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Chernobyl: Real vs. Reel

In the autumn of 1986 my mother called me. We typically spoke over the phone about once or twice a month during this time. During this call the subject quickly came around to the recent nuclear disaster in the Soviet Union. "Steven," my mother asked me, "what the hell happened at Chernobyl?" She asked me that question for a specific reason: my brother is the writer, but I am the historian. I studied Russian history for 2 years in the Ph.D. program at Columbia University before switching to its library school. While I attended library school part-time I worked full-time in Slavic book acquisitions in the university's library, and also rented a room in an apartment from a Russian emigre. From this circumstance I found myself doubly "linked in" to the Russian emigre community in Washington Heights. I lost count of the hours I spent sitting at the kitchen table of a Russian family, drinking tea and eating cookies* while listening to them tell me about life in the Soviet Union. They knew I had an interest in their history, that I respected and wanted to hear about their lived experience, and they shared their stories with me. My mother knew this, and therefore asked me to explain the inexplicable to her. 

I knew the analogy that would work. Shortly after her younger son left for college, my mother decided to go to college too. She graduated a year or two after I did. She and I did not always give our best effort for every class. We had that in common. My mother in particular detested some of her required classes and typically did a little as possible to muddle through them. 

"You know, Mom, when you're taking a class you don't like and really do not want to spend much time on the term paper?" 

"Yes, of course." 

"Well, you know how some papers you are really just 'whipping it off' and not really doing all the work that, ideally, you should?" 

My mother laughed and admitted that yes, indeed, she had written more than one such paper.

"Now, try to imagine an entire society, a whole Nation/State, with almost everyone, including the people who run nuclear power plants, everyone just 'whipping it off.' "

Long silence. Finally, my mother said, in an unusually hushed voice, "You mean to tell me that at Chernobyl, they were just ..." Her voice trailed off. 

"Yes, they were doing a safety check the same way that you crank out a C paper in a class you don't care about, just to get it out of your stack of crap you don't want to do but have to anyway. They were "whipping off" a safety check and the reactor blew." 

The recent HBO mini-series about the Chernobyl disaster captures life in the 1980s in the Soviet Union in a very hit and miss sort of way. Some details they got right, but the essence of Soviet society and the underlying causes of the nuclear meltdown they completely mischaracterized. 

Masha Gessen noticed many of the same disconnections from the reality of life in the Soviet Union as I did. She describes these in her excellent column in the June 4, 2019 New Yorker magazine What HBO’s “Chernobyl” Got Right, and What It Got Terribly Wrong. In particular, she points out the final episode's courtroom scene as an example of something that would never have happened -- the "hero" delivers a cathartic (for us) speech about truth and lies that does not look even remotely believable if you understand that place and time. For me, I remember what many of my emigre friends told me they used to say to each other, often in response to small talk questions about their jobs: "We pretend to work, and they pretend to pay us."  To paraphrase dialog from the mini-series, this should be "printed on [The Soviet Union's] money." Gessen and I agree that this "un-work un-ethic," not the mountain of lies that the communist bureaucracy cranked out, best explains how Chernobyl not only happened, but had to happen. Nuclear power in the hands of a nation like the USSR is like giving a live hand grenade to a monkey -- you know the explosion will happen, it's only a matter of where and when. Unfortunately for television docudramas, this does not make for great dramatic conflict, truth-telling heroes, rousing speeches about truth and lies or a satisfying narrative. By making Chernobyl about lies, the HBO mini-series missed the actual truth: that the State's official lies served only as a threadbare blanket to conceal the rotting corpse of a damaged society and its failed state, not as the primary cause of the failures.

In addition to Gessen's article above, to learn more about the Chernobyl disaster you can read the following books we have in the MI Library: 

At the top of Gessen's list of recommended readings we have Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl : The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster. Alexievich is a historian whose work has close similarity to the books of Cornelius Ryan -- gathering then organizing and presenting personal narratives by the first-hand participants in the events described. We also have in our collection: 

Midnight in Chernobyl : the untold story of the world's greatest nuclear disaster by journalist Adam Higginbotham. 

