Aaron Tucker is the author of the brand new novel Y: Oppenheimer, Horseman of Los Alamos (Coach House Books) as well as two books of poetry, Irresponsible Mediums: The Chess Games of Marcel Duchamp (Bookthug Press) and punchlines (Mansfield Press), and two scholarly cinema studies monographs, Virtual Weaponry: The Militarized Internet in Hollywood War Films and Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema (both published by Palgrave Macmillan). In this interview the Toronto author answers questions about his writing, his dynamic new novel, and the scary place that is Planet Earth in this troubling year 2018.
You’ve been publishing a lot in the last five years. How have these projects helped or deterred the finalization of Y? Do you see a progression or are they all autonomous entities?
I feel like the different projects that I undertake all interlock and feed into each other, while also providing changes of pace that give me the space to quietly work through problems when I get stuck; when I feel myself getting tired or weary, joyless even, in relation to a project, I just sort of jump over to a different one for a while. I have always looked at writing as multi-directional, with different tendrils going in all sorts of different directions, and they often surprise me in the ways that they weave back together after feeling so far apart. I like to work on multiple problems at once, then try and find the best paths, for me, to exploring potential solutions to them.
I think there is a clearer line connecting my work with machine translation and my film scholarship. I began work with Jody Miller on the ChessBard, an app that translates chess games into poetry (chesspoetry.com) and the subsequent Irresponsible Mediums, at roughly the same time as I was working through Interfacing with the Internet in Popular Cinema; to me, the two projects dovetailed in their considerations of machine species and co-authorship, and the ways that I am encouraged, or discouraged, to cooperate with all the different physical and virtual technologies around me. Loss Sets, a project translating poems into 3D printed sculptures done with Jordan Scott, Namir Ahmed and Tiffany Cheung evolved from The ChessBard and has turned into O/Ô, which involves translating the Canadian Hansard with Google Translate’s camera function.
In terms of Y, it is the only novel that I have published, and as such the problems, in terms of form and scale, both narratively and emotionally, were a welcome change from some of the other projects. I do think it is semi-parallel to my second film book, Virtual Weaponry, which explores how Internet technologies are represented in war films. Doing work for that book informed my understanding of the American involvement in the last century-plus of global warfare, which allowed me to put the invention and use of the atomic bomb in its proper, monumental context. We are running out of lived-history around the actual events of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and I sometimes worry that my first-year students don’t quite understand the massive destruction and violence that nuclear war would mean, a thought that is often supported by Donald Trump’s flippant treatment of the topic.
Your debut novel has been dubbed as a fictionalized biography of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the scientist with communist leanings who developed the atomic bomb. This novel has very little dialogue in it, and yet the reader, through the style you’ve chosen (third person) gets an immediate sense of being within Oppenheimer’s very core. How much research did you have to plow through to get all his life distilled and “lyric and pure” (as Cohen once said).
I read as many of the more straightforward biographical texts as I could, massive tomes like Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s American Prometheus (the excellent book that sparked Y) and Ray Monk’s A Life Inside the Center. Bird and Sherwin’s text is an incredibly sensitive and thorough look at his life and is the best biography, in my opinion, at expressing the inner workings and motivations of Oppenheimer; I also read his selected letters, edited by Alice Kimball Smith and Charles Weiner, after I read American Prometheus, and by keeping the two side-by-side, often literally next to my desk, I found it easier to maintain some sense of his interiority. The Monk biography was excellent at explaining the scientific aspects of Oppenheimer’s story, putting his role in building American physics into context, while also explaining the basics of quantum mechanics and fission, all of which was very helpful when I was trying to stitch together the events of the text with the intellectual work of the time.
As you can imagine there is a fleet of books on Oppenheimer, most often focusing on his post-WWII loss of his Q-security clearance and subsequent public shaming; there are also a near-innumerable books on the building of the atomic bomb, from historians, from the scientists and politicians and military personnel involved. I included all the specific titles at the end of Y to acknowledge how much each really helped to give insight into Oppenheimer’s actions, to the Gadget as a whole. But the most helpful ones were Peggy Pond Church’s The House at Otowi Bridge, focused on Edith Warner’s life in New Mexico, and An Atomic Love Story by Patricia Klaus and Shirley Streshinsky. Pond’s book helped me enter into Oppenheimer through New Mexico and helped me understand why he was so drawn to the place, and then why he defined so much of himself through that landscape; I was also able to go to Los Alamos and Santa Fe, to drive around the space and take lots of notes and pictures, see the deserts and then mountains and then pueblos, and it unlocked a few things too. In addition, An Atomic Love Story details the central, and often under-examined, women in Oppenheimer’s life, and it was through them as well that I came to understand more of his psychology, but, more important I think, actually give life and voice to those women, to understand them as people, rather than as women always historically modified by Oppenheimer. Though I came to it late, via the great writer Kevin Killian, Edith Jenkin’s reflections on her friendship with Jean Tatlock has helped me refocus my thoughts on Jean, and why she was so important to his life.
