[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


SFWRITER.COM > Novels > The Oppenheimer Alternative > Epigraphs

The Oppenheimer Alternative

Chapter-Head Epigraphs

At the beginning of each of the 57 chapters of my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative there is a real-life quotation. I had a lot of fun gathering these epigraphs, and, as a teaser leading up to the launch of the book, I usually posted one on my Facebook wall each week, often with some commentary and always with a photo. Some of these are lost to history (that is, Facebook's search engine is failing to let me find some of the posts), but here are a bunch of them.

The only other one of my twenty-four novels that has epigraphs at the beginning of each chapter is actually the first one I wrote, End of an Era. Enjoy!

Unless otherwise specified, the accompanying photo is of the person I'm quoting. You can click the photos for larger versions.


July 11, 2019

[Rabi]

We're just about a year away from the 75th anniversary of the first atomic-bomb explosion — the Trinity test — and there are fifty-odd chapters (some very odd! ;) ) in my upcoming The Oppenheimer Alternative, so I thought I'd post the chapter-heading epigraphs I use in the novel, one per week, until the anniversary. To start, the epigraph that leads off the entire book:

That is what novels are about. There is a dramatic moment and the history of the man, what made him act, what he did, and what sort of person he was. That is what you are really doing here. You are writing a man's life.

I.I. Rabi, testifying at Robert Oppenheimer's security hearing

Scan of the actual transcript page (click for larger version):

[Transcript]

(That's Isidor Isaac Rabi — pronounced "Robby" — in the picture.)


July 16, 2019

[Szilard]
In Los Angeles, where I am now, it's still Tuesday, July 16, 2019 — the 74th anniversary of the Trinity test and the birth of the atomic age. In honor of that, here's this week's chapter epigraph from my forthcoming novel The Oppenheimer Alternative :
Question: What is an optimist? Answer: One who thinks the future is uncertain.

Leo Szilard


July 29, 2019

[Oppenheimer on Time cover]

A new week means a new chapter-head epigraph as we count our way down to the release next year of my 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative. This one should put at rest the minds of those afraid my book might not be an actual science-fiction novel: it's J. Robert Oppenheimer and his grad student Hartland Snyder being the first to predict the existence of black holes, way back in 1939 in a paper called "On Continued Gravitational Contraction" published in the PHYSICAL REVIEW. Many believe, had he lived longer, Oppenheimer might have been awarded the Nobel Prize for this prediction:

"The gravitational deflection of light ... will prevent the escape of radiation ... as the star contracts. The star thus tends to close itself off from any communication with a distant observer; only its gravitational field persists."

J. Robert Oppenheimer and Hartland Snyder


August 6, 2019

[Groves]

Another week, another chapter-head quote from my forthcoming novel The Oppenheimer Alternative, as we count down to the June 2020 release. This one is about General Leslie R. Groves (pictured), the head of the Manhattan Project, and one of the major characters in my book:

"[Groves was] the biggest sonovabitch I've ever met in my life, but also one of the most capable individuals. In fact, I've often thought that if I were to have to do my part all over again, I would select Groves as boss."

Lt. Col. Kenneth Nichols


August 26, 2019

[Tatlock]
This week's entry, about Jean Tatlock, is on a separate page


September 3, 2019

[Rabi]

Another week, another chapter-head real-world quote from my forthcoming novel The Oppenheimer Alternative. Isidor Isaac Rabi, the 1944 Nobel laureate in physics, is a major character in my book, and he's certainly fascinating, but, as he himself would say, not as fascinating as Oppie:

"God knows I'm not the simplest person, but compared to Oppenheimer, I'm very, very simple."

I.I. Rabi


September 9, 2019

[Story of a Friendship]

Another week, another chapter-head quote from my forthcoming novel The Oppenheimer Alternative. This one is another from Haakon Chevalier, Oppie's one-time best friend. Here's his assessment of Oppie early on, before they had an epic falling-out:

"The [Oppenheimer] I had known was gentle and wise, a devoted friend, the soul of honor, a student, a humanist, a free spirit, a man dedicated to truth, to justice, passionately concerned with human welfare, and emotionally and intellectually committed to the ideal of a socialist society."

Haakon Chevalier

Chevalier wrote two books about Oppenheimer, after what he felt was Oppie's betrayal. The first, a novel, was a roman ` clef called The Man Who Would be God; the second, nonfiction (at least from Haakon's point of view!), was Oppenheimer: The Story of a Friendship.


