Posted by: Lizzie Ross | September 16, 2011

The destroyer of worlds

The Green Glass Sea (2006), Ellen Klages, 318 pp.

It’s fairly well known that, after Trinity, the first test of the atomic bomb, RJ Oppenheimer quoted the Bhagavad Vita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Pretty cerebral stuff, eh? But imagine that moment — how awesome, to watch one’s idea become reality, and then how fearsome, to realize what it means. That was truly a moment when the universe changed.

I didn’t know, hadn’t even considered, that the Trinity test turned the sand of that desert to glass — green glass. At one point in this novel, the main characters, two tween girls, visit the Trinity site to explore this sea of green:  “After about five minutes, Dewey looked down and saw burned spots that looked like little animals, like a bird or a desert mouse had been stenciled black against the hard, flat ground.” It’s impossible to read that and not think of two other sites, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the stenciled human outlines that must have appeared there.

But this novel is only a little bit about the Manhattan Project, the “gadget”, and the famous scientists racing to beat the Germans. It’s much more about displacement and loss, about being the oddball and discovering a friend in another oddball. Dewey and Suze don’t fit in with the other offspring of the Manhattan scientists. Suze is an overweight, under-appreciated artist, and Dewey scours the trash heap for materials she can use in her inventions. When they’re thrown together, they have to learn to get along. A tween usually can’t even get along with herself, so we know trouble is just a few pages on.

It’s always fun to watch a writer force mismatched people onto each other, especially when they’re at that awkward tween-age when they care so much what their peers think of them and have to find the balance between conformity and individualism. “I don’t like you, but I wanna be like you, because I want you to like me.” So glad I never have to go through that again; reading about it is all I can handle at my age.

The adults drink and smoke an awful lot here, but there wasn’t much else to do at Los Alamos. Occasionally they were able to get away for a shopping spree in Santa Fe, but security made this a difficult task — even the children had to show photo IDs to get in and out of the research area. Given what we know now, it’s astonishing that those kids were there at all. The drinking and smoking are perhaps symbolic of the larger threat about to be loosed upon the world.

This book is so evocative of that time and that place, of an island of furious scientific activity and intense boredom for anyone not directly working on the gadget. With the adults tied to their labs, the kids have complete freedom, as long as they stay within the raz0r-wire-topped fence. In her acceptance speech for the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, Klages says the green glass sea has been bulldozed — too bad; it would have been something to see. Reading the book, though, will take you there at very low cost.

Bohr, Oppenheimer, Feynman & Fermi

Klages doesn’t directly address the conflict among scientists and politicians about whether and how to use the bomb, but the personal conflicts her characters must face show the unsteady balance between science and art, between knowledge and innocence, between present need and future consequences. For such a small book, it takes on some powerful issues.

A good intro to the Trinity site is here.

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