Paradoxa, No. 26 2014
On our Waste Containments and Energy Futures1
Brent R. Bellamy
University of Alberta
This article intervenes in the newly resurgent nuclear debate, particularly
in relation to carbon neutral energy production. Combining the critical
study of nuclear energy to science ction narratives and documentary
lm, I argue that Michael Madsen’s lm Into Eternity (2010) reframes
debates about our energy commitments: what does it mean to rely on a
single source for most of our energy needs? Others have treated Madsen’s
lm as an interrogation of the logic of containment and the tenuous
character of the warning signs for waste storage. I engage these aspects
of the lm not as strictly limited to issues of nuclear waste, but also as
symptoms of the vast energy impasse between the demand for the dense
energy of fossil fuels and the disastrous ecological consequences of their
continued use. The lm addresses a contemporary audience as much
as it addresses countless unknowable, and possibly alien, others; thus,
by bringing this science ctional address to documentary, Into Eternity
works through the deep impact of high energy use in late capital.
The rst shot of Michael Madsen’s documentary lm Into Eternity
(2010) captures the border between the snowy Finnish woods and what
appears to be a power plant or transformer station in grayscale. The
shot draws a visual comparison between the skeletal trees, standing
silently, and the vertical structures interlaced with cables and wire in
the background. Several large stones sit in the foreground of the shot.
The only sound comes from the low rumble of a bass drum. The shot
fades to black and a new shot fades in. The camera tracks down a well-lit
concrete tunnel and the title fades into focus “Into Eternity: A Film for
the Future by Michael Madsen.” A few more rumbles of the bass drum
sound as the camera rounds a corner, revealing a narrowing of the tunnel
that fades into pitch black in the background. Here, the voiceover beings:
1 I would not have been able to write this were it not for Imre Szeman’s
recommendation that I watch Madsen’s lm and the late Patricia Yaeger’s wonderfully
inspiring work on energy and culture. I would also like to thank Justin Sully for his
insightful comments on a draft of this essay.
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I would say that you are now in a place where we have buried
something from you to protect you and we have taken great pains
to be sure that you are protected. We also need you to know that
this place should not be disturbed and we want you to know that
this is not a place for you to live in. You should stay away from
this place and then you will be safe.
The shot cuts from the tunnel to a rock wall covered with signs and
diagrams in the deep dark. Trickling water can be heard. Two minutes
into the lm, even before Madsen speaks to the camera and to the
audience from the dark of the tunnel, a central problematic has already
been established. The opening voiceover launches the lm’s science-
ctional stylistic conceit as an address to the future in so far as it asks
the viewer to imagine a ctional being receiving the message—“you
should stay away from this place”—thousands of years from when it
was recorded. The reason for the ban on entry to “this place” has not
yet been revealed, and still the visual comparison of the trees and the
rock with the power lines and cables, the slow movement of discovery
down into the Earth while an audible warning plays, and even the low
rumble of the bass notes speak to the core problem of the lm: how to
keep future entities—human, post-human, or thoroughly alien—from
entering Onkalo, Finland’s nuclear waste storage facility, for at least
one hundred thousand years.
Through the science-ctional conceit of addressing the future, we
discover that the working components of Onkalo are deceptively
simple—the signs of warning and the entombed waste. To reach a future
when the waste will no longer cause harm, the warning signs must remain
constant and undisturbed, while the tomb must maintain a stable state
for the waste. Later in the lm, Madsen explains to the camera that “it
is quite possible that we will not be understood by the future, especially
by the distant future.” The historian of technology, Maja Fjaestad,
describes one of the lm’s main themes as the “imagined technological
competencies of future humans” (372), while, in lm scholar Andrew
Moisey’s words, the project captured by the lm seems to want to “lure
the distant future closer to the past” (114–15). This “luring” names
precisely the temporal negotiation undertaken by the lm, and is captured
in its opening scene as its talking heads try to conceive of how to keep
future generations away from the spent toxic by-product of the energy
generation of the recent past. By following the development of Finland’s
solution to nuclear waste storage, Into Eternity presents an account of
the impasse between the consequences of modernity’s energy use and
the continuation of life on Earth as we know it.
