THE OPPENHEIMER ALTERNATIVE
Many moons ago -- September of 2001 during the Worldcon, the Millennium Philcon in Philadelphia -- I had dinner with a group of book dealers and authors, including Robert Sawyer. His career was just getting started, and he soon won the Hugo Award for his novel, HOMINIDS.
At that time, Sawyer had already won a Nebula Award for THE TERMINAL EXPERIMENT, which he spoke about during the dinner, if I remember correctly. I promised him I would read his work. MINDSCAN was published in the mid-2000s. Did I read them? Of course not: the sands of time, circumstance, and personal life events just prevented me from doing so.
So finally I got the chance to read a Robert Sawyer novel. I was pleasantly surprised and hooked.
THE OPPENHEIMER ALTERNATIVE is a biopic-like novel about what Oppenheimer, the so-called “father” of the atomic bomb, was really all about: establishing permanent world peace and creating peaceful uses for this fantastic energy source. However, in reality, as Sawyer has carefully envisioned, even though Oppie’s work on the Manhattan Project to develop the Bomb resulted in the destruction of two Japanese cities and the deaths of countless thousands to end World War II, Los Alamos was a proving ground for terror and turmoil, a lot of it personal for this nuclear genius.
In the novel, Oppie is married to an abusive alcoholic, Kitty, but remains in love with the depression-prone Jean.
The reality of this novel is that Oppie learns there is a terrible anomaly about the earth’s sun, which is struggling with internal instability that will cause a photospheric ejection within, he calculates, about 80 or so years. The world is doomed.
The end of the world as we know it, based on his projections, will occur in the first third of the 21st century. Oppie of course believes he will be long gone by then. But only a few generations remain to assure the collected work of the rocket scientists picked up since the end of the war, including Wernher von Braun and others to evacuate earth, perhaps to Mars (at least) or beyond, because the earth will be incinerated. Is there enough time? Can space transportation technology sufficiently advance, in time, to save human civilization?
THE OPPENHEIMER ALTERNATIVE is all about time. The mission is to bring the best minds together on a nuclear bomb project and -- presto! -- success is assured. At least that’s how it’s supposed to work. So if that formula succeeds, why not get them together for a way to travel in time and pave the way for the survival of humanity?
I loved Sawyer’s take on the wondrous possibilities of science and about what the best minds can conjure under some of the worst personal and political circumstances. And what’s left of our faith in these personalities and the circumstances that brought them to our reality.