In the year of Barack Obama’s triumph in the race to succeed George W. Bush as president of the United States, it’s interesting to take a look at Philip Wylie’s 1963 novel of nuclear armageddon, Triumph.
I’ve read four of Wylie’s books, including his most famous, When Worlds Collide, written with Edwin Balmer, about a giant rogue planet from deep space that swings into the solar system and smashes the earth. (Conveniently, it brings in its wake an earth-size planet with an earth-like atmosphere which settles into earth’s orbit after the collision, allowing a few plucky pioneers to travel there in a space ark.) The other three are also end-of-the-world scenarios – Triumph and Tomorrow! are about nuclear war, and The Disappearance is a high-concept fantasy in which men and women are shunted into parallel dimensions where each gender has to get along without the other. (I’m not giving away too much when I say that nuclear war is among the many catastrophes which befall one of the genders in The Disappearance. Try to guess which one!)
Philip Wylie isn’t much of an author and Triumph isn’t much of a novel, but it’s worth reading (like all of Wylie’s books) for the luridness of the author’s apocalyptic imaginings, and for the insights into the mindset of mid-century liberalism. I’ll get to the insights in a moment. First the luridness:
The ears of thousands were gone. Their eyes had “melted” and lay on their cheeks in phlegm-like gobbets. Their noses were not there, and they breathed through holes in crisp, black faces. Their hair was gone. It was impossible to tell of thousands (unless they walked) which was the front, which the back of their horrible heads.
Triumph is the story of fourteen survivors in an underground bunker just after the Third World War. It’s not an ordinary fallout shelter – it was carved at unfathomable expense by a wealthy industrialist into the granite mountain beneath his Connecticut estate. And these aren’t ordinary survivors. The men are all geniuses, the women are all gorgeous and geniuses, and in casual conversation they come out with dialogue like,
“A truly ‘believing’ Soviet group, a group actually all-out Marxist-Leninist, does take the theoretical viewpoint that the world has to become all-Red, in order to complete the Red dream of earthly heaven. Nothing that advanced Communism, anywhere, was deemed ‘wrong’ or ‘evil’. Anything that hindered the spread of Marxist tyranny was ‘sin’. Ethics and morals, in short, turned upside down. Perverted, totally! A people believing that could do anything!”
The anything to which the speaker refers is the secret Soviet scheme for winning the nuclear war. After the expected exchange of missiles, the Reds trigger a series of undersea mines planted off the east and west coasts, smothering the North American continent in a fine mist of highly radioactive sodium, killing every living thing on the continent. (A couple months later, and somewhat redundantly, they give the continent another, even deadlier dose.) Meanwhile, a few hundred thousand of the Soviet Unions’s most reliable citizens have been stashed in secret bunkers under the Urals to wait out the war and emerge after a few months as the sole nuclear power on the planet.
On the one hand, Triumph represents the early-’60s fear that the Russians were pulling ahead of the United States in the technology of world-destruction. (This is a couple years after JFK warned Americans that Republican negligence had allowed the Soviets to open a “missile gap”.) On the other hand, the author goes on about the Rand Corporation and the number-crunchers at the Pentagon who were queuing us neatly at the gates of Hell, where obediently we stood and waited:
“It’s not we who need to see such examples of the hideousness that wiped out our world.” [This is the industrialist speaking, upon seeing televised footage of the walking dead with their phlegm-like-gobbet eyes, described above.] “It was the people who were eradicated – that billion-plus. The facts were public that could have told them all that happened was possible – told them fifteen years ago or more.”
Wylie was one of those idealists who grew ever more frustrated with the failure of the world to live up to his hopes. In Tomorrow! , the United States retaliates for a Soviet sneak attack by sailing a kamikaze submarine into the Baltic Sea and detonating a superbomb so powerful it obliterates not just Russia but most of Europe as well. Then the Americans get busy rebuilding their cities, doing away with the crowded vertical downtown cores that Wylie despised and replacing them with massive, ground-hugging, mall-like structures. (It’s instructive to return to an era when some liberals were arguing in favour of urban sprawl.) Tomorrow! ends with the survivors chastened and ready to live better, truer lives. Triumph was written a decade later and it’s a whole lot bleaker – the title is ironic, you see – and although it too ends with a victory for the free world, Wylie is less sanguine about the price of that victory. Still, the fourteen bunker-dwellers – the last living human beings in the northern hemisphere – conclude with a promise to live better, truer lives:
“We are the pitiful, insufficient, mixed, fortunate remnant of more than a billion human beings. They’re dead. We live. We cannot hope to represent them. We must not try to atone for their self-induced extermination. What caused it? In the long nights and days of existence here, I think we have learned their error. It was simple [...] They came to love things more than one another. They were, on one side, godly by assertion. On the other, atheist. But above and beyond that, on both sides, they were materialists. Marx established his materialism as a substitute worship. Our own was established by ourselves and its voice was not Marx but a nonexistent slot in rubble once called Madison Avenue, where we wrote a new theology of things also.”
(…“A new theology of things also.” Keep in mind, this is Wylie writing dialogue. His narrative voice is a few shades purpler.)
As I’ve said a couple times, Wylie was a liberal, and the contradictions of mid-century liberalism are apparent in his treatment of race relations in the bunker. Here’s his account of a radio transmission the survivors send out:
Then came details of the “shelter” and its equipment, a description of the outdoor radiation levels, and a listing of the people in the shelter with their ages, sexes, and where it was appropriate, “Japanese,” “Chinese”, or (twice) “Negro.”
The book’s hero, a two-fisted physicist named Ben Bernman, is a Jew, but that doesn’t stop him from getting it on with the industrialist’s Waspy daughter. The Japanese radio operator and the beautiful Chinese girl also manage to overcome their nations’ historic enmity and pair off. But when it comes to Connie, the beautiful Negro girl, and Pete, the white boy she falls in love with, their self-restraint is held up as a sign of maturity:
“Down here with all of you,” [says Connie] “I can be Pete’s friend. I could also be his girl friend. It wouldn’t matter. [But] if we ever get back to humanity, it wouldn’t go on working – for Pete. Or me. I’d feel the way I got feeling before the world blew up. I mean: I’m colored and I’ll always be; and a white man too close always feels he’s too close – to a colored girl.”
As for Pete:
“He’s come to realize that outside, if we ever got outside, it perhaps wouldn’t work. Not yet. Not for another generation or two. So, it better not be continued here.”
Pete and Connie’s “generation or two” have passed, and black-white relations are still fraught and complicated. Yet if in real life Ann Dunham and Barack Obama, Sr. had been as realistic and self-controlled as the bunker-dwelling paragons in Wylie’s novel, Barack Obama, Jr. (two years old at the time of Triumph‘s publication) would not now be the president-elect of the United States.
I’ve never read Obama’s first book, Dreams From My Father, but I guess he was pretty conflicted as a young man about his mixed-race heritage. It’s impossible for me, or anyone, to say whether Obama’s adolescent race-consciousness was more crippling than the ordinary self-consciousness of the ordinary black or white teenager. Regardless, and in a way that for all his well-meaningness Philip Wylie didn’t have the courage to foresee, Obama triumphed over it.