Apocalypse 1954: Hero’s Walk

Cold War Geopolitics in Space

Hero’s Walk, Robert Crane, 1954

Humanity has united under a world government called InterCos, and has set out to boldly colonize the rest of the solar system. But strange, disturbing radio transmissions from space may be an alien warning against humanity’s imperialist ambitions. The politicians wrangle over the meaning of the transmissions, and use the issue to do what politicians always do – further their own power. Disregarding the frantic warnings of a desperate scientist who sees the alien threat, InterCos moves ahead with colonization, until the alien bombs start to fall. Hero’s Walk is basically a Cold War parable, published in the same year as the famous Oppenheimer security hearing, a critique of the reckless brinkmanship of the political leaders that threatened the world with the nuclear annihilation that scientists like Oppenheimer were warning about.

The hero of Hero’s Walk is Neil Harrison, a staffer on the American delegation in InterCos. InterCos has brought peace to humanity and amazing technological progress, which has enabled humans to extend their imperialistic reach out into space. A new space platform is set to go into operation when scientists detect a bizarre and ambiguous radio transmission from somewhere out in the Solar System. The transmission is difficult to interpret, but seems to be a hostile message from an alien race that appear to call themselves Ampiti. Neil watches as the politicians wrangle over the meaning of the message, with different political factions using the issue to make a power play for dominance of the InterCos assembly.

Neil’s brother Mark is your typical, brash, iconoclastic physicist. He believes he has deciphered the radio message (with help from the lovely Dr. Elizabeth Hewes, Neil’s fiancé), and the news isn’t good – the Ampiti are warning us to stay on our side of the sandbox or face complete destruction. Naturally, Mark is ignored by the politicians, space colonization moves ahead, and at long last Earth is surrounded by mysterious UFOs which proceed to destroy our space frigates before lightly bombing the Earth’s major cities with what appear to be warning shots.

Mark is desperately trying to get the politicians to signal their peaceful intentions to the Ampiti, while the InterCos President, Dr. Werner (after Werner Heisenberg and Werner von Braun, it is clear that no German authority figure portrayed in 1950’s fiction can be named anything other than Werner), is determined to show the Ampiti that you can’t mess with Earth. When it looks like political intransigence is going to lead to Earth’s annihiliation, Neil makes a heroic walk across bombed out New York, to reach Elizabeth and be with her during humanity’s final moments. But maybe, as the book ends, there is hope that the human political leaders may have finally come to their senses…

Hero’s Walk is plainly a fable of the nuclear geopolitics of the mid-50’s. Robert Oppenheimer was about to get his security clearance revoked for pushing against the political winds and urging the U.S. not to escalate the arms race by developing the hydrogen bomb. Our relationship with the Soviets, who had been our WWII allies less than a decade before, was very rapidly deteriorating. Robert Crane clearly saw scientists like Oppenheimer as the spurned voice of reason, and was worried that geopolitics was going to blindly send the world up in a mushroom cloud. Hero’s Walk takes this story and transfers it to an encounter with aliens whose intentions are just as inscrutable as those of the Soviets were to the U.S in the 50’s. Like the Soviets, the aliens in the book are too technologically powerful to be simply bullied; to escape complete destruction, humans have to change the way to they do politics.

As you might guess, the political process in the book is a bit simplistic, even if the nuclear brinkmanship of the Cold War was just as insane as the human stand against the Ampiti. Much of the plot in the book is about the InterCos bureaucratic process, and it gets a bit tedious. The hero’s walk across New York ends the book on a strong note, however. The walk across the bombed city was inspired by the author’s own experiences during the London bombings of WWII, and in the book, Neil regains his faith in humanity as he watches how ordinary people in the street, in contrast to the inept politicians, are out there braving danger and helping each other, putting aside selfishness and understanding that we’re all in this together.

Hero’s Walk is a very average work of 1950’s apocalyptic sci-fi, smoothly written, a little simplistic and not very exciting, but still a powerful fable of the nuclear craziness of the Cold War.

Stay tuned for more reviews in my survey of 60+ years of post-apocalyptic fiction.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

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