restricted access Fictions of Nuclear Disaster (review)
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Reviewed by
David Dowling. Fictions of Nuclear Disaster. Iowa City: U of Iowa P, 1987. 239 pp. $21.00.

Since Herman Kahn, the portly pitchman of the Apocalypse, offered the chilling challenge nearly a generation ago, our culture has been struggling to think about the Unthinkable, or, to paraphrase Professor Dowling, to grasp imaginatively what is repelled and rejected by the sensibility. Indeed, Dowling argues that post-Hiroshima fiction imagines the end of the world to do nothing less than put off the day itself by enlightening the culture about its horrors. Because we love the world, we imagine its end. Although Dowling rightly points out that the literary response to the Atomic Age commenced long before the historic event of Hiroshima (he dates his study back to H. G. Wells's optimistic The World Set Free, 1914), the catalogue of fictions here is largely post-1950 and largely American. Dowling discovers that fictions of nuclear disaster reject as endgames the desperate devotion to science or the helpless drift to the Unthinkable. Offering a glimpse of the consummation threatened by triggered nuclear arsenals, these fictions challenge a culture to seek ways to avoid It. But, Dowling asks, is the word sufficient to defuse the power of the atom?

To pursue his exploration of what he calls this "neglected psychic landscape" of the twentieth century, Dowling divides his fullsome list of titles into two broad categories: the Scientific Response, informed extrapolations of the likely, based on physics, anthropology, evolution theories, genetics, politics, and history; and the Visionary Response, imaginative efforts undergirded by mythology, psychology, theology, and theories of language. The separation in post-Hiroshima fiction is, of course, unnatural, and Dowling rightly does not insist on it. Rather, he divides his chapters into only slightly less bulky thematic concerns: The Scientist (savior or Antichrist?); The Doomsday Itself (shelter fictions that demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit); Post-Disaster Societies (utopias or dystopias that chronicle what happens when man so completely interrupts the evolutionary chain); The Religious Influence (examinations of the "natural" affinity of nuclear holocaust with religious apocalypse). But because Dowling strains to cover too many titles in each chapter and because most of the works are obscure, the chapters do little more than move gracelessly from plot summary to plot summary. Although such talespinning is by its nature compelling, it too often replaces the work of analysis and makes each chapter easy to skim. When Dowling deals with lesser-known works, largely forgettable efforts of speculative fiction, the raconteur in him sustains [End Page 758] the writing; but when he deals, as he does infrequently, with the more considered responses to the Atomic Age—those of Pynchon, Vonnegut, Coover, Lessing, Bellow, to mention a few Dowling uses—the stone-skipping style of the chapters proves frustrating. With the emphasis on inclusivity, the study is valuable as catalogue. Each chapter wobbles on thick-legged topic sentences and heads toward a quick, closing paragraph of synthesis too abrupt to help.

But objections to Dowling's study can move beyond matters of literary concerns. In abdicating to the role of storyteller, Dowling fails to examine the implications of the issue he himself raises: the reality of man's potential to unleash his own execution has demanded a dramatic reconsideration of how to live now. The response he taps—in longer examinations of Riddley Walker and Canticle for Leibowitz —is the "small voice of comradeship" that offers the promise of continuity, humanity, and grace. But contemporary literature is no small voice. Although Dowling correctly argues that It is beyond fiction, that It defies the logic of plot, that even with a succession of paradigms—John's vision on Patmos, the efficiency of the concentration camps, the empirical data from Hiroshima—It cannot be recreated, why does he merely rehearse the plots of a clutch of just such futile fictions? What Dowling misses or merely mentions in broad asides is the extent that thinking about the Unthinkable has influenced contemporary fiction, which has created, in turn, a carefully considered response not to the fact of the Bomb and its horrific consequences but rather to the meaning of living within its shadow. This...


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