Monday, June 18, 2018

Fahrenheit 451

     I noticed Fahrenheit 451 had been made into a tv movie and, as I was cruising by, I watched it for a few minutes. The story did not resemble the book but it had been a long time since I have read it so it was time to take it off the shelf. A nuclear war breaks out at the end of the novel which fits in well with my recent apocalyptic theme. 
     Considering how crazy politics and the discussion have gotten lately, I am amazed to see that Ray Bradbury spotted this trend back in the early 1950's as he has Beatty tell the disillusioned fireman Montag,

     "Now let's take up the minorities in our civilization, shall we? Bigger the population, the more minorities. Don't step on the toes of the dog-lovers, the cat-lovers, doctors, lawyers, merchants, chiefs, Mormons, Baptists, Unitarians, second-generation Chinese, Swedes, Italians, Germans, Texans, Brooklynites, Irishmen, people from Oregon or Mexico. The people in this book, this play, this TV serial are not meant to represent any actual painters, cartographers, mechanics anywhere. The bigger your market, Montag, the less you handle controversy, remember that!

     Indeed. I think we are getting to the book burning stage. The younger generation is very comfortable with censorship.

     Having reread the book now. I can see that the HBO movie re-interprets the story in a very politically correct way. I will not compare the two since I did not watch the entire movie but there is an orthodoxy and it appears to be crime these days to disagree with all or part of the political narrative. A book on censorship was censored. 

     Somebody once suggested to me that Huxley's A Brave New World is the logical future of the society in the novel if that society was not obliterated by nuclear war.

