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Nuclear Energy

Entry updated 12 August 2018. Tagged: Theme.

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The claim that sf is a realistic, extrapolative literature is often supported by the citing of successful Predictions, among which atomic power and the atom bomb are usually given pride of place. When the news of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was released in 1945, John W Campbell Jr, editor of Astounding Science-Fiction, was exultant, claiming that now sf would have to be taken seriously. Campbell was entitled to congratulate himself: it was largely due to his editorial influence that sf writers of the early 1940s had concerned themselves so deeply with atomic power.

It could, however, be argued that anticipating the advent of atomic power was not such a tremendous imaginative leap. The notion of "splitting the atom" goes back to antiquity as a philosophical problem raised in the consideration of atomic theories from Democritus (fl 5th century BCE) and Epicurus (circa 341-270 BCE) onwards. It was not until the end of the nineteenth century, however, that any evidence relating to the actual structure of atoms became accessible. In 1902 Ernest Rutherford (1871-1937) and Frederick Soddy (1877-1956) demonstrated that certain heavy atoms – including those of uranium and radium – were in a state of continuous spontaneous decay, emitting various types of energetic radiation. The popularization of this and related discoveries had an influence on Scientific Romance comparable only to that of evolutionary theory; the first title to reflect this opportunity was probably Robert Cromie's The Crack of Doom (1895). The power of radioactivity – in many applications, some of them bizarre – quickly became commonplace in sf, especially in relation to Future War. New Rays were invented promiscuously. Einstein's famous equation linking mass and energy (E = mc2) became a magical formula by which any imaginative writer could derive limitless energy via the destruction of mass. It is unsurprising that Garrett P Serviss, in A Columbus of Space (January-June 1909 All-Story; rev 1911), could conceive an atomic-powered Spaceship, or that George Griffith, in The Lord of Labour (1911), could countenance weapons like bazookas firing atomic missiles, or that H G Wells, in The World Set Free (1914), could envisage civilization destroyed by atomic bombs, or that Harold Nicolson, in Public Faces (1932), could imagine the dirty Politics and diplomatic chicanery which might surround the invention of an atom bomb. These notions were natural responses to the popularization of ideas in contemporary Physics. Hugo Gernsback was well aware of the possibilities inherent in nuclear Technology, and had no hesitation in predicting its use as a Power Source in the Near Future, sometimes referring to the coming era of high technology as "The Atom-Electronic Age" or "The Age of Power-Freedom". Charles W Diffin's "The Power and the Glory" (July 1930 Astounding) imagines a thorium-based nuclear power source all too easily adapted as a Weapon (see Death Rays). Jack Williamson built on this with his Seetee stories Seetee Ship (July and November 1942, January-February 1943 Astounding as by Will Stewart; 1951) and Seetee Shock (February-April 1949 Astounding as by Will Stewart; 1950), imagining that free beamed power across the entire solar system could be fuelled by Antimatter.

Nevertheless, atomic power would have been simply one more idea in the extravagant vocabulary of Pulp-magazine sf had it not been for Campbell. Campbell's first published story, "When the Atoms Failed" (January 1930 Amazing), featured the release of energy by the destruction of matter; and one of his earliest stories as Don A Stuart was "Atomic Power" (December 1934 Astounding). He took a serious interest in progress in this area of science; and in such articles as "Atomic Generator" (November 1937 Astounding), "Isotope 235" (August 1939 Astounding) as Arthur McCann and "Atomic Ringmaster" (March 1940 Astounding) as Arthur McCann he popularized such research for the readers of Astounding. He discussed contemporary developments in his editorials, and actively encouraged his writers to consider the possibilities seriously. He made the scientific issues so familiar that even a routine Space Opera like Theodore Sturgeon's "Artnan Process" (June 1941 Astounding) could hinge its plot on the esoteric problem of isotope separation. He published several stories dealing with the theme of nuclear power which were, in their structure and style, quite atypical of early-1940s pulp sf. "Blowups Happen" (September 1940 Astounding) by Robert A Heinlein deals with the psychological stress involved in working with a nuclear-power plant and its potential hazards. "Solution Unsatisfactory" (May 1941 Astounding), also by Heinlein (as Anson MacDonald), is about using radioactive dust as a Weapon of war, and the difficulties of exercising control over such use. Nerves (September 1942 Astounding; exp 1956) by Lester del Rey is a classic story of an accident in a nuclear-power station which threatens to become a major Disaster, and deals perceptively with the issues which now face the real post-Chernobyl world. Cleve Cartmill's "Deadline" (March 1944 Astounding), featuring an atomic bomb, brought Campbell the joyous triumph of a visit from the government's security forces. Campbell later made much of the fact that he was publishing sf of such anticipatory expertise that the FBI suspected him of having access to secrets, but the compliment paid him is less impressive when one remembers that Philip Wylie received a similar visit in 1945 and that two Comic-book stories featuring Superman were suppressed. It should also be remembered that the concept of nuclear weapons was not confined to contemporary sf: Eric Ambler's debut thriller The Dark Frontier (1936) revolves around the construction of an atomic bomb.

