A Guided Tour of Hell: Review of William Vollmann’s “Into the Forbidden Zone”

Into the Forbidden Zone: A Trip Through Hell and High Water in Post-Earthquake Japan, by William T. Vollmann. Byliner Originals, 2011. (Nook/Google Ebook/Sony eReader/iTunes bookstore/Kindle Single)

(This review was written for Download the Universe—a new group blog dedicated to reviews of science e-books and apps. No dead trees allowed. Read more reviews at DownloadtheUniverse.com)

On March 11, 2011, one of the largest earthquakes ever recorded ripped apart a swath of eastern Japan. About an hour later, a huge tsunami wave tore through the wreckage, leaving behind a trail of salinated sludge and a burgeoning nuclear disaster.

You know all of this already, of course. In fact, at this point, the narrative of what happened in Japan—what’s still happening, really—has been repeated so many times that you might be tempted to think there’s no reason to read yet another take on this situation.

But you should set those thoughts aside. At least, you should set them aside long enough to read William T. Vollmann’s Into the Forbidden Zone, a 70-page narrative that tells the beautiful, heartbreaking story about the aftermath of the Tohoku Earthquake and highlights two of the key problems with the way this tragedy has been covered in the popular press.

Vollmann isn’t a science journalist. In fact, he’s primarily a novelist. If you’re looking for a lot of technical details on the science of earthquake prediction, or the real risks of radiation exposure, he can’t help you very much.

But, on the other hand, I think that’s part of what makes this book so powerful. As someone immersed in the science of news, it’s easy to lose track of what an event looks like from any other perspective. As an American, far removed from the actual event, it’s easy to get so caught up in seismometers, early warning systems, and debates over nuclear energy—in other words, what could happen to us someday—that we forget about the people all this stuff really did happen to 11 months ago.

Vollmann’s book brings the real story—how an earthquake, a tsunami, and a nuclear meltdown have affected the Japanese people—back to the forefront, where it ought to be.

Just two weeks after the earthquake, Vollmann traveled to Japan with the goal of going inside the exclusion zone—the evacuated region around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. He’d been to the country before (in fact, he wrote a non-fiction treatise about Japanese theater), but this was the first time he’d packed his own dosimeter.

Unfortunately, the dosimeter doesn’t turn out to be quite the security blanket Vollmann was originally hoping it would be. Throughout the book, he worries about its accuracy, about whether it measures all the isotopes and types of radiation he wants it to, and about what he should do when it doesn’t seem like the device is living up to the manufacturer’s claims. He has safety gear he plans on wearing, depending on what the dosimeter tells him. Sometimes, he follows his own rules. Sometimes he doesn’t. And as he travels through the blighted countryside around Fukushima, Vollmann meets and speaks with many Japanese people. Some of them have dosimeters. Most don’t. Like him, none of them seem to know what to do with the information a dosimeter provides.

I know health physics is not the easiest science to grasp on an intuitive basis. Radiation comes with too much cultural baggage, the units of measurement flip-flop too often, and the stream of numbers and equations quickly turn into white noise streaming in one ear and out the other.

This is stuff I have a hard time wrapping my head around. I know my readers at BoingBoing are equally troubled by it. It’s been frustrating. But it didn’t make me angry until I read Vollmann’s story. Every person he meets in the book seems to have a different understanding of what constitutes a dangerous risk—some are overly fearful, others overly blase. They talk about hearing different numbers from the government and industry than they hear from media. And those numbers are different than what they see on home dosimeters.

They’re trapped trying to make personal decisions that affect their health and the health of their children without the information necessary to make those decisions based on evidence. A complicated topic is rendered utterly un-graspable by a combination of rumor, fear, government incompetence, and corporate secrecy. Regardless of what you think about nuclear power, that isn’t right.

Vollmann doesn’t have to spell any of this out. He’s a master of “show, don’t tell” in this book. But it’s impossible to come away from his narrative and not be incensed by the lack of transparency Japanese people have dealt with when it comes to radiation, health, and Fukushima. It’s one thing to have heard someone say, “people are confused.” It’s another to see that confusion acted out in such an overwhelming way.

Likewise, it’s impossible to read Into the Forbidden Zone without feeling like we have missed the forest for the trees when it comes to covering this disaster. So much of the media attention since March 12 has been focused on Fukushima. In fact, just last week, I went to a panel at the American Association for the Advancement of Science conference, where reporter Michael Hanlon showed us charts documenting how quickly and thoroughly the nuclear aspect overshadowed everything else—to the point that we, the media, began to ignore the far greater suffering and loss of life caused by the earthquake and tsunami.

A year after the accident, there’s still not a single person who has been killed by radiation from Fukushima. (Even the Fukushima 50 are still alive and well, months after the media predicted they would die horribly. That surprised me, but it comes from Pieter Doornenbal, a scientist who studies radiation in Japan.)

At the time of his visit, Vollmann didn’t know the situation would turn out like that. But he documented what he could plainly see. The earthquake and tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of people. It left previously valuable farmland soaked in salt, doomed to be unusable for decades. It destroyed infrastructure, homes, and family heirlooms. And, as surely as any federal evacuation from a nuclear exclusion zone, the earthquake and tsunami left thousands of refugees with no place to go home to.

This isn’t to say that the Fukushima disaster shouldn’t be reported on, or that the fallout won’t kill people in the future. The trouble with radiation-related disasters is that they play out over the long-term, as a complicated accounting of naturally occurring cancers versus cancer linked to fallout exposure.

But we can’t forget to tell the stories of the people whose problems are much more immediate. We can’t forget to speak up for them just because their disaster can’t be blamed on any human mistake.

William Vollmann went to Japan thinking he was going to capture the drama and terror of a nuclear power plant out of control, damaged by earthquakes and flooding. Instead, he ended up telling the story of the people who were damaged by that earthquake and that flood. Their lives and their losses make up the bulk of this book, and provide the majority of its power. As well they should. Instead of giving it center stage, Vollmann puts Fukushima Daiichi in its proper place—a looming shadow hovering over an already broken landscape.