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Ian R Macleod

Me and the Mushroom Cloud

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We all know the future isn't what it used to be. The monorails, the tight-fitting silver suits, the long rows of wardrobe-sized computers with their spinning reels of magnetic tape, have come and gone — if they ever came in the first place. We saw them, if we saw them at all, in fleeting glimpses. They were the yetis of our imaginations, they were the Bermuda Triangles of the newspaper headlines, lingering at the edges of real life; they were the Kirlian photographs of our auras which we never got to see. Such matters awaited — still await — any kind of rational explanation. But the backdrop against which these images were cast was something far more solid. For the larger part of half a century, our whole concept of the future was overshadowed by the chilly thought that, unless you happened to be a cockroach, there might not be any future at all.

I was born in the fifties, grew up in the sixties. My sister loved the Beatles, and the pictures on my bedroom walls were of the lesser beat groups left over from the magazines she'd shredded to adorn hers. Then my brother, who was a little older and apprenticed as a print compositor in the days when such a trade still existed, gave me some magazine pictures he'd accumulated as part of his training. There were cars and there were planes, both of which I was developing an increasing interest in, but the one I remember, the one which immediately drew my attention with something approaching a budding sexual frisson, was a lengthwise colour spread of the mushroom cloud of an atomic bomb. My brother was surprisingly concerned about my choice. "You know what these things can do?" he asked. I nodded my head — of course I knew — and went off to find the Sellotape with which to affix it, in those days before Blu Tack, to my bedroom wall.

There it was. To the left of my bed, so I could see it when I first woke up and last thing before I turned out the light. Immense and somehow god-like, both religious scientific, and yes, I suppose, phallic. This, it said to me, is what we humans are capable of making. This is what we can do. I didn't then know Oppenheimer's famous quote when he witnessed the detonation of the first hydrogen bomb about the destroyer of worlds, but similar thoughts somehow echoed in my mind. Forget about the Bible. Forget about career choices and girls and puberty. Forget about weekdays at school and the long walks I was beginning to take away from my council estate on weekends at home. This was Death, and it was pure, ultimate, world-shattering. I, we all, lived beneath its shadow. And, to me at least, it was sexy and exciting.

A story my mother told me — I have no idea whether it ever happened — was of a couple who'd walked with their child into the sea and drowned themselves back in the Cold War fifties because they couldn't see how human life could continue. Well, we were still here in the sixties, but only just, and it seemed to me that all that effort, all those missiles in their silos in the wild wastelands of Siberia and Texas, could hardly lay dormant for much longer. They were too beautiful, too clean, too perfect. They bore too much purpose. And the end result, that mushroom cloud, was simply too glorious. When the time came for school projects, I lingered long in the local library over soberly jacketed books which detailed, in dense paragraphs and neatly italicised lists, deathrates and afterlifes and megatonnage and final symptoms. From these, and from my aircraft magazines, I learned a whole new terminology. ICMBs and MIRVs. Titans and Minutemen. Ground zero. And it wasn't just mushroom clouds. Even in those days, there was chemical and there was biological as well. The difference was that we weren't just worried about attacks on railway stations and department stores; they would kill us all.

Being a lad of the English Midlands, a shortish bus ride away from the ground zero which I'd seen central Birmingham indicated as on maps, I didn't imagine that I'd survive the first lob of missiles. Although I'd be outside the initial fireball, I was still in the zone of likely 100% casualties. All there would be was a flash, a rumble, and that would be it. Still, there would be some survivors, or so the SF books I was also starting to read led me to think. And they, as they established monastic communities with liturgies based on discarded shopping lists or fought mutant monsters re-emerged from the Greek myths, generally seemed to have a far better time of it than anything which the prospects of life in the mid-to-late Twentieth Century had on offer. At the end of the day, it was hard for a moderately disaffected teenage lad not to see nuclear annihilation as A Good Thing. Of course it was glamorous! How couldn't it be? Nuclear death was American, for a start, or it was Russian, and both of those countries were far more exciting and mysterious than England could ever be. Sleek submarines prowled the oceans depths whilst wise men in white suits ignited deserts, and supersonic planes roamed the skies and pushed hard to get into the starry black space above so that it, too, could be claimed for the Arms Race. We in England had the bomb as well, but in a maverick James Bond, Avro Vulcan, Aston Martin sort of way. After all, we didn't want to miss out on the biggest party of all, which was the End of the World.

