Warday is about nuclear war, but it's not about the end of the world. It's about World War III, but it's not about the last war. Warday: And the Journey Onward (published in paperback simply as Warday), written by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka and published in April 1984, is about the aftermath of a "limited" nuclear war.
Warday is a grippingly human story of the aftermath of a world war, one which lasted only hours. Whitley Streiber departs from his normal "rambling about UFOs" style and works with journalist James Kunetka to tell a story of people living in the aftermath of an afternoon of hell on earth.
See also the (far inferior) spiritual sequel, Nature's End.
As a great deal of the enjoyment of this novel is the exploration of the setting and figuring out what happened on War Day (as opposed to "What's going to happen next?"), further information can spoil the story significantly. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.
On October 27, 1988, the world ended.
The Earth wasn't destroyed, by any means, and the human race isn't near dead. Instead, the best hopes of military planners came true: the United States won a nuclear war with the Soviet Union.
Warday is written not as a narrative so much as a collection of notes of Whitley and James, as they trek through post-war America five years later, their lives and the lives of everyone in America forever changed by that fateful day. While the concept of a metabook, a book about writing this book, could easily bog down, the book is collection of the notes and observations along the trip, interspersed with monologues from people encountered or transcripts of government documents. The unique style of writing tells the story without dumping clumps of exposition on the reader; this is quite an accomplishment in a book that is little more than exposition.
Instead, the story is told as a series of moments, whether descriptions of their trek, transcripts of government reports, or strikingly memorable monologues dictated by people met along the way. For example, rather than just describing the Cincinnati Flu, an epidemic that swept the US, instead people break off when they wander onto the subject, preferring not to think about it. Instead, the story is told in the raw numbers of a government report, cold and heartless. The contrast of raw humanity and cold mathematics is powerful; by about half way through the book, Whitley and James's trials with their progress across the country becomes less important than the story being told of what happened in the intervening five years, of war and loss and famine and poverty and disease and sacrifice and triage and triumph and hope.
What happened on Warday, as is slowly revealed, is that neither side accomplished their goals, particularly. Enough bombs were exploded in orbit to instantly fuse any electronic device more complicated than a light bulb. In the US, Washington, D.C., New York, San Antonio, and a number of small towns in the Rockies all ceased to exist. They weren't bombed, or devastated, simply converted instantly to fused radioactive glass. The total loss of communications and government shattered the US into fragments, and the combination of a loss of infrastructure and fallout over the Midwest has caused famine, along with the attendant disease. Those unaffected areas have closed themselves completely, and the rest of the country is largely islands of determined locals or foreign aid.
In the end, nothing really changes, but that feels fine. Warday doesn't moralize (usually; a priest interviewed does, naturally, preach for a bit), and it doesn't disintegrate into "Never let this happen" or "This is the inevitable future". Instead, it's a gripping vision of a future history that could have been, a story of human determination in the face of utter folly.