Category Archives: Modernist Studies

Radium Age Fiction and Nuclear Energy

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,

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.

Why Does Modernism Matter?

What is Modernism?

Modernism is a term used to refer to a collection of aesthetic, philosophical, and (in some cases) scientific movements in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. For example, in the arts, movements such as surrealism, expressionism, imagism, and vorticism are usually included under the umbrella term modernism. Today, many scholars use the term generally, but, since the inception of New Modernist Studies in the late 1990s, many agree that modernism is really more of a loose term than a rigid definition.

For many, modernism encapsulates some of the most significant events in recent history, such as the First World War and the Second World War (and consequently, the Holocaust), as well as events such as Einstein’s discovery of quantum physics, the invention of atomic warfare, the shift from primarily rural to urban populations (in the US), and the women’s suffrage movement (in the US and Britain). The list goes on.

Naturally, this is not to suggest the modernist period is more important than, say, the medieval or early modern periods (i.e., the Renaissance), but it is necessary to note that Western and even non-Western societies changed drastically during the modernist era.

Why Should I Care About Modernism?

For starters, modernists address many of the same issues that we still deal with today. One of the key ideas I’ll address here is the alienation of the modern world, which authors in the modernist period sought to critique. Let’s take Franz Kafka as an example.

Kafka was a Czech-born German Jewish writer who never really received literary fame until after he died. Today, we have the word Kafkaesque to describe the alienating, seemingly pointless (and often bureaucratic) way of life we experience on a day-to-day basis, and Kafka appeals to so many because he foregrounds precisely the things we might try to hide or avoid: our sense of awkwardness in social situations, our frustrations with work, failed romances, and the chaos of the modern world. Kafka teaches us that its OK to feel out of place, that there’s beauty in trivial circumstances, and that there are very real and unexpected threats to our freedom.

One of his best-known novels, The Trial (Der Prozess, or “The Process” in German) follows the protagonist, K., as he’s unexpectedly arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. As far as we know, at least, he seems innocent. As the story unfolds, K. meets a cast of strange characters, like a painter, a priest, and a lawyer, who seem to know the ins and outs of the system, yet no one can tell K. precisely everything he seeks to know. K. never finds the answers he’s looking for, and he ultimately resigns to his fate: two men (who originally arrested him) come to his apartment to carry out a death sentence. K. dies “like a dog” in the final pages, and we’re left with a sense of hopelessness.

What Kafka advances in The Trial is a theory of contingency to describe the modern world. In other words, K. has an ordinary job at a bank, and he lives his life in a rather ordinary fashion; he is, for all intents and purposes, a sort of “everyman” (or woman). But, the novel is about what happens when our expectations, our understanding of the world, is disrupted. For Kafka, the modern world is chaos, even though we might try to make some sense out of it. Kafka jolts us out of complacency, impelling readers to experience the harsh realities of life; that is, K. feels secure before the events of The Trial, but that security is misplaced. The Trial not only forces its readers to consider the contingency of everyday life, but also the ways modernity creates an alienating environment. K. gets caught up in his trial like a wave, like an unceasing and incomprehensible process.

While this story might seem depressing, it also serves as a wake-up call. Kafka was writing in the years leading up to the Nazi rise to power (though he died in 1924, before Hitler took control of Germany), and, as critics like Walter Sokel have illustrated, Kafka was also writing in a period when thinkers like Freud questioned the idea that we have conscious control over our actions. Kafka seems to be trying to liberate his readers, to grab them by the shoulders and insist they question everything they take for granted.

Where Do We Go From Here?

In the twenty-first century, we’re still dealing with many of the same issues Kafka raises in The Trial. That’s perhaps one reason in the recent film Blade Runner 2049 the protagonist is named K. (a transparent reference to Kafka’s work). It’s easy to be complacent, to settle for our jobs, for the current state of affairs, but what happens when that’s disrupted? Or, as Blade Runner 2049 asks, what if we’re not who we thought we were?

Kafka has a particularly bleak outlook, but some modernists, like Hermann Hesse, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, offer some answers. For Hesse, the alienation of the modern world leads to enlightenment, while Eliot insists (in works like “Tradition and the Individual Talent”) that in drawing from history we necessarily change it. Woolf shows us that there’s beauty in the quotidian, everyday stuff of the world, even if its something as simple as stopping in a garden or shopping on a busy street.

Modernism is important because it fundamentally asks us to change our perspective, whether it’s to question our surroundings or to simply stop and appreciate the world around us. For philosopher Martin Jay, in modernism, there are many viewpoints of the world–not just one. And this idea, for many, can be quite liberating.