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Post-Apocalyptic Landscapes

September 16, 2010

To my faithful blog readers (the few, the proud), I apologize. As enjoyable as it has been to return to Princeton and settle back into college life, my thesis research, and especially this blog, have virtually slowed to a halt. While I know that my blogging will become less frequent this fall, I am considering getting into a rhythm of “Thesis Friday,” during which I hope to finally start bridging the gaps between my sometimes tangential thoughts and bring it all together.

I have been ‘sitting’ on this blog post for a while now, perhaps for most of the summer. In my investigations into how literature and culture respond to the possibility of a nuclear apocalypse, I have continually come across representations of post-apocalyptic landscapes. At first, I suppose I assumed that these were all the same, variations of the same theme of death and devastation, warnings against the drastic possibilities unlocked by the Bomb. As I dug deeper, however, I began to realize how wrong I was: nuclear post-apocalyptic landscapes range widely, from bleak rubble-strewn wastelands to untouched landscapes marked only by a lack of human habitation. The imaginative range of post-apocalyptic visions is due, I suspect, to the exigency of an all-out nuclear war: because we (mentally, politically, subconsciously) forbid the actual occurrence of such a totalizing catastrophe, we rely on metaphor and imagery to grasp its consequences, and in doing so, distance ourselves from it.

This is evident even in the first few seconds of this clip from Doctor Stangelove:

(more after the break):

In describing the disastrous effects of the Doomsday Machine, the Russian ambassador DeSadeski compares the surface of the Earth to that of the moon. We could easily say that he does this for emphasis, imaginatively stirring in his audience the image of a lifeless and bleak Earth. But he relies on this simile, simply put, because it is the only way to describe the catastrophe that would occur. This is in part a temporal problem: lacking any concrete referent to convey the destruction that would result from a future event, he is forced back into the present, settling with ‘the moon.’ As a result, his simile is as much a scare tactic as a safeguard; just as we began to imagine a human-less planet, we are roped back into the language of the present. Paradoxically, therefore, DeSadeski’s attempts to illustrate the doomed future of the whole Earth are bent back into the present, into safety, away from the expansive terror he describes.

This resonates with the writing of film historian Joyce A. Evans, who notes that the post-apocalyptic landscape in many early films about the nuclear bomb were defined not by visions of the future, but more banal concerns:

Major studios and big budgets could produce an imaginative post-nuclear landscape, but low-budget films were restricted to readily available settings…This use of familiar settings was necessary because of practicality and budget constraints, but this also promoted the impression, albeit unintentionally, that the consequences of nuclear war were not so completely devastating. These movies forecast no nuclear winter, no blackened earth. Trees, vegetation, even birds and animals survive; humans are left to repopulate Earth again (Evans 90)

Here, Evans accounts for the range of representations of post-apocalyptic landscapes by pointing to budgetary considerations. While some producers could create a visually stunning and alien locale, others economized by doing away with these elaborate sets and coming up with other effects and explanations: imagining, for instance, that the countryside would remain untouched except for the death of humanity. These unchanged landscapes demonstrate the same paradox I just pointed to in Doctor Strangelove, and which I’ve noticed in depictions of mushroom cloud: the terrifyingly distant totality of nuclear apocalypse is made comforting by the comforting present tense. Furthermore, the fact that both types of landscapes–familiar and bizarre–convinced and terrified audiences speaks to the imaginative capacity for representations of a post-apocalyptic world, and how ‘textual’ the post-apocalyptic future really was.

Again, history played no small part in negotiating these representations. The imaginative space for post-nuclear landscapes was first opened by a conspicuous lack of photographs recording the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In a recent article called “The Mushroom Cloud as Kitsch” (2004) A. Costandina Titus highlights the fact that after Hiroshima, the United States government ensured that the images on the front pages of newspapers were “tightly conrolled, official government releases of the mushroom cloud, not of the destruction on the ground in Japan or of the bomb itself” (105). This explains that the mushroom cloud rose to prominence as a cultural icon as it obfuscated depictions of real fallout. As we were projecting our nuclear fears and dreams onto the mushroom cloud, the rubble in Hiroshima and Nagasaki was censored from view. This is in part why I am so interested in the mushroom cloud, and might explain why I have been writing and reading about the nuclear bomb for so long without really considering post-apocalyptic landscapes as such–perhaps, much like post-war Americans, my vision was obfuscated by the fascinating cultural icon that is the mushroom cloud.

