What's so funny about nuclear annihilation?

Three famed physicists star in an inspired fantasy that wittily warns of apocalypse

With apologies to fans of the "Left Behind" series, my idea of curling up with a good book doesn't usually involve the end of the world. Throw in the threat of nuclear annihilation, and I will find an excellent reason to go alphabetize my canned goods.

But "Oh Pure and Radiant Heart" by Lydia Millet ("My Happy Life") is that rarest of finds: a compassionate satire, with a terrific premise and writing that's so assured that readers should be lining up for admission to this dystopia.

In 2003, a Santa Fe librarian dreams of a man blinded by a nuclear explosion, and the next day, three physicists responsible for the creation of the atomic bomb wake up in modern America. "One was born in a motel room, one in a gutter. And the third was born again beneath a table that smelled of French fries and disinfectant, in a cafeteria at the University of Chicago."

Robert Oppenheimer (the man in the dream), Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard have no memories of their lives after the Trinity test, which set off the first atomic bomb 60 years ago this month. Time travel being a little disorienting, it's fortunate the three are geniuses.

Szilard, a happy glutton, adapts the most quickly, gobbling up fast food, hip-hop, reality TV, and the Internet.

Fermi sinks into a deep depression, and Oppenheimer is frankly and articulately appalled.

"More than any of it," he says, "what astounds me is the blindness of you people now. A civilization that is blind to itself. I mean blind. In my day there was ignorance too: ignorance is timeless. But at least we were ashamed of it."

Ann, the librarian, rounds up the three strays and brings them home to her husband, Ben, a gardener who loves his wife enough to live with three lunatics. Or con men - he can't quite make up his mind, although he comes to feel a great affection for Fermi.

She spends her life savings to take them to Hiroshima, where Fermi and Oppenheimer are devastated by the results of their creation.

(Szilard had been fired from the Manhattan Project before Trinity, because of his staunch opposition to using the bomb.)

The three embark on a disarmament campaign dreamed up by Szilard, who's been convinced from the get-go that they've been sent to stop the end of the world.

"History does have an end: ask the dinosaurs and the Carolina parakeet and the giant sloths," he says. "[The US military] want to be able to use nuclear arms like any other weapons. Just another tool in the toolbox. They're chomping at the bit. Did you even know that? Do you even notice the government? You people have so many games to play you have no time for what's real."

As they travel cross-country on their peace tour, their crew of cheerful stoners, UFOlogists, and hippies are outnumbered (and outgunned) by evangelicals who believe that Oppenheimer is the reincarnated Messiah and are determined to bring on the Rapture.

Throughout their travels, Millet intersperses passages about the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the inhabitants of the Marshall Islands, and the arms race.

She mostly avoids didacticism (although a streak of environmental preachiness - a common trait of apocalyptic fiction - does run through the novel). Instead she lets the facts speak for themselves, to alternately harrowing and hilarious effect.

Take her description of the civil defense film "You and the Atom." "It offered very straightforward advice, namely: 'The Atomic Energy Commission says the best defense against an atom bomb is to BE SOMEWHERE ELSE when it bursts.' "

Ann, Ben, and the three scientists are so well-drawn that it's surprising to see how clichéd the minor characters are: The evangelicals are murderous zealots; the military and the big-business types settle for being merely soulless.

(Millet does toss in a "good" pastor, Father Raymond, as a sop to the faithful.)

And the lyrical bleakness gets a touch maudlin after a while, as with this quote from an elderly follower: "I believe, she went on softly and with difficulty, her voice quivering, that by the time that our great-grandchildren are the age I am now, everything that we think is beautiful will be gone."

But Millet does such a good job of anchoring the outlandish premise in everyday life, and her recreations of the characters of the three physicists are stunning.

Oppenheimer, who at first glance reminds Ann "of a gangly baby bird - an ostrich maybe, though he was elegant, not absurd" is a particular triumph.

Unshakably genteel - "I did not warm to him," he remarks about a kidnapper with Jeeves-like understatement - in Millet's hands he is a tragic figure on the order of Shakespeare: "He had loved the world and wanted to build something to honor it, and all he had ever known said this was a noble quest. But instead it was human. It was human but it was not noble, for humans are noble only in humility. So he had built the wrong thing...."

Generally speaking, Americans prefer that the end of the world be accompanied by aliens, à la this month's blockbuster movie "War of the Worlds." It will be interesting to see if readers respond to Millet's version of the apocalypse, in which history goes out, not with a bang, but with a flutter of wings.

Yvonne Zipp is a freelance writer in Kalamazoo, Mich.

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