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The setting is southern California, post-nuclear war. Our protagonist (a man), a government official from the Republic of Santa Barbara is going to meet with a diplomatic envoy from the Empire of Los Angeles (a woman). They end up making love.

The last para or two really sell the story -- the LA diplomat cries in our man's arms, and he looks out of his apartment window at what was once a great view of bright city lights across the bay but is now entirely dark.

The idea is that while these people are working to continue civilization, to run governments, to have foreign relations, in reality they know they are just fooling themselves, that they are just pitiful survivors of a great tragedy with an almost overwhelming sense of loss, and that they will never be able to restore what was lost.

I am pretty sure it was published in the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between 1975 and 1983. Has a very 1970s feel to it. I searched for "post-nuclear," "post-apocalyptic," "nuclear war," and "California."

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    This trope might have some suggestions tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DividedStatesOfAmerica
    – Andrew
    Oct 29, 2023 at 15:58
  • Not quite sure how one would see LA from Santa Barbara (or anywhere nearby) without being very, very, very high above sea level (both because of terrain and just the curvature of the Earth). Are you sure of the locations?
    – jcaron
    Oct 30, 2023 at 11:49
  • I didn't say he saw LA from Santa Barbara. I said he saw what once were city lights. I was thinking he was looking at what once had been Cupertino or something. However, we now know the story was set in the SF Bay Area, like so many Silverberg stories. As an LA native, I guess I remembered it differently.
    – K-man
    Oct 30, 2023 at 21:27

1 Answer 1

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"The Palace at Midnight," by Robert Silverberg. First published in Omni, July 1981 issue. I first encountered it in a paperback science fiction anthology: After Armageddon. According to the ISFDB link, the story has been reprinted several times.

Your memory of the place names is off. The main viewpoint character is Tom Christensen, the foreign minister of the Empire of San Francisco. As the story begins, he is awakened by the telephone. He is sleeping off a hangover from an all-night party he attended. He learns that an ambassador from the Republic of Monterey wishes to speak with him today on something urgent. The ambassador, Ms. Elaine Sawyer, is someone he has never heard of before. I gather that "Ambassador" is a very temporary title, as she has just arrived on a special diplomatic mission, instead of being the permanent head of an embassy located in San Francisco. (I don't think any such permanent embassy is even mentioned as existing.)

We soon learn that Ambassador Sawyer is also a member of the Senate of Monterey, and that Monterey is getting nervous about the territorial ambitions of San Jose. But she's here to mention a serious problem that the Empire might like to nip in the bud after she's warned them about it. Which might result in a public display of solidarity between the Empire and the Republic, which, in turn, might discourage San Jose from trying to invade the Republic if its northern neighbor, the Empire, is likely to take offense.

Near as I can tell, the "Empire" is not nearly as large as you might think from the name; it controls some of what we call the San Francisco Bay Area, including Oakland and Berkeley, but I'm not sure if it extends much further than that. San Jose, a seaport located at the south end of the Bay, has become a separate nation in this post-apocalyptic world. In the real world, the city of Monterey is about 51 miles south of San Jose (on the map), or about 72 miles south (if you go from one to the other by car). I've never set foot in California in my life, so I had to check these things.

Here's the final paragraph of the story.

He looked toward the East. In a few hours the sun would be coming up over that hill, out of the place that used to be the United States of America and now was a thousand thousand crazy fractured entities. Christensen shook his head. The Grand Duchy of Chicago, he thought. The Holy Carolina Confederation. The Three Kingdoms of New York. The Empire of San Francisco. No use getting upset -- much too late for getting upset. You played the hand that was dealt you and you carved little islands of safety out of the night. Turning to her he said, "I'm glad you came home with me tonight." He brushed his lips lightly against hers. "Come. Let's go inside."

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    If California is largely depopulated, why would "territorial ambitions" arise? Is it that most land is unsafe due to radiation?
    – releseabe
    Oct 30, 2023 at 1:15
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    @releseabe it isn't spelled out in the story why would any of these microstates want to expand, but theoretically speaking - in a depopulated world, it might be their main aim is not for the land itself, but for the people living on it. Note that despite the post-apoc setting, the world seems still at least in the industrial age - car transportation is not seen as something out of the ordinary; so a state with ambitions of reuniting, say, California would need a lot of workers - both for the military factories and the farms that would feed the factory workers and the army. Oct 30, 2023 at 5:34
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    @DanilaSmirnov thanks. i think none of us really know what life wd be like when a society w/centralized services breaks down -- i think in case of buke war i'd rather be a Bedouin or an african hunter gatherer wondering why no one from the west is poking around anymore. i sure hope to go with the first blast -- i am too old to play mad max or something.
    – releseabe
    Oct 30, 2023 at 6:25
  • @Lorendiac Thank you for taking the time to write that very helpful reply. Now I can go find the story. Robert Silverberg wrote a lot about San Francisco, and I guess the longtime Angeleno in me just did a little mental editing over the past 40 years -- right down to giving the the protagonist a southern California ocean view instead of a northern California hillside view. How I turned Omni into F&SF, I can't explain. Interestingly, those last paragraphs strike me as a little more positive and less despairing than I remember them being. Thanks to everyone for contributing.
    – K-man
    Oct 30, 2023 at 21:47

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