Science Fiction Studies

# 18 = Volume 6, Part 2 = July 1979

Albert I. Berger

Nuclear Energy: Science Fiction's Metaphor of Power

The SF dictum that stories ought to be postulated on scientific concepts extrapolated from the existing data has not always been an easy standard for the genre's writers to maintain. Amazing Stories, the first pulp magazine to segregate science fiction stories under one cover, was also publisher Hugo Gernsback's editorial forum for just that dictum. Yet, while beginning publication in 1926, twenty-one years after Albert Einstein promulgated his Special Theory of Relativity, the magazine and the genre it promoted occasionally found 20th century physics to be something of an embarrassment during the years when physicists were "storming the fortress of the atom."1

A central feature of this embarrassment was the "Universal speed limit," ascertained by the physicists Lorentz and FitzGerald: particles cannot travel at, or exceed, the speed of light.2 The same science promising the fulfillment of so many fantasies of power and prosperity seemingly demolished an equal number focused on interstellar travel. But since Gernsback's idea of "scientifiction" was an extrapolation of existing scientific knowledge to the presumably more advanced technologies of the future, his writers learned to finesse the problem by creating ways to evade the speed limit. The typical pattern was set by "The Skylark of Space," in November, 1928, when Edward Elmer Smith, a foods chemist and fledgling writer, directed his attention to Einstein's equation E=mc2. Despite the enormity of the explosion resulting from the total conversion of mass to energy, such forces cannot propel particles faster than light. However, despite this limit on the extrapolation from Einstein's work, the sheer size of the forces nuclear power was expected to place at human disposal became a metaphor for the nearly magical fashion in which heroic scientists could overcome the inconvenient laws of nature and get spaceborne cowboys out to the endless frontier of intergalactic space.

As a metaphor, atomic energy filled SF magazines long before the Manhattan Project demonstrated the actual powers released by the split nucleus. Atomic power plants were propelling men from star to star as well as revolutionizing life on Earth. It was the central component of the belief that technological innovation was the principal revolutionary force in the world. Once nuclear energy gave promise of actually fulfilling dreams of unlimited power, boundless social changes could be envisioned. Eventually, this metaphor, enriched by an awareness of the new, real research into the nucleus which characterized physics in the 1930's, was combined with the demand for better and more realistic stories which marked the genre as a whole and Astounding Science Fiction (ASF) in particular.

Although John W. Campbell, who became Astounding's editor in 1937 and remained editor until his death in 1971, had originally made extensive use of the atomic metaphor in a series of adventure stories written in the early thirties, he soon adapted it to his more thoughtful pieces, self-consciously historical and cosmological stories written under the pseudonym of Don A. Stuart. For example, developing the notion — common enough in the genre — that the Solar System is no more than an atom in some incomprehensibly larger universe, itself populated by intelligent beings, Campbell suggests a much less common thought: that the nuclear experiments of such larger beings might threaten Earth with destruction. The total nature of the catastrophe on Earth, and the total and rapid salvation following the hero's discovery of atomic power, emphasize its importance and dual nature. Campbell had been trained as a physicist at MIT and Duke University. Yet even for him nuclear energy was more than a powerful technological tool. It also could be the crucial factor defining the relationship between humanity and the universe around it.3

This duality continued to mark the role atomic energy played in science fiction as Campbell's efforts as Astounding's editor began to discipline a new group of writers. Some of these were veterans of the pulps: A.E. Van Vogt's roots were in the work of Max Brand, not H.G. Wells or Jules Verne.4 Others, like Isaac Asimov, were not yet out of their teens when they began writing to Campbell's taste. But, more through common assumptions than the powerful influence of Campbell's editing, both groups developed the central characteristics and limitations of the atomic metaphor.

