The Persistence of the Wasteland

I thought I’d give an update on my project.  You will recall that I’ve been using the Fallout series as a benchmark for examining changes in American nuclear culture from 1945-2011.  It is striking how prevalent the image of the high desert is in current American concepts of a post-nuclear world.  Below are just a few of the photographs from games and movies.  It is simply impossible to display a post-nuclear world without reference to what Jeffrey Womack calls “The Landscape of Death.”  Yet, significantly there is little to no use of this landscape trope prior to the early 1970s.  My argument is that this is the result of the environmental movement, a reinvigorated anti-nuclear/disarmament movement, and most importantly the release and wide dissemination of films and images from the New Mexico and Nevada above ground nuclear tests, which permanently associated the high desert and the mushroom cloud together in American minds.  There is, in fact an almost total switch of thematic focus.  Most of the books of the mid to late 50s feature a decimated or extinct humanity in a pristine world, a world wiped clean by bombs.  The latter movies, books and games feature a resilient, surviving and tenacious humanity in a world utterly devoid of nature.  This changing focus speaks to larger fears about the affect of technology on our environment which simply was not a part of the zeitgeist prior to 1970.


Also, notice the theme of the barren road, and the loan traveler.  I’m not sure how to interpret why that image is so striking, and used so repeatedly.  Anyone have any ideas?

8 Replies to “The Persistence of the Wasteland”

  1. Peter, really interesting question to pose. Exploring nuclear theory, especially with the recent tragedy in Japan simply opens up a realm of questions, but the biggest thing that bothers me about these pictures of nuclear war is what has always been emphasized when I've learned about nuclear explosions–it's not the explosion itself that does the most damage, but rather, the radiation cloud after the bomb. Sure, people will die and buildings will explode in response to a nuclear explosion, but structural damage is minimal when compared to what a nuclear cloud can do to animal and human populations. The radiation drastically effects those that have been "infected" by it, and can fry people from long distances away. Remember the Chernobyl accident when the resulting radiation caused so many mutations for the people of the surrounding area? Same concept. I completely agree with you when you say that it was the images of Nevada and New Mexico that led film and game designers to flood nuclear survival scenes with pictures of the desert. In reality, how much of the world is covered in desert? And I already proved my point about the lack of actual physical damage causing the desert images. But in response to your question, I have to say that the image of a lone traveler on a road is artistically significant in a way that causes the viewer to understand a long journey or struggle. By putting one man (or woman) in front of a long road, the director has now emphasized the loneliness and isolation that comes with the nuclear war.

  2. Radiation was a major, major concern of films and novels written or produced in the late 50s. After the Castle Bravo test, where a Japanese fishing vessel was irradiated and its crew poisoned, people became deadly afraid of the effects of radiation. Interestingly, what we've learned about radiation in the intervening years should have made us MORE afraid, not less, yet it doesn't feature into wasteland scenarios save in the form of mutated creatures (The Hills Have Eyes, Fallout, Fallout 2, Fallout 3) or irradiated water (Fallout 3, Mad Max). This is why I find the project fascinating.

    1. All the Fallouts include the concept of deadly, continuing radiation in some areas (The Glow from Fallout, the Gecko power plant from Fallout 2, Vault 87 from Fallout 3).

      Mutated creatures and people are definitely a bigger focus of the series, but it doesn't exactly ignore the consequences of radiation itself.

  3. I'm intrigued with your observations about the lack of photos or pictures depicting the Landscape of Death prior to the early 1970s. With the rise of the Cold war, Hollywood certainly turned their focus to the aftermath of nuclear war. Some entertaining attempts came from movies like Them!, The Amazing Colossal Man, the Incredible Shrinking man – you get the idea. Several episodes of the original Twilight Zone series also created some great aftermath scenes.

  4. Yes, but the aftermath scenes in Twilight Zone in particular were of devastated cityscapes, not naturescapes. That's significant in that in implies a destroyed humanity or destroyed human civilization vs. a destroyed world. Them! interestingly enough took place in the desert, but was not about a nuclear war, rather the radioactive ants were the result of testing.

    1. There are only two Twilight Zone episodes that show the aftermath of a nuclear war. The one you're probably thinking of is "Time Enough to Last" about the guy with the broken glasses.

  5. Perhaps I'm wrong but, in high school, we explored the Odyssey and the Iliad. I found them dreadfully boring at the time and, forced to re-read them several years ago, was a touch upset to find that my taste had not matured, much alike my inability to grow a beard. Drab, boring and in an awkward rhyme scheme. The story, however, I did find fascinating and have noted it in several movies and games that I've entertained.

    The symbol of the lone man on the road, searching vainly for that which he desires is a timeless one. Odysseus wandered the seas for years upon years, facing trial after trial to prove his worth to returning home. Mad Max, I feel, fought this endless fight. The fight is an emblematic and is prevalent in movies, video games, etc. Rambo, G.I. Joe, Rocky (forgive me, for I've been watching Sylvester Stallone movies), The Fast and the Furious and so forth. One man against the world, too tough to ever give up.

    I think this, at least, is notable.

  6. In a recent science fiction show (I wont give names to avoid spoilers), space explorers find a planet whose previous civilization destroyed itself in nuclear war. The planet is exactly this type of wasteland…….2000yrs after the catastrophe. Somehow, I feel that the depictions of nuclear war in the early cold war days of it having more vegetation would make more sense than what they went with……so I can see your thesis in action.

    I think it is extremely interesting, and from personal experience, I defiantly think it is true. Best of luck on the paper.

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