The story opened with the glory and beauty of a large fire consuming a house and the books inside. Guy Montag was a happy fireman, or at least he thought he was happy until he met a teenage girl on his walk home from work and she made him realize that there is something missing in his life: human connection. He arrives home from his conversation with the teenaged sprite and finds his wife has committed suicide. After calling the emergency number, a non-medical crew shows up with a gadget that sucks the prescription pills out of suicides like Mildred since there are so many now. While the crew is working on Mildred, Montag could hear Clarisse and her family warmly talking on their porch and laughing. The emptiness of his life hits him even harder. 
     In the morning, Mildred wakes up and carries on as if nothing has happened. Most houses are equipped with large tv screens that take up the entire wall. There are no movies or dramas on those screens, just live action that seems to be quite a bit like reality tv. Viewers get to vote on things and can interact with characters on the screen. Mildred won the chance to speak a line on one of those programs by sending in boxtops. Except that the screens are so very large, one could be talking about social media, video games and the whole internet. 
     Montag returns to work but he is no longer the same man. The Hound, a cruel parody of the Dalmatian that fire halls used to keep as a mascot, 'senses' the change in him and begins to threaten him. Radio and television news occasionally break in with some statement about a looming war. For the next seven days, Clarisse would walk to the subway or to home with him, chattering away and then she was gone. 
     While Montage is processing the changes in himself, the firemen are sent to the house of  an old woman with a library full of books. Rather than run, she quotes Hugh Latimer, a Protestant martyr, executed in the time of Mary I. Latimer was an Oxford don who was executed for translating the Bible into English so that anyone could read it. The quote  recited by the old woman tells Latimer's co-conspirator to be of courage, that they would, with this burning (execution for heresy), light a candle that he hoped would never be put out. That candle would be knowledge. The statement is full of irony that the old lady's house and books and their knowledge are about to be extinguished by fire. Rather than go to the insane asylum, the old lady lights a match and sets herself on fire. With Montag's already fragile mental state, he is horror-struck and goes home and weeps. But he stole a book from the house and subsequent events show he has stolen books before. 
      The station captain came to visit Montag and talk to him about books and how the burning got started. It really was not necessary to burn the books, ordinary people, we, by complaining about being offended got rid of them ourselves. Considering the 'safe spaces', protests against professors who challenge the current narrative, politicians who deny scientific consensus on the basis of their feelings, one can hear Beatty say to Montag,  "the word intellectual became the dirty word it deserved to be".( A few months back there was a kerfuffle between Margaret Atwood and some Me Too activists. Atwood was pleading for due process and the rule of law while the activists accused her of being unorthodox. )
     Montag finds out that Clarisse was killed by a 'hit and run' and his rejection of social norms is cemented. He remembered an English professor he met once and goes to the man's house looking for help in exploring his new knowledge and processing it. Beatty has given him a deadline to get rid of the books. After the deadline passes and Montag screams in rage at his wife and her friends, he becomes a fugitive from the law. His house is burned, he burns Beatty and the Hound is set to track him down and kill him. He eludes capture but, because the hunt is broadcast live and the government must be seen as capable, the Hound is sent to kill a poor random man who is out taking a walk. 
      Montag escapes from the city and follows the railroad tracks to a transient community that tries to keep the books alive by memorizing their contents. While he is talking to those men, a nuclear strike hits the city and the decision is made to return to the city to help the survivors. 
      So how well did Bradbury foretell the future? Well, we are not burning books yet although some have been banned and offended minorities threaten Shakespeare and Mark Twain from time to time. Contests, diversions, people addicted to technology, a mental ill health epidemic are here now.  Bread and circuses to distract the mob from the war that is a constant backdrop. There are very few, if any years, where there has not been some war or other since 1900. As the bombers fly over Montag's house, he states there have been two atomic wars since 1990.  That has not happened but as more countries join the nuclear club, it is but a matter of time. 
      Montag also comments that they are so rich in the U.S. and the rest of the world is so poor and that may be why the world hates them. Partly true and good of him to admit not everyone loves 'America" the country. I have met many wonderful Americans but I would also say the American government's interference in the internal politics of so many sovereign nations is a bigger part of why they are hated.
         -Presidents are elected for their presence on tv, that has happened. Looks are not so important in U.S. politics but has played a part in Canadian elections, i.e. Robert Stanfield vs. Trudeau the elder. 
      - parents don't parent anymore, just shove their kids in front of a screen and leave them.
     -Bradbury did not foresee the growing income inequality. none of the science fiction writers did. Most imagined shorter work days with guaranteed income not longer days and insecure work or outsourcing. Not being greedy themselves, they underestimate the greed of others. 
    - the war began and ended in an instant. Thanks to intercontinental ballistic missiles, it is no longer necessary for jets to zoom overhead and drop the bombs. However, we will have the godawfulness of the warning to take cover while they are on their way. Once it turns nuclear, it would not last long. I do not think there would have been a third nuclear war like in the novel. 
     - the description of the blast is not realistic. There would be a light but those looking at it would likely be blinded. The city would be vaporized not lifted up in the air to crash back down. There would be a wind, a shock wave, knocking trees, buildings, men down, but it would come with heat and no one would want to walk back to the city to help survivors as there is not likely to be any and the radiation would kill the helpers. Montag and the other survivors are close enough to the city to be burned in the ensuing fires. 
     -The survivors would not need these men and their books. There will be famine and there will be disease, homelessness, cold and other manner of suffering. Novels will be of no use in such a world for a long time after. 
      -the reason for the war is never given. The public is kept in the dark as to what the government is doing, who they are at war with and why.   We are not so blind yet, but we could be. 
     -Bradbury does not try hard to imagine what life would be like after a nuclear war, the apocalypse is really the catastrophic event that it would take to change the current course of humanity. 
    

