Reviews — February 28, 2018, 6:43 pm

The Whole Household of Man

On Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Hainish Novels and Stories

Novelists, as E.M. Forster noted, must tell stories about people. Some of the people in novels are ispoisguised as animals—Black Beauty, White Fang—but inside, where we hear and know them, they have human minds and souls; they’d be hard to write about and to read about if they didn’t. Science fiction also tells stories about beings who are not people: the populations of exoplanets, alien visitors, monsters of science or technology. Some are brilliantly conceived in their utter otherness—in a famous Arthur C. Clarke story, the alien is a vast conscious cloud of interstellar gas. But in many SF works the extraterrestrials are, odd traits aside, largely made like us, with minds like ours; they resemble the casts of characters that realist novelists deploy. The closer they come to the human, the less believable they are as aliens, and the more like figures from myth or fantasy.

In the science fiction of Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last month at the age of eighty-eight, planets circle suns other than ours, yet have landscapes and skies and seas not so unlike ours and natives who are mostly not very different from us. A single, tremendous idea made her imagined realms effectively strange, even while binding them all together as realms of the human. This is what she conceived: Some hundreds of thousands of terrestrial years ago, an advanced society on an Earth-like planet called Hain discovered the principle of near-light-speed travel, and with this advance they began to explore their galaxy. They sought planets where, whatever the differences from their home, beings like themselves could live and thrive, and there they planted colonies. Over the course of cosmic time, nine planets (among them our Earth, called Terra) were populated by Hainish people. Some of the populations are different in body and all different to some degree in culture; they come to have histories reaching back to time out of mind, and ways of doing and understanding things that are also ancient—but they are our own relations, brought and adapted to their worlds by our common ancestor. For every way we differ there is a way in which we are alike.

Le Guin’s parents were both famed ethnographers—her father, Alfred Kroeber, documented the life of Ishi, called “the last wild Indian in California”; her mother, Theodora, wrote Ishi in Two Worlds, a popular telling of his story. Le Guin became in her fiction not one ethnographer or historian but many. She deploys a force of investigators throughout the Hainish-populated parts of the galaxy to rediscover colonies founded millennia before, who observe and collect and draw conclusions that sometimes turn out to be inconsistent with one another—just as human ethnography and ethnographers do.

In her brief introduction to two recently published Library of America volumes of all the interconnected Hainish novels and stories written throughout her career, Le Guin is clear about her unsystematic system: “Irresponsible as a tourist, I wandered around in my universe forgetting what I’d said about it last time, and then trying to conceal discrepancies with implausibilities, or with silence. If, as some think, God is no longer speaking, maybe it’s because he looked at what he’d made and found himself unable to believe it.” Her galactic web, she says, “has always been more a convenience than a conception.”

This is false modesty, an endearing trait in a writer. Her immense system was certainly in place in her thought, and quite detailed, before she wrote the first Hainish novel, and is consistent through the series. Many commentaries and analyses can be found that will describe the Hain system of planets: which culture on which world circling which sun predates which others, how the planets lost contact with one another after a non-Hainish, non-human enemy, the Shing, invaded the Hainish worlds and divorced the populations from Hain. They become “planets without history, where the past is the matter of myth, and a returning explorer finds his own doings of a few years back have become the gestures of a god.” When, long afterward, the Shing are ousted, the Hainish are reestablished and greatly enlarged, now called the Ekumen, or (in a nod to the Greek meaning) the Whole Household of Man.

In science fiction, it’s the science-fiction inventions—the bodies, the tools, the cultures, the technologies—that must bear the meaning. It’s not so much that these things ground the characters as that the characters ground the things, and create the worlds that they (and the readers) experience. In the fourth and most celebrated of the Hainish novels, The Left Hand of Darkness, the science-fiction thing is in the bodies of the characters.

An agent of the planetary league, the Ekumen, comes to the nation of Karhide on a world colonized in the far past by Hainish explorers, then lost, now rediscovered. He is Genly Ai, a Terran. A preliminary study by observers who remained carefully off-planet has revealed a peculiar fact about this bitterly cold and snowbound world, called Winter or Gethen: the humans are androgynous. They have an estrus, like most earthly mammals, and each month when they come into the fertile period and mate, either with a longtime partner or almost anyone nearby, the furious hormonal activity will cause one to become male—producing or engorging the male genitals—and cause a corresponding inversion in the other, who will be female. There is no way to predict which partner will become which in any estrus. It’s apparent that the Hain deliberately undertook this biology experiment ages before, but not why. It has had vast consequences: on Winter there are no gender divisions, no male or female roles, there is no marriage, no shame about sex, no laws against sibling incest. Those in heat, or “kemmer,” can meet in communal houses and have one-time partners, but they can also “vow kemmering” with a single other; over time each may be a father and each a mother. Genly Ai keeps forgetting that the person he deals with, masterful, ruthless, or mild, is not male or female. The Terran investigators are baffled by this Hain experiment: Why did they do it?

