Mark A. Carter

FAIL SAFE or Strangelove?
That is the question.

Amid the heated invective and rhetoric on both sides, world famous Canadian Science Fiction writer Mark A. Carter rants about the realistic possibility of thermonuclear war with North Korea.

President Trump: "North Korea ... will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen."
Source: - 170810

BEIJING - If North Korea launches an attack that threatens the United States then China should stay neutral, but if the United States attacks first and tries to overthrow North Korea's government China will stop them.
Source: - 170810

North Korea warns it could "reduce the U.S. mainland to ashes at any moment."
Source: - 170811

Kim Jong Un appears to back down after Mattis, Trump warnings.
Source: 170815

SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea carried out its sixth and most powerful nuclear test in an extraordinary show of defiance against President Trump on Sunday, saying it had detonated a hydrogen bomb that could be mounted on an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Source: - 170903

WASHINGTON, DC North Korea has, for the first time, threatened to wage an EMP (electromagnetic pulse) attack against the United States. Such an attack has the potential to cause catastrophic damage to North America, Canada, the West, and many of its neighbors.
Source: - 170907

President Donald Trump has given military orders for U.S. forces to shoot down and destroy any missile launched from North Korea and moving toward the continental United States, Hawaii, and Guam. The president also is said to be considering a new "shoot down" order for any North Korean missile launched and moving toward Japan or South Korea.
Source: - 170907


Background: Slim Pickens as B-52 pilot Major T.J. "King" Kong rides a nuclear bomb to destination in Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove © 1964 Columbia Pictures.
Foreground: Larry Hagman as Buck, the President's interpreter and Henry Fonda as the President of the United States in Sidney Lumet's film Fail Safe © 1964 Columbia Pictures.

So, here we are on the literal brink of nuclear war with North Korea. I wake up every morning and wonder whether this will be the day. I listen for air raid sirens. I check to see whether the lights still work. I check the TV to see whether FEMA has issued a nuclear warning on all channels. And I ask myself: How many minutes of warning will we get before the end? Will we have any warning or will be plunged into the stone age by a high atmospheric blast of EMP and run back and forth in a panic not knowing what to do or where to turn in a last minute danse macabre before our inevitable demise? So, why does so called reality seem more like Dr. Strangelove than Fail Safe?

Fail Safe

© 1964 Columbia Pictures
Perhaps it seems like the 1964 Science Fiction film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb directed by Stanley Kubrick based on the 1958 novel Red Alert by Peter George because, on the part of North Korea, we are dealing with puerile rhetoric and questionable sanity much like the purity of essence rant of psychopath Brigadier General Jack D. Ripper; whereas, in the 1964 film Fail Safe, directed by Sidney Lumet, based on the 1962 novel Fail-Safe by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler, we are dealing with two rational heads of the USA and Russia in last ditch negotiations to avert the nuclear destruction of Moscow caused by the technical games of cold war turned hot. The result of Dr. Strangelove is a world destroyed by global thermonuclear war and moreover, made uninhabitable for ten thousand years by a secret, Russian, Thorium bomb. The result of Fail Safe is far saner. Sadly Moscow is bombed by the Americans and the purposeful destruction of New York City by the Americans, as well, on behalf of the Russians; to avert escalation into all-out nuclear confrontation is the only solution. The logic behind their decision is the painful quid pro quo of limited nuclear war versus all out global thermonuclear war in which nobody wins. Burdick and Wheeler remind us of the insanity of nuclear war to start with. And at its most basic level, the film is about family, life, and survival of the human race in lieu of the thermonuclear Sword of Damocles we each hold.

Remarkably and utterly coincidentally, while I was working on my 1981 thesis: The Doomsday Theme in Science Fiction, I went to the cinema in mid-March and saw the 1979 film The China Syndrome written and directed by James Bridges. It was a perfect evening where fiction and reality were two separate dimensions. But less than two weeks later, I was slapped upside the head with reality. On March 28, reactor number 2 at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania had a meltdown. What did I say in my thesis: life imitates art ... duh?

We witness the aftermath of a global thermonuclear war in the 1959 post-apocalyptic Science Fiction film On the Beach directed by Stanley Kramer, based on the 1957 novel of the same name by Nevil Shute. In the story, an American submarine crew searches for a part of the Earth that hasn't yet been irradiated by global nuclear war, and finds temporary sanctuary in Australia, in a last ditch effort to survive, before they too succumb. But the fictional end did not come soon enough to put us out of our misery from the repeated playing of Waltzing Matilda.

On the Beach

© 1959 United Artists

We see the post-apocalyptic wasteland, the decimated cities, and the scant human survivors searching desperately for food in the 1975 film A Boy and His Dog, directed by L.Q. Jones, based on the 1969 novella by Harlan Ellison.

We see societal devolution to gasoline culture and ruthless tribal savagery amid the wasteland in the 1979 dystopian post-apocalyptic film Mad Max, directed by George Miller, based on a story by Miller and Byron Kennedy in which a one-time Highway Patrol officer attempts to bring order to chaos.