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

On The Beach

     Published in 1957, 'On the Beach' was one of the first novels to try to imagine and portray the aftermath of a global nuclear conflict. The bleakness of the future of the survivors near Melbourne, Australia as the deadly cloud of radioactive fallout makes its way from the Northern Hemisphere to eventually blanket the southern had such an emotional impact on readers that it gave rise to the  disarmament movement. Two years after it was published Stanley Kramer made a film of it and the message of the book reached a wider audience. Here is a great article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists on the film version.
     The book opens with a line from T.S. Eliot's 'The Hollow Men' - "This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper". Eliot's poem has been written about many times and was hugely influential. The last lines of the poem have been connected to nuclear war thanks to Shute's book. The hollow men are dead, the people in Shute's novel are the walking dead, except unlike Rick Grimes' little tribe battling zombies in their own peculiar dystopia, Shute's characters don't get to live once they do what they have to do.
     There were a few things in the novel that bothered me, Commander Towers always addressed Moira Davidson by the term 'Honey' even though he was scrupulously faithful to his dead wife in the novel. It was just irritating and betrays an emotional detachment. Did he not remember her name most of the time? For two people sharing their last moments on earth together and presumably like each other very much, the banal conversation and pleasantries make, what should be an emotional and deeply involved relationship, into one of Austen's comedies of manners. The subtext was always deadly serious in Austen too, but here the epithet is annoying and patronizing.
     The novel also follows Peter and Mary Holmes , a young couple with an infant daughter. What are held to be some of the most emotional scenes from the book and film involve the fate of this child. Peter instructs his unwilling wife on how to inject their child with a government provided poison to end people's lives so they do not have to die of radiation sickness, if the cloud reaches them while he is away. At the end of the book the little girl, named Jennifer, is gravely ill and Peter gives her the injection after which he and his wife take the pills and end their lives. It irritates me a little that the little girl is referred to most of the time as "the baby" and "it". If Shute wanted to elicit an emotional response, he should have written her name more often and referred to her as the Holmes' daughter and make her a breathing human being rather than the doll that Mary Holmes fusses over continually to pass the time.
      Shute got the science wrong. Even in 1957, it was clear that radiation would begin to decay almost immediately and having it dispersed around the entire globe would reduce its power as well. Shute researched his subject and had the radiation grow and increase in intensity as it was being distributed around the globe by making the bombs 'dirty' or cobalt bombs. The science even then did not really back up that contention and accidents like Chernobyl have proved radiation decays faster than we thought and life is more resilient too.
     Shute's nuclear blasts destroyed life without destroying property. The last submarine roaming the world looked through its periscope at cities that were intact only the people were gone. He also claimed that certain mammals like cats and rabbits were more resilient than humans. Not likely and they will not inherit the earth, insects and grass were all that would remain wrote Jonathan Schell in the Fate of the Earth.
     I find the stoicism of the population unbelievable too. When there is no future, the old rules don't apply anymore. There are people in the novel who continued to go to work in cafes and stores right up to the end. Why would people not just leave the doors open and not bother to charge customers for purchases? There was a butler at the men's club who showed up to serve drinks even when the radiation reached Melbourne and the sickness was beginning to be felt. People don't freak out, there is no rash of murders or riots. Everyone accepts their fate, except those that continue to plan gardens and home improvements and talk about the next year as if there would be one. I agree with Kramer who had Dwight Tower consummate his relationship with Moira. His wife and children were dead after all and soon he would be too. Why would a man not take some comfort where he can?
     Shute took the lazy way out, he did not try to predict who would take the first shot or why. The Australians seem to be in the dark about how it happened. It was a mistake or some kind of misunderstanding. The novel's scientist Julian Osborne surmises the first bomb was launched by Albania against Italy. Then someone dropped a bomb on Tel Aviv. The Brits and Americans suspected the Egyptians and made military flights over Egyptian territory, without firing a shot. The Egyptians then sent out all the bombs they had six to Washington and seven to London. The bombers they used were Russian made so the Russians were bombed. With the leading statesmen of most countries dead, decision making devolved down to very junior military leaders and the Chinese released their ICBM to support Russia. The final verdict was that it was not the superpowers that started the nuclear conflict, it was the little ones, "the Irresponsibles".
     Albania was a communist state and officially atheist in 1957, although it was occupied by Italy during WWII there was no reason for there to be hostilities between Italy and Albania. An early strike on Tel Aviv is plausible enough, Israel has so many enemies, from there it gets more unlikely especially as neither Albania nor Egypt have nuclear capability. Shute did not anticipate North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
      It was an important book but it was a long and dull read as nothing happens. People go about their lives and pass the time with stiff upper lips until they have to die. And then they do.
     

