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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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.)

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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.