Future Media Short Story Review: Walter F. Moudy’s “The Survivor” (1965)

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).

Up Next: Theodore Sturgeon’s “And Now the News…” in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Anthony Boucher (December 1956). You can read it online here.

3.5/5 (Good)

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 [1]. 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 [2].

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 [3]. 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 [4]. 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 [4]. 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 [5]. 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.

The Arena

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.


[1] 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.

[2] DSM-2 (1968) removed the condition from the manual. The formal diagnosis of PTSD would appear in DSM-3 (1980).

[3] As I try to make my sources easily accessible to readers, I used the Wikipedia article for the general Vietnam War information.

[4] See the “Transportation and Communications” section of the Wikipedia article on the 1964 Olympics.

[5] See this list of the eleven earliest reality TV shows.

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44 thoughts on “Future Media Short Story Review: Walter F. Moudy’s “The Survivor” (1965)

    • Thank you. One of those authors whom, if they wrote more, would have improved their craft. I was bothered by the end. You’ll know what I mean if you give it a read.

      But the shifts between the lived experience on the ground and the Olympic announcers is an effective jurisdiction.

  1. The set up for the Moudy story sounds a lot like Mack Reynolds’ ‘Mercenary’ (1962), the first of the Joe Mauser stories. I can’t remember if Reynolds deal with war stress—I doubt it. Except for some very interesting stuff on the nature of Cold War geopolitics and capitalist social organisation, Reynolds’ story is fairly straightforward sfnal adventure.

    I’m looking forward to reading what you have to say on Kuttner’s ‘Year Day’. I read it last week and loved it.

    • Yeah, “Year Day” is great. Very similar territory to the Griffith story I reviewed but better written (Griffith only wrote two stories vs. the massive quantity that Kuttner wrote so that’s to be expected).

      Does the Reynolds story cover any element of media? I could include it in this series.

      • In ‘Mercenary’ the “wars” are strictly delimited affairs, staged by corporations and states in order to settle disputes and avoid larger, more destructive conflicts. Additionally, they served the purpose of distraction for the denizens of full luxury unemployment in future welfare state capitalist societies Reynolds’ extrapolates from his own time. I recall discussion of camera drones and TV coverage. But it’s been a few years since I read it. Reynolds turned it into a novel a few years later: ‘Mercenary from Tomorrow’ (1968). I’ve only read the original 1962 novella. Definitely worth a read, if only for Reynolds interesting take on the “affluent society” of the 1960s.

          • I read all of the Joe Mauser stories from online pdfs of their original publication. “Mercenary”, the first one, is by far the best.

            Apropos your media landscape theme, you and the rest of your readers could do worse than watch this short, thirty-ish minutes TV short from 1968, and patently influenced by J. G. Ballard, called “The News-Benders”:


            • Count me intrigued!

              Speaking of Ballard, I still haven’t reviewed “The Greatest Television Show on Earth” (1972) for this series. However, after I read D. Harlan Wilson’s monograph on Ballard I now feel like I have to engage with scholarship in a more comprehensive way… and thus I’ve erected a roadblock in wanting to write about him. hah.

  2. I liked “The Survivor” a lot as well; and I agree, the ending was a miss. But it’s still a strong story. And it hasn’t been ignored — Merril chose it for her Best of the Year, and it’s been anthologized several times sinces, as recently as 2013.

    And — I’m doing a little project. I’m going to review the complete works of Walter F. Moudy (that I can find.) I’ve already read his other two stories for Cele Lalli (both are competent but minor); and I have his other story, a novella in the obscure but important 1975 anthology IN THE WAKE OF MAN. I also have a copy of the novel, NO MAN ON EARTH, on the way — AND, I found another novel by him, THE NINTH COMMANDMENT, which looks like a sleaze paperback (the 9th Commandment is Thou Shalt Not Covet They Neighbor’s Wife.)

    • Rich, I wasn’t bothered by Moudy’s ending.

      Wow, you found a copy of THE NINTH COMMANDMENT? Where? I’d like to get a copy too. I’ve now read everything of Moudy’s in ISFDB.

      It’s a shame Moudy didn’t pursue his writing career, he showed great promise. I’m quite impressed with “The Search for Man.”

      • Is it a coincidence that BOTH you and Rich are reading all of Moudy’s fiction?

        But yes, I agree that he showed great promise and it’s a shame that he didn’t write more.

        As I told James, I’ve had In the Wake of Man on my wish-list for years waiting for the price to drop — without success. At least it’s available on Internet Archive if you have an account.

        • The coincidence, I suppose, was that we are in a group reading “great SF short fiction”, and “The Survivor” came up. That said, my real interest in Moudy dates more to my habit (shared with John Boston) of reading as many of Cele Goldsmith Lalli’s issues of Amazing/Fantastic that I can — and that’s where I really found the story.

          IN THE WAKE OF MAN was a natural outgrowth, but I was also interested because it seems like a case where Roger Elwood was responsible for a truly significant — if little known — anthology. And because “Tracking Song” is one of only, oh, maybe a dozen utterly incredible novellas by Gene Wolfe.

