Tuesday, March 31, 2009
Friday, March 27, 2009
(Remembering Three Mile Island: 30 years later)
‘Nerves’ (1956, 153 pp.), a novel about an accident at a nuclear power plant, was expanded from a story Lester del Rey published in 1942. This paperback edition appeared in 1970 and features an arresting cover illustration by Dean Ellis.
The story takes place in the late 20th century in the medical clinic of the National Atomics Products plant in Kimberly, Missouri. There, the senior physician, Roger Ferrell, and his younger assistant, Jenkins, deal with the occasional case of radiation exposure and trauma suffered by the plant’s ‘Atomjacks’. Things are not looking up for the atomic products industry; a serious accident at a Croton, New York plant has turned public opinion against locating the plants close to inhabited areas.
In an effort to curry favor with an influential politician, Palmer, the plant’s manager, orders intensive production of something called ‘Isotope 713’ which is used to kill boll weevils (!) infesting Representative Morgan’s home district, a Southern cotton-growing state. Unfortunately the stepped-up production of the isotope results in the untoward generation of something called ‘Isotope R’. This isotope is highly reactive, and an explosion partially destroys one of the plant’s ‘converters’ (i.e., reactors). Soon what remains of the building is afire, magma is dribbling out onto the grounds of the plant, and clouds of Isotope R are seeping out from the interior of the reactor and dissolving whatever structure remains. But that’s not the worst of it; Isotope R is capable of decaying into a third isotope, termed 'Mahler’s Isotope', of which the detonation of a thimbleful will level the entire state of Missouri.
‘Nerves’ is an awful book. It’s clear that del Rey gave a lackadaisical effort when he expanded the story to cash in on the hardbound SF novel market that was rising by the mid-50s. The writing is riddled with poor grammar and even poorer syntax. The dialogue is clumsy and filled with cringe-inducing mannerisms; speakers say things ‘jerkily’, turn their heads ‘jerkily’, and end their remarks with the construction “…. ,even.”
By the mid-50s even a modicum of effort on del Rey’s part would have allowed him to provide an updated scientific underpinning for the operation of a nuclear power plant, and a rationale for an accident of catastrophic proportions. However, he seemed content to recycle the lame sci-fi concepts (‘Isotope R’, ‘Mahler’s Isotope’, etc.) he used in the 1942 story.
Sometimes an engaging plot can rescue a novel from poor writing, but that’s simply not the case with ‘Nerves’. Most of the narrative centers on the doctor’s efforts to tend to patients with ‘radioactive’ lodged in their tissues; too much radioactive, and the afflicted lapse into spastic fits that require ‘neo-heroin’ and curare treatments (!). The happenings at the doomed reactor, while central to the story, are poorly communicated, and the book loses any momentum it has gained when del Rey focuses the narrative on the antics of Doc Ferrell and company.
In summary, even when making allowances for the fact that much of mid-50's SF writing was still en route to acquiring the stylistic skill taken for granted in 'conventional' prose, ‘Nerves’ is a poor example of a novel. I can only recommend it to those wishing to complete their collection of Lester del Rey publications.
Monday, March 23, 2009
(Remembering Three Mile Island: 30 years later)
The best SF novel based on the TMI accident remains Michael Swanwick’s ‘In the Drift’ (Ace Books, 1985). Although it should be noted that the book is centered on events 100 years after a full meltdown of the reactor takes place, rather than the meltdown per se. And, there have not been all that many SF stories or novels dealing with the TMI accident to compete with 'Drift'....but it's still a very worthy read.
A fix-up of previously published, and new, stories, ‘In the Drift’ is set in Pennsylvania. The central and southern portions of the state are thinly populated wastelands contaminated by fallout (the ‘Drift’ of the title). The United States government has collapsed, leaving various regional governments and satrapies in its place. Philadelphia is the nearest metropolis to the Drift; it’s governed by the Mummers, a neighborhood organization that in the pre-meltdown days did nothing more ambitious than stage New Year's Day parades. The main protagonist of the novel is Keith Piotrowicz (pr. 'pet-ro-vich'), a somewhat aimless young man who works as a truck driver, toting garbage and toxic waste from Philly out to dumping grounds in the Drift.
