult world to their anxieties. These visions of protest
also involve a fundamental reconfiguration of values away from militarism.
At the beginning of Susan Weston’s Children of the Light (1985) protest is a
transcendental experience. Jeremy joins his mother on demonstrations against
nuclear war, marching and singing with “other students, young mothers,
doctors, gray-haired women from the Women’s International League for
Peace, Republican account executives, and Democratic tool-and-die workers.”
The sense of being part of something has a religious quality: “This vision of
himself with others in a collective expression of a single purpose was like
believing in God, like finding transcendence.”39
Some books for teenagers engage in more complex ways with protest by
seeing it as an assertion and negotiation of values by which adolescents
enter the adult world. In Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Dark of the Tunnel
(1985), a teenager, Craig, navigates a difficult adolescence in which he be-
comes aware of his country’s vulnerability to nuclear attack and must come to
terms with mortality. A personal trauma—the death of Craig’s mother from
cancer—is intertwined with a broader debate about nuclear policy articu-
lated through his uncle Jim, a civil defence coordinator experiencing doubts
about the value and efficacy of protective measures against nuclear attack.
Again, a discourse of protection is explicitly undermined. A colonel
who comes to defend nuclear policy at a public meeting argues that “the
only way to keep the peace was to keep America strong”,40 but this view is
challenged by Craig’s understanding that there are no winners—that

everyone is vulnerable—in nuclear war. The novel ends with Jim realising
(with Craig’s approval) that he has to declare the absurdity of civil defence,
in a letter to the governor, even though it may cost him his job. Craig, too,
realises that he must commit to work in what ways he can for peace and he
determines to join the Peace Exploration Society when he goes to college.
Although this text, like others, raises problems that are perhaps resolved
too easily by a denouement in which a commitment to peace activism is
espoused without detailing precisely what that activism might entail or
achieve, the novel is extremely effective in articulating the dawning of
vulnerability as a universal problem. This is communicated through a
striking simile, connecting the trauma of the impending death of his
mother with the trauma of nuclear fear. In his uncle’s office, Craig sees a
map of the United States studded with red and blue pins depicting likely
targets for nuclear attack, which are “like cancer cells, spreading out over
the state and into Marvin County.” This image brings to mind, of course,
the cancer cells that are at the same time killing his mother.41 The dawning
of adult consciousness, the realisation of his parent’s mortality, is linked to
consciousness of geopolitical vulnerability.
The death of a parent also features in Judy Blume’s Tiger Eyes (1982), a
novel whose nuclear dimensions are quietly and subtly interwoven with its
main focus on the transition from adolescence to adulthood. When Davey’s
father is murdered at the 7–Eleven store he runs, she goes with her mother
and brother to live in Los Alamos, where her uncle Walter works on nuclear
bomb design at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and her aunt Bitsy is a
guide at the Bradbury Science Museum about the Manhattan Project. The
novel is about different responses to vulnerability. Davey’s father would not
keep a loaded gun in the store, but Walter carries one everywhere with him
on the basis that it is “better to be safe than sorry”.42 He and Bitsy are
suffocatingly protective of Davey, nagging her about wearing a helmet when
she is out on her bike, refusing to let her go skiing or learn to drive, desperate
for her to plan well ahead in her options at school and even giving her a card
that guarantees her a space in a bomb shelter (“it’s always better to be
prepared”).43 Walter’s philosophy of personal safety underpins his justifica-
tion for working on nuclear weaponry (“We’re in this business to design the
best weapons we can, so that no one will ever think they can win a war against
us”), but both Davey and her mother have to reject protective discourse and
embrace their vulnerability if they are to take the risks that allow them to get
on with their lives (the former explains this to Bitsy with the phrase “life is an
adventure”; the latter tells her that “I can’t let safety and security become the

focus of my life”).44 Although the novel is not overtly about nuclear policy, it
establishes a fault-line between security and vulnerability that maps the
personal lives of its protagonists into the geopolitical context.
Stephanie Tolan’s terrific Pride of the Peacock (1986) also involves a
teenager, Whitney, trying to work out how to live with vulnerability, in
this case precipitated by reading obsessively about nuclear war (particularly
Jonathan Schell’s influential 1982 book The Fate of the Earth). As with
Naylor’s novel, this is mediated through a personal story of mortality, a
friendship she forges with a sculptress who is mourning the death of her
husband. Whitney’s engagement with a nuclear future takes her beyond
fear of her own death to a struggle to cope with the loss of what Lifton has
called “symbolic immortality”,45 those means by which we imagine
human life to be ongoing even when we realise that we ourselves will die:

There wouldn’t be any cemeteries. . . . No stones with names and dates and
no one to read the names and dates or leave flowers or remember. . . . If there
was a writer somewhere writing a play this very moment . . . no one would
ever know if he was great, because there wouldn’t be anyone around in four
hundred years to read his plays. . . . There’d be no anthropologists or archae-
ologists to care about trying to figure out things.46

As with The Dark of the Tunnel, Whitney’s accommodation to this vulner-

ability involves making the choice to revalue protection (she realises that
accepting the status quo of strength through arms is to become less not
more safe: “the more people ignore it [nuclear war], the less they’re really
protected”)47 and participate in campaigning activities by joining a Freeze
Both adolescent worries about nuclear war and peace activism are
gently and sympathetically mocked as part of a broader palette of adoles-
cent angst in Sue Townsend’s sequence of books about teenage diarist
Adrian Mole. We learn in the first of the series, The Secret Diary of Adrian
Mole Aged 13¾ (1982), that he “keep[s] having nightmares about the
bomb”,48 and the propensity of adults to offer blithe reassurance is
parodied in the next book, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (1984),
when a consultant psychologist runs through Adrian’s worries with him:
“1. Nuclear war is a worry, but do something positive about your fear—
join CND.”49 In the same book, Adrian’s mother joins the Greenham
women with some friends, an action that exposes the haplessness of their
husbands (when the women sit up into the early hours talking, their

husbands come round demanding help finding their pyjamas and using
the kettle), but which is also a target of Townsend’s humour (a Labour
party candidate is “harangued” by Adrian’s mother about nuclear disar-
mament, a word evoking the stereotypes of Greenham women playing out
in the popular press).50
These examples aside, though, there are very few direct depictions of
protest or of protesters in nuclear literature. This may seem to make nuclear
literature a rather curiously depoliticised beast: it takes on a major issue of
the time, yet offers few depictions of people taking action (indeed, often it
shows them struggling to take action or, as in some of the examples given
earlier, expressing only the determination to take action rather than the
action itself). Nor does it offer explicit means by which the process of
disarmament might take place.
However, to demand that nuclear literature be political in these terms is
to misunderstand its predominant role in the always already politicised
public discourse about nuclear weapons at this time. Lifton writes that one
of the major impediments to dealing with nuclearism is the numbing effect
it has on our psychological responses—our tendency simply not to think
about it—but that, as he and Richard Falk note, there was a significant
shift taking place in the 1980s:

In the early 1980s something extremely important has happened to nuclear

weapons. They have begun to emerge from the shadows. While they have
been among us since World War II, it is only now that they have become
psychologically and politically visible to the common man or woman.51

Lifton and Falk perhaps overstate nuclear weapons’ previous invisibility—

the preceding decades also bore the marks of nuclear culture—but it is
certainly the case that nuclear weapons and issues became more visible in
the 1980s. That the psychological and political visibility of nuclear weap-
ons should be linked is an important insight: full cognitive engagement
with the nuclear present and the futures it might portend has a political
consequence, demanding the understanding that nuclear issues are
amongst the most pressing of the day. Nuclear literature is both a symp-
tom and a catalyst for this greater psychological and political visibility of
nuclear weapons. It provides a means imaginatively to engage with the
nuclear present and potential nuclear futures.
If the main thrust of texts’ political engagement was to make visible the
nuclear world people inhabited, to throw into relief the contours of

nuclear technology, the nuclear state and the imminence of potentially

catastrophic nuclear futures, then one important consequence of this was
to produce a nuclear human subject defined by its vulnerability. As the
examples discussed earlier illustrate, the appearance of nuclear protesters
in literature tends to draw out a contrast between discourses of protection
and vulnerability. More generally, though, vulnerability of the human
subject is a defining feature of 1980s nuclear literature and culture.

The Fragile Human Subject

The human subject is shown to be vulnerable in a variety of ways in nuclear
literature. Most obviously this vulnerability is manifested in the fragility of
human flesh in the face of nuclear blast, its tendency to burst into flame,
melt or vaporise when subjected to nuclear heat, and the porousness of
skin to radiation or of the body to radioactive fallout. Our tendency to
conceive of our human subjectivities as, in part, constituted by discrete,
physical spaces, sharply defined by the boundaries between them and the
universe through which they move, is challenged by nuclear materials and
their consequences in the world.
This has the potential to provoke a profound existential crisis. Joseph
Masco has written perceptively of a “nuclear uncanny”, a shivering of the
precepts by which we understand our existence within the world: “The
nuclear uncanny exists in the material effects, psychic tension, and sensory
confusion produced by nuclear weapons and radioactive materials.”52 For
Masco, the nuclear uncanny (an extrapolation from Freud’s exploration of
the uncanny) has two sources. The first, produced by consciousness of
living “within the temporal ellipsis separating a nuclear attack and the
actual end of the world”,53 is similar to what I have elsewhere called the
“state of suspense” that characterises Cold War culture: the way in which
everyday life is haunted by a catastrophic and seemingly impending
nuclear future.54 The second is the psychological result of “inhabiting an
environmental space threatened by military-industrial radiation” and
relates to the uncanny ways in which radiation, colourless, odourless,
able to pass through the body and to reside in the environment for long
periods of time before its effects manifest themselves, “disrupts the ability
of individuals to differentiate their bodies from their environment, produ-
cing paranoia.”55
Both of these are relevant to 1980s nuclear literature. The first, in
particular, shapes the sense of vulnerability, moulding the politics of

nuclear texts. The characteristic Cold War mindset of being in between, of

being in anticipation of a nuclear end, was particularly sharply felt in the
late Cold War. The war fear revival, detailed in the introduction, along
with the increasing prominence of nuclear issues in public discourse, was
in part responsible for this. Also crucial was the technology that, by this
decade late in the Cold War, had the capacity to deliver nuclear war both
rapidly (with just a few minutes’ warning) and on a global scale (through
the vast armouries that promised “overkill” in the event of World War III).
It is an increasingly prevalent and insistent characteristic of nuclear litera-
ture, as the Cold War progresses, to imagine that nuclear war might come
rapidly, without warning and in terms so absolute as to destroy human
civilization and, in some cases, human life entirely.
Hence, the temporal space many people imagined themselves to inhabit,
bracketed between World War II and World War III, was one that felt
particularly squeezed in the 1980s. Similarly, the second source of Masco’s
nuclear uncanny, nuclear materials and a nuclear environment, was made
increasingly visible by public discourse. (One of their unsettling, “uncanny”
properties is that they often could not literally be made visible, but could
only be revealed through discourse, as when a news report of nuclear
contamination revealed the nuclearity of the world around us, or through
technology, as when a Geiger counter revealed radioactive contamination.)
Sometimes this was through actual or near environmental disasters, as was
the case at the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl reactors; but it might
equally be seen in the revelation that, as in the controversy about the
transporting of nuclear waste across Britain by train (discussed in more
detail in Chapter 7), nuclear materials were (and are) more generally present
in the world. One of the key fears of nuclear war, of course, was that of
radioactive fallout, and the uncertain, invisibly contaminated world survi-
vors of nuclear war might inhabit.
The effect of these circumstances is uncanny because it has the effect of
alienating people from their everyday world (it might change very sud-
denly) and from themselves. As Masco puts it, a “psychosocial effect of
nuclear materials is to render everyday life strange, to shift how individuals
experience a tactile relationship to their immediate environment.”56 We
can, further, identify three levels on which the vulnerability of the human
is manifested.
As noted already, the first is the literal frailty of human flesh: an acute
awareness of personal peril and mortality in the face of nuclear effects of
various kinds. Second is an awareness of the fragility of the ecosystem of

which humans are a part. As the chapter on environmentalism and nuclear

texts will make clear, what becomes apparent in many nuclear texts is not
that the human body exists outside of, or even merely within, an ecosys-
tem, but rather that it is itself an ecosystem, functioning as part of the
larger ecosystems constituting the planet. It participates in networks of
exchange with the environment that transport materials throughout the
world. Once one becomes aware that nuclear agents also travel these
networks, one is likely to feel the unsettling possibility of being a point
through which they might pass, regardless of whether or not they do
indeed pass through one or whether such passage is physiologically
Finally, the human is threatened as a species: in some imaginations
of the future the very viability of humankind is threatened by nuclear
war. Hence, there is a fear of futurelessness and an attempt to grasp
and imagine a world in which human imagination has itself disappeared
from the universe. Nuclear weapons thus threaten, as Lifton puts it, our
rootedness in a “biological and historical connectedness” to other
human beings for they threaten a future in which we are not survived
by our children, by members of our or other societies, or even by a
historical or cultural record.57 Nuclear weapons threaten not just the
erasure of the human, but of the imagination by which the world might
be understood from a human perspective. Jonathan Schell wrestles with
this throughout a whole chapter, “The Second Death”, of The Fate of
the Earth. The second death is both the future lives unlived because of
the erasure of life in the present and, perhaps most challengingly for
our human grasp upon the world, the erasure of the human perspective
by which we might understand the world. “The universe would still
exist”, he says, “but the universe as it is imprinted on the human soul
would be gone.”58
It should be noted that this vulnerability of the human is related not
only to the physical effects of nuclear weapons—blast; heat; radiation—
but to geopolitical, cultural and military structures of the Cold War.
Spanning the globe, involving complex machinations that take on a logic
of their own, they seem to offer little room for individual action: they are
too powerful, too obscure to oppose in conventional terms. Indeed, the
preoccupation with paranoia in literature from the 1960s onwards—
perhaps most beautifully articulated in Thomas Pynchon’s works The
Crying of Lot 49 (1966), Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) and Vineland (1990),
but also present in numerous other writers—can be read as a response to

these systems, expressing the alienation of the individual from the power
structures that shape him or her.
Such thorough-going vulnerability on occasion seems to dictate a
literature of defeat, a resignation from meaningful opposition to the
nuclear establishment. Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age (1985), for
instance, begins late in the Cold War with the narrator, William, a former
1960s activist, renouncing political radicalism (“it’s finished now, no more
crusades”) in favour of resignation (“Call it what you want—copping out,
dropping out, numbness, the loss of outrage, simple fatigue. I’ve
retired”). Seized with nuclear fear, he renounces activism in the face of
simple self-defence, and builds a bomb shelter.59 This hiding under-
ground is in marked contrast to his previous going underground, partici-
pating in radical political activism. He epitomises a conservative response
to vulnerability, a participation, however reluctant, in the actions urged by
the establishment discourses of protection.
Even this novel, though, built upon its protagonist’s attempts to resist
political commitment, is not quite so conservative. William’s narrative
point of view is undermined throughout the book and the reader, while
wakened to the nuclear threat by his pleas that we have become numbed
to danger (“Nobody’s scared. Nobody’s digging. . . . Why aren’t they out
here digging? Nuclear war. It’s no symbol. . . . Where’s the terror in the
world? Scream it: Nuclear war!”),60 is likely to distance him or herself from
the passivity of the solution William offers. William’s shelter-building
enacts a demand for security and protection impossible in the nuclear
age. Indeed, it results in William having a mental breakdown and in the
break-up of his family. Like Mitch in Jayne Anne Phillips’s Machine
Dreams (1984), whose plan to build a bomb shelter during the Cuban
Crisis is an effort to reclaim his masculinity but causes intense discord in
the family (during an argument about the shelter, Jean shouts from a
locked bathroom that “[t]here are laws to protect me from men like you”),61
William is unable to accept vulnerability. His attempts to ensure security
expose his shortcomings as a protector of his family and even endangers
them. He suffers a mental breakdown and, by imprisoning his wife and
daughter, precipitates the familial collapse he is trying to prevent.62
Other texts offer more constructive responses to vulnerability. The evoca-
tion of fragility in the face of power, as in the actions of peace campaigners
who flaunted their potential deaths in the face of nuclear holocaust, actually
becomes the source of a new kind of strength. It is not without its drawbacks,
but it seeks to change the ground on which issues are fought. Indeed, the

revitalising of the idea of a shared humanity transcending the geopolitical

divisions of the Cold War—of a humanity and a globe threatened equally by
any act of nuclear aggression—produced a legacy that has been largely
forgotten and that we should perhaps seek to recover. It tried to imagine a
different world beyond nationalism. Accepting vulnerability, instead of try-
ing to evade it, could also become a move by which literature offered new
ways of seeing the world. At times it could even constitute, in the face of
world-ending technologies, a literature of hope.


She pretended that Barry was someone bigger and more powerful than she,
someone who could actually protect her from what might be coming. After
a few minutes, though, because there was no one to protect her, she began
to protect Barry, to give him what she so badly needed herself.63
Lynn Hall, If Winter Comes (1986)

In Lynn Hall’s young adult novel If Winter Comes, the teenage protago-
nist, Meredith, has to negotiate the shocking possibility of nuclear war
over the few days of an international crisis. Unsurprisingly, this dawning of
nuclear consciousness also precipitates other kinds of awareness, sharpen-
ing her sense of the transition she is making from childhood to adulthood,
of the expectations placed on her as a young woman and of the social,
political and geopolitical contexts that shape her. Most profoundly, it
induces vulnerability through a fraught, jarring introduction to awareness
of her own mortality and that of those whom she loves.
Yet this is not, ultimately, disabling for Meredith. She has to come to terms
with her inability directly to influence the circumstances that imperil her
(characteristically, for a 1980s nuclear text, news of events threatening nuclear
war is depicted in scenes in which the protagonists view television news
broadcasts, a one-way medium emphasising their enforced passivity),64 but
this also involves an enabling reappraisal of her place in relationships and in
society. As the epigraph to this section makes clear, her initial reaction is to
reach for an available discourse of patriarchal protection—the stereotyped
reliance on the protective power of her (rather useless) boyfriend, Barry—
but this is swiftly superseded by an awareness both of his identical vulnerability
and of her own strength in the face of adversity. She has grown up in a culture
that assumes men are “bigger” and “more powerful”—able to act in the
public sphere in ways unavailable to women—but the vulnerability she shares

with Barry shows this not to be the case; indeed, it shows her greater strength.
The emptiness of acts of masculine protection (actually configured as aggres-
sive acts, designed to hide vulnerability and reproducing in microcosm the
warlike protection of the nuclear deterrent) is replaced by her self-determina-
tion and a different sort of strength that accepts, and finds a way of acting in, a
threatening world.
Barry, too, is reshaped positively by the experience, eventually rejecting
a nihilistic worldview and finding strength through an encounter with the
most vulnerable in society: a woman who has planted and nurtured a
garden amidst the rubble of the most rundown, deprived part of the
city. Neither of their new understandings protect them from nuclear
war, but they provide ways of living that constitute defiance in the face
of a hostile, nuclear world.
They adopt values that explicitly counter those underpinning the ways
in which the nuclear state does its business. Although neither is able to
shape the outcome of the crisis that threatens them, they are, in the ways
in which they conduct their lives, able to espouse alternative means of
living that embody life-enhancing values. This involves opening up to
others, rather than constructing defensive walls by which to keep them
out. Rather than seeking conventional models of security, through a
strength predicated ultimately on violence, they involve a laying down of
arms, an opening of oneself to others. Understanding this act is key, in
many texts, to understanding their politics of vulnerability. We will see it
reproduced in various ways in the issues of gender, environment and social
organisation explored in the following chapters.

1. See my article on Threads, “That’s Going to Happen to Us”, in the Journal
of British Cinema and Television, for a more detailed discussion of the
tension between documentary and realism in the film.
2. For instance, although the American fundamentalist televangelist, Jerry
Falwell, advocated prayer for peace, he also pointed out that “[t]he Word of
God teaches that this planet will be destroyed with fervent heat. This could
imply a nuclear explosion.” He offered some comfort by suggesting that the
timetable for Armageddon implies an extended period of tribulation after the
Rapture, so “the earliest that a worldwide nuclear confrontation could happen
is at least 1007 years away if Jesus would come for his saints today!” Falwell,
Nuclear War and the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, 4–5, 8 (Falwell 1983).
The evangelist Hal Lindsey also read contemporary international affairs

through the prism of biblical prophecy, but saw the end as rather more immi-
nent: the back cover of one of his books includes the disquieting claim that “WE
THE RETURN OF JESUS.” Lindsey, The 1980’s: Countdown to
Armageddon (New York: Bantam, 1981), cover (Lindsey 1981).
3. Andrew Hammond, British Fiction and the Cold War (Houndmills:
Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 55 (Hammond 2013).
4. Stephen King, The Stand (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1990), Kindle
edition, 1243 (King 1990).
5. Peter B. Hales, “The Atomic Sublime”, American Studies 32.1 (1991): 5–31
(Hales 1991).
6. David Graham, Down to a Sunless Sea (London: Pan, 1980), 232 (Graham
7. WarGames, directed by John Badham (USA: MGM, 1983) (WarGames 1983).
8. Eric Schlosser, Command and Control (London: Penguin, 2013), 15, 501
(Schlosser 2013). Schlosser labels The Third World War a “techno-thriller”,
a useful term that he gets from J. William Gibson’s “Redeeming Vietnam”,
which delineates clearly the ideological work such texts do.
9. Maggie Gee, The Burning Book (London: Faber, 1983), 254 (Gee 1983).
10. Jonathan Raban, Coasting (London: Picador, 1987), 88, 161, 182
(Raban 1987).
11. Gee, Burning Book, 155 (Gee 1983).
12. Gee, Burning Book, 155 (Gee 1983).
13. See Lifton and Falk, Indefensible Weapons (Lifton and Falk 1982). See also
Lifton, Death in Life, for details of Lifton’s work with the survivors of
Hiroshima, from which he extrapolated his understanding of the broader
psychological responses to nuclearism.
14. Daniel Cordle, “In Dreams, In Imagination: Suspense, Anxiety and the
Cold War in Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age”, Critical Survey 19.2
(2007): 101–120 (Cordle 2007). Daniel Cordle, States of Suspense: The
Nuclear Age, Postmodernism and United States Fiction and Prose
(Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008), 127–136 (Cordle 2008).
15. Gee, Burning Book, 155 (Gee 1983).
16. Gee, Burning Book, 228–229 (Gee 1983).
17. Gee, Burning Book, 205 (Gee 1983).
18. Gee, Burning Book, 162 (Gee 1983).
19. Gee, Burning Book, 248–249 (Gee 1983).
20. Lynne Jones, “Women’s Peace Camp: Greenham Common”, in Keeping the
Peace: A Women’s Peace Handbook, ed. Jones (London: Women’s Press,
1983), 93 (Jones 1983).
21. Guy Brett, Through Our Own Eyes: Popular Art and Modern History
(London: Heretic, 1986), 149 (Brett 1986).

22. Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere: Dreams, Ideas
and Actions from the Women’s Peace Movement (London: Pluto, 1983), 70–
71 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
23. Rebecca Johnson, quoted in Cook and Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere,
68 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
24. Cook and Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere, 68 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
25. Rebecca Johnson, quoted in Cook and Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere,
68 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
26. Caldicott, Missile Envy, 234 (Caldicott 1986).
27. At the conclusion of the novel, war erupts and everyone dies. However, at the
point at which we are asked to imagine the book we are holding exploding into
flame in the midst of a nuclear attack, the novel also reminds us that this has not
yet come to pass and that this nuclear future can be contested.
28. Gee, Burning Book, 249 (Gee 1983).
29. As remarked in Chapter 1, the only critical work that deals extensively with
children’s nuclear literature is Lenz’s Nuclear Age Literature for Youth. Very
much a product of its time, Lenz’s work seeks interestingly for a children’s
literature that challenges, rather than reinforces, the modes of thinking that
produced the contemporary nuclear emergency. Paul Brians’s “Nuclear
Fiction for Children” is also worth reading.
30. Judith Vigna, Nobody Wants a Nuclear War (Niles, IL: Albert Whitman and
Company, 1986), no page numbers in text (Vigna 1986).
31. Linda Pershing, The Ribbon Around the Pentagon: Peace by Piecemakers
(Knoxville: University of Texas Press, 1996), 48. See also my discussion of
women’s activism in Chapters 1, 2 and 4 (Pershing 1996).
32. Jane Langton, The Fragile Flag (Cambridge: Harper & Row, 1984), 21,
253 (Langton 1984).
33. Langton, Fragile Flag, 205 (Langton 1984).
34. Langton, Fragile Flag, 259–260 (Langton 1984).
35. Langton, Fragile Flag, epigraph (Langton 1984).
36. James D. Forman, Doomsday Plus Twelve (New York: Charles Scribener’s
Sons, 1984), 208 (Forman 1984).
37. Bernard Benson, The Peace Book (London: Jonathan Cape, 1981), 126
(Benson 1981).
38. Benson, Peace Book, 79 (Benson 1981).
39. Susan B. Weston, Children of the Light (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1985),
3 (Weston 1985). It is not quite right to call Weston’s novel “young adult”,
for it is much more firmly rooted in the future fantasy genre but, through its
focus on a teenager thrown onto his own resources and thus entering
adulthood, it overlaps with the concerns of young adult fiction.
40. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, The Dark of the Tunnel (New York: Atheneum,
1985), 172 (Naylor 1985).

41. Naylor, Dark of the Tunnel, 52 (Naylor 1985).

42. Judy Blume, Tiger Eyes (London: Macmillan, 2001), 31 (Blume 2001).
43. Blume, Tiger Eyes, 97 (Blume 2001).
44. Blume, Tiger Eyes, 74, 217, 211 (Blume 2001).
45. See chapter 7, “A Way of Seeing”, in Lifton and Falk, Indefensible Weapons,
62–65 (Lifton and Falk 1982).
46. Stephanie S. Tolan, Pride of the Peacock (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
1986), 20–21 (Tolan 1986).
47. Tolan, Pride of the Peacock, 174 (Tolan 1986).
48. Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾ (London: Penguin,
2012), Kindle edition, 224 (Townsend 2012). I am grateful to Jonathan Hogg
for reminding me of Adrian Mole’s adolescent bomb angst. As he points out,
Adrian goes on to say that he hopes the bomb is not dropped before his CSE
exams as he does not want to die an “unqualified virgin”. Jonathan Hogg, British
Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the Long 20th Century
(London: Bloomsbury, 2016), Kindle edition, loc. 3373 (Hogg 2016).
49. Sue Townsend, The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole (London: Penguin,
2012), Kindle edition, 255 (Townsend 2012).
50. Townsend, Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, 268 (Townsend 2012).
51. Falk and Lifton, preface, in Lifton and Falk, Indefensible Weapons, ix (Lifton
and Falk 1982).
52. Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-
Cold War New Mexico (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 28
(Masco 2006).
53. Masco, Nuclear Borderlands, 28 (Masco 2006).
54. Cordle, States of Suspense, 1–19 (Cordle 2008).
55. Masco, Nuclear Borderlands, 28, 32 (Masco 2006).
56. Masco, Nuclear Borderlands, 33 (Masco 2006).
57. Lifton and Falk, Indefensible Weapons, 64 (Lifton and Falk 1982).
58. Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth and The Abolition (Standford:
Stanford University Press, 2000), 128 (Schell 2000).
59. Tim O’Brien, The Nuclear Age (London: Flamingo, 1987), 8 (O’Brien 1987).
60. O’Brien, Nuclear Age, 124 (O’Brien 1987).
61. Jayne Anne Phillips, Machine Dreams (London: Faber, 1993), 164. Italics in
original (Phillips 1993).
62. The novel ends with the family together but it is strongly hinted that
William’s wife and daughter will leave him.
63. Lynn Hall, If Winter Comes (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986), 4–5
(Hall 1986).
64. For example, the major television dramas Threads, The Day After and
Testament all include scenes in which people watch television news reports
about the build up to, or initiation of, nuclear war.

Post-Containment Culture: Gender, Family

and Society in the Late Cold War

The centrality of gendered and sexual identity within nuclear discourse,

particularly in relation to the family, is well established in readings of early
Cold War society. Most convincingly, this has been theorised as a “con-
tainment” culture. This chapter argues that 1980s culture was similarly
shaped by a preoccupation with gender and sexuality, but that a distinctive
post-containment culture, by turns nostalgically recuperating and trans-
gressively challenging ideas of family from the earlier period, emerged.
The family became a fraught site in late Cold War nuclear literature
because it was most frequently the home that was presented as the target
of nuclear attack in both civil defence advice and in nuclear fictions. It is
also because the family was central to the broader ethical and political
debate, presented in extremis as itself under attack and the final bastion
against anarchy, or, in a counter discourse, as the bedrock of intransigence
and patriarchy.


In pioneering works Homeward Bound and Containment Culture, Elaine
Tyler May and Alan Nadel theorise US Cold War society of the 1950s as a
containment culture.1 The label is pointedly chosen: it takes the term that
names US foreign policy and geopolitical strategy (the containment of
communism around the world) and provocatively asserts that at home

© The Author(s) 2017 77

D. Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3_4

(meaning, both within the United States and within actual American
homes) a period of seeming consensus and prosperity (characterised by a
baby boom, a proliferating consumer culture and a focus on the domestic
space) was intimately connected to nuclear and other anxieties.
May’s Homeward Bound finds, in the 1950s, a “symbiotic connection
between the culture of the cold war and the domestic revival”, manifested
both in the baby boom and in the emergence of powerful discourses of
domesticity.2 She shows how thoroughly politicised by the nuclear Cold
War the seemingly apolitical spaces of US homes were. By providing the
illusion of a natural and depoliticised space, the home provided an oasis in
which anxieties about nuclear technology, the spread of communism and a
host of other social fears and ills were suppressed. Decked out with the
consumer technologies of the post-war boom, the middle-class, suburban
family home symbolised the triumph of American capitalism and was both
the product and the source of powerful narratives favouring conformity
and consensus. The baby boomer family became a powerful symbol of an
American way of life that had to be defended against the ideology and the
nuclear weaponry of the Soviet Union. It also dictated gendered aspira-
tions and divisions of labour that “contained” subversion and dissent.
Nadel’s Containment Culture similarly reads ideas of home and family
as shaped by Cold War discourse. For Nadel the early Cold War exempli-
fies “the power of large cultural narratives to unify, codify, and contain—
perhaps intimidate is the best word—the personal narratives of its popula-
tion.”3 In popular culture of the period a “mythic nuclear family” became
“the universal container of democratic values”. Its narratives, “filled with
repressed duality”, struggled to “reconcile the cult of domesticity with the
demand for domestic security.”4
Of course, as May and Nadel reveal, the image of the idealised suburban
family home that proliferated in adverts, lifestyle magazines and popular
culture concealed, rather than resolved, deep-seated social and cultural
anxieties. With domestic culture frequently unable to deliver the content-
ment it promised, and certainly incapable of setting right broader anxieties
and social ills, containment culture eventually collapsed under the weight
of its internal contradictions.
British nuclear and Cold War culture has been less thoroughly analysed
than that of the United States. Indeed, until recently its existence has
barely even been acknowledged. Only now are a new generation of nuclear
historians—see, for instance, Matthew Grant’s After the Bomb, Jonathan
Hogg’s British Nuclear Culture and a special edition of The British

Journal for the History of Science on British nuclear culture5—revealing the

extraordinary number of ways in which British civil society was, from the
middle of the century, imbricated with the nuclear state and permeated by
a nuclear consciousness emerging from the context of the early Cold War.
As Matthew Grant argues, the “cold war must be seen as a dominant
backdrop to British history after 1945, as dominant as the story of eco-
nomic decline which traditionally haunts any discussion of contemporary
British history.”6
Britain in the 1950s—shaped by austerity, not affluence; by waning,
not waxing, international influence—was, of course, very different from
the United States and the topography of nuclear culture was also rather
different. Indeed, even at this early stage of the atomic era the country was
having to make compromises that meant at least partial reliance on the
United States for the technology of the nuclear deterrent.7 Nevertheless,
Hogg’s work suggests that nuclear consciousness was as important in
Britain as it was in the United States, even though it was important in
different ways. “[N]uclearity”, which he defines as “a shifting set of
assumptions held by individual citizens on the dangers of nuclear technol-
ogy”, was, he says, “a powerful influence in the lives of British citizens.”8
It “led to the emergence of an uneasy British identity . . . in response to
common nuclear assumptions.”9 These findings, from detailed analysis of
the treatment of nuclear issues by the popular press, echo the insights of
May and Nadel on containment culture by identifying the cultural work
domestic discourse did in attempting to quell nuclear anxiety: “domestic
tranquillity [was] mobilised against the dark abyss, and simple, honest,
common-sense reassurances attempt[ed] to stave off the threat of the
nuclear bomb.”10
The literary critic, Andrew Hammond, who has done much to show
how ingrained the Cold War was in British culture, devotes a whole
chapter to “literary containment” in his pioneering work British Fiction
and the Cold War.11 While his understanding of containment is in some
senses broader than May’s and Nadel’s (he writes of literary containment
running throughout the Cold War, rather than being limited to its early
period), in important ways it is also narrower, focused on explicit and
literal Cold War engagements. Provocatively, he argues that British “crea-
tive writers became major players in the cultural conflict of the period,
transforming literature into a vital weapon of propaganda.”12 This is an
innovative reading of British fiction, but Hammond’s subject matter is not
really domestic culture and hence is rather different to that theorised

through the term “containment” by May and Nadel. While Hammond’s

contribution to our understanding of British Cold War fiction is impor-
tant, the containment in which I am interested in this chapter is much
more consistent with May’s and Nadel’s: an ideological manoeuvre
whereby domestic culture seeks to contain (to suppress; to bottle) social,
cultural and geopolitical anxieties.
This long preamble is necessary because 1980s nuclear culture, in both
Britain and the United States, was shaped by battles over the meaning of
the 1950s. For 1980s conservatives (with a small “c”) the 1950s fre-
quently stood as the last hurrah for traditional values, particularly family
values, undermined as they saw it by the emergence of the 1960s counter-
culture and subsequent developments. This was a nostalgic, idealised and
false conception of the 1950s: as May shows, far from being the end point
of the traditional “nuclear” family, the decade was in fact an aberration,
the only decade in the twentieth century in which people got married
younger than in the previous decade, had (and aspired to have) more
children and in which the divorce rate fell.13 In this discourse the 1950s
thus signified and was mythologised as the norm against which 1980s
domestic and social anxieties (the demise of the family, the rise of
“broken” homes and of a general social decadence) were judged.
In contrast to conservatives, others retrospectively saw the 1950s as a
stultifying period of conformity, a decade in which deviation from social
norms was brutally punished and in which men’s and, particularly,
women’s life chances were severely curtailed. Such a view tended to see
new opportunities in the 1980s to rethink the structure of society and, in
particular, gender roles, even while they acknowledged the enormous
power of forces standing in the way of such restructuring.
Hence, we can productively read the 1980s as a post-containment
culture. While Britain and the United States differed, they were both
societies in which the social consensus of the 1950s (always, to some
degree, illusory in any case) had definitively broken down. The forces
contained in the image of the idealised family could no longer be stifled.
Conservatives might seek to force them back into the box from which they
had broken free, to wind back the clock and re-contain them, and radicals
might seek new forms of social organisation that thrived on the release of
these energies, but they both saw the late Cold War moment of the 1980s
(though they could not know quite how “late” it was of course) as defined
by the distance travelled from the domestic life of the early Cold War.



In the 1980s a strident conservative discourse, on both sides of the Atlantic,

decried the state of the contemporary family. Focusing on the traditional
family unit as a natural rather than a social entity, this discourse perceived
stresses upon it, manifested in rising divorce rates and more “broken”
families, as socially disruptive. In Britain, the growing number of single
mothers was particularly singled out as a signifier of the decline of the family.
These ideas were, of course, not entirely new. They intensified the
counterattack against both the 1960s counterculture and the welfare
state, long portrayed as creating a culture of dependency and undermining
responsible family planning. In 1974, the British Conservative politician,
Keith Joseph, had given a speech in which he claimed that the “human
stock is threatened” by “a high and rising proportion of children . . . being
born to mothers least fitted to bring children into the world and bring
them up.”14 When, in her Conservative Party conference speech of
9 October 1987, Margaret Thatcher bemoaned an education system she
thought had been infiltrated and politicised by the hard left, it was in part
to decry the increasing public prominence of a gay sexuality she saw as
antithetical to family values: “Children who need to be taught to respect
traditional moral values are being taught that they have an inalienable
right to be gay.”15
In the United States, a similar perspective was gaining ground. On
20 December 1986, Ronald Reagan gave a radio address on family values
in which he argued that:

[I]n recent decades the American family has come under virtual attack. It has
lost authority to government rule writers. It has seen its central role in the
education of young people narrowed and distorted. And it’s been forced to
turn over to big government far too many of its own resources in the form of

The conflation of the idea of the family as the primary source of moral
rectitude with the dislike of big government, portrayed as inhibiting the
ability of the family to function, was characteristic of a broader worldview,
mapping the family into neoliberal economic and social policy. This was
not an isolated example.