Le Guin knows why, or at least knows why she did it. In a 1976 essay titled “Is Gender Necessary?” (included in the Appendix to Volume I), Le Guin describes how her first impulse was to write a book about a world that didn’t practice war: “If we were socially ambisexual, if men and women were completely and genuinely equal in their social roles, equal legally and economically, equal in freedom, in responsibility, and in self-esteem,” she writes, “then society would be a very different thing.” The androgyny of the Gethenians, their total asexuality most of the time, was the science-fiction thing that would produce that very different society and its meanings: men and women not just wholly equal but not men or women at all. The result would be a world that had its cruelties and injustices but never mass wars; war depends on men’s manliness.

In the essay, as in the book, she used the male pronoun to talk about Gethenians. It was, she felt, the best of several bad choices—inventing new pronouns, using female pronouns, he/she pronouns—but in notes she added in 1986 she took issue with her own essay, and argued that the masculine pronouns and other usages (“Mr.” as a general honorific, etc.) had made it inevitable that her characters would be seen as men—particularly the proud, strong leaders and able schemers who are her major characters. She had, in effect, undermined her own project. What she saw freshly in 1986 as having been possible but missed would of course be the first thing a writer with the same project in view today would seize on—genderless pronouns are available and widely accepted, and the invention of other even more inclusive ones would be expected, as would gender-queer aspects of Gethenian-style sex that Le Guin admits she’d elided. I understand that, and I’ve read some of the many recent SF tales that deal in radical gender transvaluation and extravagant sexual lability. But Le Guin’s account succeeds anyway, in its grave refusal of easy possibilities, in the care with which each consequence of the difference is brought to light, its impact on life, culture, and behavior in an environment believably drastic and unforgiving. If there is also a lesson about gender, or a questioning of masculinity, it’s left up to the reader to derive it.

The most moving scenes in the book, and perhaps the most moving in all the Hainish oeuvre, come when Genly Ai and Estraven, the only Gethenian who completely believes in his story and his Ekumen, flee across the great ice from their foes. They lie together in a tent as Estraven comes into kemmer. Genly Ai at last sees Estraven, who was male to him, as a woman, something he knew to be possible but didn’t feel before. He recognizes in that hour that what is between them is not simply comradeship rising from shared danger and labor but love. “It was from the difference, that that love came: and it was itself the bridge, the only bridge, across what divided us. For us to meet sexually would be for us to meet once more as aliens. We had touched, in the only way we could touch. We left it at that.” Genly Ai’s growth in knowledge, of the Gethenian soul and of his own, is the plot of the book, though it’s not the plot the reader first follows.

The Left Hand of Darkness is a political novel as much or more than it is a novel about gender: that is, its central concerns are the politics of differing realms (one a monarchy/clan system, the other a ramifying bureaucracy) and the success or failure of a diplomatic mission seeking alliances. The Dispossessed (1974), subtitled “An Ambiguous Utopia,” is a political novel in a different sense: one that directly reflects, in a story about an imaginary planetary system, the author’s world, its particular dilemmas and injustices. Not an allegory—that tiresome form—it’s the opposite: it’s our world, bent into a new shape, furnished with more of our stuff and circumstances than any other Hainish novel, trains and buses and ancient universities, physics textbooks and tabloid newspapers and cocktail parties, aquaculture labs, letters, shopping. The science-fiction thing that bears its meanings is simple astronomy.

A double planetary system circles the star Tau Ceti: the large Urras and the much smaller Anarres, its planet-sized moon. Urras is lush with forests and seas, filled with nations and cities and powered by high technologies; Anarres is habitable but nearly barren, its soil poor, its biomass limited to one species of tree, a few kinds of fish and plants, no birds or mammals. Hundreds of years before the novel begins an anarchist-separatist movement inspired by a woman named Odo—she combines the moral force of Mandela or Gandhi with the gnomic common sense of Kropotkin or Lao-tzu—made a deal with the Urrasti: she would cease her revolutionary activities if Anarres were granted to her followers as a home, a nation without laws, police, marriage, classes, sexism, money, religion. The book turns on two questions: Which world is the utopia? And who has been dispossessed?

