Alfred Coppel’s 1960 Dark December is a standalone post-apocalyptic novel.
Major Kenneth Gavin survived World War Three, protected in the Unimak Island Titan missile base. Over the course of the war, he and his fellow missilemen lobbed salvo after salvo of thermonuclear weapons at the Soviet Union. The United States prevailed; the Soviets have capitulated. Major Gavin is free to go home to his wife Sue and daughter Pam.
If they are still alive and if he can reach them.
World War Three for the servicepeople at Unimak was a matter of cramped quarters, rationing, and guilty relief that the Soviet missiles intended for Unimak landed on Dutch Harbor instead. Elsewhere, the effects were more horrific. Large swaths of the United States have been out of contact with the central government for much of the war.
The lost zones are the area around Denver, the Great Lakes region, the Eastern Seaboard north of Baltimore, and the West Coast between Klamath Falls, Oregon, and Santa Barbara, California. The last news from Major Gavin’s family was that Sue and Pam were in San Francisco, in the middle of the West Coast abandoned area. The Soviets must have targeted the Bay Area, but it isn’t at all clear what was destroyed or how many have survived.
There are (of course) no planes headed to the Bay Area1. Gasoline is rationed and in short supply. The best Major Gavin can do is cadge US military resources to make his way to Klamath Falls, buy a horse (if one is available), then proceed south from there.
Even before he reaches Klamath Falls, the grim reality of post-war America is becoming clear. Although not as badly hit as the no-go zones, the regions through which he travels have all suffered badly during the war. Federal and state power no longer hold sway; local and military officials govern, with great or lesser degrees of corruption and nepotism.
Officers who in peacetime would never have been promoted to any responsible posts find themselves holding power purely because they were lucky enough to survive. Officers like Major Collingwood. Now the Major feels that he is can do pretty much anything he wants to do while out patrolling; he can offhandedly execute anyone he deems a bandit; he can torment the soldiers under his command.
Major Collingwood is initially reluctant to let Major Gavin to travel with him — he has no intention of sharing command — but he relents when Major Gavin agrees to serve under him. This proves fatal to Collingwood’s career. As soon as the expedition reaches Klamath Falls, Major Gavin reports Collingwood to higher authorities. Collingwood will be court-martialed and imprisoned.
That’s not the end of Major Gavin’s adventures. Between Klamath Falls and San Francisco stretch more than three hundred miles of anthrax-infected radioactive wilderness. It’s filled with desperate survivors, bandits, feral children, and the occasional misplaced Soviet airman.
And … Collingwood has escaped and is in pursuit of the man who turned him over to the authorities.
And … Gavin has been profoundly changed by the war; he’s now incapable of violence.
Both sides compensated for the inaccuracy of their missiles2 by firing off powerful warheads in batches. Twenty megaton warheads appear to have been in common use. The missiles created a lake, Lake Megaton, which is so large that it must have been created by a few thousand-plus megaton bombs3. These were many surface bursts, so there’s fallout in addition to blast damage (not to mention weaponized anthrax). Readers from the West Coast will recognize the names of many of the cities that no longer exist.
The author doesn’t try to sugar-coat his setting. Even before Major Gavin enters the forbidden zone from whence return is forbidden (thanks to the weaponized anthrax), the US he encounters is badly damaged. It will take decades or more to recover, if recovery is even possible. There’s a very real possibility that there will be another war soon, with Red China, which is currently in the process of snapping up Siberia4.
Millions, American and Russian, have died. The lucky ones died quickly. The unlucky ones lingered.
Major Gavin was, of course, a central player in the war. His missile base must have killed hundreds of thousands of Russians. His journey has brought home to him the pointless misery that he caused. Now he’s appalled by Collingwood’s handful of murders; now he feels compelled to help everyone he encounters along the way; now he cannot do violence, whatever the circumstances. He feels tremendous guilt, not just for those he killed, not just for the misery that he’s witnessing, but for the possible dire fate of his family.
Coppel, the author, provides Major Gavin with a foil in the form of the homicidal psychopath, Collingwood. The war was enormous fun for Collingwood and until Gavin derailed his career, Collingwood had every expectation that he would succeed remaking America and the world in his image. Coppel makes it quite clear that he doesn’t approve of Collingwood by having him kill a number of sympathetic people and animals. Collingwood’s not a hard man doing what must be done (as so many SFF protagonists have been); he’s just another murderous bastard.
Dark Decemberisn’t a work of art; it shows its pulp roots. But it’s still an effective piece of writing.
Dark Decemberis very much out of print.
1: Boats don’t seem to be available, perhaps because of radioactive runoff from the ten-mile-wide Lake Megaton on the former site of Bonneville Dam.
2: A number of small towns are name-checked as having been unfortunate enough to receive the ten or twenty megatons intended for much larger communities.
3: An alternative explanation is that, like artist Chesley Bonestell when he drew the illustration below for the August 1950 Colliers, Coppel had an exaggerated notion of the possible size of nuclear craters.
4: The peace terms include a proviso that the US help the Soviets stop the Chinese before they get to Moscow. I can see no way for that NOT to go horribly wrong.