June 11, 2019
While everyone was still trying to reckon with the ending of HBO’s epic series Game of Thrones, another show on the network, Chernobyl, quietly became the highest-rated series in history on IMDb. As the name implies, the series follows the harrowing (and preventable) nuclear reactor explosion that took place in Soviet Ukraine on April 26, 1986. Radioactive pollution reached as far away as Sweden and France, and Cold War politics meant that thousands of people in the vicinity (including in the nearby country of Belarus) were exposed to high levels of radiation before they were finally evacuated.
And now that the finale of Chernobyl the series has aired, we’re left to reflect on the tragic events that occurred and to appreciate the excellent writing, acting, and production quality of the show itself. The tension between those two things is part of what made it such compelling television – the existential horror of the explosion and its aftermath is only underlined by how well the series brings every detail to life and raises multiple questions for each one it tries to answer.
Even how many people the accident killed is an open question, with Soviet records recording only 31 deaths in the explosion’s immediate wake. Meanwhile, some experts place the death toll in the thousands (or even hundreds of thousands), including deaths from radiation-induced cancer and chronic illness among the local residents and those people brought in to clean up the accident site. Not to mention even less answerable questions, like what went really went wrong in the control room that night (besides the stubbornness of chief engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, who was supervising the test that led to the explosion).
Fortunately, there are questions that we can answer if we’re willing to do a little digging. Wondering which Chernobyl characters were based on real people and what their fates were? Thinking about what it was like to work as a scientist behind the Iron Curtain? Curious about other nuclear disasters or industrial accidents? And what about the effects of all that radiation on the natural environment around the (sealed off) area most impacted by the Chernobyl explosion?
If you or your patrons have questions or are just fascinated by the topic in general, a good place to start might be with Voices from Chernobyl by Svetlana Aleksievich, which first inspired the show’s creator to develop the series. Other books that might be of interest are Stalin and the Scientists by Simon Ings, Mary Mycio’s Wormwood Forest, and Before the Fallout by Diana Preston. Or search NoveList for books in the Science writing, History writing, or Politics and global affairs genres, which you can mix and match with our story elements like:
SU Nuclear accidents
SU Government coverups
SU Industrial accidents
SU Cold War
If you’re looking for other ways to engage your pop culture vulture patrons, watch a replay of our of webinar “Unlocking pop culture to improve your readers’ advisory.”
Ashley Lyons is a Readers' Advisory Librarian at NoveList.