September 6, 2012
Futurist thinkers have rarely been kind to New York City. In fact, writers and artists have spent the better part of two centuries destroying the Big Apple. Whether by flood or fire, nuclear explosion or alien invasion, New York more than any other city bears the brunt of our most apocalyptic futures. And perhaps no historian understands this better than Max Page.
In 2001, University of Massachusetts-Amherst history professor Max Page started work on what was supposed to be a fun, light-hearted project. Working with the New York Historical Society, Page was assembling an exhibit proposal about the various ways New York had been destroyed in various works of fiction. He put the finishing touches on his proposal on September 10, 2001. Of course, the very next day real world terrorists would put some of futurism’s most horrific visions of destruction to shame.
Years later, Page realized that his exploration of apocalyptic New York was still a worthwhile endeavor — it would simply require a more reverent touch. His book, The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction was published in 2008.
I reached Mr. Page by phone and asked him what it is about New York City. Why New York? Why not Chicago, Los Angeles, Des Moines, Tulsa… what is it about New York that compels us to see it destroyed in fiction over and over again?
“It’s interesting because there are disaster fantasies about lots of different places. Los Angeles has got its share, especially in the film world of the 20th century. And there’s fantasies of Paris and London and Tokyo, of course. What I was struck with is that New York has remained the predominant focus for literally close to two centuries,” Page said.
“It came to be the symbol of the city — not just the American city, but the city itself — with skyscrapers in the early 20th century. It remains the most important American city despite the rise of Chicago at one point, and Los Angeles and D.C. At least for economics and for culture, New York is still the capital and has been, really from the 1830s onward,” he said. As an Angeleno, I’m reluctantly inclined to agree with him.
“And then, there’s the simple aesthetics. Destruction looks better in New York.” Perhaps this is the real clincher. Aesthetically, New York is a gorgeous city; a city of steel and glass reaching toward the sky in a decidedly 20th century American ode to modernism. But the destruction of New York almost always has a purpose, political or otherwise. It’s rarely just a jangling of the keys distraction or traditional disaster movie extravagance like in the screenshot from the 1998 film Deep Impact above.
Take, for instance, the 1890 novel Caesar’s Column: A Story of the Twentieth Century by Ignatius Donnelly. The story takes place in the futuristic world of 1988 and New York is destroyed by a terrorist/”liberation” group called the Brotherhood of Destruction. In this case, the destruction is political and hateful, as Donnelly’s anti-semitism is apparent when the Brotherhood states its purpose of destroying a Jewish-led oligarchy that controls every aspect of New York life.
From Caesar’s Column: “The shops had all been broken into; dead bodies lay here and there; and occasionally a burned block lifted its black arms appealing to heaven. As we drew near Union Square a wonderful sight — such as the world had never before beheld — expanded before us. Great blazing bonfires lighted the work; hundreds of thousands had gathered to behold the ghastly structure, the report of which had already spread everywhere.”
The past two centuries have seen New York destroyed in an almost cyclical manner. Fire, flood, monsters, revolution, aliens, rinse, repeat. But there is one method of destroying New York that only saw rise in the mid-20th century: the nuclear bomb.
Max Page explains to me the unique method of destruction brought by new technology as distinct from the more historically relatable stories of floods: “The climate change film in 2004, The Day After Tomorrow, that is partly about a flood. And then we have flood stories back in the teens and we have flood stories back in the late 19th century. Obviously some things, like nuclear disaster, is one of the main methods that obviously relied on new technology.”
This new technology was on spectacular display in the pages of Collier’s magazine in the 1950s. As I’ve written about before, the August 5, 1950 cover of Collier’s displayed in vivid detail a haunting mushroom cloud over Manhattan. The accompanying article, illustrated by Chesley Bonestell, gives a breathless account of an Associated Press reporter on any-given-Tuesday who is trying to learn about the devastating destruction of New York City.
The uncomfortable fact is that there’s something almost beautiful about these horrific visions. Divorced of the real world pain and suffering, we’re drawn to the most powerful weapon in the futurist’s arsenal — naked, unapologetic spectacle. In fact, I have that Hiroshima issue of Collier’s framed in my apartment right next to a mid-1960s nuclear power propaganda pamphlet called “The Atom, Electricity and You.” It may be an achingly obvious joke about the conflict between our fear and hope in futuristic technology, but even stripped of context these images are somehow objectively beautiful in their scale, aesthetic and hubris.
