PD Smith

You can’t please everyone

16 July 2007 | Atomic Age, Doomsday Men, Shute, Szilard, Wells, WMD | 12 comments

They say all good things must come to an end, and so it seems must a good run of reviews. At the weekend the Guardian published a less than flattering piece on Doomsday Men.

It was a joint review by Dominick Donald on my book and William Langewiesche's The Atomic Bazaar. Unfortunately neither book seemed to appeal to Donald: Doomsday Men was too long and Langewiesche's too short and over-priced. With my book he also seems to miss the point that it is a work of cultural history that traces the origins of the dream of the superweapon back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

The two quotes he uses from my book are from the prologue and the epilogue and it's true these brief sections do try to forge links with the current situation. But the rest of the book is history, and the fact that, as Donald puts it, the "literature and film that he has explored so exhaustively is (HG Wells and Neville [sic!] Shute, Dr Strangelove and Godzilla aside) unknown today" is to miss the point entirely. In their day, the novels, films, poems, and popular articles I draw into my argument were very well known indeed.

Apart from misspelling Nevil Shute's name, Donald mistakenly refers to how "Wells's nuclear weapon novel The Shape of Things to Come" inspired Leo Szilard's eureka moment while he waited to cross Southampton Row in London. It is, Donald says, a "well-established Wells connection". Unfortunately, it's not this novel but one written 20 years earlier, The World Set Free!

Still, mistakes aside it's an interesting article on nuclear issues today and worth a read. But given that - to quote Gribbin's review - my book is an "impassioned" exploration of superweapon culture, it isn't really surprising that someone who works for the growing private security sector (Tim Spicer's Aegis Specialist Risk Management) was unimpressed by Doomsday Men.

You can read Donald's review here.

12 comments so far:

  1. Paul Halpern | 16 July 2007

    The inaccuracies in Donald's review are staggering and scary. Virtually everyone I know grew up living in fear that the world would be destroyed, and was well familiar with the imagery of superweapons. So it wasn't just established scientists who were concerned.
    With regard to today's situation, it would be comforting to believe that non-governmental groups couldn't successfully develop WMDs, yet every serious proliferation expert I've heard speak considers it lucky that we've escaped such "homemade weapons" so far.

    And what does "suffers from portentousness" actually mean? Does the reviewer mean "aspiring to be portentuous?" because a portentous book presumably is right on the mark about a dire situation. And "concern [about nuclear weapons] is miasmic". I didn't know what that meant, so I did a search, and could not turn up any sense that "miasmic" (consisting of a poisonous vapour) could describe such a concern. And why shouldn't we be concerned? Should we just ignore the tens of thousands of nuclear missiles in the world?

    And yes, history of science and culture is not the same as current events!

  2. PD Smith | 17 July 2007

    Thanks Paul. Apparently the Guardian intend to correct the mistakes. As a postscript I'll just add that Dominick Donald himself got in touch via the website after this blog. As well as acknowledging the mistakes and saying he did enjoy the book, he didn't seem too keen on my reference to his employer.

    Perhaps I should clarify: The main reason I added this to my blog was because his review ended on a note of optimism regarding nuclear weapons. This seemed redolent of the words of Herman Kahn and his ilk during the Cold War. The attitudes of such 'military intellectuals' are, on one level, what my book is about and thus I felt justified in pointing out in my blog that he is in a sense part of this same culture, as his byline makes clear.

    For scientists, who your employer is and who pays for your research can be relevant. Why not for writers?

  3. David Thorpe | 17 July 2007

    You are absolutely right to question the authority of reviewers and where they come from, and demand corrections. I find it odd that the Guardian commissioned the piece from him in the first place. Regarding Donald's attitude, the complacency of some people never ceases to amaze me.

    For a related reason, I would be interested sometime to hear your take on Michael Heseltine's attitude to Greenham Common and its peace camp. His view is that the missiles saved us from attack during the cold war, the protestors' is that it made us a target. Last week we heard about the danger it posed to the surrounding area in case of an 'accident'.

    In short, under what circumstanceds is a nuclear deterrent justified, if ever, and how can we ever know (does the study of history help us)?

  4. PD Smith | 17 July 2007

    Hi David - some extremely interesting questions here and (as you might expect) I think the answers are far from simple.

    In a sense both sides are right: it seems to me nuclear weapons have been a deterrent. In fact I argue in my book that it was partly the doomsday culture - fiction & film - inspired by Szilard's idea of an ultimate world-destroying weapon that helped show people the terminal consequences of a war fought with wmd.

    Clearly though in the Cold War we were targets for Soviet nukes. And it wouldn't have taken very many to wipe out our green and pleasant land.

    But I don't think that the fact that there has not yet been a nuclear war in some way justifies the existence of nuclear arsenals. Morally I don't think nuclear weapons can be justified. A nuclear bomb is (to quote Enrico Fermi & Isidor Rabi, two leading atomic scientists) "an evil thing considered in any light".

    I hope this goes some way to answering your question - I would be interested to hear your views too! The news regarding the risks of an accident at Greenham was indeed shocking. A further example of how our lives were very much in the balance in the Cold War...and perhaps still are today.

  5. Kaytie M. Lee | 17 July 2007

    Well, you know, it's not the worst review I've ever read. Though he hasn't helped you win readers who might not have been interested in Super Weapons to begin with, his POV will certainly intrigue those whose interests are already aligned and may spur them to see for themselves.

    And the thing is, I think everyone has suffered through their own fear of Super Weapons. I remember a couple of years (fourth and fifth grade) when I'd have a recurring dream about nuclear war. It was the early-80s, nearing the end of the cold war, and for a kid, it was scary enough to know these weapons existed. So I think both books do, in fact, resonate with a general populace.

    As for Portentousness and Miasmic--he used the rarer definitions of the words without sufficient context to know that's what he meant, and so while they might be technically correct I don't think they helped get his point across.

    Anyway. I'm looking forward to reading your book, Peter.

  6. PD Smith | 17 July 2007

    Thanks for that Kaytie. Yes, I agree - I've certainly read worse reviews! And anyway it's all part of an ongoing debate...

    Yes, I bet you weren't the only one who had nightmares during the cold war. Unfortunately, people forget the real fear of those days.

  7. Alan Summers | 17 July 2007

    It made me buy the book immediately from Amazon.

    I'd rather buy locally, but recently had a bad experience.

    It will be interesting to see what a friend of mine thinks who is an award-winning science writer.

    Please don't worry, but I know how hard it can be to take a negative review. We're rootin' for you!

  8. PD Smith | 17 July 2007

    Cheers Alan! That's made my day...

  9. Alan Summers | 19 July 2007

    And Piers Bizony wants to read the book after I've read it!

  10. PD Smith | 19 July 2007

    Thanks Alan - Tell him to buy the Guardian this Saturday... The Man Who Ran the Moon is very good indeed!

  11. Kindra | 04 August 2007

    "The culture that does have the dream of the superweapon at its heart is the subculture of the scientists themselves."

    I know I am a few generations off, but I never saw any 'subculture of scientists' or Los Alamos guys at the highly successful "Terminator" movies or at "War Games" in the 80s, there were just way too many other people there...

    The dream of the superweapon is still a nightmare today, even if it now needs to compete with the fear of terrorists and global climate change.

    Looking forward to reading your book.

  12. PD Smith | 04 August 2007

    Thanks Kindra - good to hear from you!

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