Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Warday: A review

Whitley Strieber, and James Kunetka's Warday is set in the United States in the year 1988, five years after a limited nuclear war has destroyed New York City, Washington D.C., San Antonio, TX, and the missile fields of the Western United States.  One o f the primary agents of destruction is multiple large electromagnetic pulses (EMP) derived from the explosion of Soviet Union hydrogen bombs in high orbit over North America leading to the destruction of much of the electrical grid, and most electronic devices.  Published in 1984 the novel would have been near future speculation.

Whitley Strieber (STREE ber) has had a very long career as a novelist, and been successful in some radically different subject areas.  The beginning portion of this novel is somewhat autobiographical.  It relates his success as an author (Wolfen) and his moving to New York City from San Antonio Texas.  He wrote the interviews and narrative found within the novel.

James Kunetka stopped publishing some time ago.  At the time of Warday he was better known for his non-fiction work dealing with Los Alamos and the birth of nuclear power, and weapons.  He does not appear to be authoring books at the moment.  He wrote the scientific information, and the bureaucratic documents.

The two authors were childhood friends in San Antonio, knowing each other from grade school through college. They presumably worked together on the sequel to Warday (finished but never published) and later wrote another apocalypse-in-progress (AIP) novel, Nature's End, about world devastation through over population and the resultant ecological catastrophy.  So presumably they are still friends.

The book was very popular in its day.  Streiber got a feature interview in People Magazine:

William Plummer, People Magazine, 30 April 1984

The winds of Warday will soon be gathering up Strieber and Kunetka and carrying them to Europe to promote the book, which has already brought each of them $200,000. While there, they expect to put the finishing touches on their research for a sequel that will render the Soviet perspective on Warday. "What we want to do," says Whitley, "is humanize the Russians."
In their version of the apocalypse, novelist Strieber, 38 (best known for The Wolfen), and nonfiction writer Kunetka, 39 (author of a biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer), cast themselves as a pair of journalists traveling about the U.S. in 1993, five years after Warday. They interview survivors of the catastrophe and assemble a chilling portrait of a Brave New World slapped together from the ruins of the old. "We did not want to write a book about explosions," says Strieber. "We wanted to take people into life beyond The Day After-to wake them up in the New World of the years after."
How authentic, how probable is the authors' depiction? Washington, D.C. and San Antonio have been vaporized. The wind whistles through the abandoned skyscrapers of Manhattan. Six million people died on Warday. Another 70 million succumbed later from the effects of radiation, the Great Famine of 1988, the Cincinnati Flu of 1990, and from new, mysterious maladies. The remains of government are holed up in California, which virtually escaped Armageddon, and Chicanos operate out of their own ad hoc nation in Texas and New Mexico, which is underwritten by the Japanese.

The second paragraph notes that the main characters are the authors themselves.  Their wives and families, such as survived, were there actual wives and families.  Although the journal approach takes away some of the anticipation-tension, we know they survive to publish it, it gives the whole enterprise the feeling of a documentary.  The made up government documents are an excellent way to info dump, and give an air of credibility to the proceedings, without having forcing the reader to read every last word of them to get an idea of what has happened.

On Warday there were 7 million U.S. casualties, and in the five-years that have since passed there has been follow on deaths from starvation and disease of another 60 million people.  British relief officials tell them that they estimate that there are another 1/4-million deaths every month related to the war.  One of the authors (fictional version) has received enough radiation that it is expected he will be numbered one of those fatalities within a few years.

The post-nuclear United States has broken up into various component parts.  If not in name, than in reality.  The better off portions of the country, California and to a lesser degree the Southeast United States actively work to limit people coming into their areas.  At one point Georgia law enforcement complains that the Northeast States have sent 18,000 orphans to them for care in just the last six months.  He is then promptly scolded by the local Georgian citizenry for being hard hearted, and relents in his conduct.  California is even more of an armed camp, with a Neo-Facist government keeping people in line.

Most other areas are either glassy nuclear wastelands despoiled by unattended industrial chemicals, or residual Strontium 90 dust .  The midwest is threatening to turn into a dust bowl, and New York City is a depopulated salvage yard where work is being done to (ironically) dismantle the World Trade Centers for their materials.  Some buildings just can't catch a break. 

As we noted, Warday had a sequel that was written but never published.  The author notes that he could not get enough  (second interview Audio Interview with Whitley Strieber) publisher support to make a run of it.  He thought it would happen eventually, but it never did.

Which brings us to one point of note.    This book was written at a fairly cold part of the cold war, Andropov was premier, and were still in the early years of Reagan's presidency.  Given that the planned implementation of the Star Wars defense system is the initiator of the conflict, and a few quips late in the book, it is obvious that Streiber is not fan of Reagan, nor a hawkish Scoop Jackson Democrat either.