        • Well, I got onto Moudy from an interview with Geraldine Brooks in the New York Times from a little over a week ago. She was asked: What’s your favorite book that no one else knows about? She said NO MAN ON EARTH.

      • I just put Moudy’s name into Abebooks search engine. Both books were expensive — IN THE WAKE OF MAN was $40 (including shipping), but at least that was cheaper than $75 — and it has one of Gene Wolfe’s most remarkable stories. (Plus my copy, even though it’s ex-lib, is in GREAT condition. Obviously never borrowed!) THE NINTH COMMANDMENT was $20, which is more than I’d normally pay for such a book! After I’ve read it, I can send it to you if you want.

        My order of NO MAN ON EARTH was canceled (No Longer Available) — so I’ll have to keep looking for that.

  3. Do you have Charles V. de Vet’s “Special Feature” in the queue for the media landscape series? Crude but effective, sort of “The Prize of Peril” with alien. ASTOUNDING, May 1958, and Seven Come Infinity, ed. Groff Conklin, Fawcett Gold Medal 1966.

      • I reviewed it for GALACTIC JOURNEY in my capacity as resident masochist reporting on AMAZING STORIES of 55 years ago. Review is below. For lagniappe it cites another future media story by John Jakes, which appeared in the April 1965 AMAZING.

        Walter F. Moudy, who has published a novel but whose first magazine story appeared only last month, contributes the novelet The Survivor, another in the growing genre of future violence-as-entertainment. That roster includes last month’s lampoon by John Jakes, There’s No Vinism Like Chau-Vinism, a couple of Robert Sheckley stories, Charles V. De Vet’s energetic Special Feature from Astounding in 1958, and no doubt others. In the future, Moudy proposes, the US and Russia are still antagonists, but now they channel their rivalry into the Olympic War Games: each side puts 100 armed soldiers into an arena 3000 meters long and 1000 meters wide, and they fight it out until one side is eliminated, and the viewers out in TV-land see every drop of blood.

        The author alternates between a fairly naturalistic account of the thoughts and experiences of the clueless Private Richard Starbuck as he fights, wonders why he is doing it, is grievously wounded, and nearly dies, and the performances of the commentators and their special guests, which treat the event just like the sporting matches we are all familiar with. This is 99% of a pretty good story, with the TV commentary close to pitch-perfect, and the effects on the protagonist of immersion in pointless and terrifying violence are well rendered.

        Unfortunately Moudy trips over his feet in the last paragraph with a gross departure from Show Don’t Tell, beating the reader over the head with his message rather than letting events speak (or scream) for themselves. This is the sort of rookie mistake that editors are there to save writers from, and they didn’t. This provides at least a scintilla of support for the charge by Science Fiction Times that the editors seemed to have lost interest. Three stars, unfortunately; it was on its way to four.

        • Ah, I read your review back when it was posted on the Galactic Journey site. I wish I had started my media list a few years ago with your chronological postings — I would have a much longer one!

    • John, I ordered that copy of IN THE WAKE OF MAN you found for me. But a few days later they canceled the order. I wondered if they realized everyone else is selling it for $75 and more.

    • John:

      Looking through the de Vet story now…. the art on pg 80 and 81 of the issue illustrating the tale! It’s so great!

      And encapsulates my obsession with this topic (especially the explosion of TV in the 50s). In the two-page spread, Wallman, the artist, takes his own image from the first page of the story and inserts it into a TV screen. It’s wonderful.

      For the curious, scroll to page 80:

  4. I need to reread “The Survivor” already since I didn’t pick up on the theme of PTSD when I read it.

    “The Survivor” came out the year after DR. STRANGELOVE and FAILSAFE, in 1965, when we were preoccupied with total annihilation. The idea of substituting the Olympic War Games for actual war was an appealing idea. And I remember watching the 1964 Olympics on TV and thought Moudy did an excellent job of capturing the feel of the TV media in his short story. He also anticipates the kind of media coverage we can do today with drones and hidden cameras.

    I didn’t think of Moudy’s Olympic War Games as a TV reality show, but it is. That’s a good call.

    I’m surprised you didn’t rate the story higher since your review showed more enthusiasm for the story than 3.5.

    I’m working on a review of Moudy’s last story, “The Search for Man.” I feel his stories are in response to his reading of science fiction. “The Survivor” feels a bit like it was inspired by “Arena” by Fredric Brown and THE OUTER LIMITS episode “Fun and Games” which was a rip-off of “Arena.” In 1967, STAR TREK would do its own version of “Arena.” I felt “The Search for Man” was inspired by A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ and CITY.

    • Thanks again for your Moudy reviews and ruminations. I don’t think I would have come across him any other way.

      I’m glad my enthusiasm came through. I think a lot of my enthusiasm is more for the ideas and historical context surrounding the story vs. its delivery (which some of the time). As for the ending, I think it only makes sense if the story is about PTSD and how a troubled man was further harmed by combat and unable to return to civilian life.