Indeed, in his famous Cold War speech of 8 March 1983, denigrating

the Soviet Union as an “evil empire”, Reagan began not with international
relations but with a long defence of the places of religion and family in
American life. In particular, he defended his government’s controversial
instruction to sexual health clinics to inform parents when contraceptive
and abortion advice was given to their daughters. Noting disapprovingly
the shift in terminology by which such girls were seen as “sexually active”
rather than “promiscuous” (in other words, yearning nostalgically for a
more morally judgemental term), he bemoaned the clinics’ actions as
“only one example of many attempts to water down traditional values
and even abrogate the original terms of American democracy.”17 It is from
this foundation, this view of personal and family relations, that he goes on
to discuss the broader presence of “sin and evil in the world”, calling on
Americans to resist the lure of nuclear freeze proposals and portraying the
Soviet Union as a dangerous, secular “evil empire” seeking the destruction
of American values.
This discourse about the family and the challenges to it that I discuss
later in this chapter, provide a context in which depictions of home and
family in nuclear literature must be understood in order to tease out the
subtle connections between domestic culture and international politics.
The “nuclear family”, understood both in terms of its mundane, diction-
ary definition (“a couple and their dependent children, regarded as a basic
social unit”, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it) and metaphori-
cally (the family “nuclearized”—with apologies for the strained neologism—
by a combination of technological innovation and Cold War threat),
becomes a useful conceit for thinking about the ramifications of the
nuclear age in everyday life.
Indeed, it was in terms of threats specifically to families that nuclear war
was often imagined. For reasons of cost, practicality and political pragma-
tism there were no public shelter programmes in Britain or the United
States in the 1980s, but the fiction of effective civil defence was part of the
rhetoric of deterrence. As a result, civil defence advice in both Britain and
the United States focused predominantly on families constructing their
own nuclear shelters.
Hence, the British Protect and Survive leaflet and public information films
discussed in Chapter 1 use images of families to construct their narratives
about surviving nuclear war and its aftermath. On the orange front cover of
the leaflet (Figure 1.1) is a logo consisting of a white circle, within which—in
white silhouette on a black background—are depicted a “nuclear” family

(father, mother and two children, male and female). In the film version each
informational segment ends with a brief animated sequence in which the
words “PROTECT AND SURVIVE” wrap themselves around the silhou-
ette of the family and then solidify into a white circle.
This is an image of protection: the circle seals the family from putative
outside threats and the parents’ hands rest reassuringly and protectively on
their children’s shoulders. The advice contained in the leaflet is intended
to be similarly reassuring of the possibility of protection, showing how to
strengthen the shell of the family home and proof it against outside threats
like radioactive fallout.
The primary focus for protection is, specifically, the middle-class family.
Although the leaflet explains what to do in various types of accommoda-
tion, the first two images of dwellings put us firmly in suburbia, with a
silhouette of a semi-detached, new-build house with a garage and trees at
its side. Later, when the booklet returns to the world outside the home to
show the male adult disposing of fire hazards in a dustbin, a similar world
of semi-detached houses with shrubbery in the gardens is in evidence in
the background of the image.18
Such design choices, while almost certainly made with only practical
issues in mind, are, of course, not innocent of ideology. They must be
understood in the context of the contemporary social vision, of the
politics, of the family. To this end it is worth noting that Protect and
Survive advice assumes a vision of society in which, under the stresses of
nuclear attack, the country atomizes into individual family units. The first
paragraph of advice in the “Planning for Survival” chapter, for example, is
to “stay at home” (there are stern warnings that if you move to a new area
“the authority in your new area will not help you with accommodation or
food or other essentials”).19 In the weeks following attack, Britain is
envisaged as a nation of families cut off from one another, sheltering in
their homes and awaiting advice from the authorities, presumably through
the medium of the portable radios they are advised to keep in their
shelters. While such advice is made for practical reasons—clearly being in
the open as fallout drifts across the country is a bad idea—it is a vision of
social organization that effaces human connection in anything other than
the seemingly natural unit of the family and mitigates against the possibi-
lity of civil unrest, a recurrent anxiety in planning for the aftermath of
nuclear war. “Contained” in its shelter the family is imagined as protected
both from the ravages of nuclear war and from the temptation of alliances
and actions that run counter to the aims of the state. Dutifully following

advice, the family becomes the instrument through which state power and
control is exercised over the population; or, perhaps more accurately,
through which the population enacts its own acquiescence.
A similar aesthetic is at work in US civil defence advice in the 1980s. For
instance, the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s leaflet, Home Shelter:
Outside Concrete Shelter (1980), shows on its cover a family (two adults, three
children) sat around a garden table, enjoying refreshments on their patio. A
cut-away shows the shelter that sits beneath the patio.20 On the cover of
another pamphlet, Home Fallout Shelter: Modified Ceiling Shelter—Basement
Location, Plan A (1980), a woman is shown in the basement of her home
loading a washing machine, next to which stands a tumble dryer.21 The rest
of the family are implicit here—the implication is that she is a mother doing
the family washing—and the white goods suggest middle-class suburbia.
Families, particularly middle-class families, are then central to the ima-
gination of nuclear war in official discourse. They form the basic organisa-
tional unit through which practical measures for survival are enacted and,
implicitly, from which (by receiving and dutifully following instructions
from the authorities) society will be reconstructed afterward. When 1980s
nuclear fictions reference this official advice, it is usually to show it as grimly,
laughably inadequate, as in Robert Swindells’s Brother in the Land (1984),
Raymond Briggs’s When the Wind Blows (1982), Louise Lawrence’s
Children of the Dust (1985), Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Dark of the
Tunnel (1985) and, the most influential television depictions of nuclear
war, ABC’s The Day After (1983) and the BBC’s Threads (1984).
This protection discourse of the Cold War state was countered by a
protest discourse. Not only did this discourse contest civil defence advice
and nuclear strategy, it also often offered alternative models of gender and
family relations and particularly, through the influence of feminist activists
within the anti-nuclear movement, made the nuclear state the primary
manifestation and symbol of patriarchy.


We want to know what anger in these men [in the Pentagon], what fear
which can only be satisfied through destruction, what coldness of heart and
ambition drives their days.
We want to know because we do not want that dominance which is
exploitative and murderous in international relations, and so dangerous to

women and children at home—we do not want that sickness transferred by

the violent society through the fathers to the sons.
“Unity Statement”, Women’s Pentagon Action (November, 1980)
As women we have been actively encouraged to be complacent, by sitting
at home and revering men as our protectors: we now reject this role.
The law is concerned with the preservation of property. We are con-
cerned with the preservation of all life. How dare government presume the
right to kill others in our names?
“Women’s Statement to Newbury Magistrates Court” (April, 1982)22

The Women’s Pentagon Action of 16 and 17 November 1980, emerged

from the “Women and Life on Earth: Ecofeminism in the 1980s” con-
ference, held the previous spring. It culminated with women, linked by
ribbons, surrounding the Pentagon and symbolically weaving its doors
shut with yarn.23 The proceedings were theatrical and creative. Huge,
coloured papier-mâché puppets of female forms were prominent through-
out and the lawn of the Pentagon was planted with cardboard gravestones,
mourning various outrages against women and the environment. The
“Unity Statement” excerpted above, drafted by the writer Grace Paley,
but revised and edited collectively, identified the Pentagon as a symbolic
centre of actions and attitudes that threatened women, society, the envir-
onment and life itself.
Across the Atlantic, in September of the following year, a small group of
women from the peace group, “Women for Life on Earth”, accompanied
by a few men, arrived at RAF Greenham Common in Berkshire after a ten-
day walk from Cardiff.24 The base was used by the US Air Force and
scheduled, in controversial NATO plans to defend Europe with inter-
mediate range nuclear weapons, as a site for cruise missiles. The women
stayed and established a peace camp, their numbers grew and media
attention was captured by a range of imaginative, eye-catching and long-
lasting protests. Newbury District Council attempted to evict the women
several times. The women’s statement to the Magistrate’s Court of 14
April 1982, excerpted above, illustrates how they tried to redefine what
was at stake, legally and morally.
The overlap between the “Unity Statement” and the “Statement to
Newbury Magistrates” is striking and revealing. Although both are
inspired by opposition to nuclear policy, they contextualise it in broader
terms. They do not make specific demands about arms reduction or
strategic policy, but challenge society and government on a more systemic,

structural level. In particular, both identify gender issues (“anger in these

men”; the dangers of “revering men as our protectors”) as central, seeing
patriarchy and the power relations that follow from it to be at the heart of
the nuclear state. The Cold War discourse of protection is challenged and
international policy, specifically nuclear Cold War policy, is read as a
manifestation of a broader violence, intrinsic to patriarchy. Implicitly
here and more directly elsewhere in feminist nuclear protest, structures
of power and domination in family and state are shown to be mutually
reinforcing. The seeming ubiquity of such arguments in the 1980s can
perhaps be seen in the frequency with which feminist campaigners were
the subject of (frequently misogynistic) humour, though, in The True
Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole (1989), Sue Townsend reverses the
parody by putting it in the words of her comically miffed protagonist,
who is put out when the object of his desire, Pandora, gets into earnest
conversation with his mother: “Pandora and my mother [were] having
one of those sickening talks that women have nowadays. Pandora kept
chipping in with ‘environment’ and ‘socio-economic’ and ‘chauvenistic
attitude.’ . . . When they got on to cruise missiles I was forced to intercept
and plead for a bit of multilateral peace.”25
The forms and motifs of women’s nuclear protest were an expression of
the broader contexts within which they understood nuclear policy to sit. It
was important that Greenham Common was specifically a women’s peace
camp. In their anthology of voices from Greenham, Alice Cook and Gwyn
Kirk cite Lesley Boulton, who saw the camp as offering agency to women
who had previously found themselves marginalised at CND meetings in
which they found “a very bureaucratic set-up, invariably run by blokes”,
and in which women were “informed” rather than allowed to participate
on an equal level.26 At Greenham, new, looser modes of organisation
emerged. Cook and Kirk see the principles of nonviolence and feminism
to dictate more creative forms of protest: “They both involve non-
hierarchical, decentralised ways of organising, based on individual initia-
tive, together with recognition of our interdependence and the power
of co-operation.”27 Intrinsic to the protest was not just what people
thought of nuclear weapons, but the manner in which members of protest
groups related to one another within those organisations—essentially,
how they modelled alternative social structures—in an attempt to eschew
hierarchal configurations promoting domination and exploitation. So, at
Greenham (and also at the sister camp created by American women at
Seneca in New York State) there was an opportunity to experiment with

societies of women in which traditional assumptions about the family

were challenged and in which, for instance, collective arrangements for
childcare could be explored.
The artistic and creative forms (dancing, art, street theatre and singing,
amongst others) adopted as alternatives to the traditional marches and
rallies (though, of course, these persisted too) were another attempt to
break beyond confrontational models of protest and society. At the
Women’s Pentagon Action, as already described, entrances to the building
were woven shut with yarn and, as Barbara Epstein notes, “weaving as a
metaphor of women’s power against hated institutions” became a parti-
cularly potent idea, spreading from this protest to other actions, like both
the Ribbon Around the Pentagon protest of August 1985 and, of course,
at Greenham.28
The power of the web as a metaphor is, for Cook and Kirk, that it
binds the vulnerable into new kinds of strength: “Each link in a web is
fragile, but woven together creates a strong and coherent whole.”29 It
also speaks to the multiple channels of communication through which
alliances might be formed to challenge hierarchies of power: “It makes a
very good analogy for the way in which women have rejuvenated the
peace movement. By connections made through many diverse channels,
a widespread network has grown up of women committed to working for
Of course, not all nuclear protesters were women and nor were they
all sympathetic to feminism. The radical feminist response to the nuclear
emergency, particularly at the peace camps where forms of alternative
society were frequently central, could also lead to marginalisation from
those heavily invested in the maintenance of the status quo. A scene
in the British film Ploughman’s Lunch (1983) is illustrative of how
uncomfortable the establishment could be made by feminist protest.
Having been helped by peace camp women, a cynical and unlikeable
BBC radio journalist secretly betrays them by refusing, at an editorial
meeting, to countenance running a story on them: “All a bit cranky,
small-scale stuff: vegetarians, hippies, disturbed housewives. It’s a local
radio story, if that. They’re mad.”31 Nevertheless, feminists, in a tri-
umvirate alongside environmentalists and young people, were extraor-
dinarily successful in rejuvenating the peace and anti-nuclear movements
in the 1980s. Questions of gender became central to discussions of
nuclear weapons and nuclear disarmament in ways they had not been


This extensive background is important because it provides a context
through which representations of gender and sexual identities are given
meaning in 1980s nuclear texts. On the one hand, there were powerful
conservative discourses seeking to re-contain forces they found threaten-
ing and that they saw as undermining the family and therefore society. On
the other hand, there was a loudly voiced protest against patriarchal
society, suspicious of the idea of the nuclear family as the bedrock of
society, or at least of the political ends to which the idea of the family
was put, and seeking new forms of social and societal relation.
It is not that families were a new preoccupation of nuclear literature—
they had often been pivotal in depictions of the nuclear age—but that they
were important in new ways. In the early Cold War, the traditional family
unit most frequently provided the means by which anxieties were, if not
always resolved, at least contained, if sometimes rather inadequately and
untidily. In perhaps the most influential nuclear novel of all, On the Beach
(1957) by the British writer Nevil Shute, impending nuclear death leads to a
moral re-evaluation on the part of single, predatory (in the novel’s terms)
Moira who, rather than taking advantage of the death of Dwight’s wife
and children to pursue him, engages in an extraordinarily chaste affair in
which every action functions to guarantee the sanctity of his marriage
and the integrity of his family unit.32 Similarly, in Tomorrow! (1954) by the
American Writer Philip Wylie, a tract about the necessity of preparedness for
atomic war, the firm, moral foundations of the Conner family are related to
their commitment to civil defence: the family unit is the means by which the
nation is made strong. In these and other texts of the early Cold War, there
is a tendency to reinforce the integrity of the family unit, at least on the sur-
face (underneath the surface lurk tensions—for example, limited life choices
for women, the emptiness of the material dreams offered by suburbia and
racial discrimination—that emerge more openly in later decades).
Jump forward three decades to the 1980s and it is striking how much
the family has changed. In almost every text the nuclear family has been
replaced by families under stress or what we might call the post-nuclear
family (in the sense, in the terminology of the time, of being “broken”).
Nuclear war, rather than calling the family unit into being by provoking its
members to draw upon their resources to come together and survive, is
often shown to shatter it.

After-the-Bomb fictions of the period often show worlds in which, for

better or worse, nuclear war loosens the ties of the nuclear family. In Yorick
Blumenfeld’s Jenny: My Diary (1983), a novel which records its protago-
nist’s first-person reflections on surviving nuclear attack in a bomb shelter
and her emergence into a brutal, changed world, the old family structure
swiftly disintegrates and people form unconventional family units involving
less monogamy, multi-adult relationships and less close childcare. David
Brin’s post-apocalyptic The Postman (1985) features a feminist guerrilla
action in which women try unsuccessfully to resist a brutal, survivalist
society that emerges after nuclear war by forming relationships with men
and, on a dedicated “night of knives”, rising up to murder their partners.33
In Annabel and Edgar Johnson’s The Danger Quotient (1984), the post-
nuclear world features children born through genetic engineering and
raised collectively. In Bernard Malamud’s God’s Grace (1982), the sole
human survivor of nuclear war tries to shape a new society of apes and
even fathers a cross-bred ape/human with a female chimpanzee. In Michael
Swanwick’s short story, “The Feast of Saint Janis” (1980), the government
of a collapsed, post-nuclear United States encourages a high birth rate and
provides a release for its desperate people by fostering a ritualised tour in
which successive Janis Joplin impersonators build toward an orgiastic,
violent and highly sexualised performance at the final concert.34
Texts with contemporary settings also feature family traumas or the
new, more diverse types of family structure gaining ground in the 1980s.
Richard Powers’s Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988) shows trouble within the
family mapped into the nuclear matrices of the Cold War by the slow death
from radiation sickness (or a psychosomatic version of it) of the father,
Eddie Hobson, decades after he witnesses the atomic explosion of the
Trinity Test. Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987) marries nuclear
episodes and tensions to the traumatic disappearance of a child. In the
Canadian writer Douglas Coupland’s Generation X (1991) nuclear ima-
gery and preoccupations (a threatening mushroom cloud that turns out to
be benign; Dag’s tour of nuclear sites in the United States) are part and
parcel of a world in which friendship groups of young people have
replaced the support traditionally supplied by the family.
Young adult novels of the decade, perhaps because they seek to address the
experience and anxieties of young people, tend to feature divorce, absent
parents or other types of family tension. In Lynne Hall’s If Winter Comes
(1986), the teenage protagonist Meredith’s parents live apart and her boy-
friend, Barry, has a home that appears perfect but in which he and his mother,

who can only get through each day with recourse to tranquillisers, live lives
made unhappy by his father. In Arnold Madison’s It Can’t Happen to Me
(1981), Sandy’s parents are separated and she feels excluded from the happy
lives she thinks she sees as she walks suburban streets, catching glimpses
through lighted windows of “rectangles of warm, yellow light that occasion-
ally illuminated a picture of family life.”35 In Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The
Dark of the Tunnel (1985), Craig’s father is dead, killed in a mining accident,
and his mother, Mary Susan, is dying of cancer. Only after Mary Susan dies is
Craig’s uncle Jim able to admit he loves her and say he regrets not having
asked her to marry him. In Julian Thompson’s A Band of Angels (1986),
David describes his family life as “living a big cliché . . . the drunken father; and
the weepy, ineffective mom; and the resentful, wise-ass kid.”36 In Stephanie
Tolan’s Pride of the Peacock (1986), although Whitney has a strong, suppor-
tive family, she is worried about her parents divorcing.37 Even in Jane
Langton’s gentle book for younger children, The Fragile Flag (1984), in
which the family unit is an explicit source of strength and in which
Georgie’s family are “like a grove of trees . . . guarding her from sun and
wind and snow and every kind of trouble”, the family in question is an
extended, post-nuclear one (stepcousins share the same house) and young
Georgie must “take it into her head to march out from under their [her
family’s] kindly shade and walk nearly half a thousand miles in the glaring
heat” to protest against the government’s militarism.38
The attitude these texts take toward these changes and tensions in the
nuclear family unit differ widely, from conservative anxiety about the
collapse of the family, bubbling under the surface of The Danger
Quotient, to a more positive sense of the complex forms of accommoda-
tion and rapprochement that are possible when Meredith’s parents begin
to reconcile in If Winter Comes. In order to explore in more detail how
these new representations are mapped into nuclear politics, the remainder
of this chapter turns to treatments of the family in two novels with a
contemporary setting and four novels set in a post-nuclear future.



Families and the tensions within them are the focus of both the American
writer Richard Powers’s Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988) and the British writer
Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book (1983). In both texts families can be read

as seismographs for the Cold War on which tremors from the wider world,
presaging disaster, leave their traces.
Daniel Grausam has eloquently documented the way in which
Prisoner’s Dilemma is steeped in the Cold War.39 Set in the late 1970s,
the novel’s focus is a family crisis that has been sustained, like the Cold
War itself, over several decades. Eddie Hobson, the father and a young
man during World War II, is ill, subject to unexplained fits that have
plagued him for several years. His wife, Ailene, and his adult children,
with ages ranging from eighteen to twenty-five, Artie, Lily, Rachel and
Edward, disagree about whether Eddie is suffering from a physiological or
psychological ailment. They are not helped by Eddie’s propensity to talk
allusively, endlessly to ironise and to set riddles for his family.
In contrast to the idealised family of the 1950s, the Hobsons live not in
openness but in perpetual secrecy; not as a unit, but as separate individuals
isolated by bonds of love, suspicion and resentment. They are physically
together for much of the book, but remain emotionally distant from one
another and “dissolve”, we are told in a line that draws the connection
between personal and international relations, “into the house’s corners to
rule over independent, empty countries.”40 As in Gee’s The Burning Book,
in which the family unit is identified as a society in miniature, the
Hobsons’ problems become a microcosm of broader human and interna-
tional relations.
The perpetual but deferred crisis of Eddie’s sickness echoes the endless
deferral, the stasis, of the Cold War. After Eddie suffers the attack with
which the novel starts, we are told that the “local crisis passed” but
“Hobson’s crisis was that there was no crisis, and so [there was] nothing
the rest of them could do.”41 This is part of a sustained impression in
Prisoner’s Dilemma of what I have discussed elsewhere as the “state of
suspense” of Cold War nuclear literature.
The effect of this suspense is psychologically paralysing. Lily, for
instance, finds herself unable to break away from the family and loses the
chance to go to university: “She had stayed for their sake. . . . It was not
her fault that the Hobsons were always in the middle of a ‘just now.’ It
occurred to her that they were once again in a ‘just now’ just now.”42 The
Cold War seemed like an endless “just now”: a sense of emergency in
which history was forever frozen before the catastrophic event that would
end it, just as Eddie’s drawn out illness leaves the Hobsons’ lives sus-
pended in a series of “just nows” preceding his recuperation or death.

The Hobsons are explicitly referred to as a “nuclear family” and the

novel exploits the conceit by which the commonplace nuclear family of
American society (the heterosexual adult couple with children) might
more literally be nuclear in the age of the A-Bomb and the H-Bomb.
The Hobsons are trapped between wanting to be the idealised family unit,
offered to them by American culture, and an acute consciousness that they
are not this sort of family. Hence, they can only comprehend the ideal of
the family ironically. When Rachel, over the Christmas holidays, hopes
“she might coax the nuclear family into a few renditions of ‘The First
Noel’”, it is unclear whether this is out of a desire actually, if briefly, for the
family to join in a shared, sentimental moment, whether she wishes
ironically to undermine this sentimentality, or whether her suppressed
desire that they be the former is masquerading as the latter.43 The novel
presents us with an age in which the image and discourse of the family are
so intensively over-produced that it is impossible for real families to play
these roles without an awareness that they are mimicking idealised versions
of themselves in television programmes, magazine articles, advertisements
and so forth.
That there is a literal nuclear secret at the heart of the family emerges
when it is revealed that Eddie’s illness may stem from his presence in the
Jornada del Muerto when the first atomic bomb was exploded in the
Trinity Test of 1945. His symptoms of radiation sickness have apparently
persisted too long to have a physiological basis, but a psychological
trauma, linked to his presence at this key, jarring initiation into technolo-
gical modernity, appears to be manifesting itself in him and, by extension,
his family.
In this context, the complex relations within the family are best under-
stood as Cold War pathologies. The Prisoner’s Dilemma, to which the
novel keeps returning, is a puzzle within which is locked the intransigence
of both the family and Cold War international relations. It originates in
Cold War game theory (it was formulated by the RAND Corporation)
where it was used as a thought experiment to model, amongst other
things, the various payoffs and dangers of nuclear disarmament. The
game asks two players to imagine they have collaborated in a crime.
Both are arrested and interrogated separately. The seemingly simple deci-
sion for each player is whether to confess to the crime, betraying his or her
partner, or remain silent. The dilemma arises because the punishment a
player faces is determined not only by his or her choice but also by that of
the other player. The best global outcome is if both players remain silent

(equating to multilateral disarmament when the game is used to model

arms reduction) but each side could get a better outcome by confessing
and betraying his or her conspirator as long as she or he isn’t in turn
betrayed. If a player remains silent, but is betrayed by their accomplice,
then she or he receives the worst punishment. The choice, then, is
between trust of one’s accomplice or suspicion.
Most interpretations of the game assume that both prisoners will act
selfishly: they confess for fear of being betrayed, even though they could
get a mutually better outcome by both remaining silent. The analogy with
disarmament talks is that both sides refuse to disarm, even though that
would be in their joint best interests, because they fear the other side will
secretly retain a nuclear capability.
Eddie challenges his family with the Prisoner’s Dilemma and they
periodically return to it throughout the novel, attempting to find a solu-
tion. Eddie sees it as capturing a fundamental dilemma in the contempor-
ary world: how do we trust one another?
The Cold War itself is presented as an extended, deadly game. A
fictionalised Walt Disney, a key figure in the novel, imagines that World
War II will “be dwarfed by the next one [in other words, by what will
become the Cold War], the quiet, extended chessboard stretching out over
decades in unthinkable complexity of move and countermove, working up to
its silent denouement.”44 Eddie’s desire for a world that moves beyond this
extended, paranoid struggle is manifested in a private project, Hobstown,
a fictionalised world he creates on audiotape, inspired by recollection of a
childhood visit to the 1939 World’s Fair and, specifically, by its promo-
tional materials, which feature an idealised family, the Middletons, visiting
the fair and being amazed by what they see.
In Eddie’s alternative world, Walt Disney embarks on a wartime project to
set history straight before the Cold War can take hold. Inspired to produce a
counter to rival De Capra’s World War II propaganda epic, Why We Fight,
Disney plans a grand film project, You Are the War, a ‘Why We Shouldn’t
Have To’ to counter Capra’s urge to fight.45 Featuring Bud Middleton, the
idealised boy protagonist of the World’s Fair exhibition, it will relocate
history with the ordinary person, forging links between those who would
otherwise be separated by lines of nationalism or hatred: “If they can tell the
Bud Middleton story convincingly and universally, the way to mutual trust
might at last become clear.”46 This reaching out across the boundaries of
hatred finds expression in Disney’s plan to rescue Japanese Americans,
interned during World War II, by using them to make the film.

This problem of trust, the need to find a way beyond mutual suspi-
cions plaguing both international relations and more personal interac-
tions, recurs throughout the novel. Lily, for instance, perceives how
fear and distrust produce the outcomes against which they are meant to
guard when she comments on the obsessive security precautions of a
neighbour, Mrs Swallow, who constantly locks and rechecks her doors
and windows: the “true thief . . . hearing your [Mrs Swallow’s] desperate
door-shaking from her post in the window next door, thinks: ‘Such
measures! Here at last is something worth stealing.’”47 As Lily realises,
such paranoia leads to an internalising of the security state, the con-
sciousness of watching oneself as if one were an agent of the security
services: “the one you really fear is the officer of the law, making his
preventative rounds. What if he checks your door for your own safety,
only to discover to his bitter disappointment that you have let the
neighbourhood down, fallen slack on the one job expected of you:
the job of living by common precaution?”48 The domestic space
becomes a corollary of the Cold War world here, structured and
governed by projected fears of a malignant other that have the effect
of calling that other into being.
Hobstown, Eddie’s fantasy place, is a world beyond this, a “domain
where escalating suspicion had no place.”49 When he imagines the film he
wishes Disney had made, it portrays a world in which nuclear material has
been replaced by “Fairy Dust”, the scattering of which wakes people to
what they have in common rather than what divides them: “Break forth the
Fairy Dust. Magic powder, absorbed into the lungs and capillaries of the
audience, reduces Stalingrad, Dresden, and Buchenwald to you and the you
you share the armrest with.”50 This imagined world breaks through and
beyond the Prisoner’s Dilemma mindset of the Cold War to something
that can transform it.
The Prisoner’s Dilemma is essentially a state of mind. It purports to
model reality, but imposes a particular perception of society—as a series
of self-interested, isolated individuals, working only in their own best
interests—on that reality:

[T]wo men are put in separate rooms. They can play it safe or they can put
their fate in the hands of another. Lack of trust begets lack of trust. The fear
of being undercut trickles into the garden, as irreversible as falling. The
choice of those first two people filters into four, the four eight, and the eight
several billion.51

Not coincidentally, this model of society (actually a denial of the idea of

society) lies at the heart of neoliberalism, a topic that will be picked up in
more detail in Chapter 6. The chain reaction in this extrapolation from
the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the exponential escalation of effects, demon-
strates a set of psychological consequences that mimics the physical chain
reactions of nuclear explosion. At the heart of the nuclear Cold War are,
the novel perceives, our most basic human, interpersonal reactions. The
mistrust and manipulation that divide the Hobsons one from another are
similar to the geopolitical power struggles of the Cold War.
It is not so much a threat to the family unit from the outside, then, but
an internalising of Cold War consciousness within the heart of the family
that is the problem. Our choices about how we react to one another
resonate into wider social relationships, even as the likelihood of our
making particular choices is shaped by these broader contexts.
Artie finally realises, after his father has died, that there is a way out of
the Prisoner’s Dilemma, but it involves taking the risk of rejecting RAND-
sanctioned paranoia and putting human trust in common humanity:

If guarding one’s self-interests condemned both player and antagonist to

the perpetual worst case, then self-interest was not in the self’s best inter-
est. The only logic was the logic of the combined payoff. The only reason-
able choice was not the choice of reason but the choice that kept both out
of the hole.52

Artie conceives of the way out as reaching across the apparent divide to put
one’s fate in the hands of someone else: “The only way out was to release
the us-and-us that was trapped inside the you-versus-he.”53 This is
another, rather subtle, incarnation of the politics of vulnerability: the
Hobsons are riven by mutual distrust, just as the Cold War world is, and
the only way out is to take the risk of putting one’s trust in others. In other
words, Artie’s solution is for the prisoner to accept his vulnerability,
making the choice that allows the best mutual payoff even though that
exposes him to the possibility of betrayal.
What initially seem only to be the problems of a singularly eccentric and
troubled family are shown in Prisoner’s Dilemma, then, to be manifesta-
tions of broader geopolitical traumas. Something similar happens in The
Burning Book, where divided anxieties about love and war across several
generations of the Ship family come to a dramatic end in nuclear war. Both
texts manifest a post-containment conception of family.

Early on in Prisoner’s Dilemma we are told of a family trip to a portrait

photographer when the children are young. Far from producing an image
that affirms the Hobsons’ common identity (and from which aunts and
uncles might pick out “who had whose eyes and whose cheekbones”), it
demonstrates instead the different directions in which they will fly: “the
truly observant . . . soon detected what changing facial bones made unde-
niable. Nobody had nobody’s nose. Out of the blue, each child grabbed a
face by mail order, arriving at unique features for no other reason than
being the only one of the batch to hit upon a particular chin”.54 This
problematic sense of family, their tendency not ever properly to fit into the
idealised image, expressed through the reading of a family photograph,
recurs in Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book.
The family photograph is an important motif in Gee’s novel, used to
explore the limits of both photographic and narrative representations of
family: the tendency of family to break beyond the idealised images
through which it is portrayed. The “nuclear family looks tidy” in a photo-
graph we are told, “but a lot is cut off by the frame.” Similarly, although
there is “comfort about a [narrative] synopsis”, another kind of snapshot
given to us by Gee when she sketches the family near the beginning of the
novel, it “doesn’t quite fit”.55 The framing of the photograph, spatially
and temporally, excludes unknown, hidden and suppressed elements of
family history, beyond the frame, just as the writing of the story does. Both
the visual genre of the family portrait photograph and the narrative genre
of the family saga (Gee’s novel might be described as a family saga that
breaks down and ceases to work) are inadequate to capture lived experi-
ence. Hence, Frank Ship, from the first generation of the family with
which the novel deals, is assumed to have died and is absent from the
photograph, but has in fact found a new life, way beyond the picture
frame, on a mountain in Switzerland. The “organized family picture” (and
what does a photographer do, if not organise visual experience?) excludes
and fails to contain that which is outside the idealised image she or he
seeks to produce.56
Later we are told that, rather like Lily wishing the Hobsons could sing
“The First Noel” together in Prisoner’s Dilemma, “[t]his family wanted to
be normal. It imagined what normal might be: tiers in a family picture,
smiles in a normal row”; however, this “family was not like this picture. It
ached with discontent”.57 As in Prisoner’s Dilemma, these discontents are
shown not to be peculiar to a single family, but, in part at least, to manifest
broader geopolitical forces upon the family. The family in neither text can

be “contained” by the modes though which contemporary culture—

photographs; narratives—imagines them and asks them to see themselves.
Gee’s family saga spans three generations, reading impending nuclear
war in terms of a longer history of twentieth-century violence, including
World Wars I and II and the atomic attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The novel explores the forces pulling the family apart. Rather than being
the bedrock of society, the unit that holds the nation together, the family
becomes both the symptom and the source of broader social and cultural
Faced with nuclear war, even the forms and expectations of the novel,
that might reintegrate the excluded in a way denied to the family photo-
grapher (to include, for instance, Frank Ship, who is left out of the family
photograph but included in the novel), break down. The portrayal of the
family is stymied by the clash between the form through which the
narrator tries to impart meaning to the story and the nuclear subject
matter that eventually overwhelms it. For instance, the planned revelation
by a scandalous elderly relative, at her birthday tea, of an Indian lover, is
imagined as a “fine set piece” for this book, with all sorts of revealing
ramifications, but “none of this was to happen” because nuclear war
intervenes first and the family “would find . . . that worse things could
happen than shame.”58 Similarly, the emotional pain felt by Lorna when
her lover rejects her, and which might normally preoccupy a novel about
these people, is rendered trivial by the nuclear story that eventually
imposes itself. When Lorna, heart-stricken, thinks “[p]lease let me die, I
can’t bear it”, the narrator observes that she doesn’t mean “[p]lease blast
me, please crush me, please blister the skin off my back”, and wryly
comments that Lorna would “want to live very much, by the time of the
final violence.”59 The arrival of nuclear war renders the heartfelt emotional
agony of lost love, the subject matter of so much literature, trite.
Indeed, the novel expends much of its energy on demonstrating the
ephemerality of both art and people in a nuclear age, and the frustrating
inadequacy of language to allow us fully to comprehend the nuclear threat.
In such a time we are forced back, as Lorna is when her romantic pain is
rendered irrelevant next to the blasting, crushing and burning of her body,
into an acute awareness of the material fact of our existence: our relentless
Early in the Cold War, in 1950, William Faulkner made an impassioned
plea, in accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, for the continuing value of
the novel in the atomic age. Although writers were faced with the insistent

question, “[w]hen will I be blown up?” he argued they should keep returning
to the “problems of the human heart . . . which alone can make good writ-
ing.”60 Yet, for Gee, it is precisely these problems of the heart that are
imperilled by the threat of nuclear war, not only because nuclear war will
kill people but because it threatens also to erase human understanding of the
world, removing meaning from the objects around us. With humans gone, or
with only a few survivors scraping out an existence after the holocaust, the
human understanding produced by cultural modes like metaphor and symbol
becomes irrelevant as things are reduced to their literal selves. Indeed, the
idea of the heart as a means to understand feeling or love is itself overwhelmed
as it becomes just another “smashable organ”.61 When Lorna imagines that
nothing else in life matters than love because “her heart would be full of
Henry”, the narrator interjects on a line separated from the rest of the text:

“hearts didn’t matter in the end flash-fried lumps of offal”.62

The counterpoint between the preoccupations with love of the family saga
and the italicised, ungrammatical interjection stressing the materiality of
the heart, making us think of its as an organ not a metaphor, demonstrates
the collapse of meaning. The means by which we know ourselves, the
poetry of language by which we elevate and comprehend our existence,
collapses in the face of nuclear war.
The novel shows the lives and narratives of ordinary people in an
ordinary family to be subject to master narratives of the Cold War that
may assert themselves at any time. Ominously, early on, we are told that
beyond the Ship family, the subject of the novel, are “other people so
famous that they are more real than life”; these are “our leaders, perhaps to
the end of time.” In this novel, the narrator tells us, they “stay backstage”,
but crucially they can affect the lives of the Ships and everyone else,
because, in the background, unseen by the audience, they have “final
control of the lighting”.63 As the book builds relentlessly toward the
“final violence”, the narrator interjects into the story, in parentheses, to
tell us that “(All of us live in a novel, and none of us do the writing. Just
offstage there are grim old men, planning to cut the lighting.)”.64 What is
in parentheses may break out at any moment to assert its mastery. This
self-reflexive turn in the novel is, then, more than flashy postmodern
playfulness, for the game being played is deadly urgent. I will return to
this adoption of postmodern form as a response to a crisis in meaning
produced by the nuclear emergency in Chapter 7.

It is not simply in The Burning Book that ordinary, apolitical lives are
impinged upon from outside by international politics; rather, and this is
central to the reading of the book as a post-containment novel, it is that
family and personal relations are always already imbued with politics. In
particular, a gender politics, both shaping and emerging from the circum-
stances of the nuclear Cold War, moulds lives in this novel. This emerges
most strongly in the portrayal of the final generation of the Ship family, the
siblings, Angela, Guy and George. In Chapter 3, I discussed how Guy’s
inadequacy is tied to his inability to think outside of the gender roles
ascribed to him. His pride in his penis, imagined as a weapon, and the
hold over him of the racist Empire Party are a product of his desire to deny
his vulnerability: “Before he had always been frightened; now he could be
frightening, too. With his [Empire Party] uniform on, he looked tall.”65 His
response to vulnerability is to suppress it, a dangerous flipside to the politics
of vulnerability, reproducing in microcosm the desire of the nuclear state to
suppress self-knowledge of its fragility by being militarily strong.
The novel explicitly genders this response by making Guy’s reaction
characteristically male. Women, in The Burning Book, generally express
frustration with the oppressive consequences that follow when men act
out such stereotyped models of masculinity. When Guy visits the home of
an Empire Party pal and listens, rapt, as his friend’s father bemoans the
arrival in Britain of “niggers”, “Pakis”, “jewboys”, “wogs” and “coons”,
the only woman present, his friend’s mother, remains silent but is allowed
a parenthetical paragraph in which her unspoken thoughts about her
husband are revealed:

(Would they always go on like that . . . ? If life was left to the men, she was
sure life wouldn’t go on. Stupid old bugger, she thought, as his voice droned
on, all acting. . . . [T]hey always had the power. They were just like babies,
men. Inventing battles and fighting.)66

The suggestion that her husband and others like him are babies recalls the
more sophisticated and worked through feminist response to the nuclear
standoff, encapsulated in the anti-nuclear slogan used on both sides of the
Atlantic, “Take the toys away from the boys”, which constructs the
nuclear Cold War as a product of patriarchy. There is something intrinsi-
cally childish, undeveloped, in the immediate recourse to violence and
threats of violence to resolve conflict, the novel suggests, a theme to which
I will return in the discussion of Le Guin later in this chapter.

Angela’s other brother, George, is not as crudely inadequate as Guy.

Nevertheless, his anti-communism, and his rejection of the pacifism with
which he equates it, is similarly bound up with his masculinity and enacts a
denial of vulnerability. The consequence is a catastrophic diminishment of
his capacity for empathy. He is “afraid of the Russians” and “didn’t want
to think they were people. He was frightened of having to love them
too.”67 He ends up joining the army and is based in West Germany when
the war starts, a place where he finds comfort from the absence of women
with whom he might have been able to “talk about . . . feelings, talk about
things that mattered.”68 As with Guy, George represents a negative
response to vulnerability, an attempt to deny it by arming himself and
fighting that which he imagines to threaten him. It is, of course, this very
response writ large which brings into being the threat it seeks to quell.
It is significant, then, that it is a woman, Angela, who is preoccupied
with nuclear war and its prevention. When she realises her brothers have
been talking about her, Angela has a “sudden vision of them lying there,
her brothers planning a world war.”69 Unlike George and Guy, she seeks to
accept and understand vulnerability, seeing that an aggressive response
begets an aggressive response; that the only hope is to see the humanity in
those who might threaten us.
Families are not simply separate from and threatened by nuclear con-
flict, then; it is precisely that attitudes and actions that permit, even
produce, war have their source in our most intimate relations and actions.
In microcosm, the Ship family, subject to forces that threaten to alienate
its members from one another, is the world ripped apart by conflict. Like
the Hobsons in Prisoner’s Dilemma, the Ships are a tiny, detailed study in
society, revealing of broader forces of attraction and repulsion by which
people come together in love or destroy each other through hatred.
This focus on personal relations as the starting point for contesting the
destructive impulses of the arms race recurs elsewhere in nuclear literature.
Grace Paley’s very short (fewer than five pages) short story, “Anxiety”,
from Later the Same Day (1985), a collection more broadly about the
reverberations between personal and political, is a case in point. In it an
elderly woman calls out to a young man who briefly gets angry with his
daughter when he is playing with her: “Son, I must tell you that madmen
intend to destroy this beautifully made planet. That the murder of our
children by these men has got to become a terror and a sorrow to you, and
starting now, it had better interfere with any daily pleasure.” She asks him
why he became “so angry at that little girl whose future is like a film which

suddenly cuts to white” and why he “nearly slam[med] this little doomed
person to the ground in [his] uncontrollable anger.”70 The story estab-
lishes a continuity between personal expressions of anger and violence and
the broader violence lying latent in (and unnamed in the story as) the
nuclear missiles poised around the globe. As the man gallops off with his
daughter, playing “horsey” with her at the end, the woman wonders about
“how to make sure that they gallop safely home through the airy scary
dreams of scientists and the bulky dreams of automakers.”71
Like Paley’s story, Gee’s novel evokes an acute sense of our vulnerabil-
ity in the face of conflict. Rooted in the present, it can only look fearfully
to an apocalyptic near future. It struggles to see a way out of both the
contemporary nuclear emergency and the patriarchal social structures to
which it considers the present to be bound. Texts set in the future,
however, are able to imagine alternative ways of being, to experiment
with different worldviews.


If, in novels set in the late Cold War world, the nuclear family was con-
strained by the hopes and anxieties of the period, future fiction provided a
liberated space into which alternative models of familial and social being
could be projected. This final section of the chapter focuses on the British
writer Louise Lawrence, and the American writer Ursula Le Guin, with
briefer reference to the American writers Vonda McIntyre and Sheri S.
Tepper, for their visions of new social structures shaped by alternative
gender relations. Inevitably, these depictions are not free from contempor-
ary ideals of gender and sexuality—they are reactions to and extrapolations
from them—but, although they can only be accessed from the present, they
provide new imaginative spaces that seek to remake the world.
Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985) is a young adult novel that, over
three sections, charts the emergence of a new society following nuclear war.
In the world with which the novel ends family and gender roles have been
reformulated and are at the heart of new modes of social being.
The first section, “Sarah”, is set in the present and focuses on a “broken”
family of the kind that worried conservative commentators in the 1980s.
As the novel begins, war has just broken out and Sarah is rushing home
from school to the hastily constructed inner refuge she will share with her
stepbrother, William, stepsister, Catherine, and stepmother, Veronica.

