Thursday, October 20, 2005

Up & Atom

Bored with old-fangled sublime sights like the Grand Canyon, tourists stood with their packed lunches, sunglasses and cameras on hilltops in Las Vegas and watched mushroom clouds blossom on the horizon. David Nye writes about it in his excellent book, American Technological Sublime. No better a way to feel shivers down your back at the power of the American dream. Of course, these chaps on the ridgetop are old-skool nuke tourists, who saw nothing ambivalent or sinister about sending a postcard like this back home. But today's lot tour about, soaked in unheimlich nostalgia for cold-war science. Douglas-Coupland-retro-nuke-ironic tourists. Or kind of. The funniest rationale for modern nuke tourism is found here, from Dina Titus, a University of Nevada-Las Vegas professor. She says:
the mushroom cloud emerged as a powerful symbol of American power that instilled awe and fear in citizens [that] later softened into a nostalgic symbol of safer times.
Much safer, yep. But there are better ways to apprehend the nostalgia for WMD. Have you ever read James Blinn's The Aardvark is Ready for War? Bloody hell, why not? Baudrillard meets Heller but funnier than either. Well, perhaps not as funny as Baudrillard. It's set on an aircraft carrier in the first Gulf War. Blinn's protagonist flies ops as an ASW sensor operator (as did Blinn himself: that's him in the photo). Of course, Iraq has no submarines. Towards the end of the book, his Chief provides a soliliquy of sublime intensity that captures the essence of cold-war nostagia for non-believers. "If the Soviet’s had’a kept going we’d have colonies on Mars by now", the Chief explains. "But they didn’t. They gave up so we gave up...twenty years from now we won’t be able to build another of these magnificent ships".

And it swells to a crescendo: "You and me, we’re here at the peak. If the Soviets go, there won’t be nothing bigger, nothing better. They’ll look back at this moment and wonder how it was all done and what happened to humans that it can’t happen again. The Egyptians built the pyramids and nobody can figger how. They’ll look back on these mighty warships and think aliens built’em".
Soviet's built 'em faster'n we could name'em: Echoes, Echo II's, Victors, Papas, Delta IIs, IIIs, IV, Oscars, Sierras, Alfas – a beautiful boat, that Alfa." He let out a little whistle. "Titanium hulled, liquid metal reactor, deepest diving, fastest, outrun any of our torpedoes, outdive 'em too. So secret it had an all-officer crew, scared the pants offa Congress. We didn't even have the techology to weld titanium then, let alone build a forty-knot hull and prime-mover. Scared 'em shitless. They were throwing money at us, heaving it, you couldn't take a step without tripping over some new program: P-3 Bravos, Charlies, Charlie updates, Charlie update IIs, the S-3A Viking, bedrock transmission technology, satellite thermal imaging, SOSUS -- SOSUS, there was a piece-a-work. Just think of it, the enormity, the genius, arrays of hard-wired receivers on the ocean floor from Alaska to Mexico, from Maine to Florida. We bugged the continental shelf. And every time we built a better way to listen, they built bigger, scarier, quieter subs. Reciprocal paranoia. Fear is the motherfucker of invention. We had a saying, Insecurity means Job Security"
"Must've been great"
"They built the space shuttle for us"
"You're kidding"
"It was the gravy days" he sighs.
The Chief looks out wistfully, lights another cigarette with his windproof Zippo.

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