The Dawn of the Atomic Age
In August 1945, in an effort to end World War II quickly and decisively, the United States dropped atomic bombs, also known as A-bombs, on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The immediate explosive and long-term destructive forces were unlike anything that humanity had ever seen. These two events, which led to the rapid surrender of Japan and the end of World War II, also served to usher in the atomic age and the threat of further atomic war. During World War II, many countries had been working on their own atomic bombs. After the decimation at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, several countries rushed to complete these bombs. In 1946, the United States, the world’s top superpower, again set an example when it began a series of peacetime atomic bomb tests at Bikini Atoll in the western chain of the Marshall Islands, in the central Pacific Ocean. In 1949, the Soviet Union, the other major superpower at the time, tested its first atomic weapon, proving to the United States that it, too, had atomic capabilities. By this point, the Soviet Union and the United States, which were allies at the end of World War II, had already been on unstable terms for several years.
The Soviet–U.S. Rift
In February 1945, as Nazi Germany was getting ready to fall to the Allied powers, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Joseph Stalin— the leaders, respectively, of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—had an historic meeting at Yalta, a Russian city. Here, they discussed how Europe should be divided after the war. Stalin wanted to impose communist governments in Poland and Germany and wanted Germany, its biggest foe, disbanded as a nation. Churchill and Roosevelt feared the spread of communism, however, and wanted to maintain Germany’s status as a nation. They negotiated a compromise, but Stalin did not abide by the agreement. Following the war, Stalin capitalized on the weakness of many Eastern European countries, using the Soviet Union’s military prowess to quickly place communist governments in much of Eastern Europe. On March 12, 1947, President Truman decided, in a declaration now known as the Truman Doctrine, to actively stop the spread of communism to other nations. He immediately petitioned Congress for funds to assist countries like Greece and Turkey, which were in danger of being overthrown by Soviet-backed militant groups. The decision to fight communism, which became part of U.S. foreign policy for decades, helped create a rift between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The Cold War Deepens
This rift grew in 1949 with the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), an alliance among the United States, Canada, and...
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‘‘‘If I Forget Thee, O Earth . . . ’’’ takes place in the future, when humanity possesses technology that is greater than that in Clarke’s time. Future scenarios are one of the hallmarks of many science fiction works. In some cases, as in this one, science fiction writers create their version of the future by extrapolating current technologies to a logical conclusion. For example, when the story was published in 1951, the United States and the [former] Soviet Union were just beginning to launch their space programs. And the moon, earth’s closest neighbor, seemed a likely first target. The apocalyptic tone of the story is another common hallmark of many science fiction works. While some science fiction writers write stories that illustrate how science might make life better for humans in the future, others take a more negative view, offering tales that caution against the potential destructive power of science. As the narrator says of Marvin: ‘‘He was looking upon the funeral pyre of a world—upon the radioactive aftermath of Armageddon.’’ The chilling picture that Clarke paints of the potential consequences of atomic war is a clear warning to humanity. When his father is describing the history of earth’s atomic war, Marvin cannot understand ‘‘the forces that had destroyed it in the end, leaving the colony, preserved by its isolation, as the sole survivor.’’ In the end, Clarke uses Marvin’s innocence and horrible realizations in the story to underscore his own view that...
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Compare and Contrast
1950s: The United States lives under the constant threat of nuclear warfare.
Today: Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, in New York and Washington, D.C., the United States enters a new kind of war. The public lives with generalized fear of chemical and biological warfare.
1950s: The United States government releases several propaganda films and newsreels that attempt to calm citizens’ fears by saying that radiation from atomic bombs cannot harm them if they take proper precautions. These include building personal bomb shelters that are supposed to be able to withstand a nuclear blast, radiation, and fallout. Even respected media sources perpetuate these myths.
Today: As more incidents of biological and chemical terrorism occur, both the United States government and the media provide frequent updates on the possible destructive effects of these acts in an attempt to prepare citizens.
1950s: The United States and the Soviet Union race to launch the first satellite and get the first spaceship to leave earth’s atmosphere. Although space missions are initially based on political factors generated by the Cold War, when the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is founded in the United States in 1958, the missions become more scientifically motivated.
Today: The United States, Russia, and several other countries contribute components...
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Topics for Further Study
Research the countries that are currently believed to have nuclear weapons and create a detailed map that locates these countries. Use color coding or some other system to indicate approximately how many nuclear devices are in each of these countries.
Choose two nuclear-capable nations that are currently in conflict with each other or that have experienced conflict with each other in the last two decades, including the allies of each country. Write a step-by-step scenario that describes what might happen in these countries and the rest of the world if nuclear weapons were used in such a conflict.
Clarke is noted for the predictive quality in many of his stories. Review the current research being conducted into space travel and settlement of extraterrestrial environments. Discuss whether you think it will be possible for humans to live on the moon some day.
Like many science fiction tales, this story is a cautionary one about humanity destroying itself. Discuss whether you think peace on earth is really possible, using research to back up your claims. If you believe that peace is ultimately impossible, find three battles from any time in human history that you feel illustrate humanity’s tendency towards self-destruction.
In the story, the lunar exiles must instill in their children the desire to go home, a rite of passage that will ensure the future survival of the human race. Pick any native society whose livelihood...
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Clarke’s Earthlight and Other Stories: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke (1950–1951) features an audio adaptation of ‘‘‘If I Forget Thee, O Earth . . . ’’’ and other classic Clarke stories. This unabridged audio collection, which was produced by Audio Literature in 2001, uses a different reader for each story.
Clarke’s 1951 short story ‘‘The Sentinel’’ was adapted by Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick as the film and novelization 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). Clarke has a cameo role in the Academy Award–winning film, which was released in both VHS and DVD formats from Warner Home Video in 2001.
The Best Short Stories of Arthur C. Clarke: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke includes an audio adaptation of ‘‘‘If I Forget Thee, O Earth . . . ’’’ as well as other classic and recent Clarke stories. This unabridged audio collection, which was produced by Audio Literature in 2001, is available on ten compact discs.
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What Do I Read Next?
Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, a short story collection first published in 1950, made the author famous and was one of the first critically acclaimed science fiction works. The stories concern humans’ repeated efforts to colonize Mars and underscore Bradbury’s opposition to having too much scientific and technological development at the expense of humanity.
Clarke is best known for his novels, including Childhood’s End (1953), one of his most popular and critically acclaimed novels. The novel details the appearance of the Overlords, aliens who help end war, poverty, hunger, and other social ills, convincing humanity to give up scientific research and space exploration in the process in...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Cassada, Jackie, Review of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, in Library Journal, Vol. 126, No. 5, March 15, 2001, p. 110.
Clareson, Thomas D., ‘‘The Cosmic Loneliness of Arthur C. Clarke,’’ in Arthur C. Clarke, edited by Joseph D. Olander and Martin Harry Greenberg, Taplinger Publishing Company, 1977, p. 54.
Green, Roland, Review of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, in Booklist, January 1, 2001, p. 928.
Review of The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke, in Kirkus Reviews, December 15, 2000.
Samuelson, David N., ‘‘Arthur C. Clarke,’’ in Critical Survey of Short Fiction: Authors...
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