"Slan" (ASF, September-December 1940), for example, van Vogt's first novel-length serial, combines nuclear energy, telepathy, space flight, and the persecution of racial minorities as elements in a complex narrative. As he flees from an angry society patterned after Nazi Germany, young Jommy Cross, a telepathic mutant, is searching both for allies in the political struggle against the persecution of the slans and for clues to his own parentage. The key to both quests is an invention of his dead father's, an atomic power device found hidden in a secret laboratory. He develops the device into a propulsion system for a spaceship which he intends to use as a weapon to overthrow the government — a motif by then quite traditional in the genre. However, even with the device — this only link with a father he never knew — Cross is only projected deeper into the complexities of an increasingly convoluted political situation which defies forceful solution. Persecuted on the surface of society, the slans actually control the government and are working towards eventual popular acceptance of their superiority and rule. "Slan" is an adventure story, developing its complex themes only inadvertently and superficially, but within its narrow limits it marks the larger uses to which van Vogt could, and would, put the metaphor of technological power in such stories as the "Weapon Shops" cycle and The World of A.5 Political and social problems exist, but the physical power developed through a nearly magical technology is, increasingly, the central means by which the varied elements of a situation can be understood.

Other writers, less inclined to adventure than van Vogt, were developing the atomic metaphor as a symbol of cultural unity. In the series of short stories which would later be collected into the Foundation trilogy, Isaac Asimov deliberately uses miniature atomic industrial devices in place of weapons to illustrate the superior skills of his envisioned political system. "This is dangerous, but so is a buzz saw," one trader remarks as he demonstrates the atomic tools with which one remnant of the defunct Galactic Empire will be integrated into the rising Foundation's economic sphere of control. Under other circumstances, the Foundation controls several planets by convincing their inhabitants that nuclear energy is a beneficial magic dependent upon scientifically trained "priests" whose curses and interdictions draw great effect by withholding power from sinners who oppose the Foundation's rule. As undemocratic as this seems, both instances juxtapose the Foundation’s relatively democratic capitalism with the feudal dregs of the fallen Empire. But both instances reveal that Asimov finds technology the most useful index for understanding societies. Despite his marginal membership in the Futurians, a left-leaning group of fans whose political activities got six of their number barred from the First World Science Fiction Convention in 1939, Asimov makes possession of one particular innovation, nuclear power, rather than economic organization or social institutions, the key to his definition of civilization and progress.6

Although the principal function of the Manhattan Project was the construction of an atomic bomb, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi had first built a nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago to prove that a sustained chain reaction was possible. Similarly, it was in several stories involving nuclear reactors rather than bombs that SF first combined its at least passing knowledge of actual nuclear physics with the best of the new attempts at realistic extrapolation that Campbell had promoted. Three of the most prominent stories deal with reactors within the framework of an industrial structure characterized by cutthroat competition, political corruption, and charges of the dangers attendant upon competing technologies. None recognized the growing involvement of government money and university scientists in research, and, as in the Asimov stories, all foresaw technology promoting drastic changes in material and political conditions. All three minimized the ability political, social, or economic institutions had to shape human life; and the distaste for such institutions was muted only by a conviction of their ultimate impotence.

In particular, "Lobby," by Clifford Simak (ASF, April 1944), dwells on the competition between conventional power companies and the prospective developers of atomic power. Although it anticipates the development of nuclear-generated electricity under the auspices of private enterprise, the story is clearly unsympathetic to businessmen. Not only are established corporations portrayed as corrupt and violent in their campaign to discredit nuclear developers, but those developers themselves are chided by the hero, in the name of a fledgling world government, for allowing the game of defeating the "power gang" to obscure the true goal of providing cheap power to the world. In the end, the technological power of nuclear energy would force a reorganization of political and economic power, taking it out of the hands of both business and politics:

... another hundred years and government by demagoguery will be done. Little men with talent for grabbing votes will have given way to men who make a profession of good government. Men who are trained for government just as doctors are trained for medicine or attorneys are trained for law. Men of science will govern, running the world scientifically in the interest of the stockholders — the little people of the world.

