I am starting a new “Backstory” series, in which I describe the background and process of writing my fiction. You should read the story first. Destroyer of Worlds is available for free at Inkstick media.
I find it easiest to write fiction when structure is imposed on me, so I always watch for themed contests and anthologies. I wrote The Wasp Keepers for an anthology about the human cost of war, Fitness Function for a CIMSEC contest about maritime security, and Celestial Object 143205 for an anthology about derelict ships.
I especially like themed anthologies and contests when they touch on military and foreign policy issues, so when I stumbled across Inkstick‘s contest about nuclear apathy, I knew I had to submit.
The reality of the nuclear threat
I studied nuclear policy and strategy extensively at SAASS. At Stanford, I was a Teacher’s Assistant for Scott Sagan, one of the foremost scholars on nuclear weapons. As part of his class, we ran a simulation involving a Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference. Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation also runs a project called Preventing Nuclear Proliferation and Terrorism, which provides a wealth of expertise on nuclear issues.
One of the amazing things about nuclear weapons is that they have not proliferated further or been used more. The nuclear taboo is real. The NPT has worked better than any international treaty should, given that it has no real enforcement mechanism and institutionalizes an “unfair” gap between the nuclear haves and have-nots. The doctrine of mutually assured destruction (MAD)—which is often viewed as the ultimate expression of reckless military insanity—was actually an extraordinary achievement that successfully prevented nuclear war between the US and USSR, amid a conflict spiral that both sides felt helpless to control.
Yet we are also extremely lucky. The world approached the brink of nuclear annihilation multiple times. The Cuban Missile Crisis is the best-known example, but numerous mistakes, accidents, and false alarms could have triggered the apocalypse. The NPT is always under threat, rogue actors continue to seek and build nuclear weapons, and other international rivalries could escalate to include the use of nuclear weapons.
We now face a curious problem. Our international regime for preventing the proliferation and usage of nuclear weapons has worked so well that most people take it for granted. Yet nuclear weapons remain the most terrifying technology on the planet and pose a truly existential threat to humanity. The norms and institutions that keep the nuclear genie bottled are old, rickety, and fraying. Many of the technologies are ancient; up until a few years ago, the U.S. nuclear enterprise relied on 8″ floppy disks. In a world of “normal accidents”, we are always one mistake away from a catastrophe. The question is not if another nuclear weapon will ever be used, but when.
My experiences of nuclear apathy
Yet despite the the very real threat, nuclear apathy is real. I have two relevant stories from TA’ing that class.
On the first day of class the professor asked his undergraduates what security challenges they thought posed existential threats to the United States. Their answers reflected the spirit of our age: Global warming. Fake news. Political polarization. Environmental destruction. Donald Trump. I would actually agree with a couple of those, but the absence of military threats—and especially nuclear weapons—was striking.
My second relevant memory was of a guest speaker who had spent his life studying nuclear weapons and working on nuclear policy. He had dedicated his semi-retirement to fighting nuclear apathy every way he knew how and showed a nightmarish video he had helped produce. This wizened old policymaker held these young undergraduates spellbound as he sagely described the horrors of nuclear weapons. For that one brief class period, he made them care.
Writing the story
I only learned about Inkstick’s nuclear apathy contest the day before the deadline.
When I have constraints but no clear story idea, I brainstorm on a clean sheet of paper. I jot down every idea, no matter how half-baked. Getting started is tough, but once I get in the flow, ideas bubble up. Each idea branches into others, especially if I deliberately try to apply twists.
The point of the contest was to shake people out of their nuclear apathy. The obvious answer would be to write a story about a nuclear detonation, or maybe a desperate race against nuclear-armed terrorists.
However, I tend to favor more subtle psychological stories. What if my story was actually about nuclear apathy itself, and an extreme effort to overcome it? How far might activists go to shake Americans out of their complacency?
Presumably they wouldn’t actually detonate a nuclear weapon. What, then?
I have an abiding interest in virtual worlds so scribbled that down on my list. Maybe somebody sets off a nuclear weapon in a virtual world? Users would experience much of the horror of a nuclear attack without any real damage. That could work. But who would initiate such an attack? Maybe Russia or China. But what would they gain from that? Twist: maybe part of the U.S. government would launch an attack to whip up support for nuclear modernization or a new arms control initiative. But that seemed extreme and probably illegal for a democratic government.
It would have to be a radical non-government group. That led me back to the memory of the wizened policymaker and his video aimed at shaking students out of their complacency. What if he had access to a virtual world? What scenarios might he create to bring the threat to life?
I caught a glimpse of another character: a video game designer tasked with designing the virtual apocalypse. His daughter was an addict of the game. I saw him holding a drink, trembling, waiting for the attack to commence while his daughter played the game in the next room.
I normally spend considerable time fleshing out characters before I actually start writing, but since I had less than 24 hours to deliver the story, I couldn’t spare the time. I dove in and wrote without a map, trusting my subconscious to guide me along.
Along the way, I thought back to those Stanford students who fretted over the existential threat of fake news but never even considered the threat of nuclear weapons. I realized that even the carnage of a virtual apocalypse might get overlooked, compared with more trivial concerns about the loss of a beloved source of entertainment and profit.
I wrote the story in two sittings on my back patio, interrupted only by coffee breaks and a run. I normally spend a couple weeks revising stories, but lacked the time in this case. The resulting story is less polished than some of my others, but I think it captures my initial idea and evokes the sentiment I hoped it would: a realization of how hard it is to make the general public care about a technology that can annihilate the human race.