Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis
Einstein’s Monsters by Martin Amis
I was born on August 25, 1949: four days later, the Russians successfully tested their first atom bomb, and deterrence was in place. So I had those four carefree days, which is more than my juniors ever had. I didn’t really make the most of them. I spent half the time under a bubble. Even as things stood, I was born in a state of acute shock. My mother says I looked like Orson Welles in a black rage. By the fourth day I had recovered, but the world had taken a turn for the worse. It was a nuclear world. To tell you the truth, I didn’t feel very well at all. I was terribly sleepy and feverish. I kept throwing up. I was given to fits of uncontrollable weeping. . . . When I was eleven or twelve the television started showing target maps of South East England: the outer bands of the home counties, the bull’s-eye of London. I used to leave the room as quickly as I could. I didn’t know why nuclear weapons were in my life or who had put them there. I didn’t know what to do about them. I didn’t want to think about them. They made me feel sick.
Now, in 1987, thirty-eight years later, I still don’t know what to do about nuclear weapons. And neither does anybody else. If there are people who know, then I have not read them. The extreme alternatives are nuclear war and nuclear disarmament. Nuclear war is hard to imagine; but so is nuclear disarmament. (Nuclear war is certainly the more readily available.) One doesn’t really see nuclear disarmament, does one? Some of the blueprints for eventual abolition—I am thinking, for example, of Anthony Kenny’s “theoretical deterrence” and of Jonathan Schell’s “weaponless deterrence”—are wonderfully elegant and seductive; but these authors are envisioning a political world that is as subtle, as mature, and (above all) as concerted as their own solitary deliberations. Nuclear war is seven minutes away, and might be over in an afternoon. How far away is nuclear disarmament? We are waiting. And the weapons are waiting.
What is the only provocation that could bring about the use of nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the priority target for nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. What is the only established defense against nuclear weapons? Nuclear weapons. How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening to use nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons. The intransigence, it seems, is a function of the weapons themselves. Nuclear weapons can kill a human being a dozen times over in a dozen different ways; and, before death—like certain spiders, like the headlights of cars—they seem to paralyze.
Indeed they are remarkable artifacts. They derive their power from an equation: when a pound of uranium-235 is fissioned, the liberated mass within its 1,132,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000 atoms is multiplied by the speed of light squared—with the explosive force, that is to say, of 186,000 miles per second times 186,000 miles per second. Their size, their power, has no theoretical limit. They are biblical in their anger. They are clearly the worst thing that has ever happened to the planet, and they are mass-produced, and inexpensive. In a way, their most extraordinary single characteristic is that they are manmade. They distort all life and subvert all freedoms. Somehow, they give us no choice. Not a soul on earth wants them, but here they all are.
I am sick of them—I am sick of nuclear weapons. And so is everybody else. When, in my dealings with this strange subject, I have read too much or thought too long—I experience nausea, clinical nausea. In every conceivable sense (and then, synergistically, in more senses than that) nuclear weapons make you sick. What toxicity, what power, what range. They are there and I am here—they are inert, I am alive—yet still they make me want to throw up, they make me feel sick to my stomach; they make me feel as if a child of mine has been out too long, much too long, and already it is getting dark. This is appropriate, and good practice. Because I will be doing a lot of that, I will be doing a lot of throwing up, if the weapons fall and I live.