Leiber, Fritz – “The Moon Is Green” (1952)
The third post-apocalyptic entry of Leiber’s, but where “Coming Attraction” and “Poor Superman” took place in decayed-but-still-recognizable versions of the future, this is one is in full-devastation-end-of-everything mode. The fall was brought about by war between “the two great enemy groups” and took place in an unplanned, almost accidental series of escalations that began when they decided that their stockpiles of cobalt bombs deserved to be used, and culminated in “the Fury,” a brief period when both sides dropped more cobalt bombs than in all the preceding years of war combined. After that came the Terror:
“Men and women with death sifting into their bones through their nostrils and skin, fighting for bare survival under a dust-hazed sky that played fantastic tricks with the light of Sun and Moon… Cities, countryside, and air were alike poisoned, alive with deadly radiation.”
The only hope for humanity lay in constructing (mostly) underground refuges where they could reside until the radiation subsided, reducing them to “a mole’s existence”, culturally focused on conformity and McCarthyism – the same conceit as used in Harlan Ellison’s execrable “A Boy and His Dog” in 1969.
If we have a society of McCarthyites it follows that we must have an outsider, and we find her in Effie, a housewife who’s “just hungry for a little beauty” after the dreadful years of “being cooped up like this, shut away from the sky and the sun.” For this she is chastised by her husband Hank, who is almost as concerned about the radioactive dust she is letting in through the open windows as he is about the social standing her odd behavior is costing him (although one is presented as a reification of the other – “You know how just a hint of sickness starts the old radiation-disease rumor going” – which is an insight I wish had been expanded upon). His politicking has gotten him appointed as a junior member of the Committee, the ruling body of the refuge, and also moved them to a ground-level apartment away from the “fetid huddling [and] shameless communal sprawl” of the basement level. The Committee is largely a behind-the-scenes bit of window dressing, but we do get an offhand comment about some of them planning on continuing the war against Communism once they emerge into the fresh air once again.
One night while home by herself, Effie is startled by a knock on the window. Opening it, she finds not the hairless, witless pariah she half expected, but a man named Patrick, who asks her “Is it tears I get for a welcome? Or are those only to greet God’s own breath, the air?” before entering the apartment along with his cat, an odd creature with a “twisted stump of a tail and feet like small boxing gloves and ears almost as big as a rabbit’s.”
Effie, desperate for news of the outside world, asks what it’s like, and Patrick (who already seems rather reminiscent of a fairy traveler) tells her that while the radioactive dust did at first bring about only death and ugliness, life soon adapted into a veritable fairyland “more amazing than you tombed folk could ever imagine.” Patrick’s description of this wonderland, replete with giant stingless bees and rainbow serpents and wonderful, dark-skinned children with 14 fingers and 16 toes who move about faster than the eye can see, is among the best and most imaginative writing this series has had to offer so far, and so the reader is disappointed right along with Effie when Hank comes home and interrupts these post-rationalist proceedings, symbolically adorned with both pistol and nose respirator to strain out the dust. This, soon after Effie had mentioned that a few of the refuge’s men occasionally scavenged on the surface for food and fuels and batteries, to which Patrick replies bitterly “Aye, and those blind-souled slugs would never see anything but what they’re looking for. They’d never see the garden.”
Hank scans Patrick with his Geiger counter, “the Twentieth Century’s mouthpiece of ultimate truth”, and gets him to admit he had made the whole thing up – what’s outside is, he admit, just a little bit worse than either of them could imagine. Patrick himself is somehow resistant to radiation, a modern-day “Rappaccini’s child” who wanders the world alone.
Effie, enraged by this further killing of beauty piled on top of that regularly inflicted by Hank, declares that she can’t and won’t be cooped up any longer and is leaving for the garden. The two men watch her disappear into the greenish murk of the surrounding cityscape, at which point Patrick declares that he’s going after her, given that she also seems strangely resistant to the dust. Hank seals them both out and stays behind scanning himself with the Geiger counter.
Again, this would have been well-served by some ambiguity over whether the outside world had emerged from the end of modernity as a scorched wasteland or as an entirely irrational (post-rational?) fairy garden. Even still, though, let’s remind ourselves that it’s up against a story about an evil toaster as an example of the horrors of the modern world, so… hats off to Mr. Leiber.