The Return of Nuclear Weapons!

Republibot 3.0
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Part of our mandate here at Republibot is to point out changes in the mental weather of the SF community when they turn up. Sometimes these changes are subtle and gradual, so it's entirely possible that they may go unnoticed by the general population. Fortunately, our highly-paid staff in the "Department Of Noticing Stuff" is both highly-paid, and notices stuff, and periodically we pass their findings on to you, the consumer. And that's when you take it home and enjoy it!

Today's entry: Nukes! They're back! They're Now! They're Hip!

Once upon a time, Nuclear Weapons were a great thing. They ended World War II a full 18 months early, and saved the lives of 36 million people who were projected to have died if we'd invaded Japan the way we did Europe. Sure, they killed 70 thousand people in two cities more-or-less instantly, and at least twice that number from radiation sickness and cancer in the 30 years following the war, but when torn between the cost of 210,000 people dead over 30 years, or 31,000,000 people dead over 18 months, the Bomb looked not only like an effective weapon, it actually looked decidedly *humane*. Granted, it's the humanity of the guilotine, but that's still something. The population of Japan was about 72 million people in 1945, and thanks to the Atomic Bomb, it was 73 Million in 1947, and not a mere 42 million.

A weird concept to wrap your brain 'round, but there it is.

So the A-bomb was a good thing, used by good people for a good purpose, though lamentably a sad one.

Atomic Bombs became a fun-filled part of Science Fiction. When the Soviet Union got/stole the bomb, and the Cold War started heating up, they ceased to be fun, and became more a cautionary tale. Philip K. Dick's "Dr. Bloodmoney" and Pat Frank's "Alas, Babylon" were obviously intended to be cautionary tales about the perils and horrors that would follow World War III, but in both cases I think they failed, I think they made the post-apocalyptic landscape look preferable to the modern one. Dick's Bloodmoney version of Northern California is no worse than the 19th century in the same location, and in many ways a lot more fun. Who doesn't want to be a country squire? Likewise, Frank's Babylon version of Florida is meant to be horrifying, but actually plays out as a romantic semideserted fringeland where rugged individualists left to their own devices survive and prosper, and the dross of society withers and dies. There's an Ayn Rand quality to that, if we discount the awful scene where all the diabetics run out of insulin and die.

Time passed, and since the bomb saved the lives of 31 million people, those 31 million people who didn't die had kids who were annoying baby boomers who were keen on peace, drugs, giving each other the crabs, and little else began to believe that "All you need is love," as opposed to "All you need is love and superior firepower," which had been the status quo up until then.

Concerned inteligencia, artists, and celebrities - truth be told, mostly celebrities - grew increansingly concerned over the potential for a nuclear war, and suddenly *the Bomb* became a taboo, a demon to be opposed, or kept lamentably under lock and chain, but either way one we really don't talk about in anything as frivolous as entertainment.

Unless it's preachy, of course: "On The Beach" (Both the book and the movie) portrays a postapocalyptic world that is no worse off than the people in Babylon or Bloodmoney - Australia was completely untouched by the conflagration - but in which humanity meekly goes extinct for no real reason, aside from the author was trying to make a political statement, even if that statement insists on completely ignoring every known tenet of human behavior.

"Doctor Strangelove" was just as preachy, but far, far cleverer and with a different point: The war changes nothing. The war is over before it began, the survivors are being hearded in to facilities that will save our species, but it's fully obvious that in a hundred years, when the survivors come up to the surface again, the fighting will pick up right where it left off. Why? 'Cuz we're human, it's what we do. We're loony like that.

The Novelization of "Strangelove" sort of blows this with a useless coda in which we're told the "Mineshaft solution" didn't work, and humanity went extinct, this book being compiled from records aliens discovered on the sterilized earth, centuries in the future. To me this undercuts Kubric's message and ruins the story, but that's just me.

Given the choice between the Strangelove angle (People just kinda' suck) and the On the Beach angle (Nuclear War = Total Extinction), entertainment generally chose the On The Beach angle. It's oddly more reassuring because it ignores our red-in-tooth-and-claw nature, and implies that if we can get rid of nuclear weapons, we'll never die.


This propagation of the idea that Nuclear War = Extinction, period, continued and gathered steam over time until by the 1970s it was a basically uncontensted trope of Cold War thinking. My own teachers in high school couldn't tell the difference between an A-Bomb, an H-Bomb, a C-Bomb, and E-Bomb, and an N-Bomb, and most of them didn't seem to realize that they came in different destructive potentials, nor did they realise that since World War II more than 1300 nuclear weapons have been set off in various tests. It wouldn't matter if they did know this, though, it wasn't logic, it was an article of faith with them: if one bomb goes off anywhere in the world, we all die due ot the snowball effect of these things.

