The Cold War in Science Fiction

This week marks the twenty-year anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event which helped end the Cold War. It ushered in the end of an era for science fiction, too.

The Cold War affected science fiction during some of its most important and formative years. SF books published during the Cold War reflected that period's politics as well as its rapidly-advancing technologies. Here is a short history of the relationship between the Cold War and science fiction.

The Global Standoff

The end of one war signaled the beginning of another. The atomic bombs that were detonated over Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States Air Force marked the beginnings of a massive change in the way warfare would be conducted. While the power of atomic weaponry had become a major, visible aspect of the tensions that sprang up between the US and USSR, a major development that helped to deliver those tensions was the introduction of rockets that could be used on the battlefield. Examining the issue further, one cannot help but point to the very industrial nature that warfare had undertaken. The Second World War saw numerous countries turn their economy over to continuing to fight.

One of the earliest works of fiction to predict this style of warfare was H.G. Wells' 1933 novel, The Shape of Things to Come, which the author called a 'future history'. In it, Wells not only predicted the upcoming Second World War, but also the introduction of submarine-launched ballistic missiles, and, despite a discovery that was years away, the introduction of nuclear warheads. The industrial nature of war that helped characterize World War II is an element of the Cold War. Following the collapse of the Axis forces in Europe and the Pacific, both the United States and Russia found themselves with large standing militaries, with an industrial base to help support them. Indeed, this foundation prompted American President Dwight D. Eisenhower, in 1959, to warn against a looming military-industrial complex, as he feared that it might lead the United States into future confrontations.

While World War II did not see the widespread use of rocket warfare, (just scattered attacks against England and Allied-held European countries at the very end of the war), the use of rockets in combat was half a century old. In the late 1800s, and through to the early years of the 20th century, notable rocket pioneers such as Kontantin Tsiolkovsky, Robert Goddard and Herman Oberth, were all inspired by Jules Verne's book, From The Earth To The Moon, depicting rocket travel as a means to reach our nearest neighbor in space.

With the seeds of rocket travel, and its possibilities, planted in the minds of numerous scientists, the Second World War brought forth a favorable time for scientific endeavor, especially when it could be connected to military hardware. The German military developed the World's first ballistic missile and would later put the first jet plane into service, technologies that were later swept up into the Soviet and American arsenals in the years right after the war. In 1949, the Soviet Union detonated its first atomic warhead, and the race for superior delivery systems began, beginning an age of rocket warfare and first strike scenarios.

Part of the arms race between the world's two major superpowers was the quest to develop bigger and better rockets, a pursuit which would later merge into the space agencies from both countries, accomplishing what had been up to that point, science fiction - the first human in space, the first space walk and the first man on the Moon. While this was a scenario predicted by Verne in his book, no author had captured the possibilities of space because of this race better than Arthur C. Clarke, whose short story, "The Sentinel," and later novel, 2001: A Space Odyssey, showed a near future that saw space habitats, permanent lunar colonization and exploration further into the solar system. While these developments have ultimately not been accomplished in the same way that Clarke's book's title might suggest, it was a work that clearly took the space race for inspiration.

The threat of nuclear destruction was a prevalent one in science fiction, and the 1986 publication of Alan Moore's landmark comic, Watchmen, demonstrates the continued tension between the two countries. Easily, the best example of this in the book is in the character of Dr. Manhattan (who's creation is linked to the very weapon that threatens the world), and his use by the United States as a deterrent in and of himself. As military power is an extension of a nation's politics, the opposition to communism was embodied in the nuclear standoff, used by both countries as a means to further their international ambitions.

The Opposition to Communism

The global struggle that became the Cold War was not just embodied in the warheads that each country maintained; it was in the economic and philosophical makeup of both countries. From the roots of communism with Karl Marx's 1848 book, The Communist Manifesto came a new way of thinking about labor relations that in essence, threatened the capitalistic structure upon which the United States rested. The roots of communism were well established in the world by the 1940s, when Robert Heinlein wrote his short story, "The Roads Must Roll." In this short story, Heinlein presents a world where class struggle is very much a part of the life, and shows an organized workforce that rises as a result of inequalities. This is paralleled by a very real fear in the United States of such an up rise, and as a result, throughout the Cold War, there was a heightened sense of awareness of communist sympathizers within the United States.

Indeed, another author at the time, George Orwell, penned his short novel Animal Farm just a handful of years later in 1945. The book looks at another aspect of Communism, one that closely mirrored its author's own politics - one who was sympathetic towards socialist-style governments, but highly critical of the turns that some of these nations underwent, namely Soviet Russia under Joseph Stalin. Over the course of the story, two pigs, Snowball and Napoleon, take over their farm by inspiring their fellow farm animals to revolt and drive away the farmer, setting up a communist style government in his place - as what happened in Soviet Russia, the leaders gain power and form a dictatorship, creating a society where "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." And obviously, Orwell's 1984 takes an even more withering view of Communism.

