Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P D Smith

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Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P D Smith

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Category: Popular Science
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ruth Price
Reviewed by Ruth Price
Summary: Whilst providing a fascinating history of the rise of superweapons and the scientists behind them, this very readable text is also a fine reference for doomsday-related film and literature. Diligently researched, this is a must for science-fiction fans – and an atomic science primer for dummies.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: September 2008
Publisher: Penguin
ISBN: 978-0141019154

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Having dallied with the odd CND march back in the '70s-80s, and while not normally a huge sci-fi fan (yet inordinately fond of certain creaky films like The Day The Earth Stood Still - which as well as offering underwhelming special effects, grapples with huge ideas about the death of humankind) I found a great deal to enjoy in Doomsday Men and its history of weapons which may now be capable of entirely destroying the planet.

As a non-scientist, I did find myself a little alarmed by its length – it weighs in at 576 pages, including extensive notes, bibliography (usefully divided into fiction, non-fiction and films) and index – but found that each chapter can be read, to some extent, as a separate essay so it is manageable for non-physicists. PD Smith has a very accessible style, too, and while the science behind superweapons is described, it's fine for the layperson – and very educational. Much of the book focuses on cultural history, and there is also lots to interest anyone that enjoys science-fiction in any form. It will also save the sci-fi fan much time as summaries of many important books are provided, so the reader can decide if they want to read/see the original, or if getting a glimpse of the original idea behind the novel/film is enough.

Doomsday Men is jam-packed with anecdotes – for example, the fictional life force Vril appears in Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race. Vril, as well as influencing Nazi occult ideas of the 'master race', combined with 'bovine' named that beefy brand 'Bovril'. Or that people regarded X-rays much as 18th century thinkers regarded electricity, as both entertainment and a key to unlocking the secrets of life. Will contemporary scientific obsessions like genetics prove to be as flawed in this respect, when our descendants read about early 21st century culture and science?

Much of the narrative focuses on Leo Szilard, the creator of the Manhattan Project, along with brief biographies of many other scientists including the Curies, Edward Teller, Fritz Haber and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun – the real Dr Strangeloves. Ironically, Szilard is eventually banned from working on atomic energy projects for security reasons, and turns instead to writing – science-fiction. I did on occasion find the timelines of these various scientists and their inventions slightly confusing, as they often are spread between chapters. A time-line of some sort would have been helpful as a reference for understanding the different stages in the development of atomic power. A literary/film/cultural timeline would have been helpful too.

While preparing this review, I read another review of this book which suggested that the lack of political background was a failing, and others which were bemused by the preponderance of science-fiction in its pages. I felt that the author got the balance right for the majority of readers – other books have looked at the politics, and the cultural references were made even more interesting when the reader sees the links to the science of superweapons. Floating around the pages are some fascinating ideas – is science-fiction an inspiration for scientific advance? Could one exist without the other? Perhaps the imagination is most important of all – a writer without the skills to realise the science may go on to inspire a scientist who will make it a reality.

As Smith points out in his epilogue, while collective fear of superweapons may have waned in the light of global warming and what appear to be more pressing concerns, The nuclear weapons are still there, of course, in their bomb bays and silos. They could yet start falling, this year or next. As I write this review, and Mumbai suffers terrible destruction – both India and Pakistan have nuclear capability. Perhaps we have become too complacent.

Thanks to the publisher, Penguin, for providing the Bookbag with this fascinating and frightening volume - a very useful reference tool for raising our collective doomsday consciousness.

For more great reading on this subject, Bookbag recommends One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Krushchev and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War by Michael Dobbs. For more on science-fiction, you can't do better than The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing by Richard Dawkins.

Buy Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P D Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P D Smith at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P D Smith at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Doomsday Men: The Real Dr Strangelove and the Dream of the Superweapon by P D Smith at Amazon.com.

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