There is something about elective utopian communities I find embarrassing, and more embarrassing when they are successful, or seem successful to their citizens or participants. Le Guin might too, given the real thought and effort she expends on this one, how she stacks the odds against an easy commonality; the work’s hard, necessary, and continuous, and the two great values—untrammeled personal freedom and social commitment to the welfare of all—are often subtly in conflict. (In the newly invented Odonian language, designed to stifle “propertarian” and “archist” values, work and play are the same word.) Odonians don’t practice austerity and abnegation for spiritual or moral reasons, but simply because they don’t have much, and sharing is vital to survival—which doesn’t mean that scarcity has no spiritual and moral consequences. Like everyone in a utopia, the Anarresti talk about their society all the time.

The Dispossessed, like many of the Hainish tales, is about a person who comes into a world he doesn’t know, who has a task to do if he can discover it. This journey, though, takes only a few days by ordinary rocket ship: the famed Annaresti theoretical physicist Shevek is coming from Anarres to Urras, the first returner since the founding of the community. The rich capitalist nation of I-Ao believes he can produce for them the foundations of FTL travel and the ansible—a device that will permit instantaneous communication at any distance. Shevek is overwhelmed by the beauty of the big planet—he hears birdsong for the first time—and only after living in the confusing luxury of a smug hierarchical society is he shocked to discover the masses of the oppressed, the source of Odo’s long-ago rebellion. On the run from his hosts he is caught in a general strike that’s like something out of an old leftist novel.

I thought, when I first read The Dispossessed, that it was admirable but not lovable in the way its fellows are. But as in other Le Guin novels, at the end Shevek, shaken in all his convictions, is taken up by powers beyond himself, and the book opens like a fan: Shevek finds asylum in the Terran embassy in a city of spires and steeples. We didn’t know there was a Terran embassy. The wise ambassador, a woman dark-skinned and hairless, as all Terrans are, views Urras as a paradise: her own planet long ago was made nearly uninhabitable by greed and willed ignorance. The wealthy of Urras are not grossly wealthy, she tells Shevek, and the poor mostly not desperate or exploited; and its achievements are vast. And in orbit around Urras is the watchful Hainish ship that brought the ambassador here. The two questions the book has pondered remain unanswered, but Shevek’s discoveries will go to the League of Worlds, and thus make the early stories of this volume, which all take place later, possible.

One element common to many SF stories written in the years when Le Guin was at work on the Hainish epic is missing from hers: with one exception, there are no violent conflicts between cultures or worlds, no alien invasions from Hainish planet to Hainish planet, almost no battles. A great swathe of Hainish history is colored by the galaxy-wide impact of the Shing—but even the Shing are mild as space-opera villains go. In the novel that describes them, City of Illusions (1964), we learn that they are committed to never killing any inhabitant of their subject worlds. They appear as Hainish, but the appearance is illusion, used to manipulate. Their worst trait is their ability to lie in telepathic mindspeech, which no mindspeaking human can do or detect.

Le Guin once admitted a bit ruefully that she was no good at villains. “Herds of Bad Guys are the death of a novel,” she writes in her introduction to City of Illusions. “Whether they’re labeled politically, racially, sexually, by creed, species, or whatever, they just don’t work. The Shing are the least convincing lot of people I ever wrote.” Actually I find the Shing very effective; they resemble the British Raj in their mix of ruthless control, certainty of superiority, and moral scruples. Where Le Guin would fail wasn’t with a race of alien shape-shifters but with a few human military men, in The Word for World is Forest (1972). In that novel Terrans, now in possession of NAFAL (“nearly as fast as light” travel), have taken over a forest planet where a small, peaceful people, the Athsheans, live, and with their huge military and mechanical power have begun to strip it of wood for export. (Terra has lost its forests, and much else.) The Terran overlords have enslaved the Athsheans—the military calls them “creechies” and intends to exterminate them. Much of the story is told from within the consciousness of a brutally macho and corrupt Terran commander. The book was written in 1968, when (as Le Guin says in her introduction to the novel) “it was becoming clear that the ethic which approved the defoliation of forests and grainlands and the murder of noncombatants in the name of ‘peace’ was only a corollary of the ethic which permits the despoliation of natural resources for private profit or the GNP, and the murder of the creatures of the Earth in the name of ‘man.’” Science fiction is particularly prone to the temptation of allegory, translating social facts or human evil or historical injustice into futures and creatures whose burden is obvious. She had, she writes,“succumbed, in part, to the lure of the pulpit.”