The truth about Chernobyl by Soviet physicist Grigori Medvedev, published as the regime fell in 1991.

And lastly, we have on order Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe by historian Serhii Plokhy.


* Note on Russian hospitality: I met many sweet, kind, gracious and wonderful Russian people during my time living in New York City. Entertaining a guest in a Russian home entails everyone sitting at the kitchen table drinking tea and eating cookies. I discovered that every Russian family has a seemingly inexhaustible supply of cookies, and that they have various imaginative and inventive ways they employ to emotionally arm-twist you into eating yet another one. I adopted as my delaying tactic eating half a cookie then holding the remaining half, nibbling on it until I could no longer escape having to take another one from the mountainous pile on the plate in front of me.

 

Posted on Jun. 10, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Science Fiction Update June 2019

James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of a woman named Alice Sheldon who wrote science fiction in the mid-20th century. She entered the field at a critical time in the development of the genre. Starting in the 19th century, the public school systems in the English speaking world greatly increased literacy, especially in the United States, and with that increase a demand for entertaining fiction. Publishers and writers took advantage of the popularity of exciting, sometimes lurid, stories for the sake of entertainment to produce cheaply made (in more ways than one) fiction, leading to a large output of "pulp fiction," dime novels and penny dreadfuls. What we now call science fiction started in the 19th century as a part of this effort to satisfy the demand for popular entertainment and it's early writers seldom aspired to creating great literature. For a long time many people, including librarians, dismissed science fiction as "kids stuff," and "not really literature." 

In the 1930s a group of science fiction writers, under the guidance of an editor named John Campbell, started to publish stories that departed from stock, two-dimensional characters, nonsensical "science" and simplistic "aliens bad, humans good" plotlines. They succeeded, and their names such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein remain well-known today. The next wave of highly intelligent and creative writers to come along included Harlan Ellison, Urusula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr. in the 1960s. These writers used future or distant worlds to examine the social, political and economic changes taking place in the present. Tiptree's and others' writings greatly contributed to breaking science fiction out of the "mold" of its pulp fiction origins, turning it into a genre filled with highly imaginative and intelligent ideas, stories and characters. 

Sheldon worked in Army Intelligence during World War II then joined the CIA for 3 years in the late 1940s. After leaving the CIA she returned to college, completing her education with a Ph.D. in experimental psychology, then set about writing. For 10 years no one suspected that James Tiptree, Jr. was not a man. Once her true identity became known, rumors explaining why she used a pseudonym proliferated, one wilder than the next, most having to do with her work for the CIA. In her letters to friends she explained that she only wished to keep her fiction writing separate from her academic work. She selected a male name purposely given her lifelong struggle to work in male-dominated fields. With a male name people would read her words, writers and editors would evaluate her work on its merits.  She was also closeted-bisexual, something she told only a small circle of close friends, including Le Guin. Tiptree and Le Guin may be the first writers to introduce feminist themes into the science fiction genre. (If anyone knows of earlier contributions, please leave a comment on this post -- I would like to know). Sheldon/Tiptree died in 1987. 

In 1991 two women science fiction writers formed The Tiptree Award Foundation, which

... appoints a panel of five jurors to read and discuss among themselves the merits of gender-bending fiction published in the previous year.

At the end of a year of reading and deliberation, the jurors choose the winner(s). The jury’s only charge is to look for science fiction and fantasy that “explores and expands gender.” Each set of jurors refines and re-examines their own definitions of that phrase.

 In the Mechanics Institute Library's efforts to provide our readers with a book collection as diverse as possible, I reviewed the nominees, honorable mentions and winners of the James Tiptree Jr. Awards then ordered the following titles, many of which have already arrived. To find out more about a title listed below (and/or place a hold on it), click on the link to read the summary in the Mechanics Institute's online catalog. 

Honorable mentions of 2017 and 2018

The black tides of Heaven and The red threads of fortune by JY Yang. (The first two books in the author's Tensorate series).

