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


SFWRITER.COM > Novels > The Oppenheimer Alternative > What's Fact and What's Fiction?

The Oppenheimer Alternative

What's Fact and What's Fiction?

Robert J. Sawyer

"Incredibly realistic: the characters, locations, the era, and even the science. I felt like I was back in Los Alamos — and I should know: I worked there! Breathlessly riveting; Sawyer pulls it off masterfully." Doug Beason, former Associate Laboratory Director, Los Alamos National Laboratory

Magicians are reluctant to explain how a trick was done, and so I was loath to include an afterword in my novel The Oppenheimer Alternative that would immediately explain what parts of the story were real and which were imaginary. I wanted the book to sit with readers for a bit, as any other novel would, before deliniating fact from fiction. But if you've come here, you're clearly curious about that and so here are the answers you've been looking for.

SPOILER ALERT! Do not read further if you haven't already read the novel

The short version is this: everything in the novel is true except for most of the parts involving the solar anomaly and the response to it (including the wholly fictitious Arbor Project).

But please note that it is true that Hans Bethe uses a temperature of around twenty million degrees Celsius for our sun in his 1939 papers in Physical Review — much warmer than the fifteen million degrees recorded since — and, based on that higher temperature, he concluded, just as I said, that the sun undergoes carbon-nitrogen-oxygen-cycle fusion, rather than the hydrogen-hydrogen fusion that subsequent lower-temperature models suggest.

Whether something was wrong with Bethe's temperature values when he wrote his papers (which was actually in 1938, the year before their publication) or something was wrong then with the sun is up to you to decide. It's worth noting, though, that Bethe won the Nobel Prize in physics specifically for his work on nucleosynthesis (that is, the products produced by nuclear fusion) in the sun, specifically including these papers. The more famous of Bethe's 1939 papers from Physical Review referred to in my novel is "Energy Production in Stars," published March 1, 1939; it's available here.

All the Project Orion material in my novel is true, including Freeman Dyson's involvement with it, and so is all the material about the Alsos missions and Project Paperclip, as well as the fact that the Allied governments forgave the Nazi atrocities of Wernher von Braun and others they considered useful.

And, of course, the Manhattan Project really existed. The Los Alamos Laboratory (now the Los Alamos National Laboratory) and the Institute for Advanced Study both still exist, and Oppenheimer was indeed scientific director of the former and then director of the latter; I've taken great pains to depict them precisely as they were in the eras described in the novel.

As for my portrayal of J. Robert Oppenheimer's personal life, yup, that's the man, warts and all. Starting with the prologue and then moving more-or-less forward through his life:

  • The urn with Oppenheimer's ashes really did bob up and down as if empty when it was thrown overboard

  • Oppenheimer really was humiliated at summer camp precisely as described, with his genitals painted green

  • Oppie really did try to kill his tutor Patrick Blackett at Cambridge with a poisoned apple

  • Oppie was treated thereafter by a disciple of Freud who might indeed have been Ernest Jones (although that's only my supposition)

  • Oppie probably really was bisexual in inclination if not in deed, although we'll never know for sure

  • Oppenheimer really did originate the notion of black holes (although the term was coined later)

  • Robert really did offer up his daughter Toni (known then by the nickname "Tyke") to Pat Sherr for adoption, saying exactly what the novel has him saying

  • Oppie really did lose his temper with Kitty at the party at One Eagle Hill while talking to Haakon Chevalier out in the garden, calling her vile names

  • Oppie really did meet with President Truman as described (including saying he felt he had blood on his hands)

  • Robert really did humiliate Lewis Strauss as described

  • Oppie really did overdose on pills and collapse at the home of his lawyer Herbert Marks after being confronted with the charges orchestrated by Lewis Strauss

  • All the security-hearing testimony is verbatim from the official transcripts, including Oppie's "because I was an idiot" reply; parts of the transcripts have only recently been made public, having been withheld for security reasons, and I was delighted to include material such as I.I. Rabi saying "we have a whole series of super bombs," which had previously been classified information

  • And, yeah, Oppenheimer died — or disappeared — alone in his room, with Kitty not entering herself and refusing access to anyone else.

The only major detail that isn't confirmed in the historical record is General Groves having given Oppenheimer a suicide pill to use in case he was captured by the enemy, but it's absolutely true that many precautions were taken to ensure than neither Oppie nor any of the other senior scientists were kidnapped or able to defect, and Groves's no-flying edict was real.