The first chapter, 'Mummer's Kiss', was first published in 1981 in the anthology 'Universe 11'. Keith goes out on a dump run and befriends a reporter who has been asking too many questions about the fallout zone. Keith soon finds himself unwillingly allied with the reporter as they struggle to evade a dragnet unleashed by the Mummer cabal ruling Philly. 'Kiss' is a great action story, with the fallout zone serving essentially as a character in its own right; it's probably the best chapter in the book.
The remaining chapters focus on characters such as Sam, a 'vampire' girl whose mutated intestines cannot digest any food other than blood; Vicky, a girl whose family resides in the margins of the Drift; Esterhazy, a dwarf scientist researching the means of survival in the fallout zone; and Patrick Cruz O'Brien, a naive reporter from Boston who decides to chronicle the increasing tension between the population of the Drift, and those who want them out of the way in order to exploit the territory for the benefit of powerful political and economic interests.
While Swanwick was publishing and garnering critical praise at the same time as the flowering of the Cyberpunks in the mid - 80s, and is often included among their ranks, his writing is much less wordy than that of Gibson, Shirley, Shepard, or even Sterling. However, Swanwick is just as adept at conveying needed atmosphere and setting despite his comparatively restrained exposition. There are well-written passages in 'Drift' that are quite harrowing and memorable, such as when Piotrowicz, Esterhazy, and Sam visit the ruins of the TMI facility. Sam, gifted with the ability to detect radiation with her eyesight, sees the pulses of gamma rays spewing into the night sky; the enormity of the disaster is communicated without the stylistic over-exertions often encountered in Cyberpunk writings.
'In the Drift' is one of the best SF novels to emerge from the 80s (and, by extension, the Cyberpunk movement). Every time I cross the I-83 bridge into Harrisburg and I look south at the Susquehanna River, towards Middleton, and I see the far-off silhouette of the cooling towers at TMI, the strange alt-future Pennsylvania of the 'Drift' comes readily to mind.....
Thursday, March 19, 2009
March 28, 1979 - March 28, 2009
It’s the 30-year anniversary of the nation’s worst nuclear disaster: the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear reactor unit 2 at Middletown, PA on Wednesday March 28, 1979.
I was 18 at the time, and attending college and working at a local grocery store part-time. I remember hearing about ‘problems’ at the reactor, but TMI was located way far away near Harrisburg, a good three hour-drive south from New York’s Southern Tier. So I didn’t feel particularly alarmed. The news announcements tended to reiterate a reassuring message from the plant operators (and by extension the nuclear power industry): the reactor is safely contained, no radiation had been released, no need to panic, etc., etc. Of course, playing in the theatres at that time was ‘The China Syndrome’ with Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas, in which a fictional California reactor undergoes a near-meltdown, an event which is covered up by the mendacious plant operators. So public awareness of potential nuclear disasters had been heightened.
Over the next few days it became clear that there had indeed been a major accident at the plant, and a significant amount of radiation had been discharged into the atmosphere. It was also clear that the plant operators had underestimated the severity of the damage to the reactor core, and things had come frighteningly close to a genuine disaster. Realization that a partial (i.e., 50 %) meltdown had taken place was not attained until 1982 when a remotely manipulated video camera was used to examine the reactor core.
With the advent of the thirty-year anniversary of the TMI accident, here at the PorPor Books Blog we'll take a look over the course of next month at several SF / thriller novels that deal with nuclear accidents, as well as some nonfiction accounts about rad exposure and its (gruesome) consequences.
Grab your Geiger-counters, your potassium iodide, your Neupogen, and your rad suit. It's time to step into the Zone of Contamination ......