September 15, 2019

[Wilson]

Another week, another chapter-head quote from my forthcoming novel The Oppenheimer Alternative. Main characters have to change and grow during the course of a novel, and, fortunately for Oppenheimer did both:

"I have to explain about Oppie: about every five years, he would have a personality crisis. He would change his personality. I mean, when I knew him at Berkeley, he was the romantic, radical bohemian sort of person, a thorough scholar ..."

Robert R. Wilson, American physicist

The full quote:

I have to explain about Oppie: about every five years, he would have a personality crisis. He would change his personality. I mean, when I knew him at Berkeley, he was the romantic, radical bohemian sort of person, a thorough scholar. Then at Los Alamos, he was the responsible, passionate person that we all knew so well there and who was so effective. Later on then, he had another metamorphosis, becoming the high-level statesman who could call Acheson by his first name (and such other high-level people), but as a result of that was able to put forward the international plan for controlling atomic energy through the United Nations that we had all agreed was the necessary ingredient for continued survival.

The book this is from — actually about Enrico Fermi — is free, by the way. You can get it here.


September 22, 2019

[Chevalier]

This week's chapter-head real-life quote from my 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, coming June 2, 2020, is another from Haakon Chevalier (pictured). Here, he describes the Oppie he knew in the early days of their friendship, before it all went to hell:

"The [Oppenheimer] I had known was gentle and wise, a devoted friend, the soul of honor, a student, a humanist, a free spirit, a man dedicated to truth, to justice, passionately concerned with human welfare, and emotionally and intellectually committed to the ideal of a socialist society."

Haakon Chevalier, in Oppenheimer: The Story of a Friendship, pages 173-174

The full quote: What I was confronted with — and this was the great puzzle — was two Oppenheimers: the one I had known, before the war, before the bomb; and the other one, who had gone through the ordeal of Los Alamos, who had become a world figure, a top-ranking adviser on military affairs and on the nation's policy.

The one I had known was gentle and wise, a devoted friend, the soul of honor, a student, a humanist, a free spirit, a man dedicated to truth, to justice, passionately concerned with human welfare, and emotionally and intellectually committed to the ideal of a socialist society.

The other was an awe-inspiring public figure, whom one always visualized as having his finger on a trigger which could at any moment set off a chain reaction of cataclysmic destruction, a master brain, an occult power at the center of a network of control bodies: chairman or member of innumerable boards and commissions, author of endless secret reports on ever more lethal weapons, on tactics and strategy and techniques of annihilation — a gray eminence, hobnobbing with bankers and industrialists, cabinet ministers and top-ranking military men; an aggressive patriot, an outspoken anti-communist, fervently anti-Soviet, to the point even that he was reported to advocate a preventive war; a man ambitious and self-seeking, with whom many former friends and associates had broken, who had "let down" many who had been close to him, a man for whom fundamental ethical principles were no longer sacrosanct.


September 30, 2019

[Bethe]

Another week, another chapter-head quote from my forthcoming novel The Oppenheimer Alternative :

"I am about the leading theoretician in America. That does not mean the best. Wigner is certainly better and Oppenheimer and Teller probably just as good. But I do more and talk more and that counts too."

Hans Bethe, in a letter to his mother

Bethe went on to win the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics.


October 6, 2019

[von Braun]

My forthcoming The Oppenheimer Alternative doesn't just feature the Manhattan Project scientists — it also features Wernher von Braun! Of course, he and his team of German V-2 rocketeers famously surrendered themselves to the Americans, and von Braun (pictured) went on to head the Saturn V development team for NASA. About him ending up working for the Americans, Soviet premier Joseph Stalin had this to say, in this week's chapter-head quote:

"This is absolutely intolerable. We defeated Nazi armies, we occupied Berlin and Peenemünde, but the Americans got the rocket engineers. What could be more revolting and more inexcusable?"

Joseph Stalin


October 16, 2019

[Segre]

Another week, another chapter-head quote from my forthcoming 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative :

"For me, Hitler was the personification of evil and the primary justification for the atomic-bomb work. Now that the bomb could not be used against the Nazis, doubts arose. Those doubts, even if they do not appear in official reports, were discussed in many private conversations."

Emilio Segrè, winner of the Nobel Prize in physics

As I say in the novel:

But, in the end, conventional troops pressing in on Berlin — and maybe, Oppie mused, Hitler having learned of Mussolini's corpse being strung up by its ankles and stoned and spat upon by those who had suffered under his regime — had moved Der Führer to accomplish with a single bullet what Oppie's multi-million-dollar gadget was supposed to do: end the war in Europe.

