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Philip Wylie began writing science fiction in the 1930s and continued to write well into the 1970s, but it’s his shift towards atomic fears and post-apocalyptic visions that I’m dealing with today. Wylie was put under house arrest by the FBI after writing a novel with a post-War Nazi plot to use atomic weapons—cutting a little too close for comfort given that the Manhattan Project had yet to conduct its first live test. As the postwar era ushered in a new Atomic Age, Wylie continued to keep pace, becoming a special consultant to the Federal Civil Defense Administration. His works reflected the era’s fear of nuclear holocaust: books like Triumph, Tomorrow!, and The Smuggled Atom Bomb all center around the theme of a nuclear attack. This week I’m reading the last two to see how they compare.

Smuggled Atomic Bomb sm

Lancer Books – 1965 – artist uncredited.

Allan Diffenduffer (sigh) Bogan is a physics grad student in Florida, a clumsy but hard-working student working as a handyman at the Yates boarding home. He helps out the invalid and physically handicapped Mrs. Yates by doing housework and cleaning, and it’s when he cleans the room of the other boarder that he makes a remarkable discovery—the man has a locked lead box, containing a super-heavy brick of plutonium. Taking his worries to the FBI, Duff is told that the US is not missing any plutonium and to stop bothering them. Instead, Duff starts his own investigation, stumbling onto a plot of enemy saboteurs smuggling atomic bombs into the US, mining its seaboard cities with atomic death. With the help of Mrs. Yates’ smart, beautiful daughter Eleanor, and one of Eleanor’s many suitors, Duff races against the clock to uncover this conspiracy before an American city goes up in a mushroom cloud…

Wylie’s fear of Soviets mining the cities on America’s seaboard with H-bombs was apparently quite real, as he wrote a cautionary letter to the Kennedy administration in 1961. As a liberal humanist, Wylie had strong support for Kennedy, and as a consultant to Civil Defense, the administration took his concerns seriously enough that they were passed on to military advisers. Atomic holocaust became enough of a concern—or at least one of the world’s vulnerabilities—that he would revisit the theme of preparedness and nuclear attack in Tomorrow! and Triumph, both of which depicted the Cold War’s fears come true (though Tomorrow!, at least, ends on a happier note).  The Smuggled Atom Bomb’s plot makes it a bit timely than those other novels; since 2001 the US has been on a constant, if quiet, alert for hostile factions smuggling “dirty bombs” into a major metropolis. Ten years ago, this novel would have struck me as prophetic and having a finger on the pulse of American fears—odd how the world has come full circle, and a novel from 1951 foretells the fears of the recent past. I do think it foreshadows the techno-thriller, because I swear I’ve seen this plot on dozens of Tom Clancy knockoffs in bookstore bargain bins…

The Smuggled Atom Bomb was originally published in the collection Three To Be Read, along with fellow thrillers Sporting Blood and Experiment in Crime, all originating from the Saturday Evening Post. Later, they were split into their own paperback volumes. None of them are terribly long—Smuggled Atom Bomb epitomizes the novella/short novel, and only took an hour or so to read. Wylie’s style is competent but unexceptional, having the occasional flourish of wit and flash of pompous grandeur; it made the Saturday Evening Post after all, so expect something reasonably accessible but not willing to take risks. Due to its length constraints and subject matter, there were a few developments that struck me as too coincidental or inane. For one example, see Duff’s name. For another, one of the enemy contacts is a seven-foot-tall giant, whom Duff later realizes was just a short man wearing stilts, to more easily traverse the swamps (I assume?) and to complicate his identification—e.g., the FBI is off looking for a giant, not some moron wearing stilted shoes through the Everglades, which struck both this saboteur and Wylie as a plausible deterrent to investigation.

Avon - 1956 - artist uncredited.

Avon – 1956 – artist uncredited.

As a novella, I don’t have that much to say about The Smuggled Atom Bomb—it’s a short, entertaining read, but not a classic by any means. Rather thin and forgettable, in fact. The plot is straightforward but very contrived, and the characters fall into a predictable happy ending. (I noticed that in Tomorrow!, the male lead’s love interest was Lenore, and here Duff’s ideal woman is Eleanor; both share a happy Hollywood love-story ending.) Wylie writes well enough, and his wit can be sharp, but at this point I’d be more interested in reading his gender-bending The Disappearance or one of his radium age classics like When Worlds Collide. The Smuggled Atom Bomb may be of interest to those who like Cold War tales of intrigue and adventure, or atomic threat-type stories from that era, but it’s an average example at best.

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