I should point out that I'm not one of those people who think Nuclear War is a great and wonderful thing. I don't. Obviously it's bad. Obviously it would lead to the death of billions, even in a relatively limited exchange. I do think Humanity would survive, but nothing substantial of our modern world would - countries, economy, cultures - pretty much all lost. That's not subject to debate, and it's not my point.

My point is simply that the looming fear of The Bomb in the minds of babyboomers magnified their power to destroy to mysterious magical and eschatological levels. And when that happens, it's hard to be rational.

During this period, Nukes all-but-disappeared from SF. In the visual media, they were replaced by clumsy surrogates to keep the stories going - antimatter bombs and such - simply becuase no one can talk about nuclear weapons in a trivializing manner. Bomb = extinction, and you can't undercut that.

But the Baby Boomer's horror at the fact that there were bombs aimed at their heads transformed in to the ennui of my own generation. We were born with bombs aimed at our heads, where's the shock in that? How could it be any other way? The standoff became rather reassuring to us, and this was amazingly annoying to the baby boomers. This generational shift in thinking - fogey hippes versus nihilistic punk rockers - was pretty hillarious to behold. Movies like The Road Warrior completed the trend that Kubric had predicted: We stopped worrying and loved the bomb.

Why? Well how could we not?

I mean, look at The Road Warrior and its myriad inferior ripoffs: it's cool. Yeah, it's a reductio-ad-absurdiam of good versus evil in a minimalistic setting that makes a spaghetti western look lavish by comparison, but it is undeniably cool. And when the world turns against you and you can't get a job, or you know you're going to fail that damn latin test on thursday, a motorhead view of the future seems oddly comforting.

Nuclear War = ditching all the stuff you don't like and starting over.

This was not what George Miller was hoping for, of course. In fact, he maintains to this day that the conflict that destroyed the world was not nuclear because (with the unexamined religious certainty of Baby Boomers) "If it was, no one would have survived at all." But weather he meant it or not, subconsiously we all got it: Nukes = Rebirth, and the opportunity to give that damn guy who beats you up in gym class whatfor in the process.

Perhaps in reaction to this, a lot of bad science got published, most notably Carl Sagan's wildly-exagerated and frequently-openly-fradulent paper on "Nuclear Winter" which I'll probably do an editorial on somewhere else in the future. This kind of stuff was expressly designed to scare people in to political beliefs which - coincidentally - were the same as their authors, authors who were willing to lie to do it. Not science, it's every bit as propagandistic as a bible tract: it's job is to scare the hell out of you, frighten you in to "The straight and narrow." And if there's one thing we here at Republibot oppose, it's propaganda.

Give us the facts, thank you, and we'll make our own conclusions.

Remember "Red Dawn?" Second-ever PG-13 movie ("Dreamscape" with Eddie Albert was the first). It's actually a not-bad movie, much more subtle and emotional than you'd expect, but it was derided by everyone when it came out. Why? "Because everyone knows nuclear war = extinction." The idea that such a thing could happen and people could survive was blasphemy. (Though they ignore the fact that 600 million Chinese died in the nuclear exchange). Craziness. You slam a movie not on its merits, but because it contradicts your political views? How objective is that?

Then, with great anticlimax, the Soviet Union disintegrated because their fundamental economic system was fundamentally unsound, and the Cold War ended. Despite the fact that the same bombs were still aimed at their heads by the same people as the day before, the Baby Boomers decided everything was now fine, and Nuclear War began to fade away and seem rather quaint and 80s.

Suddenly, Nuclear Weapons started their resurgence in the media. I mean, if the Cold War is over, and there's no more real risk of Nuclear War, why not, right?

The first noteworthy appearance of Nukes was probably 1994's "Stargate" film, in which the day is saved by some USAF special forces types and the timely application of a bomb on a Goauld ship. The movie was a huge hit, despite not really being very good, but it's memorable not only because of its use of a nuke in the climax, but because it is clearly considered a positive thing by the producers. A constructive use of The Bomb.

Perhaps in reflex to this, Nukes are shown to be useless and destructive in Independence Day in 1996 (Made by the same producers), but it's a mixed message if message it even be, since the day is saved by a well-placed nuke at the end.