Reveling in destruction is, of course, a rather macabre affair. Made all the more unseemly when such fantastic, unbelievable devastation has reached our shores. But we can’t help it. Watching the destruction of the Twin Towers was surreal, but not unimaginable. And of course we couldn’t look away. I remember turning on the television on September 11th and seeing surreal images of the first Tower smoldering, while CNN talked with Tom Clancy over the phone. His 1994 novel Debt of Honor included a character who flew a commercial plane into the U.S. Capitol building. Life was somehow imitating the darkest of art.
Max Page explains, “That day [on September 11, 2001] we had the sense that we had seen this already in a movie.”
Indeed we had. And we’ll likely see it again in movies, TV and books for many generations to come.
March 30, 2012
There’s no city that Americans fictionally destroy more often than New York.
New York has been blown up, beaten down and attacked in every medium imaginable throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. From movies to novels to newspapers, there’s just something so terribly apocalyptic in the American psyche that we must see our most populous city’s demise over and over again.
Before WWII, these visions of New York’s destruction took the form of tidal waves, fires or giant ape attacks — but after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan in Hiroshima and Nagaski, the atom was suddenly the new leveler of cities.
The August 5, 1950 cover of Collier’s magazine ran an illustration of a mushroom cloud over Manhattan, with the headline reading: “Hiroshima, U.S.A.: Can Anything be Done About It?” Written by John Lear, with paintings by Chesley Bonestell and Birney Lettick, Collier’s obliterates New York through horrifying words and pictures. The first page of the article explains “the story of this story”:
For five years now the world has lived with the dreadful knowledge that atomic warfare is possible. Since last September, when the President announced publicly that the Russians too had produced an atomic explosion, this nation has lived face to face with the terrifying realization that an attack with atomic weapons could be made against us.
But, until now, no responsible voice has evaluated the problem constructively, in words everybody can understand. This article performs that service. Collier’s gives it more than customary space in the conviction that, when the danger is delineated and the means to combat it effectively is made clear, democracy will have an infinitely stronger chance to survive.
The illustrator who painted the cover was Chesley Bonestell and it is no doubt one of the most frightening images to ever grace the cover of a major American magazine. Opening up to the story inside, we see a city aflame.
A kind of wire service ticker tape runs across the top of the images inside the magazine:
BULLETIN NOTE TO EDITORS — ADVISORY ONLY — NEWARK NJ — HUGE EXPLOSION REPORTED IN LOWER NEW YORK CITY. IMMEDIATE CONFIRMATION UNAVAILABLE. WIRE CONNECTIONS WITH MANHATTAN ARE DOWN. NEW YORK HAS ADVISED IT WILL FILE FROM HERE SHORTLY . . . BULLETIN — HOBOKEN NJ — DOCK WORKERS ON THE NEW JERSEY SIDE OF THE HUDSON RIVER THIS AFTERNOON REPORTED A THUNDEROUS EXPLOSION IN THE DIRECTION OF NEW YORK CITY. THEY SAID THEY SAW A TREMENDOUS BALL OF FIRE RISING INTO THE SKY
The first few pages of the article tell the story of a typical Tuesday in New York City, with people going about their business. Suddenly a radiant heat is felt and a great flash engulfs the city. People in Coney Island mistake it for a lightning bolt. A housewife in the Bronx goes to the kitchen window to investigate where the light came from, only to have the window smash in front of her, sending thousands of “slashing bits” toward her body. As Lear describes it, it doesn’t take long for “millions of people, scattered over thousands of miles” to discover what has taken place.
The aftermath is one of great panic with emergency vehicles unable to move and people rushing to find transportation. Collier’s would touch on this theme of urban panic a few years later in their August 21, 1953 issue. One of the many fictional characters we follow in this story (an Associated Press reporter named John McKee) somehow manages to hail a cab in all this madness. McKee eventually gets to his office and begins reading the bulletins:
(NR) New York — (AP) — An A-bomb fell on the lower East Side of Manhattan Island at 5:13 P.M. (edt) today — across the East River from the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
The story goes on to describe how news coverage is largely crippled by the fact that 16 telephone exchanges were out, leaving 200,000 telephones useless. Ham radios, naturally, come to the rescue in their ability to spread emergency messages.
The cover ran almost 5 years to the day of the U.S. bombing of Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. The military was able to go in after the attack and measure the extent of the devastation. The graphs below, which ran with the Collier’s article, explain what kind of impact would be felt at various distances from ground zero.
