The Last Train from Hiroshima, Charles Pellegrino

Henry Holt, 2010, 367 pages, C$33.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-8050-8796-3

When I ordered The Last Train from Hiroshima from amazon.ca in February 2010, the media frenzy around the book had just started: Allegations about the book’s dubious veracity had started to flare up, with a number of experts identifying a number of mistakes in the narrative.  By the time the book arrived at my house, Pellegrino’s academic credentials had been debunked and the publisher had announced that it was pulling all copies of the book from shelves.  In some sense, my copy of the book had ridden its own Last Train from Amazon: Even today, Pellegrino’s latest remains unavailable from either amazon.com or amazon.ca, being sold by other vendors at premiums making my purchase look like a savvy investment.

But I’m not the smart one in this story.  Frankly, I ordered the book not because of the controversy, but because I’ve been a Pellegrino fan ever since his 1998 Science Fiction novel Dust.  This had led me, through the years, to most of his bibliography, including a number of very enjoyable non-fiction books.  I won’t try to re-write my reviews: You can go explore my “Charles Pellegrino” tag to point and laugh at my credulity regarding Pellegrino’s so-called non-fiction.

As I microwave a bit of crow for public delectation, I will at least acknowledge having had some doubts as to whether Pellegrino’s brand of emotionally-driven scientific non-fiction was entirely truthful.  There were so many uncanny anecdotes buried in the text, so many dramatic moments, so many convenient coincidences that I asked knowledgeable people at SF conventions whether Pellegrino was entirely legit, and wasn’t entirely reassured by the answers.

When the Last Train from Hiroshima story exploded, a lot of people started taking scrutinizing Pellegrino’s grandiose claims.  Did he really provide inspiration to Michael Crichton’s dinosaur-cloning technique in Jurassic Park?  Is he really a renegade Ph.D. from New Zealand?  Tall tales are tall tales –but when they’re supposed to establish credibility for someone writing scientific non-fiction, they upset the presumption of expertise that readers tacitly bestow upon writers of works supposed to inform us about the world.  And once the first domino falls…

I was frankly reluctant to read Last Train from Hiroshima for the same reasons I don’t usually read older scientific non-fiction: So many things have changed since then that I would be putting bad information in my head.  Would reading Last Train from Hiroshima skew what I thought I knew about the American nuclear bombardments of Japan?

There’s no good way to read a book about nuclear holocaust when it comes with a constant mental warning saying “All of this may be made-up”.  True to his previous books, Pellegrino milks science and history to their most dramatic extent, putting as much feeling in the narrative as technical details.  Readers approaching the book without prior knowledge of the controversy may feel a twinge or two of pure empathy for those who died at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, to say nothing of the survivors fated to lives cut short by radioactive fallout.  For those who suspect that a good chunk of the book is made up, though, it’s a harder sell.

Much of The Last Train from Hiroshima controversy surrounds the testimony of Joseph Fuoco, whose surprising claims about the delivery of the American bombs have been cast in doubt by just about every knowledgeable military expert.  Alas –and this really hurts—readers eventually notice that most of the American material in Pellegrino’s book is sole-sourced to Fuoco.  Cut that out and you may as well have half a book.  The scant sourcing of The Last Train from Hiroshima through a thin bibliography might as well douse the flames of doubt.  Add to the that the other questions regarding the content of the book (including Japanese testimony we might as well know nothing about), and the only thing to do is to wrap the book in heavy opaque “Memetic Hazard” tape and shelve it alongside other potentially harmful material as occult woo-woo.  It’s the only sane response.

And if you think that the damage is limited to just Last Train from Hiroshima, you’re fooling yourself: the doubts extend retroactively to every other non-fiction book that Pellegrino has even touched.  The Jesus Family Tomb had already raked up its share of controversies along with the 9/11 section of Ghosts of Vesuvius, but the one that really rankles is Chariots for Apollo, which I had taken to be a pretty good history of the Apollo program; what’s the quotient of crap-to-fact in that one?

And that’s the true price to pay for even a few mistakes in non-fiction books: It casts the entirety of Pellegrino’s work in question, no matter how meritorious it can otherwise be.  On the other hand, I’m still allowed to like Pellegrino’s Science Fiction.  Now there’s an irony here that I may savour for a while.

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