Stephen C. Sutcliffe’s ambitious first novel covers a lot of territory. Negotiating its wide-ranging landscape, readers will be hard-pressed to peg a specific genre. Is it an action-packed adventure? Psychedelic mysticism? An apocalyptic manifesto? ATOM aspires to be all of these, with limited success.
The story is that of Michael Brethren and his buddies, privileged kids enjoying a parent-funded prolonged adolescence, and yet obsessed with the specter of nuclear war. They wonder, “What is it like to grow up in a world that can’t annihilate itself in a matter of days or hours?” The group, known as The Children of Atom, counter-intuitively decides it will make way for a more peaceful world in the most violent way possible: setting off a nuclear bomb at a public event.
It’s a curious idea, that the world must suffer one final nuclear explosion before choosing to shun such weapons forever. These characters don’t question themselves, however, and rather nonchalantly embark on a violent drug heist, which they accomplish with unbelievable efficiency, little remorse, and an excess of film-worthy explosions.
Sutcliffe attempts to mark an emotional evolution in Michael as events unfold —he has many dramatic moments of doubt—but Michael ultimately decides it’s “too late to dwell on right and wrong.” As the fate of 150,000 people hangs in the balance, readers might disagree.
Mired in melodramatic descriptions ranging from the cliché (a rainbow dancing in the mist) to the murky (“calliopes of manifold dissonance”) the action moves forward sporadically. Michael takes several unrelated side trips to play guitar, see a girl, and score some cocaine. Sutcliffe compounds the feeling of detachment by using the passive voice even in action scenes. Michael doesn’t crash into a lamp fixture while searching a drug lord’s study, but instead feels “his actions arrested by his collision with the faulty lamp.”
ATOM puts forth an intriguing idea, but ultimately fails to fully engage either its characters or its audience.