The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To listen to the author discuss the unexpected ways the atomic bombing of Hiroshima affected his life, click here.
“Seldom more than thrice annually did any layman or stranger travel the old road that passed the abbey, in spite of the oasis which permitted that abbey’s existence and which would have made the monastery a natural inn for wayfarers if the road were not a road from nowhere, leading nowhere, in terms of the modes of travel in those times. Perhaps, in earlier ages, the road had been a portion of the shortest route from the Great Salt Lake to Old El Paso; south of the abbey it intersected a similar strip of broken stone that stretched east- and westward. The crossing was worn by time, but not by Man, of late.”
I traveled that “old road” when it was still relatively new and heavily trafficked, and I was already a grown-up. I also traveled it when I was a teenager—the version with “broken stone”—through the blistered backlands of what had once been the American West, coming upon the “sports,” the mutants, “the misborn” who, in those grim lands, sometimes looked upon human stragglers “as a dependable source of venison.”
And if you’re now thoroughly confused, I don’t blame you. Let me explain. The passage quoted above comes from A Canticle for Leibowitz, a still-riveting novel published in 1959. I probably read it a year or two later and in that I was anything but unique. Like many American teens of the 1950s and early 1960s, I spent an inordinate amount of time in the irradiated lands between the Great Salt Lake and Old El Paso or other planetary dead zones like it, thanks to what was then called “pulp fiction.”
In those days, post-apocalyptic futures were us.
Canticle, like many novels of its era, was set in a new dark age after humans had destroyed so many of their own and so much of their civilization, leaving behind a mutant planet. It didn’t take a lot of smarts to know how they did that either: with the newly discovered power of the atom—already loosed on the perfectly real cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—aided and abetted by the hubris and bumbling of humanity. (I hope, given the headlines of the moment, you see where I’m heading.)
Canticle was the best of a bevy of post-apocalyptic novels. I read them often enough in those years, just as I snuck into a Broadway movie theater in New York City, my hometown, to watch the world end in the long, dreary film version of Nevil Shute’s eerie novel On the Beach.
Of course, the great weakness of any novel in which life as we know it ends is that, when you shut the cover, your life and life around you go on as before. Still, in those years, we were gripped by the apocalyptic imagination of the moment, caught by pop novelists as well as a bevy of on-screen stand-ins for the split atom in B-movies aimed at a new teen audience—alien intruders and invaders, mutant creatures (ants, spiders, even rabbits), previously slumbering dinosaurs and assorted reptiles, even irradiated clouds from atomic tests, not to speak of super weapons run amok on planet Earth and other planets as well. Our imaginations were repeatedly—to use a word coined by the Hollywood magazine Variety—“Hiroshimated.”
All of this, for the young, was given a certain reality by the sirens that periodically screamed outside our school windows to signal the start of citywide nuclear tests. We would then “duck and cover” under our desks as protection against Soviet A-bombs, while the Conelrad emergency warning network interrupted normal radio broadcasts and the press reported on how many millions of Americans had “died” in events no less imaginary or, in their own way, scary than the pulp fiction we read.