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The China Syndrome Proves to Be More Science Than Fiction

The China Syndrome Proves to Be More Science Than Fiction” width=”560″/>

A classic motif in science fiction is the fear of technological advancement — the invention of a computer leads to a robot apocalypse; the advancement of spaceflight leads to the discovery of a murderous alien species. But what happens when scifi gets it right? Submitted for your approval, we present the case of the 1979 classic, The China Syndrome.

Released during the height of nuclear paranoia, the the film follows a camera crew as it covers a routine story at a nuclear power plant, and accidentally sticks around long enough to witness a near-meltdown. The title stems from a joke conception that such a meltdown would cause the reactor to bore a hole through the Earth until it reaches China, which ironically would become the only fictitious aspect of the film. Twelve days after its release, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania had a real accident, the worst in America and the worst ever — until the meltdown at Chernobyl eight years later.

Aside from the literal fallout, the nuclear accident had two lasting effects: It propelled the film’s status from a tepidly-received scifi melodrama into an eerily prescient box-office bonanza, and it cemented scifi’s role in social activism. Jane Fonda, the film’s star, was an outspoken political activist, and one of her primary motivations in making the film was to warn about the dangers of nuclear power — warnings still heeded to this day. Portents like those in The China Syndrome continue to persist in scifi: Whenever a scientist speaks of developments in artificial intelligence, does one not immediately think of Skynet?

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