Excerpted from the author’s new critical study, Cold War Space and Culture in the 1960s and 1980s: The Bunkered Decades (Oxford University Press, December 2021), with the kind permission of the author.
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In her contribution to a 1983 magazine feature called “Imagining the Worst,” Carolyn Forché wrote of the difﬁculty of the task at hand. “We are the poets of the Nuclear Age,” she began, “perhaps the last poets, and some of us fear what the Muse is telling us. Some of us are ﬁnding it harder to write. . . . There is no metaphor for the end of the world and it is horrible to search for one.”1 Forché then continued by contextualizing the existential threat alongside the everyday challenges that would continue if anyone survived the unimaginable, the challenges a poet might still write about: “Suppose, then, that we will survive, under the protection of a man who envisions extending his destructive powers beyond our fragile atmosphere, one who believes that the very existence of nuclear weapons is the best deterrent to their use. Suppose the poetic spirit chooses to remain with us. What of the other dangers of this president?”2 What I call nuclear realism is poised between the two dilemmas Forché poses: the “horrible” search for a “metaphor for the end of the world” and the mundane challenge of a poetry that would bear witness to the everyday threats to democracy posed from within the purview of the nuclear threat. In nuclear realism, as Forché suggests, the way to imagine the former comes through the simple detail of the latter: what does life in the ontological bunker really look like? What would everyday life for survivors look like if we could strip it of the ideological obfuscations of the nuclear imaginary of the Cold War? This chapter explores the tensions of survival in near-future speculations about life during wartime imagined through realist, often oppositional modes of writing and ﬁlmmaking.
In the 1983 movie Testament, at the end of the day after thermonuclear weapons have struck most of the major cities in the United States, Carol Wetherly (Jane Alexander), mother of three young children in the small town of Hamlin, California, a 90-minute drive north of San Francisco, falls asleep with two children in her arms and the third watching through the bedroom window for the return of their father or perhaps the arrival of looters. In the event, neither looters nor the father makes an appearance in the post-holocaust world of Testament, but the next shot of the ﬁlm reminds us of how much else in it has remained just the same. After a slow fade on Carol’s teary-eyed face, director Lynne Littman cuts to a close-up of a small tabletop TV set in the morning sun, its screen a blank grey (Fig. 1). The camera then slowly pans left across the familiar media of the early 1980s household: a stack of comic books with Casper the Friendly Ghost on top, a Fisher-Price record player with a toy truck perched on the center of an LP, and a bright blue plastic portable tape player (Fig. 2). It comes to rest on a close-up of Carol’s hands writing furiously in an open journal as her voice-over speaks what she is writing: “February 24. I’m so afraid. Nothing seems real. Everything looks the same. Maybe if I write it will help.” The camera tilts up to her face as she stops to think about what to do next, and her children troop in behind her to sit at the kitchen table, ready for breakfast, like any other day. “I hate breakfast,” the youngest complains, and the camera cuts away from her to Scottie as he enumerates for our beneﬁt what has changed: the bowls have dirt on them and the milk tastes funny, while the older boy, Brad, begins talking about radiation. Scottie asks what “ray-day-shun” is, everyone goes silent, and they change the subject. In nuclear realism, the post-doomsday future is nearly identical to the pre-doomsday world: same commodities, same family dynamics, same stoic approach to the new day.
If survivalist literature marks doomsday as the apocalyptic moment cleansing a corrupt and bankrupt world into a new age with the potential of restored values and renewed purpose, what I call nuclear realism posits that any hope for the future lies in continuity with the past and the proper valuation of what was. In the strictest forms of this mode, the only function of doomsday is slowly to kill off the world we know and love despite the best efforts of everyday heroes. If there are any bunkers or shelters, they are futile at best and deadly at worst; the world is a level playing ﬁeld and there is no hope of remaking it into anything else. When they even admit of the possibility of hope or of effecting change in the present, these texts argue that hope lies outside rather than within the world of fantasy.
