Published In

Journal of Urban History

Document Type


Publication Date



Disaster films -- History and criticism, Cities and towns -- In literature, Thrillers (Motion pictures), Science fiction


Cities in the United States have never known the direct effects of total war. Lacking this bitter experience, Americans have had to imagine the impacts of catastrophic warfare on their urban centers. This paper examines fictional depictions of future warfare as it has been imagined to affect U.S. cities, particularly since 1945. It draws on films, short stories, and novels from the "thriller," "future war," and science fiction genres to explore common assumptions and underlying attitudes about cities and city life. It finds that cities are conspicuous by their absence from such stories of future war and its impacts. Cities most often disappear offstage in a burst of light on the horizon, allowing the plot to follow the survivors in small towns and rural settings. This pattern is similar in depictions of the immediate days after the atomic bombing (or the arrival of a surrogate disaster such as a stray meteor or a plague) and in stories set in a deep future decades or centuries after the Big Blowup. Indeed, cities are often depicted dangerous even in their death throes and after, supporting the conclusion that these narratives express the strong fear of cities and preference for middle landscapes that has long marked American culture. Some of the key texts include Philip Wylie, Tomorrow; Pat Frank, Alas, Babylon; Stephen King, The Stand; Walter Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz; Leigh Bracket, The Long Tomorrow; Harlan Ellison, "A Boy and His Dog;" and the movies "Testament" and "The Day After."


This is an Author's Original Manuscript of an article whose final and definitive form, has been published in Journal of Urban History 2006 and is copyright by Sage Publications, available online at:



Persistent Identifier