As for other characters, everyone in the novel, except for two minor characters, is a real historical person, and the book underwent a publisher's legal review to make sure I'd done the real people justice.

The two minor exceptions:

  • Heidi, in the scene in which Richard Feynman seduces her in the bar, is fictitious, although Feynman's disastrous conference presentation preceding it is factual and everything he says about his newfangled Feynman diagrams and positrons being electrons moving backward in time is accurate; so is the spirit of the scene, including the rules and ruses Feynman used in picking up women

  • Ben, the homeless man Oppie meets in the final scene in Golden Gate Park, is also fictitious (although, of course, there were many like him).

I tried to be as fair as possible to all the people I was writing about, even those history has not been kind to. The only possibly uncharitable interpretation is my suggestion that Edward Teller coerced Oppenheimer into arranging for Teller to receive the Einstein Award. That said, I could find nothing in the historical record to otherwise account for a committee Oppie himself chaired at an institute Oppie was director of bestowing such an honor on Teller after Teller had thrown Oppie under the bus at the security-review hearing (and it does make for a nice bit of business supporting the "secret history" the novel portrays).

In addition:

  • Jean Tatlock really did bear an uncanny resemblance to the woman illustrated as "Une Martyre" in Oppenheimer's favorite poetry book (although I seem to have been the first to make this observation).

  • Haakon Chevalier really did approach Oppenheimer as described to share secrets with the Russians; he also really did later go on to be a translator at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials

  • Kitty Oppenheimer really did run off leaving behind her babies both times after giving birth

  • Richard Feynman really did write that heartbreaking letter to his own deceased wife

  • Feynman also really was both an accomplished safecracker and bongo player

  • All the scenes involving Jean Tatlock happened as I described them and Oppie really did break down in front of the security man, Peer de Silva, after de Silva told him of Jean's suicide; only the final scene, between the elderly Oppie and the young Jean, is (of course!) fictitious

  • Wernher von Braun's rocketeers really did surrender to the Americans exactly as described (with Wernher's arm in precisely the sort of cast portrayed)

  • John von Neumann really did develop modern computer architecture while working at the Institute of Advanced Study, and his goal really was perfectly modeling the weather to make accurate long-term forecasts possible

  • And, yes, this man known as "Good-Time Johnny" really did declare, "If you say why not bomb [the Russians] tomorrow, I say why not today? If you say today at five o'clock, I say why not one o'clock?"

  • Kurt Gödel really was a germaphobe and extremely paranoid, and his daily walks home from the Institute for Advanced Study with Albert Einstein did indeed occur as depicted

  • And Gödel did indeed invent a rotating-universe model consistent with Einstein's theories that would make time travel possible

  • Edward Teller really did have an artificial foot

  • Teller really did make the monstrous "Weapon Ideas" chart I mention and he did indeed include on it the doomsday bomb that would be delivered simply by being set off in a backyard

  • Teller really was ostracized by physicists following testifying against Oppenheimer precisely as I described

  • And Teller really did go to the dying Enrico Fermi to confess his sins (although what he said to Fermi is my invention, as no record of the actual conversation exists).

As for Mars, Jupiter, and Project Orion:

Yes, the official U.S. Air Force map of Mars [BIG IMAGE!] still showed canals on that planet's surface as recently as 1962, and the Mariner IV photos were exactly as I described them, including the heartbreaking photo #11. However, the scene in which von Braun shows the Mariner IV photos to Oppenheimer and company at the Institute for Advanced Study is fictitious.

Astronomer Frank Drake — later of SETI fame — really did publish the article in The Astronomical Journal that I have leading the Arbor Project to abandon Jupiter's moons as possible new homes for humanity.

And Project Orion really did exist precisely as I described it, and was killed exactly as I portrayed.

Moreover:

  • All the chapter-head quotes are real — yes, even the ones that suggest that the secret history the novel portrays is true

  • Every speech before an assembled crowd that Oppie gives in the novel is taken directly from transcripts of recordings, as is much of the dialog in Oppie's meeting with Boris Pash

  • A great many lines of dialog are taken from historical records or the autobiographies of the principal characters; those sources are listed in the novel's bibliography

  • All documents excerpted in the novel's body, except for the telegram from outgoing I.A.S. director Frank Aydelotte to Edward Teller about the director's job, are real.