In contrast to the unchanged forest landscapes of the low-budget films Evans points out, many films created imaginative landscapes that were often desert-like, if not actually shot (in the case of film or photography) in the desert. Evans notes that the desert is appropriate to the nuclear bomb because of the death and devastation already associated with the vegetation-free, dessicated environment. Again, as with DeSadeski’s comparison to the moon, the associations of a present object are projected onto the future. Ironically, however, the desert was also the welcoming home for the mushroom cloud in the ‘counternarratives’ spun by the U.S. government to glorify the nuclear bomb in the Nevada test bombing sites. In this post, I discussed how the mushroom cloud became a comfortable and desirable element of Americana, especially in the American West in places like Las Vegas. For decades, the desert reminded Americans of the horror the bomb might evoke–potentially transforming Earth’s surface into a desert-like wasteland–but also served as the welcoming backdrop to representations that sought to make the mushroom cloud a native part of the rugged West.

Much like the changing symbolism of the mushroom cloud, the associations of post-apocalyptic landscapes were to change as the millennium approached. In the introduction to his comprehensive bibliography of nuclear fiction, Nuclear Holocausts: Atomic War in Fiction, 1895-1984, Paul Brians notes a shift of the post-apocalyptic landscape:

With the advent of eighties…the taste of readers of popular fiction seems to have undergone a shift which resulted in the greatly accelerated production of enthusiastically viscous, brutal, and gory nuclear war novels. Suddenly the postholocaust landscape, like the Wild West or the Dark Ages, has become a legitimate and popular landscape for combat stories. The success of films like The Terminator (1984) and the Mad Max movies from Australia…reflects the same phenomenon, as does the popularity of role-playing and video adventure games modeled on nuclear war, and comics of postholocaust settings…Especially among younger readers, avoidance of nuclear war as a realistic possibility now takes the peculiar form of plunging gleefully into the radioactive landscape in search of adventure. More than forty novels of this type have been published in the period from 1980 to 1984. In previous decades it was unusual to find more than one or two a year. They now make up over half of the nuclear war fiction being published. (Brians 89)

Here, Brians notes that the post-nuclear landscape has become the perfect setting for adventure stories of all variations. Today, this category of ‘adventure stories’ has grown to include video games: in particular, the Fallout series is set in a post-apocalyptic era. Thanks to a comment on this blog, I stumbled upon to these games and I was captured by how the marketing material deploys the exact themes I have been talking about. The game is summarized as follows:

Experience all the sights and sounds of fabulous New Vegas, brought to you by Vault-Tec, America’s First Choice in Post Nuclear Simulation. Explore the treacherous wastes of the Great Southwest from the safety and comfort of your very own vault:

A word of warning, however – while Vault-Tec engineers have prepared for every contingency, in Vegas, fortunes can change in an instant. Enjoy your stay.

Not even nuclear fallout could slow the hustle of Sin City.

The existence of a nuclear post-apocalyptic video game is extremely exciting to me, so I’ll have to hold back much of my analysis of the marketing material and the game itself until another post (hopefully I will have actually played the game by that point, so I’m not just theorizing). In any case, Fallout is so fascinating because it grants the player active and playful agency in an otherwise hopeless setting. The American desert is home to “the treacherous wastes of the Great Southwest” and also the “hustle of Sin City”: again, we see the future collapsing onto the present, and again, we are shielded from these problems (in this case, through the fascinating idea of “Post Nuclear Simulation”). While I can’t wait to dig in further to Fallout to see how it epitomizes certain nuclear issues, I’m nonetheless struck by how historical exigencies–budgetary concerns of early nuclear film producers or the American government’s limitation on photographs of Hiroshima after the blast–negotiated how we currently think of post-apocalyptic landscapes.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Patty permalink
    September 26, 2010 10:33 am

    Hello Justin,

    I remember at least one photo, maybe a couple, that Dini had of I believe Nagasaki shortly after the bomb. The one I remember was an aerial shot of rubble. I don’t know where he got it/them because I don’t believe he was there, but it was a real snapshot. Ask Uncle Bri, he may have it.

    Good luck on your thesis/schoolwork!


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