Waiting for the End of the World
by Richard Ross (Princeton Architectural Press; 144 pages, $19.95)
Dirty Bomb: Weapon of Mass Disruption
by Gilbert King (Chamberlain Bros.; 184 pages, $19.95)
The very last image in a stunning new photo essay, Waiting for the End of the World, is that of a refrigerator on which three things are taped: an editorial cartoon mocking Bill Clinton's prevarications, a photocopy of an American history text (about the Magna Carta and Patrick Henry's "The War Inevitable" essay) and the cover of an issue of the U.S. tabloid Sun that blares the headline: "Repent Now ... World Will End Next Week!"
It's a cute closing to a quaint book. The thing is, this quaint book is about bomb shelters. Documenting the apocalyptic caverns that exist all over the planet, all purpose-built for survival in the event of the sort of fiery catastrophe that most of us can't even conjure in a nightmare, photographer Richard Ross has managed to make the once-ubiquitous fear of nuclear annihilation seem like a marginal historical curiosity. With pictures of shelters both abandoned and occupied, the photographs draw a pretty bold line between the modern black-helicopters crowd and, well, the entire world in the '50s and '60s. The possibility of eradication was once quite real, and therefore the number of subterranean holes whether beneath Russian cityscapes, dotting the landscape of the American Midwest or buried underground in China is quite large. Most of the old shelters are abandoned, and it's in those that Ross comes up with his creepiest photos. However, the new shelters built (and sometimes permanently occupied) by freaks like the decidedly non-mainstream members of the Church Universal Triumphant aren't that different from those constructed by the citizenry of Switzerland (the government mandates a shelter be attached to every new building, including houses). Mainly because they're all there for one reason. And that reason isn't very quaint at all.
Just in case you've been lulled into thinking that only the followers of Elizabeth Clare Prophet need protection from fallout, a new book by Gilbert King will cure you of that delusion. Quickly. From the second paragraph of Dirty Bomb's introduction: "While newspapers carry stories about dirty bombs from time to time, few readers know enough about these bombs to be scared. And scared they should be." King then goes on for another 175 or so pages documenting tons of "missing" nuclear material and the terrorists who crave it, along with delivering a pretty detailed primer on how easy it is to craft a dirty bomb, MacGyver-style.
The book is a bit heavy on the are-you-terrified-yet tone and the numbing raft of "shocking" stories, coupled with Gilbert's finger-pointing at governments that seem quite unwilling to do anything to prevent these attacks, makes you feel ... well, like crawling into a bomb shelter.
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