There aren’t many novels that I wish I’d written – as opposed to simply wishing I’d written something as good – but The Green Glass Sea and its sequel White Sands, Red Menace, by Ellen Klages, are two. They’re historical novels aimed at middle-school readers, but they feel like science fiction in a number of important ways. They have scientists absorbed in an important problem, working on the exclusion of it to all else. The worldbuilding – something that’s important to science fiction – is impeccable, in the choice and depth of detail that builds out an unusual perspective to a well-told story. The Green Glass Sea starts in 1943, with a ten-year-old girl, Dewey Kerrigan, being put on an overnight train from St Louis to join her father at an unnamed destination. The unnamed destination is a place called Los Alamos. The scientists who are working so intently are working on the first atomic bomb. That includes Dewey’s father, who is a mathematician, and both Suze Gordon’s parents. Its sequel, White Sands, Red Menace, moves on to Alamogordo, New Mexico, in 1946, where Suze’s father is involved in the first peacetime experiments with V2 rockets built from parts and plans captured from Germany, with the help of emigré German scientists. The military want these rockets for their ability to deliver payload. The scientists want these rockets to lift them into space. These experiments will lead a quarter century later to the landing on the moon.
The two novels aren’t science fiction, but they do a lot of the same things that science fiction can do, and they deal with a time and an event that was significant to history and to science fiction. They’re about the community of science, about the culture of science – and that includes the science fiction of the time. The teenagers in White Sands, Red Menace are passing around copies of Analog, and talking about the early stories of Ray Bradbury. The novels are also about the innocence, conscience and culpability of science. And they have some specific advantages over science fiction in dealing with certain narrative challenges.
For one thing, they don’t have to explain the technology and its significance, a technical problem that SF writers have to solve all the time. Too much for some readers is too little for others. But the majority of readers know the basics of how the atom bomb worked, know what it does, know what it means. So Klages shows the viewpoint of the time, and lets the reader fill in the context. Towards the end of the Green Glass Sea, Suze’s father takes the kids out to the test site of the first atomic explosion. They walk for a few minutes on the vitrified sand left by at ground zero, collecting interesting glasses. As someone who has worked with radioactivity in the lab, that freaked me a little, but that’s what people did. At least Suze’s father had a geiger counter and wouldn’t let them take home anything that was too hot. On the way back, they catch a fragment of a sentence on the radio about the Japanese city of Hiroshima. Suze flicks it off. It’s war news; they can always get more later.
I mentioned the worldbuilding and the unusual perspective, a child’s perspective of school and hobbies. Their interests were expressed through their hands, with the building of hobbyist equipment as a serious leisure activity, and in handcrafts projects – In their rented house in Alamogordo, Suze and Dewey collaborate in assembling a collage mural from Dewey’s cogs and parts, cut-outs of superheroes, anything that strikes their interest. This is something I remember growing up with, but which has been largely displaced in popularity by television and computing. I really like that Klages is faithful to her time, and does not disguise, apologize for or editorialize on situations that were commonplace and unremarked for wartime, but that we would not find appropriate today: Ten year old Dewey rides an overnight train to Los Alamos, unchaperoned. Dewey and Suze spend evenings alone and together, when their parents are caught up in the lab. The children raid the dumpsites at Los Alamos for discarded equipment for their hobbies, and late in White Sands, Red Menace, steal parts from the crash site of a failed rocket.
There’s another challenge in portraying science in fiction that using an historical event gets around. Science happens within social networks. Scientists have colleagues, students, correspondents, rivals, and friends. Scientists need to talk about their work. Probably under the influence of film, there’s a strong push in genre towards fast-moving plot-heavy stories. One of the ways that storytelling gains speed is by stripping down the cast. That tends to feed into the mythology of the genius working alone, whereas in actuality, an isolated scientist is often a compromised scientist. One of the points that Horace Freeland Judson made in his history of the early years of DNA – The Eighth Day of Creation – was that Rosalind Franklin was working largely in isolation, and it may have slowed her in seeing what was in her own diffraction photographs.1
That’s where The Green Glass Sea has a big advantage, narratively. There’s a cast of walk-ons we already know from the history books, people like Richard Feynman (I let out an audible squeak of pure geekish glee when he introduced himself, since a visit from Feynman was one of the highlights of my undergrad), Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, Robert Oppenheimer. In another scene, the reader sees through Suze how much her parents delight in being able to bounce ideas off each other. Terry Gordon also assumes an important mentoring role for Dewey, being able to explain ideas and physical phenomena to her.
