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Reviewed by:
Paul Brians. Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984. Kent: Kent State UP, 1987. 398 pp. $29.50.

Like a theater critic during a bad play, Western man has become somewhat passionate in his anticipation of The End. Encouraged by an impressive arsenal of nuclear weaponry, our writers have worked out scenario after scenario for man's apparently inevitable self-destruction. In that continuing dialogue, Paul Brians' fulsome bibliography represents a valuable achievement—an annotated catalogue of more than 800 entries on fictions of nuclear war. This volume, however, expresses, with a stark eloquence perhaps unsuspected by its compiler, man's inexpressible fear of his own absurd finale.

Brians frames his listings with his own overview of each decade's response to the nuclear menace as the stakes have steadily risen. He charts the inspirational, optimistic flush of the 1940s; the harsher, critical stance of the politicized 1950s; the unrelentingly grim nihilism of the New Wave science fiction of the 1960s; the strange lull of the 1970s; and the current revival of atomic action fiction in which characters contest a radioactive landscape, fighting fiercely for domination in a world of ashes. Beyond such a scheme, Brians argues more emphatically that any realistic attempt to treat this subject must fall short—the essential illogic of unharnessed nuclear war defies any fictionmaker to coax a scenario into the logical frame demanded by plot. And so, he concludes, the cause is often the irrational act of conniving politicos, the absurd accident of man's own machinery, or is set so far in the past that any clear explanation is impossible. Few works, he suggests, linger long in the immediate post-blast landscape and its grim reality. He laments that this genre has been handed too often to the devices of speculative fiction. And although Brians does assert the value of some of the literary works he catalogues—he dwells particularly on Russell Hoban's disturbing Riddley Walker and on Masuji Ibuse's compelling narrative of Hiroshima, Black Rain—most of what he lists, he concedes, is the stuff of escapist fiction, generated perhaps in the good faith effort to deter the weapons escalation but still a refusal to come to terms with the unthinkable It.

Reading the bibliography with its careful annotations that detail plot and characters so concisely can, indeed, be a desperate affair. It is tempting to enjoy Brians' engaging style as he treats, at times with broad snickers, the scenarios that characterize our own extinction. It is certainly fascinating to watch our writers spin out stories of telepathy, mutants, spacetrips, time warps, plagues, benevolent extraterrestrials, ruthless Russian overlords, demented Chinese warlords, and the mishmash of utopias, neo-Edens, and global tyrannies that emerge from the ruins of our fictional world. But such fictions are finally ennervating. Like an obese man standing in a shark tank calmly staring at his own belly button, these writers artfully (and, as Brians points out at the right times, artlessly) construct fictions that leave us all finally passive, decidedly deadened to crucial realities, and absurdly vulnerable. It is perhaps Brians' greatest achievement here to remind us all how innocent we are of our own peril. [End Page 322]

Joe Dewey
University of Pittsburgh—Johnstown


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