Maresi by Maria Turtschaninoff. (The first in the author's The Red Abbey chronicles series)

An excess male, in which author Maggie Shen King examines the effects of China's two-child policy from the perspective of 2030. 

Sodom Road exit by Amber Dawn features a protagonist haunted by a queer ghost. 

Sovereign by April Daniels, the second in the "Nemisis" series, a young adult novel about a trans superhero. You may want to wait for the first book, Dreadnought, presently on order.

In The Tiger Flu by Larissa Lai, women in a dystopian future battle a plague that kills more men than women. 

Chercher La Femme by L. Timmel Duchamp has virtual reality, friendly aliens and an all female planet. 

Glittership. Year 2, a science fiction anthology that contains 30 short stories and poems. According to the jury "these all have queer themes and characters. “The Little Dream” by Robin M. Eames (in which a character wears a t-shirt that reads “IN SPACE NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU INSIST THERE ARE ONLY TWO GENDERS”) and “Graveyard Girls on Paper Phoenix Wings” by Andrea Tang are particularly recommended. A wonderful variety of stories and a great way to find authors you want to read more of."

 

The winner of the 2018 Tiptree Foundation Award is

A short-story you can read for free online: They will dream in the garden.

The website of the Tiptree Foundation lists the winners and honorable mentions from 1991 to the present.

(The photograph in this post shows Tiptree with her husband, Huntington Sheldon, circa 1945). 

Posted on Jun. 1, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

The Mueller Report

The library has purchased a print copy of The Mueller Report : the final report of the Special Counsel into Donald Trump, Russia, and collusion; as issued by the Department of Justice. We realize that the political situation regarding the report and its findings is changing rapidly. Some redacted portions of the report in our print copy may be unredacted later. To help our members keep up, we also have added two electronic versions (both accessible via This link to the online version of the Mueller Report in our online catalog). We will add links to "less redacted" versions as they become available.

Posted on May. 30, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Science Fiction Update

Science fiction has plenty of book series. The Mechanics Institute Library has recently acquired a few new ones and added to some popular ones.

Fire Logic, the first book of Laurie J. Marks's tetrology "Elemental Logic," has proven so popular with members that we have acquired the next 2 books: Earth Logic (book 2) and Water Logic (book 3). The fourth book, Air Logic, is due this June. 

We've also purchased the next 2 titles of the "Themis files" series by Sylvain Neuvel, continuing Sleeping Giants with Waking Gods then Only Human

John Scalzi continues his "Interdependency" series that started with The Collapsing Empire. The next installment, The Consuming Fire, is already on the new books shelf. 

Rebecca Roanhorse published the very popular Trail of Lightning last year. Her following installment in "The Sixth World" series, Storm of Locusts, just arrived at the library in April. 

Pierce Brown's latest addition to his "Red Rising" novels converts what was a "trilogy" into a "saga" with a fourth novel: Iron Gold. This one received very high ratings from over 28 thousand people on GoodReads. 

We have started a couple of new series as well: 

Holly Black's "Folk of the Air" fantasy series has enjoyed rave reviews. We have acquired both the first title, The Cruel Prince, as well as the follow up, The Wicked King.

Those who are fans of Jasper Fforde's "Thursday Next" series will love the new Mike Resnick book The Master of Dreams, the first of his planned dreamscape trilogy

Elizabeth Bear, author of the popular Range of Ghosts, has started a new series called "White Space" with the debut title: Ancestral Night.

Posted on Apr. 30, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

Iconography: an irreverent introduction

I have always had an amateur's interest in fine art. I never took a course in art appreciation but I have learned as much as I can from books and from a friend with an M.F.A. who acts as my personal docent when we visit museums together. I always wondered about paintings, from medieval times to the present, that included numerous objects for no apparent reason or people making unusual (to me, anyway) gestures. What do they mean? Why did this artist include a broken wheel in this painting? How do we know that baby is Jesus? What's the funny-looking "thing" that looks like a feather duster that you see people holding in old paintings all the time? You can find answers to these and lots more questions in the Colons' book, newly arrived at the Library. The objects in paintings that mystify many of us in the 21st century had symbolic meanings very commonly known centuries ago, in other words: iconography. The authors include helpful lists in the appendices. But the real fun comes in the picture by picture descriptions and explanations that make sense out of scores of paintings included in this book (and by extension, hundreds or thousands of others not inlcuded in the book that contain the same iconography). They limited their selection of the art works to those that have big, high definition graphics on the World Wide Web easily found with a DuckDuckGo or Google image search of the artist's name and title of the painting. This way they kept the size (and cost) of the book small and inexpensive. 

