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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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.

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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: