I often spend hours reading the first few words in other people’s tweets. Occasionally, someone will drop in a mention of the “nuclear family.” Well, this just happens to be the focus of many works that I have read or watched over the years. Why this topic would attract SF authors is obvious: the struggle to survive a thermonuclear exchange is made much more thrilling if the protagonists have to worry about or care for other family members endangered by flash, blast, fall-out—not to mention the long-term consequences of a nuclear holocaust.
Here are five examples of the subgenre.
“That Only a Mother” by Judith Merril (1948)
Human ingenuity can (sometimes) surmount even tremendous challenges. Thus, good old American know-how (and presumably Russian know-how as well) gave the world an almost languorous nuclear war, in which years of atomic exchanges have failed utterly to end civilization. That said, everyone is expected to do their bit for the war effort. In Margaret’s case, this includes delivering and raising her baby despite husband Hank being assigned war duties far from home.
Motherhood in times of atomic war is even more fraught than in peacetime. America is saturated in sublethal fall-out. Mutated babies seem to be more common than not, a development to which fathers in particular react very badly. Not to worry! In Margaret’s eyes, her infant could not be more perfect.
Permitted a rare visit home, Hank may have a different perspective.
Davy by Edgar Pangborn (1964)
Davy need not worry about the immediate effects of the Twenty Minute War, nor the plagues that followed. He was prudent enough to be born three centuries later, when the war and its aftermath had long since become little-understood historical fables in the backward, superstitious nations along what was once the American Atlantic coast. His concerns are far more immediate: personal freedom, sporadic political idealism, and his endless quest for cooperative young women.
Even steadfast lotharios can fall in love. Nickie is Davy’s true love, the woman with whom he would like to spend the rest of his life. The Twenty-Minute War is three centuries in the past, but its legacy is hidden within human chromosomes. Nickie will spend the rest of her life happily married to Davy. Davy, on the other, will very soon become a grieving widower.
“Lot” by Ward Moore (1953)
Facing the outbreak of nuclear war, many Americans may have been willing to squander their lives futilely trying to defend their nation against foreign attack. Not Mr. Jimmon! Mr. Jimmon has a family to protect and a very clear, very unromantic grasp of what that entails. Let other Americans worry about America. Mr. Jimmon will worry about the Jimmons.
The Jimmon family’s survival is no mere fluke of good luck. Mr. Jimmon foresaw the impending atomic war and took appropriate steps. Step one: abandon the vulnerable Jimmon suburban home to flee to a more defensible location. Woe to the fools who get in the Jimmons’ way, for Mr. Jimmon is willing to be as ruthless, as monstrous, as survival demands.
This story was the basis of the movie Panic in Year Zero. The family in that adaptation was less prepared but just as selfish.
“A Letter from the Clearys” by Connie Willis (1982)
For fourteen-year-old Lynn, backwoods life in the shadow of Pikes Peak’s scorched heights is a long series of personal inconveniences: unseasonal cold, minimal food, frequent burns from the rustic woodstove her family uses. It’s also boring. She amuses herself by attempting to solve a minor mystery.
The Clearys had intended to join Lynn and her family in their bucolic resort. They never arrived, nor did any explanation appear in the mail. Lynn is convinced that the Clearys’ letter was simply misfiled. She searches the local post office and finds the missing letter.
The explanation is simple: domestic problems prompted the Clearys defer their trip for one month. A month memorable for a nuclear holocaust.
At least the Clearys avoided the long misery of survival in a nuclear winter.
Long Voyage Back by Luke Rhinehart (1983)
The trimaran Vagabond is out sailing in Chesapeake Bay when nuclear war breaks out. Neil Loken, Jim Stoor, and an assortment of friends and family on board the Vagabond survive nuclear incineration by mere luck.
Having survived the immediate effects of the nuclear exchange, the crew and passengers of the Vagabond must now survive the long-term effects of the war. Landing is easy enough. But life on land is not kind. Unless the people on board the Vagabond are both lucky and cunning, they may have traded a swift, almost merciful death for a much slower, more painful demise.
These are just five works in this popular subgenre. No doubt many of you have favourites not mentioned above. Comments are, as ever, below.
In the words of fanfiction author Musty181, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll “looks like a default mii with glasses.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis) and the 2021 and 2022 Aurora Award finalist Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is a four-time finalist for the Best Fan Writer Hugo Award, and is surprisingly flammable.