Like much of nuclear realism, Testament is highly ambivalent about this past. We can certainly choose to ﬁnd an image of strength and dignity in the ways the characters respond to this unknowable crisis by maintaining the structures of community that have previously given meaning to their lives. Just as in Helen Clarkson’s small-town apocalyptic The Last Day: A Novel of the Day after Tomorrow (1959), the townspeople hold meetings. One is in the big old Abhart house at the top of the hill, where aging Henry, ex-military man, maintains radio contact with the outside world. The second is in the church, where the minister, the mayor, and the police chief make communal plans to ration food, collect batteries, and, eventually, bury the many fatalities. Everything works: there is no crime or looting, nobody starves, and the dead continue to be humanely buried. We do hear of some townspeople leaving for “survival camps” in northern Canada, and one couple who have lost their baby pack up their car and head out of town. But the isolation is near complete: it is not so much that Hamlin has become a bunker; rather, it continues to lead the bunkered life it had always led.
In a 2013 review of the ﬁlm, blogger Lena Houst recalls a lecture on the ﬁlm that suggested an alternate reading of these bunkered reactions as a critique of containment and passivity, “[T]he nuclear cataclysm that devastates the core family isn’t the literal radioactive fallout, but . . . how the nuclear family deteriorates in the absence of the father. . . . That’s what made Testament so terrifying beyond belief. Not the threat of total annihilation, but the promise of life’s crude vacancy in the aftermath.”3 In Houst’s reading, the movie is not about nuclear war; it’s about the nuclear condition. The ostensible tragedy of the ﬁlm is that the children cannot help growing up and life cannot help going on; as Carol puts it in her journal, “Brad, the man he’s become. The man he won’t get to be.” For the alternate reading, the tragedy is that we can conceive of tragedy only in terms, as Saint-Amour puts it, of “the straitened portraits of desire, culture, kinship, history, and futurity that were often appealed to in calling for both those Weapons’ abolition and their necessity.”4 If the eldest child, teenaged Mary-Liz, can conceive of her future only in terms of the husband she will never love and the children she can never bear, and Carol can imagine Brad only in terms of being man enough to ride his father’s bicycle and to take his place at the head of the household, then nuclear realism in its own way is just as beholden to the nuclear condition as survivalism. The former simply reproduces the status quo, while the latter tears down that status quo in order, eventually, to produce reproductive futurism all over again, on its own terms.
Only distant future speculation affords fully rendered attempts to escape altogether from the nuclear condition; however, escape and alterity do become momentarily visible throughout the archive of the nuclear imaginary. Even though deconstructive nuclear criticism itself emerged out of the nuclear condition – Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of the Disaster was published in French in 1980 and in English in 1986 and Jacques Derrida’s “No Apocalypse, Not Now” in 1984 – and predicated its own formulations on the same nuclear realism, its focus on what Paul Saint-Amour terms “dissident temporality” can also be applied to Testament as well as to other texts of 1980s nuclear realism. Men’s action ﬁction posits Doomsday as the moment in which seriality replaces futurity and an emancipatory consciousness can emerge from utopian pockets of the old world preserved within the wasted landscape of an endless postapocalyptic present, resolution and futurity endlessly deferred. In contrast, nuclear realism refuses seriality; in its purest form it argues that the world is always going to end, but a dissident temporality can ﬁnd meaning in the way it deals with the liminal moment between the holocaust and the ﬁnal extinction.
In this way we can understand why James Morrow frames his 1986 novel This Is the Way the World Ends from the perspective of Nostradamus, telling the future to young Jewish boy Jacob Mirabeau to distract him as his mother labors below to give birth to his sister.5 And, after a wild tale in which the specters of lives not lived put a half-dozen Cold Warriors on trial in Antarctica for war crimes and crimes against peace, humanity, and the future, meaning comes down not so much to the end of the world, which, as Nostradamus knows better than anyone, was always going to happen just as it happened, but to reckoning with the memories, alternate futures, and potential lives lived within its unalterable temporal endpoints. The so-called Unadmitteds gain access to more and more real memories of the lives they never lived the more they behave as if they were human; George Paxton, the hapless protagonist, is given the gift of celebrating the coming Christmas he would never have with his beloved daughter Holly by virtue of an automaton created by the Unadmitted inventor Theophilus Carter; in the ﬁnal moment of the tale, before George dies and the world ends, he discovers that the old woman who has helped him throughout the story is really his potential granddaughter, another Unadmitted. Recognized as such, the nuclear condition renders one, as Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim memorably put it in Slaughterhouse Five (1969), “unstuck from time.”
