In history, we look to very broad narrative arcs as explanatory mechanisms. We look toward causal factors and try to make sense of how these components act within their variety of contexts. We look for underlying stories and connections within the past. As such, broad historical narratives can be incredibly general and deeply impersonal—without the right hook or character, readers are left trying to connect fragments of a dry and disconnected set of events. In Under the Shadow: The Atomic Bomb and Cold War Narratives, David Seed uses film, science fiction, and a host of alternative cultural mediums from the early twentieth century onward to highlight very specific Cold War narratives and to pull together characters to highlight various historical trends. He finds personal hooks for his readers in order to invest them in his historical analyses. His collection and analysis of these specific narratives illustrate a variety of tensions that, he argues, permeates the very cultural fabric of the Cold War. While his work does not comprise a historical meta-narrative of its own, it brilliantly illustrates smaller, more specific narratives pertinent to Cold War literati and historical scholarly enthusiasts.
Seed’s work begins with an examination of a somewhat unexpected author—Under the Shadow introduces The World Set Free: A Story of Mankind by H.G. Wells, published in 1914. While one might expect to start an analysis of Cold War narratives with stories (and film) in a post-World War II time frame, Seed’s analysis and commentary of history and literature draws from the early nuclear chemistry of the late nineteenth century and ends with a consideration of a postwar landscape. Under the Shadow works to make sense of a myriad of ways of engaging with nuclear weapons and their cultural fallout. (Pun intended.) Seed works with concepts (narratives) of nuclear refuge, the “do-it-yourself survival” which he ties interestingly into American exceptionalism, and questions of how war is reported, talked about, and engaged with in a nuclear age. He begins Under the Shadow by thoroughly grounding The World Set Free as a starting point for common apocalyptic tropes and mores of nihilistic technology and the deconstruction of a “modern state” that H.G. Wells introduces. Seed points out that these “types” of tension (really, Wells’s multi-genre work in literature) became imbued into traditional nuclear and science discourse. All of Seed’s analytic commentaries draw on a specific story, film, or motif, and his academic expertise works to weave in unexpected elements of history, philosophy, political science, and literature.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Seed’s analysis is his highlights of the interplay between science, history of science, and literature—looking at how each fundamentally and literally affects the other. Case in point: the discovery of the atom and its societal implications. Seed points out the chronology of H.G. Wells reading Frederick Soddy’s work on radiochemistry in the late nineteenth century, followed by his publication of The World Set Free, and the subsequent effect his book had on physicist Leo Szilard (credited with formalizing the idea of the neutron chain reaction in 1933) after he read it in 1932, the same year the neutron was described. Seed’s readers see that science, fiction, history of science, and even science fiction become a fantastically intertwined and complex milieu. What we might want to break into neat, separate spheres of intellectual domain, Seed forces us to examine as an intricate multi-component system, one that influence narratives.
Wells read and admired Soddy’s book, writing him into the narrative [of The World Set Free] as Professor Rufus, whose declaration in a lecture that radioactivity is signally the “dawn of a new day in human living” continues Wells’s opening narrative role as the chronicler of human progress. . . . The next phase covering the 1930s comes when a visionary scientist discovers a method of releasing and controlling this energy with the results of coal disappearing as a fuel. As these changes take place, Wells’s (Soddy’s?) utopian hopes of social transformation start to take on a more sober tone, because for every advance there is an unexpected problem.
Make no mistake—Under the Shadow is an intellectually dense and multi-layered book, and it highlights Seed’s clear expertise and academic credentials. Readers should expect to exercise their knowledge of Cold War literature, history, stories, and film as Under the Shadow expects a great deal of familiarity with the stories as a starting point. However, Under the Shadow is a book that weaves together a variety of disciplines with clear expertise and interesting things to say. One walks away from the book with a newfound appreciation of the complexities and intricacies of the subject.