The whimsical writing makes this far from the usual dry academic tome. For example, to explain a painting that includes a man incongruously standing with a hatchet sticking out of his head they write: 

The painting of St. Peter the martyr is a stunner. In fact, he looks quite stunned as well. A 13th century Dominican priest from Verona, he was assassinated -- you guessed it -- with a hatchet through the skull. He was fast tracked to sainthood in only 11 months -- an ecclesiastical record.

Check out this book for more of the same -- plus the answers to my questions above. 

Posted on Feb. 7, 2019 by Steven Dunlap

The Usefulness of Useless Knowledge

First Abraham Flexner revolutionized medical education in the U.S. Then he founded the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton University. His seminal essay about “useless” knowledge continues to stand as the most eloquent defense of primary research. The companion essay by the Institute’s current director, Robbert Dijkgraaf, provides fascinating historical background on Flexner and his views on the relationship between research and public policy.

Check to see if this book is checked out and reserve it via our catalog.

 

Posted on Sep. 3, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

The Hawkline Monster : a Gothic Western

Richard Brautigan spent his most productive years as a writer in San Francisco, although he was born in Tacoma Washington. He once admitted that all he could do at all well was hunt and write. His writing always reflected his life in the American West and its frontier character. With The Hawkline Monster : a Gothic Western he takes the western genre, scrambles it with horror, then adds his trademark dark humor and imagination, resulting in one the best 20th century novels most people have never heard of. The last 5 or so pages elevates this from just an amusing story to a great novel.


For a more expansive description and critique of Brautigan’s work, see The Poetry Foundation’s biography: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/richard-brautigan

Check to see if this book is checked out and reserve it via our catalog.

Posted on Sep. 1, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

Great resource for writers!

Do you have an idea for a book or story that involves invisibility? Philip Ball wrote the book for you. Invisible : The Dangerous Allure of the Unseen covers nearly everything about the idea of making yourself or other objects invisible throughout history and different cultures: from magic to physics. Would you like to use a historically authentic spell? Perhaps you would like to incorporate "Crooke's dark space" into a novel taking place during the Victorian age? And how do you arrange mirrors to hide half of a person's body? You will find answers to these questions and more.

To be the first to read this book, reserve it via our catalog.

 

Posted on Aug. 31, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

Who hates whom

Bob Harris, writer of quirky television shows, decided to learn about all the conflicts in the world, why they started and “who hates whom.”. Although this book is a bit outdated (published in 2007, before ISIS, the fall of Gaddafi or the Syrian Civil War) many of the conflicts described in this book continue to this day. Harris applies a somewhat irreverent sense of humor to his description of many of the wars and long-simmering international feuds he discovered in his research. He shows an appreciation for the absurdity of many of the world’s conflicts, such as the dispute between India and Pakistan over which country rightfully includes inside its borders  a barren, resourceless, uninhabitable wasteland visited by only the most intrepid mountain climbers. A short and enjoyable read that will inform your understanding of current events.

To be the first to read this book, reserve it via our catalog. 

Posted on Aug. 29, 2018 by Steven Dunlap

Cambodia : a book for people who find television too slow

Canadian writer and cultural analyst Brian Fawcett uses an innovative format to combine fiction and non-fiction in order to convey his ideas on modernity and the changes we have experienced in the 20th century. A single essay shares each page with a series of short stories as one runs along the lower have of the page while the others take the upper half, making you think about the imaginary and the factual at the same time. 

Check to see if this book is checked out and reserve it via our catalog.

Posted on Aug. 28, 2018 by Steven Dunlap