The Oppenheimer Alternative
By Robert J. Sawyer
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
This year marked the 75th anniversary of the Trinity test, when a team led by J. Robert Oppenheimer detonated the first nuclear device in the Jornada del Meuerto Desert. Robert J. Sawyer has turned his attention to Oppenheimer’s career in The Oppenheimer Alternative, which follows Oppenheimer’s personal and professional life through the creation of the atomic bomb and the attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and beyond. Throughout the novel, Oppenheimer interacts with a variety of other genius scientists as well as military handlers.
The first part of the novel reads like almost like a straight historical novel about Oppenheimer. It examines his courtship of Jean Tatlock and subsequent marriage to Kitty Puening and the soap operatic entanglements those relationships entailed, both emotionally and politically. Oppenheimer’s relationships with the geniuses around him were not less fraught. Sawyer looks not only his interactions with men like Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Isador Rabi, and Hans Bethe, but also includes the dean of geniuses, Albert Einstein, who floats in and out of the novel as a practically deific voice on high that all the cantankerous scientists listen to.
Forced into a military mold when he took over his portion of the Manhattan Project, Sawyer’s Oppenheimer is still, at heart, a civilian, a scientist, and a idealist. Although he understands the need for secrecy and security, it doesn’t govern his life and he allows his relationships to get in the way, ultimately leading to clashes with authority figures who have his interests in mind, like General Leslie Groves, but also with congressional representatives who are happy to nurse slights and take revenge years later.
Although technically an alternate history, in many ways, The Oppenheimer Alternative is a secret history. As in our own timeline, after the war, Oppenheimer became director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Unlike our world, the Institute had a hidden agenda that Oppenheimer and many of the scientists there knew about. Their decision to keep it secret from the rest of the world means that even though they are working to their own world-saving solution, to any outside observer, their activities would be the same as in our own world, and Sawyer keeps his characters’ public actions in line with the events that are part of the historical record, from his meeting with Harry S Truman to his security hearing.
Because so much of the novel adheres to the historical record, the novel may fall flat for readers who are looking for the sense of wonder so much science fiction strives for, however, Isaac Asimov once stated that “Science fiction can be defined as that branch of literature which deals with the reaction of human beings to changes in science and technology.” From this point of view, Sawyer’s novel fully explores the scientific method, the exchange and interaction of ideas, and how the results influence the lives and society of the men who caused the scientific breakthroughs to occur.
The ending of the novel has a slightly deus ex machine feel to it, but Sawyer has actually laid the groundwork for it throughout the second half of the novel and it builds on the work of prior classic science fiction authors such as Ray Bradbury or L. Sprague de Camp while allowing personal sacrifice to be rewarded with a sought-after outcome.
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