100 SUNS, by Michael Light
Jonathan Cape, 2003, £30.00, 208pp
ISBN 0224064517

This reviewed first appeared in The Alien Online

The title refers to Robert Oppenheimer’s words after watching the first atomic weapons test in 1945. One of the fathers of the atom bomb, he said: ‘If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst forth at once in the sky, that would be like the splendour of the Mighty One…I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ Michael Light has taken him at his word; his book contains 100 pictures of – you guessed it – ‘suns’, the US military’s open-air nuclear weapons tests conducted during the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s.

Light, a photographer himself, was also responsible for the stunning Full Moon, a genuinely enlightening collection of photographs from the Apollo moon landings, and one I thoroughly recommend for any space-flight enthusiast. You may think you’ve seen all the good Apollo pictures a thousand times, but trust me, you really haven’t.

So, speaking as someone over whom nuclear weapons – and their truly god-like destructive power that Oppenheimer so presciently noticed – have exerted a morbid and unreasonable fascination since the reality of the four-minute warning became apparent to me as a child during the ‘80s, I just had to see this book.

An initial flick through 100 Suns will reveal many abstractly beautiful images. Some, like those taken with ultra-high-speed cameras to catch the precise moment when a new sun is born, look like giant viruses or bacteria, and wouldn’t look out of place in the Turner Prize Exhibition, so weird and otherworldly are they. Others, particularly those in which US soldiers appear, are equally otherworldly, if less abstract, evoking a lost era of innocence (or foolish naiveté or criminal irresponsibility) about the effects of 32-kiloton atomic explosions.

You’d think that the really big tests, the 35-megaton bombs detonated in the Pacific, would be the real eye-openers here, but although they are beguilingly beautiful there’s no sense of reality, or place and effect about them. These stupendous releases of energy mostly seem too abstract to inspire the expected awe; even caught by the practical lenses of US military observers they’re strangely soft and fuzzy – more like perfect holiday sunsets than artificial sunrises of annihilation.

Light also excels with the (mostly) short paragraphs that accompany each of the 100 images. These contain just enough necessary information to put the awe, the horror and sometimes the sheer disbelief back into all of these pictures. There are things I certainly never knew about these tests, the people who conducted them and the people who suffered from them. Read each of the short pieces about all of these pictures and I guarantee you’ll be amazed, for lots of different reasons.

I have to say that I didn’t enjoy 100 Suns as much as Full Moon; the quality of the pictures in the latter mostly exceeds that of the former, but I don’t think this is Light’s fault. He points out that a great many of the pictures of these tests are still classified, whereas (conspiracy theories notwithstanding) all of the Apollo pictures have been released, so that he had a choice of the best for Full Moon, whereas for 100 Suns he had only the best available. However, if these are the pictures the US military is prepared to let us see then I shudder to think what is contained in the ones we’re not allowed to see.

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