And while, like any apocalypse, Morrow’s tale is just as dark as Vonnegut’s telling of the ﬁrebombing of Dresden, its moment of redemption comes in the way that the nuclear condition unlocks the bounds of singularity and linearity: memory, in this novel, contains within it not only the historical past but all other possible pasts, and not only the present George is living through but every other possible present, including the myriad presents in which the apocalypse never happened. The bunker fantasy spatializes Slavoj Žižek’s “open” ontology, “to reintroduce the openness of future into the past, to grasp that-what-was in its process of becoming, to see the contingent process that generated existing necessity.”6 To spatialize Žižek’s concept borrowing Fredric Jameson’s terms, such an open ontology creates an enclave of alterity within the world of the present. As Jameson characterizes this utopian impulse, “The end of the world may simply be the cover for a very different and more properly Utopian wish-fulﬁllment.”7 Survivalist ﬁction spatializes time in the endless expanse of the postapocalyptic, imagining or trying to imagine physical enclaves within a destabilized world. Nuclear realism destabilizes the present by ﬁguratively bunkering the world in an enclave of realized memories and alternate presents. Distant futures project the enclave as what is preserved of the present in an unrecognizable time to come.
We could easily understand the deadened media that visually lead us to Carol’s journal in Testament as signs of the failure of our commodiﬁed and simulated world. And indeed they are; Testament never illuminates or otherwise redeems the blank screen of the television except in its quiddity as material object. But the bright blue cassette player we see beside Carol as she writes her journal will sound once again, when her son Brad asserts his maturity by borrowing the ﬂashlight batteries to power a brief respite of music, dancing with his mother to the Beatles’ “All My Loving.” As they dance in the postapocalyptic present, Littman intercuts home movie footage of the once-whole family dancing to the same song in their backyard, a private moment opened to the world. Memory exists mediated, and the different textures Littman gives to different memories stress their mediated nature, while rendering them no less authentic-feeling for it.
It was a fraught gesture to include even a brieﬂy redemptive respite in a 1980s ﬁlm of nuclear realism. There are, for example, no media of memory in the 1983 TV movie The Day After. When Dr. Oakes (Jason Robards) makes his ﬁnal pilgrimage to the Kansas City ruins where his house had been and his wife had died, he is able to identify it by the remains of her wristwatch – a simpler metaphor of time having stopped. A pitiful family has sought refuge in Oakes’s ruins; he attempts to chase the squatters away; they do not budge, but the paterfamilias comes over to him, and the movie closes on their awkward embrace. The prominent gesture of Day After toward mediated experience would be paratextual: the decision to play the second, postapocalyptic half of the ﬁlm without commercial interruption, as if eschewing the possibility of monetizing nuclear holocaust; there could be no commercialism following World War III. Threads (1984) is even more relentlessly nonredemptive in its use of music to punctuate the loss of humanity. We ﬁrst hear Chuck Berry’s 1958 anthem “Johnny B. Goode” from the car radio where lovers Jimmy Kemp and Ruth Beckett are parked in the ﬁlm’s opening. We don’t know it yet, but she is pregnant and marriage will be the outcome of this scene. The ﬁlm’s early moments explore the different tensions within the couple’s respectively working-class and upper-middle-class households and their different responses to and fates in the aftermath of the bombs that fall on Shefﬁeld, England. When we hear “Johnny B. Goode” reprised later in the ﬁlm, it is wholly ironic, a bitter recollection of a lost world rather than the redemptive or consolatory memory to be brought into the present we see in Testament.
