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Beyond Armageddon : edited by Walter M. Miller and Martin H. Greenberg (Donald I. Fine: $17.95; 387 pp.)

February 09, 1986|Gregory Benford | Benford is a professor of physics at UC Irvine whose latest novel is "Heart of the Comet." and

Nuclear war is simultaneously real and surreal, grimly factual and wildly fantastic. This collection of stories reveals some startling truths: Those supposed practitioners of gadget fantasies and techno-myths, the science fiction writers, pretty much had the subject accurately targeted from the very first.

Stephen Vincent Benet's 1937 story "By the Waters of Babylon" envisioned a catastrophic end to World War II. His "fire from the sky" and "poison in the ground" sound a lot like nuclear strikes and fallout, though he knew nothing of atomic physics. Considering that both Germans and Japanese had atomic weapons programs (the latter covered up until a few years ago), a widespread atomic final act to that war wasn't a mad notion. Robert Heinlein even envisioned the stalemate we now have in a notable 1943 short story, aptly titled "Solution Unsatisfactory."

This uniformly pessimistic collection is skillfully done, in large measure thanks to Walter Miller, whose novel "A Canticle for Leibowitz" (1960) is widely considered the best work about the postwar world. Miller provides acerbic introductions to all 21 stories, making scathing observations on our attitudes which have made preparations for nuclear war an increasingly more dangerous institution in society.

"Owning the Bomb is the world's biggest and most expensive form of advertising, the message being 'Don't tread on us.' . . . (But) . . . A paranoid mating call always gets a paranoid answer."

Some stories are tinged with hope, such as Poul Anderson's "Tomorrow's Children," and Roger Zelazny's "Lucifer." But Miller himself seems to see little real promise for mankind even if it gets through a war: "A bumper sticker from the Age of Protest said, 'What if they gave a war and nobody came?' Fat chance, even without conscription. It's like asking: What if they gave a schoolyard fistfight and nobody came? And miss all that excited howling, shoving, and maybe blood?"

Indeed, the book begins with situations prefiguring a larger war, opening with Lucius Shepard's "Salvador," which is really a slightly updated Vietnam story, tracing known ground. The collection darkens as you read, covering 48 years of fictional thinking about "megawar." Two Ray Bradbury classics offer somewhat nostalgic views of man's artifacts, and the book ends on a note of unrelieved metaphorical gloom, "My Life in the Jungle" by Jim Aikin.

One can hope this collection's gloom serves to stimulate the science fiction genre to foresee imaginative solutions, having already defined quite dramatically the enormity of the problem.

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