Friday, April 06, 2012

Apocalypse Then

Bradbury has written a handful of short stories set in a time after the collapse of civilsation as we know it, but we don't usually think of his novels as being apocalyptic - although The Martian Chronicles includes a global atomic war that seems to effectively destroy the Earth, and Fahrenheit 451 ends with the self-destruction of the unnamed city that Montag has just escaped from.

In both cases, the atomic wars are happening in the background or, to use a filmic metaphor, off-screen. The closest we get to seeing the physical effects of an atomic bomb is in the story/chapter "There Will Come Soft Rains" in The Martian Chronicles. One of Bradbury's most re-printed stories, it describes an automated house which carries on functioning (as best it can) even after its owners have been destroyed. There are distinct references to Hiroshima, most memorably in Bradbury's description of the shadows of people burned onto a wall by the heat of the bomb blast.

I'm currently doing some research into Bradbury's handling of apocalypses, and in my casting around for materials relating to how atomic warfare was presented to the public in the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I came across an article on Paleofuture, a beautiful blog which explores how the future was depicted in the past (if you know what I mean). This particular item reproduces images from a 1950 issue of Colliers magazine which shows what might happen if New York became the victim of an atomic bomb attack.

1950, of course, was the year The Martian Chronicles was first published. And Collier's was a magazine Bradbury's fiction had been appearing in since 1946 (starting with the short story "One Timeless Spring"). In 1950 Collier's published a couple of new Bradbury stories, and this A-bomb issue - dated 5 August 1950 - contained one of them, "The Window". It seems certain, then, that Bradbury would have seen the bomb article.

One of the artists contributing to the bomb story was Chesley Bonestell, who the year before had illustrated The Conquest of Space, the remarkable book written by rocket scientist Willy Ley which presented the wonders of the space age. In 1952 Collier's published a series of articles inspired by The Conquest of Space, again illustrated by Bonestell (scans of these articles can be seen on the Dreams of Space blog). This, in turn, inspired Walt Disney to produce a series of TV shows about space travel, featuring Ley and Wernher von Braun. It is remarkable that Colliers, and the US, was able to shift so rapidly from the doom and gloom of atomic war to the bright future offered by the space age. Of course, when the space age arrived it would be intimately entwined with the cold war, something that Collier's, Bonestell, Ley and Disney somehow managed not to foresee...

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