As I grew older, the prospect of nuclear death faded. I had other fish to fry; a life to grow into. Then, there was détente. The USSR (as people now more commonly called it) turned out not to be quite the monstrous Stalinist beast which we had previously imagined. Indeed, America itself, the USA, with all the cruise and Trident missiles it was trying to sell to poor, bankrupt Britain, was as least as much of a monster. Still, the shadow remained there in the background, not least with the arrival of the concept of nuclear winter. Gone were those glassy desert landscapes where Mad Max and his scantily-clad cohorts could adventure at will. Instead, we were faced with the prospect of gloomy grey skies and endless sleet — a sort of perpetual Manchester in February — engulfing the entire world. Nuclear death was now much less appealing, and this non-sexy image was reinforced by a spate of made-for-TV epics which portrayed the aftermath of a nuclear exchange in terms of blistering, hair loss, starvation and endless wintry misery. No wonder Ronnie and Gorbie were so keen to get rid of their missiles when they met at Reykjavik! After all, who'd want to keep the damn things, when that was all they'd achieve? And nuclear power itself, in explosive Chernobyl and leakily incontinent Sellofield, and the fact that other supposedly lesser countries like India and Israel were getting in on the act, was rapidly losing what was left of its glamour. It was like Concorde, or the drip-dry shirt. It had arrived amid much fanfare, we'd got used to it, decided it was probably more fuss than it was worth, and moved on to something else.

In my own personal world, married by now and with a career of sorts in the Civil Service, which gave me the time to write longhand stretches of my first novel, the prospect had faded. I certainly liked the idea of Julie Christie visiting the women camped outside Greenham Common, but then I liked the idea of Julie Christie doing pretty much anything. As someone who regarded himself as intellectual and liberal, I would have argued in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament, but the subject rarely came up. Like macrobiotic food or animal experiments, it was a trend which had come and gone; it was flared trousers and prog-rock and the spacehopper. I could stare out of my office window at the skyline of central Birmingham for hours without imagining it being engulfed in a white pulse and a shattering blast. Then, through one of the regular moves which are inflicted on government workers once they show any signs of becoming proficient at any particular job, I found myself in a post which included responsibilities for a large safe which contained the details on all types emergency planning.

There were contingencies. There were maps. Here I was, back in the world of my teenage fantasies. It still existed, but only just. I never got the impression (and I have to say that this was quite a long time ago) that anyone in my little corner of government really took the nuclear threat seriously. It was just another paper exercise, like abandoned plans for moving office or a new costing system for stationery. I was a small fish in any case, and certainly wouldn't be going underground with the senior officials into some dripping cellar fitted with old maps and abandoned office furniture. I'd be up on the surface with all the rest of the world, dead, or slowly freezing and starving as I lost my hair, teeth and what was left of my youthful nuclear dreams. I did, though, once go to seminar which was brightened by green-cardiganed ladies from the WRVS explaining how they'd be there to ensure that all the straggling survivors were given a nice, warm cup of tea. This, at the far end of that glittering and dangerous technological rainbow which had started in the deserts of Arizona, in the top secret forests of Nazi Germany, in the visionary thoughts of the century's greatest brains, in the click of Leica cameras, in the silky whispers of a thousand high-heeled double agents and that picture on my bedroom wall dangling from its yellowing Sellotape, was what things had come to. Not so very long after that, I and the Civil Service parted company. I became and house-husband, and a writer, and I and the entire world, it seemed, forgot about the prospect of nuclear war.

