Bob Shaw’s Ground Zero Man (1971) is a well-told take on a common 50s/60s/70s sci-fi trope — the discovery of technology which could potentially end the omnipresent danger of all out nuclear war. Although the premise is straightforward and simplistic, the main character (Lucas Hutchman) and his motivations are drawn in a convincing manner, the ending is somewhat surprising and dark, and the novel is on the whole characterized by solid prose. At points Shaw does touch on some relevant philosophical points but sadly doesn’t pursue them with any concentrated vigor. Also, the work is blighted by a strain of over-the-top melodrama.
If the remarkable cover (naked man bowing before gigantic tower with balancing squished spheroid ringed with raging red sun) peers at you from the shelves of a used book store do not hesitate to pick up a copy — but, don’t go out of your way to track it down unless you enjoy Shaw’s other works or salivate uncontrollably over nuclear war related sci-fi.
Brief Plot Summary (limited spoilers)
Lucas Hutchman is a brilliant mathematician stuck in a job way below his talent level developing effective ways of launching missiles carrying warheads. Added to that, Hutchman cares deeply for his wife Valery who’s perpetually convinced that he’s cheating on her — frustrating him to no end.
Disillusioned with home life and the state of the world on the brink of nuclear disaster, Lucas develops the mathematics and the schematics for a “self-propagating neutron resonance machine” which would simultaneously detonate every nuclear bomb in the world. The plot thickens (and Lucas’ desire to use his device) when guerilla groups acquire a nuclear device which they detonate over Damascus, Syria killing 500,000 people.
Shaw introduces his main philosophical theme at this point (as mentioned above, in very tentative/minimal fashion) — Hutchman appears to have deep empathy with humanity as a whole — however, his precise view depends on his wildly swinging mental state. On the other hand Valery, his wife, dismisses the Damascus event because it seems so distant from the problems at hand (especially, the consuming belief that her husband is cheating on her). Valery’s moral judgments are bound up in the immediate confines of her world.
Lucas devotes more and more of his time to building the device causing deepening strife with his wife — as well as various other potentially incriminating incidents with women he meets. Lucas’ own decision whether to use the device or not is linked to his personal frame of mind regarding his family life.
The first half of the work describes Lucas’ strife at home and the building of the machine. The second half of the work describes him on the run from the authorities after he alerts the world governments about the device. And then there’s a plot twist… of sorts…
The plot is a by-the-numbers sort of affair. A series of highly improbably (and occasionally silly) coincidences and happenstances propel it forward. However, Shaw adeptly weaves together Lucas’ home life into the more general “building the machine” narrative. I found Lucas’ character by far the most admirable quality of the work — although at heart a good man, he allows his emotional frame of mind to influence his desire to use the machine on humanity as a whole.
The interplay between microcosm (the family and its immediate problems) vs. macrocosm (the Damascus incident and the possibility of destroying all nuclear weapons) is at the heart of the novel.
A solid single sitting sort of read…