Early on the authors visit the newly formed state of Aztlan that sits mostly in U.S. Territory in the area of the old Mexican territories less California.  Although it is not a workers paradise he notes with a certain admiration the small workers cooperative farms.  And latter on shows some sympathy, even while having to escape from, the books version of Anarchist Socialists.

In the novel there is no discussion of the Polish Communist crackdown in and continuing repression in Poland, or the Soviet offensive that would have been going on int Afghanistan. The bloodiest year there (1985), and Stingers Missiles to the mujahideen was still ahead.  Streiber, in charge of the books narrative, neither mentions this neither in the novel, nor in interviews.

The second novel was to tell a sympathetic version of the  Russian (the Soviet Union collapsed with the war) side of the story. 

In this novel the author gives his opinions and tells his story, but does a light enough touch with most of the politics that you don't feel bludgeoned if you are not in agreement with his positions.  Given the nature of the narrative, it is very possible to believe that the narrator is wrong in his assessments.  The book does not try to force his point of view down your throat.  Having seen a couple of books handle this poorly,  Gretchen Hummel's Dreamers Island (religion) and Larry Burkett's Solar Flare (politics), I think it is a lesson well learned by many authors.  I probably agree with many of Burkett's general viewpoints of the time, yet I find Streiber, who I probably agree with very little on, to be far more convincing within the scope of this book. 

My suspicion is that Streiber lost that balance in writing the sequel.  And nobody wanted to touch a book showing heroic Soviets back in the late 1980s.

One of the driving themes of the book is the hopeless nature of even a limited nuclear war.  Although not remembered today, there was a little (often politically motivated) discussion at the time about the winnability of such a war.  In fact in the People Magazine article there is a dissenting view given: 

Other experts are not convinced. Dr. Michael Vlahos of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies calls the novel "riveting," but finds it unduly pessimistic. "As long as a central authority is there, I don't see a financial collapse taking place," he says. "And I can't see America, not under attack and with medical facilities still intact, having such a plague of diseases as described in the book." Neither does he think famine likely, given that the nation has a decade's worth of food and grain salted away. "The authors place an absolute dependence on the superstructure of the modern world," he scoffs. "Without an American Express Card, they obviously don't think life is worth living."
Politics can make for some pretty foolish, particularly in retrospect, arguments.  The medical facilities are not intact.  In the 1980s we may have had a little bit larger of a food supply, but I doubt the left over canned goods from the 1960s nuclear bomb shelters make up a decades worth of food. And of course it is not an American Express Card that is missing, but all the electronic records of monetary accounts.  Everyone's money is gone. 
The novel is convincing in showing that a limited nuclear war would be difficult to pull of in a superpower war, and that if it somehow did occur, it wouldn't be winnable.
The book is not entirely one of hopelessness.  While Kunetka convinces you of the extent of the disaster, Striever does a very good job of showing average Americans rising to the occasion.  The hard times bring out some bad behavior, but they also bring out some resilience.  If California is disheartening for its turning its back on the rest of the country, the Midwest shows grit, and the Southerners show some compassion. 

Did I enjoy the novel.  Yes I did.  It has a very thorough, well researched feel to it.  It is somewhat comparable to Earth Abides, but with better rounded out characters, and a more contemporary realistic feel.  Instead of quaint encounters with rustic black folk on their Southern homestead, you have a discussion with a Black Singer in Chicago who notes that the blacks, being poorer to start with, were wiped out by the follow on disease and starvation, and that she, as a black person, is now a relatively rare site in Chicago.  And the author is smart enough to leave the possibility of rioting and violence up in the air.  You can believe what you wish.

The book sold very well, and then (as noted in this  comparative review with World War Z) faded quickly. Likely public interest in nuclear war and disarmament faded with the end of the cold war ix years later.

Now for our descriptive characterizations:  Realism and Readability.  As ever they are descriptive, not qualitative, in nature and the numbering is from 1 to 7, with 7 being high.

Is it realistic?  Do you feel like you are there?  You feel like the author was there, and you are reading about it.   The journal nature of the story, puts you at a slight remove, and while the concerns are very real, you miss some of the day-to-day nature of the survival concerns.  People don't go into too many details about the scary periods of starvation, and pandemic.  Or more accurately, you get a flavoring of the problem, before most interviewees loose steam and shy away from the subject.  I am going to say that it is a 6.

Readability is very high.  Streiber is an exceptional narrative writer.  Given that it is not a shoot-em-up type of novel, it moves along pretty well.  It is a little lengthy.  It is not an action packed page turner.  I am tempted to give it a 6-1/2 (it is a little easier of a read than Earth Abides), but will settle for a 6.

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