No generation seems to be able to forget World War II, and for good reason. Do you have a particular pull toward it?
Where I grew up in Vernon, part of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, there was a cadet camp on the hill going out of town, and so there was always a strange military presence. This was reinforced by the civil defence towers that went up and down the highway, these sirens on tall poles that just stood there, and every once and a while would go off in this elongated moans. But one of the things I keep coming back to is that part of our Remembrance Day ceremonies was to read Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr then fold origami cranes and hang them from the trees around the war memorial in the park. The way that I was taught to understand the Second World War was through its end and the use of atomic bombs.
I also remember reading Nevil Shute’s On the Beach as I was in community college there, and was struck by the slow, viral apocalyptic creep of that book, and how the invisible omnipresent of nuclear war hung over my growing up, over all of our growing up. The iconic images of nuclear war are of the mushroom cloud, the sort of visceral immediate explosion, but that book gives a near-utopian and pastoral version of the world, post-nuclear war, that is then slowly overtaken by the approaching cloud of fallout. It is the inevitability death at the hands of nuclear war of this book that struck me, still strikes me, and parallels my own thinking about our contemporary moment; I think there is a strong case to be made that we have been living post-apocalyptically since the Trinity Test, are waiting in the same way that the characters of Shute’s book wait, for the predestined culmination of atomic weaponry.
What was the biggest surprise you came across in completing Y? You are after all, dealing with a real life story to a degree.
The biggest surprise for me, when I actually started to research around the edges of Oppenheimer’s life and read a few books on the Manhattan Project, was just what an incredible human feat building the atomic bomb was: not only was the science completely new and entirely theoretical up until the late 1930s, but the engineering that had to take place to refine, construct and shape the materials needed was astounding – for example, they had to build literally miles of pipes that could have zero leaks that were then also fitted with a series of filtering meshes, whose holes were smaller than anyone had ever made. I was struck by how much of the building of the atomic bomb was almost pure speculation and experimentation and how much faith was needed, all done against the urgent background of think that the Nazis would develop the weapon first. There is a tension in my admiration for the process that was one of the main compulsions for me when I started to write this book: seeing all of the communal knowledge, basically the culmination of a civilization’s history, brought together is really nearly-beyond belief; yet, all of that knowledge results in a weapon of mass destruction. I wanted to understand that tension more, because I also think it drove Oppenheimer. He was a very proud, often arrogant, man, and I think proud to have been at the tip of the spear of the atomic bomb; yet he was also horrified by it.
In terms of Oppenheimer specifically, and I shouldn’t have been that surprised by it, but I was always a bit stunned by how quickly things pass from mythology into fact which, especially on the Internet, are then circulated infinitely. The clearest example to me was, as the Trinity Test was being set up, he was said to have quoted a passage from the Bhagavad Gita:
“In battle, in forest, at the precipice in the mountains,
On the dark great sea, in the midst of javelins and arrows,
In sleep, in confusion, in the depths of shame,
The good deeds a man has done before defend him.”
which I’ve included at the end of Chapter 10; this passage is also used in the film Ex Machina.
The problem with that quote is that is not actually from the Gita, but is actually a mix of a passage from the Gita with another set of verse from the long Sanskrit poem the Bhavani. I had to check in three different translations of the Gita, including the one by Arthur Ryder, who was Oppenheimer’s Sanskrit teacher. So, if his having said this is correct, did he combine the two purposely? Did he misremember? Or did the person who heard him misremember? This slipperiness is very interesting to me, and at the centre of my version of Oppenheimer.
With Donald Trump pulling the US from its nuclear development deal with Iran and the general political climate in a near apocalyptic level of anxiety, do you feel like your book is timely somehow? As the United States of America seem to be entering brinkmanship with other nations and acts of terror manifest themselves at our front door and on our news feeds.
Oh for sure! As I was in the initial stages of editing this book with Alana Wilcox, Trump was tweeting about his big red nuclear button being the biggest big red button that was. What I hope happens with the conversation around this book, is that the actual use of atomic weaponry is remembered for the indiscriminate weapon of slaughter that it was, and is not trivialized into a set of social media threats. I fear that, as all the living history around the only use of the atomic bomb dies, that we will forget how completely horrific its use was, and in that, somehow normalize or justify its use again. I write about this thought as well in my film scholarship: every time I see nuclear weapons casually shot off (say at the end of Pacific Rim as a means to “save the world”), I think it degrades the very real human and environmental catastrophic damage that its actual use would cause. And of course all these fears are amplified by the fact that Donald Trump is in charge of one of the largest stockpiles in the world. I hope that it is all blunt rhetoric and bluster but I think part of my writing this book was a way for me to re-contextualize and revisit the building of the atomic bomb, through a singular person, in hopes of encouraging readers to re-examine what deploying nuclear weapons would look like.