New York Times, December 28, 2007, p. B39
Books of The Times [body emphasis below added: ESR]
Sci-Fi Dream Turns World’s Worst Nightmare
The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon
By P. D. Smith
Illustrated. 553 pages. St. Martin’s Press. $29.95.
In “Destination Unknown,” an Agatha Christie thriller published in 1954, two women sit knitting in an English hotel, discussing the latest terror weapon of the nuclear age, the cobalt bomb. “I do think all these atom bombs are very wrong,” one of the women says. “And cobalt — such a lovely color in one’s paint box and I used it a lot as a child; the worst of all, I understand nobody can survive.”
Less than a decade after the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, total annihilation of the human race haunted the imagination of scientists and writers alike, a convergence that P. D. Smith chronicles doggedly in “Doomsday Men: The Real Dr. Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon.”
From the first experiments in chemical warfare at the Battle of Ypres in Belgium in 1915 to the H-bomb and beyond, the world’s finest scientific minds worked feverishly to develop weapons that, many of them believed, would make warfare more humane or eliminate it entirely. At the same time writers like H. G. Wells translated their advances into fictional worlds or, in imaginative leaps, anticipated future developments with uncanny accuracy.
The dual march of science and science fiction should make for a fascinating story, but Mr. Smith, who teaches in the science and technology studies department at University College London, botches the job. He is diffuse and repetitive, plodding across broad swaths of well-traveled ground as he rehashes the principal discoveries leading to the development of the atom bomb and revisits the main events of the nuclear age. Popular culture, rather than enlivening the narrative, only slows things down, thanks to the author’s habit of summarizing the plot of virtually every story or film he cites.
The narrative center of gravity is difficult to locate. Just who is the real Dr. Strangelove referred to in the book’s subtitle, for example? It should be Leo Szilard, the closest thing to a protagonist that the book can claim. But Szilard, perhaps the most brilliant of the “Hungarian quartet” involved in developing the atom bomb, clearly understood the dangers of a nuclear world. Far from reveling in the destructive power of the new superweapons, he campaigned tirelessly to promote international control of atomic energy.
Edward Teller, a more likely candidate, does not play an important enough role in the narrative to deserve subtitle billing, and in any case Stanley Kubrick, the director of “Dr. Strangelove,” probably fashioned his deranged hero by assembling spare parts from any number of nuclear scientists, notably Teller and Wernher von Braun, the creator of the Nazi V-2 rocket and, after the war, the mastermind behind the American missile program.
It was indeed Szilard, however, who put the idea of a cobalt bomb into the public’s mind. On a radio program in 1950 devoted to the H-bomb, he pointed out that it would be relatively easy to rig a hydrogen bomb with a substance — he later identified cobalt as ideal for the purpose — that would capture the neutrons released by the bomb, turn radioactive and then spread out across the Earth, enveloping the planet in what one of the characters in “Dr. Strangelove” calls “a doomsday shroud.”
Szilard, a keen reader of H. G. Wells, intended his remarks to stir concern. They did. The prospect of nuclear Armageddon traumatized millions of ordinary citizens and inspired an onslaught of novels, short stories and films that expressed the collective anxiety of a species now contemplating its own end.
Whenever he turns to Szilard, Mr. Smith perks up and his story gathers steam, even when it digresses. Szilard, a utopian with a practical streak, regarded science as the means to a glorious future for mankind, but he took care to register his patents, whether for particle accelerators or low-fat cheese. In the 1920s his work with Albert Einstein on developing a safer refrigerator led to an electromagnetic pump used to cool nuclear reactors.
Mr. Smith theorizes that Szilard’s love of science fiction gave him a creative advantage over his peers, notably Einstein, Enrico Fermi and Ernest Rutherford, all of them slow to envision the possibilities of atomic energy.
This seems debatable, to say the least, but it certainly dovetails with Mr. Smith’s larger purpose of exploring the crosscurrents between science-fiction writers and the physicists at work creating the atomic age. “Both the dream of space travel and the dream of atomic energy first took shape in the pages of fiction,” he writes. “But alongside both these dreams, the nightmare of the superweapon — today’s weapons of mass destruction — also took root.”
The mutual fertilization could be uncanny. Horrified intelligence agents worried that details of the Manhattan Project had been leaked when the pulp magazine Astounding Science Fiction published “Deadline,” a story filled with technical detail, about a rogue atomic scientist.
Mr. Smith goes so far as to argue that the science-fiction pulps and the visionary writing of Wells and others created the climate that allowed scientists like Szilard to flourish. “The atomic bomb owed its existence to this technophile culture, with its savior scientists and superweapons, as much as it did to the individual genius of its scientists and engineers,” he writes.
The visionary heroes of early science fiction gradually gave way to more sinister figures as the implications of the atomic bomb became clear. “I have control of the greatest explosive force in world history and my whims are obeyed as iron commands,” the evil scientist in “Deadline” proclaims with a sneer. Dr. Strangelove and Dr. Evil lurk in the wings.
Szilard began as one of the scientific optimists, like the British chemist Frederick Soddy, who in 1909 predicted that atomic power would “make the entire world one smiling Garden of Eden.” It was not to be. The genie of atomic power, once released, immediately took up arms. And it showed a remarkable resistance to being controlled. In his later years an appalled Szilard, barred for security reasons from working on atomic energy, addressed the threat in the only way open to him: He began writing science fiction.