Into EtErnIty 147
I will begin by briey reviewing contemporary debates about nuclear
energy and its toxic by-product, especially those that come up in other
contemporary nuclear documentaries. Unlike others lms, Into Eternity
does a remarkable job of imaging the multiple possible futures of nuclear
waste at Onkalo. Following its science-ctional cues, my reading will
suggest that in order to come to terms with the energy impasse we must
read possible energy futures side-by-side, especially those imagined
by sf. An unintended lesson of the lms is that simply imagining
catastrophic destruction or deciding that things will be alright in the end
fall short of the complex reality of what the future holds, and we may
learn more from our uncertainties about that future than from what we
think we know to be true.
Nuclear energy has been receiving more attention of late. In the face
of anthropogenic global warming, much of this can be accounted for by
nuclear fuel’s zero level of carbon emissions, but framing nuclear energy
as relatively environmentally responsible raises a set of concerns not
imagined in the nuclear debates of the mid- to late-twentieth century.
The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), while
recognizing the clear advantage of a zero-emissions energy source,
is quick to elaborate the barriers to increasing use of nuclear energy,
including “concerns about operational safety and (nuclear weapon)
proliferation risks, unresolved waste management issues as well as
nancial and regulatory risks” (Bruckner et al. 5). Of these prospective
threats, it is waste that is the most difcult to incorporate into the
calculation of environmental sustainability. To begin with, the risks of
nuclear energy frustrate existing territorial frameworks of measurement
and jurisdiction, even as decisions about the future of nuclear energy
remain largely in the hands of individual state actors. “Embracing
nuclear power,” historian of science and technology A. Bowdoin Van
Riper suggests, “saddles national governments—and, by extension, the
entire human species—with the problem of dealing with spent nuclear
fuel” (Van Riper 99).
Compounding the difculty of distinguishing the jurisdiction of nation
and species is the radically more challenging prospect of calculating the
time of nuclear waste. In Timothy Morton’s words: “There is no away
to which we can meaningfully sweep the radioactive dust. Nowhere is
far enough or long-lasting-enough…The future of plutonium exerts a
causal inuence on the present, casting its shadow backwards though
time” (120). For Morton, then, the time of nuclear waste involves a
thinking of two times at once. There are several ways to imagine these
two time scales. One way to name these two temporalities is the long
present and the distant future. The present signies the time when the
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waste is dangerously toxic, while the distant future indicates a time when
it will no longer be dangerous. Thinking through the time scale of the
human and the time scale of the waste nuances these two temporalities.
Onkalo becomes a way to banish nuclear waste to geological time; thus,
the source of our concern about the radioactive half-life of nuclear waste
could be that we do not have access to an epistemology of rock or stone.
But these conceptions of the temporality of nuclear waste do not think
about the energy created in the rst place—the whole problem of nuclear
waste arrives on the scene precisely because of the energy demands of
late capital. However plutonium’s “causal inuence” and overshadowing
of the present is formulated, Into Eternity manages the temporal crux of
nuclear waste through its science-ctional address to the future.
The gure of the Earth as container cuts across these two novel
challenges—jurisdiction and temporality—in the contemporary debates
about nuclear energy’s relative ecological costs and benets. The IPCC
has suggested that in order to maintain life on the planet as we know
it we must leave all remaining reserves of oil in the ground (see Le
Page). In an odd inversion, relying more heavily on nuclear energy in a
turn away from oil and natural gas will mean placing a whole lot more
material into the ground in long term storage facilities like Onkalo.
This inversion does pinpoint the way that debates about the time of
energy—from concerns about peak oil to carbon reduction measures
and from the energy demand met by nuclear ssion compared with the
shelf life of nuclear waste—are insistently emplotted in space, in this
case the ground, in the very Earth itself. The level of risk involved in
this plan remains palpable throughout Madsen’s documentary in a way
that sets the lm apart from other recent documentaries concerned with
the legacies of nuclear power.