During this same period, Babylon 5 made guarded use of nuclear weapons amongst the more standard high-tech kill-o-zap rayguns and such, though the bombs themselves didn't behave in a very realistic capacity. We're looking at a baby boomer mindset trying to adjust itself to a post-cold war mindset, a noble try if not entirely successful: Nukes here are vastly, vastly more destructive than they could ever be in reality. A holdover from the old "Nukes=extinction" mindset, perhaps?

In 1998 we saw not one but two films - Deep Impact and Armagedeon - that both involved the constructive use of Nukes to save the world from getting whacked by big space objects. Ignoring Armagedeon as a great big dumb movie, Impact actually attempted to do things as scientifically as possible. They even showed our protagonists using a Nuclear Pulse Rocket (Named "Messiah") to get to the comets in time, so it's not only a weapon but also a drive system, probably the first time such a thing was depicted on screen. This is a little ironic since it was fears over nuclear weapons in space that lead to the cancellation of our Nuclear Pulse Rocket program in the 50s/60s. A shame. It would have opened up our access to the solar system immeasurably, and if you've *got* the bombs already - we have a lot of 'em - why not put them to constructive use by, say, sending people to Venus, Jupiter or Mars?

Kill two birds with one stone: Reduce the number of bombs, *And* increase our knowledge of the solar system.

In 1999, in the film "The Sum of All Fears," Baltimore is destroyed by a terrorist nuclear weapon. As one reviewer put it at the time, "In any previous spy movie, this kind of thing would mean the good guys had lost, but it's just a setpiece here." Are we becoming jaded? Perhaps.

By the 21st century, our fears of Nuclear War had receeded so far in to the background that Nukes were commonly used as weapons in the new Battlestar Galactica, and in the various Stargate TV shows, with nary a negative mention or raised eyebrow. Indeed, Galactica spent much of its first two seasons showing people surviving nicely on the horribly-irradiated ghost-planet that is Caprica. Granted, they made a point of showing the survivors were relying on anti-radiation medication which is nothing short of magical (Think about it: how would that work, anyway?), but no one really complained, the dogma of "Bomb=extinction" is gone, quaint, something those damn boring old boomers talk about in between magic mushrooms and Rolling Stones albums.

What's more, Galactica even generally portrays the useage of these bombs in realistic fashion: Bombs on the ground lay waste to everything because their explosive potential is increased by the atmosphere; bombs in space generally explode harmlessly because there's no atmosphere. Heavily-armored ships can survive repeated hits because - again - the lack of an atmosphere reduces the bomb's effectiveness, but a bomb *inside* a ship invariably takes it out, as we've seen twice now.

I make no moral judgement as to wether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing, I'm merely pointing it out. Baby Boomers, of course, will be cootishly apalled, never quite grasping that their fearful obsession with nuclear proliferation is in our present reality about as relevant as a cave man's obsession with tigers; and surly Gen-Y types won't care. I don't pretend to know which side is right.

Back in the day, it was in the interests of both the pro- and anti-nuclear types to exaggerate the effectiveness of their weapons. Hearteningly, now that we're 20 years past the end of the cold war, we can afford to be somewhat more objective about exactly how destructive these weapons were/are. I've shown this site to a number of peple, and the reaction has almost always been "Why, the blasts are so small! Can that be right?"

Ironically, now that no one fears Nuclear War anymore, we're actually closer to one really happening than we've probably ever been, certainly we're in more danger than any time in the last 30 years. India and Pakistan are both nuclear powers, and they don't like each other very much - they've gone to war three times in the last sixty years, so even as east/west tensions declined through the 90s, Indian/Pakistani tension increased.

Furthermore, since 9/11, as the situation in Pakistan continues to degenerate, we're looking at the very real possibility of the world's first-ever failed *nuclear* state, which could easily put that country's 30-to-50 weapons in the hands of terrorists or upstart states. You say you need firing codes to set 'em off? Bah. That's a simple matter of torturing a man's children to get 'em. You think Terrorists aren't gonna' do that?

But that's a concern that might end up being just as quaint in the long term as the Baby Boomer's fear of Nucler War was back in the cold war. Since 2001, the US has actively helped the Pakistanis defend their own arsenel, and if worse comes to shove it's entirely possible we could simply remove the weapons before Al Quaida and the Taliban got 'em. So don't loose too much sleep over it.

I make no claim as to wether these trends are good things or bad things, I'm just here to point 'em out. But at least for the present, attitudes have changed.

Nukes: It's what's for dinner.