Home Books The Future of Fallout, And Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making: by Joseph Masco

The Future of Fallout, And Other Episodes in Radioactive World-Making: by Joseph Masco

In its bold, current introduction, Joseph Masco’s new book, The Future of Fallout, promises a probing exploration of the overlapping logics of nuclear arms development and our continuing brazen disregard for the ever-increasing realities of climate change. He will examine what it says about both the US-American psyche and government that we heedlessly persist in pursuing these obviously apocalyptic enterprises. He ingeniously arranges all of his analysis along the rubric of what he defines as “fallout”; for Masco, fallout is the “lag between industrial capability and embodied experiences of injury.” In the US, we willfully, collectively—perhaps even pathologically—disregard fallout and instead emphasize immediate needs. The prologue and introduction chapter of The Future of Fallout establish this audacious analytical framework that will inform the rest of the book, setting the book up to be an immensely crucial—and immensely interesting—look at the myopic, avaricious heart of the US national project.

Unfortunately, the book’s ensuing four sections, which each symmetrically contain four chapters apiece, fail to live up to the daring promises posited in its front matter. It would be both absurd and unfair to call The Future of Fallout a poorly written or poorly argued book. Most of the body of the book will appeal to both casual readers looking for informative entertainment, as it is compellingly composed and quickly paced, and to academic readers searching for salient points to inform either their teaching or their research, as the book is loaded with passages worthy of underlining/highlighting and being revisited later. No, the central issue with The Future of Fallout is that the book is disappointing to any reader who seriously engages with the prologue and introduction. Not only does the book not fulfill its stated argumentative purposes, but it also shifts in tone and ceases to be rooted in the current moment. It even largely abandons the term “fallout” as defined in the opening pages.

The readiest explanation for the gap between the heady daring of the introduction and the relatively tame body of The Future of Fallout is made evident by a quick perusal of the endnotes. Every single chapter in the book—even including the blisteringly exciting introductory chapter one—has already appeared in published form elsewhere. Only the prologue and epilogue are original to this volume. A few of the chapters, such as that great introduction, were published quite recently (the intro in 2018) and therefore maintain a footing in the current reality. But many of the chapters were first in print in the Bush II years (or even earlier!). This is not an immediate problem, for multiple reasons. First and most obviously, analyses of US history, politics, and cultures retain immediate significance for readers for, potentially, centuries after their composition. Second, the chapters have been revised and reworked—at least that is a claim that Masco makes, though the book does not accumulate knowledge from chapter to chapter, repeatedly explaining basic information in each new chapter as if the reader could not have possibly read the other chapters—so that their relevance could have been restored.

The issue is that the main thrust of The Future of Fallout, as stated in the prologue and introduction, is its vital linkage of the way the US has pursued national security in an era of, first, potential nuclear Armageddon and, second, certain climate catastrophe. This is an inherently topical, current argument. Discussions of climate change almost require an appreciation and analysis of the present moment. But this book’s chapters are 20 years old; many pre-date such crucial academic innovations as the coining of the term “Anthropocene,” for instance, hindering their ability to make worthwhile arguments in the year 2021. Notably, the book’s chapters actually have very little discussion of climate change at all; ultimately, The Future of Fallout is a book about the US nuclear complex.

And boy howdy, as a book of essentially American Studies about the nuclear complex, The Future of Fallout is tremendous. Most of the chapters make for vital, enthusiastic reading. The book is fantastically informed and informative; it is comprehensive in its analysis and it tracks the US flirtation with plutonium-induced annihilation from the earliest days of the Manhattan Project through the early Obama years. It is varied, looking at propaganda films, nuclear testing regimes, nuclear-soaked utopian dreams and life in a nuclear missile silo. It looks at the nuclear aesthetic—so well brought to life in the Fallout video game franchise—and at the effects of actual nuclear fallout in our world today. Had the book’s first 50 pages not signed checks that the ensuing 350 pages could not possibly cash and instead just told the reader that The Future of Fallout would explore what it says about the United States that it was willing to destroy all life on planet Earth simply to win a political argument, then no reader would have any cause for disappointment.

An immensely crucial—and immensely interesting—look at the myopic, avaricious heart of the US national project.
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