It was clear that the rule of such men would be a repudiation of business' commercial concerns, although, as in "Lobby," maverick businessmen bucking the system were heroes often enough. But such businessmen were most often portrayed as primarily tough-minded technicians, as in Robert Heinlein's early stories. An Annapolis graduate trained in the non-commercial professionalism of the Navy, Heinlein had only brief business experience. From the first, his capable and cynical heroes represented the engineer's critique of the boardroom, a protest against the subordination of ingenuity and craftsmanship to a safe rate of return. It was even possible for him to envision a situation in whlch a nuclear reactor explosion might threaten to destroy all life on Earth while the corporation controlling the reactor balks at any protective measures until faced with a smear campaign backed up by the President, himself convinced by zealous scientists. The protective measures themselves — exporting the dangerous reactor into orbit — are made possible by two technicians' independent, spare-time research. Together with "Lobby" and Lester del Rey's "Nerves" (ASF, September 1942), Heinlein's "Blowups Happen" (ASF, September 1940), illustrates the hopes invested in the salaried but nonetheless independent and idealistic engineers whose initiative is separate from company policy or the pursuit of profit.

That initiative itself is always a personal one, rooted in the history of Edison's and Ford's inventive tinkering despite the constant involvement of theoretical scientists, research teams, and large sums of money. Missing is an appreciation of the size and organization which had come to established science, partly through the concepts of mass production and the research laboratory pioneered by Edison and Ford themselves and partly through the sprawling, international, theoretical study of the atom which culminated in the Manhattan Project. Few stories gave much attention to the kind of industrialized science and time-clock punching characteristic of modern research particularly the wartime research establishments where many SF writers, including Heinlein himself, were later to work:

. . . mechanics to keep equipment in condition, electrical and chemical and other kinds of engineers. Foremen who ride bikes to get from one part of a floor to another to check operations. Fitters and men who bring in uranium to feed the apparatus. Girls out of college supervising girls out of high school who stand in front of a dial watching to see if a needle jumps from zero to ten. Ph.D.'s who turn Knobs.7

Such organizations (as much as the profit motive underlying Business), alienated SF writers from large corporations and the government. Simak, in "Lobby," even went so far as to make practical atomic power an industrial secret which one inventor had and from which others were "a million miles off base." Acutely aware of the competition among established corporations and newcomers for control of technological innovations, few writers indicated an awareness of the changing structure of business or the uneasy relationship between business and government brought about as a result of the Depression by the New Deal. Nor were the implications of the Tennessee Valley Authority considered — which indicates that these men who were willing to make educated speculations on the future of technology were neither aware of nor prepared for the directions being taken by contemporary industrial innovations. This was true even when, as in the case of the TVA, technology was transforming the social structure of a region previously devoid of its benefits; or where, as in Heinlein's case, their interests were explicitly political.

Later stories emphasizing the peaceful uses of atomic energy were overshadowed by two stories dealing with its military uses. Easily the more substantial of the two was Heinlein's "Solution Unsatisfactory" (written under the pseudonym of Anson MacDonald): a story revealing his disdain for politicians' abilities to deal with technological change and his intense distrust of every government in the world, including the United States, under the wrong management. The lesser of the two, Cleve Cartmill's "Deadline'" a routine melodrama, entered SF lore because Cartmill’s incidental description of an atomic bomb was close enough to the design under development at Los Alamos to earn both Cartmill and Campbell visits from intelligence officers after the story appeared in Astounding's October 1944 issue.8

In retrospect, it seems ironic that intelligence officers would single out Cartmill's story for attention, as it represents perhaps the worst kind of SF — an ordinary commando yarn transposed into an interplanetary and superficially scientific milieu. The scientific realism which earned its author and publisher security interviews is forced into the background, allowing the story to proceed with such scenes as a fight between otherwise human beings with prehensile tails, Cartmill's only concession to his story's interplanetary setting and far more common in Astounding's competitors.