Even so, Campbell's achievement in making sf writers think seriously about atomic power should not be minimized. The only Genre-SF story of any significance dealing with atomic power to be published outside Astounding before Hiroshima was Malcolm Jameson's melodrama about a "breeder" reaction, "The Giant Atom" (Winter 1943 Startling; rev as Atomic Bomb 1945). However, there were a number of cautionary tales which typically featured Alien or prehuman civilizations destroyed by meddling with atomic energy: Robert A Heinlein's "Blowups Happen" suggests that the Moon is lifeless because its erstwhile inhabitants failed to master safety precautions, and Gerald Heard's Reply Paid (1942) is one of several stories postulating that some similar mishap caused a former planet to become the Asteroids.

After 1945 atomic power became one of the standard themes in sf, as the shock of revelation precipitated a wave of apocalyptic stories of Holocaust (especially in the context of World War Three) and the Post-Holocaust aftermath. Mutational romance, popular since the mutagenic effects of X-rays had been discovered in the 1920s, also received a considerable boost (see Mutants), and the idea that new potentials in human Evolution might be stimulated by post-disaster radioactivity became an important supportive argument in the "psi boom" (see ESP; Psi Powers; Superman). But, as nuclear power became a reality, the kind of realistic treatment of issues connected with it seen in "Blowups Happen" and Nerves went into decline – though still featuring peripherally in such works as Frank Herbert's future thriller The Dragon in the Sea (November 1955-January 1956 Astounding as "Under Pressure"; 1956; vt 21st Century Sub 1956; vt Under Pressure 1974), the tension of whose risky submarine voyage is augmented by problems with a defective nuclear reactor. But as central issues these themes, no longer hypothetical, passed out of the area of interest of sf writers. Novels dealing with the social and psychological problems of living with nuclear power and radioactive substances in the post-World War Two period moved into the Mainstream; notable examples include Combat contre l'invisible (1958; trans 1960 as Frontier of the Unknown) by Henri Queffélec and Daniel Keyes's The Touch (1968; vt The Contaminated Man 1977), which deal with associated Psychological issues. Today we are living with the reality of nuclear power, but its speculative extensions continue to concern sf writers, the aspect that dominates all others being that of the possibilities inherent in the use of atomic Weapons. This is only natural in view of what is at stake: the future of the human race. This change of consciousness has been one of the principal forces shaping post-World War Two sf. One particular group of stories which brings out the point very clearly deals with the moral issues facing the scientists who have given their fellow creatures the power to annihilate the world: noteworthy are "The Weapon" (April 1951 Astounding) by Fredric Brown, "Day of the Moron" (September 1951 Astounding) by H Beam Piper, "The Disintegrating Sky" (August/September 1953 Fantastic Universe) and "Progress" (January 1962 F&SF) by Poul Anderson, "Judgment Day" (August 1955 Astounding) by L Sprague de Camp and "Chain Reaction" (September 1956 Galaxy) by Boyd Ellanby.

The fear of more or less widespread Pollution of the environment by nuclear accidents or nuclear waste is further explored in such works as: Chain Reaction (1959) by Christopher Hodder-Williams, whose mystery-novel treatment is strong on Paranoia; "Poor Chowder" (in The Man Who Wrote Detective Stories, coll 1959) by Michael Innes, with an ironic Mainstream Writer of SF tone; "Guttersnipe" (November 1964 Analog) by Rick Raphael, in which radioactive contamination enters the City water supply through a combination of accident and illegal activity; The Orange R (1978) by John Clagett; and In the Drift (fixup 1985) by Michael Swanwick. In more optimistic contexts, nuclear radiation is casually treated as part of future life: the protagonist of Double Star (February-April 1956 Astounding; 1956) by Robert A Heinlein is merely instructed to move fast through a region signed "RADIATION HAZARD – Optimax 13 Seconds".

The 1986 meltdown at Chernobyl, dramatized by sf writer Frederik Pohl in his "drama-documentary" novel Chernobyl (1987), helped boost a public-opinion backlash against nuclear power which had been growing for some years. Hard-SF writers who maintained their propagandistic fervour for nuclear power found themselves forced onto the defensive, as exemplified by two novels which make the preservation or revivification of nuclear power a condition of recovery after worldwide disasters: Lucifer's Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle and Orion Shall Rise (1983) by Poul Anderson. Opinions differ sharply as to whether the world would have been better or worse had Hiroshima not happened; alternative cases are presented in Ronald Clark's The Bomb that Failed (1969; vt The Last Year of the Old World), Kim Stanley Robinson's "The Lucky Strike" (in Universe 14, anth 1984, ed Terry Carr), James P Hogan's The Proteus Operation (1985) and Ted Mooney's Traffic and Laughter (1990). The advent of fusion power is still frequently regarded by sf writers as a panacea for the world's energy problems – so much so that it can take on transcendental implications, as in "Reflections in a Magnetic Mirror" (in Full Spectrum, anth 1988, ed Lou Aronica & Shawna McCarthy) by Kevin J Anderson and Doug Beason – but the reputation of Gernsback's "Age of Power-Freedom" has been badly tarnished by our experience of nuclear power in the real world. [BS/DRL]

further reading

  • Prepared by the Editors of Pocket Books, Donald Porter Geddes, general editor. The Atomic Age Opens (New York: Pocket Books, 1945) [nonfiction: anth: published August 1945: pb/uncredited]


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