Nuclear documentaries tend to take exaggerated sides in the nuclear
debate. Films such as Robert Stone’s Pandora’s Promise (2013) shake
their nger at anti-nuclear activists who misrecognize the stakes of the
present and the actual effects of nuclear power on living beings and
environments. Stone’s lm chides activists who have been protesting
nuclear power since the 1960s and 1970s for their inability to adapt in
the face of empirical evidence. Other recent documentaries, such as Lucy
Walker’s Countdown to Zero (2010), undercut environmental arguments
for nuclear power by explaining just how easy it is to develop a nuclear
weapon. Walker’s documentary neatly outlines the steps to take and
labor power required to construct a nuclear warhead, while at the same
time explaining the security risks—the laxity of security in ports, or the
havoc that would result from a device detonated even miles outside a
city. Documentary lm critic Nick Hasted reframes the debates about
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meltdowns and nuclear armament by suggesting the real question ought
to be about nuclear waste, what he calls “an apocalyptically poisonous,
nearly indestructible by-product” that grows “thanks to the hunger for
the ‘greener’ energy those other lms advocate” (Hasted 66). Does
nuclear energy offer us a way beyond the devastating effects of our
energy dependence on the Earth’s habitability? How can we nd our
way out of a problem where every solution appears awed?
Nuclear energy receives so much attention because it appears to be
the only source capable of replacing fossil fuels while still meeting
current demand. The source of nuclear energy, uranium, is fraught in
a different way from oil and it uses a different infrastructure than oil
does. Uranium does not have oil’s liquid mobility—it must be mined,
rened, installed in a nuclear power generator, and carefully monitored,
whereas oil must be extracted, rened, and shipped to any combustible
engine along pipelines and in oil tankers. Oil disperses through the
spill and carbon emissions, while, crucially, nuclear energy’s waste is
heavy, immobile, and radiant. Nuclear energy does not have the same
ubiquity, nor what has been described as oil’s “slipperiness” (Ghosh 141),
although its waste product is immediately dangerous and completely
undetectable by the naked eye. The alternative between petroleum and
uranium is a false one: framing nuclear energy as a more potent, reliable,
and plentiful resource implies that one monolithic energy source will be
needed to continue to power late capitalist modernity. As John Knechtel
argues, “the daunting complexity of the problem … drives an attendant
fantasy: that of a total solution, a single perfect fuel source that will
liberate humanity” (15). Liberation, in this instance, also means humanity
would be free to continue life along its present, energy intensive, course.
Indeed, “nuclear capital,” according to cultural theorist Imre Szeman, is
“somehow more imaginable—even if the technological problems of the
latter have yet to be worked out and the nuclear option would require
a staggering and unprecedented investment in building new reactors,
an expenditure that is not on the horizon anywhere” (806).2 In light of
Szeman’s suggestion about the costs of investment in nuclear energy, the
IPCC also notes that the use of nuclear energy in world power generation
is on the decline from 17% in 1993 to 11% in 2012, and these trends
occurred well before the disaster at Fukushima (Bruckner et al. 12).
But, assuming these gures take into account increasing world power
generation overall, the percentage of total nuclear energy consumption
2 Szeman quotes the Guardian’s Julie Jowett: “A new nuclear power plant would
have to open every few days to replace the world’s fossil fuel use in a century, and
the problems of renewable, low-density, hard-to-store, distant renewable energy
sources will take a lot of time and money to overcome on the scale needed” (Jowett 5).
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could decrease, even as more nuclear power plants are built, because of
the increase in total power demand and generation world-wide. Like the
exploration and drilling for oil and its high release of carbon dioxide
and other pollutants, nuclear energy carries immediate and long term
costs: from the building of plants to radioactive nuclear waste.
