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  • Published: 15 November 2014
  • ISBN: 9780099542247
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $22.99

Snake Dance

Journeys Beneath a Nuclear Sky

In this unique journey across continents and centuries, award-winning author Patrick Marnham explores the ruthless dictators, dangerous minds and prehistoric precedents behind the development of nuclear power.

The terrifying first use of nuclear weapons over Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 was the most controversial act of warfare in history, dramatically ending the Second World War but ushering in the age of mass destruction. Yet it was also the climax of a story that extends beyond Japan and Washington: the culmination of decades of scientific achievement and centuries of colonial exploitation.

Snake Dance is the account of a journey that turned into a quest to discover how humanity reaches this point. Patrick Marnham travels from the opulent nineteenth-century palaces of King Leopold II of Belgium, built with riches plundered from the Congo, to the lethally derelict nuclear reactor of modern-day Kinshasa. He follows the shipment of Congolese uranium to the deserts of New Mexico for the Manhattan Project’s secret test detonation. Here he uncovers the legacies of Robert Oppenheimer and Aby Warburg, two ‘mad geniuses’ who confronted the devastating power of twentieth-century science in very different ways.

Both men travelled to New Mexico. Oppenheimer was honoured for buiding a bomb, the ancestor of weapons that have enslaved humanity. Warburg, condemned to obscurity and confined to a mental hospital, regained his sanity by studying the rituals of the Native Americans of the Southwest who, for thousands of years, practiced the ritual of the 'snake dance' in an attempt to harness the power of lightening. And it was in New Mexico, at Los Alamos, that the ultimate act of playing God was realised.

The circle is closed in Japan.. Faced with the catastrophe at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in March 2011, scientific man, like the snake dancers, is faced with a power beyond his control. Spanning three continents and the history of civilisation, Snake Dance is at once an intrepid intellectual adventure and a wake-up call for mankind.

  • Published: 15 November 2014
  • ISBN: 9780099542247
  • Imprint: Vintage
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 352
  • RRP: $22.99

About the author

Patrick Marnham

Patrick Marnham was born in Jerusalem, educated at Oxford and is a member of the English Bar. He is the author of several books, including the bestselling Wild Mary, has been translated into seven languages and has won the Thomas Cook Travel Book Prize, the Marsh Biography Award, and been nominated for the Edgar Allen Poe Award. He has been literary editor of The Spectator, was the first Paris correspondent of the Independent, and has worked as a BBC scriptwriter and broadcaster and as a special correspondent and war reporter.

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Praise for Snake Dance

A beautifully written book – informative and entertaining

Piers Paul Read, Spectator

Fascinating… Snake Dance is nothing less than the biography of nuclear power, the most awesome force humanity has yet unleashed upon the planet

Peter Whittakar, New Internationalist

[Patrick Marnham’s] mastery of a vast trove of material makes him an erudite travel companion…perennially eager to poke about in radiation zones armed only with a wonky Geiger counter and a paper mask

Matthew Green, Literary Review

The travel writing is first class… [A] thrillingly ominous account


A superb book on the genesis and use of the atomic bomb


This is a humane and intelligent book, and one in which Marnham has clearly been deeply engaged

Melanie McGrath, Sunday Telegraph

The great strength of Snake Dance is to create an atmosphere in which the advent of atomic energy is not just outrageous but tragic


Snake Dance is a hybrid of a film tie-in, travelogue, biography and history. It’s a blend that gels through Marnham’s unwavering verve as he follows the trail of a lethal cargo

Christian House, Independent

Impeccably researched and written

Giles Milton, Mail on Sunday

From colonial slavery to the blind potential of scientific exploration to enslave us in turn, he makes a circular journey: the nuclear snake eats its own tail

The Times

A twisting global journey in his devastating critique of nuclear policy…an honourable refusal to rationalise what boils down to an act of repeated mass murder


A penetrating historical x-ray of the first generation of people to live under the nuclear shadow


A fascinating travelogue taking the reader from Joseph Conrad’s Congo to the Fukushima Nuclear Plant disaster of 2011, via New Mexico… a learned and compelling history of man trying to control the elements. It’s also a clarion call to arms to save ourselves and the planet


When he wrote this book, Patrick Marnham was compared to Bruce Chatwin, and I can see why

William Leith, 4 stars, Scotsman

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