Friday, July 21, 2023

The Oppenheimer Alternative

Oppenheimer has become a person of interest.  We are more familiar with the name and realize that our present world evolved from some of the critical decisions made by and around Oppenheimer. 

 For most of the world the movie Oppenheimer has captured attention.  I have read many of Robert J. Sawyer's books and realized there had not any new versions for awhile.  Investigating I learned about "The Oppenheimer Alternative" was published in 2020.  The title made one think he had decided to forgo his usual science fiction in favor of history.

One needs to realize that Sawyer uses science fiction to make people think about things that matter.  The term alternative history made me realize the Sawyer magic would make one view life a little differently.

For the first part of the book the history seems accurate, in fact including many details that were not noticed or remembered.  There is also a perspective on life and war not usually discussed.  The author said that all of the characters in the book are dead, except one, Oppenheimer's son, Peter who must be around 80, but his coverage might be considered embarrassing.  In an interview (below) he deliberately decided not to interview Peter as he felt it would inhibit his writing which he claims is accurate regarding his birth.

During this first part of the book several events were viewed from different angles.  President Roosevelt was slow to respond to suggestion from Albert Einstein, but soon he delegated General Leslie Groves to organize the development of the most powerful bomb known to man.  Groves selected many scientists who could pass a loyalty test and named Robert Oppenheimer as the chief administrator to make the key decisions.  The FBI was used to check loyalty. At one point Oppenheimer was coerced to betray a friend and it resulted in his friend being very restricted in employment opportunities.

We probably should realize the goal of the bomb was to defeat Germany, but in fact it was not needed for that.  Most of the scientists involved were Jewish and had been partially motivated by what they knew of the Holocaust.  They had been defeated with the goal to bomb Berlin, not so much by the American military, but by the Russians.  Then it was rationalized that Japan was very resistant and it would require thousands of more killings.  It had been proposed that a demonstration of the bomb would force a surrender.  That idea was rejected and Hiroshima was selected as the target with no warning.  From one interview it is known Oppenheimer took part in target discussion which rejected Kyoto for its artistic/spiritual significance and Tokyo as it had been firebombed too much to be useful as a scientific analysis on bomb's impact.  After its impact the Americans were able to force a surrender, but not accepted as it was not unconditional.  The Japanese wanted to retain their emperor.  A second bombing, this time on Nagasaki which wasn't the target.  After this the Americans decided to let the Japanese keep their emperor and accepted their surrender.

It was thought that this bomb would end all war.  Oppenheimer felt the Russians and others would be able to build their own bomb over time.  Others thought if America (and perhaps trusted allies) had exclusivity of the bomb that would insure peace.  Steps were taken to assert international control and to keep the bomb out of military control.  The decision to drop the bomb was one that the President could veto, but could not initiate; today the President can initiate the decision.  Oppenheimer himself became considered a security risk and at one point General Groves and President Eisenhower engineered the denial of security clearance for Oppenheimer..

Before we reached this stage of actual history the science fiction narrative developed.  Noting that part of the theory used to construct the bomb borrowed knowledge of how the sun generates energy.  Several of the scientists were involved in the discussions that acknowledged that the sun would generate a major disaster for the earth sometime around 2028.  They decided informing the public would be counter productive. 

A side benefit (not science fiction) was the discovery of radio isotopes as byproduct of their research.  Ironically, but likely due to their closeness to radiation several of the scientists underwent radiation therapy.

Throughout the narrative there are references to the Bhagavad Gita as many scientists believe it deals with the relation between creation and destruction.  A brief reference to notion that alien life has not been detected because advance civilizations are self destructive.

Another plot stream regarded Wernher von Braun.  The German scientists were not in Berlin, when the Russians took over but secluded in a mountainous area and discussing what they should do when the Nazis were defeated. They decided they would surrender as a unit, rather than individually.  They rejected the Russians and most of the allies, but fixed on Americans.  The Brits wanted to execute von Braun for his role with the V2 rockets.  The Americans wanted him for their own benefit.  He did in fact play a very significant role with the American space program.  He interacts with the scientists and is even distantly involved with the impending sun disaster.

The ending is a little different than textbook histories.  Sawyer spent a lot of effort making it appropriate, but you will have to wade through the rest of his story to get to it.

The acknowledgements are interesting.  He interviewed Luis Alvarez, one of the actual participants in 1983.  One person read his story while in Hiroshima.  Surprised to see Chris Nolan listed as a contributor.

After reading about 70% of the text watched an interview between top interviewer Steve Paikin and the author.  When asked why he undertook this book without a publisher contract, Sawyer replied he hated deadlines and felt he did his best work without a deadline and no longer needed the advance money.  Other tidbits are integrated in the main text.

My interest in Robert J. Sawyer was aided by contact with Barry Finn.

Listening in on a Robert J. Sawyer presentation offered very interesting insights in writing in general and his own career.

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