In the light generated by either oil’s smoggy burn or uranium’s steam
heat ash, Madsen’s lm takes an approach to the topic that one might
hope for in this complex situation: a presentation of facts. The lm
engages with the engineers, scientists, and technocrats of the Olkiluoto
nuclear power plant and the tomb they are constructing to house its spent
nuclear fuel, while simultaneously grappling with “the disturbing idea”
that our “most lasting legacy will be the nuclear waste we bury” (Van
Ripper 102). Construction on Onkalo began in 2002 and the storage
facility is slated to accept the rst shipments of nuclear waste in 2020.
Estimates indicate that the site will remain open for a century before
being sealed and will eventually house 5500 tons of highly radioactive
waste: “Placed in copper canisters insulated with a layer of dense,
impermeable clay and sealed using advanced welding techniques, the
waste will be inserted into a network of horizontal shafts bored through
solid granite 450 meters (1500 feet) below the surface” (Van Riper 99).
Onkalo is the Finnish word for “cave” or “hiding place.”
Madsen’s talking heads do not tell the story fully, perhaps due to the
complexity of the Finnish system. Onkalo is funded by two of Finland’s
nuclear power companies. The proposal for the nuclear waste storage
facility in the early 1990s arrived due to the concern about what Russia
might be doing with the nuclear waste Finland had been shipping. The
people and politicians were concerned that the political situation in
Russia was too turbulent in the wake of the Chernobyl disaster and
especially after the fall of the Berlin Wall to trust their waste in Russian
facilities. So, rst, the creation of Onkalo is guided by a humanitarian
concern about the health of Finish citizens.
Second, under what is known as the Mankala model, energy produced
in Finland is sold at cost to shareholders, which, according to proponents
of the model, benets energy markets through increased competition.
Mikko Pirttilä and Sarita Schröder explain:
The Mankala model is an ownership model for energy
producers which is unique to the Finnish energy markets … In the
Mankala model, energy producers are jointly owned by a number
of parties that bear the costs of operating the company. The
owners of Mankala companies are typically energy wholesalers,
retailers or distributors and large industrial companies ... the
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purpose of Mankala companies, unlike typical limited liability
companies, is not to produce a prot. Instead of taking payment
on a dividend, the owners of Mankala companies are both allowed
and obliged to purchase energy from the company on a cost price
basis, regardless of whether the cost price is below or above the
current market price … The energy purchased from a Mankala
company can be used by the owners in any way they choose.
That is to say, it can be sold either directly or through the Nordic
power exchange Nord Pool Spot, or used by the owners in their
A Mankala company gains no taxable prot because its owners pay taxes
on the prots that come as a result of having access to energy at cost,
which incentivizes the continuing development of nuclear power and
the safeguards that will ensure the future of the model. So, as Pirttilä
and Schröder observe, the Mankala model allows new market players to
acquire nancing and compete on the energy markets. The development
of Onkalo, then, seems to be part and parcel of the continued generation
of nuclear energy in the name of the free market.
Later, the lm reveals Onkalo will only house the waste generated
by Finland. Maja Fjaestad applies pressure to the national focus of Into
Eternity and to Finland’s energy plan, arguing that Finland is merely one
state among many. She asks, in a way that shows her own seduction by
the whisper of futurity in the lm, “Will the nancial temptation be too
great not to accept other countries’ nuclear waste? Will that turn Finland
into the world’s ‘nuclear cemetery,’ or, on the contrary, is it the country’s
moral obligation to store international waste within its safe bedrock?”
(Fjaestad 372). Yet, Fjaestad’s consideration of “moral obligation” does
not seem to capture the full picture. Indeed, as the Mankala model and
the juridical climate of Finland seem to indicate, Onkalo is the product of
a bureaucracy with the energy needs of its citizens and markets in mind.