In a trope important to women’s nuclear domestic fiction, her father is

unable to make it back to the home,72 though we later discover he survives
in a government shelter. The novel confronts its young audience with a
brutal vision of nuclear war: forced into close proximity with a stepmother
who does not feel like family (“Sarah wanted to cry, weep like a small child,
pretend Veronica was her mother, cling to her for comfort like William and
Catherine always did. But she and Veronica had never been close”),73
Sarah undergoes a traumatic sequence of losses. With attack imminent,
she must put the family’s pet dog outside and listen to it whining vainly and
piteously to be readmitted in the following days. Later, Veronica and
William die. Finally, Sarah exposes herself to radioactive dust to get sup-
plies, dying that Catherine might survive. This section hence begins firmly
rooted in the contemporary moment, both in its nuclear fears and in its
depiction of anxieties about the stepfamilies that were becoming more
commonplace in the 1980s.
The second section, “Ophelia”, follows two societies struggling to
establish themselves in the post-nuclear world, whose competition mimics
1980s battles between neoliberalism and collectivism explored in more
detail in Chapter 6. One society, located in a military and government
nuclear bunker complex, is patriarchal, hierarchical and unable to adapt to
the new environment. The other, being built outside, is a communal
society, encountered by two teenagers, Bill and Ophelia, who flee the
shelter. They meet Catherine, Sarah’s sister from the previous section of
the book. The emerging society in which she lives involves a re-imagina-
tion both of the architecture of the family home and of the metaphorical
architecture of the family. As Catherine tells Ophelia, “We’re hoping to
build a communal living house. . . . The old nuclear family system didn’t
work so we’re going to live and work together. Before the war each family
was isolated, which destroyed the spirit of community.”74 Life in the new
world is brutal—there are numerous mutations and deaths amongst new
infants—but people are shown to be more flexible and adaptable than in
the military bunker community.
Fifty-five years later, the final section, “Simon”, imagines the victory
of this new society. As in the previous section, it involves an encounter of
someone from the bunker community, Simon, with the new human
society emerging outside. When Simon meets Laura, from the new com-
munity, he encounters an entirely other way of being. Her society is based
on nonviolence (she upbraids him at their first meeting for shooting at dogs
that threatened to kill her: “Weapons are evil!” she said. “They are tools of

the holocaust! . . . You have no right to destroy any living thing!”)75 and
on the rejection of a capitalist system (a subject to which I will return in
more detail in Chapter 6) based on the accumulation of material wealth
(“We have no right to keep things to ourselves”).76
The gender politics of the novel are not entirely straightforward.
Although it exposes the male hierarchy of the military bunker, it seems
blind to the patriarchal system that persists for a while in the alternative
community. Despite Catherine’s claim to live in a liberated version of a
post-nuclear family, a man, Johnson, has cultivated, one might even say
groomed, given her young age, a sexual relationship with her. By the end
of the novel, however, this new society has become a matriarchal society.
Simon’s key insight is that Laura, and the new society she represents, has
replaced his own. He recognises that “[i]t was her world now, not his.”77
If Lawrence’s imagined future is an attempt to construct an alternative
world, Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985) is an exponentially
more complex project along similar lines. An “archaeology of the future”,
it is set in the “Valley”, a California of a time still to come inhabited by a
people, the Kesh, modelled loosely on the Native American peoples of
California.78 Although some structure is provided by the story of a
woman, Stone Telling, which appears in three parts, the plot is largely
secondary and the novel is a loose assemblage of folktales, ethnography,
mythology, history, natural history, recipes, songs and poems. The text is
interspersed with line drawings of the Valley’s flora and fauna by the artist
Margaret Chodos, and the first edition of the book includes an audio
cassette by the composer Todd Barton of songs and poems from the
Valley. It is, in short, an extraordinary and spectacular attempt to imagine
an entirely other way of being and the culture it might entail.
Some calamity has befallen our civilization—or, at least, it has ceased to
be—but the exact nature of the calamity is left unclear. It has, though,
nuclear overtones. Contemporary anxieties of nuclear-threatened cities
seem to be invoked. For instance, when a traveller from the Valley,
being ferried by boat, passes an island locals refer to as “City”, now just
a patch of “bare rock and some yerba Buena and beach grass and a couple
of tall, slender towers or masts supported by guywires”, the locals warn
him not to get close: “You touch, you die!”79
There is, indeed, a general toxic legacy from our time. The inhabitants
of the Valley know, we are told, of “permanent desolation of vast regions
through release of radioactive or poisonous substances, the permanent
genetic impairment from which they suffered most directly in the form of

sterility, stillbirth, and congenital disease.”80 Elsewhere, Pandora, the

ethnologist of this future, our guide throughout the book and seemingly
a fictional corollary of Le Guin, writes with distress of being “a citizen of
the State that fought the first nuclear war”, though whether this refers to
the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or to a later, imagined conflict is
unclear.81 Our legacy for future generations turns out to be a toxicity that
is both material and ideological.
Most important for our reading of the novel’s engagement with the
gender and social dynamics of the 1980s is the alternative worldview Le
Guin constructs for the Kesh. This is thrown into sharp relief by its
contrast with that of the Condor, a hierarchical, acquisitive, militaristic
society, closer to our own, which has ventured south, encroaching into the
Valley in search of new conquests. Stone Telling is the daughter of a Kesh
woman and a Condor father, the commander of a military expedition to
the Valley, and the second and third parts of her story deal with her
encounter with the Condor when she goes to live with her father’s people
for several years.
Written in the first person, Stone Telling’s narrative cleverly functions
through a sort of double alienation, highlighting the incommensurability
of different perspectives. Her worldview is more alien to us than that of the
Condor, but we experience also her alienation as she goes to live amongst
the Condor and then tries to explain their world (and, by extension, our
world) to the Kesh. This is not merely a function of different values, but of
a different language and grammar, a different structuring of the world
inextricable from Kesh values. Hence, when Stone Telling first meets her
father as a child, when he returns to the Valley, she sees his struggle to
express himself in their language as “trying to pour water into a broken
pot”.82 Rejected by Stone’s mother, he claims that “she [Stone Telling]
belongs to me—the child belongs to me”, a nonsensical formulation to
the Kesh experienced by Stone Telling as “reversal words”.83 A footnote
by the translator of Stone’s narrative explains the faux pas:

Kesh grammar makes no provision for a relation of ownership between

living beings. A language in which the verb “to have” is an intransitive
and in which “to be rich” is the same word as “to give” is likely to turn its
foreign speaker, and translator, into a clown all too often.84

As this example might suggest, the difference between the grammars

through which the Kesh and the Condor structure their worlds extends

far beyond personal relations to models of economy, as I will discuss in

Chapter 6.
Only when Stone Telling goes to live, unhappily, amongst the Condor
does she begin to understand her father’s and his people’s conception of
the world. Now married, she is told by a fellow wife of her Condor
husband (Condor society allows men to marry several women) that she
belongs to him now. It is through this brutal realisation that Stone Telling
begins to conceive of a world in which her father’s presumption of a
patriarchal family structure makes any kind of sense: “I thought of my
father saying in the common place of Sinshan, ‘But she belongs to me!’
Now I had two eyes to see him with.”85 Stone rejects this worldview, but
she is forced to acknowledge the existence of a society in which male
superiority over, and ownership of, women is assumed.
The militarism of the Condor is bound up with the patriarchy of their
society and resonates into personal relations at home. For the Condor,
Stone Telling says, “every relationship was a battle”.86 Women, in Condor
society, are kept at home (one of the most frustrating and upsetting
aspects of Stone Telling’s experience) and denied literacy.
Indeed, the association of women with the home resonates into more
fundamental differences in the attitudes of the two societies to other
peoples and to war. While the Condor are a warrior people, the Kesh are
open, approaching the world in a fundamentally different, one might say
more readily vulnerable, way. Home and family, too, are structured dif-
ferently. Condor households are conventionally patriarchal, with women
staying at home, doing domestic chores and looking after the children,
while men operate in the public sphere. Indeed, contempt for women is
structured into Condor society and violence is an assumed danger for
unattached women. Stone Telling comments that for Condor women
“outside the walls of her father’s or her husband’s house all men are
dangerous, because to Dayao [Condor] men all women unprotected by
a man are victims; they call them not women or people, but cunts.”87
Conversely, the “conventional” household simply does not exist in
Kesh society. The world of the Valley is structured around nine Houses,
but these are looser associations of people, “matrilineal and exogamous”,
not the sealed, limited units of the nuclear family. Although all “human
members of a House were considered first-degree kin, with whom sexual
relations were inappropriate”,88 this does not produce a society based
predominantly on the forbidding of certain sorts of behaviour. Kesh
relationships are much more open. Indeed, a telling difference between

the Condor and the Kesh is revealed through Stone Telling’s surprise that
the Condor think it appropriate for her to marry while still a virgin and
sexually inexperienced; in contrast, they see her as “dirt” precisely because
she has this reaction.89
Men and women have more mobile relations and families (though the
term does not really apply in the way in which we understand it) are fluid.
When, for instance, Stone Telling is without a grandfather on her father’s
side, Ninepoint asks if he can be her “side-grandfather” and “he came over
from their summerhouse in Bear Creek Canyon to teach me the songs of
the Fathers.”90 Forms of sexuality deemed as “deviant” elsewhere are not
prohibited either. It emerges without fanfare (a significant fact given the
1980s’ fraught relationship with homosexuality) that same sex relation-
ships are accepted by the Kesh, for a Condor woman who escapes to Kesh
society with Stone Telling is puzzled when she sees two men living
together and asks, “[h]ow can Jay and Stag Alone be married if they are
both men?”91 Indeed, Kesh identities are generally mobile and fluid, and
people change their names at various points in their lives to reflect changed
circumstances (Stone Telling, for instance, is North Owl as a child and
becomes Coming Home when she escapes from the Condor).
They view the warrior culture of the Condor as childish, echoing
perhaps the antinuclear slogan, “take the toys away from the boys”,
noted earlier. For example, as the Condor presence in the Valley produces
tensions, several people, mostly men, gravitate toward the Warrior Lodge
of the Kesh, but this is seen as a temporary sickness. Stone Telling’s
cousin, Hops, is one of these people and adopts the name Spear, much
to her derision: “I thought Spear was pretty silly—he might as well call
himself Big Penis and be done with it.”92 Rather like Guy, in The Burning
Book, Spear rather tiresomely equates his prowess as a warrior with his
sexual potency.
Similarly, a piece of Kesh folk history that appears in the book, “A War
with the Pig People,” tells of an encounter with a neighbouring people
that escalates into tribal warfare. In “A Commentary on the War with the
Pig People,” a woman, Clear, writes that “I am ashamed that six of the
people of my town who fought this war were grown people. Some of the
others were old enough to behave like adults, too.” As she explains, it “is
appropriate for children to fight, not having learned yet how to be mind-
ful, and not yet being strong”, and similarly adolescents “may choose to
throw away their own life, if they wish not to go on and undertake to live a
whole life into old age”, but as an adult a “person has made the other

choice. They no longer have the privilege of adolescence. To claim it in

grown life is mindless, weak, and shameful.”93 The construction of warfare
as childish, not heroic, as a signifier of weakness, not of strength, signals a
reconceptualised reality that resonates with feminist antinuclear activism.
This view of conflict as a gendered weakness recurs throughout Always
Coming Home. Fleeing the Condor, Stone Telling is horrified when men
ordered by her father to follow and protect her are murdered as they pass
through the lands of the Fennen. She warms, though, to a Fennen
woman, who, “seeing my tears, wept too, and said to me in signs and
words that there was too much war, too much killing going on, that the
young men of her house were sick and carried guns, like crazy people”.94
In an interview, Le Guin has said in response to a question about
feminist readings of the novel, that “if it dawns slowly on people [reading
the novel] that the relationship between women and men in the book is
somewhat different from the present one that obtains in our civilization,
and that it’s interestingly different . . . I’ll be happy.”95 The same interview
also evidences awareness of contemporary nuclear issues, for, asked about
the Nuclear Free Zone movement in America, she says “[i]t’s all a fiction
writer can do as a fiction writer to create free zones in the head and
heart. . . . [I]n a very small quiet way I have been an activist for a long
time.”96 These responses provide useful ways to formulate what is hap-
pening in Always Coming Home. It is an imaginative world of “interesting
difference” to contemporary America (and Britain); it creates a “free
zone” (nuclear-free, certainly, but not only that) for thinking beyond
the conflictual predispositions of late Cold War society.
There is much more that might be said about Always Coming Home, for
Le Guin’s vision of an alternative future is remarkable for its breadth and
execution, and I will return to it later in this book. It is worth briefly noting
here, though, that the world of alternative gender relations it imagines is
echoed in other future fiction by women. Sheri Tepper’s The Gate to
Women’s Country (1988), for instance, plays with the reader by seeming,
as it begins, to be a conventional heroic fantasy narrative in which men in a
future (post-nuclear) land prove themselves through chivalric acts of military
heroism. As the novel unfolds, however, it is revealed that this masculine
world is in fact precisely a fantasy, an anachronism, controlled and manipu-
lated by women of supposedly hostile peoples who forge secret alliances and
combine to manipulate reproduction, gradually breeding out from human
society the aggression of the most destructive men. Similarly, Vonda
McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978), another fantasy novel with a post-nuclear

setting, has as its main protagonist not a male warrior but a female healer,
who resists the urge to power and violence, explores her sexuality and is more
in control of it than women generally are in fantasy fiction. Like Stone
Telling, in Always Coming Home, she travels and encounters less progressive
societies, more like those of the contemporary West in their attitudes, that
facilitate a critique of our society through her values. The novel also plays
with readers’ gendered genre and social assumptions, inserting moments of
narrative surprise to unsettle their expectations. For instance, a minor char-
acter, a prison guard, is revealed, nonchalantly and without comment,
several pages after first appearing in the text, to be a woman.97 In both
these novels, the conventional nuclear family is disrupted through, for
instance, the representation of same sex relationships, alternative childcare
arrangements and more fluid family structures.
Such fluidity, such attempts to reimagine society and human subjectiv-
ity, reverberate into the subject of the next chapter, environmentalism.
Just as nuclear protest was invigorated by feminist campaigners in the
1980s, so too was it energised by environmentalists. This often involved
rethinking the relations between people and the natural and social envir-
onments in which they existed.

1. Alan Nadel, Containment Culture: American Narratives, Postmodernism,
and the Atomic Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995) (Nadel
1995). Elaine Tyler May, Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold
War Era, 2nd edn. (New York: Basic Books, 1999) (May 1999).
2. May, Homeward Bound, xxi (May 1999).
3. Nadel, Containment Culture, 4 (Nadel 1995).
4. Nadel, Containment Culture, xii (Nadel 1995).
5. Jonathan Hogg, British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in
the Long Twentieth Century (London: Bloomsbury, 2015) (Hogg 2016);
Matthew Grant, After the Bomb: Civil Defence and Nuclear War in Britain,
1945–68 (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) (Grant 2009); special edition on
British nuclear culture of The British Journal for the History of Science 45.4
(2012). Peter Hennessy’s pioneering work in the area is a particularly valuable
and influential forerunner of this new nuclear history; see, for instance, The Secret
State: Whitehall and the Cold War (London: Penguin, 2003) (Hennessy 2003).
6. Grant, After the Bomb, 3 (Grant 2009).
7. See Hennessy’s chapter, “The Importance of Being Nuclear: The Bomb and
the Fear of Escalation”, in Secret State, 44–76 (Hennessy 2003).

8. Jonathan Hogg, “‘The Family That Feared Tomorrow’: British Nuclear

Culture and Individual Experience in the Late 1950s”, The British Journal
for the History of Science 45.4 (2012): 537.
9. Hogg, “Family That Feared Tomorrow”, 548.
10. Hogg, “Family That Feared Tomorrow”, 547.
11. Andrew Hammond, “Literary Containment”, in Hammond, British Fiction and
the Cold War (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 18–50 (Hammond 2013).
12. Hammond, British Fiction and the Cold War, 24 (Hammond 2013).
13. May, “Introduction”, in May, Homeward Bound, ix-xxvi (May 1999).
14. Keith Joseph, Speech at Edgbaston, (1974) <http://www.margaretthatcher.
org/document/101830> [accessed 30 November 2010].
15. Margaret Thatcher, Speech to Conservative Party Conference, (1987)
<> [accessed 2
May 2014]. This 1980s right-wing attack on education is parodied in
Jonathan Coe’s What a Carve Up! (1994) where Hilary runs a newspaper
What a Carve Up! (2008), 83.
16. Ronald Reagan, Radio Address to the Nation on Family Values (20 December
1986), in Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency
Project, <> [accessed
2 May 2014].
17. Ronald Reagan, Address to the National Association of Evangelicals (8 March
1983), in Voices of Democracy: The U.S. Oratory Project, <http://voicesof> [accessed 2 May
18. Anon, Protect and Survive (London: HMSO, 1980), 5–6, 19 (Anon 1980).
19. Anon, Protect and Survive, 7 (Anon 1980).
20. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Home Shelter: Outside Concrete
Shelter (1980a), 1, <>
[accessed 6 May 2014].
21. Federal Emergency Management Agency, Home Fallout Shelter: Modified
Ceiling Shelter—Basement Location, Plan A (1980b), 1, <http://www.> [accessed 6 May 2014].
22. Anon [Grace Paley et al.], “Pentagon Action Unity Statement”, Peacework
Magazine, Social Justice 27.4 (2000), 161 (Anon [Grace Paley et al.] 2000).
Also available in Ynestra King, “All is Connectedness: Scenes from the
Women’s Pentagon Action, USA”, in Keeping the Peace, ed. Jones, 42–43.
Alice Cook and Gwyn Kirk (eds), Greenham Women Everywhere: Dreams,
Ideas and Actions from the Women’s Peace Movement (London: Pluto,
1983), 108–109 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
23. For a fuller description of the Women’s Pentagon Action (including a larger
event the following year) see Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural

Revolution: Nonviolent Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley:

University of California Press, 1991), 160–163 (Epstein 1991). For a first-
hand account of the action, as well as actions in subsequent years, see
Ynestra King, “All is Connectedness: Scenes from the Women’s Pentagon
Action, USA”, in Jones (ed.), Keeping the Peace, 40–63.
24. Jean Stead, “The Greenham Common Peace Camp and Its Legacy”, The
Guardian, 5 September 2006, <
sep/05/greenham5> [accessed 30 April 2014].
25. Sue Townsend, The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, Margaret Hilda
Roberts and Susan Lillian Townsend (London: Penguin, 2003), Kindle
edition, loc. 349 (Townsend 2003).
26. Cook and Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere, 83. Italics in original (Cook
and Kirk 1983).
27. Cook and Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere, 81 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
28. Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, 162. See, for instance,
photos of Greenham women bound together in threads as they lay across
the path of construction work, and of the gates of Greenham bound in thread.
Cook and Kirk, Greenham Women Everywhere, 64, 125 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
29. Cook and Kirk, 126 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
30. Cook and Kirk, 126 (Cook and Kirk 1983).
31. Ploughman’s Lunch, directed by Richard Eyre (UK: Goldcrest, 1983). The
film is scripted by Ian McEwan, whose novel The Child in Time is discussed
elsewhere in this book.
32. I have discussed Shute in more detail elsewhere. Daniel Cordle, States of
Suspense, 74–78, 126–127 (Cordle 2008).
33. David Brin, The Postman (London: Bantam, 1987), 315 (Brin 1987).
34. The Malamud and Swanwick stories may recall Aldous Huxley’s 1948 novel,
Ape and Essence, but this type of vision is much more common in the 1980s
than it is in the early Cold War.
35. Arnold Madison, It Can’t Happen to Me (New York: Scholastic, 1981), 36
(Madison 1981).
36. Julian Thompson, A Band of Angels (New York: Scholastic, 1986), 128.
(Thompson 1986).
37. Stephanie S. Tolan, Pride of the Peacock (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
1986), 16 (Tolan 1986).
38. Jane Langton, The Fragile Flag (New York: Harper & Row, 1984), 3
(Langton 1984).
39. Daniel Grausam, “The Dominant Tense: Richard Powers and Late
Postmodernism”, in Grausam, On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction
and the Cold War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011),
124–147 (Grausam 2011).

40. Richard Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma (New York: Perennial-HarperCollins,

2002), 49 (Powers 2002).
41. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 49 (Powers 2002).
42. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 57 (Powers 2002).
43. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 63 (Powers 2002).
44. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 216. Italics in original (Powers 2002).
45. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 218 (Powers 2002).
46. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 215 (Powers 2002).
47. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 205 (Powers 2002).
48. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 205 (Powers 2002).
49. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 317 (Powers 2002).
50. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 217 (Powers 2002). Italics in original. The
image of a benign Fairy Dust entering the body seems precisely to counter
the anxieties about radioactive fallout that haunt the Cold War.
51. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 311 (Powers 2002).
52. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 313 (Powers 2002).
53. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 313 (Powers 2002).
54. Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma, 29 (Powers 2002).
55. Maggie Gee, The Burning Book (London: Faber, 1983), 18 (Gee 1983).
56. Gee, Burning Book, 19 (Gee 1983).
57. Gee, Burning Book, 38–39 (Gee 1983).
58. Gee, Burning Book, 38 (Gee 1983).
59. Gee, Burning Book, 38 (Gee 1983).
60. William Faulkner, Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech (December 10, 1950),
faulkner-speech.html> [accessed May 8, 2014] (Faulkner 1950).
61. Gee, Burning Book, 52 (Gee1983).
62. Gee, Burning Book, 202. Italics and spacing in original (Gee 1983).
63. Gee, Burning Book, 21 (Gee 1983).
64. Gee, Burning Book, 202 (Gee 1983).
65. Gee, Burning Book, 17 (Gee 1983).
66. Gee, Burning Book, 172 (Gee 1983).
67. Gee, Burning Book, 17–18 (Gee 1983).
68. Gee, Burning Book, 220 (Gee 1983).
69. Gee, Burning Book, 201. Ellipses in original. (Gee 1983)
70. Grace Paley, “Anxiety”, in Later the Same Day (New York: Penguin, 1986),
101 (Paley 1986).
71. Paley, “Anxiety”, 103 (Paley 1986).
72. Other notable examples of texts with absent male adults are Judith Merril’s
short story “That Only a Mother” (1948) and novel Shadow on the Hearth
(1950), and Carol Amen’s short story “The Last Testament” (1981), which

was made into an acclaimed 1983 television film, Testament, that also
received a theatrical release.
73. Louise Lawrence, Children of the Dust (London: Lions Tracks, 1986), 17
(Lawrence 1986).
74. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 113 (Lawrence 1986).
75. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 136 (Lawrence 1986).
76. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 163 (Lawrence 1986).
77. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 179 (Lawrence 1986).
78. Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home (London: Grafton, 1988), 3
(Le Guin 1988).
79. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 139 (Le Guin 1988).
80. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 159 (Le Guin 1988).
81. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 147 (Le Guin 1988).
82. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 28 (Le Guin 1988).
83. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 40 (Le Guin 1988)
84. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 42 (Le Guin 1988).
85. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 347 (Le Guin 1988).
86. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 348 (Le Guin 1988).
87. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 360 (Le Guin 1988).
88. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 44 (Le Guin 1988).
89. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 343 (Le Guin 1988).
90. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 22 (Le Guin 1988).
91. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 366 (Le Guin 1988).
92. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 176 (Le Guin 1988).
93. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 133–134 (Le Guin 1988).
94. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 357 (Le Guin 1988).
95. Michael Brayndick, “Interview with Ursula Le Guin”, Iowa Journal of
Literary Studies 7 (1986), 87, <
article=1192&context=ijls> [accessed 12 May 2014] (Brayndick 1986)
96. Brayndick, “Interview with Ursula Le Guin”, 89 (Brayndick 1986).
97. Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake (London: Pan, 1979), 222 (McIntyre

Dust, Winter and Refuge:

Environmentalism and Nuclear Literature

In the 1980s, concerns about the environmental consequences of nuclear

technology became prominent in ways they had not been since the 1950s.
Since the Limited Test Ban Treaty of 1963 had driven most atomic bomb
tests underground and removed from public view the most obvious icon
of a nuclear world, the mushroom cloud, there had been a diminution in
public discourse about the environmental impact of nuclear technology.
Nevertheless, because of concerns about radioactive contamination raised
from the early Cold War onwards, public perception of the toxicity of
atomic activity was not resolved but remained latent, resurfacing periodi-
cally. The health consequences of being downwind of bomb tests had
begun to emerge in the 1950s. Nuclear processing and power plants were
also tainted by accidents and scandals, as in the 1957 fire at the Windscale
power station (renamed Sellafield in 1981) in Cumbria, and ongoing
contamination controversies at the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant in
Colorado (eventually raided by the FBI in 1989 for environmental
In the 1980s environmental concerns about a number of issues, includ-
ing the long-term health consequences of atomic tests from decades
before, the safety of nuclear power stations, the transport and storage of
nuclear waste and the ecological consequences of thermonuclear war
became a prominent focus of public debate. Alliances between environ-
mental and anti-nuclear activists intensified this debate. As a result, envir-
onmental issues were a key focus in nuclear literature and culture of the

© The Author(s) 2017 113

D. Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3_5

1980s. It was not simply that nuclear literature recorded environmental

concerns, but that at times it expressed a new ecological consciousness
through the human relations with the environment that it modelled.
Rather than simply being autonomous actors moving through an environ-
ment, human bodies were, in more complex nuclear literature, themselves
implied to be ecosystems involved in processes of exchange with the larger
environmental networks into which they were plugged.
The emergence of a coherent nuclear environmental consciousness in
the 1980s was related to a number of events and developments. On 16
March 1979, The China Syndrome, a Hollywood film about catastrophic
failings at a nuclear power plant, starring Jane Fonda and Jack Lemmon,
was released. The dangers evoked by this thriller may have seemed like
more than filmic fantasy when, twelve days later, there was a partial melt-
down in one of the reactors at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. On 26
April 1986, an explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in the
Ukraine (then in the Soviet Union) produced the most catastrophic
nuclear accident thus far and led to the spread of radioactive fallout across
Europe. Although Britain suffered no accidents to compare with these in
the 1980s, livestock in the north and west of the country was affected by
Chernobyl and two decades later the radioactive legacy was still apparent,
with restrictions remaining on meat from some hill farms.1 There was also
in Britain an ongoing controversy about the transport by train of nuclear
waste through heavily populated areas of the country, a concern that
features strongly in Maggie Gee’s novel Grace (1988) and provides an
ominous closing image at the end of the first episode of the BAFTA-
winning BBC drama Edge of Darkness (1985), a thriller about the nuclear
state. As the title credits roll to Eric Clapton’s plaintive and haunting
soundtrack, goods trains, by implication loaded with deadly waste, rumble
through the night as the country sleeps.
On 10 July 1985, the heightened confluence of environmental, Cold
War and nuclear concerns was starkly illustrated when the French secret
service sank the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior, in port in Auckland,
New Zealand, to prevent it interrupting a planned nuclear test. It is
indeed the shady actions of the Cold War nuclear state that are at the
heart of Edge of Darkness, revealed when Ronald Craven investigates the
murder of his daughter and discovers she has been working with Gaia, a
(fictional) environmental and anti-nuclear organisation, named for James
Lovelock’s “Gaia” theory. As he uncovers the power of the Cold War
state and sinister connections between civilian and military nuclear

establishments, Craven also becomes aware of a fundamentally different

way of viewing the relation between humans and the planet, a view that
the drama extrapolates (with a fair degree of artistic licence) from the
Gaia hypothesis.
Lovelock’s Gaia theory, quite well known in the 1980s, proposed a view
of individual life forms as constitutive of a larger being, the Earth itself,
which operates as a self-regulating organism.2 In this conception humans do
not sit outside the natural world, even as guardians of it; instead, they are
merely one variety of sub-organisms constituting the greater organism of
the planet, and they are potentially expendable as the planet maintains its
equilibrium. Edge of Darkness takes this one step further, implying that the
planet will actively wipe out humans in order to protect itself.
There were, of course, numerous varieties of environmental conscious-
ness in the 1980s and environmentalism was not a single, unified move-
ment; indeed, not all environmentalists were anti-nuclear. Nevertheless, it
is fair to say that, for many environmentalists, nuclear policy was not an
isolated aberration: it was symptomatic of structural deficiencies in
humans’ relation to the natural world. Rather than simply seeking changes
to nuclear policy, then, many sought a fundamental reconfiguration of
human society and of its place on the planet.
Such innovations in worldview were obvious in environmental activism
undertaken by the Clamshell Alliance and the Abalone Alliance in the
United States, in the 1970s and the 1980s, against, respectively, the
building of the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in New Hampshire and
the Diablo Canyon Plant in California. Named for some of the humblest
creatures endangered, as activists saw it, by these facilities, the groups
embodied a revised environmental consciousness not only through what
they were protesting, but also how they were protesting. Like many of the
feminist campaign groups discussed in the last chapter, their protest must
be understood not simply to be about the building of a specific facility at a
specific place, but as a rebuttal of a whole social structure. Although their
actions were against specific nuclear plants, they embraced a much broader
resistance to contemporary society and might indeed be seen as part of the
“alternative logic, an opposition at every level of society” for which E.P.
Thompson was calling on the other side of the Atlantic,3 even though they
were against nuclear power rather than nuclear missiles (though it is worth
noting that they were direct forerunners of the Livermore Action Group,
which, in the first half of the 1980s, opposed nuclear weapons devel-
opment and testing at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory).

As Barbara Epstein suggests, in her incisive analysis of the nonviolent

direct action movement, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, “direct
action is as much about a particular social vision (and the practice of
community building) as it is about the particular issues it has taken on.”4
Motivated by the principles of nonviolent direct action, the groups
created and embodied alternative models of society. This dictated the
form of their protests (peaceful but illegal occupation of the land on
which the plants were being built), the way in which they debated and
decided policy (underpinned by a radical democratic process aimed at
building consensus) and the very structure of their organisations. Such
resistance to hierarchy and to the investing of particular individuals with
power could be both a strength and a weakness. Their extraordinarily flat
structures could make arriving at decisions a tortuous process, but it also
meant that it was harder for the authorities to isolate and challenge
individuals, as when officials in New Hampshire found themselves having
to “negotiate with a ‘leaderless’ movement that put forward different
representatives every day.”5
As well as specific environmental activism, the understanding of nuclear
technology’s potential effect upon the planet was shaped by a new model
of the planet’s climate after nuclear war. On 23 December 1982, an
influential scientific paper, “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of
Multiple Nuclear Explosions”, was published in Science by the so-called
TTAPS group (named for the initials of the authors: Richard P. Turco,
Owen Toon, Thomas P. Ackerman, James B. Pollack and Carl Sagan).
Nuclear winter theory held that temperatures on earth would plunge
catastrophically following nuclear war, partly as a result of the large
amount of dust blown into the air.
The idea swiftly became well known and worked its way into nuclear
culture and literature, as we will see later in the chapter, helped no doubt
by Sagan’s reputation as a trusted populariser and explainer of science.
Nuclear winter theory seemed to provide scientific justification for the
long-standing, popularly held view that nuclear war could mean the end of
human life. As the ominous concluding sentence to the abstract of the
Science paper put it:

[w]hen combined with the prompt destruction from nuclear blast, fires, and
fallout and the later enhancement of solar ultraviolet radiation due to ozone
depletion, long-term exposure to cold, dark, and radioactivity could pose a
serious threat to human survivors and to other species.6

For those concerned by the hotting up of the Cold War these startling
predictions provided a useful addition to the arsenal of arguments that
might be brought to bear to contest the new-found enthusiasm of strate-
gists and policy makers for “limited” and “winnable” nuclear wars.
There were, then, several contributory factors to the urgency acquired
by environmental issues in nuclear discourse in the decade. Some of these
issues found direct expression in nuclear literature and culture, but it is
important to understand that they also had broader ramifications for how
the place of human life in the natural world was understood. In more
sophisticated texts the very idea of the human was reconfigured. The
remainder of this chapter turns to images of dust, the seasons and of
refuge to explore nuclear literature’s engagement with the decade’s envir-
onmental consciousness, a consciousness that it not only reflected but also
helped to shape.


I remembered to be afraid of the dust, the dust that might be radioactive,
the dust that over the next few days would powder everything to biscuit
color, the dust that might be the dust of the hundreds of nuclear tests
conducted somewhere across the highway I’d just driven in on. At first I
hadn’t been alarmed by the dust here, and later it became second nature to
fear dust everywhere, but this dust didn’t look like anything special to the
naked eye.
Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams (1994)7

In the first chapter of her book Savage Dreams (1994), Rebecca

Solnit describes joining a Peace Camp near the Nevada Test Site in
March 1990. Because of nuclear testing, the United States is the most
nuclear-bombed country on earth and when she was writing there had
at the Nevada site been “more than 900 [nuclear explosions] . . . in the
hot secret heart of the Arms Race.”8 The health and environmental
legacies of these tests, increasingly debated in the 1980s, are heart-
breakingly portrayed in Carole Gallagher’s marvellous photographic
and biographical portraits in American Ground Zero (1993),9 chart-
ing the lives, illnesses and deaths of those downwind of the test site.
It was becoming clear—or, at least, it was being strongly asserted—
that there were casualties of the nuclear Cold War, hidden in cancer
and other health statistics, even without nuclear conflict. For many

people, in any case, radiation and radioactive fallout were the defining
horrors of nuclear war, even though blast and heat were likely to kill
more people. They made nuclear weapons seem more insidious: poi-
sonous as well as destructive. After nuclear war—and perhaps, with
nuclear testing, before nuclear war too—the environment, maybe
even people’s own bodies, could no longer be trusted.
The way in which Solnit articulates her anxieties about the dust of
the desert is revealing. In narrating the experience of potential expo-
sure Solnit describes not fear as one would normally expect to experi-
ence it—an instant, instinctive response by the amygdala, preceding
conscious thought, to peril—but a consciously initiated “remember-
ing” of the need to be afraid. It is as if the self has been dislocated
within the environment. The world appears mundane and ordinary—
the dust “didn’t look like anything special”; there is no smell or taste
giving away the presence of radioactive contaminants—and so Solnit
must force the psychological shift by which it is understood as peri-
lous. This is an experience of the kind invoked by Joseph Masco’s
concept of the “nuclear uncanny”, introduced in Chapter 2. The
body’s senses become untrustworthy. Indeed, at this point the con-
tamination is as significant in its infection of the imagination as it is in
its compromising of the physical, corporeal space. Solnit may or may
not have inhaled a radioactive contaminant, but her mind has been
colonised by awareness of toxicity. She has become subject to a nuclear
consciousness that changes her relationship to her body and her sense
of her body within the environment. As Masco puts it, “one experience
of the nuclear uncanny” is the “inability to disarticulate a traumatized
self from the environment.”10
Dust is disturbing because of its particularity: its capacity for dis-
persal, for being carried unnoticed on the wind or the sole of a shoe,
transferring itself from one place to another, sifting its way into spaces
that seem secure and lying unnoticed in the environment, from whence
it may insinuate itself into bodies and ecologies unseen. In Gloria
Miklowitz’s After the Bomb (1985), a young adult novel about an
unexpected nuclear attack on Los Angeles, Philip finds himself unable
to read the symptoms from which he suffers in the stressful period after
the bomb falls:

Was it [the atomic cloud] already dropping its poisonous particles? Was that
why he felt so tired now, as if he had gone without rest for days? Was that

why he ached everywhere, why his legs trembled and a nagging hunger-
nausea plagued his stomach?11

Like Solnit, Philip does not know how to read the evidence of his body.
He has symptoms, but of what they are symptomatic—the signs are
identical to those of stress—is unclear.
A similar uncertainty besets the protagonists of Arnold Madison’s It
Can’t Happen to Me (1981), a young adult novel about a leak at Rocky
Falls, a nuclear power station.12 Tammie, the daughter of a farmer, worries
about “radiation in the milk” that may destroy her family’s business.13 In
the same book Sandy comments how life has been rendered strange,
cinematic indeed, by rumours of a nuclear accident: “it’s like a science-
fiction movie” she tells her boyfriend, Bryan. When she asks him to look at
the air and he protests that he cannot see anything, she says, “That’s
what’s so spooky. Everything looks fine, but something we can’t see
might be all around here, hurting us.”14 The “spookiness” of the everyday
(its potential to be nuclear, even though there is no direct signification of
this quality; the understanding that the ordinary “might” be malign) is a
corollary of the uncanny and marks here the dawn of nuclear
In Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro (1985), set in the Florida Keys a genera-
tion after nuclear war, this eerie association persists into the future.
Radiation has become a malign, mystical force that people ward off with
ceremony, ritual and superstition. A merchant, for instance, peddles
“radiation-sensitive badges that made travel possible through the con-
taminated regions”, but the badges may or may not work and they offer
more psychological comfort—possibly at the expense of actual health—
than actual warning against radiation.15
These are all American examples, but British literature also bears the
impression of this nuclear presence, tracing the psychological impact of
nuclear contamination. After nuclear war, in Robert Swindells’s young
adult novel Brother in the Land (1984), “trillions of deadly radioactive
particles began to fall. They fell soundlessly, settling like an invisible snow
on the devastated earth.”16 Again their evasion of human senses—their
silence; their invisibility—is stressed, for their presence is thought rather
than known directly by sight, sound or smell. Later a black rain seems to
make visible this threat,17 and the novel goes on to exploit a common
anxiety in nuclear literature of nature being put out of joint and rendered
other than it really is. Radiation cannot be seen, but its symptoms

occasionally appear, as when Ben finds a butterfly with “seven misshapen

wings” and Kim angrily labels the contorted vegetables survivors eat “a
Hiroshima swede . . . Hiroshima turnips, Hiroshima beans, Hiroshima
spuds and Hiroshima rotten cabbage.”18
The implication for Kim, pregnant by the end of the novel, is that she
will have what she sarcastically calls a “nice Hiroshima baby”, a fear she
expresses in a bitter response to the question of whether she would prefer a
boy or a girl: “yes, I hope it’s a boy or a girl.”19 The horror of nuclear war
here is not merely the death and destruction it will bring, but its assault
upon the categories by which we know the world: Kim’s son or daughter,
she fears, may not be recognisable to her as human in the conventional
sense. That this being is growing within her, drawing its sustenance from
her body, possibly invisibly changed by the air she breathes and the food
she eats, is of course a longstanding and widespread fear of the power of
nuclear weapons and materials to affect the reproductive processes by
which humans regenerate themselves. Birth marks a nuclear moment
that, inserted at a particular point in human genealogy, will profoundly
shape the generations that follow.20 A powerful example of this anxiety’s
presence in popular culture is Kate Bush’s 1980 single, “Breathing”, in
which “[o]utside gets inside” and a foetus can’t help but keep “[b]reath-
ing my mother in”, “[b]reathing the fall-out in”. In the song, “[c]hips of
plutonium” are “[t]winkling in every lung”, and it ends with an impas-
sioned, desperate plea to “[l]eave me something to breathe . . . Oh, life is –
breathing.”21 The most fundamental act of living—breathing in; breath-
ing out—is a betrayal by which the body of the mother and her foetus
ingest the malign outside world.
In Maggie Gee’s novel Grace (1988), set after Chernobyl, Paula, who is
uncertain if she is pregnant, becomes “afraid of her own body” and “feels
sick every day, as if Chernobyl had blown inside her”.22 She is “afraid to
breathe in deep” as she thinks of the vulnerability of the unborn: the
“invisible thing which may have blown across the earth from Russia”
could be “[s]ettling in Paula”, “[m]aking everything old . . . things which
are not yet realised; the tender, formless future.”23
As its title might suggest, Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust
(1986), set during and after nuclear war, is similarly preoccupied with
contamination. As the novel begins, Sarah is rushing for home and shelter
ahead of an expected nuclear attack, and is acutely conscious that she must
remember the beauty of the world and the sensory experience of the
natural environment before she shuts herself off from it:

Gloucestershire green in the sunlight, a blackbird singing and the wind

blowing warm through her hair. With all her senses she had to remember
it, all the scents and sights and sounds of a world she might never see again.
The roadside was lacy with cow-parsley and May had covered hedges with
sweet white blossoms. Cattle grazed in fields. A kestrel hovered and the
woods were dreamy with bluebells.24

These are images not simply of nature, but of humans integrated with
nature, through farming. We are not on the remote moors or in the
wilderness of the Highlands, but in the pastoral, agricultural West
Country and the only ominous feature in the landscape—a marker of
its industrialisation—is the “nuclear power station on the opposite
bank” of the river.25 In counterpoint to this vision of fecundity is the
novel’s central image, the dust. As Sarah, her stepsiblings and her
stepmother try to protect their home against the impending nuclear
attack, a radio announcer urges them to secure “one room against
fallout”, and the sealing off of the family from the outside world
becomes a major preoccupation.26
This isolation of one space from another is an attempt to resist the
central logic of the ecological vision: the interconnectedness of everything
as ecosystems facilitate the transfer of agents between different environ-
ments. It is the failure of this resistance that is the family’s undoing. All
their attempts to keep out radioactive fallout are revealed to be in vain in a
moment of shocking realisation for Sarah:

[T]here was dust in the hearth, grey dust falling like soot, silent and deadly. . . .
The dust was everywhere, on all the surfaces, floating like scum on the bucket
of drinking water. . . . And the dust was inside them now, in herself and William
and Veronica, inside their gullets and being absorbed. They had . . . forgotten
to block up the chimney which was open to the sky.27

This chilling moment reveals not only the compromising of the domestic
space (the attempt to secure themselves within a discrete space is a cor-
ollary of the vain attempts at domestic containment discussed in the last
chapter), but of individual human bodies. The body here is not simply a
discrete thing, existing in the world; it is an ecosystem involved in pro-
cesses of exchange (through the mouth and nose; through the skin) with
the larger ecosystems of its external environment; indeed, it is a subset of
that environment.