But the real importance of this tendency to see nuclear power as a metaphor for an unlimited human technological capability is seen in the genre's self-conscious, serious work, rather than in the light adventures. Campbell, in his November, 1945 editorial (the first off the press after the public announcement of the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki), reinforced the metaphorical view of atomic energy in two ways. While tipping his hat toward the fledgling United Nations as a stopgap, the editor pronounced a death sentence on the civilization that had existed before the July 16, 1945 "Trinity" test firing of the first atomic bombs. It was, he wrote, "the death of a cultural pattern based on a balance of military power controlled exclusively by big and wealthy nations" (ASF, November 1945). But if this real manifestation of the technological metaphor was enough to alter the world's cultural and political patterns, another, as yet unrealized, might be powerful enough to save the status quo. The creation of the bomb, in Campbell's opinion, might lead to the construction of another device common in the genre, a "force field," capable of withstanding a nuclear blast. With the balance of offensive and defensive technology restored, there might be no need for massive cultural changes.

With Hiroshima seemingly providing such powerful validation for both science fiction's anticipation of nuclear energy and for the metaphorical use to which the genre put the technology, there was a certain sense of pride in many of the letters flowing over Campbell's desk into the magazine's "Brass Tacks" correspondence column. Urging Campbell to reprint the seemingly prophetic pre-war stories along with the Smyth Report (the official Army history of the Manhattan Project) and articles on the peaceful uses of atomic energy, fans justified their much-maligned hobby as "an education of a public for a future which is now, as it always has been, amazing to consider." With letters from even Los Alamos (home of the laboratory which built the original bombs) complimenting Campbell on his editorial policy, the self-congratulations extended into the network of amateur, fan-published newsletters which had existed since the thirties.9 Forrest J. Ackerman, among the most prominent of active fans, used his "fanzine" Glom to reprint an article by W. Bradford Shank, a physicist and member of the Federation of Atomic Scientists, who credited science fiction writers:

not . . . because their fevered imaginings have pointed the way for research, but because they have sold a substantial bloc of the American people the idea that scientists can do almost anything.... Writers and cartoonists with much less knowledge but a better sense of the inherent accelerating tendency of technological progress . . . presented atomic power in all sorts of applications.10

Eventually, this backslapping led Chandler Davis, a fan as well as an occasional and thoughtful writer for Campbell, to note that many fans were thinking far more about the justification that the atomic bomb gave science fiction than they were about the implications of the weapon itself. "The fact that your life is in danger," he wrote in his mimeographed Blitherings, "seems to interest you less than the fact that Anson MacDonald predicted your life would be in danger'' (Spring, 1946).11

The story to which Davis was referring is Heinlein's "Solution Unsatisfactory" (ASF, May 1941), an excellent example of both the power and limitations of the technological metaphor. As weapons, the atomic devices in Astounding's "realistic" stories strengthen the image of nuclear energy as an "ultimate power" against which there can be no defense. By breaking the traditional military cycle between offensive power and defensive strength, Heinlein creates a situation of maximum terror, which he uses, years before Hiroshima, to support his contention that a major revolution in international relations would be necessary should atomic power ever be used as a weapon (and incidentally placing Campbell's later comment on the end of balance-of-power politics in a most ominous light). By conjuring up a vision of a "death dust" (which Manhattan Project engineers had actually rejected as impractical), Heinlein removes every sort of protection or succour from the victims of atomic bombing. Even food and water supplies, he imagines, would be hopelessly contaminated. Moreover he clearly points out that an ultimate weapon would also, by definition, be universal: its secrets would be available to all industrial nations, and they all would be vulnerable to its destructive capabilities.

