Critical Mass, The Road, and a new wave of graphic nuke porn.

Scrutinizing culture.
May 8 2009 11:59 AM

The New Nuke Porn

Our nuclear fantasies have gotten more hard-core.

Something interesting is happening in the realm of airport "bookstore" best-sellers. I'm not talking about the self-help "You can become a sales genius" genre, but the thrillers. I've long been fascinated by their appeal and the shifting signals their subjects offer about often unspoken fears in the heart of our culture.

Sure, some of their success undoubtedly derives from their surface glitter—the glaring, fool's-gold-loaded cover lettering on a background of what looks like high-tech, super-reflective, virtually radioactive titanium. Some of it lies in their size. (I wouldn't rule out the subliminal reassurance they offer the nervous traveler of their ability to serve as additional emergency flotation devices.)

Advertisement

But I love airport best-sellers because I see them as our Nostradamuses, the literary canaries in the dark coal mines of our paranoia. They sniff out and serve up fictionalized but "realistic" prophecies of coming doom of one sort or another. Perhaps it's that in their visions of total world immolation they diminish in the mind of said traveler the possibility of something so trivial as a 757 engine malfunction.

The nature of the doom these books threaten us with has recently undergone a subtle shift, especially in the realm of what I've called in the past "nuke porn." I coined the term (in a Harper's article) at the height of the Cold War to characterize the way nuclear war novels and films from Fail-Safeto Strangeloveand the like adapted or imitated the techniques one could find in conventional porn: the excitement of arousal and buildup, the finger on the trigger as the world was brought to the trembling brink of a consciousness-obliterating climax. And the post-coital tristesse of "survivor novels" like On the Beach, where the onrushing end of the species licensed a doom-inflected licentiousness.

I attempted to make the point that it was not just novels and films like Red Alert(the template for Dr. Strangelove) and Fail-Safe and On the Beach that incorporated pornographic tropes and techniques but that the literature of real-world nuclear strategists had internalized the tropes and techniques of nuke porn. (Nuclear strategist Herman Kahn's elaboration of a 44-step ladder of escalation deliberately used the rhetoric of porn: Step No. 4: "hardening of positions"; No. 11: "Super-Ready status": all the way to No. 44: all out "Spasm or Insensate War."

The genre and its derivatives virtually disappeared during the decadelong "holiday from history" that began with the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. Nuclear fears re-emerged in airport bookstores (and on TV series like 24) in another form. The post-9/11 thrillers usually featured some rugged "rogue agent," lone-wolf good-guy tracking down al-Qaida loose nukes. And—for the most part—finding them and defusing them at the last second. Doom averted, the nuke porn version of coitus interruptus.

The new nuke porn is hard-core, more graphic and full-frontal than the Cold War version of the genre. Instead of the anticipatory excitement (Fail-Safe, Strangelove) or the post-coital tristesse (On the Beach) of First Era nuke porn, we get real-time blast-burns and melting flesh. There was always an erotic component to apocalyptic literature—those end-of-the-world sects were notorious for their doom-fueled orgiastic behavior—but I always wondered why most nuke porn was about looking forward to the approaching act or looking back on its consummation but rarely about looking directly at it. Yes, Strangelove ended with a suite of stock footage of mushroom clouds exploding (to the strains of "We'll Meet Again"), but while we saw the explosions there, we never confronted face to face—in the way film and fiction can—the actual experience of being inside a nuclear blast. (The most notable exception being, of course, the few seconds of—did it happen or was it averted?—nuking footage in Terminator 2. Remember the playground scene where the nuke turns the frolicking moms and kids into scary X-rays? * It's a key transition between the old nuke porn and the new.)

But now the genre has entered a new era—an era of looking "directly at it"—a fact that didn't really register with me until I read Whitley Strieber's airport novel, Critical Mass, in which we get the nuke porn equivalent of the "money shot." You know Strieber, right? Mr. Airport Extreme. He's the auteur of what some might see as another strange form of porn, those alien-abduction fantasies that feature anal probes. He was among the first to bring UFO abductions complete with probes into the airport "bookstore."