Unlike Testament, Day After and Threads both use the imagery of reproductive futurism to punctuate the ultimate horror of nuclear war. The narrative arc of Threads is as bleak as its musical program in repudiating any sense of futurity or redemptive memory, following Ruth as she ﬁghts to survive (we see her selling rats for food from a box), giving birth to a girl who will watch her die and who will herself survive another 13 years to give birth to her own child, born, we are led to presume, of rape. In the ﬁnal image of the ﬁlm, the daughter is handed her newborn baby, wrapped in a bloodstained sheet; she looks at it (we don’t see it), and the camera freezes on her horriﬁed expression. The Day After provides a late image that similarly precludes reproductive futurism. Before the bombs fall, we are introduced to a pregnant young woman (Amy Madigan) approaching her due date. The movie checks in on her at the hospital as she waits longer and longer to give birth. Finally, we share the familiar birth scene, rendered mostly aurally through the mother’s primal screams eventually giving way to a baby’s crying. Rather than the conventionally redemptive moment where the mother is handed the beautiful baby and the world regains hope, the camera, again, rests on the mother’s face as her tears of pain resolve, not into the conventional tears of joy, but into bitter tears of despair.8
In contrast, Testament concludes on an alternate family unit: mother, son, and adopted Japanese American child with Down syndrome, a disability with no relation to nuclear mutation that had been cheerfully accepted by his father and the Wetherlys throughout the ﬁlm. Testament’s post-doomsday world does not exist in an alternate place to the pre-doomsday world; for this family, there is no apocalypse. The ﬁlm closes again around the table, at a Christmas dinner, where Hiroshi produces a gift of memory: the teddy bear of Carol’s youngest, Scottie, an object she had been desperate to ﬁnd and leave with Scottie the day of his burial. Lost on that day, it has survived to give them the grace of remembering him. When Brad asks, despairing, what they can wish for on this Christmas, she responds with a benediction, or a testament: what they can still wish for is the memory of everything, the good and the awful. There is no bunkering evident anywhere in Testament; its benediction is that the postwar will essentially be no different from the prewar; the nuclear condition has in fact nothing to do with or to tell us about what is essential in the human condition. Whether or not humanity dies out is less important to this ﬁlm than the recognition of this fact.
Each of these three ﬁlms deploys the bunker fantasy differently, in ways that reﬂect its stance toward ontological openness. The Day After deploys different narrative threads to rehearse different attitudes toward sheltering and survival. The survivalist thread stages the familiar tropes of the genre. Soon after the sirens sound to signal an imminent attack, we see the Dahlberg father and son helping to shovel dirt over the outside doors to the storm shelter of their local church (Fig. 3); soon afterwards, we see Dahlberg doing the same over the outside window of his farmhouse cellar (Fig. 4). We are in Harrisonville, Missouri, some 40 miles south-southeast of Kansas City, and very close to a ﬁeld of missile silos. This is tornado country, so every building has a shelter built beneath it and the locals are accustomed to relying on them; however, they also have read up on their survivalist literature and know that the most effective ﬁlter for radioactive fallout is three feet of dirt. The shoveling scenes are not only an allusion to survivalist literature, however; they also reference Los Angeles Times reporter Robert Scheer’s scathing article series and later book, With Enough Shovels: Reagan, Bush and Nuclear War (1982). In a feature on Reagan’s proposal for a new Civil Defense plan that “claim[ed] to be able to save 80% of the American population in an all-out nuclear war with the Soviet Union” and was estimated to cost up to $10 billion over ﬁve years, Scheer quoted Secretary of Defense Thomas K. Jones on the ease of shelter construction.9 “Dig a hole, cover it with a couple of doors and then throw three feet of dirt on top. It’s the dirt that does it. . . . Everybody’s going to make it if there are enough shovels.”10
The Dahlbergs are the only family we are shown sheltering underground. They stock their shelter with food and water, and they have a series of ethical debates familiar from decades of shelter literature: they are the target audience of the civil defense literature of the 1950s and 1960s. Jim Dahlberg (John Cullum) refuses to shelter the family dog – we later see it lying dead in the kitchen – on the grounds that they can’t feed it; however, after nearly shooting a University of Kansas undergrad who didn’t make it home to Joplin and is begging shelter, Dahlberg consents to add him to his family group. Steve (Steve Guttenberg) and eldest daughter Denise (Lori Lethin), who has lost her ﬁancé on the eve of their wedding, eventually console each other as they die of radiation poisoning among thousands of terminal cases packed on the ﬂoor of Allen Fieldhouse, the University of Kansas arena in Lawrence. Before that scene, we see the Dahlberg family twice more in the church, the ﬁrst time when their minister vainly tries to console them with a ﬁre-and-brimstone sermon of prophetic doom – they get up and leave when Denise begins to bleed profusely – and the second time when a Department of Agriculture bureaucrat tries to explain to the farmers how to till radioactive land. The ﬁlm’s home shelter spaces associate rural farmers, Midwestern small towns, and the church with survivalism as legacies of the shelter society of the 1950s and 1960s. The ﬁnal association is the most brutal, although in the end no more hopeless than the two church scenes. Returning home, Jim ﬁnds a handful of silent, threatening men camped out in his yard with a young teenaged girl. He questions them and asks them to leave; as he turns away for a moment, one of them pulls out a riﬂe and shoots him dead. His remaining family members watch through the window of the farmhouse. We do not need to imagine what happens next; the survivalist thread is a dead end for all but the most hardened of men.
