NB: Featured as one of this week's Friday's Forgotten Books.
Last week I posted a review of a 1961 Cold War spy thriller by British author Bryan Peters, The Big H, noting that although it was Peters's second novel under that moniker, he published a number of other novels both prior to and following it under different names, including his own: Peter George. During the course of my research for that post, something about George struck a chord with me. Though he only left a relatively small body of work – he took his own life in 1966 at the age of forty-two, which, that being my current age, and George's birthday being a day before mine, I guess on a subliminal level might have been part of the reason I became so interested in him – his influence has extended far and wide, primarily through his best-known novel, Two Hours to Doom (1958), alias Red Alert. Written under another nom de plume, Peter Bryant, it was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's 1964 film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, the screenplay of which George co-wrote (with Kubrick and Terry Southern).
George – born Peter Bryan George in Treorchy, Wales on 24 March, 1924 – published nine novels in his lifetime (insofar as I've been able to establish; the bibliography at the bottom of this post is as complete as I can make it), including crime fiction, at least one P.I. mystery – Cool Murder, 1958 – and a short series of spy novels – The Hong Kong Kill (also 1958) and the aforementioned The Big H. What's remarkable is that, of those nine novels, nearly half are preoccupied to a greater or lesser degree with nuclear conflict, whether it be The Big H – which, although ostensibly about heroin smuggling, actually has the threat of atomic war at its heart – or George's 1963 novelisation of his own screenplay for Dr. Strangelove. But it's the book that capped his career which is perhaps the most apposite as regards his life and, seemingly, his death: a long-out-of-print novel which I firmly believe is an overlooked post-apocalyptic classic, up there with the similarly realistic landmark dystopian likes of Nevil Shute's On the Beach (1957), Pat Frank's Alas, Babylon (1959) and Cormac McCarthy's The Road (2006).
Published by Heinemann in the UK in 1965 under a stark, photographic dust jacket designed by Paul Castell – the symbolic flower on the front of which predates by twenty years the more famous black flower from Troy Kennedy Martin's equally brilliant, also nuclear-themed Edge of Darkness – Commander-1 is a bleak, unforgiving account of atomic war and its aftermath. An opening chapter set on Christmas Eve, 1965 juxtaposes a joyous shopping trip in New York with vignettes of
interracial murder and rape in Johannesburg, Tibet and New York itself, along with glimpses of nuclear
arsenals, climaxing with a blinding light in the sky. Subsequently, a flashback begins a subplot which reappears intermittently throughout the novel, relating the Chinese plan which instigates the conflagration; and then the action switches to the war room deep beneath the Pentagon, where the confusion of nuclear conflict unfolds in calm, and consequently horrific, fashion.
Thereafter, for a while at least, the novel takes the form of a journal, written by James Geraghty, the commander of an unarmed U.S. Navy nuclear submarine, on board which, along with the crew, are three men and three women – the "guinea pigs". Kept in isolation, the guinea pigs are the focus of an experiment to assess how human beings will cope with deep space travel and colonisation, the aim being to deposit them on a desert island. Despite the fact that the war has very likely brought humanity to the brink of extinction, and against the advice of one of the doctors overseeing the experiment, Geraghty elects to persist with it, and from here on out the story alternates between Geraghty's tale and that of the guinea pigs.
Right from the beginning of Commander-1 there are clues that the novel was written swiftly and out of a genuine belief that nuclear annihilation was imminent. The first of the Chinese interludes references both the ousting of Russian premier Nikita Khrushchev on 14 October, 1964 and China's inaugural nuclear weapons test, which took place on 16 October, 1964; given that Commander-1 was published in 1965, it seems clear that George was deeply concerned about these developments and was urgently driven to address them in his fiction. The shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis also looms large over the novel, and is referenced repeatedly; as recently as the 1980s, when I was a teenager, the threat and fear of
nuclear war was very real, so it's easy for me to imagine how much more
immediate that threat and fear must have felt to George in the 1960s,
post-Cuban Missile Crisis, post-Chinese atomic weapons testing.
George weaves fact into fiction throughout the novel. He makes references to real life non-fiction works on the likelihood of nuclear war (and, obliquely, to his own Two Hours to Doom/Dr. Strangelove), while in a long conversation on the island the guinea pigs discuss the likely, scientifically deduced outcome of an all-out MAD nuclear exchange, bringing in bacteriological warfare to boot (there's a mention of Porton, near Salisbury). He even references real people in the narrative, such as the strategists Herman Kahn and Thomas Schelling – the latter in fact a friend of George's. That some of his fictional characters, including one or two of the guinea pigs, aren't terribly well-developed and are sometimes deployed as little more than mouthpieces to impart facts is, to my mind, the novel's only major flaw, and given what George is trying to achieve, forgivable.