Streiber is on top of all the end-of-the-world trends—he's got a novel out on the latest apocalyptic dementia centered around the so-called "Mayan prophecy" that the world will end on Dec. 21, 2012.

Up till now, I've not been, how shall I put it, overwhelmed with the verisimilitude or literary merit of the alien anal-probe novels. (And yes, I know not all of his books are about anal probes—I don't believe the Mayans were rectally focused—but when God gives you something like that to ridicule, it's a sin to act as if it weren't insanely hilarious as well as obscenely stupid.)

Which was why Critical Mass surprised me. I first heard Strieber plugging it on Coast to Coast AM, the four-hour late-night talk show, usually an orgy of weirdness on which the anal obsessives of the planet Zontar are taken seriously.

But Streiber's novel turned out to be crude but shockingly on target when it spoke of the dilemmas of the second nuclear age. I'll get to them but first the melting-flesh moment. What's surprising about Streiber's book is that it starts out like an old-school post-9/11 loose-nuke thriller: the ones with the rogue CIA agents working to stop a smuggled nuclear device from blowing up, say, Las Vegas (usually on behalf of "Serbians" or former KGB operatives [Strieber's choice] who serve as puppet masters of the apparent Islamic perpetrators, a strategy that allows the author to have his Islamaphobic cake and eat it, too).

Only in this novel, our rogue agent fails: They actually do nuke Las Vegas, something the author tries to make real for us by giving us little human vignettes of the instant of vaporization. It is in one of those that we get the money shot of the new nuke porn.

Here's how he describes the inevitable Vegas hooker-and-John vignette in which he links a faked orgasm, a real orgasm, and a nuclear blast: "[O]ne could say that a girl called Sally Glass feigned a moan of pleasure in the bed of a man whose soul was tired and found that the man's face spattered her like hot grease."

Whoa! Wait a minute. When I first read it I was confused because (I'm told) spattering is a common term for the money shot in porn of the filmed or literary variety. But this wasn't that kind of spattering. Or rather it seems to have been a deliberately obscene transposition of one kind of spattering to another horrific variety.

Frankly, I wished I'd never read it at all. There are so many things wrong with it—just for a start, it's not likely that of two people vaporized in the same instant, one will get to somehow maintain cognitive functioning long enough to observe the other one "spattering."

A bit of literary license perhaps, or some kind of license, but does it need to be spelled out? Streiber goes on to deal with the all-too-real question of nuclear blackmail: He has the perpetrators of the Vegas nuking threaten to blow up more cities with repositioned nukes unless the president of the United States goes on TV, prays to Allah, and institutes sharia law. Meanwhile the president and his military advisers are on the brink of unleashing a massive nuclear attack code-named "Dream Angel" on the entire Islamic world as retaliation, envisioning the indiscriminate slaughter of hundreds of millions in what may be a scary wish-fulfillment fantasy. We've entered a world in which, for all we know, such scenarios are in the president's nuclear football.

Still, I couldn't get my mind off that horrific melting-flesh scene. The focus on flesh is consonant with the central metaphor of the emerging new nuke genre: cannibalism.

We see it first I believe in an equally horrific scene in the first great work of the new nuclear genre: Cormac McCarthy's The Road. McCarthy's 2006 novel is not the airport type. It's an uncompromising achievement that transcends the nuke porn genre and yet, despite the horror at the heart of it, broke through to become an Oprah's Book Club selection—and of course, now, the soon-to-be-a-major-motion-picture version can be found featured in stacks at airport bookstores. The Road is the high-culture incarnation of the nuke porn nightmare, and more power to it.

In case you missed it, The Road takes place in an unspecified future several years into what seems like a final fatal nuclear winter that will extinguish the survivors of the human race, left stumbling through ash-choked roads looking for canned goods in gutted supermarkets to stave off starvation because nothing will ever grow again. (Or will it? I'll get to the mystery, or deliberate ambiguity of the ending later.) As far as I recall, the word nuclear is never used in the novel; there is just one memory, a quiet horror, of some dim flashes and thumps in the far-off night to indicate that this hellish wasteland is the product of nuclear war.

