Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 497

The first book dealing with nuclear awareness to capture the popular consciousness in the United States was John Hersey’s Hiroshima, first published in 1946 after its serialization in The New Yorker. Hiroshima ran through eight printings in hardcover, fifty-six printings in the Bantam paperback edition, and was a Book-of-the-Month Club selection during its first year in print. In 1985, Knopf published an expanded edition which included material written after the author’s return to Japan forty years later; Bantam published the expanded paperback edition in 1986. No doubt the success of Schell’s The Fate of the Earth helped to renew interest in the nuclear predicament during the 1980’s, preparing the way for the anniversary edition of Hersey’s nuclear classic.

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During the intervening years, nuclear menace also influenced effective works of fiction. In 1957 Nevil Shute’s best-seller On the Beach dramatized the story of Australian survivors of a nuclear holocaust, grimly awaiting extinction as radioactive poisoning slowly moved into the Southern Hemisphere. Shute’s novel was then made into a popular film by Stanley Kramer in 1959. In 1962 the novel Fail-Safe, by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, posed the question of accidental nuclear war and sold more than two million copies. It occasioned a polemical attack by Sidney Hook entitled The Fail-Safe Fallacy, published in 1963 and inspired Sidney Lumet’s film version of 1964. Other noteworthy novels of this genre range from Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959) to Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) and Paul Theroux’s O-Zone (1986).

Particularly effective in popularizing the nuclear issue for a mass audience were a number of motion pictures. The most important of these are The War Game, directed by Peter Watkins in 1965 for the British Broadcasting Corporation, an Academy Award-winning realistic documentary that imagined the consequences of a nuclear strike against the south of England, and Stanley Kubrick’s satiric Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). Two decades later, Nicholas Meyer dramatized the issue for American television in The Day After (1983), which imitated The War Game by imagining a nuclear attack upon northeastern Kansas, but within two years The Day After was eclipsed by Michael Jackson’s Threads, made for BBC in 1984 and documenting with devastating realism the long-range aftereffects of a nuclear strike against the city of Sheffield in the British Midlands.

The Fate of the Earth, as noted above, helped to revive the nuclear issue during the 1980’s, enabling these television films to extend such concerns to a mass audience beyond the limited readership of The New Yorker, much as, presumably, the initial and continued success of Hersey’s Hiroshima had done nearly forty years earlier. Films such as The War Game, The Day After, and Threads work more immediately on the emotions than on the intellect, however, and are likely to leave the viewer stunned and paralyzed with feelings of helplessness. In contrast, The Fate of the Earth suggests that although the problem is immense, it is not necessarily insoluble.

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