Philip Wylie is perhaps best know for his book, Generation of Vipers, the book that created the idea of Momism—the notion that because mothers have shown their sons too much affection, they have all grown up to be Nancy-Boy wimps unable to protect their country from enemy invaders. A great example of this idea at work can be seen in the original version of the movie The Manchurian Candidate, where Jessica Lansbury plays perhaps the most twisted mother ever on the big screen. Her Mrs. Iselin makes Joan Crawford’s Mildred Pierce look like the Mother of the Decade.
Despite Wylie’s stupid sexist theory (and he has more of them!), his science fiction written during the Cold War focusing on the effects of nuclear war contain some frightening insight into the effects of blasts and radiation. Two of his stand-out books are Tomorrow! and Triumph.The former is actually a cautionary tale into why it’s important for American’s to focus on Civil Defense. The latter is more along the lines of Robert Heinlein’s Farnham’s Freehold, where a group of “strangers” are saved from a destroyed northern hemisphere by the foresight of a millionaire who builds the ultimate fallout shelter.
In both books, one can’t help but notice Wylie’s racism, xenophobia, and chauvinism. You can add anti-semitism in the case of Triumph. The main character, Dr. Ben Bernman is scorner more by the narrator for being jewish than any of the characters. As you read you can’t help but feel Wylie is on the verge of writing some sort of anti-semitism on every other page. Dr. Bernman even scorns himself for being “an ugly Jew with obvious crooked nose.” Throughout most of the book he has to deny his love for a protestant woman because he is a Jew. In both books, women are given the usual Madonna/Whore treatment, with none of them being created as fully realized, three-dimensional characters. In fact, in both books, the issue of race and gender are treated so unfairly, it mars Wylie’s writing, which is a shame, because the events and plots in both books are told very well. (There is one exception—the youngest daughter, Norah, in Tomorrow! She is given agency and a sense of self. Even if Wylie as the writer associates these traits with masculinity, her character is is to be admired.)
Wylie is at his best when describing war and sociologically diagnosing the problems with Americans. His effort in Tomorrow! should be applauded as one feels he was out to prove a very important point. Sure, fallout shelters and civil defense drills were costly, and in most cases mere fantasy. No matter how deep the shelters, no matter how well prepared, the world’s nuclear arsenals were just too big to protect people from. But to do nothing, to not even give people a sense of hope, a sense that they could survive, was more irresponsible than shoving your head under the sand. In Tomorrow! he argues that Americans are free to choose their religious practices without prejudice, and he argues staunchly in support of religious freedom, but then spends most of the book reminding the reader that “real” Americans are always Protestant (his anti-Catholic views are also not so subtle in this book, and as an artifact of the past it makes me wonder how often Americans wore their prejudices on their sleeves in the 1950s). In both novels Wylie’s wars seem real, and the devastation well described. These are books that will give you nightmares when you go to sleep because what happened in them were real. These were real monsters Wylie was talking about, and they are some of the scariest you will ever read.
Tomorrow! and Triumph were two interesting reads and two accurate windows into the effects of atomic bombs. But all his characters are just as flat as the paperback covers that contain some exciting pages. Definitely worth a read if you want to look into the privileged male 1950’s mind-set