Later sections of the novel, in which we see subsequent generations, the

“children of the dust”,28 adapt to the new, blasted world are, admittedly,
problematic, for in a strange mix of evolutionary adaptation and divine
predestination a post-human variant of our species arises that is able to
survive: “The human race [was] no failed evolutionary experiment, their
nuclear war was no ultimate disaster. It had happened because it was
meant to happen.”29
For Millicent Lenz this realignment of our attitude to radioactive con-
tamination is indefensible: “To present magic upward transformations as
long-term results of radiation-induced genetic mutation, even in a fantasy
setting, is artistically irresponsible.”30 Lenz is right that Lawrence’s flight of
fancy is dangerous, but it is not consistent with the image of nuclear war
presented throughout the book and Lawrence’s teenage readers would
surely have identified more closely with poor, doomed Sarah, whose situa-
tion closely mimicked their own, than with the genetically mutated future
generations who survive in the post-holocaust world. While the transition to
the refined species is problematic and implausible (but then, is not one of the
pleasures of fantasy fiction the potential sometimes to imagine the implau-
sible?), the new society in which it lives is an attempt to imagine alternative
ways of being human, of relating to one another within a community, that
break from the destructive tendencies the novel finds predominating in
1980s Britain.
The previous chapter said something of these altered inter-human
relations and the next one will return to that idea, but it is worth noting
here that the world Lawrence imagines involves an ecologically sensitive
reintegration of humans into the natural world. Simon, visitor to the new
society, comes to realise that “[i]ntelligent creatures did not . . . murder
the environment on which they were dependent.”31 The people he finds
living within in it “respect all forms of life”, which they see as “sacred”,
and there is a vision of human spiritual connection to the land which draws
on several new-age tropes from the 1980s, from standing stones to water
If dust is generally, in these texts, a way of picturing that which cannot be
seen—radiation—then it is also a marker of other kinds of nuclear effect. It
recalls the blasted (literally blasted in the case of many nuclear test sites)
landscape of the desert. Desert-like areas of desolation feature prominently in
nuclear texts, particularly those set after nuclear war. Texts set far in the
future tend to show the earth scarred by nuclear blasts. The world of Sheri
Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988), for instance, is marked by

what its people call “desolations”. When Stavia encounters her first one it is a
“place where the green of field and tree ended and a carpet of black and gray
extended to the south and east, losing itself in the distances.” A travelling
companion tells her that “south and east of the mountains, there’s nothing
but bleak desolations, as far as you can travel. The whole continent is
gone.”33 Similarly, in Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978), we learn
that the “earth was covered with great circular basins. . . . The craters were
so large, spread over such a distance, that they could have only one source.
Nuclear explosions had blasted them.”34
Often, these areas of desolation are accompanied by insidious radio-
active legacies, as in Dreamsnake where the effects of the war “lingered
visibly and invisibly”.35 One character, refusing to believe the mythology
that has grown to warn people away from the craters, dies after spending
time in one, her body horribly transformed from within: “another bruise
began to form as the capillaries ruptured, their walls so damaged by
radiation that mild pressure completed their destruction.”36 In other
texts the areas directly devastated by nuclear explosion are places of super-
stitious dread, as in Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) in which
Riddley comments that there “ben the dead towns all them years”,
avoided by his people and the subject of anxious speculation: “And all
them years you heard storys of dog people [in the towns]. Peopl with dogs
heads and dogs with peopls heads.”37
We will encounter more “desolations” later in the chapter, but before
so doing we should turn to the literary representation of an expected
environmental consequence of nuclear war that has its origins in the
1980s: nuclear winter theory. By considering it we begin to move toward
a broader understanding of the way in which nuclear war was imagined as
disrupting the natural rhythms of the planet.



Although Walter Miller notes in the introduction to Beyond Armageddon

(1985), an anthology of apocalyptic stories from the preceding half cen-
tury, that the “nuclear-winter hypothesis is too recent an idea to play a role
in any of these stories”, its presence is clearly evident in the BBC drama
Threads (1984), to which Miller alludes as “the most recent benchmark
for future thermonuclear horror entertainment”.38 Threads, an extraor-
dinary (and extraordinarily bleak) tour de force of drama-documentary

filmmaking, scripted by the novelist Barry Hines, was, though intrinsically

British in its reworking of the conventions of the kitchen sink drama, also
aired to some significant recognition in North America.39 It portrays not
only nuclear war but the climatic aftermath in the years following: tem-
peratures drop, crops fail and society collapses. Amidst the plethora of
scientific advisors appearing in the credits are Richard Turco and Carl
Sagan, both contributors to the TTAPS nuclear winter paper.40 Nuclear
winter also appears as an expected consequence of nuclear war in other
contemporary nuclear fictions.
It is directly invoked in the title of Lynn Hall’s If Winter Comes (1986),
in which schoolgirl Meredith’s experience of a warm spring day is chilled
by the news of a crisis that threatens nuclear war: “She lifted her face and
squinted up into the bathing warmth. Tomorrow or the next day it might
be gone, shut out by a cloud of lethal fallout, death-bearing ash. Nuclear
winter”.41 In Phyllis Reynolds Naylor’s The Dark of the Tunnel (1985), a
military official is challenged about the inadequacy of civil defence in the
face of nuclear winter at an angry public meeting: “I’d like to ask the
colonel what he has to say about this nuclear winter the scientists are
talkin’ about. Scientists say that after a nuclear war, the temperature will
drop about eighty degrees, the crops’ll freeze, the animals will starve.”
This interjection provokes a comically patriotic response from someone
else in the crowd: “All this talk of nuclear winter and such! Why, the
Eskimos have been living in freezing weather all their lives. . . . Americans
have pulled through before, and by god, we’ll do it again!”42
In William Prochnau’s Trinity’s Child (1983), published only a year after
the TTAPS paper, an army general speculates on life after nuclear war, saying
that a “new ice age is possible from the atmospheric dust shielding the
sun.”43 In Whitley Strieber’s Wolf of Shadows (1985), the wolf through
whom much of the novel is focalised smells the cold and “sensed a whisper-
ing ghost of snow” as nuclear war brings winter in June; Sharon, who with
her mother is soon to make an unlikely alliance with the wolf in order to
survive, says that “[w]e learned about it [nuclear winter] in science”.44
In the cold days after nuclear attack in Robert McCammon’s horror novel
Swan Song (1987), Sister comments that “I don’t think it’s going to be
summer again for a long time.”45 In Lawrence’s Children of the Dust, a
survivor talks in anxious anticipation of “a nuclear winter coming on, cold
like we have never known”, and eventually the “nuclear winter lasted for
almost two years”, a period when “[n]othing grew in the cold black deserts
of nuclear dust.” A whole chapter, “The Dark and the Cold”, of William

Brinkley’s The Last Ship (1988), details the journey of one of the last
communities of humans aboard the Nathan James, a destroyer equipped
with nuclear-armed cruise missiles, through a cloud of fallout that blocks out
the sun and in which temperatures drop dramatically.46 In Kim Stanley
Robinson’s The Wild Shore (1984) there is “a winter that lasted ten
years”.47 Pamela Service’s fantasy novel for young adults, Winter of
Magic’s Return (1985), set in Wales 500 years in the future, begins with
twelve-year-old Welly waking up to the excitement of a thaw in June and the
hope of an “August with no snow on the ground”, for, after nuclear war,
“cold and darkness . . . [had] wiped out most life on the planet” and only
now is it beginning to warm up again.48 In Paul Cook’s Duende Meadow
(1985) a community survives in a mall, deep below the earth’s surface, 600
years after a nuclear war has “trapped them”, or at least so they imagine,
“underneath the ice sheets left over from the devastating nuclear winter”.49
Nuclear winter became a culturally resonant idea partly, no doubt, because
it captured in a phrase, and seemed to provide scientific legitimacy for, the
long-held popular notion that nuclear war would be an ecological catastrophe.
Indeed, the TTAPS paper echoes the powerful depiction of environmental
collapse in Jonathan Schell’s The Fate of the Earth (1982), published earlier in
the same year, initially in serial form in The New Yorker and then as a book.
Beyond the paper’s specific model of a post-nuclear future, the idea of nuclear
winter evokes disruption of the seasons that speaks to the culturally embedded
idea of the “unnatural” quality of nuclear experience.
The disruption of the seasons may also evoke Rachel Carson’s Silent
Spring (1962), perhaps the central founding text of the modern environ-
mental movement. Carson’s book, about the effects of DDT and similar
pesticides, was not about nuclear technology—though it drew some of its
imagery from health scares about nuclear weapons testing—but its chilling
first chapter, “A Fable of Tomorrow”, contains an apocalyptic scene evoca-
tive of a nuclear future. It begins with an idyllic vision of small-town
America, a world “in harmony with its surroundings”, amidst a “checker-
board of prosperous farms”.50 It then imagines the devastation wreaked by
a “strange blight [that] crept over the area”, as pesticides, used widely and
without thought to their secondary consequences, accumulate in the envir-
onment, entering the food chains and ecosystems that constitute it:

There was a strange stillness. The birds, for example—where had they gone?
Many people spoke of them, puzzled and disturbed. The feeding stations in
the backyards were deserted. The few birds seen anywhere were moribund;

they trembled violently and could not fly. It was a spring without voices. On
the mornings that had once throbbed with the dawn chorus of robins,
catbirds, doves, jays, wrens, and scores of other bird voices there was now
no sound; only silence lay over the fields and woods and marsh.51

This reference back to a text from two decades earlier is relevant not only
because Carson’s book was important to the environmentalists who were
finding their voices more strongly in the 1980s than ever before, and not
only because its “strange stillness” echoes Masco’s nuclear uncanny, but
also because a world devoid of birdsong became a powerful metaphor for
the ecological impact of nuclear war.
In Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday and the Journey
Onward (1984), America after nuclear war is scarred by blasted, radio-
active “Dead Zones”. Where Washington used to be, the L.A. Times
reports, is a “forty-square-mile desert of black glass dotted with the
carcasses of sparrows and larks and the occasional duck.” It is so toxic
that “[b]irds died flying over it”.52 In David Graham’s Down to a Sunless
Sea (1979), a pilot, caught in the air when nuclear war convulses the
world, discovers, when he finally finds a safe landing strip in the Azores,
“[b]irds beyond number, heaped pathetically around the shrubs and
bushes in which they made their last roost.”53 The crew of the destroyer
in Brinkley’s The Last Ship land briefly on an African coast and it takes a
while for the captain to realise that what disquiets him is the “absence of
[the] sound” of “millions of insects, the carrying sound of birds, infinitely
varying, of all the animals, of unnumbered thousands of living things, a
marvellous cacophony, a great and mighty symphony of life itself.”54 In
Strieber’s Wolf of Shadows, one of the first signs by which the wolf notices
that something is askew in nature, is the honking of a flock of geese who
land in great distress after flying through fallout: “Tufts of feathers fell
from their wings when they flapped. Some of them seemed to be choking
on their own craws.” Very soon and “[o]ne by one they dipped their heads
in the water, and flapped no more.”55 In Swindells’s Brother in the Land a
young survivor in a post-nuclear Britain suddenly realises, a year or so after
the attack, that “[t]here were no birds. It was a long time before I noticed
this and when I did, I couldn’t remember whether I’d seen any since the
nukes. Maybe they’d all been wiped out the day it happened, or perhaps
they’d just gradually faded away. Anyway, there were none now.”56 In
Service’s Winter of Magic’s Return, 500 years after nuclear war birds are
still “rare sights anytime of year.”57

In William Prochnau’s Trinity’s Child (1983), a nightmarish episode on

a stricken nuclear bomber is punctuated by the lyrics of Don McLean’s
American Pie playing over the crew’s helmet radios: “birds flew off to the
fallout shelter”.58 In Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book (1983), Lorna and
Henry go to Kew Gardens where they spend the day in which nuclear
attack is expected. There are “[n]o more birds in the sky, just leaves.
Clouds like red curling leaves on the flame, real leaves spinning like clouds
of birds.”59 On the final page of the novel, a hopeful poem is set out
within the outline shapes of birds. In Terry Tempest Williams’s memoir,
Refuge (1991), to which I turn in more detail a little later in this chapter,
the cancerous legacies of nuclear testing are counterpointed with the
fragile ecology of the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge, and threats to
birdlife, near Salt Lake City, where Williams works; indeed, the apocalyptic
(though, in this instance, not specifically nuclear) future Williams fears,
“devoid of birdsong”, specifically recalls Carson’s silent spring. In Savage
Dreams, Solnit tells us that birds never sing at the Nevada nuclear test
The deaths of birds in nuclear texts, like the deaths in Carson’s haunt-
ing image of a “silent spring”, signal a fundamental disruption to the
environment. The birds’ absence evokes an unsettling of the natural
order that is disturbing for its ubiquity: birds are normally everywhere, a
context to our lives in song and in the world around us. By roaming across
and beyond the geographical and political borders that define the human
imagination of space, they illuminate the interconnection of complex
ecosystems around the planet and their presence also challenges our
sense of the human view as the authoritative one; they imply a different
understanding of space. Their presence, so familiar we often fail to notice
they are there, means that their absence, their silence, is experienced as
uncanny, a subtraction from the everyday that renders the world strange
and other.
It is this sense, not simply of destruction, but of a profound and cata-
strophic undoing of complex, interconnected ecosystems that is evoked in
the apocalyptic visions of nuclear literature. It is important that we under-
stand that the ecological visions of nuclear literature are not simply about
the destruction of the natural environment. Many of these visions imply a
powerful interconnectedness of life on earth, encompassing the human.
Such a global vision has political consequences: it suggests a shared human-
ity, an identity of one person with another, rooted in our common depen-
dence on the planet’s ecosystems and transcending and contesting Cold

War geopolitical divisions that sought to set people against each other.
Visions of connectivity, of the connectedness of humans to the natural
world but also of humans with one another (perhaps recalling the powerful
feminist image of the web of mutual support, discussed in the previous
chapter), emerge to counter the destructive global systems of the Cold War.
Because Cold War systems (malign ecologies comprised of nuclear weap-
ons, conventional military technology and personnel, espionage networks,
state bureaucracies and economies) also plug into each other, spanning the
planet, contesting them requires a global vision.

The possibility of an earth scarred by nuclear “desolations”, toxic effects of
fallout and disruption to the ecology and climate might suggest a vulner-
ability, of humans and of the planet, to nuclear technology that could not
be endured, particularly in the context of a powerful Cold War machine
that seemed to brook no resistance. Yet, a countermovement can be
detected in nuclear literature. Frequently it functions not by denying
vulnerability, but—like the feminist politics described in the previous
chapter—by embracing and exploiting it. In this more progressive envir-
onmental politics of vulnerability, shared peril becomes an opportunity to
build new alliances and contest ways of thinking endemic to the late Cold
War nuclear establishment. It is important to reemphasise that this was not
a passive vulnerability (or not necessarily so): it could be impassioned and
Perhaps the most important dimension of 1980s nuclear environmental
peril was that, with the potential for global thermonuclear war meaning
that no-one was exempt from the planet’s nuclear fate, there emerged also
the necessity of thinking how our humanity was held in common, above
and beyond political and national difference. By demonstrating the ten-
dency of nuclear materials and consequences to pass beyond geographical
and political borders, nuclear literature could ask its readers to conceive of
nuclear war as an attack not so much on particular countries as on the
whole planet and on all people.61 It could even sometimes offer glimmers
of non-human perspectives, challenging people to look beyond the tracery
of political and other boundaries around the globe, dividing one human
society from another. We will see later in the chapter, for instance, how the
migrations of birds in Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge transcend human
boundaries, weaving places together in different ways and revealing both

the fragility of the ecosystem (as vectors of transmission span the planet)
and the ephemerality and partiality of human conceptions of the world.
As the human species seemed to be imperilled, nuclear literature some-
times also called up shared notions of human identity. If such a human
identity was opposed to anything it was to those who threatened nuclear
war, and thus, as I have argued elsewhere, there was a shift in some anti-
nuclear discourses from “horizontal” conceptions of conflict (West against
East) to “vertical” ones (in which ordinary people in different countries were
collectively threatened by their leaders and the nuclear military machine).62
Such globalised constructions of humanity are not unproblematic—they
might, for instance, efface cultural differences whose starting points for
understanding what it is to be human are at odds with one another; we
may instinctively react to them as naïvely utopian; we may even disagree that
it is nuclear bombs per se which are the problem—but they represent an
innervating and exhilarating attempt to challenge and reach beyond destruc-
tive forms of nationalism.
The politics of vulnerability is important to the activism of 1980s
nuclear literature as a means of acknowledging, indeed celebrating, the
small and the vulnerable whose fates would otherwise be passed over as
insignificant. It was not merely that the lives of individuals were threatened
by nuclear technology, it was that the effects of those technologies were to
problematize the conceptual categories by which the human was under-
stood. Physical bodily boundaries separating self from world seemed to
dissolve, for instance, in the face of radiation or the ingestion of radio-
active fallout. Even if free of dangerous physiological contamination (as
most surely were), the mind could be penetrated and haunted by nuclear
anxieties. The natural world through which human subjects moved
seemed also to be compromised, its ecosystems permeated by a nuclear
presence. All these things meant that the coherence of the self, the
integrity of body and mind, seemed to be subject to malign forces moving
across and through it.
Yet, in the face of these threats, a firmer assertion of the value of
humanity, conceived as part of the world’s natural systems, arose.
Redemptive acts in nuclear texts are often celebrations of what is fragile,
rather than confident assertions of strength. In If Winter Comes (1986)
teenager Barry’s horror of nuclear war initially finds expression in a
destructive nihilism that threatens to accept, even welcome, the destruc-
tion war will wreak. Thinking of his fellow humans, his first reaction is that
“[s]ome of them would deserve [death]. . . . Maybe all of them. All of us.

Maybe it really is time to erase human beings and start over again.”63 By
the end of the book, though, he has found faith through an encounter
with a woman who, in the most rundown part of town, is nurturing a
garden. The garden is fragile, both because it is a tiny oasis in a blighted,
threatening urban landscape and because it will not survive nuclear war if it
comes, but there is also strength in this fragility: investing time and care in
the garden is an act of hope, of faith, about what might grow in the future.
Barry finds himself transformed by the experience: “he did feel better
standing here between the grass and the petunias than he had out on
the sidewalk. . . . Was it the growing things, he wondered, or this woman,
or the sheltered feeling of the place?”64 The “sheltered feeling” suggests a
refuge, but this is not a refuge of the kind imagined in civil defence
material: a shelter designed to be robust enough to withstand nuclear
attack. Instead, and more profoundly, the refuge is a new state of mind
that finds value in creativity, hope and empathy, both for other people and
for the natural environment.
Similarly, Stephanie Tolan’s Pride of the Peacock (1986) begins with
Whitney’s nuclear trauma, induced by reading Schell’s description in The
Fate of the Earth of ecological collapse following nuclear war. Schell’s vision
makes life seem unbearable for Whitney, especially when she thinks of the
vulnerability of her younger brother, Jeremy: “It was intolerable that Jeremy
should live in the dangerous, horrible world Jonathan Schell had written
about. It was intolerable that the fate of the earth would also be the fate of
Jeremy Whitehurst.”65 Whitney’s teenage awareness of nuclear war is por-
trayed through tropes of traumatic stress: flashbacks (albeit to imagined,
rather than actual, experience) and psychological fragility. There are “images
she couldn’t shut out. There were pictures she remembered from a movie
[almost certainly, from the description, ABC’s The Day After], of missiles
streaking across a clear blue sky, leaving clouds of vapor behind them.”66
Like Barry, in If Winter Comes, Whitney’s redemption comes through an
encounter with a woman and a garden. She meets and is befriended by a
sculptor, Theodora, who is seeking her own way out of grief following the
murder of her husband and who has moved into a rundown local property,
the garden of which she is trying to revive. By learning to appreciate garden-
ing, to embrace it as a creative means by which to nurture hope for the future,
Whitney is finally able to live in defiance of the destructive forces of the era.
When she sees that for “plants being underground meant life and growing”,
it is a realisation of the way in which life renews itself from the most
unpromising conditions.67 Theodora tells Whitney that she’s “been like a

flower bulb the last few weeks, all hard and dry, with everything alive locked
up inside” and the implication at the end of the book is that, like the bulb,
Whitney will grow and blossom by living with and beyond the nuclear despair
that besets her.68
It is not coincidental in either of these books that hope comes through
encounters with women and with physical engagement with the natural
world through gardening. They signal an embracing of values that are
gendered as female and creative, in contrast to the values of the nuclear
state that are, by implication, patriarchal and sterile. There are in these
texts tentative assertions of human connection, one to another, and with
the earth. These are the roots of an ecological vision. Perhaps the fullest
and most sophisticated expression of this vision comes in Terry Tempest
Williams’s memoir Refuge (1991).69
Refuge appears, at first, to be a number of things, but not a nuclear text:
it is a work of nature writing, detailing the lives of birds in and around the
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge in Utah, where Williams worked; it is a
memoir about the devastation wreaked in Williams’s family by breast
cancer; and it recounts attempts to manage rises in the level of the Great
Salt Lake that threaten the surrounding area. It is only a furious, powerful
essay, “The Clan of One-Breasted Women”, appended after the main
narrative, which reveals a nuclear dimension, transforming our under-
standing of what has gone before and showing how deeply embedded
personal and local concerns are in Cold War nuclear contexts. Through
this essay the rest of the text becomes nuclear, for it unfolds an, if not quite
secret, certainly strongly suppressed nuclear history, explaining the perso-
nal narratives of loss with which the book is concerned.
In “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” Williams reveals what she
herself discovers late on: that the illness suffered by the women in her
family (before 1960 only one had faced breast cancer; afterwards, nine
women, seven of whom later died, had mastectomies for breast cancer—
hence the clan of “one-breasted” women) might be a consequence of
nuclear testing in Nevada, where atmospheric tests took place in the
1950s. The dust Solnit fears in Savage Dreams, noted earlier, is the dust
from these and subsequent tests (the peace camp Solnit visits, at about the
same time Williams is writing Refuge, is in Nevada).
Williams discovers the nuclear connection when she recounts a
recurring a dream (a “flash of light in the desert”) to her father, who
reveals its origin in childhood experience of a nuclear test, as the family
were driving down the highway: “You were sitting on Diane’s [your

mother’s] lap. . . . It was an hour or so before dawn, when this explo-

sion went off. . . . [W]e saw it clearly, this golden-stemmed cloud, the
mushroom. . . . Within a few minutes, a light ash was raining on the
car”.70 The encounter with the bomb, both with this particular one
and with those more invisibly present, provides an explanation for the
sudden eruption of cancer amongst the women of Williams’s family
(though she acknowledges, with frustration, that an exact origin is
impossible to locate for any single instance of cancer; it is only possible
to extrapolate in general terms from correlations between cancer and
the testing of nuclear weapons).
This revelation illuminates not only the possible origin of the disease
that kills Williams’s mother and grandmother, dealt with in Refuge, but
powers up a circuit of nuclear references embedded earlier in the text and,
on first reading, seemingly disconnected. Incidents that seemed insignif-
icant take on new meanings and the reader is left with a sense of how
thoroughly nuclear everyday experience is. The text does not so much
“become” nuclear, then; rather, both text and world are revealed always
already to have been nuclear.
These nuclear references and incidents earlier in the book are multiple
and various: the description of a desert artwork as casting “a shadow across
the salt flats like a mushroom cloud”; Williams’s desire for a museum at
which she works to sponsor a film about the disposal of uranium tailings;
the cancelling of a hike on the day of an underground nuclear detonation
at the Nevada Test Site and the passing of a “Great Peace March” for
disarmament outside the house where the family are staying; and an out-
landish plan to obviate the threat of flooding of the great Salt Lake by
“nuking” it to drain off water.71 Retrospectively charged with collective
significance by “The Clan of One-Breasted Women”, these incidents
reveal how thoroughly permeated with a nuclear presence is the physical,
cultural and psychological environment.
The revelation that everyday experience is interwoven with nuclear
contexts makes Refuge one of the most significant texts discussed in this
book. It demonstrates that nuclear concerns are not peripheral, not mat-
ters only of the extreme and the extraordinary (as when nuclear conflict
threatens), but of the mundane and commonplace. Solnit observes of US
nuclear history (and in particular reference to the appearance of strontium-
90 from bomb tests in mothers’ milk and in the bones of children) that
“[w]ar was a men’s issue, but contamination became a women’s issue.”
The eruptions of contaminants in the intimate corporeal and

environmental ecosystems shared by mother and child genders nuclear

experience here:

Nuclear war became the bombs bursting over and over again in rehearsals
for holocaust, and war became a mother’s issue, because it was no longer on
an international frontier or in a distant future. It was in the bones of
children, and it might already be fatal.72

Such gendering of nuclear experience is also at the heart of Williams’s book.

It is not only the direct references to nuclear experience noted above—what
we might call the text’s primary nuclear circuit—that is charged by “The
Clan of One-Breasted Women”. Secondary nuclear circuits, related by
association to smaller, everyday manifestations of violence against women
and nature, also become live. These recurring concerns situate Refuge as part
of a broader conversation about gender and violence that was also a pre-
occupation of feminist protesters and texts discussed in the previous chapter.
For instance, Williams recounts how on childhood camping trips she
would sit talking with her mother while her brothers were taken rabbit
hunting by her father. Conversation and female community are contrasted
with socialisation for violence. Tellingly, hunting is a pastime with which
Williams’s father is later, after the death of his wife, unable to continue
because, as he puts it, “I can no longer participate in the killing. . . . When I
see the deer, I see Diane.”73
Similarly, and more pointedly, in an incident recounted in the opening
chapter Williams and a friend have a run in with the local gun club, who
have flattened the nests of burrowing owls at the Refuge. The text’s
concern with patriarchal violence, a violence loudly contested by feminist
and peace groups in the 1980s, places the men’s guns at the end of a
spectrum of implements of warfare that at the other end encompasses
nuclear weapons.
Just before they encounter the gun club, Williams and her friend talk “of
rage. Of women and landscape. How our bodies and the body of the earth
have been mined.”74 The exploitation of both land and women are continua
in the broader workings of patriarchal oppression. The insistence on linking
the human body with landscape is important because it suggests we do not
simply inhabit landscapes but that we are part of them. Indeed, our bodies
are themselves landscapes, as Williams notes when she writes that the “womb
is the first landscape we inhabit”.75 So when both bodies and land are
described as being mined this opens up space for contradictory metaphors

of maternity and mining to be deployed to speak to the exploitation of both

people and natural resources. “The Clan of One-Breasted Women” returns
to this metaphor when Williams describes a dream of feminist protests about
underground nuclear tests in Nevada. With each test there is a “heave” in the
desert and “[s]tretch marks appeared” as if the earth were trying to give
birth. The women in the dream (later the text describes an actual protest in
which Williams participates) “couldn’t bear it any longer. They were
mothers. They had suffered labor pains but always under the promise of
birth. . . . [E]ach bomb became a stillborn.”76 The sterility of the bomb tests
is contrasted with the fecundity of the women and the values of each are
diametrically opposed.
The text maps connections between the corporeal, intimate, sensory
experience of the spaces of the body, and a broader nuclearized culture.
One of the discoveries of the text is that refuge (a term extraordinarily
loaded by the nuclear context, in which it was often used to denote the
supposedly safe space of the nuclear shelter) is not a place. Indeed, there is
no space disconnected from broader ecosystems, even in the womb, where
the child is not protected from nuclear fallout, or in the Migratory Bird
Refuge to which Williams initially flees when she seeks respite. The child is
subject to the outside environment via the vector of its mother’s body and
the Refuge floods as the Great Lake rises. Consequently, Williams is forced
into the discovery that refuge is rooted in psychological accommodation,
in acceptance of vulnerability and active engagement through protest,
rather than physical escape. Indeed, seeming wilderness spaces are always
problematized in the text: there is no place outside human contact.
Williams discovers, for instance, that the desert she loves is a heavily
militarized space when she comes across plywood tanks used as targets in
firing ranges and is told that “[i]f you look straight up, that’s not blue sky
you see—that’s military airspace.”77 Even places seemingly distant from
human contact have been colonised and appropriated for (in this instance)
militaristic purposes.
Refuge is a text cited by Laurence Buell in his important essay “Toxic
Discourse”, and we can see in Williams’s writing a strong sense of what
Buell calls “the inextricable imbrication of outback with metropolis”78:
the interpenetration of wilderness and “civilised” spaces. The impossibility
of separating the human from the “natural” planet has ethical conse-
quences. As Buell suggests, there is an “interdependence of ecocentric
and anthropocentric values”.79

By conjuring a deeply ecological conception of the human subject,

Refuge brings to the surface something latent in many nuclear texts. At
its most profound level this recasts the human, seeing it not only as an
individual unit, but as itself comprised of ecosystems interpenetrating
the larger ecosystems through which it moves. Further, this sense of
the human coexists with and challenges the identities produced by the
nation state, for it speaks to a common bodily experience and a shared
fate that seeks cause with those others from whom Cold War discourse
would have us protect ourselves with violence, but who share our
vulnerability in the face of nuclear technologies and materials. It also
calls into question, because of the global environmental implications of
nuclear warfare, the idea that what happens in one part of the world—
the visiting of destruction upon another state—can be separate from
what happens “here”.
It is precisely this remapping of the world, this acknowledgement of the
connection between one place and another, which makes the birds in
Refuge such important symbols. They are a “chorus of wings navigating
the planet.”80 Bear River is specifically a “Migratory” Bird Refuge, a
stopping-off point on journeys that span the world. The “magic of
birds”, says Williams, is that “they bridge cultures and continents with
their wings . . . they mediate between heaven and earth.”81 Like the fem-
inist image of the web discussed in the last chapter, the threads of bird
flight, interweaving as they cross the globe, simultaneously evoke weak-
ness (if the refuge is destroyed an important stopping off point for feeding
and recovery disappears) and strength (Bear River is but one point in a
web of refuges around the planet). Most importantly, the image asks us to
see the fate of the planet holistically, not in the sense of an ethereal, new
age conception of holistic connection between disparate things, but in the
material interdependence of different places and organisms for the con-
tinuation of life on Earth.
Refuge’s implication is that humanity has a shared fate, that there must be
a reaching across political and national—maybe even species—boundaries.
The shared vulnerability of all beings calls into existence a common cause
through which humans might challenge the structures and ways of thinking
that lead to division. That this utopianism can feel uncomfortably naïve is of
course true, but a strategic naïvety is a powerful thing: it makes us imagine
things as other and better than they currently are. In this case, it asks that we
seek ways of thinking beyond those preferred and promoted by the Cold War

establishment (and persisting beyond the end of the Cold War), based on
suspicion, division and defence against an other assumed always to be hostile.
Such attempts to think globally recur elsewhere, although they are not of
course universal in nuclear literature. Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony
(1977), for instance, about a Native American World War II veteran strug-
gling to fit back into life in New Mexico,82 is not conventionally read as a
nuclear text, but is reliant on symbolic matrices that draw heavily on nuclear
contexts (from references invoking the bombings of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki, to Tayo’s grandmother’s vision of a bright flash that is the
Trinity test of July 1945). Contamination and sickness, of the land (through
drought) and of humans, are predominant tropes in the novel and the
climax, at an abandoned uranium mine, invokes a world infused by the
physical, psychological and cultural consequences of living in a nuclear
world. The mythology of the “destroyers” constructed by the text, through
its invocation of Native American stories and ceremonies, projects Tayo’s
battle to survive and readjust onto a global level. Tayo must protect himself
from the destroyers, but also, significantly for the text’s politics of vulner-
ability, he must protect them from himself: at the novel’s climax he refuses to
use violence in revenge against an enemy and this is the only way he can deny
the destroyers’ power and refuse to become a destroyer himself.
Like Refuge, Ceremony invokes a deep connection with the planet—“we
came out of the land and we are hers” says the narrator,83 toward the end of
the novel, invoking a different sort of emergence from the earth than the
references to mining in both texts—and suggests a profound embedding of
humans within the ecologies, spiritual as well as natural, of the Earth. There
is a mythic dimension to texts like Refuge and Ceremony, but it is combined
with a sharp understanding of the concrete political realities of lived experi-
ence. Both texts locate their ecological visions within an adroit, historically
informed depiction of people’s relation to land and society.
Another dimension of the politics of nuclear texts is their engagement
with contemporary debates about the economy and about social structure
and organisation. It is to these issues that the next chapter turns.

1. Catriona Davies, “20 Years On, Britain Still Feels the Effects of Chernobyl”, The
Telegraph, 1 April 2006 <
[accessed 13 July 2015]. Geoffrey Lean, “Chernobyl ‘Still Causing Cancer in

British Children,’” The Independent, 23 April 2006 <http://www.independent.
475263.html> [accessed 13 July 2015]. Terry Macalister and Helen Carter,
“Britain’s Farmers Still Restricted by Chernobyl Nuclear Fallout”, The
Guardian, 12 May 2009 <
2009/may/12/farmers-restricted-chernobyl-disaster> [accessed 13 July
2015]. Restrictions on meat from British hill farms were finally removed in
2012. “Chernobyl Sheep Controls Lifted in Cumbria and Wales”, BBC, 22
March 2012 <> [accessed
13 July 2015].
2. See, for instance, Lovelock, Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (Lovelock
3. See discussion of Thompson in the introduction.
4. Barbara Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution: Nonviolent
Direct Action in the 1970s and 1980s (Berkeley: University of California
Press, 1991), 1 (Epstein 1991).
5. Epstein, Political Protest and Cultural Revolution, 10 (Epstein 1991).
6. R.P. Turco et al., abstract, “Nuclear Winter: Global Consequences of
Multiple Nuclear Explosions”, Science 222.4630 (1983) <http://www.> [accessed 16 May
2014] (Turco et al. 1983).
7. Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the
American West (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999), 4 (Solnit
8. Solnit, Savage Dreams, 4 (Solnit 1999).
9. See also Fradkin, Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy (1989) (Fradkin
10. Joseph Masco, The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-
Cold War New Mexico (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 32
(Masco 2006).
11. Gloria Miklowitz, After the Bomb (New York: Scholastic, 1985), 124
(Miklowitz 1985).
12. As noted earlier, Rocky Falls is presumably named to evoke Rocky Flats.
13. Arnold Madison, It Can’t Happen to Me (New York: Scholastic, 1981), 74
(Madison 1981).
14. Madison, It Can’t Happen to Me, 77–78 (Madison 1981).
15. Denis Johnson, Fiskadoro (New York: Vintage, 1986), 203 (Johnson 1986).
16. Robert Swindells, Brother in the Land (London: Puffin, 2000), 2 (Swindells
17. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 11 (Swindells 2000).
18. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 127, 131 (Swindells 2000).
19. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 131, 133 (Swindells 2000).

