Tuesday, May 15, 2012

American Dystopia, Fiction or Reality?

In my childhood years of the 1950s, apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic landscapes were a dime a dozen.

In the Arctic, the first radioactivated monster, Ray Bradbury’s famed Rhedosaurus, awakened in The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and began its long slouch toward New York City; in the Southwestern desert, near the Trinity testing grounds for the first atomic bomb, a giant mutated queen ant in Them! prepared for her flight to the sewers of Los Angeles to spawn; in space, the planet Metaluna displayed “the consequences of a weak defense system” by suffering nuclear-style incineration in This Island Earth; and in 1954, the irrepressible returned big time when Godzilla, awakened by atomic tests, stomped out of Japan’s Toho studios and later barnstormed through American movie theaters. (All those “family” films, by the way, were successes.)

And if you were in the mood in those days, you could even pile into your car and do it in real life. In the mid-1950s, after all, the Atomic Energy Commission was promoting “atom bomb watching” as a tourist attraction for vacationers in Nevada. There were even bleachers on a hill (“News Nob”) 10 miles from ground zero for reporters checking out atomic tests. In some ways, none of us have ever left that hill.

In 1957 alone, the Black Scorpion, the Incredible Shrinking and the Amazing Colossal Man, the Invisible Boy, the Cyclops, the Deadly Mantis, the Giant Claw, and “an enlarged radiated sump” from the grave of a South Pacific islander -- atomic mutants all -- were sent careening toward teenagers in drive-ins across America. And don’t forget the last survivors of Level 7, the last Australians in On the Beach, and the scattered monks and mutants facing a devastated post-atomic world (and preparing to do it all over again) in A Canticle for Liebowitz, not to speak of those flesh-eating plants, the Triffids (nuclear mutants, even if the author, John Wyndham, didn’t know it). It was a time when novels were regularly turned into wastelands.

Of course, today, when it comes to post-apocalyptic wastelands -- a measure of our embattled planet -- nuclear weapons have had to join a jostling crowd of world-devastating possibilities, as in the most recent hit, The Hunger Games trilogy. Its first volume hints that its dystopian, bread-and-circuses North American world was the creation of climate catastrophe (think: global warning). Read More