Madsen’s lm does a compelling job of uncovering the inconsistencies
in the plan to construct Onkalo. Despite its simplicity, the architects at
Onkalo, like those at the US waste containment project in Carlsbad, New
Mexico, cannot settle on a method to keep future human, posthuman,
or alien others out of the tomb. Michael Brill, the architect for the
New Mexico facility designed seven options to keep intrudes out: a
landscape of thorns, “a dark masonry slab, evoking an enormous ‘black
hole,’ an immense no-thing, a void, land removed from use, worthless,”
spikes bursting through a grid, or a rubble landscape. To this list, the
experts at Onkalo suggest using many reproductions of Edvard Munch’s
The Scream (1893). While these methods of keeping out curious entities
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would seem suitable for the present, they may not keep out the very
addressees of the lm—countless unknown and unknowable others
from the future. Madsen promises these imagined future viewers of the
documentary that “We will leave written information for you in all the
major languages of our time” and tells them that these are attempts to
“give you a feeling, rather than give you a detailed message.” Similarly,
the plan to pass on information about Onkalo by telling future generations
founders when Madsen points out that keeping information about the
long term waste storage in a “permanent manner” shares the same risks
as short-term nuclear waste storage—the power might go out, conditions
might change in the archives, or wars might cause the political climate
to change on the surface.
Used heavily in the lm, the technique of the sound bridge mirrors
the desire for consistency and transmission from one moment to the
next. On screen, as the 1976 Kraftwerk song “Radioactivity” plays,
cameras attached to the automated arms that cycle the rods of radioactive
material into the reactor move, and engineers and scientists puzzle over
this temporal problem of representation—that the sign for Danger! will
change over the course of one hundred thousand years. Cameras track
slowly down long hallways, behind supply trucks outside of facilities.
Crane shots, dolly shots, and careful tracking shots show workers
preparing a vat of material for water storage. These sequences are shot
at a higher frame rate and the gures move in a slight slow-motion,
mimicking a music video effect. They are unied by the beat of the song
as shot cuts into shot. Another deployment of the sound bridge happens
with the experts that are interviewed. Talking heads are introduced with
a title and a shot, but sometimes as they speak the shot cuts to another
expert who appears to sit listening, attentively, to the words of the rst.
Here the sound bridge suggests that they have received the message
attentively just like the viewer should, just like the future viewer might.
The experience of the lm as an aesthetic object stands out as an affective
experience that supports the problematic described through its dialogue
and interviews. Put differently, the science-ctional atmosphere remains
in productive tension with the lm’s documentary elements.
The interviewees also generate uncertainty about the temporality of
Onkalo through their gestures. Van Riper suggests that the interviewees
“project none of the condence of traditional documentary ‘talking
heads,’” speaking instead in “soft, halting voices with long pauses
between and after thoughts” and, rather than cutting to a new shot after
the subject has stopped speaking, “Madsen frequently holds the camera
on the subject’s face, waiting—like a patient but disappointed teacher—
for something more substantive” (Van Riper 101). Through these bodily
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expressions of human uncertainty and doubt, the lm never allows its
viewer to forget the sheer impossibility of imagining how the future will
divert from the present. As the lingering camera undercuts the viewer’s
condence in the interviewees, the bind that I identied in the opening
shot—between quiet storage in the Earth and the intervention of some
future being—repeats itself. Madsen and each of his experts are not
actually addressing the future. Instead they imply a far future viewer
who, for the interim can only, disappointingly, be a viewer from their
own present. One problem with nuclear waste and the human temporality
is that time cannot pass quickly enough. Even though we can conceive
of multiple future possibilities for Onkalo—nuclear waste containment,
cultural consistency, cultural change, breach by humans, breach by
unknown others—which emphasize that the present is a moment where
decisions need to, and can, be made, geological time still only crawls by.
The logic of containment in the lm seems to insist that whatever our
energy future looks like, something will be left below in the deep dark.
