Lot & Lot's Daughter by Moore, Ward, 1953
When I first started putting up book reviews on my own web page a friend of mine challenged me to do as many as I could in as short a time as possible. She went out on the web and found a few pages that had tons and tons of reviews and advised me that unless I got a bunch of reviews up quickly I would not be able to compete with the others. Well, I have no advertising on my web site, so I'm still not sure what I was "competing' for, but the idea didn't sound too far out in left field. So for a time I considered reviewing short stories. I would have stuck to classic ones only, such as the stories in the SFWA anthology reviewed elsewhere on this site. Short stories only that were important for the genre, and signified some big sort of change. I think I made the better decision and decided to cut it off at novellas, and to review short stories only as parts of anthologies. The number of stories I have up certainly never bloomed the way I wanted it to, but I think I have a more interesting site that isn't cluttered by pointless reviews. Well, imagine my surprise one day when I encountered a chapbook by Tachyon Press out of San Francisco made up of my two favorite short stories in the entire genre, Lot and Lot's Daughter, by my very favorite unknown genre author, Ward Moore. Its like someone was challenging me to break my own rules. For these two stories, it took absolutely no arm twisting at all. These are the best of the nuclear Armageddon stories that are out there, and besides, together they almost make novella length (but not quite).
While putting this review together in my head I realized that I had one other big obstacle. This limited edition chapbook has been out of print for years, and as far as I know these stories are available only in the original issue of Amazing Stories Magazine, and in one single anthology since. Geez! Its like the editors don't know quality when it bites them in the ass! So to remedy this problem, Ill give you a good bit more of the plot that I ordinarily would. Incidentally, the Frankie Avalon post-nuclear war movie Panic in the Year Zero! was heavily influenced by these stories.
Lot begins right after two American cities, Pittsburgh and Los Angeles, have been hit by atomic bombs. In L.A. there is a panicked stream of autos flooding out of the entire region on any road that will handle traffic at all. Its akin to the last final traffic jam of Stephen King's The Stand, and probably the first time we see this in literature. Jimmon is an uptight insurance executive with a wife, two boys and a daughter. He has foreseen the impending attack, and is ready to go with a station wagon packed full of supplies when the attack happens. The Jimmons live somewhere in the California South Coast near Malibu, so when they get going they head up the 101 to a secret base that Jimmon has already established. Jimmon and his young daughter are the only ones in the car who acknowledge that this is the start of the end of it all. Jimmon hates his wife and can barely tolerate his sons, and their either total ignorance or willful blindness to the scope of the approaching doom pushes him over the edge. As he drives up the valley his family keeps urging him to stop to take a rest break at a gas station. Throughout the entire ride the whole family has been arguing about what is to come next. Jimmon of course thinks that nothing will survive, save for him and those who band together with him. "The docile mass perished, the headstrong (but intelligent) individual will survive." Jimmon's wife wants to learn where all the other cars are going and group together with them for safety. She hopes to find her old boyfriend and his family and huddle for safety and comfort, which the emasculates Jimmon. Finally he relents and stops at a gas station. After being gouged by the proprietor and paying the exorbitant bill at his wife's urging, Jimmon gives her all the money in his wallet and allows her to use the pay phone to try to call her friends. He urges her to take the boys with her, and tells her he will be along in a moment. While they are in the station, and with his daughter in the back seat, he escapes and leaves the rest of his family to their fate.
Lot's Daughter picks up several years later. Jimmon has taken his daughter as a wife and they together have a son. In the intervening years of living at the survival camp near the ocean the family has run out of all of its supplies, which were never adequate in the first place. The camp has gone to hell as Jimmon has aged and learned that he was inadequate to the survivalist lifestyle, and all the game and cattle in the nearby hills have long been used up and eaten. Jimmon's radio has been without power for years, but before it died they learned that pretty much the rest of civilization went up in flames as bomb after bomb was dropped on different cities. They have not seen anybody else since making camp, and Jimmon's wife/daughter is desperate to learn the fate of humanity. Evidence of Jimmon's failure as a man, as a father, as a husband, and as a savior is evident everywhere. The camp is in disarray, the family wears improperly tanned hides, there is virtually nothing to eat, the boy is a malnourished idiot and Jimmon has yet another toothache. Jimmon is full of false promise, and keeps vowing to himself to fix the camp's problems and right all his wrongs, though he still has not come to terms with the horrible decision he made to abandon most of his family on the eve of destruction. He is also tortured by paranoia, and refuses to allow his daughter to try to make contact with anyone else who may be out there. He still teases himself with notions of superiority, and thinks that he is the wisest of those who are left. "A smart man hides from savages until the savages kill each other off, or until he has some means of subduing them."
Jimmon is chased out of camp by his daughter to go fishing with his son, and while crossing the road to the ocean notices some new human looking footprints in the sand that has covered everything in the intervening years. When he returns to camp, he finds that his daughter has abandoned him and their son to go with whomever discovered the camp.
These stories are two of the most brutally honest that I think I have ever read. They don't say that everyone will make horrible decisions when faced with imminent death, but the do stand for the proposition that all of society's elements, from cities to families, will fall apart when confronted with the ultimate end. They tell the story of one man and the absolute evil that he is capable of, but in the greater context they give what was for the time (the early 1950's) a revolutionary view of the potential destructive force of atomic weapons. This view is one that only came about after the destruction of the Japanese empire at our hands, after which we could see the horror we had truly unleashed on that guilty and condemned nation. Sub-textually Jimmon stands for even more. It was only people like him, aggressive bastards if you will, that could have unleashed this rain of destruction in the first place. Jimmon and his ilk are called to task for the evil that they brought to the world. The pathetic circumstances he found himself in at the time of the story is then a symbolic punishment for his aggressive attitude and for allowing the war in the first place. Contrast James Morrow's This is the Way the World Ends for a different look at this issue. but if you ask me, his punishment was not enough, and it came too late.
I would also like to give a major thank you and send kudos to the small Tachyon Press in San Francisco, California for republishing these critical works. The rest of their catalog is great too, and a trip to their website is definately not wasted time. But like I said, finding this gem is going to be next to impossible. If you are inclined to search, like I did, there are several copies available through all of the book locating services on line, and mostly for less than $20. These revolutionary stories deserve a place in every SF library, and I'm sad to say that they definately have not made it there yet.
Copyright © 2008, Gregory Tidwell