As grim as all this is, however, astonishingly, the book becomes even grimmer as it draws to a close. George details the establishment of a quasi-fascistic system of government for the scant few survivors of the war, complete with drug-induced brainwashing and indoctrination and a nascent eugenics programme. This is driven by Commander Geraghty, a grotesquely compelling creation who will, ultimately, come to lend the novel its title. At the story's end there is at least a tiny glimmer of light, but even that is cruelly extinguished in the final two sentences.
Peter George died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at his home in St Leonards – not far from where I live in Lewes – on 1 June, 1966; his wife found him slumped in a chair with a discharged double-barreled shotgun between his knees. It was reported at the time that he had been unwell and depressed; later, the author Brian Aldiss, an acquaintance of George's, wrote that George "was a victim of the Demon Alcohol", that "He would start with a sip of whisky and wake up a fortnight later in a Glaswegian gutter, poor guy." But Aldiss also stated that George was "suffering fear and pain about the threat of nuclear war", to the extent that at the time of his death he was writing yet another book on the subject.
That unfinished novel remains unpublished, but Commander-1 certainly bears out Aldiss's hypothesis in its overwhelming sense of despair, hopelessness, and anger. But more than that, one event in particular in the novel acts as a chilling portent of George's fate. After finding his partner, Jane, dead of an overdose, one of the guinea pigs, Bill Evans – a man born, like George himself, in Treorchy – commits suicide by shooting himself in the head. Bill's haste to do the deed before he can be stopped presages the way George must have been similarly conscious of taking his own life before his wife could find him, but what's even more appalling is the way George describes the gruesome results – "the bloody pieces of bone and flesh and brain" that Bill's fellow guinea pigs, John and Arnie, have to bury, and this preceding passage:
When they saw what was left of Bill's head they turned away. When they had recovered a little, but still not looking at the bodies, Arnie said, 'How did he do it?'
'Through the mouth,' John said. 'Oh my sweet Christ, though the mouth.'
The hurt and grief George's wife and three children must have felt at both his death and the manner of his demise is difficult to comprehend, especially in light of the fact that the Armageddon he dreaded never came to pass; but for me, this episode demonstrates not only how terrible, and terribly affecting, suicide is, but how powerful fiction in general, and Commander-1 in particular, can be.
George was evidently – and justly – proud of Commander-1. He dedicated the book to Stanley Kubrick, and sent copies to his friends, as the author's bookplate affixed to the front endpaper of the Heinemann first edition I acquired – the only signed copy of the book, in any edition, I've seen, and one of only three signed George books in total I've come across – shows:
The shame of it is that Commander-1 has been out of print for forty years, the last editions being Dell and Pan paperbacks in 1966. Doubtless there are many fine novels that over the decades have fallen through the cracks in our collective memory and slipped quietly out of print; indeed finding and spotlighting some of those books could be said to be the purpose of Existential Ennui. My hope, then, in writing this post, is that these words go some way towards rescuing one righteous, impassioned, often ferocious novel from semi-obscurity and raising it to its rightful position as a key work not only in Peter George's slight but fascinating canon, but in the wider pantheon of post-apocalyptic fiction.
. . . . .
PETER GEORGE BIBLIOGRAPHY
As Peter George
Come Blonde, Came Murder (T. V. Boardman, 1952)
Pattern of Death (T. V. Boardman, 1954)
Cool Murder (T. V. Boardman, 1958); later reissued in paperback under Bryan Peters alias (Mayflower, 1965)
The Final Steal (T. V. Boardman, 1962)
Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (Corgi/Transworld, 1963): novelisation of George's own screenplay/original story
Commander-1 (Heinemann, 1965)
As Peter Bryant
Two Hours to Doom (T. V. Boardman, 1958); published as Red Alert in US (Ace, 1958), later retitled as such in UK
As Bryan Peters*
The Hong Kong Kill (T. V. Boardman, 1958)
The Big H (T. V. Boardman, 1961)
*According to this thread on the Golden Age Mysteries message board, Allen J. Hubin's Crime Fiction IV also credits Sons of Nippon, a 1961 war novel by Brian Peters – "i" instead of "y" in first name – to Peter George. If anyone can confirm or deny that, please get in touch via the comments or email.
 Some reports, including those at the time of his death, put his age at forty-one; see Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon, P. D. Smith, 2007; Associated Press, Yuma Daily Sun, Austin Daily Herald et al, 2 June, 1966
 Strategies of Commitment and Other Essays, Thomas C. Schelling, 2006
 Yuma Daily Sun, 2 June, 1966
 Waterloo Daily Courier, 2 June, 1966
 AP, 2 June, 1966
 "Kubrick – the Writer", Brian Aldiss, The Observer, 14 March, 1999
 Smith, 2007
Note: It appears that at one point Peter George's son had a website, on which was some memorabilia about his father (there's a broken link from George's Wikipedia page). Should Mr. George's son happen to read this post, I'd welcome any corrections, thoughts or additional information he might be willing to provide.