Meanwhile, droning, buzzing, and whirring sounds mark each moment
of the lm with the resonance of nuclear power generation, never letting
viewers forget where the glowing illumination of their television screen,
computer monitor, or wall projector comes from. The ease with which
we forget, or accept with disavowal, our energy dependence, and the
specic instance of it at Onkalo, plays out a dynamic that Sigmund Freud
found in his analysis of dreams:
The unconscious construction of the dream scans the signier
for usable elements and building blocks, for the presentation/
representation of desire and the drive. Freud’s work thus
presupposes two features: rst, that any full or satisfactory
representation of the drive is impossible (in that sense every form
of desire is already a representation). And second, that we must
always pay close attention in this process to representability,
something which has to do on the one hand with the possibility
in the drive of some minimal expression, even if as a mere
symptom; and on the other hand with the material available
for that expression (in Freud’s case the language and images of
everyday life). Here history intervenes, for what may serve as
a satisfactory vehicle for expression of some feature of desire
at any one moment in history may not be available at another.
(Jameson Representing 6 my emphasis)
Here the problem of representability, the problem of having one thing
“stand in” for another, changes into a historical problem. Like Winston
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Smith writing in his journal, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four
(1949), “To the future or to the past, to a time when thought is free,
when men are different from one another and do not live alone” (30), the
engineers and scientists in Madsen’s lm struggle to imagine how their
warnings might be received in a different historical situation than the
one they now occupy. They attempt to imagine a time different from the
present one and in doing so they struggle with the problem of historicity.
The historical problem of imagining the future, which Jameson describes,
plays into Moisey’s articulation of containment as such:
It seems that simply not marking where to unearth the waste
is psychically rather difcult—something that, for all of the
professed inuence of psychoanalysis … neither team seems
to have recognized in their own deliberations. Within our own
lifetime, not marking means not commemorating the most
awesome, if also the most abhorrent, scientic achievement of
our time with one of the biggest pieces of art the world has ever
We bury things we either no longer wish to have. We bury our treasure.
We subvert problems and gains that have grown beyond the scope of our
reckoning. Onkalo is one such site, but we also require of it more than
a simple forgetting, or repressing, because the return of the repressed
in this case could have devastatingly toxic consequences. The lm
wrestles with the twin elements of this problem: the warning sign and
the buried treasure.
Patricia Yaeger offers a language to name the problem with which Into
Eternity grapples, raising the idea of an “energy unconscious” (306),
a structuring presence that is often outside the described events of a
narrative, and suggests that energy invisibilities may constitute different
kinds of erasures” (Yaeger 309).3 This energy unconscious follows
Jameson’s assessment of the literary as a “socially symbolic act” where
the conicts and impasses of the present nd expression through signs
and symptoms that must be interpreted (see Political Unconscious).
Similarly, Yaeger posits,
We might argue that the writer who treats fuel as a cultural code
or reality effect makes a symbolic move, asserts his or her class
position in a system of mythic abundance not available to the
3 She notes that “energy use is uneven,” and that “the age of coal is not close to
being over, is perhaps barely begun” (308).
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energy worker who lives in carnal exhaustion. But perhaps energy
sources also enter texts as elds of force that have causalities
outside (or in addition to) class conicts and commodity wars.
The touch-a-switch-and-it’s-light magic of electrical power, the
anxiety engendered by atomic residue, the odor of coal pollution,
the viscous animality of whale oil, the technology of chopping
Her schema resonates with a scene in Into Eternity that captures Sami
Savonrinne, a blaster at Onkalo, in a long shot where he is two-thirds
into the frame and two-thirds down it, anked by a half-lit rock wall
that runs out of the top of the shot. He says,
This tunnel feels like a time capsule sometimes. When you
arrive in the morning it may be sunny, almost like summer
outside. When you come out at the end of the day, it may have
snowed like hell. The weather will have completely changed
and you think “how long do I actually spend in that tunnel?”
And likewise: you go to work and it is dark, and when you come
back up after work it is dark. And it feels like time has stopped.
However, the worker and his “carnal exhaustion” appear as the sign of
a deeper moment in the lm, a moment closer to what I imagine Yaeger
had in mind. Thus, I would suggest that nuclear waste acts as a glaring
symptom of this energy unconscious and that Madsen’s lm offers an
occasion to plumb its depths. The discursive symptom, “the eld of force
that have causalities outside the text” (Yaeger 309), in Into Eternity is
that no one can seem to imagine a sign or symbol that could last even
a few hundred years, let alone one hundred thousand.
