Plot Summary/Details

This one was set in contemporary (for when the story was written) times. The Soviets and the U.S. have finally had a nuclear war, and both sides have suffered enormously. Part of the sci-fi aspect is found in the nature of the weapons used.

The U.S. had improved upon the so-called "neutron bomb", which was designed to kill people with hard radiation, but leave structures mostly intact. The new bomb design basically caused no conventional damage, but eradicated organic life with terrible efficiency.

The Soviets, in response, developed a bomb that did the opposite. That is, their new nuclear weapon destroyed non-living matter at the subatomic level, but was harmless to human/animal life. The author wrote about the Soviets claiming their weapon was so much more humane than the people-destroying weapons of the West.

The result of the nuclear war, given the weapons, was unique. Every last Soviet had been wiped out, but all of their cities and infrastructure stood as before. No Americans had been killed by the Soviet bombs, but every structure, machine, and so on had been vaporized. Even the clothes they'd been wearing that day. So, America now consisted of 200+ million naked people with no cities, cars, roads, and so on.

The story continues with this implausible premise with most of the rest of the world shunning the U.S. after the war, leaving all the survivors to fend for themselves. The solution to their problems is that, as they need a new home, and there aren't any more people in the USSR, they'll make the long, bitter trek to the Bering Straits and beyond.

As expected, most don't make it. The survivors who do, though, begin to exhibit strange behavior. They increasingly adapt to their new home by adopting the customs of the former occupants. The suggestion is that the U.S. survivors are being "transformed" into Russians by the environs around them. Not sure if that was meant to be a supernatural influence, or just a practical one. The story took a lot of leaps with both science and plausibility.

Publication Date/Timeframe

It came out in the late 70s or very early 80s, IIRC. That would be very much in keeping with the Cold War/nuclear armageddon theme. I am almost certain I read it the old sci-fi magazine Omni.

  • 1
    Sorry you deleted your question about fan at convention. The purpose of my comment was not about whether it's on-topic, just that knowing the presence or absence of stfnal or fantastic content in the story might be helpful in searching for it. Voted to undelete. Literature.SE does allow story-ID questions, but I doubt that it's a better place than scifi.SE for your question.
    – user14111
    Commented Feb 10, 2017 at 5:18

1 Answer 1


You have described Ian Watson's short story "Returning Home", which was first published in Omni, December 1982 and is available at www.williamflew.com. The opening paragraphs:

Thank God, the runway was clear. An Aeroflot crew had apparently touched down just moments before a radiation bomb went off overhead. But the pilot's nervous system lasted long enough for him to steer his plane off the concrete onto grass—unless he had merely swerved.

Anyway, our landing was a pushover As well it needed to be, with upwards of thirty million displaced Americans pushing behind us. There were two hundred of us packed into our plane—with a second Ilyushin to follow some hours later.

Most wonderful of all, there was no reception committee of Chinese waiting for us. So those Canadian bastards hadn't been lying after all. The Chinese hadn't flooded over the frontier to fill up this spur of the Soviet Union. And yet somehow we hadn't believed that the Chinese would. It was as if the spirit that impelled us toward the East had promised us this land and had preserved it for us.

Leaving Group Red at the airport, the rest of us rounded up some brand-new buses, got them going, and drove in convoy into downtown Khabarovsk—ending up outside the Far East Hotel or Karl Marx Street, which seemed as good a place as any other to billet ourselves for the time being.

There weren't too many shriveled mummies in the streets. The streets themselves were reasonably clean and neat. The human animal seemed to prefer to die in its burrow if it could get there in time.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.