This was a point made more widely, but with little public impact, by the various scientists' movements hoping to influence American policy once the atomic bomb became a reality. Once it is even suspected that a particular scientific process is possible, anyone with sufficient creativity and physical resources can undertake it, regardless of any security procedures invoked.12 Cartmill, the adventure writer, could invest his hopes in a commando team. Heinlein, whose intentions were to demonstrate the extended implications of scientific developments, assumes that the power of such a destructive development would force a political revolution, in this case a worldwide American military dictatorship. Perceiving technology solely as power, Heinlein concluded that the only alternative to destruction was political power equal to the force of the bomb: a revolution led by tough-minded individuals as ruthless and unstoppable as the rules of physics, even if, as in the case of the dictator in "Solution Unsatisfactory," they dislike and regret what they are forced to do.


1. Robert Jungk, Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, transl. from the German by James Cleugh (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1958), p. 51.

2. Martin Gardner, The Relativity Explosion (New York: Vintage Books, 1976), p. 29.

3. Don A. Stuart (pseudonym for John W. Campbell), "Atomic Power," Astounding Stories, Dec.1934. See also Campbell's "When the Atoms Failed," Amazing Stories, Jan. 1930, and "The Mightiest Machine," Astounding Stories, Dec. 1934 - Apr. 1935.

4. Personal interview with A.E. van Vogt, June 9, 1973.

5. A.E. van Vogt, "The Seesaw," ASF, July 1941; "The Weapon Shops, ibid., Dec. 1942; "The Weapon Makers," ibid., Feb. - Apr.1943; "The World of A," ibid., Aug. -Oct.1945.

6. Isaac Asimov, Foundation (New York: Avon Books, 1951), III:6-7: 107-116, V:8:162-164, V:13:180, after initial publication as "Bridle and Saddle" and "The Big and the Little" in ASF, June 1942 and Aug. 1944. See also Sam Moskowitz, Seekers of Tomorrow (New York, 1967), p. 254, and Damon Knight, The Futurians (New York, 1977), pp. 38-39. Charles Elkins undertakes an extensive critical exploration of Asimov's conception of historical change in "Asimov's Foundation Novels: Historical Materialism Distorted into Cyclical Psychohistory," SFS, 8 (1976).

7. Robert A. Heinlein, "Lifeline," ASF, Aug. 1939; "Let There Be Light," Super Science Stories, May 1940 (under the pseudonym of Lyle Monroe); "Blowups Happen," Sept. 1940. See also Moskowitz, Seekers, pp. 194-195 and Lester del Rey, "Nerves," ASF, Sept. 1942. The description of the giant plants at Oak Ridge, part of the Manhattan Project, is from Daniel Lang, Early Tales of the Atomic Age (Garden City, NY, 1948), p. 36. The use of a time clock at a military research station is from Isaac Asimov's account of his tenure at the Naval Air Experimental Station, Philadelphia in The Early Asimov (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1972), p. 397. Asimov joined Heinlein and L. Sprague DeCamp in substituting military discipline at the Philadelphia establishment for Campbell's.

8. John W. Campbell, "Science Fiction and the Opinion of the Universe," Saturday Review, May 12,1956.

9. James Bourne, J.M.B. Churchill, and an anonymous letter (from a self identified Los Alamos worker) to ASF, Dec. 1945, pp. 170-176; William Lawrence, ibid., Apr. 1946, p. l 78.

10. W. Bradford Shank, "Need Shown for Scientific Not Fictional Prophecy," Glom, No. 4, Apr. 1946. after initial publication in the Los Angeles Daily News, Apr. 5, 1946.

11. Davis' magazine was published under the aegis of the Fantasy Amateur Press Association (FAPA), which circulated copies of member publications to approximately 65 people, each obligated to contribute to each mailing. For a description of FAPA and the fan community generally, see Harry Warner, All Our Yesterdays (Chicago, 1965).

12. Alice Kimball Smith, A Peril and a Hope: The Scientists' Movement in America, 1945-47 (Chicago, 1965) and The Atomic Age, Morton Grodzins and Eugene Rabinowitch, eds. (New York, 1963). The latter is a collection of articles from The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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