The Big Idea: Gregory Benford

For author and scientist Gregory Benford, his new novel The Berlin Project isn’t just a matter of speculative fiction — Benford has some very real connections to the people and characters that play a role in his alternate history. Benford’s here to lay out where fact meets fiction meets friends and family in this tome.


I got the idea for this novel when I was working on nuclear matters as a postdoc for Edward Teller. Then decades later, heard it from the guy who was at its center, and who became my father in law, Karl Cohen. All that came together when I decided to go back to writing novels in 2012.

The year 1967 seems so distant now. I was finishing my PhD thesis in theoretical physics when two of my thesis advisors took me aside and said that, just to be safe, I should apply for two postdoc positions, not just one. It was that long ago. I turned down UC Berkeley, a professorship at Royal Holloway College, London (which had read a published paper and wanted someone in that area; I’d never heard of them).

So I decided to work with Teller. In the course of many calculations and conversations, he told me of a turning point in World War Two that few knew. I heard it later from Karl Cohen:

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the effect on the US atomic program (Manhattan Project) was a one-year delay. The US Army was preoccupied with the new war in the Pacific; they failed to appoint a person to head the Manhattan Project with enough power.  In 1941 the people in charge favored Urey’s centrifuge approach to producing the fuel instead of gaseous diffusion. 

By 1942, General Groves was in and Urey was out of favor.  Building the gaseous diffusion plant took longer than expected, and the result was a one-year delay in the project. The delay meant that the target changed away from Germany. The object of dropping an A-bomb over Germany was to prevent an invasion.

How many more concentration camp victims would have survived if the war had ended one year earlier?  For one, Anne Frank. Most CC victims succumbed eventually to the rugged conditions… The difference between 1944 and 1945 as the end of the war is probably quite significant in terms of lives.

The central context for this novel came from the protagonist I chose to follow through it, Karl Cohen. I also folded in my experience of living in the US occupation of Germany in 1955-57, where my father commanded combat units.

Karl’s words made me think, because in the last year of war, whole societies collapsed. A million died each month, the Soviet Union captured many countries into subjugation, and the devastation of the Axis powers took decades to repair.

Alternative histories are ways of thinking. The entire history of nuclear weapons is interlaced with scientists considering the future, often using science fiction as a prompt. The 1913 “atomic bombs” of H. G. Wells and the Robert Heinlein and Cleve Cartmill stories in Astounding Science Fiction were indeed broadly discussed at Los Alamos –as told to me in detail by Teller.

The wartime investigation into the Astounding stories, as I depict from documents I found, now seems odd indeed. The fiction writers had no classified information at all, just good guesses. Still, this possibility was viewed as very important by the security agencies, including the FBI. As Robert Silverberg has wryly remarked, “Turning war secrets into second-rate SF stories might seem, to the dispassionate eye, a very odd way indeed of betraying one’s country.”

Karl Cohen was my father in law. In 2000 he was voted to be among the 50 most prominent American chemists of the 20th Century. But he was haunted by what he felt was his personal failure to convince the U.S. government to pursue the centrifuge approach during the war. He died in 2012 at age 99. Alas, I had only begun on the novel.

I chose to portray that era through the people I knew who were embedded in the science side of the conflict. Any portrayal of real people in fiction is an interpretation, but knowing them certainly helps.

I knew personally many figures in this novel: Harold Urey, a Nobelist who first greeted me and my twin brother at the grad students reception at UCSD in 1963; Karl Cohen, my father in law; Edward Teller, my mentor as his postdoc at Livermore Lab; Maria Goeppert Mayer, for whom I graded the homework and exams in her graduate nuclear physics course at UCSD; Freeman Dyson, whom I met at the UCSD daily coffee in 1963; Leo Szilard, another coffee break savant; Luis Alvarez, whom I invited to give a colloquium at UCI, because I wanted to meet such a fabulous character, and whose account of the Hiroshima bombing I used here; Richard Feynman, an idol to all of us; Sam Goudsmit, raconteur extraordinaire; Paul A. M. Dirac, Nobelist; John W. Campbell, editor of Astounding; Fred Reines of UC Irvine, Manhattan Project physicist and winner of a Nobel in 1995; Arthur C. Clarke, who was a radar officer in the war and then a science fiction writer. Plus many others. I have tried to echo their manner of speaking and thinking. Indeed, I included my own father, James Benford, who went into Normandy on the fifth day of the invasion and fought across France, Luxemburg, Germany and Austria.

Further, every document quoted in the novel is authentic, though some have dates altered to conform to the plot.