Japan had been making overtures to surrender for almost a year at this point, since the summer of 1944. Did the U.S. need to go ahead and drop atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki? It's a question that continues to be debated to this day.


November 11, 2019

[Rabi: Scientist & Citizen]

Today's chapter-head epigraph from my forthcoming The Oppenheimer Alternative is perhaps appropriate here on Remembrance Day — a day when we honor the fallen but also hope for a world free of war. The inimitable Isidor Isaac Rabi, winner of the 1944 Nobel Prize in Physics:

"The physicist has become a military asset of such value that only with the assurance of peace will society permit him to pursue in his own quiet way the scientific knowledge which inspires, elevates, and entertains his fellow men."

I.I. Rabi


November 27, 2019

[Teller]

Just over six months until the release of The Oppenheimer Alternative (June 2, 2020). Here's another chapter-head epigraph, from a letter Edward Teller sent to his fellow Hungarian imigré Leo Szilard in July 1945, the month of the first atomic-bomb test at the Trinity site:

"I have no hope of clearing my conscience. The things we are working on are so terrible that no amount of protesting or fiddling with politics will save our souls."

Edward Teller


December 2, 2019

[Kitty Oppenheimer]

Six months from today is the publication date for my 24th novel,

The Oppenheimer Alternative. Here's another chapter-head epigraph, serving as a reminder to always be nice to your in-laws: this one is Robert Oppenheimer's sister-in-law talking smack about Oppie's wife, Kitty (pictured):

"Kitty was a schemer. If Kitty wanted anything she would always get it. I remember one time when she got it into her head to do a Ph.D. and the way she cozied up to this poor little dean of the biological sciences was shameful. She never did the Ph.D. It was just another of her whims. She was a phony. All her political convictions were phony, all her ideas were borrowed. Honestly, she's one of the few really evil people I've known in my life."

Jackie Oppenheimer (Robert's sister-in-law)


December 16, 2019

[Hirohito]

Counting down weekly to the June 2, 2020, release of my 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, another chapter-head epigraph from the book. This was the first time most Japanese ever heard the voice of their emperor Hirohito, over the radio, surrendering after the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki:

"The enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is incalculable. Should we continue to fight, it would not only result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation but also would lead to the total extinction of human civilization."

Hirohito

Ironically, the only real sticking point in back-channel negotiations that had been going on for many weeks over when (not whether) Japan would surrender was the question of whether Japan could have its one condition of surrender met: that the divine Hirohito retain his throne; US President Truman has adamantly insisted on unconditional surrender. He stuck to that point until the atomic bombs were ready; as Wikipedia says, "The two bombings killed between 129,000 and 226,000 people, most of whom were civilians, and remain the only use of nuclear weapons in armed conflict."

So, Japan did surrender unconditionally — and then, since the only possible post-war scenario required Japan to have a functioning government, the Allies in fact DID allow Hirohito to stay on the throne; he reigned until his death in 1989 under Japan's post-war Pacifist Constitution.


January 13, 2020

[Wallace]

My 24th novel The Oppenheimer Alternative is coming out June 2, 2020. It's an alternate-history / secret-history of the Manhattan Project scientists. Each chapter begins with a real-world epigraph, and I was particularly tickled when I could find ones that supported my novel's plot. This one was perfect. It's former U.S. vice-president Henry A. Wallace (pictured):

"I never saw a man in such an extremely nervous state as Oppenheimer. He seemed to feel that the destruction of the entire human race was imminent."

Henry A. Wallace


January 20, 2020

[Truman]

We should have a cover reveal for The Oppenheimer Alternative next week. Meanwhile, here's another real-history chapter-head epigraph from the novel. This one is President Harry S. Truman after Robert Oppenheimer visited him at the White House and Oppie told him, that he, Oppie, had blood on his hands:

"I don't want to see that son of a bitch in this office ever again."

Harry S. Truman


January 26, 2020

[Einstein and Szilard]

Here's this week's chapter-head epigraph from my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative, coming June 2, 2020:

"Szilard is a fine, intelligent man who is ordinarily not given to illusions. Perhaps, like many such people, he is inclined to overestimate the significance of reason in human affairs."

Albert Einstein

Leo Szilard was the genesis of this novel. Back in 2015, my friend Liz Cano raved to me about a one-man play at the Montreal Fringe Festival called "The Inventor of All Things," written and performed by Jem Rolls. Although it wasn't until two years later that I saw the play (when it came to Toronto), in 2015 I'd thought to myself I really don't know much about Szilard, and so I started researching him.

