1963’s Triumph by Philip Wylie is a tale of individual survival in a world of Commietastic Atomigeddon.
Having saved Vance Farr’s daughter Faith following an automobile accident, brilliant Ben Bernman visits Farr at his lavish estate. Faith has only recently become engaged: her fiancé Kit Barlow is in attendance, as is a surprisingly diverse assortment of friends and Farr employees.
Meanwhile, Russian Commies are plotting to enslave the world. Step one: kill everyone.
American President Conner is woken by a call alerting him to a serious crisis. Post-Tito Yugoslavia, haven chosen democracy, is being invaded by forces allied to the Russians. If the West intervenes, Soviet Premier Grovsky promises to nuke London and Paris. In fact, this is all just a distraction.
Russia launches a massive nuclear attack on the US and its allies, targeting weapons and population centres. The attack fails to disarm the West before it can launch a massive retaliation. Across the northern hemisphere, millions die. They are merely the first.
The Russian plan to utterly depopulate the northern hemisphere. A chosen few, loyal to the Commie way of life, will survive in hidden safeholds. When the time is right they will emerge to conquer the Southern Hemisphere with their arsenal of nuclear weapons. To this end, the weapons used are calculated to cause as much fallout as possible.
Suspecting nuclear war was inevitable, Farr poured hundreds of millions of dollars into an extraordinary bunker close to his mansion. Only fourteen people (Farr, Mrs. Farr, Ben, Faith, Kit, butler Paulus Davey, Paulus’ daughter Connie, engineer George Hyama, friend Lodi Li, Farr’s mistress Angelica, Angelica’s secret boyfriend/gigolo Al Rizzo, children Dorothy and Dick, and the world’s luckiest meter-reader, Peter Williams) are close enough and lucky enough to reach the facility in time.
Farr’s bunker was designed to withstand every conceivable attack. It becomes clear it is sufficient to withstand inconceivable attacks as well. Farr expected lethal levels of fallout but nothing like the Russians deliver. Facility sensors detect not merely hundreds or thousands of roentgens but a million. Of all the nuclear war shelters in America, only Farr’s is able to preserve the lives of the people within.
It’s clear it will be years before the survivors can emerge. Even given the shelter’s prodigious reserves, it isn’t clear whether or not the surface will be habitable by the time dwindling supplies force the survivors out of the shelter1. The survivors cannot count on rescue from the Southern Hemisphere: many southern nations do not like Americans and while Australia and New Zealand might be sympathetic to fellow Anglophones, those two nations are ominously silent.
Farr’s survivors are not the only ones beset by ignorance. The Red Plan appears to be proceeding as intended. However, as the Russians will discover, America has one last ace to play.
Readers not wishing to read meticulous descriptions of horrific deaths on a biblical scale may wish to avoid this novel.
The fourteen people who make it into the bunker are a surprising diverse assortment of Americans: White and Black, Christian and Jew, Chinese and Japanese, fantastically rich, and working class. Partly this is pure luck. Partly it is because the Farrs are happy to hire or befriend people of all races. Also, I suspect Wylie wanted to play with American racial tensions in an environment in which nobody can get away from each other.
Readers might wonder if Americans could, in the context of the end of the world, set aside historical ethnic tensions to better focus on the crisis at hand. Maybe they can! But not these Americans, who while they do their personal best to deal with their circumstances, remain painfully conscious of social convention even while they are flouting it — African American Connie Davey, for example, suspects no white man, no matter how infatuated, will ever see her as a true partner in the way they would a white woman. Even Japanese American George Hyama and Chinese American Lodi Li find time to reflect on the time-honored antipathy between Japan and China, even while enthusiastically circumventing it on a personal level.
One cannot help but notice the parallels between this novel and Heinlein’s later Farnham’s Freehold. Both feature a well-to-do horny bastard, his alcoholic wife, and moderately diverse supporting cast, some eminently bangable. Wylie’s cast is much larger, more diverse; Wylie also takes a less charitable stance on Farr’s extracurricular activities2 than Heinlein did toward Farnham’s. Wylie is also more sympathetic to the unhappy wife. Finally: unlike Farnham’s Freehold, Wylie’s novel does not evolve into a homage to George FitzHugh’s Cannibals All!, or Slaves Without Masters.
In fact, Wylie doesn’t take a particularly charitable view of the White race, its history or its claimed superiority. Wylie being Wylie, he doesn’t take an especially charitable view of anyone,but his is a consciously equitable misanthropy.
(…) the “differences” made by race and religion are superficial. Environment, and the attitudes of other people to anyone, or to any minority group, regarded as “different” – and, of course, in consequence, as inferior — make the only important differences that exist. And all of that … illusion.
A dozen branches of science, in thousands of unanswerable tests, had shown no special quality or superiority in black man or white, red, brown, or yellow; Jew or gentile or Moslem or Hindu. But most human beings, and the arrogant white man in particular, had refused to examine the evidence and accept the truth; and in that rejection of known reality, they now had lost … everything3.
It’s too bad that “better than Farnham’s Freehold!” leaves quite a lot of room for improvement. Wylie is an enthusiastic fan of infodumps, particularly where loving descriptions of panicky mobs4 and horrifying deaths (mass and individual) are concerned. Wylie’s views regarding Reds are determinedly unsubtle; the novel seems to take the position that Truman should have nuked the Soviets when the US had an atomic monopoly. At least the characters do their best to deal with an overwhelming calamity with the resources at hand, rather than numbly washing down government-provided suicide pills with a glass of Shiraz.
Triumph is a fascinating artefact but I don’t know that I would describe it as good.
I did not find it at Amazon UK. As well, the Amazon Canada entry bizarrely credits the book to J. K. Rowling.
1: Waiting for fallout to die down isn’t such a great plan for other reasons: Commie World Domination Plan One involves waiting long enough for optimistic survivors to emerge before pasting the US with more rounds of fallout-enhanced nukes.
2: Farr has built a secret tunnel from his estate to the building in which his mistress is ensconced. It is thanks to this tunnel that Angelica, Al, Dorothy, and Dick manage to reach the bunker.
3: Sad experience doesn’t prevent New Zealand and Australia from hastily assembling their own nuclear arsenals post-war. They want to discourage invasion from other southern nations. This is billed as the first step towards facilitating the creation of a world federation of “racially, nationally, free and equal people.”
4: One such repellent scene involves an impending gang rape, filmed by a news crew, in which the intended victim is momentarily saved by the intervention of a heroic black man who is, of course, immediately murdered by the white mob for his efforts.