This is the text of paper that I delivered at the Science Fiction/ Fantasy Now conference at University of Warwick in August. Thanks to Mark Bould, Valerie Savard, and Rhys Williams.
The first shot of
Michael Madsen’s documentary film Into
Eternity (2010) captures the border between the snowy Finnish woods and
what appears to be a transformer station in grayscale. The shot draws a visual
comparison between the skeletal trees, standing silently, and the vertical
structures interlaced with cables in the background. Several large stones sit
in the foreground of the shot. The only sound comes from the low rumble of 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 back ground. Here, the voice over beings:
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 pain 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. (Madsen 2010)
The shot cuts
from the tunnel to a rock wall covered with signs and diagrams in the deep
dark. Trickling water can be heard. At this point two minutes into the film,
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 film’s science fictional stylistic conceit as an address
to the future in so far as it asks
the viewer to imagine a fictional 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 film: how to keep future entities—human, post-human, or alien—from entering
Onkalo, Finland’s nuclear waste storage facility, for at least one hundred
Through Into Eternity’s science fictional
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 film, Madsen explains to the camera that “it is
quite possible that we will not be understood by the future, especially by the
distant future” (Madsen 2010). The historian of technology Maja Fjaestad
describes one of the film’s main themes as the “imagined technological
competencies of future humans” (Fjaestad 372), while, in film scholar Andrew
Moisey’s words, the project captured by the film seems to want to “lure the
distant future closer to the past” (Moisey 114-115). This “luring” names
precisely the temporal negotiation undertaken by the film, and is captured in
its opening scene as its talking heads try to conceive of how to keep future
generations away from the toxic spent 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.
has been receiving more attention of late. In the face of anthropogenic global
warming, much of this can be accounted for due to 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, are 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 financial and regulatory risks” (Bruckner et al. 5). Of these
prospective threats, it is waste that is the most difficult 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 difficulty of distinguishing the
jurisdiction of nation and species is the radically more challenging prospect
of calculating the time of nuclear waste.
describes the time of nuclear waste, in his book Hyperobjects (2013): “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 influence on the present, casting its shadow backwards though time”
(Morton 120). For Morton, then, the time of nuclear waste involves a thinking
of two times at once. The present and the future are one way to name these
temporalities, which could be measured by the time when the waste is toxic and
when it is not. Another way would be to think of the time scale of the human
next to the time scale of the waste. That we do not have access to an
epistemology of geological time is at the source of our concern about the
radioactive half life of nuclear waste. Neither of these conceptions of time
thinks about the energy created in the first place. The whole problem of
nuclear waste arrives on the scene precisely because of the energy demands of
late capital. Whichever formulation of plutonium’s “causal influence” and
overshadowing of the present, Into
Eternity manages the temporal crux of nuclear waste through the science
fictional conceit of an address to the future.
The figure 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
benefits. 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 (NewScientist
2013). 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
fission 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 film apart from other recent documentaries concerned with the
legacies of nuclear power.
takes an approach to the topic that one might hope for in this complex
situation: a presentation of facts. The film engages 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 first 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.”
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 U.S. waste containment project in Carlsbad, New Mexico, cannot settle on
a method to keep future human, post-human, 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 (Brill 1993). To add this list, the
experts at Onkalo suggest using many reproductions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream (1893) to keep people out.
While these methods of keeping out curious entities would seem suitable for the
present, they may not keep out the very addressees of the film—countless
unknown and unknowable others from the future. Madsen address these imagined future viewers of the documentary promising
that “We will leave written information for you in all the major languages of
our time” and telling them that these are attempts to “give you a feeling,
rather than give you a detailed message” (Madsen 2010). 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” (Madsen 2010) 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 film, the technique of the sound bridge mirrors the desire for consistency
and transmission from one moment to the next. On screen, as the Kraftwerk song
“Radioactivity” plays, cameras move attached to the automated arms that cycle
the rods of radioactive material into the reactor, as the engineers and
scientists in the film 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 figures move
in a slight slow-motion, mimicking a music video effect. They are unified by
the beat of the song as shot cuts into shot. Another deployment of the sound
bridge happens with the experts that are interviewed. Similarly, 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 first. Here the sound bridge suggests that they have received the
message attentively just like the viewer should, just like the future view may.
The experience of
the film as an aesthetic object stands out as an affective experience that
supports the problematic described through its dialogue and interviews. Put
differently, the science fictional atmosphere remains in productive tension
with the film’s documentary elements.
Even without the
formal element of the sound bridge, the talking heads generate uncertainty. Van
Ripper contributes to this observation through his own treatment of the talking
heads and he suggests that the interviewees “project none of the confidence 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). The bind
that I identified in the opening shot between quiet storage in the earth and
the intervention of some future being repeats itself in these moments as the
film never allows its viewer to forget the sheer impossibility of imagining how
the future will divert from the present.
This insistence provokes the productive realization that 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, or 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 film seems to insist that whatever our energy future looks
like, something will be left below in the deep dark.
offers a language to name the problem Into
Eternity grapples with in her PMLA
editor’s column, “Literature in the Ages of Wood, Tallow, Coal, Whale Oil,
Gasoline, Atomic Power, and Other Energy Sources.” She raises the idea of an
“energy unconscious,” (Yaeger 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). This energy
unconscious follows Jameson’s assessment of the literary as a “socially
symbolic act” in The Political
Unconscious (1981) where the conflicts and impasses of the present find
expression through signs and symptoms that must be interpreted. Similarly,
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 energy worker who lives in carnal exhaustion.
But perhaps energy sources also enter texts as fields of force that have
causalities outside (or in addition to) class conflicts 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 wood...(Yaeger 309-310)
resonates with a scene 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, flanked
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. (Madsen
worker and his “carnal exhaustion” appear as the sign of a deeper moment in the
film, 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 film offers an occasion to plumb its depths. The discursive
symptom, “the field of force
that have causalities outside the text,” 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
Into Eternity clarifies the idea of an energy unconscious, and
outlines the problems associated with the study of energy in the humanities. As
Madsen’s film confirms, the problem of narrative is indissociable from the
discursive and political limits of the present. The film 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 film 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 science fictional writings, I would like to conclude
by suggesting an image that completely opposes and arrests the visions of the
future presented in Madsen’s film.
Into Eternity seems incapable of thinking the kind of future we get
in Paolo Bacigalupi’s short story “The People of Sand and Slag” (2008) as
anything but a nightmare image. In a
distant future Montana, three mutated, genetically engineered, and weeviltech
implanted humans oversee a mining operation. They seem to be 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 baffled 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” (Bacigalupi 45). The three
react to the dog, a survivor from a different time, the “dead end of an
evolutionary chain,” (Bacigalupi
53) much in the same way that a reader might be estranged by the three
demigod humans who eat sand and slag for dinner. They vacation in Hawaii; the
narrator describes his partner’s grace
as a swimmer: “She flashed 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” (Bacigalupi 52). The future, in “The People of
Sand and Slag” presents the opposite solution to Onkalo’s containment: a kind
of total immersion. This solution to the problems generated by our energy
commitments remains unimaginable 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 opening shots of the film. Onkalo is
not a solution to 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.
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Labels: Containment, energy futures, energy humanities, Into Eternity, Nuclear Waste