Into Eternity claries the idea of an energy unconscious, and outlines
the problems associated with the study of energy in the humanities.
As Madsen’s lm conrms, the problem of narrative is indissociable
from the discursive and political limits of the present. The lm offers
us a sense of the vast chambers lurking beneath surface, the catacombs
entombing radioactive waste, that are at the same time a symptom of
our comfortable energy reliance above the surface. The lm investigates
one solution for one country’s nuclear waste—to engineer and design the
place where things might be laid to rest beneath the surface until their
latent poisons dissipate. And yet, guided by some strikingly relevant sf
writings, I would like to conclude by suggesting an image that completely
opposes and arrests the visions of the future presented in Madsen’s lm.
Brent r. Bellamy
Into Eternity seems incapable of thinking the kind of future we get in
Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The People of Sand and Slag” (2008) as anything
but a nightmare image. The story presents total immersion in what
we currently understand as waste, which to the reader seems to be a
worsening, if not total destruction, of the “nature” that the containment
of Onkalo attempts to safeguard. In a distant future Montana, three
mutated, genetically-engineered, and weeviltech-implanted humans
oversee a mining operation. They are capable of eating the very refuse,
tailings, mine dumps, and slimes spewed out by the machines tearing up
the countryside. They can re-grow severed limbs, and they appear to heal
from cuts near instantly. The plot revolves around the trio discovering
a dog wandering out among the tailings—they are bafed by how this
creature could survive. One of the three revealingly observes, “‘It’s as
delicate as rock. You break it, and it never comes back together” (45).
The three react to the dog, a survivor from a different time, the “dead
end of an evolutionary chain” (53), in much the same way that a reader
might be estranged by three demigod humans who eat sand and slag
for dinner. When they vacation in Hawai’i, the narrator describes his
partner’s grace as a swimmer: “She ashed through the ocean’s metallic
sheen like an eel out of history and when she surfaced, her naked body
glistened with hundreds of iridescent petroleum jewels” (52). Later,
they set the ocean on re and enjoy its radiant glow from the beach. In
this light, Bacigalupi’s future presents the opposite solution to Onkalo’s
containment: a kind of total immersion. This solution to the problems
generated by our energy commitments is unimagined by Madsen’s
experts. It inverts the idea of the Earth as containment and renders
“delicate” the very deep stone that appears so solid and immutable in the
walls of the lm’s opening shots. Onkalo does not resolve the problem
of nuclear waste, it is merely a stop-gap solution, a massive sludge
bucket of leaky refuse that we are not quite sure where to stash. The
quiet elegance of the snow covered trees and imploring address—“this
is not a place you should live in”—could both be lost on future humans,
as they certainly would be on Bacigalupi’s people of sand and slag. And
yet, incompatible as they may be, these two versions of the future share
more than they appear to. However opposed immersion and containment
seem to be, we might instead think of them as alternate futures—one an
oil future and the other a nuclear future. Each is fundamentally capitalist
in its orientation. Each imagines the future as a site of the continuation of
energy-intensive accumulation. Yet, their capitalist orientation does not
make them futile thought experiments; instead, we might consider them
a sort of success by failure. What is left behind, that unsatisfying feeling
we get from both solutions, marks the deep need we have to begin to
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imagine other energy futures, which base the continuation of life on the
planet on a scaling back of our energy needs and on creatively imagining
what to do with the infrastructures of our energy intensive present.
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Brent Ryan Bellamy works on US culture, sf, and the energy humanities.
He is currently working on two book projects, one on US post-
apocalyptic ction and declining hegemony, the other on petroculture
and realism. You can read his work in Cleo: A Journal of Film and
Feminism, Deletion: The Open Access Online Forum in Science Fiction,
Mediations, Science Fiction Film and Television, and in the recent essay
collection Green Planets: Ecology and Science Fiction.