Cold War Relevance

Alright. Quick one today because it’s my birthday and I have plans.

I talk a lot about science fiction and how often it works as a way to commentate on current events and what not. Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to look at the interplay of fiction when it’s something that happened in the past (See: Gojira). The Cold War too, which was also when modern science fiction began to really take shape, has great influence on the stories of its time.

Ray Bradbury opens his short story “The Last Night of The World” with a simple question: “What would you do if you knew that this was the last night of the world?” The answer isn’t wild revelry, rather the husband and wife at the center await the upcoming end with simple acceptance, living the last night of the world as if it were any other night.

Published in early 1951, the short story tries to capture the mindset of people who have been living under the threat of nuclear annihilation for two decades. In Bradbury’s view, these people are powerless to change anything about their fate, and thus they feel that they have no recourse but to accept the end of the world. There’s little concern for a matter of how the world ends, it’s just described as like the closing of a book.

By focusing so small Bradbury is able to make implicit statements about those with power. Though the short story lacks actual overt commentary, “The Last Night of The World” is an indictment against the Cold War and the associated political atmosphere. There is an undeniable link in the short story between the end of the world and the actions taken by leaders during the Cold War.From the point of view of the story, the world can only take a certain amount of guns being constantly pointed at each other before the plug is pulled.

In this story, people can adapt to the constant fear of death to the point that when the end finally comes it is not so much greeted as it is all-but-ignored. Humanity can get used to anything, even if it means adjusting to a constant expectation of the end of the world. The end of the world has progressed beyond inevitability; it has become expected.

Compare this to Star Wars, released 26 years later. Written and directed by someone who actually did grow up in the Cold War’s tensions, the movie disagrees vehemently with Bradbury’s message. Luke Skywalker grew up under the Empire, or at least the far reaches of it, and dreams of fighting back. He’s not resigned to his fate, rather, he jumps at the chance to do something about it.

See, Star Wars has to be seen as a piece of Cold War literature. You’ve got the Death Star threatening to destroy an entire planet, reminiscent of the whole nuclear risk thing. A lot of contemporary (American) writings painted the Soviet Union as a faceless, evil, Galactic Empire-esque nation with the United States as the noble underdog espousing a rugged individualism. In light of all this, Luke Skywalker being able to rise up and destroy the Death Star is a statement that, hey, they can win. Not at all unlike how Pacific Rim is a millennial anthem, Star Wars was a generation growing up under the threat of nuclear doom saying that things would get better.

Writer’s Note: Do give “The Last Night of The World” a read, it’s short and findable online. Also, I feel like there’s a connection between the Cold War atmosphere and the idealism of ‘80s movies, but that’s another post for another day.

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