Wednesday, March 18, 2009
Sunday, March 15, 2009
3 /5 Stars
In 1964 the Paddock brothers – William, an agronomist, and Paul, a diplomat – published ‘The Hungry Nations’, their neo-Malthusian analysis of the world population expansion and the ability – or inability- of grain-producing nations to meet the challenges of more mouths to feed. By writing ‘The Hungry Nations’, the Paddocks were clearly trying to site themselves as the newest and most attention-worthy of the ‘futurologists’ (the term was really not in use in ’64 but seems apt) who previously had mined neo-Malthusianism for fame and fortune: William Vogt in 1948 with ‘The Road to Survival’, and Harrison Brown with his ‘Challenge of Man’s Future’ (1954).
I haven’t read ‘The Hungry Nations’ and I haven’t been able to determine what sort of reception it got, but evidently the Paddocks felt it didn't get the readership that it deserved. Just three years later, in 1967, they published the provocatively titled ‘Famine 1975 ! America’s Decision: Who Will Survive ?’ (Little, Brown, & Co., 276 pp).
Perhaps it was the unapologetically neo-Malthusian tenor of the title, or the social mood of the day was more receptive to the Paddock’s entreaties, but ‘Famine’ definitely created a stir and along with Vogt’s book influenced Paul R. Ehrlich to write ‘The Population Bomb’, which was a best-seller and a very influential book when it was published in 1968.
‘Famine’ is organized into three parts, each part having several chapters. Part One, “Inevitability of Famine in the Hungry Nations’, is a fast-moving overview of the world population situation ca. 1966, and sets the tone for the rest of the book’s main arguments: namely, the world’s grain-producing nations will be unable to meet the demand occasioned by the Third World’s burgeoning hordes. All efforts to improve crop yield in developing countries – be they scientific, economic, cultural, or demographic – are destined to fail , and by the mid-70s catastrophic famines will take place in many of these nations.
Part Two, ‘Nor Can the Resources and Talents of the Developed World Avert Famine from the Hungry Nations’ argues that despite impressive advances in crop yields, the developed world will be incapable of providing sufficient emergency grain relief to the starving countries. There is a cogent overview of the US PL 480 program (renamed ‘Food for Peace’ in 1966) which throughout the late 50s and early 60s shipped substantial amounts of donated grain to 111 countries and essentially kept millions of people in Pakistan and India from starving. Most Americans were, and are, ignorant of the scale and scope of the PL 480 program, but it was responsible for the enormous growth in what is the present-day Foreign Aid Industry.
The Paddocks were aware of Norman Borlaug’s efforts to breed high-yield wheat varieties at the time they wrote ‘Famine’, but in their estimation the ‘Green Revolution’ would be inadequate to save countries like India, the Philippines, Egypt, or Haiti from forthcoming disaster.
The final Part, ‘Potential Role of the United States During the Time of Famines’ is the most overtly Malthusian portion of the book. The Paddocks define the term ‘triage’ and propose to apply it to the hungry nations ca. 1975. Egypt, India, and Haiti will be declared ‘can’t be saved’ and left to starve, since the amount of aid necessary to bail out their malnourished millions will be so great as to leave little for anyone else. The Gambia and Libya are ‘walking wounded’ who can survive without immediate aid. Pakistan and Tunisia will be the beneficiaries of US food aid, if only because they have made some effort to implement population control campaigns and have a sufficiently robust political structure to make them worth saving.
Needless to say, the concept of letting millions of brown, black, and yellow-skinned people starve to death in order to save a select fraction deemed most Worthy was, and is, controversial and to modern-day observers the Paddocks are nothing less than bigoted and racist white men playing at God.
But it should be noted that in 1967 the Paddocks were by no means alone in forecasting dreadful times for the world’s poor. A sizeable number of their contemporary statesmen, agricultural scientists, social scientists, and demographers shared – if more demurely than the Paddocks – the idea that eventually the US would have to play God and provide food aid only to those nations with the best chance of surviving a famine.
