Shocking Reality of Post-Nuclear Apocalypse: More Terrifying Than ‘Fallout’ Game!

In her latest speculative book based on extensive research, “Nuclear War: A Scenario”, Pulitzer Prize nominee Annie Jacobsen provides a detailed account of a potential nuclear disaster. She shares knowledge that is generally inaccessible to individuals outside of the military-industrial complex, offering detailed descriptions of the devastating impacts intercontinental ballistic missiles could have on cities such as Washington, D.C., and Southern California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant.

The immediate effects include people and structures being reduced to ash, radioactive fuel rods contaminating the atmosphere for miles, and toxic lava boring into the earth’s core. Fire tornadoes engulf everything in their path. The nation falls in less than an hour, with the rest of the world soon to follow. No one and nothing is spared.

The popular Prime Video series “Fallout”, which debuted in April and has already been renewed for a second season, depicts a nuclear war leading to a bizarre situation where a man in a nuclear-powered armor suit is attacked by a mutant bear. The series introduces us to a 200-year-old cowboy ghoul, once famous as movie star Cooper Howard, who uses humor as he seeks to reunite with his long-lost family. It presents a lighter interpretation of the post-apocalyptic world compared to reality.

Simultaneously consuming both these media pieces, as I did, could result in a severe case of nuclear-war confusion. Jacobsen’s book instills a sense of achievement in understanding the worst possible scenario, while “Fallout” is an engaging series that encourages us to overlook this knowledge and envision a future packed with action, adventure, and even romance and humor in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster.

Both these pieces shape our understanding of how nuclear war is represented in contemporary pop culture. At one extreme, we have total annihilation and Earth’s recovery thousands of years later. On the other hand, in “Fallout”, humanity not only survives but also reconstructs society in intriguing ways with heroes and factions, along with ultra-nationalistic survivors emerging from underground shelters to adapt to a brutal new world. “Fallout”, inspired by a well-known video game series, presents a more comforting fantasy of nuclear war than Jacobsen’s stark warning about our proximity to disaster.

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The entertainment industry has been wrestling with the concept of nuclear war since the Cold War. Films like “Dr. Strangelove” and “Failsafe” used comedy and drama to address global fears. However, it was the trifecta of “The Day After,” “Threads,” and “Testament” in the 1980s, along with “WarGames,” that instilled fear in multiple generations with their realistic portrayals of nuclear devastation. This sentiment even influenced a “Superman” sequel, “The Quest for Peace.”

Then, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the signing of treaties, the threat of nuclear war seemed to recede for many as the focus shifted towards limited nuclear disarmament. As a result, pop culture began to depict apocalypses as zombie invasions or dystopian narratives like “The Hunger Games,” where the future is threatened by fascist regimes and economic disparities rather than nuclear explosions. Young adult fiction has not refrained from exploring post-apocalyptic themes, but the means of destruction and salvation are diverse: Meteors, volcanoes, and futuristic war factions don’t hinder humanity’s pursuit of justice and heroes.

In recent times, superhero movies such as “Watchmen” and Marvel’s “Civil War” have lightly touched upon the old fears surrounding nuclear war, with mixed results. Why worry about disarmament when superheroes can save us from ourselves?

It has been a while since something as dark as Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” — the book more than the movie — forced us to consider the possibility that life, or at least a life worth living, may not exist after a nuclear war. As Jacobsen notes, the current precarious global situation, with major threats from countries like Russia, China, and particularly North Korea, is partly due to society’s forgetfulness about the dangerous and unpredictable nature of our global nuclear deterrence strategy. This policy, a massive game of chicken hoping no one will initiate a war due to the prospect of mutual destruction, only works until it fails.

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The most recent Oscar Best Picture winner, “Oppenheimer,” partly examines the repercussions of unleashing atomic weapons. However, like many Hollywood productions on this topic since the 1950s, the consequences are depicted remotely. We don’t see the direct damage caused by bombs to people and cities in Japan; instead, we see the psychological impact on the life of the man who developed them, far removed from the sites of destruction.

One could argue that overly bleak portrayals of nuclear war, the complete opposite of what “Fallout” does, don’t serve any better purpose than downplaying the risks and aftermath of an apocalypse. Doesn’t the sense of hopelessness induced by watching “The Day After” or viewing older “Twilight Zone” episodes on the subject simply cause audiences to give up, making them feel that nothing can be done about it?

However, reading Jacobsen’s “Nuclear War” doesn’t have to leave the reader feeling helpless. In fact, there’s a certain satisfaction in accessing information that the government might prefer to keep secret. The book uses recently declassified data, and some of the revelations — particularly regarding the deficiencies of intercontinental ballistic defense systems and North Korea’s aggressive war preparations over the past decade — are alarming. North Korea may never initiate an attack, as it does in the book, but the country’s mobile nuclear missile launchers, a potential destructive electromagnetic pulse weapon on a satellite, and decades of constructing underground tunnels in anticipation of Armageddon suggest that North Korea is more prepared for World War III than we might like to think.

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Is this too much gloom for anyone to grasp? Jacobsen has done that heavy lifting for us. Our responsibility is to accept that it’s better to confront the truth about potential outcomes than to continue pretending that a post-nuclear Los Angeles would resemble its depiction in “Fallout.” (For the record: I’ll definitely be tuning in for Season 2 when it’s released.)

Jacobsen’s book has been earmarked for a potential project by “Dune” director Denis Villeneuve, and it’s hard to imagine a more suitable filmmaker to transform such a horrifying book into a cinematic masterpiece that could profoundly shake audiences. In the event of a nuclear explosion, looking directly at it is ill-advised, but if you’re interested in understanding the true precariousness of our global situation, you should delve into Jacobsen’s valuable source material that uncovers truths pop culture often helps us evade.

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