reading, Reviews

Review: Midnight in Chernobyl (Paperback)

In my quest to read more non-fiction; buoyed by last year’s acclaim for the HBO miniseries Chernobyl, I took a recommendation to read Midnight in Chernobyl.

I had previously attempted a non-fiction book about the Chernobyl disaster, Chernobyl: History of a Tragedy by Serhii Plokhy – however I’d stalled on that one, and thus I found Midnight in Chernobyl a bit of a daunting proposition. History seemed to have a slightly dry, disconnected prose style that didn’t quite resonate – even now I struggle to quite put my finger on why that book hadn’t struck home.

However, Midnight proved considerably more engaging. It is a visceral, technical and compelling account not just of the disaster that took place on April 26th 1986 at 1:23:45AM but the moves that made disaster seem inevitable – missteps and mistakes that combined to create the nuclear disaster of 1986, but also the monumental, and initially misguided efforts to mitigate the disaster.

Midnight in Chernobyl, for me, succeeds because it reads much more like a story than an account. There’s a compendium of characters – including Reactor 4 itself – that all combine to make the chilling effects of the disaster what they proved to be. And the prose is chilling, intense and compelling – I found it difficult to stop reading, wanting to read on to find out what happened next.

Midnight in Chernobyl is clearly assiduously researched; but it also reaches from the late 1980s as the Soviet state begins to implode to today, with some punchy references to characters we’d come to know throughout the story reflecting back. The book is technical, which I liked, but it’s also not unapproachable. It seems to apportion the bulk of the responsibility for the accident primarily, not to the reactor operators (who made some reckless, crazy decisions) or necessarily the deficiencies of the RBMK reactor design that made it inherently dangerous, especially in the wrong hands, but on the Soviet system that pushed all these elements together.

Take for instance, ludicrous, imposed timescales and deadlines: not just to get Reactor 4 running “before the end of 1983” or to complete the botched test that caused the explosion but even to lay the first cubic feet of concrete for the whole plant. These deadlines, politically motivated for some misguided sense of prestige led to construction faults and operator errors that ultimately led to accidents.

This same system placed individuals ill-qualified but for their party affiliations in prominent positions of management, regardless of their skills – the chief engineer of the plant being a factory worker who took a correspondent’s course by mail on nuclear physics, who seemed to be in post more for his buttering-up of the local Communist Party than perhaps due to his competence; indeed, he was asleep at the time of the test. The system’s rigid expectations from its staff – reduced, essentially, to automatons to simply fulfil the Party and State’s will – led to reckless corner-cutting from construction to the fateful test itself.

But the most grievous trait laid bare is a system mired in paranoid secrecy – from whether to evacuate the nearby city of Pripyat to even understanding the true nature of the accident. But the worst example of this broken system is that the accident was completely preventable: the power excursions that came about from the design flaw in the control rods in the RBMK reactor – a fault that would make the emergency shutdown button at Chernobyl “a detonator”. Even the “official” inquiries tried to bury the truth with the reactor under tons of lead, boron, cement and lies.

The chronic mismanagement of the entire Communist system comes out as the biggest villain – not only did it lead to the disaster through a tragic series of isolated events that combined, it made the initial management of the accident ineffective, and hampered the international response in the misguided pursuit of “prestige”. Ultimately the disaster, one the Soviet economy was ill-prepared to cope with, played a major contributory role to the eventual collapse of the USSR.

I was discussing the book with the friend who recommended it, and he summed it up ina way I couldn’t put any more eloquently: “You start off feeling it’s inevitable and come out amazed it wasn’t worse.”

Indeed, Midnight in Chernobyl is not just a visceral, assiduously researched account of the disaster but a prism through which to observe a regime in chaos. It’s a gripping story that doesn’t overwhelm, and I’d highly recommend it!


Honour and Glory

I’d been keeping an eye on the Titanic: Honour and Glory project for a while and it’s great to see it getting some media attention as it’s a noble and fine interactive project I feel anyone can relate to. But this week I finally got a chance to play around a small area of the replicated Titanic with the new playable demo, which I’d highly recommend having a go at.

It’s a remarkable achievement by a small team with an even smaller budget, but whose passion for their game and it’s subject matter is immediately apparent. There is an attention to detail in their virtual recreation of the Titanic that is remarkable in itself. I love history (indeed, I have an affinity for this particular event in history – I love the time period, the tragedy, the engineering… it’s a perfect storm of historical intrigue) and games like this are a perfect means of introducing people to what can be construed as quite a dense subject.

Titanic: Honour and Glory promises two game modes: a “story” mode that takes place on the ship during the sinking, the success of which is dependent on the player accomplishing their goals and escaping alive and a “free roam” mode where the player can simply wander around the virtual Titanic as their intrigue takes them.

This sort of project is perfect for introducing history to people who may not know much about the subject or have found it too dense. Interactivity is a great way of bringing that history back to life to allow new audiences to experience it. Titanic: Honour and Glory is unlike most crowd-funded games; sure, it’s a niche market but it has so much potential as both an educational tool (perhaps in a formal setting?) and an adventure in history. Sure, there are parallels to 1996’s Titanic: Adventure out of Time and that’s fine; Titanic: Honour and Glory is that game’s spiritual successor, and uses advances in technology to make it a much more compelling experience.

The Phase 3 fundraiser for this ambitious target runs until April 20th, and I’ll definitely be supporting it; and on this, the 103rd anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic I definitely think you should too! Let the most famous shipwreck of all time live on in digital form to engage and engross another generation!

Gaming, Reviews

Review: Rise of Nations Extended Edition

When it comes to gaming, a lot of my joy comes from nostalgia and rediscovering gems from my youth. Rise of Nations ticks all the boxes there so discovering Microsoft (in a rare display of doing something good in the gaming sphere) was planning to re-issue the revered strategy game in a remastered format I was jumping at the bit to experience the game again!

Thebes falls to the mighty Bantu impi.

For the uninitiated, Rise of Nations is a real-time strategy game that pits the player as the omnipotent deity that is guiding a fledgling civilization through history, from the Ancient Age to the Information Age with the tasks of building cities, setting up industry, conducting research and building armies to wage war against neighbouring states. Released originally in 2003, the game combined gameplay elements from Civilization, Age of Empires and Risk to form a truly compelling strategy experience. Indeed, the Civilization cues are by no co-incidence given that Rise of Nations’ lead designer was Brian Reynolds, who designed the legendary Civilization II in 1994.

What made Rise of Nations special was it’s ingenious use of turn-based 4X strategy tropes in the real-time plane. There is still a tech tree to climb and epochs to advance to, but this is heavily simplified as to not detract too much from the faster-paced gameplay and add an appropriately-linear progression. The standard RTS “base” was decentralised around city centres the player could build around the map and construct resource-gathering buildings around; these cities also formed the main part of the conquest victory condition. World Wonders, of which only one can be constructed per city, bring unique and powerful benefits to their owners, and Civ-style Wonder races remain as common and infuriating as they are in Civ! Cities also brought the notion of national borders into real-time strategy, opening up an additional facet to tactics, claiming resources and winning the game.

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