BOOK REVIEW: ‘Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia’

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Reviewer: Michael Keith

Title:  Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia

Author: Elizabeth Tynan

Total Number of Pages: 373

Rating Scale (1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent): 7 ½

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In the book’s Acknowledgements section, the author writes that, in her opinion ‘The Maralinga story is a vast sprawling saga. This book is an attempt to provide a concise overview that will be of interest to the general reader, as well as offering a fresh perspective based upon years of analysis of the many diverse forms of evidence available…I have…sought to…show marlinga in its historical and scientific context’. As a ‘Statement of intent’, it is admirable. She also notes (in the volume’s Prologue) that ‘The word Maralinga means ‘thunder’ in Garik…It was exactly the right name. The thunder that rolled across the plains was an ominous sound that heralded a new leading player in a nuclear-armed and infinitely dangerous world’. The volume ends with the following sentence: ‘If there is a word that speaks not only of thunder but also of government secrecy, nuclear colonialism, reckless national pride, bigotry towards indigenous peoples, nuclear scientific arrogance, human folly and the resilience of victims, surely that word is maralinga’.

Regrettably (and despite the noble intentions expressed above), what has eventually resulted is a subjective volume written to meet a pre-determined outcome. To the author, the Maralinga saga has no redeeming features.

Within the volume itself, the Contents page is followed by a four page Acknowledgments section within-which the individuals and organisations (and even animals) which contributed to this book are thanked.  It also reveals the volume’s origins, these being that a visit to an organisation in Melbourne in 2004 ‘…Planted the seed of an idea that later became my PhD thesis and still later became this book’. An Abbreviations section is next, giving interpretation to the numerous acronyms and abbreviations which appear throughout the book. A single page Measurements section follows. This gives the equivalents necessary to convert British Imperial measurements into their metric equivalents, while also noting the differences between Australia’s ‘Imperial’ currency (comprising Pounds Shillings and Pence) and the metric-based one that replaced it in 1966.Two pages of Maps follow. This section contains four maps. One is a general outline of Australia indicating the location of the nuclear test sites in relation to the rest of the continent. Its companions show the individual test sites in greater detail. Curiously (and although noted only as Map on the Contents page), the section itself carries the additional title British nuclear tests in Australia – test sites within its pages. Which one is correct is not known.  A Prologue follows.  This provides a summary of what is to follow; the 12 Chapters which comprise the main part of the volume.  These largely record the decisions and events that were associated with the various nuclear tests which comprised the ‘Maralinga’ series. However (and for unknown reasons), throughout the volume the author also uses the ‘Stream of consciousness’ narrative-form to describe events. Chapter One (Maralinga buried, uncovered) is one such example.  This writing style is more commonly associated with works of fiction. Where used within the volume, and with no supporting citations to provide verification, the result is, at best, a work of ‘Faction’ (that is ‘Facts combined with imagination to produce an end result that is a combination of both’). The appropriateness of such narrative-forms within a volume purporting to be an authoritative work is debatable. An Appendix is placed after the final chapter. Its title (British Atomic tests in Australia) is self-explanatory. A Glossary follows, and is in turn followed by a section titled References. This is somewhat analogous to a Notes section in a volume in which Footnote or Endnote citations appear. As such devices are not used within this book, its presence is unexplained.  A Bibliography placed after the References section records both the electronic and printed material used in creating this work and is followed in turn by the Index; the volume’s final section.  The book contains no photographs.

This reviewer found several areas of concern when viewing this volume. In addition to the ‘stream of consciousness’ writing style previously-noted, the lack of citations for the numerous Quotes reduces the latter’s authority (and consequent research value) to almost zero; they might just as well be imagined.  The authority of the Index is also questionable, as random checking found several omissions; New Zealand (for example) although mentioned twice on page 23, is absent from the Index.  As the absence of other entries was also noted, the true extent of such ‘omissions’ cannot be known. The lack of photographic images is also unfortunate as their presence would have provided visual reinforcement to the narrative.

As previously noted, this volume is subjective in its treatment of its subject. As such it will no doubt confirm well-held and entrenched viewpoints. That detail notwithstanding, it is likely to be of interest to Political Scientists with a specific interest in British nuclear policies and international Cold War politics. Australians seeking information about the Maralinga tests and their country’s relationships with the British are also likely to find it of interest. Academic librarians might also find it worthy of inclusion within their collections. The author’s lack of objectivity does however mean that is not the ‘Standard Work of Reference’ that it could have been; it should be treated accordingly.

On a Rating Scale where 1: Very Poor, 10: Excellent, I have given this volume a 7 ½.

Note: This title was originally published in Australia in 2016, with this edition, published in 2018, being the first in Great Britain. It has not been updated in the interval.

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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Atomic Thunder: British Nuclear Testing in Australia’

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