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