Monday, November 30, 2020

Book Review: The Oppenheimer Alternative, by Robert J. Sawyer

This is not a perfect book, but nonetheless, I quite enjoyed it. 

The Oppenheimer Alternative is a biographical piece of alternate history, expertly researched and written by author Sawyer. It closely follows the life of J. Robert Oppenheimer as he led the research effort under the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb and the period. He emerges as a fully-fleshed out historical character, warts and all, which is a testament to the author’s storytelling abilities.

It’s something of a slow burn to get the meat of the novel and the point where our history spits from that of the novel. Much of the early part of the novel is spent in the careful building of relationships (and conflicts) with historical personages such as General Leslie Groves, Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, Richard Feynman, and many others. 

When the point of divergence comes it’s a big one.  While researching the atom bomb, the Manhattan Project team uncovers that all life on earth is doomed in 2030, when a massive solar coronal mass eruption one astronomical unit in diameter (the orbit of the earth around the sun) that they dub the solar purge will occur.

Wanting to avoid a panic, Oppenheimer assembles a dream team that grows to include some of the major scientific luminaries of the mid-20th Century, including Albert Einstein, Wernher von Bruan, and Jon von Neumann, as well as a great many of his Manhattan Project colleagues. The group named the Arbor Project works in secret even as the Cold War dawns and the Red Scare takes hold, which eventually brings about Oppenheimer’s fall from grace. The goal of Project Arbor is no less than the relocation of the human race to Mars, which falls outside the radius of the solar purge.

Here be spoilers:

Unfortunately for our heroes and the rest of the human race as it seems, Mars is not what it seems to be. Instead of the world with water flowing through the canals of Percival Lowell they had expected, they face the reality of a cratered, desert world presented to them by the images from the first space probe to reach Mars, Mariner 4, in 1965. This is almost a terminal disappointment.

Almost.  What comes next is almost – almost – out of left field. Sawyer does foreshadow what’s to come in a blink and you’ll miss it a moment, just so much that the resolution doesn’t drop out of the sky, all dues et machina when it finally happens. And that just doesn’t ring particularly true for me, which is unfortunate. 

Ultimately, with that single but significant proviso, The Oppenheimer Alternative succeeds as an alternate history story. It's much better, more demanding reading than the good half-dozen usual "what-if-the-Nazis-won" alternate history novels circulating out there I could name. 


 What's Next?

I have several novels I'm looking forward to reviewing over the next few months. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, you can purchase Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.  

Take care of yourselves.