Philip Wylie was an early practitioner of science fiction, writing the novels Gladiator (1930, an inspiration for Superman) and coauthoring When Worlds Collide (1933); I knew about those old classics and assumed Wylie was purely a radium age author, and was surprised to find that Wylie was writing well into the 1970s. During World War II, Wylie was put under house arrest for writing a novel about a post-War Nazi plot to use atomic weapons—months before the first Alamogordo tests. His interest in atomic weapons continued into the 1950s, and he became a special consultant to the Federal Civil Defense Administration. His works reflected the new atomic age: books like Triumph, Tomorrow!, and The Smuggled Atom Bomb, dealing with the common fear of nuclear attack. This week I’m reading the last two to see how they compare; check back in a few days for The Smuggled Atom Bomb.
Tomorrow! was an e-ARC provided in exchange for this open and honest review.
Tomorrow! is the tale of two cities: “Green Prairie” which has a vigorous Civil Defense program, and its neighbor “River City” which turns up its nose at taxpayer expenses like Civil Defense. It’s because of Green Prairie’s Civil Defense practice drills—the most recent one totaling some 40,000 (!) CD volunteers, which ties up downtown traffic for hours—that causes CD preparedness to run afoul of one Minerva Sloan, River City’s local robber-baron/heiress. That inconvenience is all the incentive she needs to launch a smear campaign against Civil Defense, and soon those numbers fall from the thousands to just sixty-three volunteers. Meanwhile, there are rumors that the Soviets are not as interested in peace as they led Congress to believe, and talk of the strange planes encroaching on American airspace…
The novel starts off with the aforementioned 40,000-volunteer drill before turning into a melodrama, portraying Midwestern American life in the form of the Conner family and their neighbors, all of whom are Civil Defense volunteers (head of the household Henry Conner is an accountant and local CD organizer). Chuck Conner is perhaps the most interesting, a young architect who joined the air force in college; he’s in love with Lenore, the neighbors’ beautiful and intelligent daughter. The problem is that Lenore’s pursued by Kit Sloan, and Kit’s mother Minerva is blackmailing Lenore’s parents to force a marriage with Kit, otherwise Minerva will expose the fact that Lenore’s father, a bank manager, stole bonds from the vault… You see why I say it’s a melodrama? Most of the other Conner household have their own problems, but few are as complex as Chuck’s love triangle. The youngest daughter, a precocious six-year-old hellion named Nora, spends most of her time causing trouble, preferring to read Sin in Seven Streets instead of her geography homework. (Sin in Seven Streets is a jab at all the sleazy paperbacks of the 1950s, a “frank and factual account of the shocking international traffic in womanhood, written by a team of world-renowned journalists” after said journalists took a three-day survey of Buenos Aires’ prostitutes.)
Due to its soap opera tone, the early parts of the novel are flat and lacking action. It’s interesting as a 1950s slice-of-life curio, albeit less squeaky-clean than some Leave it to Beaver episode or a Civil Defense “Duck and Cover” cartoon; instead, it establishes the characters and setting as backdrop for the coming apocalypse, and outlines what Civil Defense can do and the challenges it faces. 70% of the way in, the novel turns into the promised apocalyptic tale, and Wylie changes gears. The chapters, formerly long and well-defined, become erratic, short bursts of information as we jump from character to character, their mundane problems and normal lives burned away in the chaos of a nuclear firestorm. It’s a gritty bit of fiction and Wylie spares no gory detail—a good portrayal of the chaos and misery of the survivors, and the desperate attempts to contain both the flow of infected refugees and the radioactive firestorm that levels the heart of the twin cities.
As deadly as Wylie portrays the atomic attack—a horror show of gore and viscera; an avenging, fiery Götterdämmerung come to damn those poor writhing souls for their lack of preparedness—it makes the same mistake as Alas, Babylon in assuming a nuclear attack was survivable. By that I mean survivable by duck-and-cover means, with the occasional contrivance being the only salvation of several important characters—protected from radiation by ducking under a balcony, or a cascade of falling bricks. The blast itself is presented as the greatest danger, creating a burst of radiation that withers anyone it touches before blinking out—next is the shockwave, blasting out windows with such fury that anyone caught standing near one gets turned into hamburger. Survive that and it’s time to roll up your sleeves, fight the fires, and prepare to rebuild, so that two and a half years later you can have a weenie roast with your friends. It’s telling how much of the novel’s science was informed by Hiroshima and Nagasaki, failing to understand the full impact of radioactive fallout, radiation poisoning, etc.
Some reviewers call Tomorrow! a Civil Defense advertisement; I disagree and think that’s a rather harsh slam, and seems to imply that it’s a propaganda leaflet and not a real novel. No, it’s very much a real novel, albeit with a very, very pro-Civil Defense bias; there are sections, yes, where Wylie will go into expository detail about the value of Civil Defense and preparedness and how constant vigilance is needed by all. The prose is unadorned but capable, having flashes of wit (especially when Nora’s involved) and some vivid descriptions of the gruesome apocalypse. Really, if I have to lodge any complaints, it’d be that Wylie spent so much time building up the characters and plot, not leaving enough room to make the attack, survival, and rebuilding—to me, the most interesting elements—more substantial. In fact, the book jumps from a burning inferno, the countryside full of looters and rapists, to having a hot dog cookout years later—a drastic shift from Civil Defense preparedness to “winning” the latest war to end all wars. Wylie was more interested in promoting preparedness than investigating the long and harsh process of rebuilding, as the book’s uneven structure shows (70% preparation, 30% apocalypse, .5% two-years-later).
Tomorrow! is an interesting look back at the 1950s, especially since so much of the novel is about living in the looming shadow of atomic war. The science is dated, more optimistic than realistic, and elements of the plot feel quaint today (parts of the Chuck-Lenore love triangle, for example). So are many other “atomic war” novels from the era, so I can’t fault Wylie in the slightest; I think it adds to the time-capsule feel of the story, giving a good idea of the expectations and fears of the era. It’s a somewhat realistic portrayal of life in the 1950s that just so happens to be a post-apocalyptic novel, and a reasonably entertaining one at that. I don’t think it will replace some of the all-time post-apocalyptic classics, but I think it will be of some interest to any reader who’s interested in that genre.