Review of “Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Politics of the Atomic Bomb”

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At its offset, it would seem that Fallout may be a part of a bandwagon to which most of the world is unbeknownst. The history of the self-described “graphic history” is a relatively short one. A natural off-shoot of the also-overly-used term, “graphic novel,” it has become something of a gold rush in a struggling book industry. Their accessibility and palettability makes them ideal for classroom and other educational settings… they appeal to young and old alike, etc. In a saying that seems as tacky as it is unlikely to the everyday cynic, graphic histories make learning fun.

But they also, often, make learning simple. Simplistic. Too simplistic. In fact many ‘graphic histories’ that have come out recently appear to be about topics by which the authors themselves don’t even appear to be highly engaged or inspired.

But, that is not this comic book.

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Title: Fallout: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Leo Szilard, and the Politics of the Atomic Bomb
Written by: Jim Ottaviani
Artwork by: Various (including Janine Johnston, Chris Kemple, Steve Lieber, Vince Locke, Bernie Mireault, Eddy Newell, and Jeff Parker)
Cover Illustration by: Jeffrey Jones
Published: 2000 by General Tektonics (GT) Labs, as a part of a series of books about science and scientists

Originally printed in 2000, making it a bit ahead of the graphic history game, Fallout documents the Top Secret rise, gritty enactment of, and perhaps also the fall–if not materially, then politically, and above all morally–of the Atomic Age. It is a part of a larger series released by the publisher, GT Labs, of books that popularize (and perhaps humanize) science and the history of science to those not in the ‘know’.

Blending first-hand accounts and quotes with hypothetical dialogue–deemed at the preface of the book to be true “science fiction”–Fallout takes you from the inception of the atomic bomb, as it was first simply a theory in the minds of a handful of scientists–many of whom were struggling to escape the grip of fascism in Europe. An prime example is the physicist Leo Szilard, one of the Manhattan project’s founders, who barely escapes Germany as a refugee in one of the last trains out of the country (he explains that he avoided scrutiny by traveling first class).

It is in this climate that scientists begin to do what would otherwise be unthinkable: keeping their work Top Secret, not publishing their findings, enlisting not only the funding but considerable control of scientic research through the U.S. military. It was all for a greater good: to defeat the rise of Nazi Germany and to one day, possibly, hopefully, end the War–to end all wars. For in the scientific mind, if it were in fact a given that the world is ruled by reasonable men–what man would there be who would begin a war against a country with a nuclear bomb? The book is rivetting not only in its ability to explain the scientific basis of how a nuclear reaciton works (something that has never made sense to me) but also in seeing how these men, who were all more or less geniuses and culturally enlightened intellectuals, could be led to believe that this project was not only a good idea, but an absolute necessity.

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The read is intriguing, even gripping (the first test of a nuclear chain reaction being recorded on the panel with the “click” “click” “click” “click” of the counter–the sound we all now associate with radioactivity in fallout zones–kind of gives you this ‘lightbulb over your head’ moment… “Aha! So that’s what each ‘click’ represents!”). You can tell from the narrative that the book is not only painstakingly researched, but done so by someone who believes in the need to know and understand the story. Perhaps this is an obvious requirement for all books of quality, but one that I would never take for granted in the category of a “graphic history”.

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I would give this book the highest of recommendations. It is everything I hope a graphic history to be when I open it for the first time. And although I began this piece talking about the medium, an exceptional graphich history will in my opinion, pull you into talking about the content as much, if not more, than the form.

In 2013, we are all so familiar with bite-sized pieces of atomic energy–from nuclear power plants to the trademark mushroom cloud, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Chernobyl and the meltdowns in Fukushima. But the introduction of such power into the realm of what was humanly possible was just as explosive, in the 1930s-50s, for everything from international Geo-politics to the limits philosophical and moral dilemmas that one human being can handle. In the words of Edward Teller:

“I made the great mistake of feeling relieved of my responsibility… the chance to show the world that science can stop a terrible war without killing a single person was lost.”

Or, more succinctly, of J. Robert Oppenheimer:

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