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Swan Song

     Carrying on my quest to see which science fiction writers got closer to predicting the end of the world, while the threat of another catastrophic war hangs over the world. I see some writers still hope that King Arthur is still sleeping in a hill somewhere and will rise up and smite our enemies. Or Jesus. Wittekind. Siegfried. Someone. Aliens. Anyone?
     It might not be fair to call Swan Song a science fiction novel since it is labelled 'fiction' or 'horror' but I think of any novel about a post-nuclear world as 'science fiction'. It may be easily called fantasy since the main character Sue Wanda (Swan) has magical powers as does Sister who is looking for her. One can infer from this that women will be the agents (as givers of life) that will regenerate the devastated world. The character of the man with the scarlet eye is too easily identified with the devil, especially with the flies that come out of his mouth, but this is not the Christian world of A Canticle for Leibowitz. Swan can only be a Gaia figure with Josh and Robin as her Corn Kings. One cannot regenerate the world without one's male counterpart. This makes the man with the scarlet eye something far more primordial than Lucifer. Tolkien's Sauron leaps to mind with a description like that especially knowing that Tolkien based his novels on older heathen tales.
     There is always the assumption that there will be people who will want more than everybody else and will use violence to assert themselves. In a post apocalyptic world, survival will depend so much on mutual co-operation, I would think or hope that violent despots (the Negans of the world) would not arise so quickly. Some people would survive who are authority figures and people would rally around them as we are accustomed now to a certain social structure. One problem with any post apocalyptic world, is most authors ignore the fact that gasoline has a shelf life. In a world like The Walking Dead or Swan Song, people would not be driving around two years later, if only for the reason that the gasoline would not be useable anymore. So large scale movements like in Swan Song with tanks and trucks would not be possible or the type of battles that the Army of Excellence engages in to feed its members. Trebuchet, anyone?
    The book was published in 1987, two years before the Berlin Wall came down, but even then the Soviet Union was coming apart and the Cold War was winding down. It seems too easy to blame tensions between the U.S. and Russia for the use of nuclear weapons; especially when one considers nuclear proliferation and the ideologies that some nuclear countries subscribe to. Even in '87 North Korea was a problem and the world had seen the rise of radical Islam. Globalization has contributed a great deal to social and political instability, income inequality and mass migration. Few authors predicted this; perhaps science fiction(or fantasy) writers tend to be conservative in their views. With the exception of labour unions, few wanted to go against the free trade mantra. Nobody predicted a president like Donald Trump. And, there can be no mistake, someone like Trump was elected because large numbers of the American electorate have been disenfranchised and voted this way in protest.  Will he cause the end of the world? Hard to say. I still think we have a ways to go - 2020, if Professor Turchin's cliodynamics are reliable.
       So what did McCammon get right? I do not think you can approach the novel this way. It is very doubtful that this was intended as a predictor of the future. It seems rather that it is monomyth of the hero's quest in a modern setting and with female heroines.


Next up is Nevil Shute's On the Beach.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Speculated Aftermath of Global Nuclear War