I’ve been interested for a long time in the way fiction portrays scientists, and that’s another way that Green Glass Sea is true to scientists and its time. The scientists are smart, dedicated, enthusiastic, slightly naieve. They are working for the patriotic end of winning the war, they’re allowed to spend all their time doing what they love to do in the stimulating and nourishing company of the world’s best. There’s a charming bit of characterization in the way Dewey’s and Suze’s parents named their daughters for their enthusiasms. Dewey was born on the twelfth of December, so her full name is Duodecima, the Latin for twelve. Terry Gordon’s favourite scientist and role model is Marie Curie, so Suze’s middle name is Sklodowska, Curie’s maiden name. The girls first bond over their mixed pride and embarrassment.
Another thing I really liked is that Dewey, who builds radios and gadgets and wants to go to MIT, doesn’t fall into the stereotype of the socially awkward nerd. Her mother left when she was a baby, and her father has been away for 4 years, so she’s had to learn to be self-sufficient. She’s used to ignoring people who make fun of her, and always ready to approach people who share her interests. Late in White Sands, Red Menace, her social skills enable her to resolve a painful personal situation respectfully but to her advantage. She loves Los Alamos, because she is surrounded by people to whom a fascination with science and technology is normal. At the same time, she has some of the same moral and political blind-spots as her elders.
Suze is the emerging artist of the pair, but she’s also the more awkward and needy; at the beginning, she’s desperate to belong, to the point she’ll show off by taking a shortcut through a restricted area, or join in bullying Dewey (“Screwy Dewey”). But she’s the one who stands up when her social science teacher tries to gloss over the suffering caused by the Bomb, while Dewey, equally aware, remains uncomfortably silent. Once in Alamogordo, she becomes friends with a girl from the other side of Main Street, crossing a legally enforced divide between the community of mainly White incomers and the Hispanic and Native American long-term residents of the area. Asked to produce a social sciences project on “My Almagodoro”, she creates a 3D collage depicting this division. Her moral vision grows increasingly complex:
As the truck bounced over the rutted gravel track, Suze looked at the dial in her hand with mixed feelings. She had taken it because the V-2 launch had been her first experience of Alamogordo. A whole day spent with her dad, a good memory, before the rockets had taken him away. The dial was still warm from lying in an American desert, but it had been made in a concentration camp. If a rocket did go to the moon one day, far in the future, most people probably wouldn’t remember that. She’d save this piece, along with her white sand and green glass, so she wouldn’t forget.
After Hiroshima, after Nagasaki, Phillip Gordon throws himself into the rocket experiments, still not acknowledging their dual-use potential, or that they are using parts made in work camps and working with former Nazis, while Terry Gordon joins the lobby headed by Einstein and others to stop further development and use of the Bomb. “We built it,” she says. “We’re the only ones who can stop it.” Their marriage starts to break up – it’s a microcosm for what is happening within the science community. The atomic Bomb wasn’t the first time that science had to confront its culpability – chemistry, for instance, had had its moment in the trenches of the First World War – but it was a crucial event both for science and for science fiction.
I both hope and don’t hope that there will be a third novel about these characters, though now they’re entering the fifties, with all that means for the stifling of women’s aspirations: Terry Gordon with her determination to get back to her own work, having spent a year in Almagedro as a trailing spouse, Dewey with her ‘unfeminine’ interest in technology and ambition to go to MIT (there’s a ghastly encounter with a school guidance counsellor, as well as the mandatory training in manners and etiquette; I wish it were a caricature), Suze with her awkward social conscience, and Suze’s friend Ynez with her ambition to use her skill in hairstyling and makeup for an entree into Hollywood and a career writing and directing films that portray her community as it really is. Maybe I’d rather leave them as they are, Dewey, Suze, and Terry, driving out of Alamogordo, heading for Berkeley, with Dewey at the wheel.
- SF does have a bunch of favourite conventions and settings that allow it to portray science as a community. Aside from more conventional lab and company settings, SF has everything from militarized exploration starships like the Enterprise to campuses in space like the setting of McIntyre’s Starfarers quartet or Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier. Or there are the colonization narratives in which a group of people in an unfamiliar environment have to use applied science to stay alive, like the hundred scientists sent to settle and terraform Mars in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars, or my own Cavalcade. ↩