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By Alex Carrigan
It's hard to believe that 3/4 of a century ago, the nuclear age began with the first atomic bombs being tested and dropped on two Japanese cities. The research and development of this field has led to extreme changes in global politics, necessitating plenty of legislation and regulations to ensure the entire world isn't wiped out in nuclear war. While we know a lot about nuclear weapons and their devastating effects, it's fascinating to think about how little we know about the people behind them.
Robert J. Sawyer's newest novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, is a historical fiction novel that seeks to show the figures who were heavily involved in the creation of the atomic bomb and involved in the fallout of the new weaponry. The story is primarily centered around J. Robert Oppenheimer (or Oppie, as he's called by many of the figures in the story), who headed the Manhattan project that created the first atomic bomb. The novel covers the years leading to the project and follows Oppie and others in the decades after, following them through other scientific research projects and dealing with the national and international issues that arose in the years following World War II.
At the beginning of the novel, Sawyer includes a dramatis personae to list all the figures in the book who will play a part in the various, all of whom were real people, even the secretaries who only appear once. The book also includes a very large bibliography, including documents which were only declassified in recent years. The sheer amount of information presented makes it clear that, even if the events are not as accurate as they were, and even if Sawyer had to take some artistic liberties at times, this novel is probably as comprehensive a summary of the events as one could hope for. That alone makes the novel extremely valuable for students and as a resource for research papers. It's a lot of work to create a novel like this, and Sawyer, a Nebula- and Hugo-award winning author, clearly shows he was up to task.
It also helps that the novel is written in a way that makes it quite interesting to learn more about the events in the mid-20th century it depicts. Most people wouldn't know Oppie and other scientists followed up their atomic bomb project with a plan to evacuate humanity from the planet due to evidence that suggested the sun would go supernova in the 2020s (give it time, especially how this year has gone). It shows a lot of the research and studies that go into creating nuclear weapons or evacuating the planet, so for those who have an interest in various scientific fields, the novel presents a lot of information regarding that.
Now, while the novel is fascinating for those reasons, it does make it a bit hard to pick it up as a casual read. There is a lot of information and a lot of characters presented throughout the novel, which can make it hard to follow certain discussions or remember a lot of figures throughout. A lot of chapters in this novel are characters having discussions with one another, some one-on-one, others in groups, varying the settings. This means the story has very little action, and a lot of the chapters can run together. Whole events and moments can pass between chapters, only to be casually mentioned later. One chapter has the scientists testing the atomic bomb in the desert, and then the next chapter is right after Hiroshima was destroyed. Because of this, the book is very "tell" and not "show," which can be difficult for some readers to get into.
However, at the center of this story is Oppie, and what matters the most is understanding the man who created one of the most devastating inventions in human history. Sawyer's novel does place a lot of time in Oppie's quiet thoughts. We see him as a brilliant man who was emotionally devastated by his former lover's mental health issues and her premature death, and we see him as a man who greatly regrets his notable work when it massacred hundreds of thousands and radically altered the world stage. We see a man who is idealistic and brilliant, but who is continually plagued by his actions and the matters he couldn't control. Like most of the novel, it does run into issues where a lot of the story is the narration telling us Oppie is sad about something, but Oppie still manages to be sympathetic and human enough that his story is worth following.
The Oppenheimer Alternative is a fascinating look into the start of the nuclear age. While it does have accessibility issues for most readers, it's still a comprehensive and intelligent work of historical science fiction. It carries a lot of educational value, even if it isn't the most exciting or engaging read at times. Still, it does bring a lot of questions to mind about where we have been with nuclear weapons and where we could go, and at the start of this decade, it's important to wonder if they could come back into play and what we should remember from the past.
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