There is a lot going on in this book, and it is my first William T. Vollmann novel as well as a partial read since I have not yet started Volume 2. This volume is divided in two. A long introduction of about 250 pages gives a compendium of different measures, units, formulas related to energy, carbon and everything scientific the remainder of the two volumes use. The second part concerns the first “carbon ideology”, nuclear power. I did also read a lot of criticism (“some of the math is wrong, the anti-nuclear position is dangerous, who cares about alpha and beta waves anyway?”) and to be quite honest, most of the points raised seem quite reasonable.
All of which does not explain why I actually enjoyed the book, or why I am reviewing it now—the answer to the latter may simply be that I enjoyed it for reasons I cannot quite pin down, and hope that through writing I will. Not being super knowledgeable on the topic, but still interested enough to go through the long introductory section on units and comparisons, I liked the book almost purely as a literary achievement rather than a scientific one. Which is not to say that I believe the text would be better off removing every trace of numbers and data to make it more compelling. They actually tell a story of their own.
To the criticism that the author seems to indulge in the methodical copy of every inane measurement he hazards to take, I would answer that it is a narrative part of what sets the book in motion: what can we know? who knows what? how do we even begin to measure the size of the foreboding catastrophe?
Victor Hugo too was criticised for his long, winding, digressive descriptions that mattered little to the plot. But they were necessery to build an aesthetic of almost atmospheric narrative, where the world of the novel bleeds far beyond its pages, unencompassable and yet vividly relevant to the story at hand. And if the climate change revolution is not one of the people and uprisings (yet), it is one of the hard numbers, the ones that tell part of the story but not all, the thresholds that some—the “authorities”, widely mocked throughout the section on Japan—define to separate “danger” from “harmful rumors”, the ones concerned citizens can try to approximate and understand for themselves, foiled at every corner by the precision of their instruments, the experimental method of collection (check the drains? the gutters? the herbs? the water? the food?) The result is a global confusion: what does it mean that the radioactivity at Dostoievsky’s grave is greater than that at the orchid garden of Singapore? What should my response be? The authorities’? What is at stake?
So the world of the numbers maps a new reality of the changing space after the nuclear catastrophe. A bush is no longer a bush: it is a bush emitting at a rate of .48 micros an hour. In line with this inquiry, Vollmann spends time describing the new objects of the “quotidian”, symptoms of the catastrophe: the red and white fences banning access to the red zones, the black bags sitting silently at every corner. How the contamination has redrawn the map is a point orthogonal to the question of whether we should have more or less nuclear in our energy mix. As one critical review has noted, perhaps more people have died from unnecessary relocation than would have if they had simply stayed in the contaminated area. This may be true, but would we expect any serious government to do less than necessary to provide the illusion of safety and control after such a dramatic event?
If all of this can be a new reality, it is a frightening one described with minutiae by Vollmann, in what I found to be the most compelling segments of the book. Part of why I found them compelling is the tension between what should be the cold rational approach that the author clearly is intent on following and the sometimes knee-jerk reactions of both the general population of Fukushima and their authorities. If this new world must be understood from the numbers alone, and if the 250 pages of introduction to the science raise more questions than they answer, where are we left to stand?
I can agree with some reviews that the sarcasm can get tiring. Though it is sometimes deadpan hilarious, the author wondering whether the agent stationed at the fence closing the red zone will ultimately get cancer for the n-th time gets repetitive. But for the impressionistic description of a world upturned by a major catastrophe (and a warm-up for what is to come, perhaps) and the new normal it brings about, I recommend the book.