No causes or triggering incidents are discussed. No Islamic or Serbian villains. It is a charred On the Beach for our time with that film's romanticizing of doom stripped away. It focuses on a man and his son wearily pushing a shopping basket along a road south, hoping to escape the pursuing winter and the hungry rivals for the last remaining edibles.

One of the things they come upon—and you know it's coming and dread its coming; there's almost a kind of pornographic buildup to this unbearable money shot—is an act of cannibalism so horrific I refuse to describe it further. (I wonder if the movie will depict it.)

Take my word for it: You'll never be the same after reading this scene. I've been trying for two years to erase it from my memory without success. It may be the ultimate anti-nuke statement; the demonic version of the insipid "War is not healthy for children and other living things." (Once you read it you'll see the precise inversion of this slogan it represents.)

But then two years later, cannibalism showed up again in an airport nuke-porn novel called One Second After by William A. Forstchen, and it occurred to me that cannibalism may be a unifying theme of the new nuke porn. Like The Road, One Second After envisions the time after a blast, though by contrast it offers a "happy" ending. (Only 80 percent of the residents in the post-nuclear community he focuses on die.)

And it has an admonitory purpose, which I believe is sincerely nonexploitive or even if it is exploitive, deserves the attention it is seeking. In The Road, McCarthy envisions a version of "nuclear winter"—a disputed concept from the first nuclear age, the belief that enough nuclear explosions would, by clouding the air with debris, blotting out the sun, and irradiating everything that lives, drive all life out of existence. Forstchen writes about a hypothetical phenomenon that was known about but rarely written about during the first nuclear age because authorities were too scared about its effects to publicize them: the electromagnetic pulse.

EMP, as it's called in the Pentagon and the think tanks, is what scientists believe would result if you exploded a large-enough nuclear device in the upper atmosphere. Such an explosion could cause a civilization-destroying burst of electrically charged particles that would rain down on earth and fry all the electronic circuits in vast swaths of countryside (sparing only those circuits that have been "hardened"—or shielded—to withstand such attacks).

In One Second After we watch a North Carolina community wither and nearly die off entirely as they try to preserve both civilization and survival in conditions that mimic Cormac McCarthy's endgame. The book doesn't offer the spare purity of McCarthy's brutal prose; it's airport standard. But Forstchen seems less interested in achieving literary greatness than in calling attention to what he believes is an urgent problem. Two of them: lack of preparation for an EMP and the even more disturbing lack of preparation for COG, the acronym for "Continuity of Government," as the emergency substitute for those parts of government rendered inoperable in a "decapitation" strike is called. It's a real problem, with many conflicting bad solutions floating around, and an instance of how, at times, second-generation nuke porn has gone beyond the pure horror of the first and is at least in some cases addressing the gritty problematic realities of the current nuclear age.

In this case, the crippled government's failure to secure the food supply in a post-EMP situation results in a descent into savagery by many across the ravaged countryside, and despite the attempts of ordinary folk to do the right thing for the sake of the whole, the peaceful home-folks are menaced by a rampaging mob that kills and eats all humans in its path.

Why cannibalism here and in McCarthy? I think it has something to do with self-consumption: We did this to ourselves. Our appetite for power is what caused us to create the equations for the nuclear weapons that will consume us. We consumed ourselves.

I want to return to Cormac McCarthy and the mystery he leaves us with at the end of his novel. But before I do I want to point out that not all of the new nuclear novels deserve the nuke porn label. I want to recommend one nuclear war novel that rises above nuke porn and takes an all-too-sober look at the way nuclear war could consume us.

Depth of Revenge by Richard Golden came to my attention in an unusual way. It's not an airport bookstore production but comes from a small self-publishing company called iUniverse. After my recent column on "The Letter of Last Resort" about the safe within the safe on British subs that contains the prime minister's handwritten instructions on what the captain should do in terms of retaliation should the sub be cut off from a potentially incinerated United Kingdom by a "decapitating strike."         

Mr. Golden told me he'd written a novel about—or involving—a similar "Letter of Last Resort" aboard an Israeli nuclear-armed sub in the aftermath of the nuclear destruction of the state of Israel, a second Holocaust.

I was skeptical, but when the novel arrived, I was impressed by its low-key nonsensational treatment of ineradicably sensational events—and by the highly detailed, convincing verisimilitude of the submarine interior, the procedures in wartime, the letter itself.

