I was making a post on the TV Tropes site, trying to figure out if there was a trope for a fake Polluted Wasteland, where society believes that the outside world is uninhabitable, but that turns out to be a lie, whether it's to keep the population in a controllable area, to reserve the lush outside world for the wealthy privileged, or because they don't want people to mess it up again (whether because they just believe human nature will destroy it all again or because it's only recently recovered and is in a fragile state).

In the course of it, I started recounting a short story I remembered (which actually didn't fit the trope once I thought about it) following a military unit on a planet (maybe Earth) where two countries are in a perpetual war, largely waged through robots and computer-guided missile strikes with humanity underground. The unit winds up on the surface (I don't recall if it was intentional or not) only to find that there's no war anymore, with the computers/robots fighting the war realizing that the best way to keep their respective countries safe was to fake a war with occasional simulated bombing and frequent reports of "actions" taken.

I don't recall if the ending had the robots keeping the soldiers prisoner to prevent them from revealing the truth, turning back to waging war now that the truth was out, or something else. In my brain, it was "classic" science fiction, but I think I read it somewhere in the mid 1980s to the late 1990s, so it could have been more contemporary. I'm pretty sure I read it in a science fiction collection or anthology. It feels like a Harry Harrison story, maybe from War With the Robots, but I don't have a copy of that book onhand.

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    That's PKD's "The Defenders." I'm sure there are duplicates around here.
    – DavidW
    Jan 24 at 17:35
  • ETA: I knew there was at least one duplicate around, because I wrote it. But I can't find any others, so here's an actual answer.
    – DavidW
    Jan 24 at 17:48
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    OMG - we're always warned on this stack before clicking links to TV Tropes because it is so addictive and now I learn that you're an enabler!
    – davidbak
    Jan 24 at 19:00
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    THX1138, Logan's Run, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, 10 Cloverfield Lane, yeah… that's worthy of a TV Tropes entry.
    – Lexible
    Jan 24 at 19:08
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    What does Close Encounters have to do with a Polluted Wasteland, fake or otherwise? If we're listing examples of 'fake polluted wasteland', though, The Island is another that comes to mind, and I definitely feel like there are others whose names escape me. (I think a more general version of the trope would be a fake "you can't go outside" scenario.)
    – Matthew
    Jan 26 at 1:36

1 Answer 1


Seeing as I can't find an accepted answer for this, I'm going to copy my existing answer.

This is "The Defenders" by Philip K. Dick, first published in Galaxy Science Fiction, January 1953.

To survive a nuclear war, humanity has retreated to vast underground bunkers, each of which is a city or at least a moderate-sized town in size. (The protagonist is reading the daily newspaper in the first scene.) Life goes on in the bunkers as the people work to produce more bombs, planes and especially combat robots known as "leadys" built to survive the atomic wasteland above.

But today someone has gotten suspicious; summoning a command leady from the surface for a briefing, they disable it and find no trace of radiation on it at all. An expedition to the surface is planned.

Bursting onto the surface, they discover a pleasant, green, peaceful world, with no trace of the radiation storms they've been shown for all these years. Instead of fighting, the robots have been cleaning up and restoring the world.

Confronted, the robots admit the deception and claim their calculations say that people on both sides are tiring of the war and will soon be willing to give up and come up and live in peace.

The leaders try to get down into the bunkers, but the leadys have already sealed the entrance; they will claim a direct strike destroyed it so the masquerade can continue for now.

The expedition gives in, and goes to live on a restored farm, where they meet a team of their Soviet counterparts who had the same experience.

The Wikipedia summary has some additional details.

It's been in many collections, but most relevant to the timeframe you're describing is probably There Will Be War (1983), the first of the Carr/Pournelle anthology series.

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    Found it online here: gutenberg.org/files/28767/28767-h/28767-h.htm
    – David
    Jan 25 at 15:54
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    That's also a plot line in PKD"s novel "The Penultimate Truth", though I'm pretty sure the short story happened first.
    – ulatekh
    Jan 25 at 16:53
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    @ulatekh ISFDb and Wikipedia (see above) both note that The Penultimate Truth was an expansion of "The Defenders."
    – DavidW
    Jan 25 at 17:03
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    @DavidW: It also incorporated "The Unreconstructed M" and "The Mold Of Yancy".
    – ulatekh
    Jan 25 at 22:41

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