But it's still there. It hasn't gone away. Even that beautifully named condition of MAD — Mutually Assured Destruction — still exists. Russia, although diminished and no longer the USSR, and with its oil wealth funding one of our major football teams, retains the capability to annihilate most of the western world, and we'd still do the same to them in return, wouldn't we? Nuclear winter isn't like global warming; no one has ever come up with serious calculations which refute it. The world could still die tomorrow, and the men in charge (for there is little reason here to use gender-neutral language) are as mad in the old non-capital letter sense, and in many ways madder, than their predecessors. An American President who believes that the Biblical end of the world is near, anyone? Or how about a Russian President who controls, or claims to control, a disaffected, poorly paid and under-resourced military? The missiles may have decreased in number, but they're still waiting down there in their silos, even if they've gone a little rusty, and the planes are still on the runways, or already circling overhead in case the runways are destroyed, and the submarines are prowling the chill fishless depths. Then there's nuclear proliferation. If all-out obliteration has lost some of its appeal and likelihood, we may nevertheless have to face up to many Hiroshimas. China's nuclear arsenal is growing, the current list of other countries with a nuclear weapons capability includes France, India, Israel, Pakistan and of course Russia, along with the United Kingdom and the good old U S of A. And the list is growing, with Iran and North Korea both actively pursuing their own nuclear visions, even if it now seems that Iraq's atomic dream was little more than a Tony Blair catnap.

Nothing was the same after September 11, and I don't doubt that curling posters of the twin towers exploding adorn many teenage bedrooms far beyond Palestine. But, compared with my mushroom cloud, it all seems a little puny. Me, I moved on from reading stories about the future to writing them, although in ways which mostly avoided bared-chested Mel Gibson silliness, or detailing the lives of cockroaches. But the novel I'm currently working on begins here and now, where I still live, in Birmingham, and it's forced me to think again about the monorail-less future as something which my characters, and, indeed, I, will still experience. I have to tell you that it's not easy to be cheerful about this new century. There's global warming. There's ecological catastrophe. There are new diseases, and rejuvenated old ones. As ever, there is war and starvation, and the global population (another sixties preoccupation) continues to grow. Then there's terrorism, our current obsession. With that, we've even reached the point of producing leaflets and TV commercials which, no matter how well-intentioned, will no doubt seem as ridiculous in retrospect as that American fifties Duck and Cover film and Norman Fowler's tombstone eighties AIDS commercials. No, the future's not what it once was, but it still has a way of producing events which seem wildly surprising at the time they occur, and yet come, in historical retrospect, to appear entirely inevitable.

These days, I have a family, and a writerly career which I don't have to hide under a government office desk; a whole life which I'd like to hold on to for as long as possible. The last thing I'd want to put on my study wall now amid my daughter's youthful doodlings and the photos of my wife is a poster of a thermonuclear mushroom. But the bomb hasn't gone away. To me, it's been like some faithful friend through all these long years, a dark guardian angle, changing, yes, but remaining essentially the same, even when I've neglected it. The bomb's long shadow still hangs over us. And the more we forget, the more we invade impoverished lesser states on flimsy pretense, or create bogy men or false messiahs, or merely worry about congestion charging or the cost of dental treatment or where we're going to go next on holiday, the bigger that shadow will grow. Flash. No sound at first, but everything electrical will instantly stop working. Then the shockwave, which will rip up trees and shred flesh and demolish buildings, followed by the fireball which will ignite everything. Then the aftermath, which will be terrible beyond the imagining of all but those who witnessed what happened all those years ago at Nagasaki and Hiroshima. I hope, now, that I never live to see such a thing, and my daughter doesn't either, nor her children, nor her children's children. But we're an odd kind of race, us humans; we've always been prepared to think the unthinkable, accept the unacceptable, do the undoable, eat the forbidden fruit, press the button marked Do Not Press. Think of September 11. Think of the Holocaust. Think of the atomic bomb. Eventually, things which can possibly happen tend to happen, even if they're left to nothing but pure chance.

 

Copyright (c) 2010, Ian R. Macleod. All rights reserved.

 

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