What if the SF movies of the 1950s had been documentaries? Realistic portrayals of an America where mad science was part of everyday life, and a federal agency worked to regulate it?
This idea hit me back in the 1990s, and I immediately set out to write a novel about it. Instead, I wound up with a collection of short stories which came out online a decade ago, and now in a self-published paperback, Atoms for Peace, available in both paperback and ebook.
Part of my inspiration was, of course, the movies themselves. Like a lot of people I enjoy them, from the heights of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers and War of the Worlds to the depths of Cat-Women of the Moon and Brain from Planet Arous. I also love Bill Warren’s Keep Watching the Skies, the definitive book on 1950s SF, which filled me in on lots of movies I have yet to see.
Hazel O’Leary, Bill Clinton’s secretary of energy, provided the rest of my inspiration. In the early 1990s she declassified documents showing that post-WW II nuclear researchers had engaged in classic mad scientist stuff: feeding orphans plutonium, injecting pregnant women with radioactive chemicals, all without consent or knowledge of their guinea pigs (if you’re curious, The Plutonium Files is the definitive book on the subject). If that had been a movie, imagine what sort of mutations we’d be dealing with.
I set the novel in 1959 so that some of the timeline changes would have already taken place. By 1959, all scientific research requires a license. Science investigators check up to ensure nobody’s doing unauthorized experiments on the side. The National Guard fights kaijin and spacemen 24/7. My protagonists included science investigators Steve Flanagan and Gwen Montgomery, and National Guard medic Dr. Dani Taylor. Like WW II, women have been called on to play a larger role, but due to the death toll from monsters and alien invasions, the role is considerably bigger.
As the first chapter was self-contained, I started submitting it as a stand-alone short story, Applied Science. The Big Pulp website liked it and asked me to do a series of stories leading up to it, stretching through the decade. I jumped at the chance, but it came with a price: I changed my original backstory so much, some key elements of the novel no longer worked. I haven’t fixed the problems with the novel despite repeated efforts, but I decided this year to turn the short stories into an anthology anyway. This took more editing and rewriting than I expected, but I’m happy with the results.
The first story starts a couple of years after “the Peacemaker” and his giant robot ended the Korean War and maybe a year after the Martian invasion. Gwen, a former OSS agent living in Greenwich Village, stumbles upon a dead half-man, half-lizard and eventually exposes the government’s radiation experiments. Subsequent stories introduce my cast and pit them against robots, mutants, alien mind controllers and plain old human killers.
The changes have, of course, affected real history. The civil rights movement is floundering as the South blames everything on alien fifth columnists stirring up blacks; the federal government figures it has bigger things to worry about than Jim Crow. Eisenhower steps down in the mid-1950s to head the World Defense Alliance so Nixon becomes president. Stalin wasn’t a fan of any alliance with the West but oops, he fell down the stairs one morning and broke his neck! Khruschev’s much more pragmatic (Russia’s been hit by invaders and monsters too). By 1959 the joint US/USSR space program has given Earth a lunar colony, Gagarin I, and an orbiting space station.
I still hope I’ll finally fix the novel some day, but until then you can entertain yourselves reading Atoms for Peace.
#SFWApro. My book cover is by Zakaria Nada.