In Atom by Stephen Sutcliffe, a young man named Michael is trying to find his place in the world – and make his mark on it – in dramatic fashion. His belief that atomic development will inevitably lead to the end of humanity drives him to plan an unforgettable attack – an undeniable statement about the risks of atomic proliferation that no one can ignore.
He and his friends, similarly young and wealthy white men with an axe to grind against nuclear weapons and modernity, devise a plan to make their own nuke and demonstrate the terrifying capacity on American soil. This sounds like a clear-cut domestic terror thriller, but in reality, the book is more about expressing philosophical standpoints and diatribes against nuclear development.
The narrative has plenty of twists, and the suspense is high, but few of the characters reveal enough about themselves to become fully formed characters. Readers are encouraged to think more critically about certain subjects, but the characters delivering those sentiments lack emotional depth. At times, the book reads like a manifesto, replete with back-and-forth conversations about global geopolitics and corruption, but it is difficult to see Michael, William, Brad and John as heroes – or even anti-heroes.
Back in this time period, discussion about nuclear disarmament and proliferation was commonplace, where even running atomic bomb drills in elementary schools was a frequent occurrence. Despite being a crucial part of their lives, and the source of sincere distress in many parts of the world, the characters in this book talk dispassionately, almost academically, about the subject. It is clear that Sutcliffe has his own belief system, and he seems to use the “Children of Atom” as his delivery system, but the words don’t always ring true, which affects the book’s overall message.
The simplicity of the plan and the nonchalance with which many of the decisions are made also make the book less than believable. If people are so determined to wake up the world that they risk killing hundreds or thousands of people, one would expect more of their personalities to appear, along with more moral discomfort at the idea of sacrificing the few for the many. The writing itself is clean, and the vocabulary is diverse, with very few grammatical errors to note or fix, but the ideas being covered change very rapidly, often before readers have a chance to fully absorb what is being expressed.
At times, the prose is poetic, and a scene may be beautifully captured by Sutcliffe, while at others, the dialogue feels jerky and unnatural, as if the characters are marionettes being used to create a memorable line or image. More organic storytelling is needed in the book, as it presently seems quite systematic and procedural. Using more vivid imagery and focusing less on extolling a specific philosophy would make this good book into something great. Readers must be allowed to make their own conclusions and form their own opinions, rather than having those realizations forced upon them.
All of that being said, Sutcliffe creates a visceral portrait of a troubled time in America, and this book is certainly worth a careful read, as it is especially prescient given dangers in the present moment.
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