WWII is the drama that keeps on giving, for it touches on many problems we have today, especially the role of all-powerful weapons like nuclear, biological and chemical ones.

One of the major characters is still alive: Freeman Dyson, now 93. I gave him an advance copy recently, as the photo shows. He liked the novel’s “specific premise,” as he put it: that the errors in judgment at the beginning years of the Manhattan project might well have gone differently, yielding a very different World War II. At the end of The Berlin Project we get to see that world in 1963, the year I began graduate school.

There are plenty of wars since, but none like WWII, which killed 29 million Soviets alone, and over 60 million in total, about 3% of the world population (over 80% of them among the Allies).

Such a mixed nuclear and tactical war could lie in our future, so this thought experiment has implications for our real world in the 21st Century. The next war that sees nuclear weapons used will probably also involve substantial ground forces. Think of Pakistan-India and the deep angers of the Middle East, where resort to nuclear weapons seems inevitable among demons posing as religious purists.

But my major reason for writing The Berlin Project came from the sheer fun of it. The physics I knew already; I helped design tactical warheads while a staff member at Livermore, after my postdoc, and before I became a professor at UC Irvine. The intricate interplay of great minds in pursuit of a desperate goal, the Manhattan Project, I did not know well.

But I learned, pouring through much history buried in obscure documents. I found the ID badges for the Manhattan Project and put them in the novel, along with dozens of pictures from that era. In an historical novel, show the reality as much as you can.

My sense of the story gathering momentum as the war changes its flavor drove the writing. The battles change, the possibilities blossom. This has been perhaps my most enjoyable project, ever.


The Berlin Project: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound

Listen to an audio excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Visit him on Facebook.

29 thoughts on “The Big Idea: Gregory Benford

  1. Nice to see this one here. I’d marked the release date on my calendar after seeing it pop up in my Goodreads feed. Looking forward to it even more now after reading this

  2. A WWII alt-history based on personal knowledge of many of the historical characters by one of my favorite authors? Can this day get any better?! Off to buy it now before Amazon runs out of e-ink.

  3. Was conflicted about this one. I love Benford but just don’t jive with alternate history novels. However, this Big Idea post just flipped this on to the TBR stack. Thanks!

  4. Off-Topic: @Greg Benford , @John Scalzi — Over on @CJ Cherryh’s blog, she’s had a couple of look-up questions for readers regarding minor characters doing such-and-such in prior books. She uses WrodPerfect for Windows, and of course keeps notes on important characters and events in her books. But this got us (her fans) wondering if there’s some handy way to automatically generate an index of keywords / key-phrases, some built-in or add-on plugin, or a separate utility program that could read in a file, index terms with page, paragraph, line numbers, and/or generate notes along with this. It seems to me like something all SF&F writers would need, all fiction and techie writers too. It seemed like a good project for open source / libre work, or maybe something a comp. sci. class or thesis project might handle. (See her post from May 8th on her blog.) I also suggested she might want to write to fellow writers with techie backgrounds or academia ties, and thought maybe the SFWGA might want to sponsor a project. If an author could tag a key word or phrase, and/or the program could look for them based on a set of criteria, with a tag optional, either for initial use or at all, that seems like one way to go. What if a program could read in from any Word or open Office Writer suite file or WordPerfect, plain text, HTML, or epub, and do this, output to a nice file in word processor and/or ePub/html? Seems like it would be handy for tech writing and fiction alike.

  5. Wow, the premise of this sounds really interesting. I’m going to have to check this out.

  6. This one really piques my interest – will have to add it to my library reservation list. Thanks for posting, as I doubt I would have heard about it otherwise!

  7. Maria Goeppert Mayer and Freeman Dyson also make appearances in the 1962-63 portions of Benford’s great 1980 novel Timescape. Looking forward to reading this one.

  8. I usually pass on alternate history novels, but being that Gregory Benford is the author and given the background related in this article, I’m sold.

  9. This piques my interest as this subject is always something I have an interest in. The book may also stir some controversy among the history buffs since, according to an interview with General Groves in this page: if the bomb came a year earlier, it STILL were likely be dropped on Japanese territory. Not likely on Hiroshima, since it was too far away in 1944, but on a remote Japanese military base like the harbor of Truk. General Groves gave multiple reasons for avoiding a Nuke drop in Germany (too complicated to give a brief summary here) but he felt certain that Japan was always the first target of a nuclear weapon. I obviously haven’t read Mr. Benford’s book yet, but it will be interesting to see if and how he countered the above argument about Japan always being the primary target.

