I bought this expecting various tales of nuclear close calls, but that’s just one part of the book. It starts with a history of the development of nuclear weapons, from the days of the Manhattan Project in WWII through to the late 80s (presumably the latest declassified documents). Interspersed with this is an in-depth tale of an incident at a missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas that took place in September of 1980.
I found the shifting between the two hard to follow at times, with the gaps between various parts of the Damascus story so large that I found myself lost (until late on in the book when it begins to focus on it). Most of the incidents discussed weren’t quite what I was expecting either, with passing stories, not blow-by-blow accounts like the main one.
Perhaps that’s why there’s so much of the history of nuclear weapon development, testing, deployment and politics included — to help fill in for accounts that would have needed hard-to-get interviews. The problem with that is it makes for a long book that seems to drag on and on.
You can’t say it doesn’t cover the subject in detail though. Nuclear weapons have always been shrouded in secrecy and are still rarely discussed day-to-day, but some of the things covered will certainly give you a new respect for them, and it’ll scare you just how close we’ve come to both a devastating accident, and all-out war.
Schlosser covers everything from aircraft accidents, fires, launch detection systems being fooled by the sun, and the general lax attitude to security, any one of which could have resulted in armageddon (the book is about the US, but incidents aren’t limited to their shores). The worrying thing is just how close to reality spoofs like Doctor Strangelove were.
The reading by Scott Brick was fine, if uninspiring. His voice does sound reminiscent of an unflappable general, someone with the matter-of-fact tone of a news reader despite delivering incredulous information.
The problem is, the book is so long that it loses some of the shock value and turns into a plod. That and the weird structure make it hard to get through, even if it will open your eyes as to just how close we’ve come to annihilation.
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Audiobook copy of the book
Reviewed: 26th April 2014