By Alexander Wallace
In my stead as the administrator of the Alternate History Online group on Facebook, whenever I see a question involving the Cold War going nuclear in any way, I post a black-and-white gif of flowers blooming with the caption “everybody dies.” I concluded when I was on an episode of the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns and Colin Salt that it is hard to make a story where the Cold War goes hot that is dramatically compelling as the devastation would be swift and total.
Enter Brendan Dubois’ Resurrection Day, one of the books that I read as research for that podcast episode. Dubois has the great nightmare of the sixties come to life: the confrontation over Soviet missiles in Cuba (and American missiles in Turkey) ends with the missiles flying, the doomsday machines in both superpowers activating, bathing the world in nuclear hellfire.
In a way, the notion that everyone just dies in the case of nuclear war isn’t necessarily accurate. For all of the Cold War the United States had better nuclear armament than the Soviet Union; the much talked-about “missile gap” in which the Soviet Union was said to have superior ICBMs has been shown to be a falsehood. In such a calamity, the Soviet Union and its bloc would have been destroyed entirely, whereas the United States could have survived, if battered.
That’s what happens in Resurrection Day: New York, Washington, and other cities have been destroyed, but America survives to a point that an actual plot can take place; it is governed from Philadelphia, and Boston is a major setting of the action. The country is run under what is effectively a military junta using George Romney as a puppet president. This junta is led by (fictional) general Ramsey Curtis, who led the effort to stabilize the country in the wake of armageddon.
But America has gotten off easy. Civilization between the Inner German Border and Chukotka has ceased to exist in any meaningful sense. The People’s Republic of China has devolved into another warlord period. The only other country that plays a role in the plot is the United Kingdom, which does so in a manner I find to be implausible. Britain here is shown to be mostly intact; in a nuclear war in the time period, Britain would most certainly have met the fate depicted in the haunting BBC film Threads. Beyond its mere survival, Britain in this world is undergoing a certain sort of machination that I doubt would have been its wont had the events of the book actually occurred.
But that background exists in service in the plot, rather than the plot itself. This book, as Liam Connell described Robert Harris’ Fatherland, aims for emotional plausibility and not historical plausibility, and in doing so creates a great story. It follows Carl Landry, a Boston Globe reporter, who is tasked with finding out what actually happened the day that the stars began to fall, which has grave implications for the current state of American politics. In one of the book’s greatest strengths, this plot probes exactly what would have been lost in such a great conflagration.
Some of the settings deserve comment; Landry and other characters are sent to wander through the bombed out husk of New York. which feels like something out of a post-apocalyptic novel (and what is a nuclear detonation over a city but a localized apocalypse?). Additionally, there is a very well-written, albeit brief, diversion to Vietnam.
Resurrection Day is part political thriller, part detective story, and part rumination over the human cost of nuclear war. One can read this in tandem with Daniel Ellsberg’s harrowing book The Doomsday Machine: Confessions of a Nuclear War Planner, about the very real madness that permeated American nuclear policy in the Cold War, with Dubois serving as the realization of Ellsberg’s fears. We should all be thankful that the missiles did not begin to fly as these two colossi stared each other down.