Szilard was one of the famed "Martians," Hungarian physicists who had immigrated to the United States; others included Edward Teller and John von Neumann.

I found Szilard to be a fascinating character, always in the background, never really with an official role, turning up at all sorts of key points. He wrote and got Einstein to sign the letter to President Franklin Roosevelt that began the Manhattan Project; he was part of the team that created the first-ever nuclear pile, at the University of Chicago; he was H.G. Wells's literary agent for a time; and he circulated various petitions, including one that General Groves declared "Classified" so it could no longer be shown to scientists, urging a safe demonstration to the Japanese of the A-bomb's power, instead of the wholesale slaughter of civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Szilard really became the anchor for writing my novel. Of all the real-life scientists I used in my novel, I think he's the one I would have most liked to have met.


February 3, 2020

[Bridgman]

It's now less than four months until my 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, comes out on June 2, 2020. Here's this week's chapter-head epigraph, a real-life quote:

"Scientists aren't responsible for the facts that are in nature. It's their job to find the facts. There's no sin connected with it — no morals. If anyone should have a sense of sin, it's God. He put the facts there.

Percy Bridgman, Oppenheimer's physics professor at Harvard

Bridgman won the 1946 Nobel Prize in Physic. But like so many people in Oppenheimer's life — including his mistress and his daughter — Bridgman took his own life.

Bridgman, who was suffering from cancer, killed himself by gunshot. In his suicide note wrote, "It isn't decent for society to make a man do this thing himself. Probably this is the last day I will be able to do it myself."

Canada adopted physician-assisted dying four years ago for terminally ill people (like Bridgman), and just completed a major public consultation on whether to loosen the rules even more so that those with terrible quality of life, but no imminent threat of death, can also receive a compassionate release if they wish.

My mother, who died in December 2015, before any physician-assisted-dying rules were in place, wanted help passing on. Instead, as she said as she was taken off oxygen and had her nourishment IV removed, "Now we wait for me to starve to death." I hope both she and Percy Bridgman are resting in peace and are pleased that others don't have to go through what they did.


February 10, 2020

[Szilard]

This week's chapter-head epigraph from my The Oppenheimer Alternative, coming June 2, 2020:

"Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?"

Leo Szilard

Szilard should be way better known than he is. As Wikipedia says, "He conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear fission reactor in 1934, and in late 1939 wrote the letter for Albert Einstein's signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb."

But he was also H.G. Wells's literary agent for a time, selling translation rights in Europe, and he vehemently opposed the use of the atomic bomb on cities in Japan, arguing instead for a demonstration to Japanese officials in an uninhabited area. The head of the Manhattan Project, General Leslie R. Groves, classified Szilard's petition urging that as "Secret," preventing it from being further circulated, and it remained classified until after the war was over and Hiroshima and Nagasaki were smoldering ruins.


March 1, 2020

[Dyson]

For this week's real-life chapter-head quote from my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative, being published three months from tomorrow, I just had to pick one of the three from Freeman Dyson, who passed away last week.

Plus, I always loved it when I could find a quote that played right into the secret history of the Manhattan Project physicists my novel purports to recount. This one is one of the best in that regard; the quote comes from Dyson's collection Dreams of Earth and Sky:

"As a direct result of Oppenheimer's work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject."

Freeman Dyson


March 8, 2020

[The Oppenheimer Alternative US Cover]

This week's real-life chapter-head quote from my next novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative (coming June 2, 2020), has to do with why there's an Orion atomic-bomb-propelled spaceship on the cover of the US edition of the book:

"I believe that interplanetary travel is now (with the release of atomic energy) a definite possibility."

Richard Feynman, December 5, 1945

The Oppenheimer Alternative is available for pre-order in print and ebook editions.


March 15, 2020

[Feynman]

This week's real-life chapter-head quote from my The Oppenheimer Alternative (coming June 2, 2020) is a bleak assessment appropriate to this bleak time:

"I would see people building a bridge, or they'd be making a new road, and I thought, they're crazy, they just don't understand, they don't understand. Why are they making new things? It's so useless."

Richard Feynman

(It's also one of the quotes I was pleased to find that fully supported my novel's secret history of The Manhattan Project.)

There was light at the end of Feynman's tunnel. Let's hope for light at the end of ours, too.