A separate thread stages the scenario of a military bunker in an equally cynical mode. This thread centers around African American Airman Billy McCoy (William Allen Young), who is stationed at a Minuteman missile silo near Whiteman Air Force Base, 70 miles (110 km) east-southeast of Kansas City, and is called to duty during the DEFCON 2 alert. His crew are among the ﬁrst to witness the initial missile launches, indicating full-scale nuclear war. They argue about what to do, with McCoy insisting that sheltering will be useless and that they have done their duty already. Earlier, we had watched isolated, documentary-style footage of the various fail-safe procedures, on mobile SAC command and in a (presumably underground) command center preparing for missile launches.11 These shots are not contextualized, and we do not see the chain of command; we see only a general and other military personnel obeying orders without the slightest hesitation, speaking military jargon as if this were any other event. This sequence has the effect of making McCoy’s human arguments – that the personnel 60 feet down in the silo are drinking beer with their feet up, that sheltering just inside the elevator entrance (the elevator down is already sealed) will not protect them from a direct hit, and that they have done their duty – perfectly credible. In one shot, McCoy argues with the last (white) Airman to descend, perched on the ladder in a hole as McCoy looks down (Fig. 5). Consciously or not, the unarticulated racial dynamics reﬂect the long-standing Black resistance to home sheltering. The prior sequence of shots of ICBMs emerging from holes in the ground all over the Missouri prairie as if in the middle of people’s backyards makes this argument visually as well, especially in the ﬁrst one we see, cleverly framed as a reﬂection in the dressing-room mirror of a rural housewife (Fig. 6). The one thing has nothing to do with the other: they are different worlds occupying the same space; one belongs there and the other does not. McCoy’s thread ends no better than does the survivalist narrative: he wanders aimlessly, draped in a comforter that makes him look like the cliché of a homeless person, eventually adopting a second male victim to share his comforter. The last trace we see of McCoy is a shot of the comforter draping a corpse, presumably his, as the companion looks on, mute.
In the third major thread, the University of Kansas hospital doubles as an ofﬁcial fallout shelter – a pointed reminder of the abortive Kennedy public shelter policy – and a science professor (John Lithgow) spends the movie in the lab with a group of students monitoring radiation in the air. But this knowledge does nothing to help anybody. Most of the last third of the ﬁlm is spent watching people dying from radiation poisoning. The hospital, barely, manages to maintain order and functionality, but there is no suggestion that this effort will help anyone, either. In none of the three threads is there a hint of redemption or an inkling of survival. The disconnect between the military and the civilians dominates as an undertone through the second half of the ﬁlm. We learn that the president has survived in a deep bunker or airborne command center (and is presumably still there) when we hear a radio address, which is mocked by the audience we see listening to it. After the bombs drop, we are not shown a single shot from the perspective of the military, not even procedural. We know from the president’s address that there is a functional government and military, and a cease-ﬁre in effect with the Russians, but we never see them do anything that connects with or helps the civilian population; we can only assume they are safely ensconced in their bunker command centers. The Day After thus posits a schism between government-military sheltering on the one hand and an exposed and helpless civilian population on the other. Structure and authority survive, but fully removed from everyday life. Instead, the ﬁlm concludes in the absolute physical and emotional exposure of Dr. Oakes on the ruined site of his home. The future is shattered; all that is left are broken and useless memories of the past.