I wrote Golden that his book was done with such vividness that anyone would suspect the author was, in fact, an Israeli submarine officer, but no, he said, he got most of his information from the Internet, although he mentioned one former Israel submariner source.

It's a book that brings the theological and metaphysical ramifications of nuclear warfare down to earth, actually far beneath the surface of the earth if you want to get technical. It illustrates another hallmark of the new nuclear fiction: its awareness of the ways regional nuclear wars can escalate to world wars. The first age of nuke lit was strictly bipolar. Red or Dead. U.S. vs. USSR. Now there are many paths to the worldwide cataclysm that awaits us. Golden's book deserves at least the attention the airport best-sellers get, since its scenarios are so carefully thought out and it makes apparent the difficulties of decisions about retaliation and deterrence, the urgency of thinking about them ahead of time.

But there remains one mystery that my survey of the transition from first- to second-generation nuke lit. Nothing in the new nuclear porn can cast any light on the dark and ambiguous ending of Cormac McCarthy's novel. (Stop reading here if you don't want to know what happens.) What is going on in the final pages?! Just when it looks like we're witnessing the utter end of human civilization, there is a weird moment of hope involving a sketchily identified group of fellow travelers on the road. For some reason, the dying father assures his little boy before he expires that there is "goodness" in the world, which, it seems to me, inclines the boy to trust the travelers he runs into right after his father's death.

The boy leaves the body of his dead father and meets up with this band of people, including a mother with a little boy and girl who seem to have been engendered after the war destroyed everything. Or not.

In any case, the family asks the now-orphaned boy to come with them. He asks one of them, "You don't eat people."

"No," he says, "we don't eat people."

Right, sounds like a great family. And then the woman starts talking about God (where's He been?) and immortality:

"She said that the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time."

Wait, run that by me again. Visionary and mystical or mumbo jumbo? Man will be immortal because the breath of God is undying and runs through man till the end of time? Which implies the survival and immortality of the human species against the weight of everything up until the last two pages of the book.

Is this a sudden tacked-on redemption that is designed to make us feel better about the ash heap the earth has become? Does this make McCarthy's novel a distant kin of the Christian "Left Behind" apocalyptic novels in which nuclear war is needed to prepare the way for the Divine Kingdom? Or is she just mouthing the words until they fatten the kid up for the feast? You could play this passage either as a kind of last-second oh boy, I better find something redemptive to tack on, or people are going to slit their wrists when they finish this book. Or could it be something even more sinister going on?

But then comes the final passage that really whipsaws one's consciousness.

It's about the brook trout in some "deep glens," location in time and space otherwise unspecified, and the markings on their backs

that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Nor be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

That passage certainly hums of mystery to me. Something is ineradicably ruined ("can't be put back"), and yet "in the deep glens," some kind of beings "older than man" persist and hum of mystery.

There's something visionary here that McCarthy is, I think, teasing us with. Using a key technique of nuke porn: withholding. I'd give up all I know about nuke porn past and present to have one conversation with Cormac McCarthy about what is going on in the deep glens of his post-nuclear imagination.

Correction, May 13, 2009: This piece originally stated that the playground nuke scene was set near Manhattan. Terminator 2 was set in Los Angeles. (Return  to the corrected sentence.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Technology

Driving in Circles

The autonomous Google car may never actually happen.

Where Ebola Lives Between Outbreaks

Gunman Killed Inside Canadian Parliament; Soldier Shot at National Monument Dies

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

The Simpsons World App Is Here, and Nearly Perfect

Science

“I’m Not a Scientist” Is No Excuse

Politicians brag about their ignorance while making ignorant decisions.

Politics

The Right to Run

If you can vote, you should be able to run for public office—any office.

In Praise of 13th Grade: Why a Fifth Year of High School Is a Great Idea 

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 22 2014 2:05 PM Paul Farmer Says Up to Ninety Percent of Those Infected Should Survive Ebola. Is He Right?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 22 2014 4:10 PM Skinny Mark Wahlberg Goes for an Oscar: The First Trailer for The Gambler
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.