The Oppenheimer Alternative, by Robert J. Sawyer

Science Fiction author Robert J. Sawyer treads a different path in his new historical fiction (and SciFi) novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative. (Currently available for pre-order HERE.) The story is a fictionalized, but still very true to history, depiction of one of the main cogs in the Manhattan Project (or the Manhattan Engineering District, the code name we’re told the project really had). J. Robert “Oppie” Oppenheimer was a leading American physicist, and was put in charge of the Los Alamos nuclear development program in the 1940s. The book depicts Oppenheimer’s interactions with Enrico Fermi, Albert Einstein, and the rest of the major theoretical physicists who worked on the development of the atomic bomb.  From the perspective of a historical novel that captures the race to build the bomb and the personalities behind that effort, the book does a good job of capturing the information and presenting it in well-written prose. There is a sense of urgency, combined with a foreboding and also the moral/philosophical ambiguity of developing such a horrific weapon.

The book succeeds on this level. It’s not the most excitingly told version of the story, but it certainly keeps your interest. There are elements of the paranoia of the American government, trying to keep the project a secret, but having to rely on scientists – many of whom were not native Americans – and with the looming threat of Communism. The undercurrent of McCarthyism and the threat of a career-ending accusation of being associated with the Communist Party rears its head frequently. There is also a strong element of the professional rivalries between the scientists, including Oppenheimer’s never-disguised desire to win a Nobel Prize. All these elements combine for a compelling story, with Oppenheimer at the nucleus of his atom and the other characters as circling and intersecting electrons.

The book starts out, oddly, with the love story of Oppenheimer and Jean, the woman he wants to marry. Sadly, she cancels their nuptial plans and then later kills herself (this is not a spoiler), leaving Oppenheimer pining the rest of his life for the love he lost, despite being married to another woman throughout the book.  It’s not immediately clear, after Jean’s death, why that element of Oppenheimer’s life is emphasized among all his other achievements and the important story of the Manhattan Project. That becomes clear in the second half of the book.

When Fat Boy is successfully tested at Los Alamos in the summer of 1945, and then Little Boy is dropped on Hiroshima several weeks later, the race to develop the atom bomb is over, and the scientists are left to ponder what they have wrought. But, the book is only half done – so what’s left?  The answer is that the author is now ready to launch into science fiction.

The second half of the book is an elaborate “what if” scenario involving all the key scientists, who must develop a solution to a planet-ending threat. What they come up with involves time travel and an elaborate scheme to re-write scientific history in order to save the Earth. Along the way, Oppenheimer has the opportunity to also save the one person in the world who means the most to him.  This portion of the book would have been a fine SciFi story standing alone, but it is enhanced by the depth of the reader’s understanding of the characters developed over the first half. The combined book is a little on the long side, and it is not as tight as it could be, but the descriptions and depictions of these pillars of the Scientific community, as well as our opportunity to get to know Oppenheimer, provide a counter-weight to any deficiencies.

The book is well-edited and reads easily, despite the numerous digressions from the main plot points. Some of that can be attributed to the curse of the biographer, who researches the subject so thoroughly that he can’t bear to leave any information on the editing room floor. Here, Mr. Sawyer would have a better book if he confined the narrative to only the primary and secondary plotlines and scrapped much of the rest. But, as a historical depiction, some of the color would be lost in that version of the book.

On balance, this was a fascinating read for someone like me who is interested in the science and the history. Readers without those predispositions may find the book a little technical and lacking in traditional SciFi action. Be advised, but if the subject matter hits your spot, then this book should be ground zero on your summer reading list.

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