So, there's a lot of fact here ... but, yes, there's also a lot of fiction — although none of the fictional scenes are contradicted by the historical record, which is why I call the book a "secret history" rather than an "alternate history." And although I took great pains to avoid any anachronisms, there are some fun Easter eggs in the novel.

Let's break down the fact vs. the fiction on a scene-by-scene basis:

  • Scenes below in BLACK really did happen very much as I portrayed them

  • Scenes below in RED as far as we know never actually occurred (the first such — the point of divergence — is in Chapter 9).

1967

Prologue

  • February 1967: Oppenheimer's urn is thrown overboard

1936

Chapter 1

  • Summer 1936: Robert Oppenheimer meets Jean Tatlock
  • Later in Summer 1936: Oppie begins dating Jean

1942

Chapter 2

  • October 5, 1942: General Groves meets Leo Szilard in Chicago
  • October 8, 1942: Oppie and Groves meet for first time

Chapter 3

  • October 8, 1942: Oppie and Groves confer in Oppie's office
  • December 2, 1942: Szilard in Chicago: "A black day for mankind"

1943

Chapter 4

  • January or February 1943: The Chevalier Incident
  • Oppie and Kitty at home in Los Alamos

Chapter 5

  • June 1943: Jean needs to see Oppie
  • June 14, 1943: Oppie spends the night with Jean Tatlock

Chapter 6

  • August 23, 1943: Oppie tips off Lt. Johnson about Eltenton without naming him and falsely suggesting their were three overtures to espionage
  • August 26, 1943: Boris Pash interviews Oppie at U.C.B.

Chapter 7

  • December 12, 1943: Groves orders Oppie to reveal Chevalier's name name
  • December 1943: Chevalier writes to Oppie

1944

Chapter 8

  • January 5, 1944: Oppie hears from Peer de Silva that Jean Tatlock has committed suicide

1945

Chapter 9

  • At Los Alamos, Hans Bethe says Teller's solar-fusion math is wrong. That said, although the confrontation between Teller and Bethe is fictitious, this statement from the novel is true:
    In a pair of 1939 Physical Review papers, Bethe had analyzed the reactions by which hydrogen can be fused into helium, and he'd worked out the math for fusion via the carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle, which he'd concluded was the sun's main way of producing energy.
    But Bethe's conclusion was indeed incorrect, as I have Teller point out: C-N-O cycle fusion is not how the sun produces its energy, at least currently.

  • Discussion of the Tunguska event: everything said is 100% accurate about this real-life asteroid or comet explosion in Siberia from 1908

Chapter 10

  • Oppie at home alone, Kitty having taken off

Chapter 11

  • Wernher von Braun learns that Hitler is dead
  • Magnus von Braun surrenders to the Americans

Chapter 12

  • May 2, 1945: Oppie contemplates "Sangre de Cristo"
  • May 30, 1945: Oppie and Szilard meet in Virginia

Chapter 13

  • June 1945: Oppie asks Pat Sherr if she wants to adopt Tyke

Chapter 14

  • July-ish 1945: Los Alamos: Einstein vindicates Teller's solar-fusion math. That said, Bethe really did use a temperature for the sun in his 1939 papers that was significantly higher than what others have measured the temperature as being since then

  • July-ish 1945: Los Alamos: Oppie tells Hans Bethe that Teller is correct
  • Kitty returns to Los Alamos and Oppie

Chapter 15

  • July 16, 1945: The Trinity Test
  • July 1945: Los Alamos: Oppie thinks, Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds

Chapter 16

  • August 7, 1945: Oppie receives word of the bombing of Hiroshima
  • August 7, 1945: Oppie tells Teller he wants nothing to do with the super bomb

Chapter 17

  • August 9, 1945: Bombing of Nagasaki
  • Spectroscopy plates arrive for Bethe
  • August 14, 1945, Los Alamos: Oppie reconciles Teller's and Bethe's solar spectra

Chapter 18

  • Teller says the Manhattan Project should continue with a new goal of saving humanity
  • Morning, October 16, 1945: Oppie's farewell resignation speech

Chapter 19

  • Szilard says the military should not be involved in efforts to save humanity

Chapter 20

  • October 25, 1945, 10:30 a.m.: Oppie meets President Truman

Chapter 21

  • October 31, 1945: Szilard visits Einstein at the Institute for Advanced Study

Chapter 22

  • October 31, 1945: Szilard realizes the Manhattan Project should continue at the Institute for Advanced Study

Chapter 23

  • Szilard courts Teller for the I.A.S. directorship

Chapter 24

  • November 2, 1945:Peer de Silva tells General Groves something is up
  • November 2, 1945: Groves asks Oppie why the interest in solar fusion?

