Exploring the end of the world with nuclear literature and Daniel Cordle
My Nuclear LifeMay 31, 2022
00:53:1348.72 MB

Exploring the end of the world with nuclear literature and Daniel Cordle

This episode explores how we, as humans, grapple with the end of the world through nuclear literature including fiction, nonfiction, poems, etc. How do we grapple with the "end" if it is caused by humans and how do we explain nuclear events to children?
Shelly Lesher
Shelly Lesher

In this episode, host Shelly Lesher speaks with Daniel Cordle, Associate Professor in English and American Literature at Nottingham Trent University. He is an expert in culture and literature of the nuclear age. Before the recording of today’s discussion, Shelly read A Gift Upon the Shore, a novel published by R.K. Wren in 1990, per Daniel’s recommendation. Listen as they discuss this book and more.

One way humans deal with physical intrusion, such as nuclear threat, is through writing. It is a way of giving shape to fears. As a whole, nuclear literature focuses mostly on things that didn’t happen and may or may not happen in the future. When Shelly asked Daniel to suggest a book about nuclear literature, he referred her to  A Gift Upon the Shore. The novel addresses the questions of what makes civilization, what makes us human and what will our legacy as a society be? In the story, two very different societies cope with needing each other and makes the reader imagine what our own worlds may be like after a catastrophe.  Daniel explains his own definition of nuclear literature. While traditions have always been focused on end times, nuclear literature often provides a secular perspective on the topic. Another branch of nuclear fiction is the concern of aloneness and shelter, especially amidst the experience of wartime. Many images of the nuclear end of the world are atomization and isolation in their own shelters. Daniel explains the difference in British and American nuclear literature and the cynicism often found in British authors. There is a whole section of nuclear literature which explains the concept of nuclear war to children which exploded in the 1980’s. 

One area in which nuclear literature often falls short is in its struggle to conceptualize nuclear war. Our images of nuclear warfare often come from Hiroshima or Nagasaki. While these were terrible events in their own way, they aren’t the same as a worldwide nuclear war. In a broad sense, nuclear literature often encompasses a feeling of mythology. One way of making sense of all of this, it seems, is through images of bright lights and immense power contained in old stories. We know that when matter is converted to energy, an extraordinary amount of energy is bound up and released. While the nuclear age introduces new things, they are often understood through lenses which predate the nuclear age by a long way. It has always been associated with ancient poetry, myths and biblical references. Shifting gears, they discuss the common narratives around Los Alamos. Including the faulty perception many people have of scientists being lone geniuses rather than a product of an organization. Shelly points out that it is easy to romanticize Los Alamos as a Shangri-La, which is both problematic and unrealistic. As the conversation wraps up, Daniel clarifies that nuclear fiction is a genre on which people continue to write today.

Check out Daniel’s article.
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Literature mentioned

  • H.G. Wells, The World Set Free (1914) [novel]
  • John Hersey, Hiroshima (1946; updated edition with extra chapter, 1985) [feature journalism, originally published in The New Yorker, then as a book]
  • Ray Bradbury, 'There Will Come Soft Rains' (1950) [short story in the collection, The Martian Chronicles]
  • Dexter Masters, The Accident (1955) [novel]
  • Nevil Shute, On the Beach (1957) [novel]
  • Film: On the Beach (US, Stanley Kramer, 1959)
  • Leo Szilard, 'The Voice of the Dolphins' (1961) [short story]
  • Film: Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (US, Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
  • Hone Tuwhare, 'No Ordinary Sun' (1964) [poem, from the poetry collection No Ordinary Sun]
  • Rudolfo Anaya, Bless Me, Ultima (1972) [novel - one chapter of direct reference to nuclear context]
  • Leslie Marmon Silko, Ceremony (1977)
  • Raymond Briggs, When the Wind Blows (1982) [comic book/graphic novel]
  • Jonathan Schell, The Fate of the Earth (1982) [feature journalism, originally published in The New Yorker, then as a book]
  • Alice Walker, 'Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do' (1982) [book review of/response to Helen Caldicott, Nuclear Madness: What You Can Do - available in Walker's collection, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: Womanist Prose]
  • Tom Clancy, The Hunt for Red October (1984), Red Storm Rising (1986), The Sum of All Fears (1991) [novels]
  • Louise Lawrence, Children of the Dust (1985) [young adult novel]
  • Grace Paley, Later the Same Day (1985) [short story collection; nuclear contexts are only implicit and passing]
  • Stephanie S. Tolan, Pride of the Peacock (1986) [young adult novel]
  • Judith Vigna, Nobody Wants a Nuclear War (1986) [children's picture book]
  • Film: When the Wind Blows (UK, Jimmy T. Murakami, 1986)
  • Ian McEwan, The Child in Time (1987) [novel - passing nuclear references]
  • M.K. Wren, A Gift Upon the Shore (1990) [novel]
  • Chantal Spitz, Island of Shattered Dreams (1991) [novel]
  • Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place (1991) [memoir - nuclear context becomes clear in closing essay, 'The Clan of One-Breasted Women']
  • Joseph Kanon, Los Alamos (1997)
  • Cormac McCarthy, The Road (2006) [novel - nuclear context implicit]
  • Film: Into Eternity (Denmark, Michael Madsen, 2010)
  • TaraShea Nesbit, The Wives of Los Alamos (2014) [novel]
  • Louisa Hall, Trinity (2018) [novel]
  • Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, 'Anointed' (2018) [video poem - available at: https://www.kathyjetnilkijiner.com/dome-poem-iii-anointed-final-poem-and-video/ ] [See also some of the other poems in her collection, Iep Jãltok: Poems from a Marshallese Daughter]
  • Robert Macfarlane and Stanley Donwood, Ness (2018) [illustrated poem]
  • Robert Macfarlane, Underland: A Deep Time Journey (2019) [nature/travel writing - the nuclear chapter is titled 'The Hiding Place (Olkiluoto, Finland)']

Some other recommendations - a selection of well-known texts and less well-known texts:

  • Judith Merril, 'That Only a Mother' (1948) [short story]
  • Judith Merril, Shadow on the Hearth (1950) [novel]
  • Walter M. Miller, Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz (1959)
  • J.G. Ballard, 'The Terminal Beach' (1964) [short story]
  • Jerônimo Monteiro, 'The Crystal Goblet' (1964) [short story]
  • Ibuse Masuji* [trans. John Bester], Black Rain (1965) [novel]
  • Don DeLillo, End Zone (1972)
  • Russell Hoban, Riddley Walker (1980) [novel]
  • Tim O'Brien, The Nuclear Age (1985) [novel]
  • Gudrun Pausewang [trans. Patricia Crampton], Fall-Out (1987) [young adult novel]
  • Douglas Coupland, 'The Wrong Sun' (1994) [short story/reflection - published in the collection, Life After God]
  • Lydia Millet, Oh Pure and Radiant Heart (2005) [novel]
  • Kurihara Sadako* [trans. Richard H. Minear], When We Say Hiroshima: Selected Poems (1999 - date of publication of collection; poems much earlier)
  • Kamila Shamsie, Burnt Shadows (2009) [novel]
  • Hannah Cooper-Smithson, 'Alamogordo Glass' (2019) [poem - available at: https://plumwoodmountain.com/alamogordo-glass/]

* In Japanese, family names precede given names and I've not Anglicised them by reversing them - the family names in these cases are Ibuse and Kurihara.