The majority of current SF and fantasy epics, and those as well that are set in what purports to be our present world, seem concerned not with lessons of any kind but with the pornography of power—Lenin’s who-whom, the zero-sum games of beheader beheaded, the cheater cheated, the usurper usurped. In this regard Le Guin has quoted, with a rather loving irony, an unlikely master: “There is nothing in all Freud’s writings that I like better than his assertion that artists’ work is motivated by the desire ‘to achieve honour, power, riches, fame, and the love of women.’ It is such a comforting, such a complete statement; it explains everything about the artist.”

Le Guin’s lifelong work was not about power but about balance: balance found and lost and found again. John Clute, a near-omniscient critic of the SF continuum, notes that Le Guin’s novels are largely informed by common oppositions, “darkness and light, root and branch, winter and summer, submission and arrogance, language and silence”—not as opposed forces but as twin parts of a whole in the Taoist sense, each deriving meaning from the other. Le Guin is a lifelong student of Taoism and has produced a version of Lao-tzu; brief extracts from the Tao appear in several stories and throughout the whole Hainish oeuvre. She creates in her novels communal societies governed by consensus yet not without conflict, simple yet sophisticated, almost as Taoist seals or icons; when they are disrupted, when a character departs on a forced or elective journey, the society heals but remains scarred. Balance is never permanent.

Readers in possession of these large volumes (2100 pages!) will find many further facets of the Hain mythology to explore. There are stories of planets that have no novels about them, like O, with its elaborated multiple-marriage customs and delicate Japanese affect (“Another Story, or A Fisherman of the Inland Sea” and “The Unchosen”), and stories of the cultures we know seen slant (“Coming of Age in Karhide,” with its title nod to Margaret Mead, much franker about the details of Gethenian sex than the novel is). Like the cloudscapes and the vivid weather of her planets, these stories are at once varied and constant; wise about the complex and sometimes fraught life within human and human-like and human-unalike persons; about love and labor, sex and possibility. About lasting peace and long-lived societies and the threats they face and manage, or fail to; about ancient once-generous empires that change but never die. It will be many centuries (apparently) before we here will be discovered in all our sins and all our errors, when careful and wise ambassadors arrive to return to us our knowledge that we also are part of the Whole Household of Man.

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On any given day last summer, the smoke-choked skies over Missoula, Montana, swarmed with an average of twenty-eight helicopters and eighteen fixed-wing craft, a blitz waged against Lolo Peak, Rice Ridge, and ninety-six other wildfires in the Lolo National Forest. On the ground, forty or fifty twenty-person handcrews were deployed, alongside hundreds of fire engines and bulldozers. In the battle against Rice Ridge alone, the Air Force, handcrews, loggers, dozers, parachutists, flacks, forecasters, and cooks amounted to some nine hundred people.

Rice Ridge was what is known as a mega-fire, a recently coined term for blazes that cover more than 100,000 acres. The West has always known forest fires, of course, but for much of the past century, they rarely got any bigger than 10,000 acres. No more. In 1988, a 250,000-acre anomaly, Canyon Creek, burned for months, roaring across a forty-mile stretch of Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness in a single night. A few decades on, that anomaly is becoming the norm. Rice Ridge, for its part, swept through 160,000 acres.

At this scale, the firefighting operation is run by an incident management team, a group of about thirty specialists drawn from a mix of state and federal agencies and trained in fields ranging from aviation to weather forecasting and accounting to public information. The management teams are ranked according to experience and ability, from type 3 (the least skilled) to type 1 (the most). The fiercest fires are assigned to type 1s. Teams take the name of their incident commander, the field general, and some of those names become recognizable, even illustrious, in the wildfire-fighting community. One such name is that of Greg Poncin, who is to fire commanders what Wyatt Earp was to federal marshals.

Smoke from the Lolo Peak fire (detail) © Laura Verhaeghe
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The pinhal interior, a wooded region of hills and narrow hollows in rural central Portugal, used to be farmland. Well into the latter half of the past century, the fields were worked by peasants from the old stone villages. Portugal was poor and isolated, and the pinhal interior particularly so; when they could, the peasants left. There is electricity and running water now, but most of the people have gone. The fields have been taken over by trees. Each year the forest encroaches farther, and each year the villages grow more lonely. There are remnants of the earlier life, though, and amid the trees the holdouts of the older generations still work a few small fields. The pinhal interior cannot yet be called wilderness, then, and that, in large part, is why it burns.

