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Under the Shadow

The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives

David Seed

Publication Year: 2012

An engrossing analysis of the fiction of nuclear warIn Pat Frank’s 1959 novel Alas, Babylon, the character Helen says of her children: “All their lives, ever since they’ve known anything, they’ve lived under the shadow of war—atomic war. For them the abnormal has become normal.” The threat of nuclear annihilation was a constant source of dread during the Cold War, and in Under the Shadow, author David Seed examines how authors and filmmakers made repeated efforts in their work to imagine the unimaginable.

Seed discusses classics of the period like Nevil Shute’s On the Beach, but he also argues for recognition of less-known works such as Walter M. Miller’s depiction of historical cycles in A Canticle for Leibowitz, Bernard Wolfe’s black comedy of aggression in Limbo, or Mordecai Roshwald’s satirical depiction of technology running out of human control in Level 7. Seed relates these literary works to their historical contexts and to their adaptations in film. Two prime examples of this interaction between media are the motion pictures Fail-Safe and Dr. Strangelove, which dramatize the threat posed by the arms race to rationality and ultimate human survival.

Seed addresses the attempts made by characters to remap America as a central part of their efforts to understand the horrors of the war. A particular subset of future histories is also examined: accounts of a Third World War, which draw on the conventions of military history and reportage to depict probable war scenarios. Under the Shadow concludes with a discussion of the recent fiction of nuclear terrorism.

Published by: The Kent State University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. 1-8

The time is one year in the near future. An American professor of physics returns to his hometown after a nuclear war to find it completely flattened. The aggressors are unknown; they are simply the “people with bombs and planes.”1 It seems as if civilization itself has been ...

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Chapter 1. The Atom—From H. G. Wells to Leo Szilard

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pp. 9-23

The discovery of radioactivity in the 1890s would qualify as beginning what Thomas Kuhn calls a paradigm shift in scientific knowledge. In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions he uses the term “paradigm” to signify the set of beliefs shared by scientific communities and asks the ...

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Chapter 2. The Dawn of the Atomic Age— The Bomb and Hiroshima

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pp. 24-41

We have seen that as soon as novels attempted to describe nuclear war, ambiguities and tensions began to emerge between the destructive capability of the new bombs and the utopian hopes invested in radioactivity as an energy source. The title of this chapter borrows from the ...

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Chapter 3. The Debate over Nuclear Refuge

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pp. 42-61

The atomic bombing of Japanese cities not only triggered a whole series of narratives that attempted to describe those events, but it also served a symbolic function throughout the Cold War, which was dominated by fear of nuclear war. Only Hiroshima (and of course Nagasaki, ...

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Chapter 4. Do-It-Yourself Survival

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pp. 62-74

In fiction dealing with civil defense, an important dimension of self-help supplemented the activities of local organizations, and Pat Frank’s Alas, Babylon is a classic in this field. Never out of print since its original publication in 1959 (and 1960 adaptation for the television series ....

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Chapter 5. Philip Wylie on the State of the Nation

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pp. 75-94

Although he was one of America’s most popular writers of the 1940s and 1950s, Philip Wylie is not widely read today. During the Cold War, however, he was an important commentator on the fears of nuclear war, and his fiction from this period, especially the novels Tomorrow! and ...

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Chapter 6. Cultural Cycles in Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz

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pp. 95-111

We have seen in the fiction of Philip Wylie the fascination with the “prospect of the postholocaust social collapse.”1 Indeed, without making any of his works overtly religious, Wylie’s favored stance as a writer was that of a latter-day Jeremiah, grimly warning the nation of its ...

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Chapter 7. The Pathology of Warfare in Bernard Wolfe’s Limbo

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pp. 112-129

Once the Soviet Union demonstrated that it possessed an atom bomb in 1949, the nuclear arms race got under way, and there was real danger that such atomic weapons might be used against China during the Korean War, as General Mac-Arthur recommended in 1951. The following year ...

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Chapter 8. Push-Button Holocaust in Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7

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pp. 130-146

In Limbo Bernard Wolfe expressed sardonic doubts about a technologized defense system running out of control. One of that novel’s main ironies lies in the complete inability of the protagonist to affect not only political events but even the fate of his own notebooks. We turn ...

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Chapter 9. Whales, Submarines, and The Bedford Incident

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pp. 147-162

The action in Level 7 was almost entirely subterranean, the underground bunker suggesting not only refuge but a distancing from real-life consequences. We turn now to a surface narrative. Mark Rascovich’s 1963 novel The Bedford Incident draws on the American tradition of hunt ....

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Chapter 10. Nuclear Safety Procedures in Fail-Safe

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pp. 163-180

It is one of the major premises of this study that the nuclear bomb is not a single object, however feared, but the most dramatic weapon within a whole military system. We have seen how Mordecai Roshwald satirizes the dehumanizing effects of such a system because it reduces the ...

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Chapter 11. Uncovering the Death Wish in Dr. Strangelove

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pp. 181-198

Where Fail-Safe focuses on technological malfunction, one of the most famous treatments of the U.S. nuclear defense system engages with human failings. Dr. Strangelove gives particularly bizarre expression to what had become known as the “mad man” scenario, where an individual ...

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Chapter 12. Mapping the Postnuclear Landscape

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pp. 199-214

Narratives of nuclear war regularly evoke it as a massive rupture that might or might not open up possibilities of survival. Because the normal continuity to life has been so damaged, these novels describe attempts by characters to decode the shattered landscape in an attempt to ...

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Chapter 13. Future Reportage on World War III

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pp. 215-230

In one form or another, all the narratives examined in this volume have dealt with war. In many cases the duration of combat is telescoped into a single day known variously as “X-Day,” “Doomsday,” or just “The Day.” However, the Cold War also saw the emergence of a ...

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Chapter 14. Beyond the Cold War

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pp. 231-239

The 1980s marked the last major wave of fiction dealing with nuclear war. Once the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cold War ended. But of course nuclear weapons continued to exist. A number of novels were published over the following decades that still address the nuclear threat ...


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pp. 243-271


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pp. 272-286


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pp. 287-299

E-ISBN-13: 9781612776552
E-ISBN-10: 1612776558
Print-ISBN-13: 9781606351468

Publication Year: 2012

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • American fiction -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Cold War in literature.
  • Atomic bomb in literature.
  • Cold War in motion pictures.
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