Entry updated 2 August 2020. Tagged: Theme.
The prolonged post-World War Two (roughly 1946-1991) state of tension between the West – principally the USA and its NATO allies – and the Warsaw Pact countries headed by the USSR was inevitably reflected in sf written in the shadow of what at times seemed to be an inevitable nuclear World War Three. Such past hopes of salvation as the Pax Aeronautica were no longer even credible.
On a purely utilitarian basis, it was convenient for Western sf writers to have a standard bogeyman, the Red Menace of communism, to replace such former incumbents as the Yellow Peril and the Nazis as a source of all-purpose default Villains. Two scare-novels about grim Near-Future prospects are Leonard Engel's and Emanuel S Piller's Future War take World Aflame: The Russian-American War of 1950 (1947) and Isabel Moore's The Day the Communists Took Over America (1961). Authors making effective use of these tensions included Ian Fleming with several of his James Bond spy thrillers, though Fleming's ventures into sf territory tended to use non-Soviet villains; Len Deighton with Billion Dollar Brain (1967), featuring a private pre-emptive war on Russia; and Tom Clancy with such Technothrillers as Red Storm Rising (1986). A Cold War ambience pervades many further sf novels, such as Frank Herbert's The Dragon in the Sea (November 1955-January 1956 Astounding as "Under Pressure"; 1956; vt 21st Century Sub 1956; vt Under Pressure 1974), Herman Wouk's The "Lomokome" Papers (17 February 1956 Collier's Weekly; 1968), Algis Budrys's Who? (April 1955 Fantastic Universe; exp 1958); D F Jones's Colossus (1966) and, rather late in the day, Harry Turtledove's A World of Difference (fixup 1989).
At a simpler level, in films such as The Flying Saucer (1950), The Whip Hand (1951; vt The Enemy Within), Fantastic Voyage (1966) and many others it was natural to depict bad guys planning to harm America or steal its Inventions as working for the USSR, whereas stealers of Soviet inventions as in Firefox (1982) are of course good guys. Perhaps the most egregious film presentation of outright Cold War propaganda – including a vision of World War Three – is Invasion U.S.A. (1952; vt Invasion USA); another such example is Rocket Attack U.S.A. (1961; vt Five Minutes to Zero).
Fictional resolutions of the Cold War that avoided the nuclear devastation of World War Three often imagined the West sleepwalking into a bloodless takeover by the implacable East. Britain becomes a USSR satellite state in Ewart C Jones's Head in the Sand (1958); D G Barron's The Zilov Bombs (1962), with all Europe also under Soviet rule; David Craig's Message Ends (1969) and Contact Lost (1970); Kingsley Amis's Russian Hide-and-Seek: A Melodrama (1980); and Graham Dunstan Martin's The Dream Wall (1987). A similar fate befalls the USA in Isabel Moore's already-cited The Day the Communists Took Over America (1961) and L Neil Smith's Forge of the Elders sequence opening with Contact and Commune (1990). Daniel Da Cruz's Ayes of Texas sequence, opening with The Ayes of Texas (1982), sees the USSR achieving world domination without recourse to actual war: but feisty Texas takes them on. In Kate Wilhelm's Welcome, Chaos (1983) the growing realization that an Immortality treatment exists promises to destabilize the Cold War, since resistance to radiation and fall-out is part of the longevity package.
The Cold War Paranoia of the 1950s also led to several metaphorical treatments – or works easily read as such – of the disquieting insight that communists look just like ordinary people and that an honest American countenance might conceal Red allegiance. Substitution of variously human-seeming Aliens gives such troubling scenarios as Jack Finney's pod people in The Body Snatchers (10-24 December 1954 Collier's Weekly; 1955; vt Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1973; rev 1978), twice filmed as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956; 1978); or Robert A Heinlein's mind-controlling slugs – whose attachment to a human puppet equates to indoctrination with communist Memes – in The Puppet Masters (September-November 1951 Galaxy; 1951; text restored 1990); or characters who do not even realize their own nonhuman and anti-human nature, like the superbomb-carrying Robot protagonist of Philip K Dick's "Impostor" (June 1953 Astounding). Algis Budrys's The Falling Torch (1957-1959 various magazines; fixup 1959; rev vt Falling Torch 1991) is readable as an allegory of the Cold War's effect on Eastern Europe. William Tenn's "The Liberation of Earth" (May 1953 Future) is a black Satire of Cold War opponents' involvement in third-party countries (ie. Korea; Vietnam was yet to come), with Alien adversaries liberating and re-liberating Earth to the point of utter devastation. Satires of Cold War paranoia range from R Chetwynd-Hayes's The Man from the Bomb (1959) to Marc Laidlaw's Dad's Nuke (1985), the latter featuring a private nuclear deterrent as part of its US "nuclear family" spoof. A bizarre filmic condensation of early hopes and fears is Red Planet Mars (1952); for further relevant Cinema discussion, see Monster Movies.
One anodyne for Cold War fears was hope that the expected World War Three would be survivable by recourse to bomb shelters deep or not-so-deep Underground (which see). Examples include: Level 7 (1959) by Mordecai Roshwald; The Penultimate Truth (1964) by Philip K Dick; Farnham's Freehold (1964) by Robert A Heinlein; The Prodigal Sun (1964) by Philip E High; and Doomsday Clock (1975) by Elizabeth S Benoist.
A sense of the Cold War as a permanent state of affairs features in such novels as Henry Wilson Allen's Genesis Five (1968) and Allan Cole's and Nick Perumov's Lords of Terror (2006). This assumption also informs several sf novels with future settings which became at least temporarily obsolete in the early 1990s. For example, because it is built into the Ender future depicted in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game (August 1977 Analog; much exp 1985), the Cold War status quo was of necessity retained through Card's various post-1991 sequels and companion volumes. Christopher Anvil's The Steel, the Mist, and the Blazing Sun (1980) posits a US/Soviet war a full two hundred years in the future. Harry Turtledove's A World of Difference (fixup 1989) transports Cold War tensions to an alternate, inhabited Mars (called Minerva) where US and Soviet expeditions become military advisers to different, contending Minervan factions.
Isaac Asimov contrived to put a positive spin on the Cold War by playing sf's traditional "uniqueness of humanity" card in "The Gentle Vultures" (December 1957 Super-Science Fiction), in which some not entirely disinterested Alien observers marvel at our ability to walk a tightrope over the abyss of World War Three:
"[...] This planet has something called a Cold War. Whatever it is, it drives them furiously onward in research and yet it does not involve complete nuclear destruction."
The Arch-administrator said, "Impossible!"
Alternate History takes on the Cold War, such as Charles Stross's "A Colder War" (July 2000 Spectrum SF) with its deployment of Cthulhu Mythos entities as destabilizing terror Weapons, are fairly numerous but less relevant to the actual period of history. Overall, this was an era during which Genre SF made great leaps in maturity and sophistication, and many classic works are marked by its psychic scars. [DRL]
- Prepared by the Editors of Pocket Books, Donald Porter Geddes, general editor. The Atomic Age Opens (New York: Pocket Books, 1945) [nonfiction: anth: published August 1945: pb/uncredited]
- David Seed. American Science Fiction and the Cold War: Literature and Film (Edinburgh, Scotland: Edinburgh University Press, 1999) [nonfiction: hb/Chesley Bonestell]
- David Seed. Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives (Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2013) [nonfiction: hb/]
previous versions of this entry