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franziska Barczyk/The Globe and Mail

Filmmaker Smriti Keshari has a question she likes to ask people, which seems easy but is actually quite confounding: How many nuclear weapons exist in the world? She gets a lot of baffled responses: Um, four? 14? 222?

In fact, there are about 15,000 weapons in the possession of the world’s nine nuclear-armed states, the vast majority in the possession of Russia and the United States. Nearly 2,000 of those are ready to be launched in an instant, at the sole discretion of two men (the presidents of Russia and the United States). When Ms. Keshari tells people the answer, their response changes from confusion to shock.

A class of weapons has the potential to end life on earth as we know it and yet exists in a void of knowledge, which is why Ms. Keshari and her co-creator, Eric Schlosser, decided to make a film about them called, simply, The Bomb. The hour-long documentary is a narrator-less flow of archival imagery, from the absurdity of old duck-and-cover educational films to the stark horror of footage from Nagasaki and Hiroshima. It’s just one recent exploration of nuclear peril; after 30 years of popular culture largely ignoring this existential threat, the shadow of the bomb once again looms over novels, television and movies.

“For most people, nuclear weapons are completely out of sight and completely out of consciousness,” Ms. Keshari says. “It’s so hard to have an emotional connection to something that’s so abstract.” When audiences first saw The Bomb at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2016, on a huge 360-degree screen with the band The Acid playing their electronic score live, “their minds were blown,” said Mr. Schlosser, who is also the author of Command and Control, an important study of U.S. nuclear weapons policy (and mishaps.)

The Bomb, which is also available on Netflix, ends with the words, “silence is form of consent.” This is the crux of the dilemma about nuclear weapons. Until the public is interested in discussing them, there can be little movement towards eliminating them. Yet how to imagine a weapon so vast, so catastrophic, that the first bomb test led its co-creator, Robert Oppenheimer, to quote the words of Lord Vishnu: “I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”

For a few decades during the Cold War, the prospect of nuclear war provided the backdrop for novels such as On the Beach and A Canticle for Leibowitz, and in films such as Dr Strangelove and The Day After. After a while, that threat was replaced by fresher calamities: super-viruses. Environmental degradation. The zombie apocalypse. Now, however, the nuclear threat is back on the front pages, in the form of choleric men with their fingers on the buttons, in trashed arms treaties, in the terrifying prospect of smaller, “useable” weapons.

The benefit of nuclear war over other existential threats – if one may describe it that way – is in its dramatic potential. Most people have seen a picture of a mushroom cloud, or heard about the effects of radioactive fallout or nuclear winter. "My greatest anxiety isn’t actually nuclear war, it’s climate change,” said novelist Hanna Jameson, author of the new novel The Last, in a phone interview from her home in London. “The reason I chose a nuclear-war framing is because it’s just much more immediate. And I was shocked by everyone talking about it again, in such a blasé fashion. In kind of a ‘Ha ha, we’re all going to die,’ kind of way.”

In The Last, which is released in April, a good portion of the world does die in a global nuclear conflagration. A small group of survivors hunkers down at a remote Swiss hotel where they fight, agonize over the lost world and wonder whether they could have done more to prevent the outbreak of war. The protagonist of the novel, a historian, realizes that even as global tensions were ratcheting up, the actual use of weapons had seemed inconceivable: “I had never believed it would come to something like this.”

Interestingly, in Jameson’s novel, the reasons for the war are never revealed, and the country that struck first never identified. There’s a similar ambiguity in another new novel with a nuclear-war backdrop, K Chess’s Famous Men Who Never Lived, in which survivors of a holocaust on a parallel Earth try to start new lives on this one. In both novels, it’s less important why the war broke out than how the survivors are going to rebuild.

“I’m very interested in the idea of disaster not just because it’s a catalyst for regression and chaos, but also in its potential for liberation and renewal,” Jameson said. “It strips back the structures we think of as permanent, and reveals them as impermanent.”

Fiction is a way to imagine the unimaginable. For Jeffrey Lewis, an American arms-control scholar who spends his days constrained by real-world data, writing a novel about nuclear war between the United States and North Korea allowed him to inhabit the minds of Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un, and to picture a series of missteps that would set their countries on a fatal trajectory.

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A scene from the 1983 TV movie, The Day After, which is the frightening story of the weeks leading up to and following a nuclear strike on the United States.ABC

“Nuclear weapons are terrible, and yet we have made a decision to base our security on nuclear weapons, which has some short-term benefit,” Dr. Lewis told me in an interview last summer for the release of his novel, The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States. “They do provide deterrent. But we are planning to do this forever, and eventually our luck will run out.”

The question is how to overcome basic human psychology, which urges us to look, ostrich-like, for the nearest patch of sand. Dr. Lewis suggested that fiction is a useful way to open our eyes, and possibly even act: “Anxiety can make you feel like there’s nothing you can do,” he said. “The goal of the book is to channel that anxiety into a productive place.”

Of course, sheer terror has a lot going for it, drama-wise. As Elizabeth McCord, the fictional Secretary of State in the hit CBS drama Madam Secretary, said at the end of season four, “Let’s scare the crap out of America.” McCord, played by actress Téa Leoni, had just witnessed her country narrowly avert a nuclear war with Russia (the near-calamity was based on a misunderstanding, which sounds like a screenwriter’s fever dream but has actually happened several times in the nuclear age). Over the protests of her colleagues, the Secretary of State demanded the details of the near-miss be released to the American public, in order to scare the crap out of them – and perhaps shake them out of their complacency.

Night Watch, the season-four finale episode of Madam Secretary, is an interesting example of what happens when disarmament advocates think of creative ways to grab the public spotlight. Members of arms-control groups such as Project Ploughshares and the Nuclear Threat Initiative acted as technical advisers to the show’s writers, and gave public talks alongside them about the nuclear threat. The co-chair of the NTI and former U.S. secretary of energy, Ernest Moniz, even took part in a reddit Ask Me Anything (“How realistic was the show last night?" asked one redditor. "It terrified me!” Dr. Moniz responded that, regrettably, the episode was pretty bang-on.)

You’d have to cast your eye back more than three decades to find a moment when a fictional apocalypse had such real-world consequences. The geopolitical backdrop in 1983 was much different than it is now: The Soviet Union was teetering but intact, and huge anti-nuclear demonstrations in America and Europe put pressure on both superpowers to reduce their arsenals. The ABC film The Day After, set in the American Midwest during a nuclear war, detonated against this backdrop and changed the politics of the world.

Nearly 100 million Americans watched the TV movie, including one very important person. “It is powerfully done—all $7 mil. worth. It’s very effective & left me greatly depressed,” U.S. president Ronald Reagan wrote in his diary after screening an advance copy of The Day After. Four years later, when he signed the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr. Reagan sent a telegram to the film’s director, Nicholas Meyer: “Don’t think your movie didn’t have any part in this, because it did.”

Today, the INF treaty hangs in shreds; both the United States and Russia withdrew from it in February. There are no new arms talks planned, the promise of a treaty between North Korea and the United States has vanished, and tensions have resumed between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan. The news is grim all around, except for this one bright ray: At least people are talking about bombs again.

At this point, after decades of near-silence, that feels like a victory. As The Bomb’s co-creator Eric Schlosser noted, there are people who have never seen Dr. Strangelove, or The Day After, and they might be the same people who think there are 14 nuclear weapons in the world. “The most concerning thing to me has been the absence of debate. People in good faith can disagree about the best steps to reduce the danger, but we really need to be having this discussion.”

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