Friday, March 23, 2012

Book Review: 'The Orange R' by John Clagett

4 / 5 Stars

‘The Orange R’ (256 pp) was published in May 1978 by the Popular Library; the identity of the cover artist is not provided.

With the one-year anniversary of the Fukushima disaster at hand, a novel about the dangers of nuclear power seems appropriate reading.

‘Orange R’ is set in an alternative USA ca. 2000. Nuclear energy has emerged as the major source of power, and the industry wields unprecedented economic and political muscle. The NRC and AEC act to advance the interests of the fission energy consortiums, and deter any efforts by the public to lessen the influence of the nuclear mandarins.

The advent of ‘clean, cheap, and plentiful’ energy has not been without cost. Vast tracts of the northern US have been contaminated with fallout from accidents and the botched disposal of nuclear waste. Those areas of the US free from fallout are encased in enormous transparent domes, and the air and water entering these environs is decontaminated.

The population of the US is divided into two groups, all identified by the state of a dosimeter implanted in the backs of their hands. Once too many rads have been received the dosimeter is permanently altered to present a glowing orange R, as reflected in the book’s title. Those unfortunates with this modern Scarlet Letter are designated as ‘Roberts’, and forced to don contamination suits when entering cities and buildings otherwise free of fallout. Roberts are forced to live in the contaminated zones of the country and face discrimination from the ‘Normals’, the non-irradiated segment of the population.

‘Normals’, whose dosimeters display no orange R, are free to live without protective gear within their own cities; however, when stationed in the fallout zones, Normals must wear transparent rad suits. Normals are allowed so many minutes per week or month of exposure to the air, and are monitored for their dosage of radionuclides; too many rads, and there is a danger of developing the dreaded orange R, and permanent banishment to Robert country.

As the novel opens Kirk Patrick, an earnest (if not particularly imaginative) young man employed by the power company, is assigned to duty at a plant in Vermont – Robert country. Once on the job at his new workplace, Kirk befriends the local Roberts, including a pretty young woman named Anne.

As Kirk spends more time among the Roberts – always in his protective oversuit –he comes to appreciate the their unadorned take on life. As well, Kirk becomes aware of the prejudice against the Roberts casually displayed by the dominant Normals.

Will Kirk experience a revelation and join the Roberts in their struggle against the despoilment of their lands at the hands of the Nuclear Bloc ? Or will he remain a faithful Company Man, secure in his status as a Normal and the inheritor of the ‘modern’ US ?

‘The Orange R’ is not an action-centered novel along the lines of Swanwick’s ‘In the Drift’ or Robinsons and Scortia‘s ‘The Prometheus Crisis’. Rather, ‘The Orange R’ is a contemplative polemic against nuclear power.

Author Clagett makes clear from his opening chapter that he regards nukes as one of the biggest calamities to befall modern civilization. He makes his argument through the juxtaposition of the natural splendor of the New England countryside (at times the novel reads like a piece from ‘Field and Stream’ magazine), with the ecological 'atrocities' committed by the rapacious power industries.

‘The Orange R’ stands as an interesting premonition, coming as it does from the era prior to Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Readers looking for a thoughtful, if slow-paced, novel about nuclear power and its discontents, will want to search for a copy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Has some real similarities to the later O-ZONE by Paul Theroux. I'll have to check it out.