Judgement Day, 1936

Actually, as interwar visions of armageddon go, this is pretty mild. But it reminded me of the scene in Terminator 2: Judgement Day where Sarah Connor has a nightmare about the coming nuclear war, with a nuclear warhead exploding over a playground filled with children:

He was lying on a hill-side. Below him there was a flower-strewn valley. Children were playing there. He could hear their voices, thin and shrill, on the wind. Then he noticed that the children were not alone. Near them, concealed by a fold in the ground, were men, men in uniform. They seemed to be talking earnestly together over something too small for him to see. The next moment they scattered and ran. They seemed to be swarming all over the hillside. Then they stopped and turned to watch the field of flowers and the children playing. Everything was quiet except for the sound of the children's voices on the breeze. Suddenly there was a quick rumble from beneath his feet. Before his eyes the field rocked. With a tearing, splitting roar a huge crack appeared in it, widening to emit a fountain of blackened earth which rose and hung in the air like a curtain. Then the curtain fell, slowly, as if it were wind borne, to unveil the scene behind it. With a cry of horror the Professor awoke.1

This is from Eric Ambler's first novel, The Dark Frontier, a spy thriller published in 1936. The resemblance to Sarah's nightmare is closer than it might seem from the above quote, for despite the pre-Hiroshima date, the explosion in the valley is caused by an atomic bomb. As Ambler himself wrote, 'I must be among the earliest members of the Ban-The-Bomb Movement. I may even have been the first'.2 In fact, in his depiction of atomic warfare, he was preceded by at least two other well-known British writers: H. G. Wells in The World Set Free (1914) and Harold Nicolson in Public Faces (1932), and it's hard to believe he didn't know either of these books. But Ambler was certainly correct to claim membership in a select club.

Of course, since nobody then knew how an atomic bomb might work, it's not surprising that his proposed mechanism now seems a little odd:

"Horrible, certainly," agreed Groom, "but incredible, no. You are no doubt aware that ordinary high explosive depends for its action on a sudden and enormous expansion in volume. Trinitrotoluol, for instance, when detonated with fulminate of mercury expands by something like 500,000 volumes in a fraction of a second. The Kassen bomb, so far as I can gather, is an extension of the principle. Under the influence of the bomb, ordinary silicon rock or earth in its vicinity undergoes an atomic change on detonation, producing huge volumes of some inactive gas such as nitrogen, argon or helium. In other words you are using the earth as your high explosive. The Kassen bomb is merely a special kind of detonator."3

It's an interesting idea. Unfortunately for my purposes, Ambler doesn't connect his atomic bomb with air warfare at all. In fact, he's not particularly interested in the ramifications of such a weapon for warfare or diplomacy.4 Instead, it's just a MacGuffin, seeking the destruction of which leads the famous physicist Professor Barstow to lose his memory, think he's the fictional secret agent Conway Carruthers instead,5 travel to the fictional Balkan country of Ixania under what he believes is an alias but is actually his real name, help start a revolution, get into and out of a lot of scrapes, fall in love with a sinister countess, and yes, this is a parody of bad spy thrillers. Though perhaps not only that -- for example there's a very noticeable "merchants of death" theme running through it, which I don't think was there for laughs, and anyway the book could probably be read with profit as a "straight" thriller. Worth a read.


  1. Eric Ambler, The Dark Frontier (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973 [1936]), 35-6. 

  2. Ibid., 6. 

  3. Ibid., 28-9. 

  4. It's never used in the novel, outside of the Professor's nightmare. The only military use suggested is to bury it, then lure the enemy army onto it by retreating, and explode it remotely, which doesn't seem like a stratagem that would work more than once! 

  5. A relation of the narrator of The Riddle of the Sands, perhaps? 

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6 thoughts on “Judgement Day, 1936

  1. Chris Williams

    "under what he believes is an alias but is actually his real name"

    That's very Philip K Dick, isn't it?

  2. Nemo

    As you point out there were atom bomb novels before Ambler. For a good discussion or pre-Hiroshima nuclear war fiction go here

    http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/nuclear/1chap.htm

    According to this page Ambler apparantly claimed he got the idea of the atomic bomb from his studies of nuclear physics, not from earlier works of fiction. But then he titled his autobiography (which I haven't read) HERE LIES, didn't he?

  3. Post author

    Thanks, I did see that but was saving it for a future post!

    Ambler says much the same thing in the 1973 foreword to the edition I looked at. It was probably a bit harsh of me to doubt his story, but Public Faces was very popular, and was published when he was 23 or so. Even if he didn't read it himself, I would have thought it likely that he would have heard about the atomic bomb idea from there at least. Not that he lifted it wholesale from Nicolson or Wells, his bomb works very differently to either of theirs.

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  5. I always have recurring dreams similar to this one, they usually involve me being at home then hearing an extremely loud explosion, accompanied by blinding light and high winds that I can feel blowing me so hard I can't open my eyes, but I can feel myself disintigrate and die, each and every time.

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