The article explained that our understanding of what a nuclear attack on New York would look like came straight from U.S. measurements in Japan:
The opening account of an A-bombing of Manhattan Island may seem highly imaginative. Actually, little of it is invention. Incidents are related in circumstances identical with or extremely close to those which really happened elsewhere in World War II. Property damage is described as it occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with allowance for differences between Oriental and Occidental standards of building. Death and injury were computed by correlating Census Bureau figures on population or particular sections of New York with Atomic Energy Commission and U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey data on the two A-bombs that fell on Japan. Every place and name used is real.
This Collier’s article wasn’t the first to warn of the devastating effect an atomic bomb could have on New York. A four-part series ran in newspapers across the country in April of 1948 which also described how awful a nuclear attack on New York could be. Written by S. Burton Heath, the first article in the series ran with the headline, “One A-Bomb Dropped In New York Would Take 800,000 Lives.”
One atomic bomb, exploded over New York’s Times Square on a working day, could be expected to kill several hundred thousand men, women and children.
No reputable atomic expert, in Washington or elsewhere, will estimate the exact number. The New York fire department says 100,000. On the basis of Hiroshima and Nagasaki it would be more than 800,000. The most reliable experts say the fire department’s guess is absurdly low. They think the bigger figure is too high.
After the surreal devastation that we witnessed during the terrorist attacks upon New York on September 11, 2001 ,we have some idea of what true horror looks like when inflicted upon a major American city. But a nuclear bomb is still something altogether different. The level of destruction that would result from nuclear warfare remains an abstraction for many — until you flip through old magazines of the Cold War.
March 21, 2012
The 1981 book World of Tomorrow: Future War and Weapons by Neil Ardley is (naturally) a little dark for juvenile literature. Space pirates slaughter families while they picnic on space colonies, armies poison each other to create vivid hallucinations, and people on Earth live in underground shelters after a horrifying nuclear war destroys life as we know it.
Most of the book hasn’t yet come to pass in its bleak depiction of a world engulfed by hyper-futuristic weaponry and mayhem. But one two-page spread sticks out as a prescient vision of our world today. Ardley’s description of the soldier of the future forecasts technologies that currently exist or are under development: GPS guided weapons, helmets with eye-tracking sensors and flame-resistant uniforms that can protect against 2nd or 3rd-degree burns:
In several ways the soldier of the future will resemble the soldier of the distant past. He or she will be heavily protected — not encased in a suit of iron but clothed in ultrastrong materials that will resist rifle fire and radiation. The soldier may look out through a mask that cleans the air of radioactive dust, chemical poisons or disease germs used by the enemy. To attack, the soldier could use a future version of the crossbow — a small portable missile launcher. However, the solider will not have to aim the weapon. Using a computer, the position of the target can be fed into the missile’s guidance system and it will streak home. If the target moves, the missile will pursue it automatically, or the soldier may “see” or even “think” it home using a guidance computer linked to the soldier’s own eyes or brain!
The book is obviously rooted in the concerns of the time. One concern was terrorism, especially as it related to aircraft hijackings. Hijackings were at their peak between 1968 and 1972, when there were 137 attempted commercial aircraft hijackings in the United States.
The illustration below shows soldiers of the future dealing with terrorists who have taken over an airport. Terrorists and hostages alike flee from the burning wreckage of a commercial plane.
The book doesn’t rule out the possibility of nuclear weapons being used in the future, while mentioning that domestic terrorism may be just as large a threat in the years to come.
A future nuclear conflict or one using neutron weapons or energy beams would destroy human forces. There would be little that soldiers could do to help win such a war. It seems likely that the future role of the soldier will not always be to fight foreign enemies but often terrorists within a nation. The soldiers of the future could be more like heavily armed policemen than a fighting force.
November 30, 2011
George Gallup Jr., the son of Gallup Poll founder George Gallup died of liver cancer last week at the age of 81. Gallup Jr. wrote a book with William Proctor in 1984 titled Forecast 2000 that contained numerous predictions about the future of the United States. Gallup Jr., coming from a tradition of opinion polls, naturally hoped that there might be a methodical and scientific way to forecast future events. “In this book, my goal has been to minimize as far as possible idle speculation about the future and to substitute what I believe constitutes the most reliable and comprehensive predictive approach now available.”
The first chapter of the book focuses on war and terrorism. Gallup Jr. sets a scene in New York City in 1997 wherein terrorists — armed with a nuclear device — storm the Empire State Building’s observation deck. It’s interesting to see a scenario focused on nuclear terrorism which, in 1980, was a threat not often discussed by mainstream media outlets.
