Sunday, November 21, 2010

Uranium by Tom Zoellner

Why am I interested in nuclear tales, both fiction and non-fiction?  I can't claim to have spent my childhood steeped in the "duck and cover" heyday of the Cold War.  There's an interesting quote in Uranium's introduction that I can't personally relate to: "Growing up in the Cold War you could be vaporized with only ten minutes warning.  The brief warning period seemed more terrible than vaporization."  Maybe it's because I may owe my existence to Fat Man and Little Boy - because otherwise my father would have been wading ashore from 400 yards out in Operation Olympic with a likely low probability of survival.

Uranium tells the tale of the radioactive element itself, from initial discover to mining throughout the world.  The focus appears to be on the human costs of the mining itself - slave labor, poor working conditions, financial ruin.  Third world countries were exploited, totalitarian regimes ran roughshod over the populace, and unscrupulous deals led many to financial ruin.  All to get this rock out of the ground and processed for use in weapons (mostly) and power generation.

Unfortunately, it's not clear exactly what Zoellner's point is. No fingers are pointed.  No suggestions made.  No stance taken.  It's almost as though he wanted me to empathize with the rock itself rather than the miners.

Zoellner does sexualize the ore and its uses over and over again throughout the book.  Overtly.  Strangely.  And uncomfortably given the lack of emotion in the rest of the book.  He makes a penis-vagina analogy for the slamming together of the uranium masses in an atomic bomb.  Subatomic particle physics are described as orgiastic.  Here's a quote: "Man's most carnal tendencies are inflamed by the most modern of elements, uranium." On and on.

He did score a point with me by citing William Faulkner's Nobel prize speech in which he cites fear of being blown up as squelching effect on society in the 1950s.

So, what did I learn from Uranium?  Taking a lead from the author's fixation, I learned that Genghis Kahn was apparently quite the stud.  "DNA tests reveal that one sixteenth of the population of eastern Asia is genetically descended from one person, believed to be Genghis Kahn."  Booyah.

I much preferred Reed and Stillman's The Nuclear Express.


Unknown said...

Hi John,

Thanks for this novel piece of literary criticism! I would only point out that I am hardly the first person in history to construct a metaphor linking nuclear fission to sexual climax; this has been a common (and inevitable) trope since Hiroshima. See the work of Robert Jay Lifton for further detail.

In any case, this particular allusion occupies perhaps .0005 percent of the total real-estate in the book. The word "carnal" that you also cite refers in that context to nationalistic violence, not sex. So I'm of course left wondering what you thought of the vast majority of the text, where the real book was hiding all along.

I would write more about this, but I have to prepare for my romantic candlelit dinner tonight with a jar of selenium. But only after I call Barnes and Noble to ask them to sheath in plain brown paper all unsold copies of an otherwise-unassuming entry in the Earth Sciences section.

All the best,
Tom Zoellner

John said...


This is so cool. Thanks for not only reading my blog post but actually commenting as well. And so politely too. It must be tempting to really rip me (and every other amateur critic) a new one.

As you know, readers often see more of themselves in a book than the author's intent. You may infer from that whatever you wish!

Since I obviously wasn't tuned to your message, would you mind providing a little insight? Was it really the human price paid for the mining of uranium that you wished to bring to light? To put a human face, if you will, on the ore? Was the point that, regardless of the Hiroshima's or Chernobyl's, that a high price in lives has already been paid?

What might the alternative be? It's unlikely that no one will cease exploitation of any technology that might be weaponized. What lesson should I have learned?

One might also say that the damage caused by the west's mining of uranium (mostly risky businesses) pales in comparison to what happened behind the iron curtain (gulags). Therefore, we're talking more about systems of government and human rights.

Where it gets interesting is when native peoples are involved (e.g. Africans, native Americans, native Australians).

As you might have inferred from my post, my interests do fall more on the weapons side of things.

So after peeling back all the bodice ripping and heaving bosoms, I did enjoy learning more about uranium and where it was found. I liked the tie-in between the different sources and eventual end-uses. Uranium was compelling enough that I finished it in 3 sittings over 2 days. In the end though, the earth didn't move for me. (Last of the bad jokes.)

To thank you for your comment, I will buy another of your books and I'll let you choose which one. I see The Heartless Stone on amazon and a couple others. Just let me know.

Thanks again and best regards.

Unknown said...

Hi John,

Thanks for the reply. Short answer was that the book was never meant to have a strong point of view on the overarching questions -- i.e., should we ban nuclear power, disarm, build a thousand reactors, delay the START treaty, etc. It was intended as a "biography" of the element itself, structured like a long essay. What was really interesting to me was not the rock itself, ultimately, but our reactions to it as people and as nations. The rock has a lot to say about what it means to be human. The reader is sophisticated enough that I wanted to leave lots of beathing space for them to draw to their own conclusions on the political stuff. It wasn't meant to be an op-ed, but that isn't to say it didn't carry opinions. A lot of what I discovered disgusted me, esp. in the American Southwest and behind the Iron Curtain in the 1950s, as well as the situation in Niger, and I surely hope that disgust transferred to the page.

Anyway, enough on that...Thanks for reading it and bringing a thoughtful critique. And I'd be pleased if you read another. Check out The Heartless Stone, a biography of diamonds, a mineral more genuinely deserving of the pornographer's touch.


John said...


"The rock has a lot to say about what it means to be human." Kinda goes back to the old saying that most people can handle adversity but the true test of a person is how they handle power. Like the power and ability to utilize uranium.

I never considered the book as a bio of uranium. But I don't typically read biographies so it never would have occurred to me. And the natural history genre is kinda new to me also. I listened to Guns, Germs, and Steel during my commute and there's only so many stats about continental grass variations you can listen to before driving into a bridge abutment seems like a reasonable alternative. Thrillers on audiobook are much easier to handle. So I read The Day the World Exploded about Krakatoa in paperback and it was excellent.

Diamonds it is. I'll order it before week's end and slip it ahead of Manjit Kumar's Quantum in my to-read list.

Thanks again for the dialog. I wish more authors, musicians, and artists engaged with fans via the net. Years (eons?) ago I exchanged an email with Tom Clancy about one of his books. So very cool.