Chapter 25

  • December 25, 1945: Oppie vows Now we are become Life, the saviors of the world

Chapter 26

  • Kitty insists on being an insider

Chapter 27

  • Groves bursts in on Oppie and Rabi's meeting

Chapter 28

  • Teller gets the kiss-off from the I.A.S.
  • Groves says the impending solar coronal purge must be kept secret

Chapter 29

  • December 1945: Szilard-Groves reunion

1946

Chapter 30

  • Oppie and Groves confer at Olden Manor

Chapter 31

  • Announcing the Arbor Project
  • January 1946: How many can they save?

Chapter 32

  • January 1946: Groves and others the possibility of moving humans to Mars
  • First half of 1946: A.E.C. is formed, the Iron Curtain is raised, the Arbor Project teams are set established

Chapter 33

  • August 1946: Haakon Chevalier and Oppie reunion at One Eagle Hill

Chapter 34

  • Oppie visits George Eltenton

1947

Chapter 35

  • August 1946: Oppie meets Stepan Zakharovich Apresyan

Chapter 36

  • Summer 1947: Feynman opens Groves's I.A.S. safe

1948

Chapter 37

  • August 1947: Oppie and von Braun at Fort Bliss

1949

Chapter 38

  • April 3, 1948: Positrons are electrons moving backward in time

Chapter 39

  • June 13, 1949: Oppie humiliates Lewis Strauss

1953

Chapter 40

  • December 21, 1953: Lewis Strauss asks Oppie to resign or face a security hearing
  • Kitty dictates Oppie's reply (although the text of the reply is accurate)
  • Oppie collapses at the home of his lawyer

1954

Chapter 41

  • April 12, 1954: The trial of Oppie begins
  • April 13, 1954: Oppie is examined by Roger Robb

Chapter 42

  • April 1954: Gödel, Einstein, and Feynman discuss time

Chapter 43

  • Oppie testifies about Jean Tatlock
  • Rabi testifies in defense of Oppie

Chapter 44

  • Teller testifies against Oppie

Chapter 45

  • Shielding Earth from the solar purge
  • May 28, 1954: Verdict is delivered for the security hearing

Chapter 46

  • June 1954: Teller is shunned at Los Alamos
  • June 1954: Oppie and Szilard go for a walk

1958

Chapter 47

  • November 1954: Teller confesses to the dying Fermi

Chapter 48

  • 1958: Szilard confronts von Braun

Chapter 49

  • Early 1958: Oppie visits Teller; Teller's super bomb is needed for Project Orion; Teller extorts Oppie into giving him the Einstein Award

1959

Chapter 50

  • November 1959: Freeman Dyson's Project Orion farewell speech
  • October 1959: Forget Jupiter's moons
  • November 1959: Oppie asks Rabi to have Szilard attend Project Orion test
  • November 14, 1959: Project Orion "Putt-Putt" test is a success

1963

Chapter 51

  • August 5, 1963: Limited Test Ban Treaty is signed, killing Project Orion

Chapter 52

  • November 22, 1963: Oppie reacts to the news that President Kennedy has been assassinated
  • December 2, 1963: Oppie is given the Enrico Fermi medal

1965

Chapter 53

  • August 4, 1965: Wernher von Braun shows Mariner IV Mars photos at the I.A.S.

1967

Chapter 54

  • January 27, 1967: Apollo 1 fire (technically, the name Apollo 1 was only officially bestowed retroactively, although it is what the three astronauts themselves informally called it before they died)
  • Feynman and Gödel's Eureka!

Chapter 55

  • Time travel is possible

Chapter 56

  • Oppie travels back to 1944 to see Jean

Chapter 57

  • Oppie leaves Jean's apartment
  • Oppie and Ben in Golden Gate Park

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