March 23, 2020

[Oppenheimer]

This week's chapter-head real-life quote from my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative, coming June 2, 2020:

"Haakon, Haakon, believe me, I am serious, I have real reason to believe, and I cannot tell you why, but I assure you I have real reason to change my mind about Russia. They are not what you believe them to be. You must not continue your trust, your blind faith, in the policies of the U.S.S.R."

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Oppie never specified his "real reason" in reality, although my answer is put forward in my novel. Haakon was Oppie's best friend — for a time: Haakon Chevalier, a professor of French literature whose overture to Oppie about giving atomic secrets to the Russians eventually brought them both to ruin.

Photo: Oppie by the great Richard Avedon.


March 30, 2020

[Fermi]

This week's real-life chapter-head quote from my The Oppenheimer Alternative, coming June 2, 2020, is from the great Italian physicist known as "the Pope" for his infallibility, Enrico Fermi (pictured):

"What a pity that they attacked him and not some nice guy like Bethe. Now we have all to be on Oppenheimer's side!"

Enrico Fermi

(The quote's slightly odd wording is correct; English was not Fermi's first language.)

Dr. Fermi's comment underscores one of the difficulties in writing this novel. Conventional wisdom is that your protagonist should be "likable" — you hear that over and over again. But I learned a great lesson reading Frederik Pohl (and particularly his masterpiece, Gateway): what really matters is that your protagonist is believable and understandable.

Delving into the many sides of Oppie — "the layers of Oppenheimer's morals, genius, and grief," as Publishers Weekly said in its review of my book — makes, I feel, for compelling reading. In the end, I didn't just like him, I loved and admired him, but some will come away appalled by the man and his actions — and that's perfectly okay.


April 8, 2020

[Teller]

Just eight weeks left unitl my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative comes out, and I've still got 28 chapter-heading real-life epigraphs that I haven't used as weekly teasers here yet, so I get to pick and choose.

This week's is one of the type that impelled me to write the novel in the first place: to fill in, to the best of my abilities, the intriguing lacunae left in the historical record.

As Enrico Fermi lay dying, Edward Teller (pictured) really did go to see him, and, of his visit, said what's below. Naturally, as a novelist, I just had to dramatize the scene and reveal my best guess at what Teller had confessed; it made for one of my favorite chapters out of the entire book.

History has not been kind to Teller, and it was also, I felt, incumbent upon me to make him a somewhat sympathetic character; most people, after all, are doing what they think are the right things in their own minds. The epigraph I used:

"One usually reads that dying men confess their sins to the living. It has always seemed to me that it would be much more logical the other way about. So I confessed my sins to Fermi. None but he, apart from the Deity, if there is one, knows what I then told him."

Edward Teller


April 14, 2020

[1962 Mars map]

Lots of history, to be sure, in my The Oppenheimer Alternative (coming June 2), but also lots of science. This week's chapter-head epigraph speaks to just how recently we still held to the belief that Mars had canals on its surface.

"There can be no question about the existence of at least the most conspicuous of them [the canals of Mars]. Some can be seen in telescopes of moderate size and a few have been photographed. We find clear evidence of changes taking place which we can only attribute to the growth of vegetation.

Sir Harold Spencer Jones, Astronomer Royal, in his Life on Other Worlds, various printings through 1959

Above is the official United States Air Force Map of Mars from 1962 [LARGE IMAGE!], showing the canals. Mariner IV, which three years later finally gave us close-up pictures of the cratered, canal-free surface of Mars, was a very bitter pill indeed.


April 21, 2020

[Project Mars]

This week's real-life chapter-head epigraph from my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative (arriving June 2) comes from a German Nazi rocketeer who, although he went on to spearhead the Saturn V program for NASA, really wanted to be a science-fiction writer:

"Who's interested in the Mars atmosphere or the initial thrust of a satellite? The story lacks a girl!"

Wernher von Braun, summarizing the eighteen editors who rejected his novel Project Mars

Finally, in 2004, Canadian publisher Apogee Books brought the book out in English.

This novel isn't to be confused with von Braun's similarly titled non-fiction book The Mars Project (although, in fact, Amazon did just that — their "Look Inside" feature correctly shows the novel in the Kindle preview but the nonfiction book in the print one).


April 27, 2020

[US cover]

This week's real-life chapter-head quotation from my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative (coming June 2, 2020 — pre-order now!) answers the question of just what the heck is that next to Oppie on the American cover of the book:

"It may be possible to propel a vehicle weighing several thousand tons to velocities several times earth escape velocities. A circular disk of material, which is called the pusher, is connected through a shock-absorbing mechanism to the ship proper, which is above the pusher-shock-absorber assembly. Nuclear bombs, which are stored in the ship, are fired periodically below the pusher. Each bomb is surrounded by a mass of propellant. As a result of each explosion, the propellant strikes the pusher and drives it upward into the shock absorbers, which then deliver a structurally tolerable impulse to the ship."