Threads ends as bleakly and with as foreclosed a future as The Day After even though it follows the arc of survival into the third generation after doomsday. Threads similarly uses bunkering to distinguish between its main groups of characters; here, the distinction also underlines class differences in its Shefﬁeld setting. After the movie opens on Jimmy and Ruth in their car on a hill above the city, we watch the couple return to their respective working-class and upper-middle-class households. When the bombs drop, the Kemps frantically try to create a lean-to shelter in their living room based on government pamphlets (Fig. 7). As in Raymond Briggs’s acidly satirical graphic novel When the Wind Blows (1982), the likely source of this scenario, the basic futility of the impromptu shelter is compounded by the family’s complete ignorance of any facts about fallout. The Kemps’ younger son is killed in the initial blast; the mother dies soon after; and the father survives, miserably, for a ﬁnal scene where he barters his last cigarettes for a bottle of contaminated whiskey. The Beckett family does not fare much better, although their more sophisticated shelter does permit Ruth at least to survive long enough to raise her daughter (Fig. 8). They have a fully stocked internal basement shelter, but this does not protect the grandmother’s weak heart, or keep Ruth from a nervous breakdown, or prevent attack from armed intruders. The third shelter we witness is a fully equipped control center beneath Town Hall. This government shelter saves the lives of the mayor and his various assistants and protects them from fallout; they maintain radio contact with the outside world and selﬂessly work to organize a response to the crisis. Unfortunately, by the time outside authorities arrive to dig them out from the ruins of the Town Hall, they have all died of suffocation. Like When the Wind Blows and The Day After, Threads assumes the survival of some measure of civil and military authority; life goes on, but just not in livable conditions and just not for most of the individuals we follow through the course of the ﬁlms. These three texts deploy bunker spaces strategically to repudiate their ability to preserve anything worth preserving; none of the three can see its way to a different future or to a redeemable alternate past. Threads makes this stance especially clear in its reliance on a rigid timeline of events, tracking the devolution of a crippled society linearly down through the years.
Testament, too, appears wholly to repudiate the bunker and the bunker fantasy; it is resolutely focused on preserving what was, if not in the present then at least in memory. So it should be no surprise that no one in town has a shelter, none is mentioned, we never see a basement, and everything is completely ground level and equal. This is partly a consequence of the fact that houses in California generally don’t have basements, but it also reﬂects the situation of Hamlin itself as an upper-middle-class suburban enclave. Like the island community in Clarkson’s The Last Day, the town ﬁguratively constitutes its own communal bunker, and its spaces, lovingly mapped from the opening bike ride of father and son, already have been stocked with everything worth preserving. That this is a permeable bunker and a fragile one becomes evident in a scene near the end when Carol, Brad, and Hiroshi seal the garage in order to gas themselves to death with exhaust fumes. Littman ﬁlms the scene claustrophobically from inside the garage, making it resemble the sealed underground space into which they are trying to transform it. Suicide, she suggests, is the only useful affordance for a bona ﬁde shelter; at the last minute, Carol opens the car door. She cannot bring herself to end their lives, however miserable or shortened they may be. Like all bunker fantasies, Hamlin’s is an ambivalent one. Numerous townspeople leave, rejecting the passivity of the ones who stay. It is a homogeneous space. Although Littman makes a point of having the Wetherlys take in the Latino neighbors’ boy, orphaned by the blast, and although she includes a friendship with the Japanese American gas station attendant and his son Hiroshi, the shared values are as evident as the shared skin color. It is just as easy to take Testament as an ironic critique of quietist suburban conformism as it is to acknowledge its radical stance toward the nuclear condition; the two mutually dependent readings remain in tension rather than able in any way to be reconciled.
