Today I’ve reviewed the fourteenth story in my series on the science fictional media landscape of the future. Walter F. Moudy relays the coverage of the 2050 Olympic War Games between the United States and Russia with harrowing effect.
Previously: Barry N. Malzberg’s “The Idea” in In the Pocket and Other S-F Stories (1971) (as K. M. O’Donnell).
Walter F. Moudy’s “The Survivor” first appeared in the May 1965 issue of Amazing Stories, ed. Cele Lalli (Goldsmith). You can read it online here.
Recently James Harris highlighted the truncated writing career of Walter F. Moudy (1929-1973) with a focus on No Man on Earth (1964), his only science fiction novel. Inspired by his comments on “The Survivor” (1965) and relentlessly intrigued by authors who have fallen from contemporary memory, I placed the slick future televised Cold War conflict tale at the top of my media landscapes of the future review list. For those expecting a masterful Henry Kuttner tale, stay tuned! In the meantime, let’s plunge into Moudy’s coverage of the 2050 Olympic War Games between the US and Russia.
“The Survivor” tackles head-on issues of PTSD and the paradoxical nature of media’s treatment of conflict as simultaneously entertainment and an arena of real human suffering. A modern parallel might be the minute-by-minute reporting and social media coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine in which data and images of every horrifying missile strike, massacre, destroyed village, and captured vehicle is documented. To best understand the story, it is worth establishing the main points of historical context–contemporary views of PTSD, the escalating Vietnam War, the technological advances in the 1964 Olympics, and reality television.
The Historical Framework
When “The Survivor” was written, there was not a modern diagnosis for PTSD despite growing knowledge of the traumatic impact of conflict. While America was bogged down in the Korean War (1950-1953), the 1st edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual: Mental Disorders (DSM-1) (1952) developed a diagnosis called “gross stress reaction” for the trauma experienced in combat or civilian catastrophes such as earthquakes . The explanation describes a “transient” condition created “under conditions of great or unusual stress” that “might clear rapidly” with effective treatment (DSM-1). For a brief history of the concept of PTSD and its evolving diagnosis between the Civil War to DSM-5 (2013), check out this article .
I would argue that the 1965 publication date of “The Survivor” prevents it from being a response to the experiences of soldiers returning from The Vietnam War. Before the Gulf of Tonkin incident in August 1964, the United States had only recently ramped up its military presence from under a thousand military advisors in 1959 to 23k in 1964. President Lyndon B. Johnson increased deployment to 184k after the Gulf of Tonkin resolution . Instead, “The Survivor” most likely responds to the experiences of veterans returning from WWII and Korea. I’ve been unable to figure out if Moudy served in Korea or not (he would have been 21 in 1950).
Moudy’s tale extrapolates from the substantial technological advancements in media showcased by the 1964 Summer Olympic games in Japan as well as precursors to reality TV in the United States. The 1964 Olympic Games were the first to be telecast internationally . NBC was pressured to transmit at least some portions of the games live (to parts of the US) via Syncom 3, the first geostationary communication satellite . While reading “The Survivor” it’s easy to forget that An American Family, the show credited with “birthing the reality TV genre,” wouldn’t be aired until 1973 . Only two shows that can be loosely classified as “reality TV” appeared before “The Survivor” was published in April 1965. Candid Camera, first a radio program that premiered in 1947, hit American TVs in 1948. Appearing in late January 1965, The American Sportsman followed celebrity guests on hunting and fishing adventures. All of this is to say that Moudy’s take on brutal survival-style reality TV, just as Robert Sheckley’s “The Prize of Peril” (1958), did not have clear predecessors.
Private Richard Starbuck has every detail of the vast arena, in which the 2050 Olympic War games will be waged with real weapons, memorized. The landscape is as much an extension of his body as his rifle. Every element of the conflict will be recorded, commented on, and dissected. NSB (a riff on NBC) installed “one-hundred specially designed zoom cameras” and “sonic equipment–so sensitive that it can detect the sound” of a heart beating (82). 24/7 coverage over multiple days includes a rotating cast of announcers, experts both American and Russian, live victory odds provided by a computer, highlights of the previous day’s action, and slow-motion recaps of every death. Like a wargame, the commenters discuss tactics and revel over the perfectly placed bullet. The battle will be to the death. Survivors will be national heroes with unlimited credits. The families of the dead will be financially set for life. The losing nation will pay massive reparations to the victor.
The Human Impact
“The Survivor” overtly satirizes the media’s tendency to gloss over the human impact of war. The death of the men fighting in the ultimate spectacle is justified as a way to prevent cataclysmic all-out conflict between the Cold War powers. For example, sociology experts, before the violence unfolds, reassure the audience that TV coverage “allowed the people to satisfy the innate blood lust vicariously” and “encouraged youngsters to watch” (85). The cameras observe a direct hit and announcers proclaim “you can actually see the bullet strike him through” and “die in front of your eyes” (93). Even if your child dies in combat, NSB will give each parent “a special tape recording the action” and a “brand new uniflex projector” (97). But the cameras will not follow Private Richard Starbuck when he returns home.
Moudy also implies that the military preys on a particular type of aimless individual with promises of heroic service. Starbuck’s recollections reveal snippets of a troubled childhood with absentee parents who cared little for his struggles. Instead he lived with a kind family down the street who “half adopted him” (84). War compounds existing trauma with devastating results. In addition, military training and its “mental and physical” conditioning might create effective war machines but in turn creates distrust and suspicion of everything else (87).
“The Survivor” is an effective (and shocking) analysis of the interactions of media and warfare and the human lives it impacts. I wish Walter F. Moudy wrote more SF. I can only imagine that he would have refined his voice and polish.
 For the prevalence of PTSD amongst the survivors of the Korean War, check out this fantastic 2019 article “Aging and Trauma: Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Among Korean War Veterans.” The article also explains the unique challenges facing the soldiers of America’s “Forgotten War” including low public support (in contrast to WWII), high casualties, extreme climate, and a lack of adequate combat training.
 DSM-2 (1968) removed the condition from the manual. The formal diagnosis of PTSD would appear in DSM-3 (1980).
 As I try to make my sources easily accessible to readers, I used the Wikipedia article for the general Vietnam War information.
 See the “Transportation and Communications” section of the Wikipedia article on the 1964 Olympics.
 See this list of the eleven earliest reality TV shows.
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