Fiction’s Strangelove or: How We Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb

1Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.


This day in history the scientists working on the Manhattan Project ushered in the Atomic Age by successfully blowing up a chunk of New Mexico. The above quote from the Bhagavad Vita was stated by Robert Oppenheimer after seeing the first Atomic Bomb detonated. The haunting and terrifying words “Now I am become Death” echo the real life peril that the fallout and effects of nuclear weapons causes. Nuclear weapons were and are so damn terrifying that humanity has tried to avoid using them altogether after the initial use. However, while in real life we try to avoid nuclear holocausts by all means necessary, in popular culture and literature the evocative and grandiose nature of nuclear war proves to be an overarching source of inspiration.


The interest in nuclear advancement was prevalent before 1945’s bomb and continued steadily after. H. G. Wells wrote The World Set Free in 1913, 23 years before the atomic bomb. In this novel he predicts the use of atomic bombs and postulates what would happen after the blast. In 1949, shortly after nuclear bombs were used on Japan during WWII, Damon Knight imaged a post-apocalyptic world where only two people were left alive on Earth, while the great Ray Bradbury imaged the decimation of a city happening in the year 1985 in “There Will Come Soft Rains”, fortunately he was wrong or at least off by a couple of years. What real life tried to prevent, fiction confronted. The cycle kept on going through the Cuban missile crisis and the Cold War. Fodder for the literary masses continued to include events that revolved around the threat or aftermath of some kind of World War 3 type situation. For example, William Brinkley’s novel The Last Ship imagines the kind of domino effect that a nuclear strike would cause. As this theme reoccurs one must question why popular culture keeps creating and speculating on this possible but not probable disaster?


1This line of questioning leads back to my partially purloined title (if you haven’t watched Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb you should). At some point the idea of fearing a nuclear holocaust disappeared behind the idea of reading the endless amount of speculative fiction imaging an apocalyptic situation. Now the idea of nuclear warfare is more likely to send us running to bookstores or the television that under our desks and into makeshift shelters. What we once feared is now a mainstay, or even a trope, in our various forms of entertainment. Even the scientists behind the Manhattan Project have the honor of becoming the subject of novels, documentaries, comic books, and an upcoming TV series. Worry has indeed been replaced by love of the bomb; as fear became obsession, that obsession transformed into entertainment just as quickly.


The long term consequence of the Manhattan Project goes beyond the scope of wide scale warfare and weaponry, but melded deep into our popular culture. Now sixty-nine years after the first atomic bomb’s detonation, Oppenheimer is not the only destroyer of worlds metaphorically speaking. The dystopian society is a mainstay of popular literature and the idea of nuclear war is so prevalent it’s almost easier to ask who isn’t blowing up the world.


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