Feasibility Study of a Nuclear-Bomb-Propelled Space Vehicle, contract between the United States Air Force and General Atomic, June 30, 1958

The nuclear-bomb-propelled rocket design discussed above came to be known as Project Orion, and Freeman Dyson, who passed away just this year, was one of the key people involved with it, and Dyson figures prominently in my novel.

Project Orion was canceled when the nuclear limited-test-ban treaty outlawed nuclear explosions in space, as Freeman Dyson explains.

Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke originally planned to make their interplanetary spaceship Discovery in 2001: A Space Odyssey an Orion vehicle, but Kubrick decided he couldn't follow his anti-nuclear-war film Dr. Strangelove with one in which nuclear bombs kept going off. Presumably he was afraid that instead of humming the "Blue Danube" waltz, people would leave the theater singing "We'll Meet Again" — which is precisely the song I have Kitty Oppenheimer and Barbara Chevalier sing earlier in my novel.


May 4, 2020

[Bethe]

My friend and colleague Gregory Benford phoned yesterday and we had a nice long chat. We're both hugely interested in the Manhattan Project, and, indeed, have both written alternate histories about it.

Greg's is already out, the wonderful novel The Berlin Project, and mine, The Oppenheimer Alternative, comes out four weeks from tomorrow on June 2, 2020 (and is available for pre-order now, with the ebooks heavily discounted).

Our books are very different from each other. Greg's working title was CENTRIFUGAL because his hinge point was the allies deciding on centrifugal separation of uranium-235 from uranium-238, leading to a much faster development of the atomic bomb.

It was General Leslie R. Groves, head of the Manhattan Project, who pushed for fast decisions — quick action being better, in his mind, than thoughtful deliberation leading to the best answer. Some, like Leo Szilard, characterized Groves as a "fool."

J. Robert Oppenheimer is a very minor character in Greg's The Berlin Project, whereas he's the main character in my novel. And, actually, Oppie got along extremely well most of the time with General Groves.

Still, Oppie generally had little patience with powerful people who weren't as sharp as he was, and that brings us to our real-life chapter-head epigraph from The Oppenheimer Alternative for this week, one from Hans Bethe (pictured) that I happened to quote to Greg Benford on yesterday's call:

"[Oppenheimer] certainly did not suffer fools gladly — and there are lots of fools. He could be extremely cutting and he was especially cutting to people in high positions whom he considered fools."

Hans Bethe, winner of the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics

This got Oppie into an awful lot of trouble, particularly when he decided to show publicly just what a fool Lewis L. Strauss, the chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, was — and thereby hangs a tale, which I tell in detail in my novel ...

Greg, by the way, has been very kind to my book, reading it in manuscript and providing this lovely blurb for it:

"The feel and detail of the Manhattan Project figures is deep and well done. I knew many of these physicists, and Sawyer nails them accurately. Fun all the way through!"


May 11, 2020

[Einsten and Godel]

Just three more weeks until my 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, comes out worldwide in print, ebook, audiobook. Of course, when people think of my title character, the physicist J.  Robert Oppenheimer, they usually picture him at the Los Alamos Laboratory, where the atomic bomb was developed in secret.

But Oppie only spent four years working on the Manhattan Project. By far his longest professional appointment was the one that came after that. Following the war, he was courted for the directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Oppie accepted the position in 1946, joining Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Kurt Gödel, among other geniuses.

Originally endowed in 1930 by brother-and-sister retail millionaires Louis Bamberger and Caroline Bamberger Fuld, the I.A.S. was meant to be a comfortable home for great minds to think and theorize. My friend Mike Lazaridis, co-inventor of the BlackBerry, followed in their footsteps seventy years later when he endowed the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario (where part of my WWW trilogy is set).

Oppenheimer spent the final twenty-one years of his life at the I.A.S., and, in fact, more of The Oppenheimer Alternative takes place there than at Los Alamos. The I.A.S. is famed for its peaceful surroundings and beautiful woods, and was also the home, until his recent passing, of Freeman Dyson.

Oppie's arrival there was met with great acclaim and fanfare ... but, as was so common in his life, things did not stay sunny — which brings us to this week's chapter-head epigraph, the only anonymous one of the fifty-six in my novel:

"Hell, this is a mecca for intellectuals, and we were reading in the New York Times every day that Oppenheimer was the greatest intellectual in the world. Of course we wanted him — then."

Anonymous I.A.S. faculty member

Pictured: Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel, both of whom figure prominently in my novel, at the I.A.S.


May 17, 2020

Each year, July 16 marks the anniversaries of two of the defining moments in the entire history of Homo sapiens, both of which are still within living memory for some.

For this year, 2020, July 16 is the fifty-first anniversary of the day on which human beings first embarked on a voyage to another world, with the launch of Apollo 11.

And that same day this year is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the world's first atomic-bomb explosion, the Trinity test, conducted near Alamogordo, New Mexico. As I put it in The Oppenheimer Alternative — which comes out in just sixteen days and is available for pre-order now: "For the first time, humans were doing what only the stars themselves had previously wrought, converting matter directly into energy, Einstein's E=mc2 graduating from mere textbook formula into a devastating weapon." Indeed, it's this platinum anniversary that the release of my novel is timed to coincide with.

The ostensible reason for developing the atomic bomb was to defeat the Nazis. But, as I say in my novel, "In the end, conventional troops pressing in on Berlin — and maybe, Oppie mused, Hitler having learned of Mussolini's corpse being strung up by its ankles and stoned and spat upon by those who had suffered under his regime — had moved Der Führer to accomplish with a single bullet what Oppie's multi-million-dollar gadget was supposed to do: end the war in Europe."

Of course, after the war, key Nazis were tried at Nuremberg; indeed, Oppenheimer's best friend, Haakon Chevalier, was one of the translators at those trials. But some Nazis were given a free pass on their atrocities because the knowledge they possessed was deemed useful to the victors. And so Wernher von Braun, an S.S. officer, whose V-2 rockets, which had devastated London, had been built by slave labor, was able to surrender to the Americans, along with the rest of his German rocketeers.

His war crimes were ignored, and he was put in charge of the development of the Saturn V, the rocket that took humans to the moon. And although J. Robert Oppenheimer is the main character in my book, Wernher von Braun also figures prominently; indeed, in a fictional meeting between the two men, I have von Braun draw parallels between them, saying they were both cut from the same cloth:

"Both of us the brains behind massive technological efforts. Each with his sometimes benighted military supervisor — you with Groves, me with Dornberger. Both now celebrated for our war-time accomplishments. And both with a larger purpose, science —" Von Braun stopped, but the lilt of his voice suggested he'd originally intended to utter more. Oppie suspected the rocketeer had halted before the words "Über alles" could pass his lips.

When von Braun had surrendered to the Americans, his arm, which had been broken in two places, was in a huge cast, stuck in a half-raised position. In the novel, I call it "a stillborn Sieg Heil."

We've only recently learned just how dark von Braun's past was — and that brings us to this week's real-life chapter-head epigraph from The Oppenheimer Alternative, which references the fact that his history had been classified secret by the U.S. government:

"Not included among the dossiers is one for rocket scientist Wernher von Braun. It was never transferred to N.A.R.A."

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

[Wernher von Braun]

Pictured: Wernher von Braun, with his arm in a cast, surrendering to the Americans in May 1945.


May 26, 2020

[Einstein's 70th birthday]

There's just one week left until The Oppenheimer Alternative comes out, so here's our penultimate real-life chapter-head epigraph from the novel:

"The history of science is rich in the example of the fruitfulness of bringing two sets of techniques, two sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with one another."

J. Robert Oppenheimer

Certainly, this is true of the science in The Oppenheimer Alternative. Oppenheimer started out as a chemist, his own pre-war work was in astrophysics, and only after the Manhattan Project became public was he famed as an atomic physicist.

And my novel brings together disparate thinkers indeed, including the physicists who built the bomb and rocketeer Wernher von Braun.

But, more than that, I think Oppie's quote is particularly applicable to the field I've devoted my life to: science fiction. Indeed, when asked to define science fiction, I sometimes call it "the literature of intriguing juxtapositions."

Where else would one find, for instance, quantum physics and paleoanthropology cheek-by-jowl except in a novel such as my Hominids? Or life-prolongation technology and SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, as in my Rollback? Or experimental psychology and (again) quantum physics as in Quantum Night?

At most universities, professors in such disparate departments probably don't even know each other (unless they have to serve together on some cross-faculty committee).