20. See, for instance, Judith Merril’s short story “That Only a Mother” (1948),
originally published in 1948, for an early articulation of this fear. Available in
The Best of Judith Merril, 15–25.
21. Kate Bush, “Breathing”, 7” single (EMI, 1980).
22. Maggie Gee, Grace (London: Sphere, 1989), 47 (Gee 1989). For a more
direct engagement with the Chernobyl disaster and its radioactive conse-
quences, see Frederik Pohl’s Chernobyl: A Novel (1987) (Pohl 1987), a
gripping novelization of the accident.
23. Gee, Grace, 89 (Gee 1989).
24. Louise Lawrence, Children of the Dust (London: Lions Tracks, 1986), 10
(Lawrence 1986).
25. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 10 (Lawrence 1986).
26. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 13 (Lawrence 1986).
27. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 39 (Lawrence 1986).
28. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 192 (Lawrence 1986).
29. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 191 (Lawrence 1986).
30. Millicent Lenz, Nuclear Age Literature for Youth: The Quest for a Life-Affirming
Ethic (Chicago: American Library Association, 1990), 156 (Lenz 1990). David
Palmer’s Emergence (1984) is similarly problematic (Palmer 1986).
31. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 161 (Lawrence 1986).
32. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 172 (Lawrence 1986).
33. Sheri S. Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country (London: Corgi, 1990),
120–121 (Tepper 1990).
34. Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake (London: Pan, 1979), 50 (McIntyre
35. McIntyre, Dreamsnake, 50 (McIntyre 1979).
36. McIntyre, Dreamsnake, 50, 51 (McIntyre 1979).
37. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 14 (Hoban
2002). The curious spelling is Riddley’s post-apocalyptic argot, in which the
book is narrated.
38. Walter M. Miller, Jr, “Forewarning”, in Miller and Martin H. Greenberg
(eds), Beyond Armageddon (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2006),
xiv (Miller and Greenberg 2006).
39. I discuss the North American reception of Threads, as well as its strange and
brilliant genre-breaking, in my article “That’s going to happen to us, it is”.
40. See note 6.
41. Lynne Hall, If Winter Comes (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986), 4
(Hall 1986).
42. Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, The Dark of the Tunnel (New York: Atheneum,
1985), 167, 169–170 (Naylor 1985).
43. William Prochnau, Trinity’s Child (London: Sphere, 1985), 232 (Prochnau

44. Whitley Strieber, Wolf of Shadows (London: Knight/Hodder and Stoughton,

1988), 33, 37 (Strieber 1988).
45. Robert R. McCammon, Swan Song (New York: Open Road, 2011), Kindle
edition, 184 (McCammon 2011).
46. William Brinkley, The Last Ship (New York: Ballentine, 1988), 397–421
(Brinkley 1989).
47. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 67, 75 (Lawrence 1986). Kim Stanley
Robinson, The Wild Shore (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 270
(Robinson 1994).
48. Pamela F. Service. Winter of Magic’s Return (New York: Fawcett Junior,
1985), 2, 5 (Service 1985).
49. Paul Cook, Duende Meadow (Toronto: Bantam, 1985), 2 (Cook 1985).
50. Rachel Carson, Silent Spring (London: Penguin, 2000), 21 (Carson 2000).
51. Carson, Silent Spring, 22 (Carson 2000).
52. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Warday and the Journey Onward
(Great Britain: Coronet, 1985), 166 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
53. David Graham, Down to a Sunless Sea (London: Pan, 1980), 201 (Graham
54. Brinkley, Last Ship, 386 (Brinkley 1989).
55. Strieber, Wolf of Shadows, 36 (Strieber 1988).
56. Robert Swindells, Brother in the Land (London: Puffin, 2000), 128
(Swindells 2000).
57. Service, Winter of Magic’s Return, 20 (Service 1985).
58. William Prochnau, Trinity’s Child (London: Sphere, 1985), 300. Italics in
original (Prochnau 1985).
59. Maggie Gee, The Burning Book (London: Faber, 1983), 294 (Gee 1983).
60. Solnit, Savage Dreams, 89 (Solnit 1999).
61. For a striking example of the mental remapping of the world in 1980s
nuclear consciousness, see William Bunge’s Nuclear War Atlas (1988)
(Bunge 1988), which uses maps, diagrams and charts to challenge our
sense of the geography of the planet.
62. See, for instance, chapter 5, “The Fragile Planet: Articulating Global
Anxieties”, of my book States of Suspense, 109–122.
63. Lynn Hall, If Winter Comes (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1986), 78
(Hall 1986).
64. Hall, If Winter Comes, 85 (Hall 1986).
65. Stephanie Tolan, Pride of the Peacock (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,
1986), 2–3 (Tolan 1986).
66. Tolan, Pride of the Peacock, 45. The Day After was screened in 1983 (Tolan
67. Tolan, Pride of the Peacock, 118 (Tolan 1986).
68. Tolan, Pride of the Peacock, 145 (Tolan 1986).

69. Some elements of the following discussion first appeared in my essay

“Legacy Waste: Nuclear Culture After the Cold War”, in The Silence of
Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World, ed. Michael Blouin,
Morgan Shipley and Jack Taylor (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2013),
230–249 (Blouin et al. 2013).
70. Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and
Place, 2nd edn. (New York: Vintage, 2001), 283 (Williams 2001).
71. Williams, Refuge, 127, 44, 134, 248 (Williams 2001).
72. Solnit, Savage Dreams, 96–97 (Solnit 1999).
73. Williams, Refuge, 14, 251 (Williams 2001).
74. Williams, Refuge, 10 (Williams 2001).
75. Williams, Refuge, 50 (Williams 2001).
76. Williams, Refuge, 288 (Williams 2001).
77. Williams, Refuge, 185–186 (Williams 2001).
78. Laurence Buell, “Toxic Discourse”, Critical Inquiry 24 (1998): 659 (Buell
79. Buell, “Toxic Discourse”, 639 (Buell 1998).
80. Williams, Refuge, 264 (Williams 2001).
81. Williams, Refuge, 18 (Williams 2001).
82. The significance of this region is also explored in Martin Cruz Smith’s
Stallion Gate (1986) (Smith 1996) set at Los Alamos as the Manhattan
Project builds towards its climax with the Trinity Test of 1945. Amongst
other things, the novel explores competing conceptions of the landscape,
contrasting the perspectives of indigenous Native Americans with those of
the various military, scientific and other agents of technological Modernity
who come to build the Bomb.
83. Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (London: Penguin, 1986), 255 (Silko

From the Ashes: Society and Economy

in Nuclear Literature

We must not, regardless of our politics, continue to imagine that we can

protect or save an economic system by accepting the possibility of nuclear
war. In the ashes communism and capitalism . . . will be indistinguish-
able. They will also be indistinguishable and irrelevant in the ultra-
primitive struggle for existence of those who are so unfortunate as to
J.K. Galbraith, “Economics of the Arms Race” (1981)

The “Economics of the Arms Race”, by the economist J.K. Galbraith, is a

provocative contribution to The Final Epidemic, a significant, campaign-
ing collection of essays by physicians and scientists on nuclear war. It
reminds us that, although the ideological struggle between capitalism
and communism about the economic and social organisation of society
was at the heart of the Cold War, nuclear conflict threatened the extinc-
tion of both systems of government. I will return to Galbraith’s essay and
what his presence might tell us about the politics of The Final Epidemic in
a moment.
Galbraith may well have been right that global thermonuclear war
would atomise society metaphorically as well as literally, leaving indivi-
duals so isolated from one another that no form of community would
meaningfully continue to exist. In writers’ imaginations, however, such
worlds abounded with competing societies. Indeed, as the closing section
to this chapter will show, fiction often projected 1980s struggles about

© The Author(s) 2017 141

D. Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3_6

social and economic organisation into the future, using the stresses of
post-war life as a test bed for competing theories about how humans
might best come back together, share their lives and defend their nascent
communities from outside threats. Such literary thought experiments
about society were given added urgency by controversies, particularly in
Britain, about government plans for running the country after nuclear
This chapter explores how nuclear issues became caught up in 1980s
debates about economic and social organisation, particularly the emer-
gence of neoliberalism as a powerful political force in the United States
and Britain. Nuclear texts frequently map the defence establishment, the
Cold War status quo and nuclear policy into contemporary political con-
flicts. Indeed, although for Western democracies the Cold War was pri-
marily about the struggle with the authoritarian communist powers of the
Soviet Union that seemed to threaten from outside their borders, the most
captivating debates in nuclear texts are on the subject of struggles within
Western societies about social organisation.
Such conflicts were felt acutely in both Britain and the United States
and crystallised around the figures of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald
Reagan, whose governments combined aggressive neoliberal restructuring
of society (shrinking the state; cutting welfare; challenging the role of
unions) with bellicose Cold War rhetoric and, particularly in the United
States, massive military investment (in, for instance, the neutron bomb,
the MX missile system and the Strategic Defense Initiative). Indeed, one
of the reasons the literature of the 1980s should remain compelling to us is
that it emerges from the decade in which key political battles were fought
that still shape society. Nuclear texts of the decade are the indices both of
our own society and of alternative societies that might have been, perhaps
could still be, possible.
It is not merely that the 1980s radical governments of the right estab-
lished a new orthodoxy at a time that happened to be one in which there
was public interest in nuclear issues, for debates about nuclear and Cold War
policy were bound up with broader discussion about how society should be
organised. For instance, some argued that military investment took money
from more productive sectors of society at a time of recession, high unem-
ployment and deep unease about the ability of American and British econo-
mies to keep pace with the surging economies of Japan and West Germany.
Most pointedly, if rather simplistically, this was captured in placards at anti-
nuclear rallies calling for “Jobs Not Bombs”. However, there was also a

more widespread discussion of the growth of what Eisenhower had chris-

tened the “military-industrial complex” twenty years before: the structuring
of an ostensibly peacetime economy around the industry and bureaucracy of
This understanding of nuclear issues as socially and economically
embedded is intrinsic to the arguments raised by Physicians for Social
Responsibility (PSR), who were involved in the publication of The Final
Epidemic,1 the book of essays from which the epigraph to this chapter, by
Galbraith, comes. PSR was an influential group amid a bewildering array
of anti-nuclear groups and alliances that emerged in the 1980s. It had
been formed in the early 1960s when, amongst other things, it worked to
document the presence of strontium-90, a by-product of nuclear weapons
testing, in children’s teeth, but had become moribund by the 1970s. It
was revived in the late 1970s, with Helen Caldicott, an Australian physi-
cian who was (and is) one of the most prominent and controversial voices
in the nuclear debate,2 as chair, and it was an affiliate of International
Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), formed in the
1980s and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985.
PSR illustrates how groups of professionals in areas of public life not
normally given a voice in the nuclear debate felt themselves morally
obliged to contribute their expertise. The motivating conceit behind The
Final Epidemic is the reimagining of nuclear war as a medical emergency
rather than as an outcome of, or tactical move in, a struggle for global
supremacy. As Caldicott puts it in her introduction to the book:

The world is moving rapidly toward the final medical epidemic, thermo-
nuclear war. This planet can be compared to a terminally ill patient infected
with lethal “macrobes” which are metastasizing rapidly. The terminal event
will be essentially medical in nature, but there will be few physicians remain-
ing to treat the survivors.3

Defamiliarising nuclear war in this way, asking us to see it differently, is a

conceptual shift that broadens the context within which nuclear issues are
understood, clearing space in which new voices, in this case medical
professionals, might claim relevant expertise to contribute their opinions.
It draws on perspectives that overlap with the environmental discourses
explored in the last chapter, particularly the conceptualisation of the Earth
as a single, vulnerable planet. It is also designed to prompt medical
professionals to ask an ethical question of themselves: if nuclear war is a

medical catastrophe for humans and (with a rather forced imaginative

leap) for a sick planet, and if treatment is nigh on impossible after a nuclear
war, then are there professional and moral responsibilities for those dedi-
cated to the preservation of human life to speak out now? With this
reconfiguration of the role of the medic as their starting point, the essays
in The Final Epidemic explore the networks through which nuclear issues
disseminate into other areas of policy and debate.
A number of contributions to the collection raise practical questions for
doctors whose expertise might suddenly be in great demand following
nuclear war. As one might expect from the anti-nuclear stance of the book,
many contributors point out that medical expertise would become all but
meaningless in a post-attack environment. H. Jack Geiger, for instance,
writes that surviving physicians would be overwhelmed not simply because
of the number of casualties, but because the concentration of medical
expertise and facilities in cities, the likely targets of nuclear attack, would
mean that doctors, nurses and the infrastructure on which they depend
would suffer disproportionately to the rest of the population:

Physicians’ offices and hospitals tend to be concentrated in central-city areas

closest to ground zero. If anything, physicians would be killed and seriously
injured in rates greater than those of the general population, and hospitals
similarly have greater probabilities of destruction or severe damage.4

Crucially, pointing this out for Geiger is not simply about identifying an
issue, the “essentially hopeless [medical] task of response to a nuclear
attack”, facing his profession. Rather, this challenge is indicative of a
broader societal implication of nuclear war: the difficulty that would face
doctors is a “metaphor for all complex human—that is to say, social—
activities in the post-attack period.”5 Medical care, an assumed corner-
stone of civilised society, becomes a metonym for other pillars of civiliza-
tion that we take for granted. Not only will physical infrastructure (power,
transport, communication, food distribution networks) be destroyed,
complex “human interactions and organizations” that rely on that infra-
structure will also fail: “social fabric is ruptured, probably irreparably, by
even a single nuclear weapon.”6
Geiger articulates a concern here that was more broadly present in
1980s debates about the threat nuclear war posed to human civilization.
Late twentieth-century society’s complexity was both its strength and its
weakness. The point was perhaps most powerfully made for the public in

Threads, which focuses on the nuclear destruction of Sheffield to demon-

strate the regression of British society. As the title indicates, the film shares
a metaphor with Geiger: for him, nuclear war tears social “fabric”; for
Hines, the scriptwriter, it severs “threads” binding people together.
Indeed, the film begins with an image of a spider spinning its web and a
voiceover that makes clear the relevance of this image: “In an urban
society, everything connects. Each person’s needs are fed by the skills of
many others. Our lives are woven together in a fabric. But the connections
that make society strong also make it vulnerable.”7 As the voiceover ends,
the camera cuts between an image of the whole web and a close-up on a
single, fragile thread. The film returns to variations on this visual metaphor
several times, for instance when power cables explode following the elec-
tromagnetic pulse of a nuclear detonation.
This posits the idea of a social ecology to mirror that of the natural
ecologies that concerned environmentalists, dealt with in the previous
chapter. It perhaps explains, too, the lure of images of weaving to feminist
anti-nuclear campaigners, discussed in Chapter 4. To develop the idea of
the social fabric, and of what happens when the threads that comprise it
begin to be unpicked, is to assert the value of community, vulnerable
though it may be. Nuclear weapons are a threat not merely because they
deal out death but because they rend one person from another. There is
no sense here, as there was in previous wars, of conflict providing inner
cohesion within a nation as it resisted a common enemy.
In The Final Epidemic, another consequence of reconceptualising
nuclear war as a medical emergency, of conceiving of it through a patho-
logical frame in which it is seen as a disease threatening the planet, is to
reimagine the human subject who is both the source of that disease and
the potential victim. Nuclear war becomes not merely another mode of
conflict through which ordinary, if unpleasant, human affairs might be
conducted. It becomes a potentially terminal illness for a universalised
human (though also planetary) subject. As such, it posits a globalized
human subject (echoing the thrust of the ecological discourses discussed
in the previous chapter), subject to a lethal sickness. The emphasis shifts
from seeing particular humans (citizens of the United States, of Britain or
of the Soviet Union) as the problem. Instead, nuclear war itself becomes
the problem for it is a globalised humanity that is threatened. Because, as
Geiger and other contributors to The Final Epidemic point out, there can
be no cure once nuclear war occurs, the emphasis shifts to preventative
medicine and hence to activism. As Bernard Lown puts it, “[t]he physicians’

movement is compelled by a growing conviction that nuclear war is the

number one health threat and perhaps constitutes the final epidemic for
which the only remedy is prevention.”8
If doctors’ role is to address sickness and save human life, then, for the
contributors to The Final Epidemic, there are consequences both for their
professional conduct and their broader public role. Preventive medicine,
in this instance, implies speaking out against the arms race and the nuclear
security on which the Cold War is based. This means, for many contribu-
tors, commenting on subjects not normally deemed to be medical matters
to contextualise the problem in broader, particularly economic, terms.
Human lives, many of them assert, are being made worse, even ended,
by nuclear weapons, even before they are fired. Because an economy
geared for a sudden shift to war diverts resources from human need to
the arms and infrastructure of conflict, resources that could save lives,
through healthcare or social spending, are unavailable. Hence, the collec-
tive argument that emerges from The Final Epidemic shifts from the specifi-
cities of how medical professionals might survive nuclear attack and
continue effectively to pursue their calling, to an argument about the
consequences of economic policy. Again and again contributors draw atten-
tion to massive increases in arms spending at a time when, in the United
States and Britain, state spending elsewhere—on welfare, for instance—was,
for a mixture of economic and ideological reasons, under pressure.
George Kistiakowsky, for example, claims that around the world “100
million individuals are now paid directly or indirectly by defense minis-
tries”. Victor Sidel points out that “diversion of a large part of the world’s
resources to preparation for war leaves far less available for health services
and for other efforts that would improve the duration and the quality of
life of the world’s peoples.” He also highlights that in 1980 military and
national defence programmes cost $194 billion, “approximately 9 percent
of the U.S. gross national product”, while the proposed “$226 billion
Pentagon budget . . . for 1982 represents the largest U.S. peacetime in-
crease in the military budget in history.” Carson Mark makes the case that
as “a response to the existence of nuclear weapons . . . peacetime expendi-
tures on large sectors of the defense establishment are maintained at a
wartime level”, producing an “effect on civilian life on a global basis.” A
joint statement from a Congress of the IPPNW, included in the collection,
asserts that “even in the absence of nuclear war, invaluable and limited
resources are being diverted unproductively to the nuclear arms race,
leaving essential human, social, medical and economic needs unmet.”9

Such arguments were not limited to the United States and were also
being made in Britain. A 1980 editorial in the prestigious medical journal
The Lancet argued that the medical profession “must never neglect its
responsibility to protest at the grim paradox between the world’s enor-
mous and mounting military expenditure and the comparatively meagre
efforts devoted to the relief of poverty, malnutrition, and disease.”10
The most striking inclusion in The Final Epidemic on this subject,
because its presence signalled dissent from the new economic paradigm
driving the policies of both American and British governments in the
1980s, is the economist J.K. Galbraith’s piece “Economics of an Arms
Race—and After”, quoted for the epigraph to this chapter. Galbraith’s
presence was significant because as a post-Keynesian economist he was at
odds with the policies advocated by Chicago School economists like
Milton Friedman, whose radical free-market philosophies were being put
into action by the Reagan and Thatcher governments and were to become
the basis for the neoliberal consensus that followed the 1980s.11
(Revealingly, in The K/V Papers, the fictionalised correspondence between
Soviet and US military officials in cahoots over the arms trade, Barbara
Goodwin has K, the American, respond archly to his Soviet counterpart,
“[b]y the way ‘our’ Keynes was British, and a dangerous socialist. Anyway,
he’s obsolete. We’re keener on Milton Freedman over here.”)12
Like other contributors Galbraith draws attention to the impact of spend-
ing money that could be directed elsewhere: “Have we strengthened our
position in the world by accepting a decline in our civilian industry? In an age
of overkill, do we win industrial strength by investing in yet more overkill?”13
However, he goes further by drawing attention to what he sees as the
absurdity of defending an economic and social system with weapons that
would so wreck the world as to render the niceties of economic theory
irrelevant in an “ultra-primitive struggle for existence”.14 In his article, we
see once again the emergence of a voice of protest (albeit a tempered one) to
counter the protection discourse that made ever-increasing nuclear strength
the source of security. The “force sustaining the arms race”, he says, is the
belief that it is “by a large and growing commitment to weaponry, at
whatever cost or danger, that we protect” capitalism and “free institutions”
against communism.15
Such debates about economy, society and government spending priorities
might seem rather distant from the more ethereal concerns of nuclear
literature with its focus on individual human experience and anxiety about
nuclear war. On the contrary, however, such preoccupations—part of

broader and heated debate about domestic economic policies and the rela-
tive merits of post-Keynesian, Chicago School and socialist economics—are
often very much present in nuclear texts. They are there in texts set in the
1980s or in near-future extrapolations of 1980s society, in which, for
instance, the shifts in Western economies, and their human consequences,
can be seen. This is the focus of the next section of this chapter. The final
section then turns to fictions set after nuclear war where they can be seen in
the assumptions writers make about the forms of society that will arise from
the “ashes” that Galbraith guessed might produce no society at all.


The economic and social consequences of the radical reforms of the
Thatcher and Reagan governments are contextualised in terms of a
broader Cold War, nuclear environment by some texts. Such texts demon-
strate the knottedness of nuclear culture not only with Cold War states of
mind but with the broader domestic and geopolitical environment of the
For instance, both Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989) and Ian
McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987) present a vision of a world of radical
discrepancies in wealth and an atomised, individualistic society.16 Whilst
neither text is simplistically “about” nuclear dangers, in the way that
novels set during or after nuclear conflict are, they present nuclear con-
sciousness and experience as part of everyday life in the late Cold War, and
perhaps precisely because of that demonstrate all the more powerfully the
importance of reading for the presence of nuclear concerns in 1980s
culture: nuclear consciousness is part of quotidian experience.
Both novels are spooked by millennial and nuclear anxieties and
gripped by a state of suspense, conveyed through oppressive heat and
changeable weather, as if waiting for a storm to break. In the summer of
The Child in Time it is “impressively hot”, over 100 degrees, and when the
weather does break it seems incongruous and unnatural: rains are “deliv-
ered by gales that stripped most trees bare”, weather experts are called
upon to explain why “it had been summer last week, winter this” and
theories abound about calamitous changes affecting the climate (“the
encroaching ice age, the melting ice caps, the ozone layer depleted by
fluorocarbons, the sun in its death throes”).17 In London Fields there are
also extreme weather phenomena: an ominous sky “spoke of Revelation”,
winds “tear through the city . . . as if softening it up for exponentially

greater violence”, whole “seasons [sweep] by in less than thirty seconds”

accompanied by “great heat” and people’s eyes smart in a “mineral wind, a
wind speckled with dust and spore, with invisible lamentation.”18 While
the pathetic fallacy of these moments is not explicitly nuclear, the impres-
sion they give of nature out of joint, of catastrophic changes about to be
delivered upon the planet, chimes with forebodings of nuclear crisis that
sometimes broke into the open in the late Cold War.
The sense of threat in the novels is partly related to the personal lives
and stories of their protagonists: the disappearance of Stephen’s daughter
in The Child in Time and the complex murder plot of London Fields. It is
also, as discussed in Chapter 2, explicitly linked to Cold War crises: The
Child in Time includes a scene of overt nuclear emergency and the Prime
Minister is described as encumbered by the paraphernalia of nuclear
command and control that must accompany him everywhere; in London
Fields, an international crisis builds up alongside the personal crises and
the possibility of nuclear extinction haunts the novel (Sam Young, the
narrator, writes of a time of “mass disorientation and anxiety” and of
“trying to ignore the world situation”).19 Both novels also, though, pre-
sent the sustained sense of Cold War nuclear threat alongside and bound
up with broader capitalist excess.
The portrait of the eponymous city in London Fields encapsulates a
Britain with sharp divides between rich and poor and in which the indivi-
dualistic ethic of late capitalism reinforces the entrenched interests of the
British class system. Young comments that “[e]ven a nuclear holo-
caust . . . would fail to make that much of a dent in it [the class system].
Crawling through the iodized shithouse that used to be England, people
would still be brooding about accents . . . about maiden names . . . about
the proper way to eat a roach in society.”20
For privileged Guy Clinch the “family business” means “sitting about
in a bijou flatlet in Cheapside, trying to keep tabs on the proliferating, the
pullulating hydra of Clinch money.”21 Old money, as he later feels, using
it for nefarious ends, has a “scurfy smell. . . . It always struck him, the fact
that money stank.”22 Money, Clinch realises, is all tainted, coming from a
long history of colonial exploitation, the most recent manifestation of
which is the extraction of uranium for the nuclear industry: “privatised
prisons under Pitt, human cargo from the Ivory Coast, sugar plantations in
the Caribbean, the East India company, South African uranium mines.”23
Keith Talent, aspiring cockney darts champion, seeking to drag himself
up into the world of the wealthy, realises you “could still earn a decent

living at . . . cheating” but “no one seemed to have thought through the
implications of a world in which everyone cheated.” Everyone cheated
“because everyone was cheating” and so “Keith would have to cheat
more, cheat sooner and cheat harder than the next guy, and generally
expand the whole concept of cheating.”24 Like Clinch he participates in the
system which he also diagnoses. As he comments, ruefully, “[c]apitalism
innit. . . . Just bloodsuckers as such.”25
If London Fields works as, amongst other things, a satire on Thatcherite
Britain through which linguistic playfulness and dark insinuations evoke,
while rarely explicitly naming, nuclear dread, The Child in Time proffers a
near-future vision in which McEwan extrapolates from contemporary
trends to imagine a more intensely Thatcherite society. The Britain of
The Child in Time is one in which, almost without comment, the privati-
sation initiatives of the decade have been radically extended. Education is
no longer seen as a means to equalise society or as a service provided by the
state; rather, “schools were up for sale to private investors, the leaving age
was soon to be lowered.”26 Although McEwan’s invention here seems
presciently to anticipate an extension of privatisation that eventually came
in 2010 with the Academies Act (which provided for Academies and Free
Schools, outside local authority control, in some cases with private spon-
sorship), it echoes ideas that were already being floated in the 1980s. In
her 1987 conference speech (the same year in which The Child in Time
was published, though presumably McEwan could have had no inkling
how closely it would echo his book), Thatcher averred that “we will give
parents and governors the right to take their children’s school out of the
hands of the local authority and into the hands of their own governing
This is just one of a whole series of areas in which, in The Child in Time,
the public sector and state provision of support for its citizens have been
cut. The book begins with the statement that both government and most
citizens believe subsidised public transport to be a “denial of individual
liberty”.28 Welfare seems now to be a matter not of state provision to
support the vulnerable, but of private, individual charity, for beggars are
“licensed”.29 In his father’s house, Stephen spots a list of phone numbers
for a “few private ambulance companies”, implying that the National
Health Service has been at least partially privatised.30
The vision of society in The Child in Time is one in which the neoliberal
aspiration to shrink the role of government has come to pass: “govern-
mental responsibilities had been redefined in purer, simpler terms: to keep

order, and to defend the State against its enemies.”31 This redefinition of
the role of the state, shrinking from playing an active role in the promotion
of people’s happiness and wellbeing to the most basic of functions, is
continuous with the protection discourses of 1980s nuclear policy as it
existed in the context of a refashioning of the economy. It is a conserva-
tism that involves a general withdrawal of the state from engagement with
people’s social being:

[There was a] demise of a more general principle that on the whole life
would get better for more and more people and that it was the responsibility
of governments to stage-manage this drama of realised potential, widening
possibilities. The cast of improvers had once been immense and there had
always been jobs for types like Stephen and his friends. Teachers, museum
keepers mummers, actors, itinerant story-tellers—a huge company and all
bankrolled by the State.32

Presciently, the novel depicts the extinction of debate between left and right
in British politics—a portrayal that anticipates the conceding of socialist
principles by the Labour Party—and in Charles Darke creates a figure whose
political career is the logical outcome of this shift. With no challenge to the
neoliberal worldview, politics becomes managerial rather than ideological
and Darke can prosper in such a world, for he has “managerial skill and
great ambition” rather than “political convictions”.33
Such overt engagements with the broader currents of political philo-
sophy in the 1980s are less obvious in US literature, perhaps because the
organised labour movement was less involved in mainstream politics than
it was, through the Labour Party, in Britain. Nevertheless, the political
and economic climate of the 1980s is of course present in American
texts. Robert McCammon’s Swan Song (1987) begins with a portrait of a
country swept by poverty, strikes, drug problems and homelessness, an
apocalyptic vision of the contemporary moment, and then describes its
destruction in nuclear attack. In Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age (1985)
William Cowling, the narrator, terrified of nuclear war, is an ex-1960s
radical who has made it rich on the back of uranium but whose purchase
of the comforts of domestic commodities can buy him security neither
from nuclear war, nor from the possibility that his family will break apart.
In Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1986), implicitly rather than explicitly a
nuclear text as I have discussed elsewhere,34 Jack Gladney similarly seeks
vainly to assuage fear of death and disaster with capital expenditure.

Shopping at the mall with his family he says he “began to grow in value and
self-regard. I filled myself out, found new aspects of myself, located a person
I’d forgotten existed.”35 Jack’s existential void—a fear of death brought into
focus in the small-scale apocalypse of the “airborne toxic event” that is at the
heart of the novel—is briefly, inadequately filled with consumer goods, his
ability to spend temporarily validating his existence. Indeed, the mall, suf-
fused with one of many examples of white noise in the novel—“a roar
[of voices and Muzak] that echoed and swirled through the vast gallery,
mixing with noises from the tiers, with shuffling feet and chiming bells, the
hum of escalators, the sound of people eating, the human buzz of some vivid
and happy transaction”36—becomes an image of the consumerist distrac-
tions that can never quite compensate for anxiety about death, a fear that in
the 1980s was associated on the societal and global level with nuclear war.
Hence, visions of contemporary (or near future) society in 1980s
nuclear literature are inevitably contextualised through a broader contem-
porary politics. Depictions of societies after nuclear war also draw on this
politics. Fictions imagining the world after the Bomb, or after unspecified
calamities implying something akin to it, project contemporary debates
about social organisation and economy into the future.

Unsurprisingly, there was much discussion in the 1980s of what the world
would be like after nuclear war. This meant not only the physical condition
of survivors and the environmental conditions they might face, but also
the forms in which society might survive and how it could continue to
function. A particular preoccupation was the role of the state. Would
nation states as we know them persist in any meaningful sense? Would
there be functioning authorities or would survivors have to generate their
own structures for governance and survival? If a government did remain,
would it operate meaningfully on a national level or would it be fractured
into loosely connected, or entirely disconnected, local arrangements?
Fiction was particularly preoccupied with the social impact of nuclear
war and the politics of the post-apocalyptic world. Imagining the shatter-
ing of the familiar world furnished writers with scenarios in which to play
out fears about the more authoritarian energies of the nuclear state, as well
as to explore the possibilities for alternative societies.
Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday (1985) imagines nuclear
war as an economic catastrophe. Set a few years after a “limited” nuclear

war has devastated the United States, the novel’s conceit is that Strieber
and Kunetka have themselves survived the attack and are now undertaking
a journey around the United States. This conceit is carried through to the
framing apparatus of the novel, for the book’s dedication is to “October
27, 1988, the last full day of the old world.” These fictionalised authorial
personas produce, through this travel narrative, which includes (fictional)
interviews and tables of statistics, an impression of how the country has
Everywhere they go they encounter economic, as well as human and
environmental, catastrophe. On the very first page, Strieber, writing of the
“artefacts of that time” before nuclear war (treasured possessions that
remind him of a world that turned out to be less permanent than it
seemed), comments on a statement of shareholdings:

I have been marked by the economic disaster as much as, or more than, by the
radiation. In the final analysis, for so many of us, the closed bank and the
worthless money are truer expressions of Warday than is some distant mush-
room cloud. My last stock statement from Shearson/American express, for
example, is probably my most treasured talisman of the past. It reminds me of
the fragility of complex things. Somehow, age has given it beauty. I can imagine
that such a thing, covered with symbols and symbolic numbers, associated with
a mythical time of plenty, could one day become an object of worship.37

The focus on the materiality of this text, its tactility (Strieber goes on to
describe smoothing out the paper to read it) typifies a broader concern in
nuclear literature with the material presence of the written word (an issue
to which I will return in Chapter 7) and highlights by contrast the
immateriality and ephemerality of an economic system that had seemed
so concrete. What seemed so robust turned out to be fragile and vulner-
able. The “time of plenty”, the era of capitalist abundance, conceived as
the telos of history, turns out to have been a chimera, a passing illusion.
This revelation of the fragility of the financial system, the extent to
which it is a virtual construct, is revisited later in the novel. Walter Tevis,
an economist interviewed by Strieber and Kunetka, recalls his “sense of
panic when I discovered I had no money. None. Even my MasterCard was
meaningless. My bank account was simply another lost record among
billions of lost records. Our economy was electronically erased, really.”38
The world depicted by Strieber and Kunetka reproduces three contem-
porary American anxieties in addition to nuclear war. The first is about the

fragility of the Union, particularly the porousness of its southern border.

After the calamity of war the United States is riven by separatist projects. A
free state, Aztlan, a Hispanic country where the main language is Spanish
(and which, according to its leader, practices an “enlightened socialism”),39
stretches along the Texas–Mexico border and has a currency better recog-
nised than American dollars. The frailty of the dollar is revealed when, on a
train, Strieber and Kunetka meet Carlos Gonzalez, who is hoping to sell
American clothes for Aztlan pesos, which “you can change . . . for good
Japanese yen.”40 Similarly, in a reversal of conventional expectations,
California and the west is vibrant in contrast to the impoverished east and
a poll shows a sizeable minority of Americans believing that the United
States should be split into two.41
The second anxiety is about the re-emergence of the Old World. Britain
is, in the novel, a major force in the United States, her relief efforts
believed by many to be reassertions of colonial control over the country,
as I suggested in my discussion of the transatlantic theme in Chapter 2. In
the face of the massive influx of economic and administrative aid from
Britain, Strieber admits that, “[l]ike most Americans, my trust in massive
central governments is nil” and that he is “uneasy around these British civil
servants . . . though I know that their contributions to our welfare have
been enormous.”42 This is, of course, a similar distrust of big government
to that on which Reagan capitalised in the 1980s and which drove the
shrinking of the state in the period.
The third anxiety is about the rise of the new economies of the Far East,
particularly Japan, that caused considerable anxiety in the West in the
1980s. In Strieber and Kunetka’s imagined near future, the streets of
Los Angeles throng “not only with Japanese businessmen but also with
clerks and factory workers and children with American nannies.”43 That
young American women should be dependent for jobs on a service sector
that sees them hiring themselves out to provide childcare to Japanese
families speaks to a Far East colonisation of the United States. The pro-
liferation of Nissans, Toyotas, Isuzus and Mitsubishis on the roads signals
the weakness of American manufacturing. This economic might is under-
pinned by the presence of the Japanese state: travelling on a bus in El Paso,
Strieber notes the presence of Japanese soldiers around the town and
Japanese military aircraft overhead.
Although the novel does not comment directly on economic and social
debates of the 1980s, its near future world is a multifaceted projection
from contemporary anxieties and energies animating the United States.

These shape the new structures and accommodations to life after nuclear
war with which the novel is so fascinated. In the Southwest Strieber and
Kunetka encounter members of the “Destructuralist Movement”, border-
line terrorists yearning nostalgically for an older America rooted in a
traditional conception of the family and believing there should be “no
social structure beyond the extended family.”44 One woman tells them of
Destructuralist aspirations: “We have a vision . . . of a true Jeffersonian
society in America. This could be a nation of famers, where everybody is
self-sufficient and God-fearing, and the family is the centre of things.”45
The homey Americanism here is an extreme extrapolation from the values
on which Reagan staked his appeal. In general, the complex map of the
United States that emerges from Strieber and Kunetka’s novel is one riven
by alternative conceptions of how America should be.
Different anxieties about society immediately after nuclear war haunt
Robert Swindells’s young adult novel Brother in the Land (1984). The
novel begins with the nuclear attack on Britain that will change its teenage
protagonist’s life and then goes on to depict struggles over governance
and society.
The horror of nuclear attack is followed by another kind of horror: the
realisation by survivors in the English northern town of Skipton that the
authorities in whom they put their faith are capitalising on the state of
emergency to impose a brutal authoritarianism. This is presented within a
continuum of suspect advice from authorities, the roots of which lie in the
late Cold War Britain inhabited by Swindells’s readers. As noted in
Chapter 1, the schoolboy narrator, Danny, is withering about the official
civil defence advice provided in Protect and Survive.46 Attempts to follow
the leaflet’s guidance for the post-attack scenario expose further inade-
quacies, for instance, when Danny’s father wraps up the body of his wife,
but has no way to label the body, as instructed; meanwhile, many other
corpses remain unwrapped and unburied.47 It is not simply, though, the
absurd disjunction between the ordered world imagined by the leaflets and
the reality of Britain after nuclear attack that the novel exposes; it soon
reveals something more sinister.
When soldiers set up base at a local farm, people anticipate that, as the
civil defence booklet promises, the “dead will be collected and feeding-
centres set up”.48 However, people who go to the farm to request help
disappear and the few remaining sources of food are monopolised and
guarded by armed men in fallout suits. Men claiming to represent the
“Local Commissioner” arrive in a truck to collect the injured, but

eventually it becomes clear that that the infirm are shot in secret, not
cared for. Swindells thus presents his teenage readers with a brutal vision
of the post-war nuclear state. Authority is military, dictatorial and unac-
countable. Hopes that civilian government has survived in a deep shelter
somewhere are frustrated: all they ever hear over the radio (official advice
was to sit tight and await instructions via the radio) is static.49
This depiction of a nascent far-right state draws on contemporary
discussion about official plans for governing the country after nuclear
attack. For instance, in “If the Bomb Drops”, the 1980 episode of the
Panorama documentary series introducing many people to Protect and
Survive for the first time (discussed in Chapter 1), there is a chilling
exchange during a civil defence exercise in Humberside between the
reporter, a youthful Jeremy Paxman, and Keith Bridge, a former accoun-
tant who is Chief Executive of the local authority in peacetime but who
would be “The Controller” of the region during and after nuclear war.
Bridge says that “as soon as the bomb goes off” he has “total power”,
including that over “life and death”. When pressed on what this would
mean, he says, “if people were looting it would be within my competence
to instruct that they be executed” and then calmly says that he has no
concerns about being invested with such power. Later in the exercise, we
see him enacting exactly this power, giving police on the ground the
authority to shoot a group of thirty survivors heading for the control
bunker, demanding food.50
Other frightening visions of post-nuclear society appeared elsewhere
too. The investigative journalist, Duncan Campbell, published War Plan
UK in 1983, revealing that there would be requisition of food supplies,
internment of suspected dissidents and strict controls on citizens’ move-
ment during national emergency. As Campbell puts it, in “Britain, the idea
of ‘civil’ defence has been turned on its head. Home Defence is about the
protection of government—if need be, against the civil population.”51
Campbell was also an advisor for the BBC’s drama-documentary about
nuclear war scripted by Barry Hines, Threads (1984), a chilling feature of
which is its depiction of post-nuclear government as, by turns, chaotic,
incompetent and brutal—for example, in a scene in which looters are shot
without trial.
Hence, as well as fear of the Bomb itself, there were real anxieties about
the potential for fascistic forms of society to emerge as government
struggled to preserve order after nuclear attack. In general, in British
texts these are fears of government; in US texts they are fears of extreme

nationalist, survivalist militias, as in Robert McCammon’s Swan Song

(1987), James Forman’s Doomsday Plus Twelve (1984) and Kim Stanley
Robinson’s The Wild Shore (1984). The post-nuclear world seemed as if it
would be one in which government, if it existed, would be authoritarian,
lacking democratic accountability and willing to dispense justice, includ-
ing capital punishment, summarily.
These dystopian visions at times echoed the fraught conflicts playing
out on the streets of 1980s Britain. For instance, the social and class
division—and, in some cases, the pitched battles—of the miners’ strike
led to controversies about the role of organised labour and the function of
the police who were seen by some as being deployed for political purposes.
Inevitably, a counter-discourse emerged to posit alternative models of
society that were usually (though not always) rooted in reforms advocated
by the political left. In literature, this produced in some texts more utopian
visions of how society might be organised. In Brother in the Land we see a
pattern that repeats in a number of post-apocalyptic texts in which a
projected hierarchical, militaristic, patriarchal society is countered by one
with values that are community-focused, utopian and even in some texts
(as we will see later) explicitly gendered as female.
In Brother in the Land, the militaristic, authoritarian vision of society
encapsulated in the figure of the Local Commissioner—an extension of
the Cold War state—is countered by an alternative community, a group
Danny and his brother temporarily join, calling themselves Masada, the
Movement to Arm Skipley Against Dictatorial Authority.52 Masada’s more
life-affirming values of cooperation and education eventually triumph over
the renegade military forces and there is a brief utopian moment when the
settlement changes from a “camp to a village”, and “we felt ourselves at the
beginning of something, a new Skipley perhaps, or a new world.”53 The
possibility that this will be the basis for a more permanent form of society is
shattered, though, by the effects of radiation on reproduction and by the
arrival of outside forces, in the shape of the Swiss army, who rather than
bringing the relief for which the people of Masada hoped, accuse them of
living in a “commune” and being “communist”.54
Although the novel shows the failure of both societies, it demonstrates
a clear preference for the alternative model of community embodied by
Masada. Although it is ultimately doomed, it is this community, challen-
ging a direct relic of the 1980s Cold War state, that is represented as ideal.
A more positive outcome for this kind of community is presented in
Louise Lawrence’s Children of the Dust (1985), a young adult novel that,

as I have discussed in previous chapters, also engages with contemporary

debates about gender and the environment. Lawrence imagines a progres-
sive community competing with and eventually triumphing over a hierarch-
ical, patriarchal society, an offshoot of the nuclear state that tries to last out
the aftermath of nuclear war in a network of government bunkers in Avon.
Here, military men, police chiefs, dignitaries and civil servants “continued
to cling to the ranks the world had once bestowed on them”. Above the
complex, during a brutal nuclear winter, a “Union Jack flag fluttered . . . on
the top of an empty hill”, symbolising its inhabitants’ naïve belief that they
can rebuild Britain in its old form, despite the destruction of almost every-
thing that might meaningfully be considered to constitute the country.55
Schisms begin to emerge within the bunker society when some members
question its relevance and sustainability in a world devastated by nuclear
war. In a debate about how best to educate the children born into this new
world, that echoes 1980s debates about the content, purpose and delivery
of education, a teacher, Bill, decries the “make-Britain-great-again brigade”
whom he sees as seeking to resurrect a defunct view of a British society that
had “been defeated”.56 One of his pupils, Dwight, claims that “Avon has
been a totalitarian society for the last twenty years.”57 Such moments
engage contemporary anxieties about the decline of Britain, the loss of
empire and the resurgence of patriotism during the 1982 Falklands War.
Inspired by Bill, some of the new generation rebel against the world
before nuclear war nostalgically remembered by their parents. Dwight, for
instance, reads history differently to his mother:

Equal sharing had never been a quality displayed by Western Civilisation.

