Mr. Fetter-Vorm kindly answered a few questions for us via e-mail.
What inspired you to write about the atomic bomb?
I grew up hearing very strange and mysterious stories from my grandparents, both of whom worked on the Manhattan Project at Hanford, Washington — the site of the first plutonium reactor. My grandfather was a welder and he worked at Hanford for several years, but he, like almost everyone else working on the project, was never told what was going on at these sites. He was paid to show up on time, to do his work, and to not ask questions. It wasn’t until I started researching the project as a whole that I got a sense of the scope of this secrecy. I think that that aspect of the atomic bomb resonates still: that the government could spend more than 2 billion dollars, employ more than a hundred thousand people, and operate facilities all over the country, and do it all in complete secrecy.
Many of the horror and science fiction films of the Atomic Age deal with giant creatures that result from radiation. Do you think this reflected America’s anxiety about atomic weapons?
I think the fear of mutated creatures is a pretty good metaphor for the bomb itself. All of the nuclear tests that were taking place in the 1950’s were very well documented, and the images that came out of those tests are more horrifying than any science fiction film. The only way we can explain the atomic blast — the way it glows in bright, unearthly colors; the threat that if you look directly at it you’ll go blind; the bizarre, gigantic forms that emerge from the blast — in a way that makes any sense is to refer to myths, to the monsters of our imagination. Oppenheimer was very vocal about casting the bomb in the guise of Hindu gods. I think movie-makers just capitalized on this. I’d argue that the anxiety among moviegoers was more about what happens when something we’re used to — whether it’s fire, insects, or human faculties — is amplified to inhuman proportions. The horror is in the magnitude.
Scientists “playing God” is another popular theme in films of the post-nuclear age. Do you think the bombings on Hiroshima and Nagasaki made Americans suspicious of science and scientists?
I should hope so. Unfortunately, though, a lot of what was going on was kept secret for many years. There is this trope of the scientist unbound by ethics, but that’s been with us since Dr. Frankenstein, if not longer. Certainly everyone involved in “big” science was forced to evaluate their work in a new way after the bombs were dropped on Japan. As Oppenheimer was fond of saying, “physicists have known sin”. He was being a bit theatrical, but he’s not far off. That said, I think the more accurate cause for concern was the emergence of the military-industrial complex. Not just scientists, but scientists with limitless government funds, with a mandate to develop weapons, and who are ensconced in an atmosphere of secrecy and paranoia.
Do you have a favorite Atomic Age horror or science fiction film and if so why is it your favorite?
I’ve really only ever watched Them!, which I enjoyed very much, in part because it does a good job of dramatizing that sense that the unintended consequences of our government’s actions can turn something completely benign, like an anthill, into the seeds of our own destruction. That said, I’m just as easily horrified by some of the Civil Defense films that came out in the 1950s. There is such a pervasive sense of dread and inevitability to them, and this drama is always played out in the minds of children. It’s very twisted.
The 1950s through the 1960s seem to represent the golden age of science fiction films. Do you think this is a product of the American space program?
Certainly the space program has a lot to do with it, and the dawning awareness that space travel really was possible. But I’m also tempted to point to something more nebulous: there seemed to be a very volatile and contradictory atmosphere in the 1950s and 60s where on the one hand Americans enjoyed the great optimism of knowing that there was enough money and know-how to achieve any technological feat imaginable, and on the other hand, no one could ignore the fact that complete annihilation had never been more likely. It’s like no one was surprised that we had screwed up, but that we also had the imagination and technical abilities to fix our mistakes. It was a paradoxical mixture of hope and resignation. In science fiction that same mixture plays out over and over again: the hope of a new age, a new land, a new beginning; followed always by the resignation that we’re destined to bring our same old problems with us wherever we go.
In researching Trinity, what did you learn that surprised you the most?
I was surprised by a lot of what I learned about the United States’ decision to drop the bombs on Japan. In the months before the Trinity test, when no one was sure that an atomic bomb was even possible, the US Army Air Force was conducting an unbelievably destructive firebombing campaign in Japan. Hundreds of cities were vaporized. Tokyo was incinerated over night; in fact, more people died in those six hours than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. But the firebombing doesn’t live as large in our collective imagination as the atomic bombs. I was also stunned to realize that an important criterion for the selection of Hiroshima and Nagasaki was that they were at the top of a very short list of cities that had been spared any bombing. In other words, these cities could provide important data about what an atomic blast does to a populated area. In a very real sense, Hiroshima was a test site.
Do you think Americans were really fearful of the bomb during that era or is that something that’s been exaggerated over the years?
I’m the wrong person to ask; my first awareness of the Cold War was when I saw the Berlin Wall come down on TV. But ultimately, the threat of nuclear war is a form of terror. Its power exists in the imagination. The whole discourse itself is exaggeration: one single thermonuclear bomb is an exaggeration; fifteen hundred of these bombs in an exaggeration that defies all reason; and the climax of it all — the calculus of how many hundreds of times these arsenals could destroy the world — is just absurdly terrifying and beyond reckoning. If anything was unduly exaggerated in the American consciousness, it was the sense that rationality and reason could somehow protect us.
Do you think Americans still fear an atomic attack? Should they?
With all this tension over Iran’s nuclear program, I wouldn’t be surprised if the fear of atomic weapons resurfaces. These weapons — and the radiological materials that make them so dangerous — are ubiquitous, and will always be something to fear. But I doubt the threat of Mutually Assured Destruction will return. Not to sound relentlessly dour, but there are plenty of other, more mundane dangers to be afraid of. Luckily, though, those dangers are mostly things that we can do something about.