Nuclear Family, Exploded: Ward Moore’s ‘Lot’ and ‘Lot’s Daughter’
Mr. Jimmon even appeared elated, like a man about to set out on vacation.
“Well folks, no use waiting any longer. We’re all set. So let’s go.”
So begins the saga of David Jimmon, the focal point of Ward Moore’s post-nuclear novelettes Lot and Lot’s Daughter (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, May 1953 and October 1954) and thematic successor to Albert Weener, the antiheroic protagonist of Moore’s free-market doomsday satire Greener Than You Think (William Sloane Associates, 1947). Jimmon is introduced in medias res, as he finishes packing his family (wife, daughter, two sons) and a bulky assortment of hunting gear and non-perishables into his station wagon. It could well be the beginning of a typical American vacation, as the opening lines allude, were it not for the strange overtones that surround it. The utilities have been cut, and the Jimmon’s second car sits idly in the garage, “the air thoughtfully let out of the tires and the battery hidden.” The wagon’s FM set belches Mexican radio, Civil Defense broadcasts, and channel after channel of static.
The implications are clear. The atom has struck the greater Los Angeles area, though Moore leaves the attack itself tantalizingly off page. The reader is left to deduce it’s full scope from fragmentary quotation of Civil Defense reports and Jimmon’s questionable deductions. He balances the official assurances of a limited attack (“. . . panic will merely slow rescue efforts. Casualties are much smaller than originally reported . . . “) and a capable emergency response with grimmer observations; civilization is cooked by his estimation, and only those (like himself, conveniently) with the foresight to prepare and the ingenuity to put such preparation to action are deserving of survival.
Therein lies the crux of Lot and its sequel Lot’s Daughter. Speculative fiction is ripe with tales of man’s efforts to survive in the face of some great cataclysm or other, and Moore’s stories themselves served as uncredited source material for scenarist Jay Simms’ Panic in Year Zero! (American International Pictures, 1962), a film that positively revels in its chauvinist post-apocalyptic excesses. The similarities are only skin deep, however, and one would be remiss in lumping Lot or Lot’s Daugher together with the bulk of libertarian survivalist fantasies. David Jimmon is certainly no self-made doomsday hero, as is Ray Milland’s Harry Baldwin in the filmed version, protecting his family against an inevitable post-nuke social decline and taking up arms to fight for life, liberty, and the American way against black market profiteers and doped-up hot-rod hoodlums. Jimmon is a fundamentally broken character in the best of Moore’s writing tradition, a meek and cowardly perennial malcontent and a festering amalgamate of middle-aged resentments; he is a Harry Baldwin only in his own delusions, and deluded enough to believe himself superior to all.
Jimmon hates many things. He hates his neighbors, the Warbinns (“. . . incompetent borrower, bad neighbor, thoughtless, shiftless, criminal . . .“), who provide an early stumbling block to his station wagon exodus from A-bombed Los Angeles. He hates the family pet, a spaniel Jimmon leaves to fend for itself in the hills of Malibu (“. . . Should have sent the dog to the humane society; more merciful to have it put to sleep. Too late now. . .“). But most of all David Jimmon hates his own family, and the civic-minded responsibility that binds him to them.
Dependent. Helpless. Everything on him. Parasites.
But as the station wagon barrels wrong-way down a divided highway the ties that bind him to his pre-disaster responsibilities begin to fray. The prospect of abandoning the long-engrained habits of good-natured civility invigorates David Jimmon.
What, after all, does he now owe to those for whom he was responsible? His wife Molly, whom he wishes were fat and supine, and whom he suspects of cheating while simultaneously refusing to believe she has the independent agency to have done so. His two sons, David Jr. and Wendell, in whose youthful recalcitrance he sees the germ of violent hooliganism. Before merely a burden, now an existential danger to his individualism, and the final barrier to the shedding of his civility. His predilections and prejudices, presentiments and perversions simmer, barely sublimated, tenuously restrained by the eroding bonds of family.
A gas station break. Jimmon pays the attendant’s extortionate rates, bemused. Wendell rushes to the restroom. David Jr. ponders catching a movie. Molly wonders about the local hotel accommodations. Jimmon slips a wad of cash into her purse, $20,000 in hundred dollar bills- the sum of his life savings, and suggests she take David Jr. and find a telephone.
