September 8, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

chernobylChernobyl by Frederik Pohl


I’ve been fascinated by the Chernobyl disaster since I was a kid. I remember seeing the news alert when the news finally broke, and since it was in the middle of the Cold War, it was big, frightening news. Since then, I’ve read up on it here and there, getting a clearer picture of the disaster and its tragedy. When I saw that there was a novelization of the event, I thought it would be worth reading.

The story of the Chernobyl disaster, like the one of the sinking of the Titanic, is a natural human drama. It involves arrogance and folly, tragedy and bravery, and has a flow of events that feels like a narrative. Overlooking the real human tragedy of the events, one can find the story to be engaging and intriguing. It makes sense that Pohl would take the events of the disaster and make them into a novel.

The thing is, this novel was written and published in 1987, one year after the disaster occurred. Pohl did a lot of research and spoke with people who had close knowledge of the event, and he took the facts and structured them into a story with fictional characters to humanize the tragedy, like James Cameron did with Titanic. Reading it in 1987, I might have found this book to be even better, since at that time we didn’t know everything about the disaster. I’ve been pretty fascinated by the story around the disaster since I was a kid and first learned about it on the news, so I’ve done a lot of reading on the disaster, what caused it, what its consequences were, etc, so a lot of what I read in the book was stuff I already knew. It was kind of like reading the novelization of a movie I had already seen.

With that in mind, I started focusing on how well Pohl created his characters. The two main characters are Smin, the Deputy Director, and Sheranchuk, the lead hydraulics engineer of the plant. Both men are members of the Party, loyal to their country and their ideals, but after reactor number 4 explodes, they both risk their lives in order to protect not just the people working at the plant, but also the people who live outside of and around the plant. They’re honorable characters, and easy to sympathize with.

Pohl had to create some enemies for his story, though, and they feel a little trite. At one point early in the story, Smin thinks poorly of the Director, because his position is more political. The Director is the one who initiates the test that ultimately cause the explosion, and of course he’s away from the plant when the disaster occurs, and doesn’t return when it happens. The Director is never fleshed out outside of these points, and there wasn’t a real-life counterpart to the character. Without someone to blame for the human folly, though, it reduces the effect of the drama.

Some of the characters felt superfluous. There’s a couple from the US who are touring the USSR, who don’t serve any purpose to the story that I could tell, neither do they relate to any real people who were involved with the event. Pohl created other tertiary characters — soldiers, ambassadors, and other governmental figures — to illustrate the human impact of the accident and the response by the government, but the couple was just stuck in there.

Additionally, less attention is paid to the aftermath than I expected, though that could be due to the publication of the book so closely after the events happened. Much more has been learned since then, and the aftereffects of the accident are better understood, which are some of the most interesting parts of the real story. Again, I can see this being a timely, informative book at the time of its publication, but in 2016, more can be learned about the event from reading Wikipedia.

Because the actual story of the Chernobyl disaster is a story all of its own, I don’t understand the need to fictionalize what happened. I would have more of a response to the tragedy if I read about the actual people than reading about people who are only barely based on them. Pohl and his publishers seemed to be under the idea that the details of the event would be more interesting than the people involved, but the impact of their sacrifice and courage is lost when you see them portrayed through fictional characters. It was engaging, and accurate, but less impactful than I would have expected. In the end, the book just made me want to read a nonfiction book about the event.

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