Monday , April 22 2024
A reissue of a classic post-nuclear apocalypse tale also shines light on the Cold War age in which it was written.

Book Review: Triumph by Philip Wylie

Science fiction's most common motif is speculating on our future. Sometimes, though, it also gives a glimpse of our past. That is especially true with reissues of classic works, such as Philip Wylie's Triumph.

First published in 1963, Triumph is a heart-of-the-Cold War tale of nuclear apocalypse. The trigger of a cataclysmic World War III is a confrontation with Communists in a post-Tito Yugoslavia. Fourteen people gain shelter in a massive underground facility built by a wealthy businessman in a Connecticut mountain. It is stocked with equipment and supplies to enable them to survive for two years. Given the suddenness of the nuclear exchange, this is a rather randomly thrown-together group. They include the millionaire, his wife, their daughter and her well-bred fiancee; the family's African-American butler and his daughter; a brilliant Jewish scientist, who also happens to have had Navy combat training; a gigolo and his mistress; two children separated from their parents in the holocaust; the daughter of a wealthy Chinese businessman; and a Japanese engineer. Although the scientist, Ben Bernman, is the most frequent focus, the group as a whole helps reflect the devastating impact of nuclear war and how individually and collectively they try to survive physically and psychologically.

While Triumph still fits in the mainstream of modern post-apocalyptic literature, its reissue also allows it to serve as a window on then-current American thought. First, there is no doubt this is a conflict between good and pure evil. In Wylie's hands, the nuclear exchange seems inevitable.  The free world, he writes, never understood that "Russian Communist leaders had always been willing to pay any price whatsoever to conquer the world, so long as some world remained to be ruled in slavery, and so long as some of the Soviet elite survived to be its rulers."

Thus, the Soviets not only strike with extreme nuclear force, they take long-planned steps to try to assure some survivability of its elite and possible control of regions in the southern hemisphere.  The Soviets also don't hesitate to use "dirty" weapons to spew deadly radiation throughout the U.S. to attempt to ensure it will be unlivable and unusable for generations.  Bernman frequently makes observations about the various types of radiation used and released in the weapons and their effects. That detail perhaps is not surprising given that Wylie was at one time a special advisor to the chairman of the U.S. Joint Committee for Atomic Energy. Yet Wylie also goes to the personal level, exploring, for example, how persons with differing views on even building nuclear armaments can be driven to a fury and revenge that leads to additional nuclear exchanges even when most of a nation has been incinerated or poisoned.

From a domestic standpoint, the polyglot make-up of the survivors provides Wylie plenty of opportunity to comment on a variety of social issues, not the least being race and male-female relations. The language reflects the book's time, with occasional references to "colored people" and "Negro." Still, Wylie is never overbearing in his examination of those issues. For example, race is explored not only in the context of the issues presented by the civil rights movement but also by discussing racial problems that arose between the Chinese and Japanese.

Wylie, who died in 1971, had a background as broad as the subjects he addresses and it helps make Triumph as intriguing today as it was when first released. In science fiction, he would probably receive the most nods of public recognition as co-author of When Worlds Collide. Yet his 1930 book Gladiator is said to have inspired the character Superman while another book, 1932's The Savage Gentleman, is credited as the inspiration for the pulp hero, Doc Savage, who appeared on newsstands the following year. Yet Wylie also wrote nonfiction and hundreds of short stories, serials, newspaper columns and social critiques.

Triumph is resurrected as the latest installment in the "Beyond Armageddon" series of Bison Books, comprised of reprints of classic novels. Like other works in that series, Triumph is occasionally slightly anachronistic, such as in its references to "colored people," or the fact that the Cold War battle with communism no longer exists. Given the time that has passed, those instances are insignificant compared to the work's overall tone and approach. On the other hand, some readers could not help but wonder if the aberration is that the book's subject — nuclear Armageddon — has not itself become archaic nearly half a century later.

About Tim Gebhart

After 30 years of practicing law to provide shelter for his family, books and dogs. Tim Gebhart is now perfecting the art of doing little more than reading, writing and sleeping.

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