Their whole society had revolved around personal greed, the amassing of
goods and money by individuals and nations. Even within the rich, industrial
countries the poor, and the sick, and the unemployed had not gotten much
of a share. And in the rest of the world millions were left to starve!58

Such statements invoke, if rather simplistically, political controversies of

the 1980s about (what we would now term) neoliberal restructuring of
society, the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the few and,
by extension, given the premise of the novel, the argument that money
spent on nuclear weapons might be better spent on improving lives.
While these controversies rage within the bunker complex, a new,
alternative society, with an entirely other set of values, emerges outside.
This becomes apparent when the two collide over the use of resources.

When Colonel Allison seeks to requisition cattle from those outside he

tells them that the bunker is the “administrative headquarters for the
south-west region and the cattle would be transferred there to be reallo-
cated throughout the whole administrative region”, thus invoking a legal
and judicial framework that presumes the continuation of pre-war forms
of government.59 By way of recompense he offers “compensation . . . paid
in pounds sterling” for “[w]hen the economy recovers”.60
Johnson, founder of the new community, rejects these claims to poli-
tical legitimacy (“I wasn’t aware we had a government and I certainly
didn’t vote for them”; “Credentials don’t count . . . nor any other declara-
tion of authority”).61 Significantly, he also rejects Dwight’s attempts to
help when Dwight threatens Allison with physical violence, telling him
that “we don’t believe in violence”.62 The pacifism is important for it
aligns the novel to a broader rejection of violence adopted by some anti-
nuclear groups. There is also a rejection of the monetary system as a basis
for regulating and shaping society. Indeed, rather than an economy of
accumulation, we see the emergence of one based on distribution:
Johnson reveals that he is already giving away spare cattle and he offers
to include the Avon bunker in this arrangement.
By the end of the novel, a generation later, this new post-monetary
economy is more fully developed. Although Simon, a scout from the bunker
society, initially feels himself superior to the “weavers, and crofters, and
fishermen, who dwelled in the outside communities”,63 the movement of
the final part of the book is toward his realisation, via Lilith, a woman he
meets when he ventures into the wider world, that it is these new commu-
nities who will survive in the long term. In contrast to the acquisitive society
to which Simon belongs, Lilith’s is based upon giving (a quality worked
through with more subtlety in Ursula Le Guin’s Always Coming Home,
discussed later in this chapter). To his incredulity, when Lilith finds jewels
she gives them away to artisans at the spiritual (and rather new age) com-
munity growing up at Timperley. When Simon asks what she will be given in
return, she says, “Nothing. . . . Why should they?” Simon realises that she
“seemed not to have heard of trade or barter, although back at the bunker
they had been trading with outsiders for years.”64
Hence, what Lawrence tries to imagine in Children of the Dust is a
progressive society, based on principles of nonviolence and the rejection of
capitalist models of trade and accumulation of wealth. Simplistic and
unlikely though this utopian vision might seem, its model of community
is firmly rooted in 1980s debates about social order.

Similar conflicts are apparent across the Atlantic in Paul Cook’s Duende
Meadow (1985). Following nuclear war, Americans have survived deep
below the surface of the Midwest in shopping malls sunk swiftly (through
the science fiction conceit of a complex future technology) to avoid Soviet
nuclear attack. When the descendants of these survivors break back
through the Earth’s crust several hundred years later it is to discover a
world not frozen by nuclear winter as they expect, but a lush field of wheat
being harvested by a massive red combine harvester, marked with the
“CCCP” of the Soviets. The real conflict with which the book deals,
however, is not with the seeming Soviets on the surface (who, it transpires,
have rejected the totalitarianism of Soviet Russia), but amongst the
Americans underground, who are split into two forms of society, the
“Meadow” (civilian, peaceful) and the “Hive” (military, aggressive and
determined to continue the war they still imagine themselves to be fight-
ing against the Russians on the surface). The choice facing the Americans
is felt acutely by the protagonist, Preston Kitteridge, who sees that they are
poised at a pivotal moment between a reignition or rejection of violence.
He “felt the age-old human dialectic at work. Peace versus War. Love
versus Hate. . . . No one in that humming War Room [of the Hive]
remembered the Santayana dictum: those who do not recall the lessons
of the past are doomed to repeat them.”65
The philosophy of the Meadow, which finds a more developed expres-
sion in the society that has formed on the surface during the Americans’
long internment underground, is summed up by Kitteridge when he’s
accused of being a Communist sympathiser by the military: “We rule
ourselves by committee, we contribute to the general well-being of the
commune, we live as an organism for our mutual survival.”66 It is this
heartening emphasis on trust rather than suspicion, on peace versus war,
which eventually wins out, though the novel’s adherence to this philoso-
phy is rather undone by the denouement, which involves members of the
Hive precipitating a battle in which they are conveniently killed.
Nevertheless, the novel presents an endearing, if perhaps simplistic, vision
of people brought together after nuclear war to work in the cause of a
common humanity: a “Great War” is being fought on the Earth’s surface
(it is this which arouses the suspicions of the Hive), but it turns out that
this war is metaphorical rather than literal, an assault not on other people
but on “hunger and disease”.67
More complexly realised future societies, drawing on feminist dis-
course of the period, are depicted in two US fantasy novels, Sherri Tepper’s

The Gate to Women’s Country (1988) and Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake

(1978), both of which imagine a world (presumably North America) far
in the future. In both novels areas of land are dangerous or uninhabitable
because of radioactive contamination and new societies have arisen in
which struggles over male and female values continue. Although neither
is explicit about the types of economy that pertain in these imagined
futures, they suggest an attempt by progressive, female elements to shift
social structures from domination and power to openness, vulnerability
and sharing of resources.
Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country begins with a standard fantasy
scenario as a male protagonist negotiates adolescence by trying to prove
himself a warrior. As noted in Chapter 4, this genre staple is nicely decon-
structed when it is revealed that men’s struggles for power and the medieval-
style battles in which armies of them engage are, unbeknownst to them,
manipulated and used as safety valves by women who have a long-term plan
gradually, through selective child-bearing, to breed out male aggression.
McIntyre’s Dreamsnake similarly values openness and vulnerability, qua-
lities it associates with women, over hierarchy and aggression. Snake, the
female protagonist, is a healer from a community that seeks to bring relief to
the disparate peoples of a world long after nuclear war and her journeys
through this world reveal markedly different gender expectations to those
prevailing in the 1980s. Some of the societies she visits present as the norm
multiple partner relationships, alternative models of childcare (community-
based parenting; male nurturing), matriarchal communities and sexual rela-
tionships initiated by women in which they are in control (though there are
exceptions: Snake has to rescue a stable girl, Melissa, abused by her male
master and guardian, from a more regressive community, Mountainside).
When Snake is attracted to a man it is for qualities more stereotypically
associated with women: “he seemed gentle and pleasant, qualities that
attracted Snake as much as his physical beauty.”68
These revised gender expectations are presented as part of a new
economy of exchange that Snake and the healers, the most progressive
forces in the novel, seek to initiate. Snake’s healing is not a service
rendered for financial reward; it is offered as a gift, for which payment of
some type may similarly be offered as a gift in return. Hence, the payment
Snake asks for her services in Mountainside is not financial; it is Melissa’s
freedom. When she is told Melissa’s guardian may refuse this, Snake offers
not violence but the withdrawal of cooperation: “Anyone is free to refuse
payment to a healer. . . . We carry weapons only for defence and we never

make threats. But we do not go where we are not welcome.”69 Although

she is told that there “is no town that refuses Mountainside currency”, she
is unimpressed.70 The healers hence shift economies of exchange from
financial transactions to ones in which what is being traded are mutually
reinforcing values of human connection and support. Snake’s healing and
compassion are more valuable than any pecuniary exchange.
This new way of organising community is linked to an, if not quite
pacifist, certainly pacifistic, outlook. Snake practises her art by using snakes
to administer venom. As she tries to save a dying child at the beginning of the
novel, one of her snakes is killed by a man who fears it. A tense confrontation
follows in which Snake’s friend in the community, Arevin, expects and wants
Snake to defend herself. She rejects this, just as Johnson rejects Dwight’s
offer of violent assistance in Children of the Dust, her response articulating
the new politics of vulnerability discussed elsewhere in this book:

Snake felt the people moving, surrounding her. Arevin took one step
towards her and stopped, and she could see he wanted her to defend herself.
“Can any of you cry?” she said. “Can any of you cry for me and my despair,
or for them and their guilt [they who killed the snake], or for small things
[the snakes] and their pain?” She felt tears slip down her cheeks.71

Snake’s defence here is not to express anger but sadness; not to cast the
people who have wronged her as enemies but as misguided, frightened
and, now, guilt-ridden. The plea to share tears is an appeal to a humanity
united in its shared vulnerability.
The novel acknowledges that such an approach is difficult. Snake
herself, for instance, feels the lure to dominate others later in the novel
when a thrill of power runs through her at the opportunity to defeat
North, who threatens Melissa, now her adoptive daughter. She has to
struggle to suppress this in order to remain true to her way of being:

Her pleasure in his [North’s] capitulation turned to revulsion. Was she so

much like him, that she needed power over other human beings?. . . . Snake
was not sure, but she knew that if she forced this serpent on him now, while
he was helpless, whatever differences there might be would have even less

Dreamsnake might not explicitly present alternative models of society and

economy in the same way as Children of the Dust and Brother in the Land do,

but it implies the need to aspire to a mode of human interaction, and of

community, other than that pertaining in the world inhabited by its readers
and which had, in the novel, produced a war that “was long over, almost
forgotten, for it had destroyed everyone who knew or cared about the reasons
it had happened.”73
Vastly more complex than any of the novels discussed already is Ursula Le
Guin’s Always Coming Home (1985). In the clash of cultures between the
Kesh and the people of the Condor it echoes in some ways the conflicts
between different communities that we see in Children of the Dust, Brother in
the Land, Duende Meadow and Dreamsnake, though it is set much further in
the future and it is immensely more subtle. In Always Coming Home we see
not merely different models of social organisation but different cultures,
defined down to their poetry, drama, songs, pottery, living spaces, spiritual
beliefs and language. That the world of the Kesh, inhabiting a valley in
northern California far in the future, is utopian is true, but this is a utopian
society that acknowledges the existence of, and in which is depicted, jea-
lousy, fear, death and the whole spectrum of human experience; it is also a
utopia that is in constant interaction with other peoples and is threatened by
the expansion of the people of the Condor from lands to the north.
I have already discussed in Chapter 4 how the story of Stone Telling,
born in the valley of the Kesh but fathered by a commander from the army
of the Condor, interrogates gendered assumptions. It also demonstrates
fundamentally different models of society and economy. The central differ-
ence between the Kesh and the Condor is that between giving and taking.
Stone Telling struggles to understand the Condors’ fundamentally different
relationship to material things and to other people. Condor society is based
on acquisition, whether on the domestic level (women are effectively, as
discussed in Chapter 4, owned by their husbands), on a socio-economic
level (through the accumulation of goods) or in terms of the Condors’
relations with other peoples (whom they seek to dominate and exploit).
While, as Stone Telling puts it, the Condor’s wealth “did not flow; they did
not give with pleasure”, for the Kesh the “only wealth is spending”.74
The difference between the two societies is illustrated when Abhao,
Stone Telling’s Condor father, tries to persuade the women in his Kesh
family to pay someone to work an elderly relative’s land. For him, such
work is intrinsically demeaning and paying someone else to do it is a
logical expense. The Kesh women laugh at him, though: to disconnect
oneself from the land, or to think that money would be exchanged for
working it, is incomprehensible to them. They have money but, rather like

Lilith giving jewels to artisans in Children of the Dust, they conceive only
of giving it away as a token of appreciation for more creative endeavours:
“Well, of course we use money. To give people who act and dance and
recite and make, for making dances, you know!”75 For the Kesh, to be rich
is to give, whereas for the Condor to be rich is to have: “Wealth consisted”
for the Kesh, we are told, “not in things but in an act: the act of giving.”76
Such different conceptions of economy on a personal and local level are
shown to have implications on the much higher level of interactions
between different peoples. When Stone Telling goes with her father to
live with the Condor, she finds a society severely stretched by its colonial
expansion across the continent and which is struggling because its econ-
omy is locked into war and conquest. The Condors’ wars are driven by
military-economic exploitation (“armies going out from Sai now were not
making war to gain land, but to take copper, tin, and other metals” to
manufacture greater weapons),77 and their whole economy becomes
geared toward further conquest, thus generating greater dependency on,
and necessity for, colonial expansion. This dictates how they relate to the
people whose lands they conquer: “many tyon and hontik [derogatory
words for non-Condor animals and humans] that had used to grow crops,
or herd, or hunt, were employed on the great labors of making the
Weapons and supplying them with fuel.”78 The myth of the possibility
of infinite growth drives the Condor to acquire more and more.
Le Guin depicts here precisely the problems of economies that are
structured around war that were the subject of the essays from The Final
Epidemic discussed at the beginning of this chapter. The clash between the
Kesh and the Condor (a clash in which the former are always acutely
vulnerable in the face of the latter) is one between alternative models of
society, one valuing community, giving and sharing, and the other indivi-
duality, acquisitiveness and domination.
Le Guin’s novel demonstrates the complex ways in which nuclear litera-
ture can function as a node through which discourses about social organisa-
tion flow. Perhaps surprisingly, the novel demonstrates that divergent ways
of thinking are even embedded at linguistic and neural levels, for it shows
that the divergent social formations of the Kesh and the Condor produce,
and are produced by, the very grammar of their languages. For instance, as
discussed in Chapter 4, Abhao’s insistence that he “owns” Stone Telling is
not merely abhorrent to the Kesh, but entirely nonsensical, his claim experi-
enced as the comic incongruity of “reversal words”, for Kesh grammar does
not allow for concepts of ownership of other living beings.79

The grammatical formulations of the Kesh indicate their fundamen-

tally different view of the world, a perception that shakes our presump-
tions that language reveals the world neutrally to us. For instance,
instead of saying that she “sees deer”, Stone Telling writes that “[d]
eer came to my eyes five times”, and when she gives birth she writes that
her daughter “decided to be born and make me a daughter’s mother”.80
The passive formulation indicates not so much a disengaged (and
potentially victim-like) passivity, than a refutation of an acquisitive
engagement with the world. The individual (one might even dare say
the capitalist) self is decentred by such linguistic and cultural formula-
tions, not conceived as the nucleus around which everything is pre-
sumed to revolve.
It is such preoccupations with language that are the subject of the
next chapter, for the postmodern concerns and aesthetics of the 1980s
resonate in nuclear literature. Indeed, the nuclear subject prompts
precisely the anxieties about form and meaning that animate postmo-
dern culture.

1. The book is described in its prefatory pages as “a project undertaken with
the Physicians for Social Responsibility and the Council for a Livable World
Education Fund”. Adams and Cullen, The Final Epidemic, vi (Adams and
Cullen Adams and Cullen 1981).
2. The historian Paul Boyer raises questions about the efficacy of what he sees
as Caldicott’s scare tactics, in, “The Battle for Public Opinion in the 1940s
and 1980s”, an article first published in 1986 in The Bulletin of the Atomic
Scientists and reprinted in his book Fallout, 167–174.
3. Helen Caldicott, “Introduction”, in Adams and Cullen, The Final Epidemic, 1
(Adams and Cullen 1981).
4. H.J. Geiger, “Illusion of Survival”, in Adams and Cullen, Final Epidemic,
177 (Adams and Cullen 1981).
5. Geiger, “Illusion of Survival”, 178 (Adams and Cullen 1981).
6. Geiger, “Illusion of Survival”, 179 (Adams and Cullen 1981).
7. Threads, BBC 2, 23 September 1984 (Threads 1984).
8. Bernard Lown, “The Physician’s Commitment”, in Adams and Cullen,
Final Epidemic, 237 (Adams and Cullen 1981).
9. George B. Kistiakowsky, “Preface”, in Adams and Cullen, Final Epidemic, ix
(Adams and Cullen 1981); Victor W. Sidel, “Buying Death with Taxes: Impact
of Arms Race on Health Care”, in Adams and Cullen, Final Epidemic, 35, 37,

37–38 (Adams and Cullen 1981); J. Carson Mark, “Nuclear Weapons:

Characteristics and Capabilities”, in Adams and Cullen, Final Epidemic,
102 (Adams and Cullen 1981); Anon, “International Physicians for the
Prevention of Nuclear War”, in Adams and Cullen, Final Epidemic, 243
(Adams and Cullen 1981).
10. Anon, “Threat of Nuclear War”, The Lancet, 15 November 1980, 1061
(Anon 1980: 1061).
11. It is not a consensus in the sense of being universally accepted (quite the
contrary, as some of my comments in this book may indicate); it is the
consensus in the sense that it became the dominant paradigm. Paradoxically,
then, it is an imposed consensus: an assumed “natural” state of affairs
through which the “reality” of the free market has subsequently often
been taken as a given. For an introduction to some of the problems with
this model, see Chang, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism
(Chang 2011) and Klein, The Shock Doctrine (Klein 2008).
12. Barbara Goodwin, The K/V Papers (London: Pluto, 1983), 26 (Goodwin
13. Galbraith, “Economics of the Arms Race”, 53.
14. Galbraith, “Economics of the Arms Race”, 57.
15. Galbraith, “Economics of the Arms Race”, 49 (Adams and Cullen 1981).
16. Also worth reading for its depiction of the 1980s milieu is Jonathan Coe’s
excoriating satire on Thatcherism, What a Carve Up! (1994).
17. Ian McEwan, The Child in Time (London: Vintage, 1992), 72, 133
(McEwan 1992).
18. Martin Amis, London Fields (London: Vintage, 2003), 30, 43, 116, 173
(Amis 2003b).
19. Amis, London Fields, 64 (Amis 2003b).
20. Amis, London Fields, 24 (Amis 2003b).
21. Amis, London Fields, 35 (Amis 2003b).
22. Amis, London Fields, 251 (Amis 2003b).
23. Amis, London Fields, 255 (Amis 2003b).
24. Amis, London Fields, 113 (Amis 2003b).
25. Amis, London Fields, 442 (Amis 2003b).
26. McEwan, Child in Time, 25 (McEwan 1992).
27. Margaret Thatcher, Speech to Conservative Party Conference Speech
(9 October 1987), <
106941> [accessed30 July 2015].
28. McEwan, Child in Time, 1 (McEwan 1992).
29. McEwan, Child in Time, 2 (McEwan 1992).
30. McEwan, Child in Time, 181 (McEwan 1992).
31. McEwan, Child in Time, 25 (McEwan 1992).
32. McEwan, Child in Time, 25 (McEwan 1992).

33. McEwan, Child in Time, 36 (McEwan 1992).

34. Daniel Cordle, States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism and
United States Fiction and Prose (Manchester: Manchester University Press,
2008), 103–106 (Cordle 2008).
35. Don DeLillo, White Noise (London: Picador, 1986), 84 (DeLillo 1986).
36. DeLillo, White Noise, 84 (DeLillo 1986).
37. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Warday and the Journey Onward
(London: Coronet, 1985), 17–18 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
38. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 215 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
39. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 109 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
40. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 91 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
41. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 151 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
42. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 50–51 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
43. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 152 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
44. Striber and Kunetka, Warday, 126 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
45. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 127 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
46. Robert Swindells, Brother in the Land (London: Puffin, 2000), 8.
47. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 20 (Swindells 2000).
48. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 26 (Swindells 2000).
49. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 121 (Swindells 2000).
50. “Panorama: If the Bomb Drops”, YouTube <
watch?v=milbW4RDIco> [accessed 22 June 2016].
51. Duncan Campbell, War Plan UK (London: Burnett, 1982), 15 (Campbell
52. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 74–75 (Swindells 2000). The name reso-
nates with Martin Amis’s 1987 description of nuclear weapons as “Masada
weapons”—in other words as mass suicide weapons, echoing the legend of
the Siege of Masada, in which defenders of the Massada fortress kill them-
selves rather than accept defeat by the Roman army. Martin Amis,
“Introduction: Thinkability”, in Einstein’s Monsters, 26.
53. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 122 (Swindells 2000).
54. Swindells, Brother in the Land, 138 (Swindells 2000).
55. Louise Lawrence, Children of the Dust (London: Lions Tracks, 1986), 76
(Lawrence 1986).
56. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 84, 76 (Lawrence 1986).
57. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 86 (Lawrence 1986).
58. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 96 (Lawrence 1986).
59. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 126 (Lawrence 1986).
60. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 127 (Lawrence 1986).
61. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 128 (Lawrence 1986).
62. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 127 (Lawrence 1986).
63. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 144 (Lawrence 1986).

64. Lawrence, Children of the Dust, 141 (Lawrence 1986).

65. Paul Cook, Duende Meadow (Toronto: Bantam, 1985), 94 (Cook 1985).
66. Cook, Duende Meadow, 204 (Cook 1985). This contrasts with the “martial
law” imposed by the Hive when emergency threatens. Cook, Duende
Meadow, 207 (Cook 1985).
67. Cook, Duende Meadow, 206 (Cook 1985).
68. McIntyre, Dreamsnake, 113 (McIntyre 1979). That the man is “beautiful”
rather than “handsome” itself signals a realignment of gendered
69. McIntyre, Dreamsnake, 157 (McIntyre 1979).
70. McIntyre, Dreamsnake, 156 (McIntyre 1979).
71. McIntyre, Dreamsnake, 25 (McIntyre 1979).
72. McIntyre, Dreamsnake, 276 (McIntyre 1979).
73. McIntyre, Dreamsnake, 50 (McIntyre 1979).
74. Ursula Le Guin, Always Coming Home (London: Grafton, 1988), 195, 30
(Le Guin 1988).
75. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 31 (Le Guin 1988).
76. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 112 (Le Guin 1988).
77. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 349 (Le Guin 1988).
78. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 351–352 (Le Guin 1988).
79. See discussion of Le Guin in Chapter 4 for other dimensions of this scene.
80. Le Guin, Always Coming Home, 20, 351 (Le Guin 1988).

Burning Books: Textual Preoccupations

of Nuclear and Postmodern Culture

One of the most curious nuclear texts of the 1980s, Jenny: My Diary
(1981), seeks to go beyond mere description of the horrors of nuclear
war to manifest them in a material textual artefact. It is presented as a
found object: a handwritten journal kept by a woman who survives
nuclear war in a communally owned bunker. The book appears in the
reader’s hand almost as if unearthed in an archaeological dig that has
somehow discovered remnants not of the ancient past but from a nuclear
As the diary progresses and civilization collapses, its status as a meaningful
textual artefact is imperilled as the culture that values writing disintegrates;
indeed, the very continuation of the diary becomes uncertain. Hence, it finds
a new way to approach a recurrent concern of nuclear writing, using the
textual materiality of literature to engage the erasure of literary and cultural
memory by nuclear war.
The diary appears to be handwritten. Indeed, although the tidy, clean
script with which Jenny’s opening entries record games of tennis and theatre
productions at the National are regular enough conceivably to be produced by
a typeface designed to mimic handwriting, later writing becomes increasingly
messy, erratic, even skew-whiff, as the psychological impact of international
crisis, war, tensions in the bunker community and emergence into a brutal,
socially fragmented post-nuclear Britain, are recorded. These are surely hand-
written. Diary entries are annotated with doodles and scrawls, some depicting
the catastrophe literally (a mushroom cloud) or metonymically (graveyard

© The Author(s) 2017 169

D. Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3_7

crosses), while others (scrawls, scribbles and abstract doodles) evoke the
tedium of bunker life and the mental anguish of witnessing the end of
civilisation. Jenny’s trauma is conveyed, then, not simply by what she writes
about; it is materially manifested in the textual artefact.
The illusion extends to the packaging of the book. The cover has a
non-descript pattern, such as one might find on a diary, and there are no
page numbers. The name of its real author, Yorick Blumenfeld, is on
neither the cover nor the title page and he can only be identified from an
annotation on a bookmark accompanying the book. Even the publishing
information is pushed to the back of the book to maintain the suspension
of disbelief as one picks up and opens the text, although inevitably this
illusion is rather spoiled by a Penguin logo that intrudes on the spine and
on the title page.1
Of course, the magic wrought by these tricks is limited. The conceit
is stymied less by the publisher’s branding, than because we pick up and
read the book in a pre-apocalyptic world: the contexts it evokes are of a
world that has not yet come to pass and we are not fooled by the illusion.
Nevertheless, by drawing attention to the text as artefact—less a lens
through which we see the world, than an object in the world we see—it
is rather effective. By putting into our hands a material legacy of nuclear
war, or at least a facsimile of that imagined legacy, it facilitates suspension
of disbelief, defamiliarising us a little from the post-apocalyptic genre of
which it is a part and provoking new ways of imagining the world in which
such a text might exist.
Jenny: My Diary is an extreme example of a more general tendency in
nuclear literature to focus on the imperilled archive of our culture. The
text prompts precisely the ontological questions that would later be
broached by Jacques Derrida in his influential 1984 essay on the topic,
“No Apocalypse, Not Now (full speed ahead, seven missiles, seven mis-
sives)”. For Derrida, a challenge of the nuclear age, and of our capacity to
“think” the possibility of nuclear war, is “the possibility of an irreversible
destruction, leaving no traces, of the juridico-literary archive—that is, total
destruction of the basis of literature and criticism.”2
Derrida draws our attention to the challenge of conceiving what nuclear
destruction means. When he writes of the “total and remainderless destruc-
tion of the archive” as distinguished from the “destruction of humanity, of
the human habitat” he makes the point that our concept of humanity, of
ourselves, is bound up with historically specific modes of understanding
rooted in textual culture.3 The totality of nuclear destruction threatens

simultaneously both our concepts of literature (broadly understood) and of

His point is a variation of one made about the same time by the
psychiatrist, Robert Jay Lifton. Amongst the psychological challenges of
processing the threat of nuclear war is, says Lifton, its threat to our
“symbolic immortality”: our implicit sense of human continuity through
which anxieties about our own mortality are ameliorated by the knowl-
edge that our families, our friends, at least our culture and our species,
continue beyond our deaths.4 Our lives have meaning, or at least we
imagine them to have meaning, because there is a connection to a flow
of humanity that persists beyond our deaths. When Derrida writes of a
“nuclear catastrophe” that would “irreversibly destroy the entire archive
and all symbolic capacity” he describes a similar phenomenon, although
for him it is perhaps part of a broader point about the link between
language, thought and humanity.5
In this sense, the nuclear catastrophe of which Derrida writes is the
antithesis not only of human existence, but of human cognition of the
world for it threatens the erasure of human understanding. The destruction
implied by nuclear war, at least as imagined in the 1980s, is “a-symbolic”
because it cannot be conceived in a symbolic system (like literature): the
linguistic and mental tools through which we might understand human
absence themselves collapse in the absence of humans.6 It is remainderless
because there is nothing left: no-one, in the example of Blumenfeld’s text, is
left to read Jenny’s diary.
This is related to Derrida’s famous description of nuclear weapons as
“fabulously textual”: they are textual partly because they exist within
“complex structures of information and communication” (the baroque
bureaucratic and informational architecture of the command-and-control
systems of the Cold War war machine), but also because nuclear war can
only be conceived textually before it comes to pass. Afterward (at least in
the terms implied by the apocalyptic imagination of the late Cold War)
there would be no literature left with which to conceive it. For Derrida,
the important philosophical point at stake here is our inability fully to
“think” nuclear war, to imagine a world beyond a human perspective
irretrievably bound up with narrative and its material incarnation.
This chapter argues that the general consequence of 1980s literature’s
focus on the archive is to show the fragility of contemporary culture; of,
even, human civilisation. If a politics of vulnerability is in operation in
many nuclear texts, then the archive that features in many of those texts

manifests this vulnerability. The book, the text, operates in this literature
as a symbol of civilization and its fragility signals the threat to civilisation
and culture. The human act of knowing, of remembering—and the means
by which knowledge and memory persist from one person to another and
one generation to another—are themselves imperilled by nuclear war and
provoke broader existential anxieties about the meaning, or perhaps the
meaninglessness, of human life. Human identity is technologically embo-
died through that most basic of human technologies: the code that is
writing; the programmes in which that code runs, the book; and the
physical hardware in which those programmes sit, the library (metaphori-
cally understood).
The end of Jenny’s diary is a gentle one: she simply stops writing. “I
cannot, I will not make any more entries in this diary” she writes on the
final page, adding “I must try again, as in the old days, to live in the
present. A minute, an hour, a day at a time.”7 Disconcertingly, for the
reader, this brings home the fragility of the first-person narrative form,
revealing how dependent it is on the survival of the narrator, her inclina-
tion to write and the existence of readers to read and comprehend the
world whose loss she mourns. The future peters out into nothing ahead of
us. Even if Jenny and others survive, the written documents, the memory
of our civilisation, are ceasing to record human experience and we are left
with a perpetual present: minutes, hours and days at a time, but no
memory of one day, one week, one month or one year to the next. Our
contemporary sense of what it is to be human perishes, even if the
biological form of the human persists.
Other nuclear literature of the decade more brutally signals its
material demise. Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book (1983) has a double
ending, the bleaker of which involves, as the novel’s title implies, the
explosion into flames of the book we are holding (its final lines are,
“[b]lackening paper, the last leaves burning”).8 As in Jenny: My Diary,
the comfortable and familiar readerly experience of the written text
that tells a story of which it is not itself a part is disrupted and the
following pages are cross-hatched in black to represent the paper’s
combustibility. It attempts to produce a visceral connection with the
nuclear moment: the heat of nuclear explosion as it hits the book in
our hands. This also implies a particular twist on postmodern self-
reflexivity that I read as intrinsic to nuclear literature and to which I
will return later in this chapter: an insistence on the deadly earnestness

of metafictional games that might otherwise seem indulgently solipsis-

tic and trivial.


In Clint McCown’s short story, “Survivalists” (1984) Sheila asks John
what he would do if there was a nuclear war and society collapsed. “I’d go
to the library”, he tells her, to get books on “carpentry, and mechanics,
farming, and whatever else looked like it might help”, for, with “a knap-
sack full of the right books, I think I could survive anywhere, indefinitely.”
She is not impressed: “while you’re checking out your books, everybody
else will be getting guns. You wouldn’t stand a chance.”9
Yet, in literature set after nuclear war lots of people head to the library
after the Bomb drops. There is a recurrent preoccupation with books, the
libraries in which they are stored and the material (paper; ink) out of which
they are constructed. In some post-nuclear texts, libraries are special, almost
sacred, places, repositories of knowledge about a lost civilization in a world
that might be incapable of producing its own knowledge.
In Paul Cook’s Duende Meadow (1985), Americans emerging from nuclear
shelters deep below ground find a utopian community comprised of post-
communist Russians, living in what remains habitable of North America. The
library in one of their communities is the “true center of town”; it is “where
their common history bound them.”10 In Denis Johnson’s Fiskadoro (1985),
set amongst the communities surviving in the Florida Keys, a generation after
nuclear war, the library in Marathon is an imposing structure, “a stone building
left upright where all the wooden ones had been torn down . . . it stood by itself
at the edge of a field.”11 In James Forman’s Doomsday Plus Twelve (1984), a
bookstore is one of the things that lights up the world after nuclear war for Val
who loves “[t]he world of words, a world where she could pick and choose,
[and which was] almost more real to her than reality.”12 In keeping with the
pacifist theme of the novel, the bookshop is run by Vic and Sandy for whom the
“bookstore had come as a godsend and sprang from the passion that they so
intensely shared: a horror of war.”13 Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Wild Shore
(1984) features Tom Barnard, an elderly man fascinating to Henry, the
protagonist, because he is one of the few people old enough to remember
the world of California before America was devastated by nuclear war and
because he lives in a house in which “most of two walls were taken up by
bookshelves, overflowing with stacks of mangy books.” From these, Tom

seeks to teach Henry and his friends the knowledge that is disappearing from
the world. When the two visit San Diego, where Americans are trying to
organise to take back the country, they are amazed to find a library in which
“tall book cases alternated with tall windows, and [which] held books old and
In a Welsh school 500 years after nuclear war, in Pamela Service’s
Winter of Magic’s Return (1985), two boys bond in “the musty shadows
of the library”, the “repository for most of the surviving books in southern
Wales.” One of them, Earl, speaks with passion of how “I read everything,
about anything, and then read something else.”15 In Louise Lawrence’s
Children of the Dust (1985), salvaging what exists in libraries is one of
Johnson’s first acts as he builds a society that can flourish after nuclear war
in the west of England: “When the snows [of nuclear winter] receded he
took the Land Rover and brought back all the books we were likely to
need. People come here if they want to know anything and Johnson
teaches them, from the books.”16
There is an extraordinary preoccupation in much nuclear literature
about the details both of those texts that have been saved and those that
have been lost. Although Johnson’s library appears rather utilitarian—a
set of texts about how to build and grow things—in most nuclear
literature the preoccupation with reading is more obviously literary. In
William Brinkley’s The Last Ship (1989), in which the sailors aboard a
US destroyer are almost all that remains of human life, the captain and
his first mate discuss a new-found passion for reading amongst the ship’s
crew. The captain reveals he is taking advantage of the end of the world
to work his way through Dickens. “Well”, as his first mate says, “we
couldn’t leave Dickens behind.”17 In total, the ship’s library includes
religious texts, an encyclopaedia, 985 works of literature (a fairly pre-
dictable Western canon of European and American texts), Western
music (from Beethoven to Whitney Houston) and American films.
The reverential attitude toward this library implies that the ship has
become an Ark with the knowledge stored in these texts the basis for
a new civilisation (though the novel leaves unaddressed that the formats
in which music and film are preserved—audio and video cassette—are
perhaps not the first one would choose when long-term preservation is
an issue). Later, when the ship’s company form an alliance with a
surviving Russian submarine, the Pushkin, one of the improvements
made as the Pushkin is refitted is a library to go where its nuclear missiles
used to be housed.18

David Palmer’s Emergence (1984) furnishes its child narrator, Candy,

with an even fuller library, for her father has arranged that she will sit out
the ravages of nuclear war in a shelter with “more books . . . than [a] public
library”, plus an extensive microfilm library covering,

classics, contemporary; comprehensive museum of Man’s finest works: words,

canvas, 3-D and multiview reproductions of statuary. Also scientific: medical,
dental, veterinary, entomology, genetics, marine biology; engineering, elec-
tronics, physics (both nuclear and garden variety), woodcraft, survival etc. etc.;
poetry, fiction, biographies of great, near great; philosophy—even selection of
world’s fantasy old and new.19

This is a strangely optimistic version of the end of the world. Candy

realises that the library “probably represents everything necessary for
singlehanded founding of new civilization” and, indeed, it turns out that
she and several other survivors are geniuses, a new iteration of the human
species destined to replace us.20 This optimism is allied to confidence in
the robustness of the human archive, a perspective that puts the novel at
odds with most of the other fictions discussed in this chapter.
In Bernard Malamud’s comic novel God’s Grace, nuclear war leaves just
one human survivor, Cohn, who salvages a more limited library, when he
abandons his ship for an island, than that available to the protagonists of
The Last Ship and Emergence. His collection mixes canonical literary
and religious texts with practical information on survival: “The Works of
William Shakespeare, his old Pentateuch, a one-volume encylopedia, a col-
lege dictionary”, as well as “Dr Walther Blunder’s The Great Apes” (a crucial
addition as he seeks to establish a new civilization with surviving primates),
“Morris Fishbein’s Medical Advisor, The Joys of Simple Cookery, How to do
Satisfying Carpentry, and several volumes on paleontology and geology.”21
His only sentimental choices are two novels that were favourites of his
deceased wife; he decides against A Manual of Sexual Skills for Singles.
This is a fragment of a library with which to rebuild a world, though
Cohn’s attempts fail miserably when the apes he tries to teach revolt against
Small collection though Cohn’s is, it provides a rather fuller life of post-
apocalyptic reading than is available to poor Jenny, with whose diary this
chapter began. Although she tries to remember the “books which had
most influenced me, which I loved best”, she records with horror that the
communal shelter in which she survives contains only “three taped

episodes of Dallas!”22 Indeed, in many texts the absence or inadequacy of

libraries is experienced as a crisis.
David Brin’s The Postman (1985) uses the absence of a library to signal
the horror of a world after nuclear war. On the very first page of the novel its
protagonist, Gordon Krantz, is fleeing bandits in a perilous post-apocalyptic
America. As his life is threatened, his mind reaches, much to his surprise, for
“a memory of contrast—of a rainy afternoon in a warm, safe university
library, long ago—of a lost world filled with books.”23 Of course, the library
was not safe, was not proof against the world that came to pass, and part of
the horror of his current existence is that it is a world almost devoid of
books and the culture and knowledge they contain and symbolise. Hence
later, a brief period of respite, in a place of seeming safety in his travels,
includes an “impressive library of well-cared-for books.”24
In Sherri Tepper’s future fantasy novel, The Gate to Women’s Country
(1988), libraries are being used to rebuild civilization but the different
collections of books available to men and women are part of a restructuring
of society by which women are secretly challenging the status quo. Indeed,
there is a subversion of stereotypically “male” and “female” reading.
Although the men’s garrison library contains typically masculine obsessions
with “[t]ales of battles” and information on “[d]esigns for armor”, Chernon
knows that these are really just “[r]omances” and “[s]agas”. He realises that,
unlike what Stavia calls “women’s studies”, the books available to the men
contain “[n]othing about real things. Nothing about medicine, or engineer-
ing, or management.” Although Stavia passes him some books, he suspects
she “hadn’t given him the right books. Probably those books, the powerful
books, were secret.”25 Reading is a means through which hegemony is
created and maintained here.
Frequently, libraries in books with post-nuclear settings are seen as inade-
quate or under threat. Although Derrida writes that the destruction with
which we are dealing when we consider nuclear war is of such a scale that it
“would lack any common proportion with, for example, the burning of a
library, even that of Alexandria”, it is striking how frequently, in nuclear
literature, metaphorically burning (actually ransacked or destroyed) libraries
feature.26 For these texts the destruction of the Word equates with the
destruction of human culture.
In the Marathon library, in Fiskadoro, there is poor surviving stock and rival
intellectual organisations, the Marathon Society for Knowledge and the
Society for Science, compete for access to, and struggle to understand, the
texts they do have.27 In Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka’s Warday (1984),

in which the writers imagine themselves travelling a United States deva-

stated by nuclear war, the library at Los Alamos (a site, of course, both for
the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb and for America’s
Cold War nuclear research and development) has suffered a “serious
attack by local residents right after the soldiers left”, in rage, it seems, at
the nuclear state; now the “library building and its classified papers archive
were empty, doors swinging open, windows dark.”28 At the climax of the
novel Strieber and Kunetka arrive in New York, a city that symbolises the
civilisation destroyed by nuclear war:

