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.

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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).

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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.