Daniel Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture: The Nuclear 1980s

Daniel Cordle, Late Cold War Literature and Culture: The Nuclear 1980s (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2017) 229pp., £52.99 EPUB, PDF, £66.99 Hb. ISBN: 9781137513076

Daniel Cordle’s Late Cold War Literature and Culture: The Nuclear 1980s works to examine the underlying social, political, economic and cultural anxieties during the Cold War era. Cordle moves through the decade’s popular culture such as the BBC televised film Threads, the Panorama special entitled ‘If the Bomb Drops’, the Protect and Survive program run by the government in Britain, as well as a wide array of fiction published throughout the 1980s. Of particular note is how the literature that Cordle brings to the discussion is ‘much more than genre fiction explicitly about nuclear war and its aftermath’; rather, it is fiction that holds the latent anxiety of the period, that is ‘not normally read as nuclear’ but contains ‘revealing flashes of Cold War and nuclear concerns’ (2). This study is not so much the somewhat passé ‘what it means to be human’ argument transposed to a time of nuclear turmoil, but instead interrogates how the unrest of the 1980s is omnipresent. Cordle, then, tackles the much more cutting question of ‘what it means to be nuclear’.

The nuclear 1980s for Cordle is a ‘long’ decade – beginning in 1979 with US missiles deployed in Europe and ending in the early 1990s (3). The book’s first chapter sets out the study’s arguments in relation to a protect/protest dynamic, and in the second Cordle’s analysis truly finds its rhythm. Noting how novels set around the time of the Manhattan Project reflect ‘the dawn of the atomic age as the dawn of US hegemony’ (37), Cordle explores transatlantic themes in British and American fiction, with particularly sharp work on Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) and Ian McEwan’s The Child in Time (1987) – both of which reappear frequently throughout The Nuclear 1980s. Such fictions are tied with political contexts, most notably the ‘special relationship’ of Britain and the US. Cordle takes time to note, however, that the ‘nuclear transatlantic’ that his book investigates is not so much focused on transatlantic relations in texts, but rather ‘a manifestation of a shared nuclear fate erupting within societies that, though distinct, were facing similar social, cultural and economic challenges’ (32). The nuclear, then, becomes a strange kind of connector through which both strength and vulnerability are shared.

It is this sense of vulnerability that permeates throughout The Nuclear 1980s, an affective grounding through which to examine the literature and culture of the decade. In a particularly strong third chapter, the arguments Cordle presents build out of the idea that there was ‘paradoxically, a sense of increasing and heightened insecurity the more the “protection” discourses […] sought to stress the security provided by nuclear policy’ (48). The chapter is at its best when it works through these paradoxes, and Cordle’s argument builds into a fascinating discussion of how nuclear war is ‘frequently compelling, even horrifically attractive, particularly for the promise it gives of wiping out the familiar that we may start again’ (52). A nuclear expansion of the Freudian death drive pervades through many of the examined texts, highlighting the tension that such a fascination with population and ecological wipeout perpetuates destructive nuclear discourse. Nuclear literature, in this case, ‘is both a symptom and a catalyst’ (67).

The fourth chapter of the Nuclear 1980s brings together many strands of Cordle’s arguments up to this point, synthesising ideas of nuclear fiction and societal structures. The salient point here is that protection discourse, such as that emphasised by Protect and Survive, works as a method of containment. The dutiful family, almost exclusively white and middle-class, ‘becomes the instrument through which state power and control is exercised over the population’ by adhering to (futile) government protection advice (84). In a social structure where the ‘power and domination in family and state [are] mutually reinforcing’, the countering protest discourse becomes intertwined with alternative social models (86). Cordle highlights feminist ideas as integral to the protest literature, as well as focusing on tensions in family structures in Maggie Gee’s The Burning Book (1983) and Richard Powers’s Prisoner’s Dilemma (1988) to reconfigure the nuclear family as anything but idyllic.

Having touched on the fragility of the human body as a corporeal object earlier in his third chapter, Cordle returns to this idea in relation to environmentalism in his fifth. Human bodies in nuclear literature are themselves ‘ecosystems involved in a process of exchange with the larger environmental networks into which they are plugged’ (114), and the assertion that ecological anxieties of nuclear literature are not just about the natural environment but also concern the ‘powerful interconnectedness of life on earth’ is an astute one (127). This chapter’s in-depth analysis of Terry Tempest Williams’s Refuge (1991) is the sharpest in the whole book; coming at the end of Cordle’s ‘long’ decade, it proves to be a temporal and ideological culmination of the Cold War era.

Cordle claims that nuclear weapons threaten not only through the death they bring but also ‘because they rend one person from another’, and this would seem to be the main thread of The Nuclear 1980s’s overarching argument (145). The destruction of a coherent, people-led society and the fear of what variations of it may emerge post-Bomb is an anxiety that potentially overwhelms that of the immediate death that comes with nuclear war. Such ideas lead well into Cordle’s seventh chapter, where a focus on the postmodern brings to light conceptions of an imagined apocalypse, a Baudrillardian simulation of violence that has ‘little “real” presence’ for the population but ‘threatens […] to explode out of narrative and into actuality’ (189).

The Nuclear 1980s is a helpful introduction to nuclear literature and culture. The study’s best moments come with Cordle’s societal and cultural analysis on debates of environmentalism, collective anxiety, and conflicts between protection and protest discourse. At times Cordle’s chapters can become slightly too descriptive of cultural contexts, and perhaps the book is guilty of trying to do too much in a relatively slim volume; arguably the study could benefit from a more sustained focus on topics of gender, environment or economics. Nevertheless, Cordle’s book shows how complex anxieties pervade through different aspects of life in the late Cold War era, and successfully captures the intriguing nuances of the nuclear age.

Carl White, University of Leeds