English SFF writer Louise Lawrence’s 1985 YA novel Children of the Dust permits a similar impulse to futurity within an equally bleak initial scenario. The ﬁrst of three parts spanning 50 years and three generations of survivors provides a realistically rendered portrait of a suburban Gloucestershire family extinguished by radiation sickness as the everyday mechanisms of survival are unable to sustain it in the absence of a supershelter without exposing the members of the household to fatal doses of fallout. Within the bleak scenario shared with Threads, When the Wind Blows, The Day After, and Testament – no useful information from Civil Defense; no one with enough supplies and foresight to stay inside – Lawrence ﬁnds hope for the future in the junior-high-school-aged Catherine, whom 15-year-old half-sister Sarah identiﬁes as a born survivor. Determined to remain sheltered in her makeshift tent under the blankets draped over the dining room table and refusing to eat any food that might be contaminated, Catherine, paradoxically, inspires her other family members to sacriﬁce themselves to ensure her survival. Hearing tell of their neighbor Johnson, a refugee from the London rat race who had outﬁtted a survivalist farm, the dying Sarah bequeaths her charge to him. “I’ll look after her,” he promises. “I’ll teach her to grow. We’ll build a world from the dust, she and I. It won’t be easy, but we’ll do it. A society based on human decency, free people, cooperating without violence, better than the old . . . we’ll make it, your sister and I.”12
Working within the same bleak forecast of mutated devolution developed devastatingly in Threads, Lawrence excavates hope from the ashes. She does so by diverging in parts 2 and 3 from the realist mode of part 1. Part 2 develops fully the bunker fantasy available only through the force of will of the mother Veronica and older sister Sarah; for this section is told from the perspective of Ophelia, born and raised in a top-secret government supershelter where the missing father of the family nearly extinguished in part 1 had fortuitously taken refuge, “a vast, purpose-built subterranean city, a labyrinth of rooms and passageways, as if the whole hill had been hollowed out” (66-7). Although the supershelter is ruled with totalitarian authority by the iron ﬁst of a reactionary general, it has also preserved 120 children and the cutting-edge technology available to the mid-1980s military. Lawrence contrasts the regimented and routine but comfortable and trouble-free shelter life with the Johnson compound, which viewed from sheltered Ophelia’s perspective is shocking both in its setting – “Nothing beautiful remained, just battered glass houses, run-down cottages and ramshackle barns, and the settlement beyond. It was absolute squalor” (108) – and in its inhabitants – Catherine, emaciated, prematurely aged, and covered with radiation sores, has given birth to seven children and lost six of them; the survivor, Lilith, is a mutant, covered with white hair. Elsewhere, too, survival is ugly and brutal: “Some had taken livestock into their homes, people and animals sharing the same warmth. Some had eaten dead meat frozen in the snow, rats and corpses, insects and worms, rotting vegetables and even manure. Even when the winter was over it was not easy. There was disease, and sickness, and starvation, and babies were born deformed. But slowly, over the years, they had consolidated their hold on the land and established separate communities” (106). In this ﬁctional dialog between a survivalist realism and a bunker fantasy, Ophelia, panicked and appalled, returns to the familiar conﬁnes of the Avon bunker, leaving behind her father and the boy she loves, who choose the freedom of the world above.
In part 3, Lawrence ﬁnds a YA resolution of the tension between nuclear realism and bunker fantasy. Simon, the sheltered son of Ophelia, seeks help for his now dying bunker colony at the ﬂourishing Johnson community, where the psi-powers and radiation-blocking fur of Laura, the granddaughter of “blind Kate” and the community’s founding father, have adapted her perfectly to promise a new species for a new world. While the “dinosaurs in the bunker,” Simon realizes, have failed to keep up with a transformed world, Laura and her generation have done so; his task, like that of Sarah and Veronica before him, is to help the survivors survive. Humans as such are ﬁnished, so much “dust,” and the bunker mentality is fully discredited. “She was not a genetic throwback,” he realizes:
She was an evolutionary consequence. For her, millions had died and blind Kate had survived. For her, the world evolved and apes became human. She maintained the continuity of creation and bestowed a meaning on everything. . . . And now she would inherit it all, a girl with her arms around him, warm and touching and covered with white fur. She would inherit the standing stones on the high horizon that marked the rise and fall of mankind. She would inherit the earth that had once belonged to them, and reap the knowledge of their minds. Simon stroked her hand. He did not begrudge her. He did not begrudge any of her kind. He would give to them as much as he could, for they were better than he was . . . Homo superior, the children of the dust. (183)
Genre fantasy is the only mode through which long-term survival can be readily imagined, the destructive power of radiation turned to good and the reactionary space of the bunker bent to the service of the mutated future rather than the radioactive past. In its starkest formulation, the genre of nuclear realism affords not the slightest consolation; however, most examples diverge from its inexorable march to extinction, leavening it with a pinch of memory’s escape from linearity if not a full-ﬂedged speculative ﬂight of liberatory fantasy.
