Snake Dance: Journeys beneath a Nuclear Sky, by Patrick Marnham

Review published on March 27, 2014. Reviewed by jj redfearn

Nudge Reviewer Rating:

This is: A brief history of Belgium’s interest in the Congo; A brief biography of Robert Oppenheimer; A sketchy potted history of the Congo; A sketchy potted history of New Mexico; A set of brief mini-biographies of key players in the Manhatten project; A brief history of the creation of the atom and hydrogen bombs; A book describing some of the travels of Patrick Marnham; and it’s something else.

Belgium and the Congo. Thin. Marnham rightly does not like what Belgium did in the Congo or why it did it. Robert Oppenheimer. Thin. Marnham does not like anything about Oppenheimer. Nor do I.

The Congo. Thin. Congo is where the uranium came from. Marnham does not like the way African governments operate or the way society conforms to that way of operating. But eye opening – there’s nothing new here, but the rose tinting and phoney optimism often written is stripped away. There is hope for Africa, but it’s the Africans who have to bring it. And that’s a huge ask.

New Mexico. Thin. Marnham likes New Mexico but is scathing about pretty much all the societies who live there or who have lived there. Especially the traveller-like, gun-toting hippyish communities. More individuals than communities really.

Manhattan mini-bios. Thin. Sketchy thumb-nails of a fairly random selection of the scientists involved with the bombs and Groves, the head of the project. No-one comes out well. Suggestive of how the US operates when its military are in control.

Creation of the bombs. Still pretty thin, and spread around the book. I think it says the US capitalised on R&D from Britain and scientists from across Europe to develop and build a bomb because the Germans might. Even though the US wasn’t involved in the war against the Axis when the project was started and knew almost as soon as it did become involved that there were and would be no German bomb. But it made it to establish the US as the world’s dominant superpower. Then it used it to prove to the world and the Russians that the bombs existed and worked and to test their effects on real targets. Since they’d already unknowingly handed the Russians chapter and verse about the bombs through spies within the program this was an unnecessary effort. If Japan had won the war crimes tribunals would have convicted a very different set of individuals.

Travels. Thin. Travels is a sort of a set of timeline visits through Belgium and its colonial aspirations via the Congo and its metal and Uranium mines that Belgium exploited to New Mexico and the Spanish Americans, Native Americans and European Americans who colonised and still live there. Then visits Japan and the Fukushima reactor. Nevertheless Travels is the most interesting element of the book because it does not just describe the obvious, what the camera sees, stuff most travel journalists report but gives solid opinions on what is seen and what lies just below the surface. It’s really strong social commentary. Albeit very negative. Something else. Powerful. I found this a poorly written, poorly constructed, thinly researched, almost random set of bits and pieces of history mixed with some social comment on each of the places Marnham has visited. It’s not fascinating, the constant harking back to Conrad is irritating, its eminently put-downable and its extraordinarily negative about almost everything it touches. But despite all that, it delivers a great deal to think about.


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