Another Science Fiction work that takes the opposition against communism to heart is Madeleine L'Engle's wonderful novel A Wrinkle in Time. Midway through the book, the children arrive on the planet Camazotz, where the populace is controlled by a singular intelligence. Upon their arrival, they come across a village where everybody acts in harmony, as one. Further examination shows that the society is heavily regimented and controlled by the CENTRAL Central Intelligence Center, and by IT. I remember reading this story and coming away with this chapter most relevant in my mind, and saw allegory here as a great fear of the United States - an overpowering authority that is prevalent in every part of a person's life. Indeed, Soviet Russia had put together a massive totalitarian regime that held the country in an iron grip for decades, one that seemed very reminiscent of from the scenes of this remarkable book. Indeed, this is why the threat of nuclear war had been put into place, and why the stakes were so high.

The End of the World

Possibly the most enduring memory in the American public of the Cold War is that of a lesson that many school children learned during this time. You've most likely already guessed it - duck and cover, hiding under one's desk in a sort of nuclear-attack drill that was most feared by the American public, and most likely, the Soviet public as well. With the introduction of nuclear warheads at the end of the Second World War, the lines of war had shifted beyond the front lines of any war - to the American public, and the economic policies of both the United States and Russia only encouraged a shift from conventional military forces to strategic and deterrent based weapons.

While the world's worst fears never came to pass, the idea of nuclear annihilation was certainly ripe for the science fiction genre. A particularly memorable story by Ray Bradbury demonstrates the outcome of such a way, and carries itself easily without the use of any characters whatsoever - a sure possibility in the event that humanity was wiped from the planet. The focus of this story, "There Will Come Soft Rains," part of Bradbury's Martian Chronicles, demonstrates that while humanity might become technologically adept - seen through a fully automated house that carries on its duties even without its inhabitants, who seem to have been killed or driven off after a nuclear war. "There Will Come Soft Rains" acts as a cautionary tale from the 1950s, and indeed, carries with it messages relevant even through to today.

Alas, Babylon, by Pat Frank, is a book that was very easy to relate to current events at the time of publication - Frank talks about the Korean War in the story. Published in 1959, this book is an early post-apocalyptic take on the world, and over the course of the story, demonstrates the style of warfare that had become commonplace, one of strategy, where both opponents circle one another, looking for a weakness to exploit. The bombs fall against the United States, and the story of the survivors is the ultimate commentary, a questioning look at whether such risks to human civilization are needed or really matter in the long run, as one character notes: "We won it. We really clobbered them, not that it matters."

Another powerful tale that looks to a world after the bombs fall is Walter Miller Jr.'s A Canticle For Leibowitz, and witnesses the rebuilding of society in the aftermath of a nuclear war that devastated the world. An order of monks of the Albertian Order of Leibowitz take it upon themselves to preserve scientific knowledge, and the book looks to the rise and fall of society once again - a theme that is common in Science Fiction, form Isaac Asimov's Foundation to Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica (interestingly, both also look to the collapse of civilization). Certainly, with even a fraction of the weapons buildup over the course of the war able to completely destroy the planet, the idea of society's total collapse and destruction certainly was not as farfetched as some might think.

The advent, risk and fear of global destruction is one that carries with it an enormous amount of weight and certainly carries with it plenty of stories and possibilities for both science fiction writers, historians, political science junkies and philosophers. Science fiction stories such as There Will Come Soft Rains, Alas Babylon and A Canticle for Leibowitz are in a unique position to examine some of the more farfetched, but relevant themes that allowed people to look at the subject in any number of possibilities and outcomes.

The Aftermath

Still, with the threat of global destruction, there is certainly room for the stories that demonstrate what would happen in a world without the destruction of humanity. Certainly, one of the finest works to look to this is Childhood's End, by Sir Arthur C. Clarke, which sees the end of global conflict with the appearance of a number of alien ships over the skies of numerous cities around the world, frightening the world into peace, and allowing for a global age of prosperity. To some extent, this is a brilliant take on the idea of global defense, as it removes the responsibility of global destruction from humanity, yet at the same time, removes the need for offensive capabilities from them. This is still an idea borne out of science fiction, as nuclear warheads continue to make up a significant part of a deterrent based arsenal. Just because the United States and Soviet Union never went to war to end civilization, it doesn't necessarily mean that that possibility is forever banished from the realm of possibility.

Still, while that is the case, there is one final aspect of the nuclear arsenal that is examined in a 2003 short story by Charles Sheffield, (his last), The Waste Land, a detective story that centers around one of the side-effects of a nuclear arsenal, the nuclear waste that would take thousands of years to be rendered inert. In this story, the lead character, Jeff King, investigates a man who's been burned from a rapid exposure to radiation, far more than he should have. The events of the story tells of a new technology that is designed to eliminate the effects of radiation by rapidly speeding up the half-lives of the material in the area, ultimately killing the man who invented it, receiving a lethal dose of radiation, but revealing a means to rid the world of a problem that will last for lifetimes to come.

While the Cold War has effectively been over for twenty years with the fall of the Berlin Wall, the immediate geopolitical threat that came about because of it has collapsed. The world no longer struggles back and forth with an epic battle that pits communism against capitalism, democracy verses totalitarianism, but the science fiction that it inspired lives on in the pages of libraries, personal or otherwise, showing that possible conflicts and technologies that threatened the world. While one wall fell, symbolizing the end of an era, another era, one with as many dangers and influenced by the one before it, has arisen, one that will undoubtedly inspire a comparable number of stories to teach and entertain us.

Image by Andrew Liptak.