As we know, the predicted 'Famine 1975 !' never took place, due in part to the advent of Norman Borlaug's Green Revolution, and some adroit, last-minute changes to their agricultural economies by the Pakistanis and Indians. William Paddock produced another book in 1976, titled 'Time of Famines: America and the World Food Crisis', which I have not read. Presumably, Paddock addressed his failed prediction in the pages of 'Time' without necessarily abandoning his dedication to forecasting dire consequences for the undeveloped countries that were 'prospering' as of 1975.
It’s particularly interesting to look back at ‘Famine 1975 !’ and other neo-Malthusian manifestos of the 60s and 70s, now that food availability and world hunger are going hand-in-hand with the concern over global warming. As I write this review in early March 2009 there are severe- some are even using the term ‘unprecedented’ – droughts in Australia, China, Argentina, and portions of Africa. A February 28, 2009 headline in the New York Times by Jeffrey Gettleman reads ‘Starvation and Strife Menace Torn Kenya’; on March 12, 2009 the Times has an article by Somini Sengupta titled ‘As Indian Growth Soars, Child Hunger Persists’.
Maybe the Paddocks weren’t so wrong after all …. ?!
Friday, March 13, 2009
Thursday, March 12, 2009
‘Population Doomsday’ (192 pp., Pinnacle Books, 1970) was originally released as ‘1989: Population Doomsday’. The cover features a man wearing a gas mask standing in front of the presidential seal; the artist is unattributed. This ‘gas mask’ theme of Eco-catastrophe SF was to be employed for the cover of John Brunner’s ‘The Sheep Look Up’ issued two years later.
Don Pendleton was the author of the very popular ‘Executioner’ series of action novels. He was inspired to write ‘Population Doomsday’ after reading Paul R. Ehrlich’s book ‘The Population Bomb’, and in fact ‘Doomsday’ has a preface consisting of a letter to Ehrlich from Pendleton:
But if your population bomb is science, Dr Ehrlich, then my population doomsday is prophecy and as valid as any educated projections of the best scientific information presently available.
‘Doomsday’ is set early in 1989, when Ehrlich’s predictions have come true, and America is in the grip of an Eco-catastrophe. Most of the population of 390 million are forced to wear gas masks to cope with the dense smog in urban areas. Food and water are rationed and people resort to profligate drug use to try and escape the depressing circumstances of their lives in a grossly overcrowded, polluted nation.
As the novel opens, Bill Vance, a newspaper editor and reporter, attends a news conference given by his friend and newly elected President, Royal Hackett. Desperate measures call for desperate solutions: Hackett is banning use of all motor vehicles save for those required for vital services. It’s just one of a number of quasi-dictatorial measures the President plans to unleash in an effort to prevent a disastrous breakdown in the social and economic order.
It looks like too little, too late as Vance soon finds himself invited to cover a disastrous smog event in Gary, Indiana. In a scene reminiscent of ‘The Andromeda Strain’, where the medical team first explores the eerily quiet town of Piedmont, Arizona, Vance and a detachment of troops don NBC suits and venture into the stricken city. As a result of a lethal combination of sulfur dioxide and sulfuric acid, most of Gary’s inhabitants are dead. There is so little sunlight penetrating the ghastly chemical cloud over the city that flashlights are needed to negotiate streets in daylight; mounds of corpses cover the streets; and the ever-dwindling numbers of those still alive desperately need clean air…and there’s none to be found…
Within a matter of weeks other disastrous outbreaks of lethal air pollution begin to roil the US. President Hackett implements drastic measures to rein in the national economy, including a cessation of all heavy industry, mass layoffs, government-sanctioned euthanasia, and even tearing up airport runways to plant food crops ! But are these measures enough to prevent the extinction of mankind ? Or will Hackett be forced to take even more dramatic measures to ensure that some remnant of humanity survives ?
Like his contemporaries Louis L’Amour, Evan Hunter (‘Ed McBain’) and John D. MacDonald, Pendleton earned a living by writing at least one, more often several, short novels a year (this in the era before word processors). Like those authors, he was skilled at delivering an engaging narrative within the confines of genre novels of 200 or fewer pages. The first 10-20 pages of such novels are used with great efficiency to give the reader necessary orientation in the setting of the narrative, and familiarity with the main characters. After that, the plot takes over and the story flows rapidly to its conclusion. Lengthy expositions revolving around plot points, or in-depth passages designed to showcase character development, simply weren’t included.
