Apocalypse 1950: Science will save us from science

Edmond Hamilton’s City at World’s End (1950)

hamiltoncityatworldsendOn March 1st, 1954, on the Bikini atoll of the Marshall Islands, U.S. scientists detonated a thermonuclear hydrogen bomb called Castle Bravo. The expected yield of Bravo was five megatons TNT, but the scientists had missed a crucial fusion reaction that took place in this particular bomb design. As one scientist described it to the historian Richard Rhodes, “They really didn’t know that with lithium7 there was an n, 2n reaction [i.e., one neutron entering a lithium nucleus knocked two neutrons out]. They missed it entirely.” The actual yield of Bravo was three times the expected yield, measuring in at fifteen megatons. The blast blew a 6,500 ft diameter hole through the coral and trapped people in observation bunkers that were supposed to be situated far from the blast zone. Japanese fishermen aboard the vessel Lucky Dragon were exposed to high levels of radioactive fallout, leading to the death of one member of the crew and sparking an international incident between the US and the country that less than nine years before had been the world’s first nation to be attacked with nuclear weapons.

Recent popular fears that physicists would destroy the world through miniature black holes created in the Large Hadron Collider are just the latest manifestation of the difficulty people have long had in deciding whether to view scientists as the sorcerer or the apprentice. Immediately after the end of World War II, scientists and government and military officials held highly public arguments over the pursuit of ever bigger and higher energy super-bombs. Did they really know what they were doing? This put some science fiction writers in a tough spot. Generally, writers for mind-century the science fiction pulps were science enthusiasts, but where would the out-of-control pursuit of the power to destroy lead? In City at World’s End, Edmond Hamilton manages to navigate this tension with a story about an out-of-control super-bomb whose consequences are at least partly undone by another science Hail Mary.

City at World’s End begins in Middletown, a town in the Midwest that seems as innocuous as its name, but it holds a dark secret. Kenniston is a scientist who works at the town’s “Industrial Research Laboratories”, a disguised nuclear weapons lab. This Heartland disguise fails, and Middletown becomes a prime target for a Russian nuclear first-strike. But the Soviet super-bomb is so powerful that, instead of reducing the town to a glassy sheet of fused silicon, Middletown gets blasted millions of years into the future. This perfect little American town finds itself left in the middle of an empty wasteland of a nearly lifeless Earth, feebly illuminated by a Sun nearing its expiration date.

With this plot trick, Hamilton manages to create a post-apocalyptic setting without the rubble, death, and mayhem that you’d expect after a nuclear strike. The town’s first concern is to deal with immediate survival, rationing fuel and food, maintaining law and order, and coming up with a plan to deal with the dangerously cold nights. A scouting expedition reveals an abandoned, domed city that manages to provide a living space substantially warmer than the exposed Middletown. The domed city’s technology is far beyond anything Kenniston can grasp, but it’s obvious that the former residents grew food in giant hydroponic tanks and extracted heat from deep shafts that perhaps reach all the way to the Earth’s core. The future begins to look a little brighter for Middletown.

With some help from the scientists, the town’s feckless politicians and infantile population pull it together and begin to settle in. Kenniston discovers some sort of communications device. He can’t quite figure out how to use it, but he thinks he can at least broadcast with it. And so, each hour for several weeks, the city sends out a distress call, hoping some remaining human population on Earth will hear the call.

But instead of a local response, a starship arrives with the regional Galactic administrator, a human named Varn Allan. She’s accompanied by a mixed crew of humans and aliens (including a 1950’s Chewbacca), and she carries an evacuation order. Middletown finds itself stuck in the middle of a Galactic political struggle over a policy of forced emigration of natives from dying worlds. Galactic law is clear that Earth must be abandoned, but the residents of Middletown are done being yanked around into unfamiliar settings, and they have no intention of leaving their home world.

