21st century writing | 21st century approaches

Nuclear Narratives: Editor’s Introduction

Christopher Daley


Written from within the last “hot” period of the Cold War’s near half century span, Martin Amis’s 1987 essay “Thinkability” articulates how nuclear weapons embedded themselves within our personal and cultural imagination:

Everyone is interested in nuclear weapons, even those people who affirm and actually believe that they never give the question a moment’s thought. We are all interested parties. Is it possible never to think about nuclear weapons? If you give no thought to nuclear weapons, if you give no thought to the most momentous development in the history of the species, then what are you giving them? In that case the process, the seepage, is perhaps preconceptual, physiological, glandular. The man with the cocked gun in his mouth may boast that he never thinks about the cocked gun. But he tastes it, all the time. (Amis 11)



"For the vast majority of people nuclear reactors remai[n] alien and distant" (Hogg): What role do nuclear weapons have in the post-Cold War era?

[Image by International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons used under a CC-BY-NC license]


Amis’s account implies a cultural trajectory whereby the nuclear proliferates exponentially within the popular imagination as the twentieth century progresses. Of course, this accelerates from 1945 onwards and as Jonathan Hogg (2016) points out, any historical work which explores nuclear culture needs to recognise that “for the vast majority of people nuclear weapons or nuclear reactors remained alien and distant” (7), but that simultaneously “through the course of the twentieth century, many […] would feel an intimate connection to the consequences of this technology” (7). Whilst the end of the Cold War has led to diminished or patchy public debate about nuclear weapons or the state apparatus surrounding their presence, recent discussions about the renewal of the United Kingdom’s Trident missile defence system, and the subsequent parliamentary vote on the subject, have emphasised how nuclear weaponry continues to be part of contemporary and future military planning for British governments. Additionally, nuclear technologies perpetually appear within the contemporary news cycle, from ongoing policy debate about nuclear power to anxieties regarding terrorist groups obtaining nuclear material. As I have previously argued, the contemporary nuclear critic is required to do a degree of excavation in locating the nuclear referent, but its continual existence necessitates the need for evolving methods of analysis which recognise changing political and cultural interactions with nuclear technologies.     

As a result of these contemporary alterations in the way we visualise and engage with nuclear themes, researchers across disciplines have started to re-consider their methodological approaches to nuclear technologies. Whilst it is not within the scope of this introduction to provide an exhaustive list of recent work, it is important to note some of the developments in the study of nuclear culture. A 2012 special issue of The British Journal for the History of Science aimed to explore “British nuclear culture” via a range of sources including official government papers, popular film, the popular press and individual accounts. Similarly, Catherine Jolivette’s edited collection British Art in the Nuclear Age (2014) incorporates a wide range of visual culture to emphasise the varying contextual and localised meanings of the “nuclear” during the Cold War. What is important about these historical analyses is their recognition of the broad reaching responses to nuclear technology. Despite such works focusing, primarily, on the Cold War period, their methodologies for unpicking complex and granular engagements with nuclear themes is vital for any researcher exploring such issues in a contemporary context.

Additionally, literary studies scholars have begun to unpick nuclear themes encoded within contemporary fiction. Notable works include Michael Blouin, Morgan Shipley and Jack Taylor’s edited collection The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World (2013), which incorporates literary analysis as well as explorations of the ways in which nuclear themes are tackled in contemporary computer games, identity politics and within a post-9/11 context. Daniel Cordle’s States of Suspense (2008) also provides an important evaluation of modern and contemporary American fiction’s engagement with nuclear crisis and is particularly valuable in rooting nuclear questions in distinctive geographical and spatial contexts. Added to this, emergent areas of interdisciplinary research around “Energy Humanities” and “Environmental Humanities” and a broader acceptance of the Anthropocene as a vital area for contemporary research have opened up opportunities for nuclear critics to explore the potentially utopian or apocalyptic role for current and future nuclear technologies. It is from within this diverse scholarly context that this special issue has emerged, with the contributions supplying both re-evaluations of Cold War histories as a means of untangling their lingering cultural and psychological impacts, whilst some authors have also looked to speculate on how current understanding of our nuclear past and present may inform future social and intellectual engagement with nuclear questions. 



Utopian or apocalyptic: How should we understand future nuclear technologies?