Readers looking for a more thoughtful and contemplative treatment of Eco-catastrophe SF may find ‘Population Doomsday’ a bit superficial compared to the novels by Brunner or Harry Harrison. But Pendleton's novel has its merits in its fast pacing and economy of style – something I often wished Brunner had employed when I was plodding through some of his chapters. ‘Doomsday’ is a worthwhile example of how one writer of ‘genre’ fiction was influenced by the apocalyptic tenor of neo-Malthusian tomes such as ‘The Population Bomb’.
Sunday, March 8, 2009
In the days before VHS tapes and DVDs, novelizations of popular feature films were quite prevalent and some even appeared in hardcover as well as in the ubiquitous mass-market paperback format.
The author was usually given a script some months in advance of the film’s release date and expected to provide a novel coeval to (if not slightly in advance of) to the opening date.
Sometimes the novelization would contain material that had been edited out of the film, so you could read some interesting passages that made watching the film a bit more comprehensive. Novelizations were also helpful in figuring out some of the more obtuse plot points in a given film, particularly in the days when DVDs with director’s commentaries simply didn’t exist. Back in the 70s you were left with a choice of paying money to see the film again, hoping to gain an insight you didn’t catch the first time around; or you could pick up the novelization, and learn what happened from the printed page.
This hardbound novelization of George Romero’s 1978 zombie classic is written by Susana Sparrow and copyrighted 1978. Romero had actually finished the film and screened it in the Fall of 1978 at the Cannes film festival, but the US version didn’t appear in theatres until the late Spring / early Summer of 1979, by which time it was competing with big-budget films like ‘Alien’, ‘Prophecy’, and ‘The Amityville Horror’. I remember it as something of a ‘stoner’ film, in that mainstream audiences really weren’t attracted to it. While the film’s gore seems rather unremarkable today, back in ’79 it was considered quite explicit, and to avoid garnering a dreaded ‘X’ rating from the MPAA, Romero released it as ‘unrated’. The film was popular enough to re-energize the ‘zombie genre’, spawned an entire ecology of dire Italian-made rip-offs, and played a major role in making zombies an indelible part of contemporary pop culture.
The novelization is pretty much a one-to-one narrative of the events of the film. It opens with the world in the grip of the zombie infestation featured in ‘Night of the Living Dead’. In Philadelphia, a SWAT team is entering a tenement to deplete its undead population and in the carnage officers Roger DeMarco, and Bad-Azz Mofo Peter Washington, form a bond. They join up with WGON-TV manager Francine Parker and her helicopter pilot boyfriend Steve Andrews, and escape the city in the station’s news chopper. The refugees locate the ‘Shopper’s Paradise’ mall in the outskirts of Pittsburg and decide to make it their new home. Our intrepid heroes discover that even if a mall has a resident population of hungry zombies, as long as you stay out of their way, you can get by. At least, until some hardcore, post-apocalyptic bikers come around, and these biker’s aren’t in a mood to share…
I won’t give away any more plot details so as not to spoil the experience for anyone who has yet to view the movie, but even if you have seen it, having a copy of the novelization around is a good excuse to indulge in some entertaining reading. Nowadays, with the ubiquitous nature of DVDs, video-on-demand libraries, and online movie resources, I don’t expect movie novelizations to have much allure for younger people. But if you’re over 40 you may find getting a copy of this book, in all its gory glory, will bring back some offbeat, fond memories of 70’s pop culture.
Saturday, March 7, 2009
'The Reporter', R.I.T., April 22, 1970
A fascinating look at the attitudes towards the pending Eco-catastrophe at college campuses in the Spring of 1970: the Rochester Institute of Technology school newspaper ‘The Reporter’. Along with articles and information about an upcoming environmental workshop, and depressing b&w photographs of mounds of garbage and polluted landscapes, there is a quasi-satirical article on preparing for the coming ecological trauma.