The Terminator

© 1984 Orion Pictures
And in the 1984 Science Fiction film The Terminator directed by James Cameron based on his screenplay, the military hands over control of our nuclear weapons to Artificial Intelligence called Skynet that decides our fate in microseconds. Skynet decides to wage global thermonuclear war against the entire human race that it sees as a threat to its survival. The rest of the story is wish fulfillment, an attempt among the scattered survivors of a post-apocalyptic cityscape, to fight the terminator cyborgs, and to change history. They attempt this by building a time machine to send back Kyle Reese to save Sarah Conner from a terminator that has already gone back in time to kill her because her future son with Reese named John Conner is destined to defeat the terminators in the future and allow mankind to live again, if not to avert the thermonuclear holocaust altogether. When you think about it, the action of the cyborg is retroactive abortion. But if you really think about it, the entire premise of post-apocalyptic Hell and time travel to change it all is a dream, the last swirl of extinction spasm before consumption by a thermonuclear fireball. Right ... sure ... a time machine changes reality ... you bet.

But the moment that is etched in my mind forever, is the end of original 1968 film Planet of the Apes directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, based on the 1963 novel La Planète des Singes by Pierre Boulle. In Planet of the Apes, an American spaceship crashes in the inland sea of a vast wasteland on an alien planet after spending years travelling to its destination. The survivors walk toward what they take as civilization following a trail of increasing vegetation. But what they encounter is a supposed alien civilization turned upside down in which humans are considered animals and apes are the considered superior. This is reminiscent of A voyage to the country of the Houyhnhnms from Jonathan Swift's 1726 Menippean satire Gulliver's Travels in which wild humans called Yahoos are the inferior race and erudite horses called Houyhnhnms are the intelligent species. But the true revelation in Planet of the Apes comes in the closing moments when Taylor discovers the bent, lopsided, and partially buried Statue of Liberty. His epiphany says it all:

Oh my God ... I'm back. I'm home. All the time, I was ...
You really did it you maniacs. You blew it up.
God damn you. God damn you all to Hell.

Planet of the Apes

© 1959 United Artists

Herbert George Wells


All I can say is that if human beings are really as stupid as I think we actually are, life will imitate art and we will destroy ourselves. It's the Frankenstein motif yet one more time again. We are destroyed by the fruits of our creation. We never listen. You probably aren't even reading this rant. And if you are, you will dismiss it as gobbledygook. After all, you have more important things to do. You have a box full of deadly toys and are itching to play with them.

I cry for humanity. I cry for the children who haven't yet had a chance to live. Moreover, I cry for the mutated minions of thermonuclear war. Ask the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on this seventy-second anniversary of the atomic bombing of their cities at the end of World War II about the pain and suffering they have had to endure. Listen to their pleas for peace. They know. A thermonuclear war will be so much worse. Yet North Korea and the United States are rattling nuclear sabers. The world has truly never seen such potential destruction. Have we learned nothing from art? Have we learned nothing from life? Have we learned nothing from the images of people photoetched by the flash of atomic detonation onto concrete near ground zero?

H.G. Wells stated the facts plainly in his 1936 novel Things to Come:

If we don't end war, war will end us.

 And if you think thermonuclear war settles anything, think again. I refer to the bard's dreadful Scottish play:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time.
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.
William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5

Let me also quote from the father of the atomic age himself who grew to regret the application of his theory, none other than the creator of the Law of Relativity:

I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.
Albert Einstein
Interview with Alfred Werner
Liberal Judaism 16, April-May 1949
Einstein Archive 30-1104

It's a sad day when I regret one of my conclusions to The Doomsday Theme in Science Fiction: that Sci-Fi is predictive. I wish it wasn't so. When it comes to nuclear war there will be no winners, only losers, if indeed anyone survives. There is speculation whether nuclear war can be limited or will burgeon to become global thermonuclear annihilation. And I hate to think that the rational among us, the people who are our representatives, in whose hands our existence depends, are so overblown with bravado and ego or dumb struck by the inevitability of destiny that common sense ceases because this is as real as it gets. So ask yourself this:

To be, or not to be? That is the question.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1

But there is a flip side to the predictive nature of Sci-Fi. The played out scenarios act as warnings as if to say DANGER AHEAD, do this and there will be dire consequences. All we need do is heed the sage advice.

At its most dire, the choices seem extreme: 1 or 0, live or die, yes or no, white or black, Fail Safe or Strangelove.

Sometimes it's not about winning or losing. Sometimes it's about finding a peaceful solution, a compromise everyone can live with. So adjust your tie, take a long, deep breath, rein in your macho invective, your pride, and your rhetoric, step back from the brink of the abyss, and do the right thing. And pray that others do the right thing too. It's not about who blinks first. It's about who opens their eyes to the horror they are about to inflict and steps back from the brink.

But, if a peaceful solution cannot be obtained, give 'em Hell.

Read: Cry havoc and let slip the cans of apocalypse
Doomsday Revisited
Future War
Killer Robots
Robot Takeover

Now you know.

from the imagination of Mark A. Carter - writer

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