      And Moudy’s re-working of the classic arena story into a Cold War framework as a commentary about returning soldiers really really works (and, like you, Moudy’s fascinating with the technical aspects of the 1964 Olympics 100% are on show).

      I don’t know how much you know about the video game streaming platform Twitch — but I couldn’t stop thinking about it when reading the story. Twitch enables programs to mesh with the video — for example, you can shift between different “squad views” or looks up the specific cards in someone’s hand or participate in built-in polls via a click of the button. Obviously that’s more viewer-driven interaction then Moudy’s story… and thus I didn’t bring it up.

      The only thing missing from the data-driven coverage were the tear-jerking backstories about each athlete that Olympic coverage obsesses over!

  5. Just reading all this reminds me of The Year of the Sex Olympics, a play for TV by Nigel Kneale who was best known for the Quatermass series. The play was originally aired in 1968. I guess it was broadcast after the so called watershed of 9.00pm, when the tv companies were allowed to air programmes which had more adult content. I was eleven at the time and did not see it so only know it from reputation. Basically, it predicated a world where TV is saturated with pornography, programmes about food and gadgets in an attempt to slake people’s thirst for sex, gluttony and gizmos which are seen as the main reasons for overpopulation. Into this voyeuristic frenzy, a new programme is launched which shows a woman and her daughter trying to survive on a remote Scottish island. There is a better summary/review here: https://www.bfi.org.uk/features/5-ways-year-sex-olympics-predicted-way-we-live-now and the film is available on YouTube. Be warned, this is low tech BBC black and white.

    • I agree on their similarities — to a point. The world outside of the games are not depicted as gluttonous or saturated with pornography within this particular story (unlike the Walter Tevis novel Mockingbird I just reviewed). I legitimately think Moudy was fascinated by the technological production of the 1964 Olympics and bombarded with contemporary Cold War terror. Those two avenues provide the bulk of the commentary.

      But yes, while I have read extensively about The Year of the Sex Olympics there’s no way I can will myself to watch it. Give me scholarship and articles! I cannot stomach sooo much older SF shows/movies/plays… alas. I don’t know why. I read mediocre SF texts all the time. I couldn’t get more than 25 minutes into Max Headroom (TV 1985) a few days ago.

  6. I read this story for the first time in eleventh grade English class, and it stayed with me, the whole way to today. I think about it often because I’ve seen elements of it mirrored in the American fascination with death often found in cinema, TV, and now more so in video games. Unfiltered News violence gets endless views online. Many people thrive online being voyeurs to suffering and I’d wager no one feels shame about it because it’s that normalized, or we’re finally fully desensitized to it.

    Americans love having a shared violent experience and this story shows that very well. Think about it, no one sends their kids to their room when the shooting starts in a movie. That only happens when the kissing starts.

    • I’m pretty sure it would have stayed with me as well. I looked for information on the story only and a handful of school questions and lessons related to the story came up! You were not alone in learning about it in school apparently. These “we need an outlet for our violent tendencies” in a world that is mostly peaceful stories are common. I think Moudy does an effective job with the premise.

  7. Pingback: Science Fiction Writers in Conversation with Each Other – Classics of Science Fiction

  8. Thanks for the link on PTSD in Korean War veterans. I have a relative who is one. According to his family, he seemed to suffer from it in his earlier years.

    The story sounds interesting. I’m surprised Joe Haldeman didn’t include it in his Study War No More anthology which does have Reynolds’ “Mercenary” in it.

    • No problem. Like Vietnam (and unlike WWII), the soldiers experienced a very unsettled homecoming and I suspect that impacted how their struggles were viewer and how they viewed their own roles in the conflict. ‘It would have fit nicely in the Study War No More anthology. It did appear in Asimov’s The Science Fictional Olympics (1984) and various political science through SF story anthologies as well. Moudy’s best known piece for sure!

      • Unsettled homecoming might be part of it. But I’d recommend an interesting series of books on this subject for another take, that is, the way of training changed so drastically from WW2 to Nam that men who weren’t ready to be killers, were nonetheless conditioned to become killers. And that ruined them. SLA Marshall did “Men Against Fire” in part about WW2 non-firing soldiers, which later inspired Lt. Col Grossman to write “On Killing” which takes a good look at Marshall’s data and updates it accordingly. And finally, “Achilles in Viet Nam” by Jonathan Shay, looks at how all that killing and the homefront, broke those men via comparison to the rage of Achilles and why.

        • They sound interesting.

          I want to emphasize that I am not an expert and was basing what I said on the claims re-the Korean war in the 2019 article I linked in Note 1:

          “[1] 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.”


          I suspect that article updates and engages with the general claims made in the scholarship you reference (the Korea stuff obviously, not Vietnam). Although they are not cited…

  9. I enjoyed this story, and your review. But can someone please explain the end, specifically the last sentence? What happened in the daughter’s room? A kiss, or something worse?

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