From Trauma to Paranoia: Nuclear Weapons, Science Fiction and History

By Hendershot, Cyndy | Mosaic (Winnipeg), December 1999 | Go to article overview

From Trauma to Paranoia: Nuclear Weapons, Science Fiction and History


Hendershot, Cyndy, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Focusing on the ahistoricial tendency in much science fiction, and placing it in the context of the political and scientific commentary on the Atomic Age, this essay explores the way that three science-fiction films of the 1950s resorted to paranoid defense-mechanisms in their attempt to deal with the trauma of nuclear destruction.

The Atomic Age immediately perceived itself as a new historical epoch. William L. Laurence, official reporter for the Manhattan Project--the code name for the governmental organizations that developed the atomic bomb--noted that the creation of this bomb "marks the first time in the history of man's struggle...that he is actually present at the birth of a new era on this planet" (164). This self-conscious awareness of the beginning of a new historical age was echoed by the Manhattan Project scientists themselves. For example, in an essay written for the 1946 collection One World or None, J.R. Oppenheimer, physicist and civilian head of the Manhattan Project, called the release of atomic energy "revolutionary" (22). Yet, at the same time that such postwar thinkers appeared to be periodizing the bomb as something unprecedented they simultaneously attempted to take it and its implications out of historical time and place them in mythological and eschatological time. Thus Laurence completed his speculations about "a new era" by adding that we have "full awareness of [the bomb's] titanic potentialities for good or evil" (164; emphasis mine). Similarly, in the course of labeling atomic energy "revolutionary," Oppenheimer described it as "promethean" (22). The bomb and its implications had been historicized only to be ahistoricized as Greek mythology.

This tension between the apparent novelty of nuclear weapons and their apparent connection to continuous, ahistorical forces is one that is equally present in fictional works of this period, including a large number of American science-fiction films from the 1950s which deal either covertly or explicitly with nuclear weapons and their effects. Films such as This Island Earth (1954), It Came From Outer Space (1953), and The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) explore nuclear weaponry and warfare by using alien invasion scenarios. Other films, such as The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Deadly Mantis (1957), and The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954), use a reawakened prehistoric monster as a metaphor for atomic power, while films such as Them! (1954), The Black Scorpion (1957), and Tarantula (1955) show the horror of nuclear weaponry and testing by depicting a non-human force that gains power in the American desert. What is common to all these films, as well as to works like Invasion of the Body Snatche rs (1956), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), and The Forbidden Planet (1956), is the use of familiar mythological forms to represent the new threats present in the Atomic Age.

While this mythologizing tendency has not gone unnoticed by critics of science fiction, what still requires more attention is the way that such ahistoricism constitutes a paranoiac response to the cultural trauma caused by the reality and threat of nuclear destruction, and the way that such paranoia is reflected in both fictional and non-fictional works. Thus in the following essay, I will first briefly articulate a theory of history as the traumatic that needs to be narrativized in order to be expressed, and then go on to show how symptoms of psychic transference/displacement are operative in the mythologizing of nuclear weapons by scientific/political commentators. Turning next to science-fiction films, I will provide an indepth analysis of three representative works of the 1950s: Earth Vs. The Flying Saucers, which depicts alien invasion; 20 Million Miles to Earth, which focuses on pre-historic creatures; and The Monolith Monsters, which features radioactive rocks in a desert setting.

Trauma is that which is painfully experienced but which cannot be adequately translated into language or even translated at all.

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