William Gibson's New Graphic Novel Takes Nuclear Anxiety to Its Terrifying End
Like a lot of children of the 1950s, William Gibson grew up haunted by the specter of the atomic bomb, and enthralled by science fiction stories. His latest project combines his two childhood preoccupations by imagining a very different outcome to World War II—one in which America bombed its allies in the Soviet Union as well as its foes in Japan, and went on to rule the world as its sole nuclear power. And in the 21st century, things gets even darker when a string of nuclear bombs are detonated across the globe, turning the Earth into an irradiated hellscape that can only be escaped through time travel.
This is the universe of the sci-fi legend's comic book Archangel, which comes out in graphic-novel form tomorrow. “My personal experience of nuclear anxiety was very real and lasted for decades, and with Archangel I was drawing on that experience,” says Gibson. The book, illustrated by Butch Guise, opens with a scene that reads like the logical end of that Cold War nuclear anxiety: a nightmarish montage of the world’s largest cities in ruin, iconic landmarks like Big Ben and the Kremlin destroyed. Although the cause of the chain reaction is unclear, democracy has died in the aftermath, leaving a dictatorial President-for-Life in charge of the wasteland.
So how do you save humanity from a slow death on a planet soaked in lethal radiation? If you’re thinking “create a super-advanced machine and send people back in time to 1945 Berlin to change the course of World War II,” then you and Gibson are on the same page. And if you're keeping track: yes, that makes Archangel an alternate-history story wrapped inside an alternate-history story.
The graphic novel originally began as a screenplay co-created by Gibson and actor Michael St. John Smith, and was inspired by the shadowy and even supernatural war stories that intrigued the writer as a child. “I found my way into my own favorite aspects of it, which might be thought of as The Weird War," Gibson says. "The history of [CIA predecessor] the OSS, of various resistance organizations, all the most secretive and/or deeply peculiar military operations, dubious narratives of Nazi occultism and wartime proto-UFOs.”
The influence of Golden Age science fiction permeates the comic as well: A copy of the classic pulp magazine Astounding Science-Fiction is visible in the desk of a British officer, advertising a story by Robert Heinlein; a man wearing a futuristic stealth “creepsuit” appears out of nowhere, prompting comparisons to H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man; a Soviet officer makes a reference to “foo fighters,” aerial phenomena rumored to be Nazi UFOs that showed up in sci-fi novels of their own.
There’s a long tradition of “what if” stories that pivot on questions about World War II: What if Nazi Germany had won? What if Hitler had never been born? What if aliens had attacked Earth in the midst of a major battle? In Archangel, the mission of the nameless American Marine sent back to 1945 is to stop the evil Vice President of his own timeline from bombing the Soviet town of Arkhangelsk (aka Archangel), and thus create a better future—or at least a different one.
After the Marine teams up with an intrepid British Royal Air force lieutenant named Naomi Givens, she notices an ominous tattoo on his back: the words “REMEMBER BALTIMORE” in Spanish beside a massive mushroom cloud. “What happens in Baltimore?” she asks, nervously. “Baltimore’s where it all started,” says the Marine. The precise details remain hazy, but it’s clear that this was a moment when the world changed irrevocably: it was one way before, and something much worse after.
Like many time-travel tales, Archangel is designed to satisfy our relentless curiosity about how things might have gone differently in the past, and how that might change our present—possibilities we can only access through imagination. “History is actually a speculative discipline,” says Gibson. “We invent and reinvent history, and writing a straight historical novel requires imaginative discipline akin to science fiction. So I've always thought of time travel and alternate history as unusually pure and demanding forms of sci-fi.”
More often, however, science fiction looks to the future—if not the precise shape it will take, then our fears about the changes it will bring. While Gibson’s iconic 1984 cyberpunk novel Neuromancer explored cultural anxieties about technology and artificial intelligence during the rise of the digital age, Archangel delves into the apocalyptic terror of nuclear weaponry, which has loomed over humanity for more than 70 years.
It’s an anxiety that feels newly urgent due to the growing nuclear threat from the mercurial regime of North Korea, not to mention the tens of thousands of nuclear warheads already stored in countries around the world, some of them thousands of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The final panels of Archangel also make explicit reference to the current political upheaval in American politics, and what that says about the malevolence of own timeline.
“Change winds have blown over Archangel, since we began to publish,” Gibson writes in the afterword of the collected edition. “The radioactive retro-future ruled over by President Henderson … now seems quite differently possible, and will continue to, I imagine, in one way or another. So our narrative, in order to belong more meaningfully to its day, must reflect that in the end.”
While worries about global warming, wealth inequality, and the erosion of civil liberties have led some critics to describe the contemporary United States as a dystopia—a term often used to describe the bleak futures of Gibson’s novels—the writer himself is quick to note that it's little more than a literary term, and the way people apply it to the real world is often myopic. “There are people all over the world who are living in situations we'd regard as dystopian, if they were our situations,” he says. “And there always have been. What we generally mean by ‘dystopian’ is what it would be like here if it were like life in really nasty authoritarian countries with no wealth distribution.”
Usually, time travel stories are about getting a chance to rectify the errors and regrets of the past and setting things “right.” The ending of Archangel doesn't allow for quite so neat a conclusion—largely because it insists on connecting the darkness of its fictional world to our own. Is there a certain warning there, I ask Gibson, about the cyclical nature of history and the human drive for self-destruction? Are we capable of saving ourselves from our worst impulses as a species, or doomed to end up in one form of “dystopia” or another?
“I think that's a question Archangel asks,” says Gibson, “but each reader is given the chance to answer it as they will.”
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