Nuclear Armageddon as a Plot Device

Recently Joe Biden made the news when he reversed a campaign vow and stated that under his administration the United States would maintain the right to nuclear first strike as a military option.  Now the idea of Dementia Joe mistaking the nuclear football for his tv remote and ordering up an all-out nuclear blitz on Russia and China while trying to access some kind of hair fetish programming is obviously concerning.

But really this article is more about fiction writing.  In a story that I have been working on (forever) I reached a point in the story where I considered that the best way to escape from the corner I’d painted myself into was by having thermonuclear war break out between Russia and the United States.

Admittedly, that seems like a sad statement on my writing abilities but in point of fact it provided a definitive solution to multiple plot problems I was faced with.  After all, there aren’t many scenarios that can put the US federal government on its heels.  But three 20-megaton thermonuclear ICBMs detonating over Washington is a leading contender.  So, I will confess that I considered the scenario very carefully.

One thing I noticed though is that the impact of a nuked United States is extremely disruptive to a storyline.  Even the most tyrannical US administration looks quite different after the mushroom cloud sprouts over it.  Because now all of a sudden millions of Americans are dead and the ones still living are stunned, scared and desperate for a path forward.  At that point they’d follow Satan himself if he knows where to get food and fuel.

So, everything in my story is turned upside down.  Instead of the plucky rebels fighting the evil feds in a series of hit and run attacks, suddenly they find themselves wondering how they’ll survive without the now non-existent FEMA agency to save them from starvation and hypothermia.  Now what happens to my rebellion story?  All of a sudden enemies need each other just to survive.  Freedom and independence suddenly don’t mean much when staying alive requires all hands-on deck.

So that’s the change in the atmosphere, the feel of the story.  Does it still make sense?  Can the story survive the change?  Not as originally conceived.  I was looking at a series of stories with the rebels taking on the Deep State one step at a time with the rest of the country sizing up the battle and the balance of power gradually tilting toward the rebels.  But now the battle is over but without the dramatic tension and the action.  Instead, we have a tale of catastrophe and dissolution.

And to make that story work will require a change in emphasis.  Now instead of a slowly building wave of battle we have a nuclear wipe out and a tide going out.  Instead of a war with winners and losers we have the flotsam and jetsam from a deluge struggling to survive and trying to rebuild some kind of patchwork of settlements.  That’s a totally different thing.  It becomes a bunch of smaller stories at the village level.  Instead of armies we have farmers and mechanics, men and women and their children trying to survive without supermarkets and gas stations, even without electricity.  It’s nothing like the story I was envisioning but somehow it makes sense.  Because even though we may have forgotten about the atom bomb it hasn’t gone away.  It’s still there and it has its own internal logic that makes it the executioner of last resort.  If we decide that the arc of history bends in our direction and we can do as we please no matter what, we may find that the arc is just the ballistic track of an ICBM.

So inexorably I think the story is telling me to make a turn.  Even as a fictional plot device it does make one pause.  Imagine the largest fifty American cities reduced to rubble and charred bodies.  Imagine fallout killing off a quarter of the survivors.  And food and fuel gone for the rest of the survivors.  The grimness of such a tale is hard to overstate.  How do you tell such a story so that people will want to read it?

Well, that’s a subject for another day.  But this one has helped me get my thoughts in some kind of order.  Okay, hit all those buttons!

5 2 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Sex toy
Sex toy
2 months ago

Let it rot

Milo Mindbender
Milo Mindbender
2 months ago

Alas Babylon, Lucifer’s Hammer, and One Second After all cover this topic. None have a super secret squirrel good guy who drives an ex cop car across the wastelands. All describe the possible lives of ordinary people struck with extraordinary circumstances who decide to work within their local community to better all those concerned in both life and livelihood. Not sure if this is what you were looking for but these are examples of non superhero based post nuclear fiction that don’t have joe bagadoughnuts owning a national guard armory, and stocking it with his harem of admirer babes. The… Read more »

Milo Mindbender
Milo Mindbender
1 month ago
Reply to  photog

The small isolated community concept is valid. Knowledge and skillset/climate/growing season/terrain may be as much of an obstacle as mutant cannibal zombie biker hordes, as well as being more resolvable and realistic. My grump with a lot of post dystopian fiction is the protagonist is always former delta,seal, secret squirrel with a hobby of running marathons in body armor, and more deadly that bubonic plague with any weapon larger than a thumb tack. I’m a REMF, with no special skills, equipment, or high dollar training, how do I identify to some super being with the full arsenal in tow? I… Read more »

1 month ago

Even though neither are nuclear war, “Earth Abides” by George R. Stewart and “The Stand” by Stephen King (before the van broke his mind). Two of my favorite reads. Each deal with destruction of the current world, although a killer virus is the raison d’être for both. Herpes, AIDS and Covid kept these two books in the forefront of my mind,

Would love your thoughts, please comment.x