When McMaster University decided to hold a three-day academic conference in honor of the donation of my papers to their archives, they took my suggestion and called it "Science Fiction: The Interdisciplinary Genre," and we had papers presented by academics in such diverse fields as theology, theater, literature, philosophy, astronomy, and gender studies.

I initially set out to be a paleontologist -- but you can't just be a paleontologist; you have to drill down the tree of subspecialties until you end up being a paleontologist (level 1), a vertebrate paleontologist (level 2), a dinosaurian vertebrate paleontologist (level 3), a dinosaurian vertebrate paleontologist who specializes in theropods (level 4).

But I am interested in ALL THE THINGS, and being a science-fiction writer was one of only two possible career choices that would let me hop freely from scientific discipline to discipline (the other is science journalist).

And so, The Oppenheimer Alternative: a novel that combines political history, military history, the history of atomic and nuclear physics, astrophysics, quantum physics, rocketry, and Martian observational astronomy, along with -- in the character studies -- psychology into a single whole, which, to paraphrase Oppie, brings multiple sets of ideas, developed in separate contexts for the pursuit of new truth, into touch with each other.

The novel comes out one week from today, on June 2, 2020, in print, ebook, and audiobook worldwide.

Pictured, left to right, at Einstein's 70th birthday party at the Institute for Advanced Study (where much of my book takes place):

Eugene Wigner, Hermann Weyl, Kurt Gödel, I.I. Rabi, Albert Einstein, Rudlof Ladenburg, and J. Robert Oppenheimer -- all but Weyl and Ladenburg are characters in The Oppenheimer Alternative.

(Click here for a bigger version of the picture above.)

June 2, 2020

[Oppie and David Lilienthal]

Since today is the release day for The Oppenheimer Alternative, our weekly journey through some of the real-life chapter-head epigraphs I used in that novel comes to an end with this final little exegesis.

First, though, let me note that I was pleased that Sci-Fi Bulletin's review, which came out today, praises the quotations, saying I very successfully put the reader inside Oppenheimer's head, a process "that's aided (and sometimes counterpointed) by some very astute epigraphs at the top of chapters that widen our knowledge of the way that Oppenheimer was regarded."

This epigraph isn't the last one in the book (indeed, I can't quote that one here, as it's a bit of a spoiler), but it is one of the most poignant, referring to the final days of Oppenheimer's life:

"What does such a man think, confronted with death, a man with his head so full of ideas, so wise in so many directions? What goes on behind those eyes that were once so brilliantly blue, now rather bleary with pain?"

David Lilienthal, chairman, Atomic Energy Commission

Oppie died in 1967, at the age of just sixty-two, having smoked himself to death. The irony, though, is that if he'd passed away even earlier (say, in 1953, before the travesty of his security-clearance hearing), he'd have died a much happier man: world-famous and hailed as a national hero.

I took the Lilienthal quotation above from the elegiac biography A Life in Twilight: The Final Years of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Mark Wolverton, which I recommend highly.

Whenever I think of Oppie, I also think of Sophocles' twenty-four-hundred-year-old play Oedipus Rex, which ends with the Chorus intoning (in this translation by Ian Johnston of Vancouver Island University in British Columbia):

Look on this man, this Oedipus, the one
who understood that celebrated riddle.
He was the most powerful of men.

All citizens who witnessed this man's wealth
were envious. Now what a surging tide
of terrible disaster sweeps around him.

So while we wait to see that final day,
we cannot call a mortal being happy
before he's passed beyond life free from pain.

J. Robert Oppenheimer did indeed solve the most vexing of riddles by becoming the father of the atomic bomb, and his life looked wonderful ... for a time. But his hamartia — his fatal flaw — was the same as that of Oedipus: arrogance. And his peripetia — his reversal of fortune — was the direct result of it.

And, as with all of us, his story shows you can't assess a person's life until he's finally dead. I hope, in The Oppenheimer Alternative, that I've done justice to both the triumph and the tragedy of this fascinating man's his complex life.

Pictured: J. Robert Oppenheimer and David E. Lilienthal

More Good Reading

More about The Oppenheimer Alternative
Robert J. Sawyer's awards and honors
What's a Rob Sawyer novel like?
Review index


Want to receive Rob’s very occasional email newsletter?
SUBSCRIBE HERE!

Home
Novels
About Rob
Book Clubs
Blog
Events
Keynotes
Press Kit
How to Write
Facebook
Store
Nonfiction
Email Rob
Canadian SF
Patreon

HOME • [Menu]MENU • TOP

[Patreon][Facebook][Twitter]

Copyright © 1995-2020 by Robert J. Sawyer.

["Trilobot