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Nonfiction in Brief

April 17, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

FINAL WARNING The Legacy of Chernobyl by Dr. Robert Peter Gale and Thomas Hauser (Warner Books: $18.95) News photos of Chernobyl after the 1986 explosion in its reactor core, showing a collapsed roof on what looks like a burnt-out tenement building, don't convey the scope of the tragedy. But in the first victims, mostly firemen, whom Robert Gale treated after he arrived in the Soviet Union, the destructive power of nuclear energy was immediately apparent. The reactor had defied the firemen's efforts to extinguish it--an invisible, inextinguishable fire, it will continue to "burn" for 24,000 years, the half-life of plutonium--and destroyed their body's ability to manufacture healthy blood cells. Gale, the UCLA leukemia specialist whose offer to help perform bone marrow transplants on the victims was accepted by the Soviets, has mostly good words to say about the way they coped with the disaster. Soviet doctors, in fact, "had amassed so much data (about treatment) prior to Chernobyl" that Gale wonders if they had been forced to contend with past radiation accidents unreported in the West.

Gale's account of his work with the victims in Moscow's Hospital Number Six is surprisingly good-humored and relaxed, lacking the sense of urgent mission we would expect from someone contending with a tragedy the size of Chernobyl. Even when describing the critical days just after the explosion, Gale ruminates on everything from his jogging routine to his family history; long before Chernobyl, one surmises, Gale learned to maintain a sense of equanimity in the face of crisis. And yet while Gale's digressions offer colorful glimpses of Russian life and show him to be a fair-minded observer, they are too often mundane, describing how he packs his suitcases, for instance, and how many cups were on board a helicopter "in case any one of us got thirsty."

When Gale teams up with writer Thomas Hauser in the book's early and concluding chapters, "Final Warning" becomes more focused, though not always more logical. On one page, for instance, after making the inevitable link between nuclear power and nuclear weapons, the authors mention that safeguards might prevent us from launching nuclear weapons if we had to; only three paragraphs later, however, they seem to suggest the opposite: "How safe are our nuclear triggers? Will everything continue to work the way it's supposed to?" While one wishes that "Final Warning" had described Soviet medicine, Soviet doctors and Gale's own work more intimately, Gale's story is still extraordinary and, because of the glasnost it symbolizes, encouraging.

HIGH WEIRDNESS BY MAIL by the Rev. Ivan Stang (Fireside/Simon & Schuster: $9.95) A survey of America's lunatic fringe, from an "Aryan Nations Church" which contends that "American Pie" is "Satan's version of the Song of Moses" to the director of the "Rainbow Earth Dwelling Society," who "proves" that Elvis is a visitor from "The Blue Star." The author has done a mammoth job of research, describing hundreds of newspapers, catalogues and organizational letters to form a lively, if not telling portrait of American eccentrics. Unfortunately, though, the author's relentless sarcasm eclipses both empathy and humor in these mini-portraits, limiting this book's appeal to the ultra-irreverent segment of America's readership, the same people who reveled with pleasure in the mock-affectionate letters Don Novello ("Father Guido Sarducci") wrote in the late 1970s to staunchly conservative government leaders. The author, like his subjects, portrays himself as "the one sane anchor in this raging sea of false belief." But also like his subjects, he's not immune to kooky currents of thought. At one point, for instance, he suggests that cattle mutilations since the 1960s might have been caused by helicopters "manned by some secret group." "High Weirdness by Mail" still remains bizarre and broad enough to be interesting, though it would have been more so had Stang put down his rapier long enough to do some reporting.

INSIDE THE ROBOT KINGDOM Japan, Mechatronics, and the Coming Robotopia by Frederik L. Schodt (Kodansha: $19.95) On its face, this book studies how Japan has taken robots beyond the automobile factory and toy store, employing them in a host of more sophisticated jobs, from making sushi and carrying groceries to transporting tools between offices and acting as "Seeing Eye dogs." Rather than simply celebrating the gadgets, however, "Inside the Robot Kingdom" explores how Japanese culture has helped nurture a receptive climate for Japanese technology. Frederik Schodt, an interpreter for Japanese and American corporations, realizes that what sets the Japanese apart is not advanced technology--for Japan's robots are no more sophisticated than ours--but widespread application: Japan has 116,000 industrial robots; we have 25,000. How did Japan skip from the 18th to the 21st Century, from wearers of swords to carriers of Walkmans?

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