Research Notes · 11/17/2017

Lost, Almost

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Amy P. Knight writes about Lost, Almost from Engine Books.

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As I sit down to write this, the threat of nuclear war has become terrifyingly concrete. Over the last six months, it has increasingly become something people in the mainstream reasonably worry about. North Korea has been a known problem for decades, but now we seem close to a tipping point. Major magazines have run long articles about the risk, the possible scenarios, and the consequences. A former NATO military chief estimated the chance of nuclear war with North Korea is now as high as 10%. Into this world, unfamiliar to those of us who grew up after the height of the Cold War, stumbles Lost, Almost, which explores the life of a fictional nuclear physicist and the effects his nuclear weapons work has on him and the people in his orbit.

I started writing the book in 2008. Barack Obama was about to become president. Our national anxiety was firmly focused on the economy. Nuclear war simply wasn’t on the radar for most of us. I certainly wasn’t worrying about it. I just knew I was fascinated by the scientists who did that kind of work. I’d heard a story about one of them gleefully playing his bongo drums out in the desert to celebrate a key breakthrough that ultimately enabled the blast at Hiroshima, and I couldn’t stop thinking about the kind of person who would do that. I couldn’t blame him, and at the same time, I could. This kind of inner contradiction cried out for exploration.

I knew relatively little about physics, or weapons, or the history of the bomb. So naturally, I started reading about them. I started with American Prometheus, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s gripping biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, and spiraled out from there. I read a detailed history of the weapons program. I read oral histories. I read studies of Los Alamos itself. I discovered the existence of the Los Alamos Historical Society. I read about Truman. A few years into the project, when I’d already written big chunks of what would eventually become the book, I went to an estate sale in Helena, Montana, and happened upon a large collection of books about nuclear weapons and the atomic age, most of them published in the 1940s and 50s. I took a whole bag of them home for five dollars. If I needed a little shove toward the finish line, a sign from the universe that I was writing the right book, there it was.

I ultimately wrote a book that both is and is not about nuclear war. Usually when we think about the human cost of war, we think of injury and death, of the destruction of cities and the trauma suffered by soldiers. The story of Adam and the Brooks family is at a remove from all that. There is no bloodshed. Indeed, there is no war. Instead, there is the development of the second generation of nuclear weapons and the struggle to contain them. There is the single-minded focus necessary to get such work done. And there are the costs these things exact on the human beings who undertake them, and on those around them. These, too, are human costs of war. This is the position certain people, with certain particular skills and talents, are put in by our modern conflict-driven world, even in the absence of an active war.

These were my thoughts as the book developed, when the prospect of all of this remained comfortably abstract. I don’t know that I could have written it if everything had felt this real while I was imagining the lives of the people involved in making it possible. Now, looking at their imagined lives in light of current events, in some ways I see them differently. I have more empathy for Adam Brooks, the book’s central figure, than perhaps I did as I wrote. I can feel more vividly the pressure he must have been under, and how it might have caused him to do and say things that seemed unreasonable. He must have lived his whole life with the kind of anxiety I’ve only recently gotten the smallest tastes of. At the same time, all the thinking I’ve done about the human side of this and all the reading I’ve done about the history have colored the way I read the news. The moment at which we have arrived feels inevitable, as a result of choices made decades ago by human beings with lives and families and flaws. Every time I read about a test, successful or otherwise, I can’t help but spare a thought or two for the scientists for whom it represents a triumph, no matter what the larger consequences.

In the end, to think for too long or too deeply about the threats we face today doesn’t get me anywhere. I can’t do anything about it; war will come, or it won’t, and the possibility that it will is too terrible to think about for more than a few minutes. It’s like staring into the sun; you need some kind of filter, or to look off to one side, or to look at the shadows it casts rather than the light itself. My book does not imagine the devastated world after some hypothesized event, although some wonderful books have been written that way. Maybe those writers have stronger stomachs than I do. No, my focus is off to one side a little, out of the brightest part of the glare.

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Amy P. Knight is a civil rights and criminal defense attorney. She lives in Tucson, Arizona with her dogs, Oscar and Ruby.