  10. Fascinating. It makes a good alternate-history premise even though, as Charles Pearson writes above, Japan was probably always the primary target. One of the joint memos by FDR and Churchill specifically named it, dating from long before the end of the European War.

    The fact that one reason was worry about what the Germans could make of the bomb if it failed to explode emphasizes the fact that this was an experimental technology, and even after it was proven that it could work, it was still far from certain that any given bomb would work. This too is the main reason for deciding against a public test instead of dropping it on Hiroshima. What happens if you say you’re going to explode the mother of all bombs on an uninhabited island, and it fails to go off? What fools you’d look like. And if you explode it first, and only then reveal what it was after it worked? The enemy would scoff at it as some fluke explosion you falsely tried to take credit for. These are the kinds of thoughts the planners were actually having.

    Regarding the wisdom or otherwise of censoring science-fiction writers to preserve military secrets, you never know what will give you away. Stalin, of course, knew of the bomb long before it was dropped, but not just because of his spies. Even before he had spies at the Manhattan Project, Stalin first twigged to the fact that the Americans and British were working on a bomb when one of his own nuclear scientists alerted him to the interesting fact that articles on uranium fission had abruptly stopped appearing in western scientific journals. He could guess at the reason for that. So there it was the secrecy itself that revealed the secret. (I got this from John Lewis Gaddis’ history of the Cold War.)

  11. Thank you to both for writing and sharing. This is a must gift for my father, who graduated engineering in 1963, and then went on to work as a turbine aerodynamicist for GE for his entire career. I will enjoy the story too but am looking forward to the special connections for him, and the chance to talk about those later.

  12. Dear Charles (and lesserly, DB),

    I don’t think there’s anything that Greg needs to counter. I don’t read the article you linked to as saying much more than that Grove favored a certain target; it doesn’t say he dominated the discourse.

    And, that’s based on his recollections. Absent written contemporary documentation that matches what Grove said in that interview, we don’t know to what degree it is true. All humans constantly retcon their own histories. We do it in minor ways when it’s some detail which isn’t important to what we perceive as the main narrative. We do it in major ways when it happens that memory details are, in fact, lacking, and our brains construct a continuous. internally-consistent narrative fill in the missing part (like the content-aware healing brushes in image processing programs). It also happens even when details are not lacking but get overwritten by a new narrative, because our brains are convinced that the way they think now must be the way they thought then. Substantial alterations may occur to make our self image consistent over time.

    We know, in fact, the Teller did this. He made enough public statements over his life about stuff for which there is documentation that we can say with certainty that some the important things he said are false. I am not suggesting that he’s lying. We just know that some of the stuff he says is objectively contra-factual. Retconning at work.

    I have no reason to think any differently of Grove’s recollections. On an issue as momentous as the first use of nuclear weapons, I would be very surprised if everyone involved hasn’t done some amount of retconning. It’s simply too fraught a subject.

    The vast majority of the important scientists on the Manhattan Project would have substantially disagreed that Germany wasn’t the primary target. They had very good, very personal reasons! That raises some interesting questions. Dick Feynman, late in his life, was asked in an interview– once it became clear that Germany was never going to have an atomic bomb, why did they keep going full bore on developing one? Dick’s answer was that they just didn’t think! By that time they were so immersed in the challenge of figuring out how to make it work that after the original reason for doing it disappeared they just kept going on intellectual momentum.

    This is very consistent with the way Dick would talked about himself and people around him. Which means it might be an entirely accurate recollection… Or… Since the stories Dick would tell about himself mutated considerably over time (although core narratives remained stable), maybe this is another one of those.

    It doesn’t make Greg right or wrong. It’s an alternate history. It only has to be plausible. It doesn’t even have to be most likely (because… who knows?!).

    – Pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  13. Oh, Timescape! I will snatch that up in ebook or get a replacement copy in p-book (print, haha). Loved the book when I’d read it before.

    The Berlin Project sounds interesting. I remember liking another alt-history novel for WWII time travel, and like Harry Turtledove’s stuff that I’ve read, alternate histories in general.

    I’m in an apt. now, going on two months. Most of my stuff, including language reference books and my SF&F collection, are still in storage, and space is too limited. So I’ll be moving more to ebooks where possible.

  14. Ctein,

    I don’t think Greg Benford has anything he needs to counter either. The alt-history he proposes is entirely reasonable for the purposes of fiction, which are to generate thoughts about the contingency of history and of how things could have gone differently.

    My own comments are not based on Groves. Groves’ job was to build the bomb; it’s evident from his memoirs that he had no input in how it was to be used. The scientists had even less so. My citations were to the people who actually did the planning, who were not directly connected to the Manhattan Project.

