Daniel Cordle is an expert in nuclear and Cold War literature and culture. His work theorises the 1980s as a nuclear decade, demonstrating how literary texts respond to nuclear fears and the implications of this for contemporary debates about gender, the environment and society.
From ‘The Futures of Nuclear Criticism’ [extract]
Histories of nuclear criticism: the end of the world as we knew it
The unthinkable happened at 4.20pm on 28 October, 1988. Though lasting only thirty-six minutes – betrayal by European NATO allies prevented escalation into the global holocaust many had feared – nuclear attack transformed the United States. As Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka record in an extraordinary travel narrative about a perilous journey around the country five years later, the United States shattered. Jeffersonian nostalgists might dream of an American revival, returning the country to its pioneer roots – a “nation of farmers, where…the family is the centre of things” as one woman remarks to them (Strieber and Kunetka 127) – but Aztlan, the Hispanic Free State, is thriving within the borders of what used to be Texas, and California and the Western states, booming as they service an influx of Japanese industrialist, are agitiating to cede from the Union. The dollar is unstable and Japanese yen are generally preferred. Elsewhere the British Relief provide welcome support, but the Old World can’t resist the colonial impulse to inveigle its way into government and extract the country’s resources. As Strieber and Kunetka’s interviews with teachers, administratotrs, economists and others show, as the statistics they cite demonstrate, that nuclear war was unthinkable didn’t matter in the end. It happened.
Except, it didn’t. Except, one is tempted to say, such is the seductive power of the past, of course it didn’t. Although Strieber and Kunetka’s novel, Warday and Journey Onward (1984), might be remarkable for the specificity and detail with which nuclear war is rendered – it is given a date and time; the resulting socio-economic trauma is documented in the imaginary table of statistics and transcriptions of interviews – it is entirely typical of texts from the first nuclear age in imagining a cataclysmic, jarring release to the sustained state of suspense that was the Cold War. For something so famously unthinkable, it is remarkable how many attempts there were think a nuclear future. These fictions for post-war reconstruction and, not least, in the nuclear futures exploding in people’s dreams. They also became mundanely part of everyday life and popular culture – in board games like Apocalypse, for instance.
Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka, Warday and the Journey Onward (London: Coronet, 1985)