Novel * Whitley Strieber and James Kunetka * Post-Nuclear * 1984
Warday is a novel written from the perspective of two survivors of a limited nuclear exchange between the United States and the Soviet Union, which was to take place in October of 1988. This idea, by itself, makes a key distinction from other apocalyptic fiction. Instead of a full-fledged apocalyptic event, the world of Warday posits that a Mutually Assured Destruction event was unlikely, even when tensions between the superpowers were at their highest, and instead imagines a world where “only” a few targets were destroyed. New York City, Washington D.C., San Antonio, (its inclusion is simply because the authors are from there, although they do a decent job of justifying their hometown as a high level priority target. To be fair, if I were writing something like this, I’d do the same… actually, I’d make it Seattle. Suck it, jerks!) and a smattering of sites in Wyoming, Montana, and the Dakotas are destroyed. The book takes place five years after the war. Many millions died in the immediate blast while many millions more died from radiation exposure, fallout, and the subsequent famine and plagues that ravaged the country after the strikes. America is a shell of its former self, and very little is known about what happened to Russia. Enter Whitley and James, playing themselves, as they travel the United States five years on.
The structure of the novel is probably the best thing about it. While there is a narrative that follows the two authors around, they are essentially writing Warday as if their fictional war has actually happened. There are chapters devoted to the narrative of their travels, which are pretty straightforward and offer some insight into what kind of shit you can get into in the New World Order if you aren’t careful. In addition, there are interviews, polls, graphs, various memos and other documents that all lend a non-fiction feel to the novel. The book is well-researched, and the documents provided in the narrative lend a fair amount of weight to the fiction. It examines the effects of things most people don’t think about as after-effects of a nuclear war. Fallout, of course, but also EMP attacks, enforced medical triage, and what happens in unaffected parts of the country when the government is essentially wiped out. Thirty years out from this book’s publication, it’s easy to look back on a work like this and assume that it’s a dated and pointless read, but I think it’s still worthwhile for a couple of reasons. One, Warday is a kind of period piece about what the overriding national fear was. When people think of the 80s, it’s mostly focused on the pop-culture side of things, which is garish and at times frivolous. There was a dark side, though, and part of it was a deep, often unspoken anxiety about the Cold War, which this book speaks specifically to. Two, while a nuclear exchange between sovereign nations is less likely now, many of the issues brought up in the book as consequences of the war could be examined independently, and are relevant to any number of real world possibilities.
In fact, why wait? I think the thing that fascinated me most reading this as a kid (I think I checked it out from the library one endless summer or another when I was 11 or 12) was the concept of electromagnetic pulse (EMP) and what it would mean for civilization if such a thing were to happen across the country. Now, it seems to me that such an attack would be all but impossible for a terrorist organization to accomplish. From what I understand, one would need to launch a nuke into high altitude and detonate the thing damn near in space for the intended effect to work. Furthermore, you’d need a lot of warheads. Very large warheads. As mentioned in the book, it is possible to shield against EMP, but to circumvent the shielding, all one needs to do is up the payloads. I am fairly confident that only a powerful, sovereign nation with wealth and resources could pull such a thing off. So unless we’re planning to nuke ourselves (Warday was an inside job! Nuclear weapons can’t melt steel beams!), I’m not necessarily worried about EMP as described in the book. However, the effects of EMP, namely the destruction of our electronic infrastructure, is certainly at risk. And reading about what happens when 80s-style technology goes down is already scary. You take out major data systems now and we are all a very special kind of fucked. It’s not too much of a stretch to read about what happens to government and banking systems in Warday and imagine what happens to ours now if a concentrated, catastrophic attack on our data was launched on us. And let’s be honest: it’s important to imagine what would happen. In the same way that the concept of a Warday was important to imagine at the time it was written, we should have these mental exercises from time to time. Playing “what-if” isn’t going to make the attack happen, but at least working through what one would do as an individual when all the money disappears, when government records evaporate, and any other catastrophic event that could happen prepares one’s mind for the highly unlikely. It’s always very annoying when I hear news reporters describe chaotic events as “unthinkable” or “unimaginable.” They aren’t. People just like to look the other way when shit pops off that makes us uncomfortable.
The other interesting aspect of Warday read from a modern perspective is the concept of governmental failure, and just what the hell happens when our central government ceases to function. Now, yes, ha ha, that totally happened and nothing has changed. The United States government may be increasingly ineffective, but it’s still there. The Republicans may shut it down from time to time, but after their little temper tantrums, it fires back up. Yet, despite still existing, these are strange times. There are increasingly loud factions that seem to advocate just dissolving the whole thing. The two parties seem more reified and opposed to compromise than I remember them ever being and all of this rather begs the question: well, what if the whole thing fell apart?
In the novel, the West Coast is spared the vast majority of adverse effects of the nuclear exchange. As the authors make their way to California, they are presented with the kind of immigration restrictions that would make Donald Trump wet. I just grossed myself out, ugh. Anyway, you get the point. There’s fences, and color-coded trains, and holding pens, and soldiers with guns, and standing orders to shoot illegals on sight, the whole anti-immigrant fetish made real. The reasoning in the book is that California in particular is where all the money and unspoiled resources are, and all these disgusting refugees will come in here and fuck everything up for the chosen ones who managed to not be born in a warzone. Familiar? The obvious 2015 parallel aside, what California does in the book is way unconstitutional. As the authors travel illegally within the state, it is clear that the Golden State has pretty much done away with the notion of being American. Meanwhile, over in Texas, a large contingent of Hispanics pretty much segregated and made their own country within what they consider previously stolen land. Everyone else makes do with what they can where they are, since travel is unreliable and expensive. The United States has ceased to be particularly united.
While I am doing my best not to think too hard about Imagined Communities and the follies of nationalism, one thing Warday does well is describe one way a world power dissolves. The United States is a vast nation comprised of an unthinkable number of individuals (and I am using the term “unthinkable” correctly. Don’t believe me? Try to get your brain to understand what 300 million of anything would look like without resorting to abstract shorthand. You cannot. Our brains are not equipped to do so) held together by what amounts to sheer bureaucratic will. So let’s merge these two concepts. A data attack liquefies our concept of money. Just dumps everything and somehow destroys whatever backup may or may not be in place. Same thing with government records. I know, there are redundancies upon redundancies and none of this is even remotely likely. But say it does. Then what? You have a bunch of ready-made factions already sick of the national government. After the initial panic and mayhem, life shrinks. We would revert back to a more self-sufficient series of local nations based on a more grounded concept of community and culture. Which may or may not be cool. But that’s a lot to think about after reading a book describing a war that can’t happen anymore. Warday may be about old fears, but it is also about contemporary anxieties. And isn’t that totally rad, 80’s kids?