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All images are screenshots from the films discussed with the exception of the opening art: Untitled [cockroach shelter]. Bill Hickey, Mike Lee, Minneapolis, MN. Frontispiece to Quonset Huts on the River Styx: The Bombshelter Design Book. Berkeley: Architects, Designers, and Planners for Social Responsibility, 1987. Permission of the artists.
- Carolyn Forché, “Imagine the Worst,” Mother Jones, Oct. 1984: 39; rpt. from New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly 5 (Summer 1983), n.p.; qtd. Paul Boyer, By the Bomb’s Early Light: American Thought and Culture at the Dawn of the Atomic Age (1985; rev. ed. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1994; ACLS Humanities E-Book, 2012), 421. [↩]
- Forché, “Imagine the Worst,” 39. [↩]
- Lena Houst, “Why ‘Testament’ Is the Scariest Movie Ever Made,” Film Misery, Oct. 31, 2013: http://www.ﬁlmmisery.com/testament-scariest-movie-ever-made/; accessed July 13, 2017. [↩]
- Paul Saint-Amour, “Queer Temporalities of the Nuclear Condition,” in The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World, ed. Michael Blouin, Morgan Shipley, and Jack Taylor (Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars, 2013), 59–80, at 61. [↩]
- James Morrow, This Is the Way the World Ends (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1986). [↩]
- Slavoj Žižek, “Preface: Bloch’s Ontology of Not-Yet-Being,” in The Privatization of Hope: Ernst Bloch and the Future of Utopia, ed. Peter Thompson and Žižek (Durham: Duke UP, 2013), SIC 8, Kindle 290-92. [↩]
- Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London: Verso, 2005), 199n32. [↩]
- Great Peace, the third of English playwright Edward Bond’s War Plays from the mid-’80s, took a similar premise to perhaps its logical conclusion – a wartime government order that to control famine each soldier must ﬁnd and kill “one child: as young as possible and not above ﬁve years” (Bond Plays, Vol. 6 [London: Bloomsbury, 1998], 6) – before stepping back from the consequent repudiation of futurity. Great Peace dramatized the ethical conﬂict between authority and individual rather than the ﬁlms’ presentation of the biological consequences for the individual of nuclear conﬂict. [↩]
- Robert Scheer, “Civil Defense Program to Be Revived: Reagan Seeks to Counter Possible Attack by Soviets,” Los Angeles Times, Jan. 15, 1982: A16. [↩]
- Scheer, “Civil Defense Program”; qtd. Rose, One Nation Underground, 218. The words show up verbatim, for instance, in Steven Dietz’s 1988 play Foolin’ Around with Inﬁnity (New York, Samuel French, 1988, 11). The play was first presented by Brass Tacks Theater in Minneapolis, Nov. 4–Dec. 11, 1988. [↩]
- This footage was reused from the 1979 PBS documentary First Strike because the military refused to allow access to footage following disputes with director Nicholas Meyer over whether or not the Soviets should be made responsible for the ﬁrst strike. Meyer prevailed over his producers, and the responsibility for starting the war remained ambiguous (Wikipedia contributors, “The Day After,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=The_Day_After&oldid=829515380; accessed December 9, 2021). [↩]
- Louise Lawrence, Children of the Dust (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 61. [↩]