In my previous post, I mentioned a few of the ways in which the world depicted in Ted Mooney’s Easy Travel to Other Planets differs from ours. One of these, a new illness called “information sickness,” has captured more critical attention than any other facet of the novel, including Melissa’s romance with the dolphin Peter. In fact, if you search for articles about the book, allusions to information sickness as prophetic for its time (1981) is nearly all you’ll find.
While information sickness and the colonization of Antarctica are details in Easy Travel, in Mooney’s second novel, Traffic and Laughter (1988), the most striking difference is central to the story: the United States did not detonate an atomic bomb at the end of World War II. We know the war was fought because one of the lead characters, Michael, is designing the special effects for a movie set in the Pacific theatre.
There are some other differences as well. The Xhosa people have declared their independence of South Africa, but their nation, Azania, remains “purely rhetorical” (88). The United States’ post-WWII wars have been with Afghanistan, Iran, Hungary, and Cuba. James Joyce wrote a short, erotic novel after he completed Finnegan’s Wake called A Simple Tail.
One character reads On the Beach, which in our world is a novel by Nevil Shute about the extinction of all animal life from radioactive fallout but this one’s synopsis fits Nabokov’s Lolita instead. Finally, a mysterious character claims to have directed three Canadian documentaries no one has heard of: Dr. Strangelove, Mon Amour Hiroshima, and The Clock on the Bedside Table.
As far as I can make out, there is no film called The Clock on the Bedside Table. But the other two titles do exist in our world. Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, is about the impossibility of stopping an all-out nuclear war once the first nuclear weapon is launched. Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour is set in the Japanese city obliterated by the atomic bomb and examines the end of a romance. We don’t know what in the pre-atomic age Traffic and Laughter world these movies with the same titles as two in our own are about. Of course, Traffic and Laughter’s is a fictional world, but then so are those created by Kubrick and Resnais.
In Hiroshima Mon Amour, the woman tells her lover,
“Listen to me. I know something else. It will begin all over again. Two hundred thousand dead. Eighty thousand wounded. In nine seconds. These figures are official. It will begin all over again. It will be ten thousand degrees on the earth. Ten thousand suns, they will say. The asphalt will burn. Chaos will prevail. A whole city will be raised from the earth and fall back in ashes….”
When she speaks of “ten thousand suns,” the woman is alluding to an allusion by Robert Oppenheimer, who is credited with the invention of the atomic bomb. Looking back on the July 16, 1945, test explosion of the bomb, he said what went through his mind was a verse from the Bhagavad-Gita: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds—.” The passage preceding that declaration reads:
If the radiance of a thousand suns
Were to burst at once into the sky
That would be like the splendor of the Mighty one…
In Traffic and Laughter, a diplomat complains to his daughter, “In April some damn fools figured out that if you could split the atom, you’d release this tremendous amount of energy – ‘the power of a thousand suns,’ . . . and by July they’d figured out how to do it” (39).
The phrase “a thousand suns” will occur several more times in the course of the novel as the story moves to its climax.