With the recent announcement that researchers have achieved nuclear fusion, atomic energy is once again in the news. But debates surrounding nuclear energy have actually existed before fission was fully realized. As H. Bruce Franklin notes, “for fifty years, the first atomic explosion in Robert Cromie’s 1895 novel The Crack of Doom until 1945, nuclear weapons existed nowhere but in science fiction” (131). H. G. Wells was the first to coin the phrase the “splitting of the atom,” and writers such as Karel Čapek explored the impact of atomic energy on sustainability and human progress.
Put differently, many of the debates surrounding nuclear energy — its benefits and dangers — are deeply impacted by literature, film, and other cultural products.
This is important to understand because, as Ann Stouffer Bisconti notes, one of the greatest factors shaping the public opinion about nuclear energy is media representation — whether real or fictional stories. For example, something like the Chernobyl disaster is relatively rare for nuclear reactors, but it received extensive media coverage and is still widely discussed today. This includes fictional stories about Chernobyl, such as the five-part HBO series by the same name. In short, stories matter, especially when it comes to environmental discourse.
Sci-Fi and Nuclear Disaster
Several scholars explore the cultural fascination with nuclear apocalypse as well as indirect reactions to the Atomic Age. For example, Cyndy Hendershot notes that many of the B-movies from the 1950s and 1960s — such as It Came from Outer Space (1953), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and Them! (1954) — may be a sort of psychological displacement about the horrors of nuclear annihilation. In other words, people struggle to deal with the fact that humans have created world-ending technologies, so “monster flicks” are a way of confronting our fears — at least indirectly.
Susan Sontag similarly wrote about this issue in a now-famous essay called “The Imagination of Disaster.” Why are people so captivated by disaster films, especially in science-fiction? Sontag theorizes that there’s a convergence between “high-brow” philosophical issues about the ethics of nuclear power (and nuclear weapons) and the “low-brow” B-movie genre. We should analyze film as an expression of cultural anxiety, for Sontag, precisely because it’s not rigid, academic discourse.
This view has had some effect, as many film viewers can’t see Godzilla as anything other than an allegory for nuclear war. But looking to cultural products like science-fiction is an important way to continue studying — including writers like Karel Čapek, who may not be a household name for Americans (yet!).
The Radium Age: Nuclear Before Nuclear
Cultural artifacts such as film and literature offer insights about how we discuss nuclear power today, because many of these films and books deal with the same issues. But these early films and novels are perhaps more notable, because they had these conversations before fission technology even existed.
Joshua Glenn describes an entire movement or “era” that pre-dates fission as the “Radium Age.” H. G. Wells, Robert Cromie, and others knew about radioactivity (radium, in particular, was widely discussed in the early twentieth century), and therefore imagined the many things that could be made from it. Cromie saw disaster as imminent; Wells imagined a utopic vision of a world forced into pacifism by the threat of nuclear holocaust.
For me, though, one writer stands out: Karel Čapek (pronounced cha-pek). Čapek wrote two novels around the same time dealing with nuclear power, The Absolute at Large (1922) and Krakatit (1924). And the former is really about what happens when we do achieve sustainability. Is it really enough to have the technology, or is there perhaps more at play, like politics and rhetoric?
Čapek’s Portrayal of Nuclear Energy
Čapek is perhaps best-known today for introducing the term “robot” along with his brother Josef in the 1920 play R. U. R. (which stands for “Rossum’s Universal Robots”). Čapek wrote extensively, and is one of the most influential Czech-language writers in history. His journalism and nonfiction are just as powerful as his novels and plays, particularly his writings about anti-fascism and anti-authoritarianism.
The Absolute at Large follows the development of nuclear energy through the creation of the “Karburator,” a technology vaguely described in the book as using atomic energy to create virtually unlimited power. There’s one horrible side effect: the technology releases the “Absolute,” a transcendent, possibly spiritual, force that drives humanity to fanaticism.
Čapek uses nuclear energy as a metaphor for political division and authoritarianism, a problem he recognized would become increasingly dire in the twentieth century. But his story’s reliance on atomic energy roughly 15 years before fission was fully realized is important because it shows the role of imagination in shaping public opinion.
In many ways, the technology works well: it creates energy like it should. The engineer who creates the Karburator realizes that there’s a side effect when you destroy matter (at least in this fictional world). The primordial memories of the universe, as well as the power of the Absolute (which seems to have a mind of its own), is no longer constricted by matter. Therefore, Čapek raises a fundamental question: simply because you can create a technology, does it mean you should?
The Absolute at Large is a good read for any sci-fi buff. It’s an interesting concept, and Čapek occasionally uses experimental writing techniques, especially toward the end of the book. He asks big questions about historiography (how we write history after major world events) and what he views as the key problem of environmental sustainability: Sustainability is not simply a technological problem, but it is also an ethical one.
We need humanists, novelists, journalists, and philosophers, to help us navigate the ethical and rhetorical dilemmas posed by sustainability. More people should study and read Radium Age fiction if they really want to understand the nuances of the nuclear debate (and also find some really good science fiction), and Čapek is a great place to start.
Bisconti, Ann Stouffer, “Changing public attitudes toward nuclear energy.” Progress in Nuclear Energy, vol. 102, 2018, pp. 103-113, doi.org/10.1016/j.pnucene.2017.07.002.
Čapek, Karel. The Absolute at Large. University of Nebraska Press, 2005.
Franklin, H. Bruce. War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination. Oxford UP, 1988.
Glenn, J. “Science Fiction: The Radium Age.” Nature, vol. 489, no. 1, 2012, pp. 204–205.
Hendershot, Cyndy. “From Trauma to Paranoia: Nuclear Weapons, Science Fiction, and History.” Mosaic, vol. 32, no. 4, 1999. Reproduced in Mosaic, 54.2 (2021): 37-54.
Sontag, Susan. “The Imagination of Disaster.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Ancho, 1966, pp. 201-25.