Jimmon orders his teenage daughter, Erika, into the station wagon. She complies. He slides behind the wheel, starts the motor, and shifts the wagon into low gear . . .
. . . he thought Erika turned to him with a startled look. As the station wagon moved forward, he was sure of it.
“It’s all right, Erika,” said Mr. Jimmon, “I’ll explain later.”
He’d have lots of time to do it.
Set some six years on from the events of Lot, Lot’s Daughter finds Jimmon struggling to exist in his brave new world, the initial post-attack excitement having long-since subsided and the invigoration of his grand social trespass supplanted by the tangible consequences of the same. Jimmon and Erika are alienated from whatever may remain of the America they left behind, isolated in a patch of otherwise unpopulated woodland near Monteray. The station wagon is hidden, its battery dead, its radio silent. Whatever has become of his abandoned wife and sons is unknown.
Jimmon’s fantasy of survival has collapsed under the weight of the realization of his own crippling weaknesses. The sum total of his achievements in six years are a single ramshackle shelter, an incongruous collection of cut logs and moss in constant need of repair. His carefully collected supplies have been lost to careless exposure to the elements, his best-laid plans now but a string of dismal personal failures. A roof not boarded. A dam not built. Local foodstuffs are either depleted or beyond his minimal skills to hunt them down, and he falls upon a dwindling population of shellfish, gleaned from the coastal waters nearby, for his subsistence. He has a four year old son, fathered through an incestuous union with his own daughter (a relationship “. . . of almost mystic propriety . . .“), and both have become wholly dependent on Erika for their ongoing survival.
As her father before her, Erika holds her resentments at bay through the dull persistence of her familial responsibilities. She patches the walls of their shelter, keeps the fire burning through the night, collects ever-smaller abalone from along the coast, and reminds David Jimmons to shave. The sum of her existence is consumed and defined by the needs of others, those of the father who abandoned her mother and brothers, and of the child born of their indiscretion.
Then, one day, change. A set of jeep tracks headed southbound along a stretch of sand-swept highway. People. A chance. Hope.
Lot and Lot’s Daughter make for compelling, even shocking, reads more than sixty years after they were originally published; Moore’s prose remains pointed, stark, deliciously sardonic and surprisingly provocative. Comparison with Panic in Year Zero! is too tasty to resist. Where Simms’ screenplay and the resulting film delight in their derivative exercise in anarchic post-disaster fantasy1, Moore’s novelettes serve as pre-emptive rebuke of the same. The speculative aspect of Lot is not, after all, to ask what would happen should atom bombs fall on America – film and fiction alike are replete with such narratives. Lot inquires instead of those who would wish for such catstrophes, and of what might become of them should they get precisely what they asked for.
In the end, in keeping with the Biblical allusion of the title, Jimmon reaps what he has sown. He sits with his son (grandson?) in his deteriorating shelter, now empty save for the two of them, having abandoned the people he had grown to despise and been abandoned by them in kind.
Print copies of Lot and Lot’s Daughter can be a bit tricky to pin down. The stories were last published together in a handsome edition of 400 (300 soft-cover and 100 leather-bound, the latter signed by author Michael Swanwick, who provides the introduction to the edition) from Tachyon Press in 1996, but copies can be quite expensive to obtain (I found instances of the desirable 72-page tome selling for anywhere from $98 to $1500). It’s much easier to procure each separately. Lot is regularly reprinted, and most recently appeared in A Science Fiction Omnibus (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007). Lot’s Daughter is less often revisited, but was collected as part of A Decade of Science Fiction (Doubleday, 1960). That collection saw numerous reprints through the middle-1960s, and used copies of it are both readily available and quite affordable.
1 Panic in Year Zero! is so similar in its events that it points to a second, and obvious, uncredited source in addition to Moore’s set of stories – John Christopher’s The Death of Grass, which had been released to significant commercial success in 1956. That novel remains strangely out-of-print in the USA, and the Penguin Modern Classics reprint from 2009 offers one of the few reasonable options for reading it here.