Thousands of fires burn in the region each summer, almost all of them started not by lightning or some other natural spark but by the remaining Portuguese. (The great majority of the blazes are started unintentionally, though not all.) The pinhal interior—the name means “interior pine forest,” though today there is at least as much eucalyptus as pine—stretches along a sort of climate border between the semiarid Iberian interior and the wet influence of the Atlantic; vegetation grows exceptionally well there, and in the summers fire conditions are ideal. Still, most of the burns are quickly contained, and although they have grown larger in recent years, residents have learned to pay them little mind. The creeping fire that began in the dry duff and twigs of an oak grove on June 17 of last year, in the district of Pe­drógão Grande, therefore occasioned no panic.

A local woman, Dora da Silva Co­sta, drove past the blaze in the midafternoon, by which time it had entered a stand of pines. Firefighters were on hand. “There were no people in the streets,” Costa told me. “It was just another fire.” She continued on her way. It was a Saturday, and she had brought her two young sons to visit their older cousin in Vila Facaia, the village of small farms in which she’d been raised.

Firefighters near Pedrógão Grande (detail) © Pablo Blazquez Dominguez/Getty Images
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On a blistering morning in July 2017, Ghazi Luaibi rose before dawn and set out in a worn black sedan from his home in Zubair, a town of concrete low-rises in southern Iraq. He drove for a while along sandy roads strewn with plastic bags. On the horizon, he could see gas flares from the oil refineries, pillars of amber flame rising into the sky. As he approached Basra, the largest city in the province, desert scrub gave way to empty apartment blocks and rows of withered palms. Though the sun had barely risen, the temperature was already nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The previous year, Basra had registered one of the highest temperatures ever reliably recorded on earth: about 129 degrees, hot enough to cause birds to drop from the sky.

Ghazi, a sixty-two-year-old with stooped shoulders, an ash-gray beard, and lively brown eyes, would have preferred to stay home and wait out the heat. But he hadn’t had much of a choice. He was the president of the local council of Mandaeans, members of a gnostic religion that appeared in Mesopotamia in the early centuries ad. Today marked the beginning of their new year, and Ghazi, who was born into the Mandaean priestly class, was responsible for making sure everything went smoothly: he needed to find a tent to shield worshippers from the sun and, most importantly, a location near flowing water where they could carry out the ceremony.

Mandaean holidays are celebrated with a mass baptism, a ritual that is deeply rooted in their scripture and theology. Mandaeans follow the teachings of Yahia Yuhana, known to Christians as John the Baptist. Water is central to their religion. They believe that all life originates in the World of Light, a spiritual realm that is the starting point for a great river known as Yardana, or Jordan. Outside the World of Light lie the lifeless, stagnant waters of the World of Darkness. According to one version of the Mandaean creation myth, a demiurge named Ptahil set out to shape a new world from the World of Darkness, which became the material world we inhabit today. Once the world was complete, Ptahil sculpted Adam, the first man, from the same dark waters as the earth, but his soul came from the World of Light. In Mandaean scripture, rivers are manifestations of the World of Light, coursing from the heavenly Jordan to the earth to purify it. To be baptized is to be immersed in this divine realm.

Basra General Hospital (detail) July 2017 © Alex Potter
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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

In fact, as Blair recounted to me recently, the system could be bypassed with remarkable ease. Safeguards made it difficult, though not impossible, for a two-man crew (of either captains or lieutenants, some straight out of college) in a single launch control center to fire a missile. But, said Blair, “it took only a small conspiracy”—of two people in two separate control centers—to launch the entire squadron of fifty missiles, “sixty megatons targeted at the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea.” (The scheme would first necessitate the “disabling” of the conspirators’ silo crewmates, unless, of course, they, too, were complicit in the operation.) Working in conjunction, the plotters could “jury-rig the system” to send a “vote” by turning keys in their separate launch centers. The three other launch centers might see what was happening, but they would not be able to override the two votes, and the missiles would begin their firing sequence. Even more alarmingly, Blair discovered that if one of the plotters was posted at the particular launch control center in overall command of the squadron, they could together format and transmit a “valid and authentic launch order” for general nuclear war that would immediately launch the entire US strategic nuclear missile force, including a thousand Minuteman and fifty-four Titan missiles, without the possibility of recall. As he put it, “that would get everyone’s attention, for sure.” A more pacifically inclined conspiracy, on the other hand, could effectively disarm the strategic force by formatting and transmitting messages invalidating the presidential launch codes.

When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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