I recently finished David Dowling’s Fictions of Nuclear Disaster (1987) and thought I’d review a handful of the short stories discussed in the monograph. The first on my list is Theodore Sturgeon’s haunting “Memorial” which first appeared in the April 1946 issue of Astounding Science Fiction, ed. John W. Campbell, Jr. You can read it online here.
“Memorial” (1946), Theodore Sturgeon, 4/5 (Good): Grenfell has a plan to create a war memorial to end all memorials—The Pit. It will writhe with lava. It will shine forth with a ghastly glow. Created by nuclear explosion a thousand times as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb (161). Like some grotesque manifestation of the Darvaza gas crater, it will be a “living reminder of the devastation mankind has prepared for itself” (161). And the message will be the most “useful thing in the history of the race—a never-ending sermon, a warning, an example of the dreadful” possibilities of nuclear war (161).
But there’s more than a bit of delusion behind Grenfell’s plans. And a chip on his shoulder that smolders and smokes propelling him forth without self-reflection. Fresh off the Manhattan Project, Grenfell has post-war dreams of course. Dreams of atomic energy harnessed for the benefit of all in the most mundane formulations. Need to heat your house? An atomic pile laced through the foundation! But the government doesn’t want rogue scientists like Grenfell hatching atomic schemes from their desert reaches. The post-Hiroshima terror of possibility of the nuclear holocaust “canalized his mind” (162) convoking visions of messianic deliverance: “he was the center of his own universe” (162). He must frighten humanity with The Pit. He must show the immediacy of the coming end.
Framed by a description of The Pit in the far future, “Memorial” centers itself around a dialogue and component ideologies of Grenfell, the scientist, and Roway, who, at least in Grenfell’s presence, proclaims himself a sensualist. Grenfell sees atomic energy as a force–though an immense demonstration of its chaos–that can prevent humanities slide into chaos. Roway gives in to pleasures in the end days that he knows have already arrived. As an agent of the government, Roway espouses, with strategically placed “…” indicating the silliness of it all, nuclear weapons as war deterrent: “To show the rest of the world that our way of life… to scare the daylights out of… to—” (167).
I recommend “Memorial” (1946) to fans of Theodore Sturgeon, 40s SF, and fiction that effectively revolves around a single powerful image. The Pit, initially a manifestation of Grenfell’s apocalyptic vision, comes to fruition and continues to burn into the future transforming everything around it. As terrifying as the The Pit’s “seething […] mass of volatized elements” (168), “Memorial” crystalizes the “metaphoric aftershocks” of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the global mind. Sturgeon’s nightmare represents his own uncertainty of what was to come. Grenfell’s offhanded comment about science fiction “word-merchants” who once saw atomic energy as “a limitless source of power for background to a limitless source of story material” lays bare the sad posturing of the self-proclaimed prophets of the previous age who, while terrified, could not comprehend the immediacy of it all (165).
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