Z for Zachariah
Robert C. O’Brien

by contributor

Sharon Fleming

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Historical and Current Context

Z for Zachariah was written in the 1970s, a decade after the Bay of Pigs Invasion and the related events that cemented the relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union, America’s arch enemy. The Bay of Pigs Invasion was a failed military invasion of Cuba that was undertaken by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) with the assistance of Brigade 2506, a Cuban-exiled group that was formed in 1960 and trained and funded by the United States (U.S.) government to overthrow the leadership of former Cuban leader, Fidel Castro. The members of Brigade 2506 had a budget of US$13 million and recruited roughly 1,400 soldiers (CIA, 2016). Launching from Guatemala and Nicaragua, the invading forces descended on Cuba but faced a counter-attack from the army and were defeated within three days after the invasion.

Following the failed coup, Fidel Castro’s government strengthened relations with the Soviet Union and championed its communist leadership style, and subsequently marked the beginning of a severed relationship with the U.S. government. Another contributing factor may have been the Cold War, which began after the end of the Second World War and continued on until 1973. The warring factions, the Soviet Union and the U.S., were supported by their respective allies. It is at the backdrop of the Bay of Pigs scare and the Cold War era that the novel was written, giving its readers perspective into a potentially-imminent nuclear attack. The author rides on realism to develop this poignant, post-apocalyptic novel.

The book was relevant then, as it is now. There is an increased polarization between the U.S. and countries such as China, Iran, North Korea, and Russia. Although the communist regimes may have fallen and the Soviet bloc disintegrated during the reign of Mikhail Gorbachev in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Communist-like governance is still very much alive in Russia, as well as in some parts of Asia. Gorbachev’s rule, unlike the current leadership, was instrumental in the introduction of a democratic process relying on two main approaches: glasnost, in reference to openness; and perestroika, which means restructuring (BBC, 2017). He believed that the best way of ensuring an improved Russian economy was to remove its isolation from the global arena by removing the firm structures synonymous with Stalin’s rule (BBC, 2017).

The U.S. has also made various enemies. Suspected of developing nuclear weapons primarily intended for countries such as Israel, Iran is also alleged to be offering support to terrorist-related activities against the U.S. and its allies in different parts of the world, posing a significant risk. North Korea has also been quite vocal about its nuclear aspirations, where it has even threatened to attack the U.S. and some of its close allies, including Japan and South Korea (Schlosser, 2018). China, a key trading partner, is seen as one that poses a significant threat to the dominance of the U.S. on the world stage. In recent years it is said that the country has invested heavily in its security apparatus and beefing up of its nuclear arsenal. The Dongfeng-41 ballistic missiles have been made in such a way that they can be mounted on trucks, and up to ten of the nuclear warheads which are capable of then reaching any corner of the United States (Schlosser, 2018).

Author Information and other Literary Works

Z for Zachariah is a science-fiction novel written by Robert Leslie Conly and under the pen name of Robert C. O’Brien, which was first published in 1974. Robert was born in Brooklyn, New York, and attended Williams College; he graduated from the University of Rochester and was a writer and editor for major publications including Newsweek, National Geographic, among others (Amazon, 2018). He resided in New York with his wife, Sally, and four children. The book was posthumously completed by the author’s wife and daughter, relying on the notes he had made, following his death in 1973, a year earlier (Catsoulis, 2015). Nissar Modi also adapted the book as a film under the same name, which became a major motion picture and features talented actors such as Chris Pine, Chiwetel Ejiofor, and Margot Robbie (Amazon, 2018; Catsoulis, 2015).

According to the Sally Conly, Z for Zachariah was a novel targeted at adult reading and ventured away from his traditional children’s audience where he had written other famous books like The Silver Crown (1968) and Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971). Z for Zachariah is entirely different from the other books. The Silver Crown (1968) was set in the present but focusing back to the dark ages. It looks at technology and how it has the dangerous and somehow mysterious ability to change people and make them conform to their destructive demands. It gets much of its thrill from the dramatic struggle between good and evil suggesting the latter is human-made and therefore can be eradicated. On the other hand, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH (1971) used talking animals to get the audience to examine the dynamics of the societies they live in. The two books have O’Brien’s unmistakably-detailed and -lucid descriptions that build on the believability of the plots, which has great similarities with the styles used in Z for Zachariah.

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