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The Manhattan Projection – ‘The Oppenheimer Alternative’

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Few men have had as outsized an impact on recent world history as the physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer. As the director of the Manhattan Project, he led the massive team of thousands of scientists and others in their single-minded mission to develop the atomic bomb. And in 1945, this incredible, terrible aim was achieved, bringing World War II to an end. By all accounts, the reality of Oppenheimer’s contribution left him riddled with guilt and doubt.

But what if that project led to the discovery of an even greater potential threat – one existential far beyond the actions of even the most power-mad governmental regime? A threat whose cataclysmic impact could only be combatted by the continued collaborative effort of the world’s greatest minds? Who but Oppenheimer could administrate such an effort?

That’s the gist of “The Oppenheimer Alternative,” Robert J. Sawyer’s latest book (and the first new novel in four years from the Canadian author). It’s an alternate look at the scientist’s life, one that hews closely to his early years before veering into an entirely new realm as he’s forced to confront a bleak discovery – one that could, even more than his weaponizing of the atom, result in the end of the world if he and his fellow scientists can’t stop it.

With typical stylistic verve and a remarkable degree of research, Sawyer has crafted a world that is an apt and accurate reflection of our own while also folding in the shifts and changes that create this alternate reality. It is a compelling portrait, both in terms of who the man was … and who he might have been.

The first third of the book follows Oppenheimer from his early years at Berkley – his work in the physics department, his dalliances with the Communist Party, his impassioned infatuation with a troubled psychiatrist – through his years in Los Alamos as the hand-picked director of the Manhattan Project. We watch as he struggles with a difficult marriage and an indifference toward the realities of fatherhood, even as he leads the greatest collection of scientific minds ever assembled along their multiple potential paths toward the A-bomb.

But it’s a different discovery that winds up capturing Oppenheimer’s attention and ultimately consuming his life going forward.

The scientist Edward Teller has made a terrifying discovery. An explosive shift within the sun has set into motion a chain reaction of sorts, one that will result in the ejection of the star’s outermost layer and the utter annihilation of the entire inner solar system – including Earth.

Over the course of the next quarter-century – the world’s most brilliant minds – a who’s who of scientific notables from the middle of the 20th century – combine powers in an effort to come up with a way to save humanity, even as they keep that future destruction a secret. And there at the forefront is J. Robert Oppenheimer.

“The Oppenheimer Alternative” is a story rendered in meticulous, exquisite detail, the product of years of deep-dive research into not just the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer, but of many of the men and women whose lives were intertwined with his either personally, professionally or both. Scores of scientists and soldiers and the like are brought to life via Sawyer’s keen characterizations and thorough investigation.

Still, this is primarily Oppenheimer’s story. And Sawyer does great work in crafting a consistent and engaging voice for the man. We are given insight into the man’s personal tragedies as well as his triumphs, so engaged with and invested in the character that the book at times feels like an alternate biography as well as history. As with so much of Sawyer’s work, one is struck by the plausibility of it all; the world he has created here is driven by detail, resulting in a vivid sense of verisimilitude – it FEELS genuine in an indefinable way that even the best sci-fi often lacks.

That feeling goes beyond character as well. Sawyer’s long had a reputation as someone who brings a solid scientific understanding to his work; this book is no exception. The ideas and thoughts expressed by his characters are always grounded in the realm of the conceivable. Even when those ideas are beyond the ken of current scientific understanding, they’re built on a feasible foundation. That lends a welcome weight to the concepts that he presents.

J. Robert Oppenheimer is an intellectual colossus, casting a long shadow over the scientific history of the past century – an ideal subject for this manner of alternate reimagination. “The Oppenheimer Alternative” is precisely the kind of well-constructed and thoughtful speculative fiction that we’ve come to expect from Robert J. Sawyer. It’s a fascinating premise brought to fruition by one of our most gifted sci-fi authors – one well worth the wait.

Last modified on Tuesday, 02 June 2020 10:25


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