[Image by Lee Cofa under a CC-BY-NC license]


In this special issue on "Nuclear Narratives," Daniel Cordle’s article "The Futures of Nuclear Criticism"  looks again at the 1980s turn towards “nuclear criticism” and evaluates the role of such a term when situated in the contemporary cultural terrain. Cordle distinguishes between nuclear criticism which is “historicist” and that which engages in a “futurist mode,” with Cordle emphasising the need to supply both detailed historical scrutiny to the nuclear past whilst also considering a range of nuclear futures. Grace Halden’s “Haunting Clouds” supplies a thoughtful continuation to Cordle’s article. Halden traces the cultural history of the mushroom cloud and unwinds a series of popular and political responses to atomic clouds. These historical moments, Halden argues, have left residual traces which influence the way we consider nuclear topics. The articles by Jonathan Hogg and Jacquelyn Arnold turn to visual culture and in particular documentary filmmaking and public information films. In "Documentary Film and Our Restless Nuclear Present," Jonathan Hogg looks primarily at Peter Watkins’ The Journey (1987) and its attempt to chart the connections between governmental nuclear structures and individual experience. Hogg argues that Watkins’ attempt to map the full extent of a contemporaneous system of nuclear technology is as important a task in the twenty-first century as it was during the height of the Cold War. Finally, in "Representations of National Identity in Cold War UK and US Civil Defence Films," Jacquelyn Arnold offers a direct link between civil defence films and national identity in America and Britain during the height of the Cold War, articulating how anxieties surrounding nuclear attack often provided opportunities for governments to legitimise nationalistic rhetoric and conservative visions of family and community. Arnold concludes by considering the legacies of such films in contributing to our contemporary understanding of national psyches.

The overall aim of this issue is therefore to embark on a provisional twenty-first century reconsideration of nuclear technologies and their representation within varying forms of cultural production. In doing so, this issue will not only look to evaluate the legacies of the Cold War and the period’s lingering grip on the popular imagination, but also contemplate emerging or future visions of nuclear technology.


CITATION: Christopher Daley, "Nuclear Narratives: Editor’s Introduction", Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 3 (2016): n. pag. Web. 29 July 2016. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v5.3.04


Dr Christopher Daley works at Brunel University London where he holds two roles. He works, primarily, in the library as a Research Publications Officer. In addition to his work with the library, Christopher is also a researcher and lecturer in English Literature, specialising in the interaction between popular culture and the politics of the Cold War.


Works Cited:

Amis, Martin. “Introduction: Thinkability.” Einstein’s Monsters. London: Vintage, 2003, pp. 7-28.

BBC News. “MPs Vote to Renew Trident Weapons System.” 19 July 2016, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36830923 (accessed 24 July 2016).

Blouin, Michael, Morgan Shipley and Jack Taylor (eds.). The Silence of Fallout: Nuclear Criticism in a Post-Cold War World. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013.

Boyer, Dominic and Imre Szeman. “The Rise of Energy Humanities.” University Affairs, 12 February 2014, http://www.universityaffairs.ca/opinion/in-my-opinion/the-rise-of-energy-humanities/ (accessed 25 July 2016).

Channel 4 News. “Fact Check: Does Britain Want to Scrap Trident?” 4 November 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36830923 (accessed 24 July 2016).

Cooper, Charlie. “Isis Nuclear Bomb Is Serious Threat, Warns Barack Obama.” The Independent, 1 April 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/politics/isis-nuclear-bomb-is-a-serious-threat-warns-barack-obama-a6964621.html (accessed 24 July 2016).

Cordle, Daniel. States of Suspense: The Nuclear Age, Postmodernism and United States Fiction and Prose. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008.

Daley, Christopher. “On Nuclear Criticism.” Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 2 (July 2012): n. pag. http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v1.2.04.

“Environmental Humanities.” University of Augsburg, https://www.philhist.uni-augsburg.de/lehrstuehle/anglistik/amerikanistik/forschung/environmental-humanities.html (accessed 25 July 2016).

Hogg, Jonathan. British Nuclear Culture: Official and Unofficial Narratives in the Long 20th Century. London and New York: Bloomsbury, 2016.

Jolivette, Catherine (ed.). British Art in the Nuclear Age. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2014.  

The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 45, No. 4 (2012). Special Issue “British Nuclear Culture” edited by Jonathan Hogg and Christoph Laucht, http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayIssue?decade=2010&jid=BJH&volumeId=45&issueId=04&iid=8822693 (accessed 25 July 2016).



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  1. Nuclear Narratives - Dr Christopher Daley - […] All of the articles are free to read on the Alluvium website. You can also read my editor’s introduction…

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