     I could go on about literary allusions in 'A Canticle for Leibowitz' which would be fun but I want to discuss his predictions about our future. While I was growing up, the threat of nuclear annihilation hung over us all. The nukes are still here but the powers that held them seemed to realize that there was no winning a nuclear engagement. So the Iron Curtain fell, Russia became if, not an ally, no longer our enemy.
     Part of the reason for nuclear pacts between Russia and the U.S. was due to the emotional impact of a 'made for television' film called "The Day After" made by Nicholas Meyer. Meyer had the idea of showing in as realistic way as possible what the aftermath of a nuclear war would look like. It appears from articles written about the production that he faced an uphill battle in showing the best guesses with no embellishment of any kind. It aired on ABC on November 20, 1983 to the largest audience a movie ever had. Its record stands. I was one of the audience that day.
     Walter Miller started his story six hundred years after the war with few snippets of information of what took place to devastate the planet. The reason for the 'flame deluge' is not given except that the Church taught that pride lead to world leaders ignoring their wise men and using the weapons given to them that were to guarantee lasting peace. Miller states the war ended within weeks or days. The film would give it but less than one day. Cities became puddles of glass, surrounded by vast acreages of broken stone. The strikes killed all life human, animal, fish and avian near the cities. Fallout killed large numbers of the rest. The few survivors roamed in search of safe places to live. In the years following, there was plague, hunger and madness and then came the Simplification, in which anyone who had any kind of learning was blamed for the bombs and killed.
     Meyer's film deals with the immediate aftermath of the war. He created a number of characters near a small city, Kansas City, and a possible prelude to war is reported in the background on radio and television as these characters go about their lives. Twenty-five years separate the creation of the two stories. The film is an accurate snapshot of a point in time six years before the fall of the Berlin Wall. It does not try to predict the future, it attempted to show what would happen if war broke out that year. For those of us following today's news, the U.S. mobilizations near the border of Russia and the invasion of Germany give one that sense of deja vu. The U.S. claims to hold the moral high ground and that it holds the right to police the rest of the world's nuclear ambitions and yet it is the only country to have used a bomb against a civilian population.
     Unlike Miller, Meyer knew the strikes would not just target large urban centers; they would also target military installations like missile silos, which were located in remote rural locations, so the devastation would be total. Meyer follows a few survivors as they bury their dead and slowly one by one succumb to radiation sickness.  The last scene is of one of the women giving birth in a clinic with no doctor and her scream at the sight of her child, who is not shown. It is a chilling for those who saw the intercontinental missiles leave and knowing they had 30 minutes at most before the response came. A professor rigs up a geiger counter and listens as the numbers climb, "Here it comes", he says.
    Miller felt that the radiation would cause many children born in the aftermath to be mutants and monsters. The aftermath of the attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki did not show this to be the case. There was a slight increase in some defects but no two headed or otherwise deformed children were born. Agent Orange, a tetrachlorodibenzodioxin, used as a defoliation agent in the Vietnam War created worse defects in the offspring of those exposed to it.
     Meyer, too, felt that the radiactive fallout would doom people to a short life and a death by cancer although the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki lived full lives and experienced only a slightly higher level of cancer. Of course the entire surface of the world had not been carpeted with bombs, nor is it to be expected that the entire world surface would be destroyed. Some countries will not be targets.
    In 1982, Jonathen Schell published The Fate of the Earth, a look at nuclear war and its aftermath. He began by explaining the science behind nuclear fission, and the destructive effects of a bomb which, unlike a conventional explosive, has many. At the moment of explosion, the heat would be as hot as the stars and the pressure many times that of the atmosphere. Immediately radiation, i.e. gamma rays, would stream out as an electromagnetic pulse. Above the earth, this pulse would have the effect of knocking out electrical equipment by inducing a huge surge of voltage but that has never been tested. When fusion and fission have worn themselves out, a fireball takes shape. It absorbs xrays from the environment as it grows which then radiates back into the environment as a thermal pulse, a wave of blinding light and intense heat. This lasts about ten seconds and as it expands it emits a blast wave in all directions, flattening all but the strongest buildings and condensing air from the surrounding environment to create the mushroom cloud. A crater would be formed and the dust and dirt would mix in with the cloud. This dust and dirt is what will be the fallout as it returns to earth. Then there are the secondary effects on society and the environment which Schell (and Miller) thought might be even more destructive. There is also delayed worldwide fallout, the lofting of tons of debris from earth into the atmosphere and a resulting nuclear winter, and the third longterm effect would be the destruction of the ozone layer. He felt the primary concern was not how many people would die in the initial blast but if the ecosphere, particularly the ozone layer, could survive. He admitted to the true results not being known; it would still be better to speculate than to find out by experience.
     He went on to describe first hand accounts from survivors of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with the added info that the bombs did not touch the ground so very little dirt mixed into the cloud and the fallout was thereby minimal. Schell predicted that much of the U.S. would become a republic of grass and insects as these would survive the high doses of radiation. For most of life, he states a nuclear war would be a global extinction event.
      So the questions for most are - would there be any survivors and would that life be worth having and there is no answer for those.
     Ironically in the film, a pastor thanks God for destroying the destroyers of the earth. The president undaunted, releases a broadcast stating there had been no surrender, no retreat from principals of freedom and democracy. At a meeting of farmers discussing a government pamphlet to reconstruction generates some anger at the incongruities of the information but the film maker does not speculate if there would be a later backlash against science. One suspects people will be too desperate for medical aid and other comforts to want to destroy what little is left.