As we saw with the “panic-proof test” in a 1953 issue of Collier’s, New York is a popular target of fictional destruction. But why New York? Max Page notes in his book The City’s End: Two Centuries of Fantasies, Fears and Premonitions of New York’s Destruction, “To destroy New York is to strike symbolically at the heart of the United States. No city has been more often destroyed on paper, film, or canvas than New York’s.”
Gallup Jr., looking 13 years into the future, offers his take on the symbolic resonance of New York City:
It’s a warm, sunny spring afternoon. Office workers are just cleaning up cups and papers from their lunches in Central Park, Bryant Park, and other favorite outdoor spots.
But then the unusual big-city tranquility is shattered by news reports that begin to come through on portable radios scattered around the grassy patches. A terrorist group of some sort has take over the observation deck on top of the Empire State Building. The terrorists claim they have set up and armed a nuclear device. It’s quite a big bomb, they say — more powerful than those dropped on Hiroshima and Nagaski.
As pedestrians gather in steadily growing clusters around the available radios, more information pours in: The terrorists are connected with some extreme anti-Israel faction. They have chosen New York City as their target because it has a larger Jewish population than any other city in the world — and also because much Zionist activity is centered there.
Gallup Jr. goes on to explain the demands of his fictional terrorists:
Their demands are nothing short of staggering: a $1 billion extortion payment… freedom for scores of named terrorists in prisons around the world… a guarantee of the political division of Jerusalem and the establishment of a sizable chunk of Israeli territory as a Palestinian homeland… their group is to be given absolute control over the designated portion of Israel…
The demands go on and on, and they’re topped off by a seemingly impossible deadline: The requirements must all be met by high noon the following day. Otherwise, the device will be exploded, and all of Manhattan Island and much of the surrounding area will be seared to the ground. Moreover, radiation will make the land for hundreds of miles around the explosion site uninhabitable indefinitely.
It’s a bit chilling for readers who remember the attacks of September 11, 2001 to read Gallup Jr.’s predictions about how shock, panic and a sense of helplessness encompass the city:
As the news of this threat spreads around the city, the reactions are varied. Most people stand or sit around just listening to the news. Some think the whole thing must be another Orson Welles joke — a phony broadcast designed to simulate reality. After all, there have been many other such dramatic programs in the past, and this is certainly just another to draw in a wide listening audience.
Others accept it as a real event, but they’re sure the terrorists are bluffing about the bomb. Still others are optimistic for other reasons: For example, they’re certain that one of the government’s antiterrorist teams will either overpower the offenders or negotiate a settlement of some sort.
A number of people are too stunned to move. A few panic, and either break down in tears or start running to their apartments to gather their valuables together with the idea of getting out of the city.
As the day wears on and night falls on the city, it becomes apparent that the broadcasts are no joke. Growing numbers of people — many more than the commuter lines to upstate New York and New Jersey can handle — try to get out of the city. Huge traffic jams build up, and there seem to be an unusual number of auto breakdowns and flat tires — more terrorist activity? people wonder.
As the night wears on, the terrorists hold firm to their demands, and the sense of panic rises. What if they’re serious? What if they really plan to explode that bomb? Increasing numbers of usually relaxed citizens begin to decide that perhaps they’d better waste no more time getting out of the city. But many don’t have cars — a necessity in most cities, but not in Manhattan because of the extensive public transportation system. And those who do have cars find they can’t even get close to the tunnels and bridges that lead out of the city. The one exception is Long Island — but who wants to get stuck out there if a nuclear bomb goes off in Manhattan?
Daybreak reveals many strained, haggard faces on the city sidewalks and in the jammed-up autos on New York City thoroughfares. There seems to be no escape from this dilemma. One attempt to overpower the terrorists has failed, with several attack helicopters shot down.
In his final paragraphs painting the scene, Gallup Jr. decides the city’s ultimate fate:
Finally, high noon arrives. New Yorkers sit glued to their radios and TV sets, waiting with bated breath. The negotiations have broken off, but there’s still hope that the terrorists will make some sort of counteroffer. That’s the way this sort of game is played, and most people believe there has to be a solution. After all, what’s the point in a bunch of terrorists blowing up an entire city when they’re in a position to get something, even if it’s not everything they asked for?
The lull continues through four minutes after twelve, then five minutes. A growing number of listeners and viewers begin to relax. Something good must be happening.
Then, the blinding light flashes into every dim corner of the city, and the roar follows almost simultaneously. But no one has heard the roar because the searing heat has destroyed all life.