Saturday, April 18, 2009

Book Review: 'The Prometheus Crisis' by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson
(Remembering Three Mile Island: 30 years later)

4/5 Stars

Thomas Scortia and Frank Robinson were established fiction writers throughout the 70s, particularly in the SF and thriller genres, and collaborated on a number of bestsellers, including ‘The Glass Inferno’ (1974) (fire in a high-rise building), ‘The Prometheus Crisis’ (1975) (nuke plant meltdown), ‘The Nightmare Factor’ (1978) (disease on the loose) and ‘The Gold Crew’ (1980) (nuclear missile sub psychodrama).

‘The Prometheus Crisis’ was arguably the first widely-read novel since Lester del Rey’s ‘Nerves’ (1956) to address the issue of a disastrous accident at a nuclear power plant. The novel may have been influential in the creation of the 1979 film ‘The China Syndrome’, much as ‘The Glass Inferno’ led to the 1974 box office hit ‘The Towering Inferno’.

My copy of ‘Crisis’ is an August 1976 Bantam paperback with a double-page cover in which the first cover page features a cut-out to provide a peek at the second cover page illustration, a printing scheme often used for high profile releases at the time. The interior cover painting is certainly luridly effective, depicting as it does a stream of people fleeing a burning nuclear installation, but the artist is (unfortunately) uncredited.

The nuclear plant in question is the Prometheus four-reactor facility located in the fictional California seacoast town of Cardenas. As the story opens, the facility’s manager, a square-jawed engineer named Greg Parks, is doubtful that the plant is ready for safe operation, and his assistant, Bernard Lerner, agrees. However, Western Gas and Electric, the electrical consortium responsible for funding the plant’s construction, is anxious to bring it on line, particularly as the President will showcase the use of nuclear power as an answer to the Energy Crisis. For the book’s first half, the plot revolves around the conflict between Parks and the Western Gas higher-ups over whether Prometheus can be brought ‘on stream’.

There are two subplots that also take share space with the main narrative. One is a 70s Disaster Novel staple: romantic tension between nurse Karen Gruen, a Willowy Brunette, and engineers Parks and Lerner, who are vying in their own uniquely manly ways for her affections. The other subplot deals with a murder of the local physician, its relevance to the Prometheus facility, and the search for whodunit. These subplots are the book’s only real weaknesses, as in my opinion they don’t do much other than pad out the novel’s length. Things can seem more than a little contrived when, in the midst of some calamity, the narrative takes a detour to give Parks and Lerner a chance for some verbal fencing over Nurse Karen’s affections.

Indeed, the real disaster action doesn’t take place until almost half-way through the book, as – in the style of 70s thrillers – the authors spend the first half of their novel in taking a deliberate approach to fleshing out their characters and the setting, presumably with a ready eye towards a screenplay for a 2 ½ hour feature film. Once things do get into a 70s Disaster Groove (I’m not disclosing any spoilers to say that things go badly wrong at the Prometheus facility and Southern California confronts a destructive cloud of radiation), the narrative becomes genuinely engaging and readers will be turning the pages as they would for any well-written thriller. It’s clear from the novel’s first page that there will be a disaster; what will keep the reader engrossed is the fate of the characters and the unfolding of the catastrophe (‘who will survive, and what will be left of them ?!’).

Scortia and Robinson plainly did their homework and the machinations that lead to the Crisis and its aftermath are well within the grounds of reality. The efforts of the plant personnel and the federal government to cope with a nuclear catastrophe are believable, without straying into hyperbole or exaggeration. While overly technical expositions into engineering and physics are avoided, the authors provide enough background material on the principles of nuclear fission and reactor design to enable the reader to understand the hows and whys of the forthcoming disaster. The authors also show considerable skill in creating a large cast of main, and supporting, players and letting the narrative deal with their fates as events unfold, without shifting too much attention away from the crisis at the center of the novel.

Today, some 34 years after it was first published, ‘The Prometheus Crisis’ remains one of the best fictional accounts of a nuclear disaster.




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