This article examines Edwardian “radioactive fiction”—narratives about radium’s transformative political implications—to demonstrate how radioactivity shaped narrative form and English politics between 1898 and 1914. Recent scholarship on this period’s literary engagements with energy physics and politics shows that thermodynamics’ second law provided the narrative structures that shaped turn-of-the-century scientific, cultural, and political discourses. At this moment, however, radioactivity upended these “entropolitical” narrative forms through its seemingly endless self-regeneration. Attending to this narratological and scientific upheaval, the article argues that formal experiments as varied as Joseph Conrad’s Secret Agent ( 2007) and H. G. Wells’s World Set Free (1914) exemplify a widespread regrounding of narrative and political form in a universe where the fundamental laws of energy no longer apply. The article first examines how espionage, detective, and invasion fiction, exemplified by The Secret Agent, incorporated the Edwardian press’s figuration of radium to suggest that the entropic nation-state’s raison d’être, degenerate populations, was not so entropic after all. It then examines utopian treatments of radioactivity to argue that nonentropic narrative forms modeled political orders beyond the nation-state. Through narrative chiasmus, The World Set Free figures an atomic state capable of organizing its constituent parts into a new collectivity, the global atomic commons.
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Michael Martel; Radioactive Forms: Radium, the State, and the End of Victorian Narrative. Genre 1 December 2019; 52 (3): 151–177. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00166928-7965779
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