Fortunately, there’s hope that science might just save the day. A theorist named Jon Arnol has devised a way to reheat a dying planet by igniting fusion reactions in its core, but opportunities to test his theory have been lacking. An experiment on an asteroid ended in catastrophic failure, but Arnol is absolutely sure his equations are right, and that the process will work when tried on a larger planet. Denied a stay of the evacuation order by the Galactic council near Vega, Kenniston and the Chewbacca character launch a clandestine and illegal plot to use Jon Arnol’s method to save the Earth.

City at World’s End is a fun yarn, but it’s also a cop-out. Hamilton avoids dealing with any of the consequences of a nuclear attack or an unexpectedly powerful super-bomb, and he neatly uses another highly speculative and risky scientific venture to save the Middletown residents from the worst consequences of being stranded on a dead planet. The story acknowledges that highly destructive weapons might escape our control, but remains firmly embedded in the optimistic view of most mid-century magazine science fiction writers that we will always be able to find a scientific solution to whatever problems our technologies create. In 1951, this optimism was already being questioned by some mainstream writers, and a handful of science fiction writers who dealt with the theme of human extinction; within ten years, most post-apocalyptic fiction would leave such optimism behind. But clearly the tendency is still there: we would prefer to think that some future discoveries will always spare us the worst consequences of our current technology.

Check out my ongoing series of reviews of post-apocalyptic fiction: What the End of the World says about Science.

And for some more vintage sci-fi reviews, check out the Vintage SciFi Not-a-Challenge over at the Little Red Reviewer.

Author: Mike White

Genomes, Books, and Science Fiction

19 thoughts on “Apocalypse 1950: Science will save us from science”

    1. I read this after finishing The Voyage of the Space Beagle, which made Hamilton’s prose and characterization seem like first-rate literature, although he doesn’t match Van Vogt’s imagination. It’s a pretty average 50’s adventure.

        1. I find Van Vogt infuriating, but Voyage was probably my favorite Van Vogt so far (aside form short stories, I’ve read Slan and The Weapons Makers). The pages and pages of completely illogical theorizing drove me crazy, but Van Vogt’s energetic imagination pulled me through.

          1. I haven’t read Voyage yet but it’s on my shelf. I really dislike him as well — I found The World of Null-A incomprehensible. I mean, there are at least 30 betrayals, plot twists, and as you say, incredibly lengthy rants about nothing in particular. I find his style, is plots, his characters all incredibly laborious to read….

            1. Laborious is definitely the right term. Damon Knight’s takedown of Van Vogt in ‘In Search of Wonder’ was right on the mark… and yet so many writers really liked Van Vogt, which tempts me to slog through more of his books.

  1. Have you read Mordecai Roshwald’s Level 7 (1959)? I just reviewed it — one of my favorites of the 50s — and in the top tier of atomic related sci-fi from that era.

    1. Just saw your excellent review earlier today – that’s been on my shelf for about a year, but haven’t made it to it yet. 1959 was a good year for post-apocalyptic books.

      1. I’m ready to read something 100x better than Hamilton – I’ve been reading a lot of average 40’s & 50’s stuff lately (mostly short stories), and even my historical interest is failing.

          1. I’ll look for the review. I’ve read 2 or 3 Aldiss stories from the 50’s, but don’t have a whole anthology. Non-stop is likely to be one of my next reads.

                1. I’ve definitely got a lot of love for the period at the moment -Simak is my latest interest. I had mixed feelings about City, but then encountered Ring Around The Sun… I’m thinking about doing a Simak vs. Bradbury comparison. Bradbury’s fame was outsized relative to his merits in light of what others were writing at the time.

  2. This sounds pretty neat, in spite of it’s annoying over-optimism. possibly the most chipper scientists ever? I’d be interested in reading this just to see how the zapped-ahead-in-time people respond to first contact with aliens. I have a weakness for time jump stories.

    So often have i run into the cop out of the scientific apparatus, that will reverse the frequency of the dilithium crystals, and it just might work! hmmm.. maybe these old school Hail Mary’s is where Roddenberry got some of his technobabble? 😉

    1. I’ll bet Roddenberry was inspired by the mid-century pulps. Hamilton’s cooked up ending is extremely tame compared to the crazy schemes of Van Vogt, who was the master of Rube Goldberg-type techno solutions.

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