Brief Reviews

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• How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete, by Robert Jastrow, Boston: Little, Brown, 175 pages, $15.95. Are you exasperated by the debate over the "Star Wars" defense initiative? Do you have trouble distinguishing an excimer laser from a neutral particle beam? Do your eyes glaze over when the debate turns to fast-burn boosters, decoys, and other hypothesized countermeasures to defeat the defensive shield envisioned by Star Wars proponents?

If so, physicist Robert Jastrow's book could be for you. He offers a straightforward description, in everyday language, of what today's debate on nuclear strategy is all about. He explains such things as what an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) is and how it worksâ€"essential background if you're to have any hope of understanding what pro- and anti-Star Wars people are talking about. And Jastrow provides very clear descriptions of the technological possibilities of various forms of defense against nuclear attack. He distinguishes clearly between near-term, medium-tech systems that are essentially ready to go and high-tech (laser, particle-beam) systems that may or may not work out as cost-effective weapons systems a decade or two from now.

In addition, Jastrow, a proponent of the Star Wars technology, provides a point-by-point assessment and rebuttal of the counterarguments raised by such groups as the Union of Concerned Scientists. The scientific community is divided on nuclear strategy, but Jastrow's discussion helps us to sort out political arguments from technical ones.

As a regular reader of Aviation Week and Space Technology and other defense esoterica, I thought I wouldn't get much out of Jastrow's book. I was wrong. If you want a single, understandable, technically sound primer on defenses against nuclear attack, How to Make Nuclear Weapons Obsolete fills the bill.

â€"Robert W. Poole, Jr.

• Elegy for a Soprano, by Kay Nolte Smith, New York: Villard Books, 277 pages, $14.95. Kay Nolte Smith's novels are the only books I'm unable to take with me to work for aesthetic refreshment during lunchâ€"the mere presence of one on the corner of my desk throughout the day causes such stress in resisting the urge to reenter its captivating ambiance that I accomplish little work. Smith's books follow in the tradition of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead, populated by characters somewhat less imposing though equally concerned with ideas involving individualism, reason, and integrity.

Her most recent, Elegy for a Soprano, is no exception. A unique whodunit, the central question is not who murdered opera superstar Vardis Wolf but who didn't, since four have confessed to the crime. The book's theme is a variation of one explored in Smith's award-winning first book, The Watcher, and deals with the evil of those who seek to crush others' individuality. Smith thus raises the question whether the geniuses and great artists of the world should be held to the same standards of behavior as everyone else, or whether their brilliance and greatness justify special allowances. The danger is, as one of the main characters explains, "If you let them get away with something, eventually you'll let them get away with…anything."

â€"Kelly Ross