Ninevah, Babylon, and Rome each bustled a time in the sun. So also, New
York. Nobody ever called it an eternal city, it was too immediate for that.
But we all thought it was one.29

The city is now abandoned, the subject of a salvage operation stripping it

of what remains. As he arrives at the New York Public Library to find
“vines pouring out of the windows”, Strieber records that his “heart
almost breaks”. He has, he says, “the horrible thought that they must
somehow be rooting in the books. Rot and mildew and moisture are
changing them to a fertile soil.”30
This is not simply the sadness of a bibliophile. The destruction of the
library is experienced as a more profound destruction, a collective trauma.
It is, says Strieber, “a kind of lobotomy, the loss of a place like that.”31 We
see the effect of such a lobotomy several generations later in Annabel and
Edgar Johnson’s young adult novel, The Danger Quotient (1984), when
people are trying to reconstruct civilization but have only “assorted com-
puter tapes . . . patched remnants of newspapers. Odds and ends of video-
cassettes” on which to go.32
In worlds with few books, libraries become objects of wonder. In
Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake (1978), set after nuclear war, a community
of healers provides a small outpost of learning in a world falling into
ignorance. Consequently, it is a poignant detail that Arevin, who “had
heard of books, but . . . had never actually seen one”, notes, when he visits
the healers, “two walls lined with shelves . . . full of them.”33 Similarly, in
Michael Swanwick’s short story “The Feast of Saint Janis”, Wolf experi-
ences a “moment of dislocation” when he is led into a bookstore and sees
“[s]helves and boxes of books and magazines [that] brooded over him”,
and is frustrated when he is unable “to linger, to scan the ancient tomes,
remnants of a time and culture fast sinking into obscurity and myth.”34

These imperilled libraries slide into a concern with the materials from which
books are made in several fictions. One of the horrors articulated by several
novels is the possibility of the transformation of books and documents from
reusable repositories of ideas into a one-use fuel source. They cease to be
symbolising machines, the batteries in which civilization stores its intellectual
energy, and become only material objects, most valuable for the warmth their
burning will provide. In Robert McCammon’s Swan Song (1987), Sister
entered the “Homewood Public Library and found the building deserted,
most of the books gone, used as fuel in fires that kept people alive.”35 In
Fiskadoro Mr Cheung’s family have to burn a “copy of the [US] Constitution
and all the books to stay alive”, but try to preserve some of the knowledge they
contain by committing to memory two paragraphs each from the
In several texts paper and pen are fetishized for their scarcity. In The
Last Ship, the captain realises the preciousness of his ship’s store of pens
and paper (his eyes “drilled in on these with a special intensity”), which
may be all they will have to last them into the future. Indeed, so crucial is
this store that he is highly specific not only about the number of pens and
how much paper survives, but even about its precise weight and quality:
“Five dozen reams of 20-pound bond. Thirty thousand sheets of paper.
One hundred dozen-sized boxes of ballpoints.”37
In The Danger Quotient, Casey, a teenager surviving in an underground
colony in a world long after nuclear war, travels back in time to the 1980s.
When he comes across a bookshop, the material existence of paper strikes him
as extraordinary: “you can’t just walk past an old-time bookstore, stacked
high with the real thing, made of genuine paper as if it would never go out of
style.” Although there is a frippery to the volumes it sells—“[t]housands of
long-lost trees felled to publish those volumes on jogging and cookery”—
there is a fullness to the textual documentation of the world that is in sharp
contrast to the “patched remnants” of newspapers and “[o]dds and ends” of
videos that will survive into the future into which he will be born.38
For a trader in Neal Barrett’s short story “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying
Circus” (1988), the limited supply is a godsend, with paper and pens
becoming valuable commodities. He has his sales patter down to a tee,
luring potential buyers in by emphasising the tactility and variety of his

This here is heavy bond. . . . Fifty percent linen weave, and we got it by the
ream. . . . We got pencils too. Mirado twos and threes, unsharpened, with erasers

on the end. When’s the last time you saw that? Why this stuff’s good as gold. We
got staples and legal pads. Claim forms, maim forms, forms of every sort.39

Of course, what this preoccupation with the materiality of print culture really
signals is a concern with words and the worlds they conjure. Many post-
nuclear texts evoke what has disappeared by having their protagonists spec-
ulate about the extraordinary profusion of objects and experiences that now
exist only in books. In Sherri Tepper’s The Gate to Women’s Country (1988),
set long after nuclear devastation, Chernon reads wonderingly of a lost world
from “before the convulsions”, when “life was varied”, with elephants,
crocodiles, Laplanders and tropical islanders, their exoticism and diversity
in sharp contrast to the narrow life he now leads.40 Elsewhere in the novel,
Stavia sits with a “book open on her lap, tears running down her face”
because it records so many things that no longer exist. When Beneda objects
that this reaction makes no sense for there are all sorts of things that they
don’t have any more (“clothes-drying machines and mechanical transporta-
tion and furnaces that heat your whole house, and cotton and silk and . . . and
cows and horses and . . . and all kinds of other animals and birds”), Stavia says
that the fact the book makes her “know about them” means that “I miss
them.”41 Books here offer only a tantalising glimpse of a disappeared world
and a collapsed civilization. Things persist only in the abstraction of words;
material objects remain only in their signifiers.
Similarly, Septemius finds himself perusing an “old dictionary”, which is
“among his most prized possessions”, pursuing words from one to another,
tracing culinary sensations he can never experience. The entry for “eggnog”
leads him to search “for the words brandy and rum. . . . Gone, along with
nutmeg and cloves. Along with pepper and turmeric. All the spices were
merely words now. Chocolate was a word. And coffee.”42 The system, the
structure of language, conjures up only emptiness; it points to worlds of
sensory experience that can only intangibly haunt the nuclear future.
Books here therefore signify not presence—the original signifieds are
hollowed out, ghostly—but abstraction and absence. Each word becomes
a signifier of loss, a tantalising glimpse of a disappeared world and a
collapsed civilization. What these nuclear texts play with is the possibility
of the passing of human memory. The reduced or burning libraries signal
the diminishment of human experience. When what they contain has
gone, what it is to be human passes with them.
The horror of words becoming meaningless or disappearing is a recur-
ring preoccupation. In Fiskadoro, Mr Cheung is dismayed by the facility

with which his contemporaries let go the memory of the past and play fast
and loose with words. When someone rechristens herself, leaving her old
name behind, Mr Cheung sees this as the beginning of a dangerous game, a
relinquishing of an identity rooted in language and in the past and ulti-
mately thus also a relinquishing of human knowledge of the world: “It isn’t
good, calling yourself Swanson-Johnson, as if a name is a joke. Next a word
will be a joke, and then comes a time when even a thought is a joke.”43
Octavia Butler’s short story “Speech Sounds” (1983) does not have an
explicitly nuclear setting, but it captures the apocalyptic feeling of the time
through its depiction of the collapse of civilization as people lose language
through a “stroke-swift” illness with mysterious origins (“people hardly
had time to lay blame on the Soviets . . . a new virus, a new pollutant,
radiation, divine retribution”).44 The horror of end times is focalised
through the loss of language. Devastated by the plague, Rye, the prota-
gonist, can no longer make sense of literature, but clings to “a houseful of
books that she could neither read nor bring herself to use as fuel.”45
Lucius Shepard’s short story “Salvador” (1984) similarly lacks an expli-
citly nuclear context, but contains an apocalyptic vision of war. Here, too,
there is a striking image of literature’s collapse as Dantzler remembers
finding a copy of Gulliver’s Travels when he was nine: “He had been
taught to treasure old books, and so he had opened it eagerly to look at
the illustrations, only to find that the centers of the pages had been eaten
away, and there, right in the heart of the fiction, was a nest of larvae.
Pulpy, horrid things.”46 The violence done to literature is linked through
this image to the violence of war, for Dantzler finds corpses of shot men
whose poses in death recall the larvae: they “had been struggling out of
their hammocks when the bullets hit, and as a result, they were hanging
half-in, half-out, their limbs dangling, blood pooled beneath them”; they
look “like monsters killed as they emerged from their cocoons.”47



The significance of this recurring preoccupation with books and language

is seen most clearly in M.K. Wren’s story of the aftermath of nuclear war,
A Gift Upon the Shore (1990). Here, books and libraries are not simply
passing, if revealing, details in fictions mostly about other things, but are
the central preoccupation. The novel tells the story of two women, Rachel

and Mary, who, surviving nuclear war, dedicate their lives to collecting and
preserving books.
The novel contains many of the motifs outlined already. There is a library,
the contents of which we learn in some detail, built mainly from Rachel’s
personal collection. Initially, this constitutes 6000 texts, including literary
works by “Shakespeare . . . Sophocles . . . Dickens, Kafka, Melville, Tolstoy,
Cervantes, Austen, Conrad, Steinbeck . . . Dickinson, Eliot, Yeats, Dante,
Wordsworth, Sappho, Auden, Whitman.”48 It also contains encyclopaedias
and science and history books. They are aware that this is a “pitiful fraction of
human knowledge”, a gutted Western canon.49 Mary is both distraught at
what is lost to future generations, but also feels these books may at least give
children of the future a glimpse of what the human mind is capable. They
may know the Sistine Chapel only from pictures, but they would at least
know it had existed; its memory would persist in some form.
There is no confidence that the library forms a secure body of knowledge.
Not only is it but a fragment of the wider libraries of human understanding,
destroyed in nuclear conflagration, but there is also an acute awareness of the
material fragility of the literature it contains. Rachel points out the “problem
of acidification”. The only viable long-term plan, she says, is to “seal the
books as nearly airtight as possible, then hope that someday, someone will
learn how to make paper and ink—or even a crude printing press—so they
can copy the books before they disintegrate.”50 As she acknowledges, per-
haps “nothing will come of it but a pile of rotten paper”, but the attempt to
save the books is a gesture of defiance.51
Their project becomes the building of this archive. Books are sealed in
wax for posterity. Mary understands this vocation as a choice about being
human. It is the second significant choice they make. The first was simply,
in the face of the horrors of nuclear winter, to survive, but she conceives of
the second choice, a choice to be human by saving the books, as the really
key one. When she writes that “they were making another choice in a
silent, lightless wilderness”, that wilderness is no longer simply the actually
experienced hostility of nuclear winter, it is a metaphor for an intellectual,
perhaps a spiritual, wilderness. It is, she says, a “choice to live, not just
survive; to live as human beings.”52
The threat to the archive is not merely that posed by the limitations
of paper and by Rachel’s and Mary’s mortality. It is also threatened by
other humans. Several years after the war, Rachel and Mary come into
contact with a religious community who believe that nuclear war was a
biblical Armageddon (mirroring a 1980s preoccupation with—mostly

American—Christian fundamentalists who saw nuclear war as the end times

foretold in the bible). Mary, wanting children, has to make an uneasy
accommodation with this harshly patriarchal community and comes into
conflict with them particularly over issues of reading and understanding.
Accepting only the Bible as a legitimate text—wedded, indeed, to literal
interpretations of the Bible—they see her books as heretical. Such a view is,
Mary understands, another challenge to being truly human. “[I]f we lock
ourselves in cages of dogma”, she says, “then we are no longer human, we
are nothing more than talking animals capable of cruelty.”53
By the end of the novel, when Rachel has long since died, when Mary is
an elderly woman with no children (a traumatic earlier incident is a
miscarriage), this comes to a head, for Mary’s role is now as a teacher. In
addition to the vulnerability of books themselves, Mary is also preoccupied
with the paucity of writing materials: pencils are “long gone”, chalk is
“precious”, and she hoards paper “like a Scrooge”, though they have
managed to “make a passable ink from twinberries.”54 More profoundly
threatening is the resentment of some in the community toward her
This confrontation is encapsulated in the battle for Stephen, one of
Mary’s pupils (a “scholar, my hope for humankind”; her “heir”; as “much
my son as the infant who died in my womb”),55 whose mother, Miriam,
particularly opposes Mary. Miriam is bent on “my murder, on the murder
of the past, on the murder of the future” and Mary’s final victory over her
is a victory for hope and for humanity.56
While the novel does not leave us with the certainty of a human future,
it closes with an image of reading that offers the possibility of such a
future. At the end of the novel, Mary comes across Jeremiah, the leader
of the community, with a book open in front of him: not the Bible, but
Emily Dickinson’s poetry. Grand, absolutist narratives, controlled through
literal doctrinal interpretation, are productively disrupted by the uncer-
tain, questioning—profoundly human—micronarratives through which
Dickinson asks us to engage with the world.
A Gift Upon the Shore is, then, a significant text, for it tackles head on, is
acutely conscious about, the role of the archive in creating the human. It
understands that the human is as much a cultural, intellectual entity as it is
a biological one. The novel’s preoccupation with texts, textuality and
interpretation also evokes some of the concerns that recur in the post-
modern literature more frequently seen as epitomising the cultural main-
stream in the 1980s.


The profusion in nuclear literature of gutted libraries, of new libraries
inadequately stocked with books, of books that describe things that no
longer exist, of books that have been burnt for warmth, of writing materi-
als rendered increasingly valuable only by their decreasing quantity and of
people yearning for the worlds of knowledge to which they can no longer
travel because the texts to transport them there have gone, is of course an
extraordinarily literal incarnation of Derrida’s idea of the vulnerable
archive. It does, though, signal the concern in late Cold War literature
not merely with the deaths of individual humans, but with the mortality of
human civilization. In its most terrifying imaginings, nuclear literature
foresees an end to the Cold War so apocalyptic that it erases even human
consciousness of that end. There is a politics of literary vulnerability in
operation here: the removal of words, and hence of the human categories
by which the world is known, is precisely what is at stake in the worst
imaginings of what nuclear technology might do. Nuclear literature can-
not actually show us such a world, for by definition such a world lacks
human consciousness of its presence—there would be neither author nor
reader to perceive it—but it can gesture toward it.
The consequent significance of literature is nicely captured by Martin
Amis in “Thinkability”, the impassioned introduction to his short story
collection Einstein’s Monsters (1987), where he suggests that nuclear
contexts transform the significance of all extant culture. He sees that
because it is literature, the human archive broadly understood, that is
imperilled by nuclear war, all writing is charged with a nuclear context,
at least in the sort of global holocaust threatened by the Cold War:

[I]t could be argued that all writing—all art, in all times—has a bearing on
nuclear weapons, in two important respects. Art celebrates life and not the
other thing, not the opposite of life. And art raises the stakes, increasing the
store of what might be lost.57

In this reading, all literature is nuclear literature to the extent that it

constructs the archive as the antithesis of nuclearism. While reading
every text as “nuclear” could be repetitive and unproductive were we to
constrain textual meaning too narrowly through the nuclear referent,
recognising this “archival” dimension to literature is helpful. It reminds
us that there is an important secondary signification of literature beyond

the primary significations of individual texts: the symbolic association of

the written word with culture, civilization and humanity, all of which are
rendered vulnerable by the possibility of global nuclear war.
This might also provide a starting point for reading the increasingly
prevalent postmodern preoccupations with textuality toward the end of
the Cold War. There are four central concerns of late Cold War postmodern
literature that particularly resonate with the heightened nuclear anxiety of
the period: a preoccupation with apocalypse; an obsession with metafictional
technique that, in some forms at least, points to a crisis of belief in the efficacy
of representation; linked to this, a preoccupation with virtuality and the
disappearance of the real; and, finally, an interrogation and refusal of con-
ventional forms of closure.

The Postmodern Apocalyptic

The first of these preoccupations is certainly not universal to 1980s post-
modern literature, but it does arise in several key texts. In some instances,
it is explicitly a nuclear sense of the apocalyptic; in others, it is nuclear
more subtly, by association.
For example, in addition to the fictions discussed in more detail later in this
chapter, several works by major postmodern writers address the apocalyptic in
one form or another. Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins’s counter-
factual history in the extraordinary comic series and then graphic novel
Watchmen (1986–1987), begins with an arresting image of blood running
into a drain and a man carrying an “End is Nigh” placard, and goes on to
include civil unrest, vigilantism, a radiation accident and superheroes.
Several texts depict threats to the human species. For instance, Kurt
Vonnegut’s Galapagos (1985) features financial crisis, war and, finally, a disease
that renders humans infertile (a premise also underpinning a text that is less
clearly postmodern, P.D. James’s 1992 novel Children of Men). In Octavia
Butler’s Dawn (1987) nuclear war has killed most people and Lilith, a survivor,
is plucked from Earth by aliens. In Greg Bear’s Blood Music (1985), nuclear
contexts are referenced several times,58 but it is biological, not nuclear, science
and engineering that destroy the human race when a scientist manufactures
intelligent cellular life (“a disease that thinks”) that supplants people.59
Galapagos, Dawn and Blood Music all describe the emergence of the
posthuman. In Galapagos the only human survivors are stranded on the
island of Santa Rosalia where, over the next million years, they evolve into
seal-like creatures who survive on a diet of fish. In Dawn Lilith’s alien

abductors/saviours, the Oankali, want to interbreed with humans to

create a hybrid species. In Blood Music the “noocytes” infuse and assim-
ilate all life in North America.
In Stephen King’s science fiction short story “The End of the Whole
Mess” (1986), it is an attempt to save the world from impending disaster
that ends up destroying it, for the substance Bobby disperses in the atmo-
sphere to create a “calmquake”,60 has the effect not only of pacifying people
but also of inducing Alzheimer’s disease; an effect we see manifested in the
form of the story as Howard’s narrative disintegrates into spelling mistakes,
grammatical errors and eventually meaninglessness. In “Survivor”, one of
several stories about various kinds of ending in Julian Barnes’s The History of
the World in 10½ Chapters (1989), Kath puts to sea in anticipation of nuclear
war and the reader is left suspended between two interpretations: that she
makes it to an island and lives out her life as a survivor of global nuclear
holocaust; or that she hallucinates this experience following a breakdown.
Other texts feature calamities that may not threaten the human species,
but that are recorded as moments when civilization suffers a catastrophic
collapse. In Paul Auster’s In the Country of Last Things (1987) we are
presented with an unnamed city populated by rootless, disconnected people,
looters and apocalyptic sects, where government is all but absent and where
even the geography of the city streets changes regularly. Ursula Le Guin’s
Always Coming Home (1985), set far in the future, implies there has been
some rupture through which our civilisation has collapsed, though it is left
unclear whether this was nuclear. J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun (1984)
combines autobiography and fiction in a searing depiction of a world falling
apart in the Far East at the end of World War II. The novel builds to a
striking scene in which Jim sees (or, at least, seems to see) the flash, “as if the
sun had blinked, losing heart for a few seconds”, from the atomic attack on
Nagasaki. Ominously, it is described as “heralding the end of one war and
the beginning of the next.”61 A similar sense of one world turning into
another in the Far East of the 1940s is evoked by Martin Booth’s more
conventionally realist novel Hiroshima Joe (1985). Captain Joseph
Sandingham is captured by the Japanese, witnesses the atomic attack on
Hiroshima from a prisoner of war camp, the mushroom cloud “a tall-bodied
oak tree with a fearsome, awful canopy thousands of feet high”,62 and spends
the remaining seven years of his life destitute in Hong Kong, ravaged by
radiation sickness. Jim’s and Joe’s sense of a world collapsed beyond repair is
similar to that of Deaver in Orson Scott Card’s post-nuclear short story
“Salvage” (1986), in which Deaver feels that the “world was dead, it had

already ended.”63 There is a strong sense of anti-climax in the story. When

Deaver says, “Jesus was supposed to come again, right? There was [sic] atom
bombs dropped here and there, and he was supposed to come”,64 we see
him confronting the grim twist that nuclear technology gives to the long
tradition of end-of-the-world stories in human culture: the end times not as a
telos of human history, a climactic moment of judgement and deliverance,
but as a petering out of human life into meaninglessness.
Other texts feature characters who have apocalyptic visions or smaller
experiences of catastrophe. A key figure in William Gaddis’s Carpenter’s
Gothic (1985), though he never appears directly and is only spoken about by
the other characters, is Reverend Ude, an evangelical preacher, whose rantings
about the apocalyptic prophecies of the bible feed disturbingly into a Cold
War confrontation in Africa. Judge Holden, in Cormac McCarthy’s revisionist
Western set in the nineteenth century, Blood Meridian (1985), seems to be a
figure beyond the human, presiding over a bloody and chaotic world.
McCarthy’s later Border trilogy is preoccupied with the landscape of the
American southwest and Mexico in the twentieth century. Less obviously
apocalyptic, there is here too, nevertheless, a sense of a world ending. Indeed,
Alex Hunt has argued convincingly that, in The Crossing (2010), the second
book in the trilogy, what Billy witnesses when he sees a “mysterious false
sunrise, followed by the rising of the ‘right and godmade sun’” is the Trinity
Test (the first atomic bomb test) of 16 July 1945.65 Leslie Marmon Silko’s
Ceremony (1977) is similarly set in the American southwest, where Tayo’s
post-traumatic stress disorder is produced by a combination of his experience
as a World War II veteran and the longer historical trauma suffered by Native
Americans. The novel connects this with the nuclear landscape of New Mexico
(there is a key scene at a uranium mine and, like Billy in The Crossing (2010),
Tayo’s grandmother sees the flash of the Trinity Test) and also with the atomic
attacks on Japan. His psychological battle is elevated by the novel to a more
wide-ranging, mythic confrontation with “the Destroyers”. More explicitly
responding to 1980s fears are William Cowling’s dreams and visions of nuclear
war in Tim O’Brien’s The Nuclear Age (1985), phenomena so traumatic that
they drive him to dig a bomb shelter.

The second preoccupation of postmodern literature is perhaps the most
obvious defining characteristic of the genre (although it is not unique to
that literature, having made its appearance at least as far back as the

publication of the first novels in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries).

Postmodern metafictional experiment is often described as playful and,
although it certainly frequently is that, in many nuclear texts an earnestness
and an anxiety attend these games: they are games with consequences.
The games Eddie Hobson plays with his family in Richard Powers’s
Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988) echo the games that the text plays with the reader,
who must unlock the puzzle of the complex narrative just as Hobson’s children
seek to unlock the secret of their father. Hobson’s games initially appear to be a
frustrating refusal to engage directly with his family, but as the novel progresses
it becomes increasingly and heartbreakingly clear that this is his only way of
engaging with them. As discussed in Chapter 4, the particular problem that he
keeps posing to them, the Prisoner’s Dilemma, takes the novel to the heart of
contemporary geopolitical and strategic games, the repeated attempts to find a
solution to which are Hobson’s struggle to find a way out of the destructive
and divisive logics of the Cold War. The revelation that he carries symptoms—
possibly psychosomatic—of his presence at the Trinity Test marks the eruption
of a nuclear presence in the mind and body of the individual.
Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) is similarly playful and embeds
within itself a concern with the transitory nature of texts and language that
replicates in complex ways the concerns discussed earlier in this chapter.
The novel is narrated by Riddley in an English language transformed by
the trauma of nuclear war and the subsequent collapse of civilisation over
several centuries. To this extent it is a precursor of Johnson’s Fiskadoro,
which also associates shifts in human civilisation with violence done to
language, though Hoban’s novel is a fuller working through of this idea.
We hear some memory of the horror of the collapse following nuclear
war in the nightmarish origin myth “The Hart of the Wood”, that Riddley
relates for us near the beginning of the novel. After “Bad Time 1st and bad
times after” a man and woman flee a burning city for the woods with their
baby, where they are so “[s]tarveling” that they are reduced to “digging
thru the snow” and eating “maws [moss] and dead leaves which they
vomitit them up again.” They encounter a “clevver looking bloke” who
shares his cooking pot and fire (this is partly a story about knowledge and
what is traded for it) in exchange for the couple’s child, who is eaten by all
three. Their loss of innocence, and their attempt to deny to themselves the
magnitude of moral compromise in which they have engaged, is signified
by their attempts to build the fire “bigger and bigger trying to keap the
black from moving in on them.” They are themselves eventually con-
sumed by the fire.66

This is an Eden myth for a post-nuclear age. Much has been forgotten
by Riddley’s people in the collapse of civilisation following nuclear war,
including knowledge of what nuclear technology is, but its traces persist in
their language. One of their key myths, the “Eusa Story”, epitomises this.
In it, the splitting of the atom is not understood as we would understand
it, but is reconstituted in the trickster figure of “The Littl Shynin Man the
Addom” (punningly evoking both the atom of nuclear technology and
Adam of the Genesis story) who is “[p]ult in 2 lyk he wuz a chicken.”67
This story is performed and interpreted by travelling puppeteers from the
government in an attempt both to exert ideological control over the
population and to recover the knowledge of the technologies of warfare
that would help to cement their power.
This is a world in which narrative carries power: violence and coercion
accompany the struggles over the Eusa story. It is also a human society
from which we are defamiliarised by being placed, if not quite outside,
certainly on the edges of, the language in which it is narrated. Playful
though the novel is in making us work to decode Riddley’s narrative, the
language of the novel is also extraordinarily effective in demonstrating the
shift in human consciousness that has occurred following nuclear war. We
see the shards of our culture less in the ruins of buildings, the contami-
nated towns and the metals scavenged by Riddley’s people, than we do in
the words, stories and fractured narratives through which Riddley sees the
world. The novel even comically plays with our attempts to interpret it by
presenting us with a scene that is a mirror image of our reading experience:
Riddley and Goodparley struggle to interpret the single text that seems to
have survived from our era, a tourist leaflet describing the Legend of St
Eustace in Canterbury Cathedral. This leaflet is the only passage in stan-
dard English in the novel. When Goodparley says of it, “[s]ome parts is
easyer workit out nor others theres bits of it wewl never know for cern just
what they mean”, he could be describing the reader’s feelings about
Riddley Walker.68 (It is also worth noting in this scene the rather lovely
joke by which Hoban shows the limitations of their interpretations when
he has Goodparley translate a passage about a landscape studded with
hamlets: “Wel thats little pigs innit.”)69
What Hoban shows us in Riddley Walker is a radical fracturing of the
archive and its impact on human identity. Indeed, it shows us how the
human is transformed by this fracturing of the archive. When Riddley
chooses to write it is a decision to engage in the struggle to make sense
of existence. “I finely come to writing all this down”, he says, “[t]hinking

on what the idea of us myt be. Thinking on that thing whats in us lorn and
loan and oansome.”70 Although the words he uses do not translate
straightforwardly into our language, the long “o”s (“lorn”; “loan”; “oan-
some”) suggest longing and loneliness and communicate the sense of
being cast adrift by the dramatic rupture in history. There is something
inside him that is not him, or with which he cannot connect.
One thing this internal “other” might be is the memory of the world left
behind centuries before by nuclear war, lurking in the language his people
have inherited from us. In the novel’s most moving moments Riddley
glimpses the extent of what has been lost, even though, by definition, he
can never know exactly what that is. He even gains a nebulous impression,
perhaps, of the diminishment of the archive, perceiving inside himself those
traces of a world he can never recapture, that thing “what thinks us but it
dont think like us. Our woal life is a idear we dint think of nor we dont know
what it is. What a way to live.”71

The Virtual and the Real

The metafictional preoccupation of much postmodern literature links into
a concern with a destabilising of the real that is explained in part by Joseph
Masco’s concept of the nuclear uncanny, introduced in Chapter 3.
Nuclear weapons and materials are semi-visible objects, glimpsed in the
1980s in television or newspaper reports about Soviet military May Day
parades or NATO cruise missile exercises, but largely dispersed and hidden
in the silos of the Midwest or the fleets of nuclear-armed submarines. They
are not, on the whole, being exploded or tested in public view. To this
extent, they have little “real” presence for most people. Yet the profusion
of public discourse in the late Cold War about nuclear war renders them
semi-visible, a virtual existence in narrative that unhinges the experience of
the real because it threatens so suddenly and dramatically to explode out of
narrative and into actuality. The curious not-war/not-peace phenomenon
of the Cold War makes the everyday shimmer with the potential for the
flipping of experience into something entirely other and extraordinary.
The transport of nuclear waste, similarly (in)visible but dragged into
the public realm and made a “real” threat by campaigning on the issue,
constituted (at least some believed) another kind of danger, particularly in
Britain where the more densely packed population meant that trains
transporting waste were often routed through highly populated areas. In
1980, for instance, the Ecology Party published a report claiming that

there was a severe risk posed by the three flasks of nuclear fuel that passed
every week through London from power stations in the south east to
Windscale (now Sellafield). The Party’s report, according to The Times,
estimated a serious accident could “cause up to 6,000 deaths from cancer
over a period of 30 years” and might necessitate the mass evacuation of the
capital. The report’s author, Dr Charles Wakstein, claimed that “each flask
contained . . . the fall-out equivalent to between five and eight Hiroshima
bombs.”72 This controversy rumbled on throughout the decade, perhaps
its most spectacular moment coming in July 1984 when the Central
Electricity Generating Board (CEGB) staged a £1.6m crash in front of
1500 invited guests and television news cameras, by driving a diesel,
pulling three carriages at 100mph, into a flask used to carry nuclear
waste. The CEGB’s chairman called it “the most pessimistic and horren-
dous crash we could arrange”, though the scientific value of the spectacle,
staged in a “carnival-like atmosphere” according to The Times, was
instantly questioned.73
It would be pushing it to claim that these debates about environmental
safety are equivalent to the “Airborne Toxic Event” that disrupts Jack
Gladney’s life in Don DeLillo’s White Noise (1986), or that this staging of
virtual disaster as spectacle is quite as absurd as the “SIMUVAC” exercise
(for an “all-purpose leak or spill” that could be “radioactive steam, che-
mical cloudlets, a haze of unknown origin”—though not a “nuclear fire-
ball” which is planned for a later date) in the same novel, where there is
“no substitute for a planned simulation” and participants are warned not
to react if, inconveniently, “reality intrudes” in the form of actual injury or
disaster.74 They do, however, indicate the anxieties about visibility and
actuality that accrete around nuclear materials and technologies that seem
a strange mix of the mysterious, exotic, everyday, mundane, invisible and
spectacular, and the risks of which are hard to process and properly to
calculate, particularly because the scale of imagined nuclear disaster pro-
blematizes the concept of acceptable risk.
They also feature directly in Maggie Gee’s novel Grace (1988), where
the story of Paula, an anti-nuclear activist, brings in anxieties about the
nuclear waste trains “running close to the sleeping backs of houses and the
people sleeping behind those walls.”75 Later, evidence of leaks is men-
tioned, with low-level radiation recorded on the flasks, the track and the
trains themselves, “unleashed particles fly[ing] through the air . . . to find
the cells that might be looking for them, waiting to be entered, waiting to
be split, waiting to start their extraordinary journey.”76 Lying in bed in

Camden, listening to trains rumbling through the night, Paula, suspecting

she is pregnant and worried about her unborn child, is made anxious by
consciousness that the trains “might be carrying poison” that could get
“under my skin.”77 Later, Arthur tries to impress Paula by sitting through
the night as a nuclear train spotter. As he does so, he wonders about the
people in the houses by the line, “whether they’re pregnant or have
children, whether they know about the nuclear trains, whether they lie
there and wait for the thing that rocks so lightly down the line.”78 What is
striking is how fraught everyday reality is made by a nuclear consciousness
in these scenes. There is no direct evidence of physiological contamina-
tion, but Arthur and, especially, Paula, no longer trust the world their
senses convey to them; it seems insubstantial, infused with dangerous
contaminants the existence of which they cannot directly perceive.
It was in nuclear war though, much talked about and anticipated but
(it turned out) continually deferred, that the most striking anxieties about
the real emerged. Orson Scott Card’s science fiction novel, Ender’s Game
(1985) explores the uneasy line between the game and reality in its story of
a boy training to lead human forces against invading bugs from space.
Most of the novel is preoccupied with virtual combat and its effects on the
child. It culminates with a virtual reality game, in which Ender deploys an
apocalyptic weapon, “The Little Doctor”, and only discovers afterwards
that he has been tricked and that he was engaging in actual combat,
deploying real forces to enact a massacre about which he is ambivalent.
The virtuality of a more recognisably 1980s world is directly addressed in
J.G. Ballard’s short story, “The Secret History of World War 3” (1988) in
which nuclear war happens (a four-minute exchange between the United
States and the Soviet Union, in which a few missiles are fired into Alaska and
Siberia), but no-one notices, so distracted are they by news reports about
President Reagan’s health. Indeed, the story presents a world in which the
vicarious experiencing of reality through television sets has supplanted real
engagement with what is happening in the world. Riffing on contemporary
jokes about Reagan’s age and alleged lack of understanding of world issues, it
imagines him coming back, beset by senility, for a third term in the 1990s.
At first, the White House just release updates on his health, but it is not long
before “print-outs of heartbeat, blood pressure and EEG readings” are
scrolling permanently across the nation’s television screens.79 Downturns
in his health correlate with international crises, but people ignore the latter,
so mesmerised are they by the reports about the President. As a result, nuclear
war becomes just one more vicariously experienced item in a diet of news

reports, an entropy of significance in which the banal and the weighty are
flattened into equivalence, as in the announcement of the end of the war:
“Scattered snow-showers are forecast overnight, and a cessation of hostilities
has been agreed between the US and the USSR. After the break—the latest
expert comment on that attack of Presdiential flatulence.”80
Other postmodern texts do not push nuclear war quite to this level of
virtuality and abstraction, but there is often a similar sense of the absurd.
Indeed, Martin Amis’s London Fields (1989), discussed in earlier chapters,
contains a very similar motif to “The Secret History of World War 3”, tying
the corporeal health of a key presidential figure to impending catastrophe in
mysterious and unexplained ways. In this instance the safe resolution of the
ominous “Crisis” rests not on the President but on the health of his wife,
Faith. A radio news item on geopolitics reports not on the specifics of a
confrontation with the Soviet Union, but on a medical scan for the First
Lady, and Guy’s vision of impending Armageddon includes the assumption
that the president’s wife is already dead.81 When things are pushed to the
cusp of cataclysm near the end, it is reported that the “President had made
his decision. They were going in.” Yet, “going in” here is not, as we would
expect, a direct reference to sending in military forces in the hope of resol-
ving the crisis, but to the decision to “operate on the President’s wife.”82
Nuclear war is a real threat and yet it seems abstract, displaced into
absurdity by the curious machinations of Cold War confrontation and its
processing by media that, it was becoming apparent in the 1980s, were
being transformed by the transition to rolling news. Cable News Network
(CNN), which pioneered the twenty-four-hours-a-day news cycle, was
founded in 1980 and there is a strong sense in both “The Secret History
of World War 3” and London Fields of media information overload, with
the always-in-the-present format of rolling news pushing reality to the
point of absurdity as it both changes the world on which it reports and
feeds the sense of continually sustained drama and crisis.

Deferral of Closure
Both texts also point to another feature of many nuclear fictions: the sense of
suspense, followed by anti-climax. In “The Secret History of World War 3”
nuclear war happens, but is hardly noticed. In London Fields the “Crisis”
builds and builds, but then just dissipates (the revealing term used in the
novel, implying an absence of actual resolution, is “dissolution”).83 In Ian
McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987), a nuclear crisis erupts and then

subsides in the space of two pages.84 In a previous book, States of Suspense,

I have argued that this sense of sustained but unfulfilled anticipation is
characteristic of nuclear culture, particularly during the Cold War, and that
one of its manifestations is a postmodern literature chary of conventional
forms of closure. This is also a topic that has been usefully addressed by
Daniel Grausam in On Endings, in which he argues that there was a “radical
change in the collective understanding of historical time—especially a newly
vexed relationship to futurity—distinctive to the [postwar] period” and that
“the role that the bomb has played in shaping their [writers like Thomas
Pynchon and Don DeLillo] experimentation has gone underexamined.”85
The perception of being poised before nuclear disaster was particularly
intense in the 1980s, at least in the first half of the decade before Reagan
and Gorbachev made progress toward détente, and this heightened visi-
bility of nuclear anxieties continued to affect literature and culture into the
second half of the decade and into the early 1990s. While the Berlin and
Cuba crises of the Cold War’s earlier period were also moments of extra-
ordinary tension, perhaps more dangerous than the later crises, by the
1980s the Cold War was (assuming we date its start to the 1940s) into its
fifth decade and very much into a distinctive late phase, characterised by
periodic surges in tension and nuclear anxiety. While it would be naïve to
suggest the nuclear context was the only, or even the most important,
shaping factor in postmodern literature, the effects of the long-sustained
cultural anticipation of the first nuclear age can be seen manifested for-
mally, as well as thematically, in literary fiction’s experiments with endings.
It would, though, be a mistake to see the passing of the Cold War as a
closing off of nuclear issues and this is one of the reasons why the nuclear
literature of the late Cold War is still relevant. While one very good reason
for paying attention to it is that it is vital to the historicist project of
accurately mapping the culture of the 1980s, another is that it speaks
too to our world. It is to this, as well as to the conventional task of
summing up, that the conclusion turns.

1. These details refer to the 1983 Penguin edition. It was originally published
by Centaur under the title, Jenny Ewing: My Diary.
2. Jacques Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now (Full Speed Ahead, Seven
Missiles, Seven Missives)”, trans. Catherine Porter and Philip Lewis,
Diacritics (summer 1984): 26 (Derrida 1984).

3. Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now”, 27, 26 (Derrida 1984).

4. See particularly Robert Jay Lifton, “Chapter 8: A Break in the Human
Chain”, in Lifton and Richard Falk, Indefensible Weapons: The Political
and Psychological Case Against Nuclearism (Toronto: Canadian
Broadcasting Corporation, 1982), 66–79 (Lifton 1982).
5. Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now”, 28 (Derrida 1984).
6. Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now”, 28 (Derrida 1984).
7. Yorick Blumenfeld, Jenny: My Diary (Middlesex: Penguin, 1983). Pages
unnumbered (Blumenfeld 1983).
8. Maggie Gee, The Burning Book (London: Faber, 1983), 298 (Gee 1983).
9. Clint McCown, “Survivalists”, in Warnings: An Anthology on the Nuclear
Peril, ed. John Witte (Eugene: University of Oregon Press, 2001), 84.
10. Paul Cook, Duende Meadow (Toronto: Bantam, 1985), 175 (Cook 1985).
11. Denis Johnson, Fiskadoro (New York: Vintage, 1986), 144 (Johnson 1986).
12. James D. Forman, Doomsday Plus Twelve (New York: Charles Scribner’s
Sons, 1984), 42 (Forman 1984).
13. Forman, Doomsday Plus Twelve, 44 (Forman 1984).
14. Kim Stanley Robinson, The Wild Shore (London: HarperCollins, 1994), 25,
106 (Robinson 1994).
15. Pamela F. Service, Winter of Magic’s Return (New York: Fawcett Juniper,
1985), 32, 33 (Service 1985).
16. Louise Lawrence, Children of the Dust (London: Lion Tracks, 1986), 113
(Lawrence 1986).
17. William Brinkley, The Last Ship (New York: Ballantine, 1989), 262 (Brinkley
18. Brinkley, Last Ship, 612 (Brinkley 1989).
19. David R. Palmer, Emergence (Toronto: Bantam, 1984), 1–2 (Palmer 1984).
20. Palmer, Emergence, 18 (Palmer 1984).
21. Bernard Malamud, God’s Grace (Middlesex: Penguin, 1983), 43 (Malamud
22. Blumenfeld, Jenny: My Diary (Blumenfeld 1983). Pages unnumbered.
Perhaps there is some deliberate irony in the fact that Jenny’s surname is
Ewing, the name of the oil magnate family in Dallas.
23. David Brin, The Postman (London: Bantam, 1987), 1 (Brin 1987).
24. Brin, The Postman, 147 (Brin 1987).
25. Sherri S. Tepper, The Gate to Women’s Country (London: Corgi, 1990), 171
(Tepper 1990).
26. Derrida, “No Apocalypse, Not Now,” 27 (Derrida 1984).
27. Johnson, Fiskadoro, 141–146, 155–156 (Johnson 1986).
28. Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Warday and the Journey Onward
(Great Britain: Coronet, 1985), 132 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
29. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 358 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).

30. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 372 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
31. Strieber and Kunetka, Warday, 372 (Strieber and Kunetka 1985).
32. Annabel Johnson and Edgar Johnson, The Danger Quotient (New York:
Harper & Row, 1984), 23 (Johnson and Johnson 1984).
33. Vonda N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake (London: Pan, 1979), 176 (McIntyre
34. Michael Swanwick, “The Feast of Saint Janis”, in Walter M. Miller, Jr. and
Martin H. Greenberg (eds), Beyond Armageddon (Lincoln: University of
Nebraska Press, 2006), 300 (Swanwick 2006).
35. Robert R. McCammon, Swan Song (New York: Open Road, 2011), Kindle
edition, 422 (McCammon 2011).
36. Johnson, Fiskadoro, 128 (Johnson 1986).
37. Brinkley, Last Ship, 31 (Brinkley 1989).
38. Johnson and Johnson, Danger Quotient, 66 (Johnson and Johnson 1984).
39. Neal Barrett, Jr., “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus”, in John Joseph Adams
(ed.), Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse (San Francisco: Nightshade,
2008), 277 (Barrett 2008).
40. Tepper, Gate to Women’s Country, 249 (Tepper 1990).
41. Tepper, Gate to Women’s Country, 74 (Tepper 1990). Ellipses in original.
42. Tepper, Gate to Women’s Country, 195 (Tepper 1990).
43. Johnson, Fiskadoro, 128 (Johnson 1986).
44. Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds”, in Adams (ed.), Wastelands, 249 (Butler
45. Butler, “Speech Sounds”, 250 (Butler 2008).
46. Lucius Shepard, “Salvador”, in Miller and Greenberg (eds), Beyond
Armageddon, 29 (Shepard 2006).
47. Shepard, “Salvador”, 29–30 (Miller and Greenberg 2006).
48. M.K. Wren, A Gift Upon the Shore (London: Penguin, 1990), 149 (Wren
49. Wren, Gift Upon the Shore, 148 (Wren 1990).
50. Wren, Gift Upon the Shore, 149 (Wren 1990).
51. Wren, Gift Upon the Shore, 150 (Wren 1990).
52. Wren, Gift Upon the Shore, 150 (Wren 1990).
53. Wren, Gift Upon the Shore, 277 (Wren 1990).
54. Wren, Gift Upon the Shore, 97 (Wren 1990).
55. Wren, Gift Upon the Shore, 346 (Wren 1990).
56. Wren, Gift Upon the Shore, 372 (Wren 1990).
57. Martin Amis, “Introduction: Thinkability”, in Amis, Einstein’s Monsters
(London: Vintage, 2003), 24 (Amis 2003b).
58. For instance, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory makes an
appearance, an analogy is made with the death of Louis Slotin from a
radiation accident at Los Alamos in 1946 and the Russians try to contain

the spread of the noocytes by bombing Panama and (unsuccessfully) the

United States. Greg Bear, Blood Music (London: Orion, 2001), 36–40, 102,
139, 174 (Bear 2001).
59. Bear, Blood Music, 92 (Bear, 2001).
60. Stephen King, “The End of the Whole Mess”, in Wastelands: Stories of the
Apocalypse, ed. John Joseph Adams (San Francisco: Nightshade, 2008), 15
(King 2008).
61. J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun (London: Fourth Estate, 2014), Kindle
edition, 226, 276 (Ballard 2014).
62. Martin Booth, Hiroshima Joe (London: Arrow, 1986), 382 (Booth 1986).
63. Orson Scott Card, “Salvage”, in Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse, ed.
John Joseph Adams (San Francisco: Nightshade, 2008), 26 (Card 2008).
64. Card, “Salvage”, 29 (Adams 2008).
65. Alex Hunt, “McCarthy’s The Crossing”, The Explicator 56.3 (1998): 158
(Hunt 1998).
66. Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (London: Bloomsbury, 2002), 2–4 (Hoban
67. Hoban, Riddley Walker, 32 (Hoban 2002).
68. Hoban, Riddley Walker, 124 (Hoban 2002).
69. Hoban, Riddley Walker, 126 (Hoban 2002).
70. Hoban, Riddley Walker, 7 (Hoban 2002).
71. Hoban, Riddley Walker, 7 (Hoban 2002).
72. Sarah Segrue, “Nuclear Fuel Trains ‘Put Thousands at Risk’”, The Times,
October 13, 1980, 2.
73. Anon, “Fuel Flask Survives 100mph Impact”, The Times, July 18, 1984, 3.
For pictures of the accident seek Anon, “How a 140-Ton Locomotive
Failed to Crack the Power Men’s Confidence in Nuclear Safety”, The
Times, July 18, 1984, 3.
74. Don DeLillo, White Noise (London: Picador, 1986), 206 (DeLillo 1986).
75. Maggie Gee, Grace (London: Sphere, 1989), 13 (Gee 1989).
76. Gee, Grace, 29–30 (Gee 1989).
77. Gee, Grace, 135 (Gee 1989).
78. Gee, Grace, 152 (Gee 1989).
79. J.G. Ballard, “The Secret History of World War 3”, in Ballard, War Fever
(London: Palladin, 1991), 28 (Ballard 1991).
80. Ballard, “Secret History of World War 3”, 31 (Ballard 1991).
81. Martin Amis, London Fields (London: Vintage, 2003), 288–289, 394 (Amis
82. Amis, London Fields, 423 (Amis 2003b).
83. Amis, London Fields, 446 (Amis 2003b).

84. Ian McEwan, The Child in Time (London: Vintage, 1992), 33–34
(McEwan 1992).
85. Daniel Grausam, On Endings: American Postmodern Fiction and the Cold
War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2011), 4, 5. (Grausam

Conclusion: Between the Wars

The British singer-songwriter Billy Bragg’s song “Between the Wars”

(1985), speaks to a country shaped by military and industrial conflict.
Telling the story of a working-class everyman (the narrator works at the
mines, the railways and the docks between World Wars I and II), it is more
obviously about the miners’ strike of 1984–1985 than it is about nuclear
concerns. The threats of unemployment, war and an economy built on war
are countered by dreams of employment, peace and a society that will
provide support from “cradle-to-grave”.
It is a complex song, steeped in the folk protest tradition (it invokes the
American singer Woody Guthrie), ideals of working class solidarity and the
history of welfare reform since World War II. There is not room to discuss
these dimensions in detail, but in one crucial sense it speaks, albeit obli-
quely, to the nuclear age. Three times its refrain, “between the wars”, is in
the past tense, referring to the interwar period of the 1920s and 1930s. In
the final line, though, it shifts to the present tense to say that we are
between the wars. Taking us into a present moment shaped by industrial
strife and shadowed by the threat of conflict, it conjures up a 1980s lived
in anticipation of war. Such a conflict would in all expectation have been
As we have seen, nuclear culture infused the 1980s and as such a
nuclear consciousness was widely diffused throughout literature of the
period. It occurred in those obvious literary places—fictions “about” the
nuclear problem—but it arose too in telling moments in texts that do not

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so clearly invite us to read them as nuclear. Such moments are semi-

conscious, sometimes unconscious, tics by which a deep-lying nuclear
psyche is revealed. Singly these moments tell us very little, but read
collectively they are symptomatic of a broader sense of cultural unease.
Once we become aware of it, the late nuclear Cold War appears, if not
quite everywhere, certainly very prolifically as if, as Tom Vanderbilt has
said of Cold War architecture, it were hidden “in plain view” and we need
only refocus the lenses through which we see the world.1 Of course, as
well as in fiction, it appears too in those other areas—poetry, plays, music,
television, theatre, cinema and the media—that there has not been space
to discuss in this book, but that also chart the ways by which nuclear
weapons, strategy, power, accidents, waste and materials were fraught
areas of concern.
Nuclear literature resonated in complex ways with the politics of the
time. Rarely overt about what precisely should be done about nuclear
weapons, it nevertheless produced visions of the nuclear present and of
possible nuclear futures that entered into the febrile political atmosphere
of the 1980s and could be appropriated for a range of perspectives. The
highly charged protect–protest dynamic outlined in Chapter 1 was a strong
shaping influence on both the production and the reception of this
The literature was significant too for its expression of a sense of vulner-
ability in the late Cold War, laying bare the nuclear contexts underpinning
everyday life. As this book has discussed, such vulnerability need not be
acquiescent to the status quo. The exposure of personal and collective peril
often transmuted into a politics of vulnerability. At its most simple and
most idealistic, this could be a starting point for the assertion of a common
humanity with which to oppose the latent and actual violence of the late
Cold War.
The literature of the 1980s also mapped nuclear issues into the broader
social and economic issues animating political debate. In part, the role of
nuclear technology, particularly nuclear missiles, was symbolic. Most crudely,
opponents of nuclear missiles might invoke them simplistically, using them as
a shorthand way to gesture to all that was wrong with the Cold War nuclear
state, but they took on more subtle and sophisticated meanings too. Missiles’
role within Cold War nuclear strategy was also in some ways symbolic (or, at
least it was in so far as that strategy was shaped still by intimations of Mutual
Assured Destruction, despite all the talk of “winnable”, “limited” and
“theatre” nuclear wars). Their purpose was less to achieve particular

military objectives by being fired, than to shape and constrain the actions
of the “enemy” by the cataclysmic future they symbolised and threatened.
But nuclear technology’s significance went far beyond the symbolic.
Nuclear industry, incorporating a panoply of processes from mining of raw
materials, manufacture of technologies and power production to trans-
port, storage, deployment and disposal of nuclear materials and artefacts,
along with the infrastructures accompanying these things, was intimately
bound up with the broader social, economic, political and, of course,
cultural structures of the late Cold War. It was knotted into everyday
life. Consequently, literature of the period depicted nuclear concerns
arising amidst other issues.
All these things suggest why we should have a historical interest in
nuclear culture of the late Cold War: it opens up dimensions of the period
that have thus far been insufficiently documented. A rich and complex
area, with a mindset distinct from the earlier Cold War, it challenges some
of our critical assumptions about the decade. The literature of the 1980s is
a nuclear literature. It is, of course, a lot of other things besides, but the
nuclear experience is a defining aspect of the period and should be
acknowledged as such.
Nor is the literature only of historical interest: it should speak to us still
for it includes some extraordinary, rich and vibrant texts. Such texts are
valuable in the way that literature is more broadly valuable: for what it says
and the questions it asks about being human. In particular, nuclear litera-
ture asks us to confront the nature and limits of human experience and to
reflect on how our technologies shape our culture and society. It may
even, in addressing potential ends to human civilisation, wrench us out of
the timescales of human lifetimes through which we ordinarily chart
human significance. It prompts us to think of our species in the contexts
of deep time that have recently attended the rise of the concept of the
What nuclear literature also does is remind us that the specifically
nuclear issues it raises have not gone away. Nuclear technologies are
present—they are here, now—and the world remains nuclear in complex
and subtle ways. While arguments for and against persisting with nuclear
energy and nuclear deterrents are not easily resolved, what will not do is to
ignore the nuclear presence. We continue to generate toxic waste that we
must keep safe for tens of thousands of years, far beyond the lifetimes of
any civilization that has existed on this planet. We retain the capacity to
inflict horror on our fellow human beings and on our world, through

nuclear war, that staggers comprehension.2 When the stakes are so high
we have to know what we mean by risk and what, if anything, constitutes
acceptable risk.
Nuclear literature cannot resolve these dilemmas, but it makes us aware of
them and at its best it challenges us to imagine our possible futures in all their
beauty and their horror. It reminds us that we might, still, be between the

1. Paul Vanderbilt, Survival City: Adventures Among the Ruins of Atomic
America (New York: Princeton, 2002), 19 (Vanderbilt 2002).
2. William Bunge claims that the missiles on a single Poseidon submarine in
1982 contained three times all the firepower expended throughout World
War II. Eric Schlosser claims that the warhead on a single Titan II missile
“had a yield of 9 megatons—about three times the explosive force of all the
bombs dropped during the Second World War, including both atomic
bombs.” Such figures are hard to verify, are subject to estimation and shift
with new nuclear technologies, but they give a sense of the scale involved.
Bunge, Nuclear War Atlas, 12 (Bunge 1988); Schlosser, Command and
Control, 3 (Schlosser 2014).

This timeline does not include every nuclear text of the long 1980s, but it
might help in situating those that particularly informed this study. As
novels and short stories are the main focus of this book, they feature
most frequently, but a little drama, poetry and non-fiction prose is also
included as the reader may appreciate being able to locate this.
How these texts are nuclear varies tremendously. Some are explicitly
and directly so, but in others there are just passing nuclear moments or a
broadly apocalyptic dimension resonating with the nuclear consciousness
of the period.
A final qualification is that the distinction between British and US
writers is not always straightforward. For instance, Russell Hoban, who
spent marginally less of his life in Britain than in the United States, has
been classified as British because Riddley Walker was written in Britain and
is deeply imbued with the landscape and cultural topography of Kent, but
Pamela Service, whose Winter of Magic’s Return is similarly infused with
British geography and mythology (of Wales, the West Country and King
Arthur), is classified as American because her time in Britain (three years
studying archaeology) was more limited. It will be noticed that there are
many more US than British texts listed (seventy-three to twenty-four), but
this reflects the relative sizes of the countries’ populations (approximately
226 million to 56 million in 1980).

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British Literature
David Graham, Down to a Sunless Sea (1979); John Hackett et al, The
Third World War: August 1985 (1978; rev. ed. published in 1982 as The
Third World War: The Untold Story)

US Literature
Stephen King, The Stand (1978; rev. ed. published 1990); Vonda
N. McIntyre, Dreamsnake (1978); Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977)

Cold War and Other Contexts

Clamshell Alliance begins protests against Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant,
New Hampshire (1976); Abalone Alliance begins protests against Diablo
Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, California (1977); NATO decision to deploy
cruise and Pershing II missiles in Europe (1979); Three Mile Island acci-
dent (1979); Conservative Party victory in British General Election—
Margaret Thatcher becomes Prime Minister (1979); Strategic Arms
Limitation Treaty (SALT) II signed (but withdrawn from Senate approval
after Soviet invasion of Afghanistan); Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979)

British Literature
Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker

US Literature
Michael Swanwick, “The Feast of Saint Janis”

Cold War and Other Contexts

Ronald Reagan elected US President; European Nuclear Disarmament
(END) Appeal; Solidarity (trade union) formed in Poland, initiating a
series of crises throughout the 1980s; US-led boycott of Moscow
Olympics; Existence of Chevaline programme to update Polaris revealed

to Parliament; British government signs agreement with US to update

Polaris to Trident

British Literature
Bernard Benson, The Peace Book; Yorick Blumenfeld, Jenny: My Diary

US Literature
Carol Amen, “The Last Testament”; Arnold Madison, It Can’t Happen to Me

Cold War and Other Contexts

Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp established; Livermore Action
Group begins protests against Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory;
Reagan orders production of neutron warheads for US missiles.


British Literature
Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows; Sue Townsend, The Secret Diary
of Adrian Mole Aged 13¾

US Literature
Judy Blume, Tiger Eyes; Dudley Bromley, Final Warning; Gerald
Jampolskyet al (eds), Children as Teachers of Peace; Bernard Malamud,
God’s Grace; Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth; Peace Pilgrim, Peace
Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in Her Own Words; Alice Walker, “Nuclear
Madness: What You Can Do”

Cold War and Other Contexts

“Embrace the Base” action, Greenham Common; TTAPS paper propos-
ing “nuclear winter” theory; Falklands War; Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet
leader, dies—replaced by Yuri Andropov

British Literature
Maggie Gee, The Burning Book; Barbara Goodwin, The K/V Papers

US Literature
Octavia Butler, “Speech Sounds”; William Prochnau, Trinity’s Child

Cold War and Other Contexts

Cruise missiles arrive at Greenham Common; Seneca Women’s Peace Camp
established; Ronald Reagan announces Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI)—
aka Star Wars; United States invasion of Grenada; South Korean airliner, KAL
007 shot down when it enters Soviet airspace; Conservative Party victory in
British General Election—Margaret Thatcher remains Prime Minister; Able
Archer exercise suspected to be cover for NATO attack by Soviet Union

British Literature
J.G. Ballard, Empire of the Sun; Brian Bethell, The Defence Diaries of
W. Morgan Petty; Robert Swindells, Brother in the Land; Sue Townsend,
The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole

US Literature
Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October; Don DeLillo, White Noise; James
D. Forman, Doomsday Plus Twelve; Annabel and Edgar Johnson, The
Danger Quotient; Arthur Kopit, End of the World; Jane Langton, The
Fragile Flag; Clint McCown, “Survivalists”; David R. Palmer,
Emergence; Jayne Anne Phillips, Machine Dreams; Kim Stanley
Robinson, The Wild Shore; Jonathan Schell, “The Abolition”; Lucius
Shepard, “Salvador”; Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Warday and
the Journey Onward; James Thackara, America’s Children; John Witte
(ed.), Warnings: An Anthology on the Nuclear Peril

Cold War and Other Contexts

Miners’ strike starts in UK; Ronald Reagan wins second term in office;
Yuri Andropov, Soviet leader, dies—replaced by Konstantin Chernenko;
Soviet-led boycott of Los Angeles Olympics

British Literature
Martin Booth, Hiroshima Joe; Louise Lawrence, Children of the Dust

US Literature
Greg Bear, Blood Music; David Brin, The Postman; Paul Cook, Duende
Meadow; Orson Scott Card, Ender’s Game; William Gaddis,
Carpenter’s Gothic; John Hersey, Hiroshima (update of 1946 edition,
with extra chapter); Denis Johnson, Fiskadoro; Ursula Le Guin, Always
Coming Home; Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian; Gloria Miklowitz,
After the Bomb; Walter M. Miller, Jr. and Martin Greenberg (eds),
Beyond Armageddon; Phyllis Reynolds Naylor, The Dark of the Tunnel;
Tim O’Brien, The Nuclear Age; Grace Paley, Later the Same Day;
Whitley Strieber, Wolf of Shadows; Pamela F. Service, Winter of
Magic’s Return; Kurt Vonnegut, Galapagos; Susan B. Weston,
Children of the Light

Cold War and Other Contexts

“Ribbon Around the Pentagon” action, Washington DC (Aug);
Konstantin Chernenko, Soviet leader, dies—replaced by Mikhail
Gorbachev; Geneva Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev

British Literature
Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins, Watchmen (continues into
1987); Jonathan Raban, Coasting

US Literature
Orson Scott Card, “Salvage”; Tom Clancy, Red Storm Rising; Lynn Hall,
If Winter Comes; Stephen King, “The End of the Whole Mess”; Gary
Paulson, Sentries; Martin Cruz Smith, Stallion Gate; Julian F. Thompson,
A Band of Angels; Stephanie S. Tolan, Pride of the Peacock; Judith Vigna,
Nobody Wants a Nuclear War

Cold War and Other Contexts

Chernobyl nuclear power station accident, Ukraine; first MX (aka
Peacekeeper) missiles deployed at Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming;
Reykjavik Summit between Reagan and Gorbachev

British Literature
Martin Amis, Einstein’s Monsters; Ian McEwan, The Child in Time

US Literature
Paul Auster, In the Country of Last Things; Octavia E. Butler, Dawn;
Robert R. McCammon, Swan Song; Frederik Pohl, Chernobyl: A Novel;
Barbara and Scott Siegal, The Burning Land

Cold War and Other Contexts

Thatcher visits Moscow; Gorbachev visits London and Washington;
Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty signed by Reagan and

British Literature
J.G. Ballard, “The Secret History of World War 3”; Maggie Gee,

US Literature
Neal Barratt, Jr., “Ginny Sweethips’ Flying Circus”; William Brinkley, The
Last Ship; Richard Powers, Prisoner’s Dilemma; Sherri S. Tepper, The Gate
to Women’s Country

Cold War and Other Contexts

Reagan visits Moscow; George Bush elected US President

British Literature
Martin Amis, London Fields; Julian Barnes, A History of the World in 10½
Chapters; Taggart Deike et al, Plays for the Nuclear Age; Sue Townsend,
The True Confessions of Adrian Albert Mole, Margaret Hilda Roberts and
Susan Lillian Townsend

US Literature
John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany

Cold War and Other Contexts

Revolts in Eastern Europe and fall of the Berlin Wall; Gorbachev and Bush
meet in Malta; FBI raid on Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, exposing
safety concerns; Tiananmen Square Massacre


British Literature
P.D. James, The Children of Men (1992); Jonathan Coe, What a Carve Up!

US Literature
John Bradley (ed.), Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the Nuclear
Age (1995); Tom Clancy, The Sum of All Fears (1991); Nancy Kress,

“Inertia” (1990); Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing (1994); Thomas

Pynchon, Vineland (1990); Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey
into the Landscape Wars of the American West (1994); Terry Tempest
Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991);
M.K. Wren, A Gift Upon the Shore (1990)

Cold War and Other Contexts

Reunification of Germany (1990); Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty
(START) signed by Soviet Union and US (1991); First Gulf War

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A Barnes, Julian, 209

Abalone Alliance, 16, 28, 115, 204 A History of the World in 10½
Ackerman, Thomas P, 116 Chapters, 209
Adams, Ruth, 165n1, 165n9, 196n63 Barratt, Neal, Jr, 209
Afghanistan, Soviet invasion of, 3, 204 Ginny Sweethips’ Flying
Akizuki, Tatsuichiro, 14 Circus, 178, 195n39, 209
Amen, Carol, 205 Bear, Greg, 195n58, 207
The Last Testament, 111n72, 205 Blood Music, 184–185, 195n58, 207
Amis, Martin Belletto, Steven, 6, 22n12
Einstein’s Monsters, 167n52, 183, Benn, Tony, 1, 2
195n57, 208 Benson, Bernard, 75n37, 205
London Fields, 7, 27, 40–42, The Peace Book, 63, 75n37, 205
148–150, 192, 209 Berlin Wall, 3, 209
Money, 42 Bethell, Brian, 23n30, 206
Andropov, Yuri, 205, 207 The Defence Diaries of W. Morgan
Anthropocene, 201 Petty, 23n30, 206
Archive, 20, 60, 170, 171, Blume, Judy, 75n42, 205
175, 177, 181–183, Tiger Eyes, 65, 205
188, 189 Blumenfeld, Yorick, 170, 194n7,
Auster, Paul, 208 194n22, 205
In the Country of Last Things, Jenny, My Diary, 89, 169–172,
185, 208 193n1, 194n7, 194n22, 205
Booth, Martin, 196n62, 207
Hiroshima Joe, 185, 207
B Boulton, Leslie, 86
Ballard, J.G Boyer, Paul, 19, 24n38, 165n2
Empire of the Sun, 185, 206 Bradley, John, 8, 209
The Secret History of World Atomic Ghost: Poets Respond to the
War 3, 191, 192, 208 Nuclear Age, 209

© The Author(s) 2017 223

D. Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture,
DOI 10.1057/978-1-137-51308-3

Bragg, Billy, 199 Clamshell Alliance, 16, 28, 115, 204

Brayndick, Michael, 112n95 Clancy, Tom
Brett, Guy, 57, 74n21 The Hunt for Red October,
Brezhnev, Leonid, 205 53, 206
Briggs, Raymond, 23n29, 206 Red Storm Rising, 53, 208
When the Wind Blows, 7, 14, 23n29, The Sum of All Fears, 53, 209
84, 205 Coe, Jonathan, 109n15,
Brin, David, 207 166n15, 209
The Postman, 6, 89, 176, 207 What a Carve Up!, 109n15,
Brinkley, William, 51, 125, 126, 174, 166n16, 209
209 Conservative Party, 81, 204, 206
The Last Ship, 51, 125, 126, 174, Containment culture, 3, 22n8,
175, 178, 209 77–112
Bromley, Dudley, 60, 205 Cook, Alice, 16, 23n31, 31, 43n8, 57,
Final Warning, 60, 205 58, 75n22, 86, 87, 109n22,
Buell, Laurence, 134 110n28, 207
Bunge, William, 139n61, 202n2 Cook, Paul, 125, 160, 173, 207
Burrows, John, 14 Duende Meadow, 125, 160, 163,
Bush, George, 209 168n66, 173, 207
Bush, Kate, 120 Cordle, Daniel, 21n7, 74n14,
Butler, Octavia 110n32, 167n33
Dawn, 184, 208 Coupland, Douglas, 89
Speech Sounds, 180, 206 Generation X, 89
Cox, John, 4, 22n9
Cruise missiles, 1, 15, 30, 31,
C 37, 48, 49, 58, 85, 86,
Caldicott, Helen, 8, 58, 63, 143, 165n2 125, 206
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament Cuban Missile Crisis, 3, 6
(CND), 1 Cullen, Susan, 165n1, 165n9
Campbell, Duncan, 156
Card, Orson Scott
Ender’s Game, 191, 207 D
Salvage, 185, 196n63, 208 Day After, The, 8, 76n64, 84, 130
Carson, Rachel, 125–127 Deike, Taggart, 209
Chang, Ha-Joon, 166n11 Plays for the Nuclear Age, 8, 209
Chernenko, Konstantin, 207 DeLillo, Don, 151, 190, 193, 206
Chernobyl, 4, 69, 114, 120, 138n22, White Noise, 151–152, 190, 206
208 Derrida, Jacques, 170, 171, 176, 183,
China Syndrome, The, 114 193n2
Civil defence, 10, 12–16, 18, 47, 48, Diablo Canyon, 28, 115, 204
64, 65, 77, 81–84, 88, 108n5, Discharge, 14
124, 130, 155, 156 Dubliners, The, 14

E The K/V Papers, 14, 30, 147, 206

Edge of Darkness, 8, 114, 115 Gorbachev, Mikhail, 193, 207–209
Eisenhower, Dwight D, 143 Graham, David, 32, 34, 51, 126, 204
Electromagnetic pulse (EMP), 4, 145 Down to a Sunless Sea, 32, 34, 51,
Epstein, Barbara, 24n33, 28, 43n3, 126, 204
43n7, 87, 110n23, 110n28, 116, Grant, Matthew, 78–79, 108n5
137n4 Grausam, Daniel, 22n11, 91, 110n39,
European Nuclear Disarmament 193, 197n85
Appeal (END), 31, 204 Greenberg, Martin, 29, 207, See also
Miller, Walter M., Jr.
Greenham Common, 15, 16, 30, 31,
F 57, 62, 74n20, 85, 86, 205, 206
Falklands War, 158 Greenham Common Women’s Peace
Falk, Richard, 47, 55, 67, 74n13 Camp, 205
Falwell, Jerry, 73n2 Green, Sarah, 16, 58
Faulkner, William, 97
Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA), 84
Fermi, Enrico, 36 H
Forman, James D, 63, 157, Hales, Peter B., 51
173, 206 Hall, Lynn, 72
Doomsday Plus Twelve, 63, 157, If Winter Comes, 22n15, 72, 89, 90,
173, 206 124, 129, 130, 208
Freeze Campaign, 1, 18, 21n3 Hammond, Andrew, 6, 49, 79
Freud, Sigmund, 68 Hard Rock, 15
Friedman, Milton, 27, 38, 147 Heath, Edward, 27, 43n2
Hennessy, Peter, 108n5
Hersey, John, 14
G Hiroshima, 14, Higgins, John, 14,
Gaddis, William, 186, 208 207
Carpenter’s Gothic, 186, 207 Hines, Barry, 48, 124, 145, 156, 178,
Gaia theory, 114–115 179
Galbraith, J.K, 141, 143, 147, 148 Hiroshima, 14, 48, 60, 74n13, 97,
Gallagher, Carole, 117 104, 120, 136, 185, 190
Gee, Maggie Hoban, Russell, 6, 37, 123, 138n37,
The Burning Book, 7, 14, 27, 30, 187, 188
42, 54, 60, 90, 91, 95, 96, 98, Riddley Walker, 6, 37, 123,
99, 106, 127, 172, 206 138n37, 187, 188
Grace, 7, 114, 120, 138n22, 190, Hogg, Jonathan, 76n48, 78, 79, 108n5
205, 208 Hudson, Kate, 43n7
Geiger, H. Jack, 144–145 Humphrey, Nicholas, 14
Gibbons, Dave, 7, 184, 207 Huxley, Aldous, 110n34
Goodwin, Barbara, 14, 30, 147, 206 Ape and Essence, 110n34

International Physicians for the Labour Party, 67, 151
Prevention of Nuclear War Lakenheath, 22n15, 30, 54, 56, 57
(IPPNW), 143, 146, 165n9 Langton, Jane, 62, 90
Irving, John, 24n39 The Fragile Flag, 62, 63, 90, 206
A Prayer for Owen Meany, Lawrence Livermore National
24n39, 209 Laboratory, 28, 115, 195n58
Lawrence, Louise, 28, 84, 101, 103,
120, 122, 124, 157–159, 174
Children of the Dust, 84, 101–108,
James, P.D., 184
120, 122, 124, 157, 159, 162,
The Children of Men, 184, 209
164, 174, 207
Jampolsky, Gerald, 64
Le Guin, Ursula, 99, 101, 103,
Children as Teachers of Peace, 64, 205
104, 107, 159, 163, 164, 185
Jethro Tull, 14
Always Coming Home, 101–108,
Johnson, Annabel and Edgar, 89, 177
159, 163, 185, 207
The Danger Quotient, 89, 90, 177,
Lenz, Millicent, 22n14, 122
178, 206
Lifton, Robert Jay, 47, 54, 66, 67, 70,
Johnson, Denis, 119, 173
74n13, 171
Fiskadoro, 119, 173, 176, 178, 179,
Limited Test Ban Treaty, 113
187, 207
Lindsey, Hal, 73n2
Johnson, Rebecca, 58
Livermore Action Group, 16, 28, 115
Jones, Lynne, 57
Lovelock, James, 114
Joseph, Keith, 27, 43n2, 81
Lown, Bernard, 145

King, Stephen Madison, Arnold, 62, 90, 119
The End of the Whole Mess, 185, It Can’t Happen to Me, 62,
196n60, 208 90, 119
The Stand, 7, 51, 204 Malamud, Bernard, 89, 175
King, Ynestra, 109n22, 110n23 God’s Grace, 89, 175, 205
Kinnock, Neil, 1, 2 Mark, Carson, 146
Kirk, Gwyn, 16, 31, 57, 58, 86, 87, Markle, Gerald, 1, 21n5
110n28 Masco, Joseph, 10, 68, 69, 118,
Kissinger, Henry, 43n2 126, 189
Kistiakowsky, George, 146 May, Elaine Tyler, 3, 77–80
Klein, Naomi, 166n11 McCammon, Robert R., 7, 124, 151,
Kopit, Arthur, 206 157, 178
End of the World, 206 Swan Song, 7, 124, 151, 157,
Kunetka, James, 7, 32, 33, 37, 126, 178, 208
152–155, 176–177, See also McCarthy, Cormac
Strieber, Whitley Blood Meridian, 186, 207

The Crossing, 186, 210 North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

McCown, Clint, 173 (NATO), 1, 3, 27, 28, 30–31, 37,
Survivalists, 173 40, 42, 64, 85, 89, 189
McCrea, Frances, 1, 21n6 Nuclear Free Zone, 2, 15, 23n30, 107
McEwan, Ian, 7, 30, 38, 41, 42, Nuclear transatlantic, 27, 32–43
44n29, 89, 148, 150, 192 Nuclear uncanny, 68, 69, 118, 126, 189
The Child in Time, 7, 30, 38, 40, Nuclear winter, 4, 49, 116, 123–128,
41, 44n29, 89, 110n31, 158, 160, 174, 181
148–150, 192, 208
McIntyre, Vonda N., 101, 107, 123,
161, 177
O’Brien, Tim, 55, 71, 151, 186
Dreamsnake, 101–108, 123,
The Nuclear Age, 55, 71, 74n14,
161–163, 177, 204
151, 186, 207
Merril, Judith
Oppenheimer, J. Robert, 35–37
Shadow on the Hearth, 111n72
Orwell, George, 37
That Only a Mother, 111n72,
Nineteen Eighty-Four, 44n23
Merritt, Justine, 17, 18
Miklowitz, Gloria, 118 P
After the Bomb, 118, 207 Palmer, David R., 175
Miller, Walter M., Jr., 29, 123 Emergence, 175, 206
Beyond Armageddon (with Martin Panorama, 10, 23n20, 156
Greenberg), 29, 43n4, 123, Paulson, Gary
138n38, 207 Sentries, 208
Miners’ strike, 1984–85, 157, 199 Paley, Grace, 7, 16, 85, 100, 101
Miracle Mile, 8 Anxiety, 100, 111n70
Moore, Alan, 7, 184 Later the Same Day, 7, 100, 207
Mutual Assured Destruction Pentagon Action Unity Statement, see
(MAD), 4, 10, 200 Women’s Pentagon Action
MX missiles, 142 Pershing II missiles, 3, 31
Pershing, Linda, 62
Phillips, Jayne Anne, 71
N Machine Dreams, 71, 206
Nadel, Alan, 3, 77–80 Physicians for Social Responsibility
Nagasaki, 14, 48, 97, 104, 136, 185 (PSR), 143, 165n1
Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds, 64, 66, 84, Piette, Adam, 6
90, 124 Pilgrim, Peace, 18
The Dark of the Tunnel, 64, 66, 84, Peace Pilgrim: Her Life and Work in
90, 124, 207 Her Own Words, 18, 24n36, 205
Noel-Baker, Philip, 4 Ploughman’s Lunch, 87
Norman, Midred Lisette, see Pilgrim, Pohl, Frederik, 138n22
Peace Chernobyl: A Novel, 138n22, 208

Polaris missiles, 37 Service, Pamela F., 125, 174

Politics of vulnerability, 17, 20, 47–76, Winter of Magic’s Return, 125, 126,
95, 99, 128, 129, 136, 171, 200 174, 203, 207
Pollack, James B., 116 Shepard, Lucius, 180
Postmodernism, 6, 20 “Salvador”, 180, 206
Powers, Richard, 89, 90, 187 Shute, Nevil, 88
Prisoner’s Dilemma, 89, 90–101, On the Beach, 88
111n50, 187, 209 Sidel, Victor W., 146, 165n9
Prochnau, William, 7, 53, 124, 127 Siegal, Barbara and Scott, 7, 52
Trinity’s Child, 7, 53, 124, 127, 206 The Burning Land, 7, 52, 208
Protect and Survive, 10, 11, 12, 13, Silko, Leslie Marmon, 136, 186
14, 15, 82–83, 156 Ceremony, 136, 186, 204
Protect-protest dynamic, 3, 9, 32, 200 Smith, Dan, 14
Protest and Survive, 13, 14, 16, 49 Smith, Martin Cruz, 7, 35
Pynchon, Thomas Stallion Gate, 7, 35, 140n82, 208
The Crying of Lot, 49, 70 Solnit, Rebecca, 117, 118, 119, 127,
Gravity’s Rainbow, 70 131, 132, 137n7
Vineland, 70, 210 Savage Dreams: A Journey into the
Landscape Wars of the American
West, 117, 127, 131, 137n7, 210
Star Wars, see Strategic Defence
Raban, Jonathan, 54
Coasting, 54, 207
Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty
Rainbow Warrior, 114
(SALT), 1 and 2, 204
Reagan, Ronald, 3, 5, 15, 18, 19, 20,
Strategic Defence Initiative (SDI), 4
24n37, 25, 26, 27, 29, 30, 38,
Strieber, Whitley, 7, 32, 33, 37, 124,
43, 53, 62, 63, 81, 82, 142, 147,
126, 152–153, 155, 176
148, 154, 155, 191, 193
Warday and the Journey Onward
Ribbon Around the Pentagon, 17, 31,
(with James Kunetka), 126, 206
62, 87
Wolf of Shadows, 124, 126, 207
Robinson, Kim Stanley, 125, 157, 173
Swanwick, Michael, 89, 177
The Wild Shore, 125, 157, 173, 206
The Feast of Saint Janis, 89, 177, 204
Rocky Flats, 62, 113
Swindells, Robert, 14, 23n28, 84,
119, 126, 155
S Brother in the Land, 14, 84, 119,
Schell, Jonathan, 7, 8, 66, 70, 125, 130 126, 155, 157, 162, 163,
The Abolition, 7, 76n58, 206 167n52, 206
The Fate of the Earth, 7, 66, 70, 125,
130, 205
Schlosser, Eric, 74n8, 202n2 T
Sellafield, 113, 190 Tepper, Sherri S., 101, 107, 122, 160,
Seneca Women’s Peace Camp, 206 161, 176, 179

The Gate to Women’s Country, 107, W

122, 161, 176, 179, 209 Walker, Alice
Testament, 8, 76n64, 112n72 Nuclear Madness: What You Can
Thackara, James, 6, 36, 37 Do, 8, 22n16, 205
America’s Children, 6, 36, 206 Only Justice Can Stop a Curse, 22n16
Thatcher, Margaret, 3, 5, 16, 20, 25, WarGames, 52
26, 27, 29, 30, 38, 41, 43, 81, Wasteland, 8
142, 147, 148 Web, image of, 128, 135, 145
Thompson, E.P., 13, 14, 16, 23n24, Weston, Susan B., 64
49, 115 Children of the Light, 64, 75n39, 207
Thompson, Julian F., 90 Whoops Apocalypse, 8
A Band of Angels, 90, 208 Willcox, Don, 44n10
Thoreau, Henry David, 63 Williams, Paul, 23n16
Threads, 8, 14, 29, 48, 73n1, 76n64, Williams, Terry Tempest, 7, 60, 127,
84, 110n28, 123, 135, 138n39, 128, 131
145, 156 Refuge: An Unnatural History of
Three Mile Island Family and Place, 7, 60, 127,
Times, The, 1, 10, 12, 14, 21n1, 21n2, 128, 131–136, 140n70, 210
190, 196n73 Windscale, see Sellafield
Tolan, Stephanie S., 76n46, 110n37, Witte, John, 194n9
139n65 Warnings: An Anthology on the
Pride of the Peacock, 66, 90, 130, 208 Nuclear Peril, 194n9, 206
Toon, Owen, 116 Women and Life on Earth:
Townsend, Sue Ecofeminism in the 1980s, 85
The Growing Pains of Adrian Women for Life on Earth, 85
Mole, 66, 206 Women’s Action for Nuclear
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Disarmament, 58
Aged 13¾, 66, 76n48, 205 Women’s Pentagon Action, 16, 31,
The True Confessions of Adrian 43n8, 62, 85, 87, 109n22,
Albert Mole, 86, 110n25, 209 110n23
Trident missiles, 37 Unity Statement, 85, 109n22
TTAPS paper, 124, 125 Women’s Statement to Newbury
Turco, Richard P., 116, 124 Magistrates Court, 85
Wren, M.K., 180–182
A Gift Upon the Shore, 180–182, 210
V Wylie, Philip, 88
Vanderbilt, Tom, 200 Tomorrow!, 88
Vigna, Judith, 61
Nobody Wants a Nuclear War, 61,
62, 208 Y
Vonnegut, Kurt, 184 Yes, Prime Minister, 8
Galapagos, 184, 207 Young Ones, The, 8