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
far out !
I was only nine years old at the time.
This Life article has no author attribution (common for the magazine at that time) but does credit Arthur Rickerby for the photographs. Since Life was primarily a picture-based magazine, the accompanying text is rather spare. It focuses on efforts by college students at a number of east-coast schools to promote Zero Population Growth ('ZPG') via demonstrations and teach-ins. The article features Mr Population Bomb himself, Paul R. Ehrlich, and reveals that he had a vasectomy to do his part to control the population explosion !
It's impossible to scan an entire page of the magazine using my (small) Canon 4400F flatbed scanner, so I'll have to post portions of pages (stitching two scans of the magazine cover to make a composite was a chore in itself).
Along with coverage of the ZPG scene and its 'groovy' participants, I've scanned some advertisements. Imagine buying a new Plymouth for under $3,000...! And back in '70 the cigarette companies could buy ad space and show how cool and sexy it was for young couples to share a smoke...!
but if you look at these pages and think, "....wow...how whacky were those crazy kids back in 1970... " ...just take a look at this picture from the March 3, 2009 Washington Post.
...yesterday it was 'Zero Population Growth'...
...today it's 'Global Warming' !
choose YOUR Eco-catastrophe.....
Monday, March 2, 2009
‘The End Bringers’ (Ballantine SF, 1973), by Douglas R. Mason, features a striking orange-red cover illustration of a city’s destruction by well-known artist Chris Foss.
Not too far in the future, in the aftermath of some undescribed cataclysm, the remnants of mankind live in high-tech cities maintained by robots. Most of the robots are fashioned to have a quasi-human appearance, and, referred to as ‘androids’, they handle every function of the city’s operation. The human population is left to indulge in every pleasure they may desire. ‘Mood-control disks’ attached to each person’s wrist display their emotional state; if things get too upsetting, androids monitoring the disk intervene to reduce tension and send their human client back on their hedonistic way.
Mike Finnigan is a malcontent among this society of lotus-eaters residing in the city of Wirral in what used to be Europe. Rather than taking part in orgies, drug parties, or simple leisure activities like sailing or swimming, Finnigan likes to ask questions about how the city came to be and what, exactly, the robots gain from the unusual socio-economic arrangement.
One day a large segment of the city’s population is summoned to be carted off for ‘medical treatment’ related to an outbreak of disease. Mike Finnigan is one of the selected ones, but instead of going along with the group, he covertly leaves the roundup and observes from a distance as the monorail-load of people travels to the vast agricultural districts outside the boundaries of the city. There he discovers that the androids’ rule is not entirely benevolent.
Finnigan quickly finds himself in a race against time to free the humans of Wirral from their gilded prison and establish a resistance movement. Things are complicated by the fact that the robot overseers of Wirral are contemplating a war with the AI ruling Africa, and they are not in the mood to tolerate any dissent among their human charges….
‘The End Bringers’ is a competent, action-oriented SF novel. It’s short ( 208 pp) and to the point and reflects the stance of the publishing industry back in the day, namely: shorter-length books were readily accommodated.
Mason wrote a large number of SF novels and short stories through the 60s and 70s, some under the pseudonym of John Rankine. I can’t say his writing is stylistically impressive; ‘Bringers’ has too many passages where Mason employs a breezy, future-sounding argot that instead comes across as stilted and contrived:
“That Alex has a point. You’d be a hard case to share a pillow with. Questions, questions. It’s just a feeling. A sense of obligation. The again bite of inwit.”
Wanda said, “I hope to God these zombies aren’t just playing dumb and waiting for us to get well in before they do their thing.”
Finnigan said, “Where would the entrances be ? In squares like this, for a monkey.”
In its favor, the narrative never loses momentum; the scope and scale of the war between the androids and the humans can only escalate, and along-the-way expositions of a deep emotional or philosophical nature are kept brief and to the point. Anyone looking for a fast-paced, pulpish SF adventure may want to give ‘The End Bringers’ a try.