Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
Robert J. Sawyer, if his long list of awards is anything to go by, is one of the most unique and passionate science-fiction authors of the modern era, qualities he certainly hasn’t run out of yet as shown in his new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative. Taking us to the middle of the twentieth century, we are shown an alternate reality where the world’s greatest scientists must come together to find a way to save the planet from its imminent demise at the hands of the sun by 2030.
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Robert J. Sawyer Creates an Unsolvable Problem
The greatest minds of the twentieth century were also unfortunately responsible for creating the biggest threat to humanity yet: the atom bomb. One can’t help but think of what these people could have accomplished had they been allowed to peacefully work together on solving some bigger and more important issues, and that’s precisely the chance which Robert J. Sawyer gives them in his new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative.
Part science-fiction and part-alternative history, the story begins by exploring the the titular Oppenheimer’s life during his tenure as the head of the Manhattan Project, shrouded for decades in secrecy. He’s working on creating the atom bomb as he did in real life, but his colleague Edward Teller has something bigger in mind.
Teller is looking to develop what he refers to as a super bomb, one which uses the process of nuclear fusion to create devastation, rather than fission. Naturally, his research leads him straight to the sun, which he begins to study in order to understand exactly how it generates its energy. However, his research provides him with extremely alarming and unforeseen results.
By Teller’s calculations, sometime around 2030, the sun will eject its outer layer, destroying not only Earth, but also the entire solar system for company. For the first time, humanity at large is faced with an imminent danger it doesn’t know how to stop or even respond to; its annihilation is nothing if not certain, the enemy being the sun itself.
Nevertheless, this doesn’t deter Oppenheimer, Einstein, Dyson, Teller, von Braun and their colleagues from trying to find a solution the conundrum. Pulling all of their forces and weights together, the greatest titans of modern physics explore the problem from every possible angle, hoping to find a ray of shining light as humanity prepares to drop the curtains and accept total oblivion.
More Science than Sci-fi with The Oppenheimer Alternative
Science-fiction authors, and I’m only talking in general terms here, tend to abuse the liberty given to them by the standards of their genre. That is to say, most of them prefer to invent new technologies the functioning of which they cannot explain, rather than doing true-to-life research and keeping things on a realistic plane.
In The Oppenheimer Alternative, Robert J. Sawyer takes an approach belonging to the other end of the spectrum, preferring to keep the story closer to reality than fiction. This is especially apparent in the first part of the book, dedicated to Oppenheimer’s work as the head of the Manhattan Project, a section wrought with historically-accurate details and descriptions.
Robert J. Sawyer has obviously conducted a tremendous amount of research before writing this book, and it all comes out in the amount of details we are given about Oppenheimer’s life and his work. Much of what is revealed in this novel is in fact true, and if you’d like to cross-check anything, the author provides an extensive list of his sources which are all in the public domain.
While I was personally already somewhat acquainted with the story of the project, I still found the excursion absolutely fascinating, especially for the depth of understanding it allows us to achieve in regards to Oppenheimer. It is easy to condemn the man for creating a weapon humanity absolutely should not have, but it’s even easier to forget he too was a human being, one with a complex inner world which can’t be categorized in black-or-white terms.
Once the story moves on past the dropping of the atom bomb, we do begin to move much further into the territory of alternate history and fiction, but even then the author doesn’t drop his scientifically-accurate style. Thankfully, he doesn’t throw complex equations at the reader, but rather, takes his time to explain the work of the physicists in layman’s terms, or at least as close as you can get to those while discussing the immensely complicated topics in this novel.
If I’ve given you the impression that The Oppenheimer Alternative is more akin to a scientific or a historical textbook, I would like to apologize because nothing could be further from the truth. Robert J. Sawyer is an experienced (and stupendously-decorated) author who understands better than anyone the need to deliver on the promises any author makes to his audience when he or she decides to write a work of fiction, chief among them being entertainment.
Now, entertainment does indeed come in various forms and is interpreted differently from one person to the next, but from a general perspective, the plot really picks up in the second half of the book, where all the afore-mentioned scientists tirelessly work day and night to solve the type of problem which seems to be sorely lacking any solutions.
We are given detailed overviews of not only the research they are conducting, but also into something many will likely find more interesting: their psychology. While there are certainly plenty of speculative paragraphs and depictions, the author’s insight into how these extraordinary people might think and what drives them is a huge part of what makes the book entertaining.
After all, these highly unusual people were responsible for directing the development of human history, and one can’t help but wonder what their inner worlds might have looked liked. As I mentioned it before, Sawyer obviously did a ton of research before writing this book, and it shows once again in the fine precision with which he depicts the scientists. Whether or not they are as shown here, I’d have no trouble believing it.
Finally, it’s also a story about humanity in a more general sense, about the incredible human ability to adapt to virtually any circumstances, and to overcome even the most desperate of situations. The solution to the problem ends up being truly clever and unexpected, despite the various clues dropped throughout the story, apparent only in hindsight. I’d say it’s probably one of the more satisfying conclusions I’ve had the pleasure of experiencing in recent memory.
|374||CAEZIK SF & Fantasy||June 2 2020||978-1647100131|
The Final Verdict
The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert J. Sawyer is, in my opinion, a perfect blend of alternate history and science-fiction, pitting a crew of immensely distinguished and fascinating characters against a truly impossible problem with the biggest stakes imaginable at play. Profoundly-researched and expertly-crafted, the plot sucks the reader in without mercy and offers one of the more original premises I’ve seen in sci-fi yet.
If you’re interested in seeing the (potentially) greatest minds in human history come together and tackle the sort of high-stakes problem only they can solve, then this is absolutely a book you must read.
Robert J. Sawyer
Robert J. Sawyer is a Canadian science-fiction author with over twenty-four novels to his name. He has won a laundry list’s worth of awards, including the 1991 Prix Aurora Award for Best Long Work in English for Golden Fleece, the 1995 Nebula Award for Best Novel for The Terminal Experiment, the 2003 Hugo Award for Best Novel for Hominids, and the 2006 John W. Campbell Memorial Award for best Science Fiction Novel for Mindscan.