    Much of my emphasis was on the unknowability and unpredictability of the bomb and how that affected planning. It also affected the design project. Why did they keep developing the bomb after it became clear that Germany wasn’t building one? Remember that that didn’t become clear until the Alsos mission after Germany’s surrender. Yes, there were indications earlier that Germany had abandoned the project, but those were rumors and fragmentary intelligence that couldn’t be relied upon. The same is true of any suggestions that Japan was about to surrender before the bomb was dropped. Those were rumors, but with plenty of counter-indicative evidence. Some individual Japanese diplomats had tried to explore surrender options, but they had had no official support from their government. Much is clearer in hindsight than was at the time, and at the time they were fighting a war.

  15. This is another one to go on my reading list. I expect my eyes to leak a lot of water as I go. (What? No, of course I’m not crying! Perish the thought.) My eyes are already starting to leak at the thought of it, and not just because war stories always do that to me anyway. (Yes, it is a personal reason, and do feel free to ask–otherwise this comment stops here.)

  16. Maybe I’m out of step here, but this is the first time a “Big Idea” article left me feeling uncomfortable about the author. Interesting premise? Sure. But unlike other “Big Idea” writers, this one spends most of the piece boasting about his career, and dropping names–endless lists of names–of famous scientists he has met. I get the impression of a writer who’s more interested in blowing his own horn than in anything else. My advice to Benford: if you want to promote your book, talk about the story–not about your brilliant career or your celebrity-scientist encounters.

  17. On my watch-for list. Aside, anyone else here ever read ‘The Starship and the Canoe’? Freeman Dyson family history, of sorts.

  18. Dear DB,

    Yes, we are in substantial agreement.

    With all the uncertainties you mentioned, there’s one that people forget, which is that no one knew a whole lot about how to build a fission bomb back then! Today it’s considered (relatively) simple tech, enough so that the main issue is controlling the sources of fissionables rather than the expertise to build one.

    In the 1940s both the physics and engineering were far less well understood. Even after US scientists became convinced that the Germans were barking up the wrong conceptual tree and Allied raids had destroyed the critical facilities needed to develop a bomb, the US couldn’t be entirely sure. The US was developing two different kinds of bombs, because they didn’t know what would work or at least would work best. Possibly there were third or fourth lines of development that German scientists might think of that the US hadn’t.

    It was unlikely, and very probably the Germans couldn’t develop a bomb… But without certainty? It would mean leaving open even the small possibility that the Nazis would get the A-bomb before anyone else, in which case World War II would be over and the history books would be remembering London and Moscow instead of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

    There’s also the not-insignificant matter of goal creep. The initial impetus for the US to develop the bomb was exactly the fear I’ve described. Once it became pretty clear that the Germans weren’t going to accomplish this, the objective became to be able to prevent Germany from invading the US — crude deterrence in other words. And once it became pretty clear they were never going to be able to do that, well then it was about bombing Japan.

    – Pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

  19. Ctein,

    Yes, agreed, mostly.

    Goal creep is a perplexing question in this case. The arguments presented after the war (I think from Stimson, though I’d have to go and check) amounted to saying that they’d always intended to use the bomb if they developed it in time. But they had not, at the early stages, been thinking that far enough ahead, so there’s the possibility for at least a degree of retroactive justification here.

    There’s opportunities for so much interesting alternate history here! Despite some commenters grumbling about this article, I’ve found Benford’s fiction about scientific development to be fascinating and well worth reading. I’m looking forward to this novel.

  20. I can well believe that there might have been project-management issues that delayed the bomb project by a year, but from that to “the war could have been over a year earlier” is an awfully big jump.

    In 8/45, the Allies had enough U-235 to build one gun bomb, considered so simple and idiot-proof that they didn’t bother with a test. And enough Pu-238 for one test shot and one live round. After Nagasaki the bolt was shot.

    Japan was basically prostrate and US bombers were flying weather missions over Japan unopposed. People on the ground in Hiroshima thought the Enola Gay was the daily weather flight. The A-bomb runs over Japan carried small risk that a piece of gear roughly as expensive as an Apollo moon mission might have been shot down by Japanese fighters.

    A year earlier, Germany still had somewhat-functional air defenses, The Red Army was still retaking Poland and Germany is still winning tactical victories in France and the Baltics. The notion that a lone bomber could fly over Germany and drop an A-bomb on a major German city without risk of being shot down is problematic, (as is the idea that a single A-bomb carrier could use the bomb on a target that had 500 friendly bombers over it) and even if it succeeded, would that have made more of an impression than the burnings of Dresden and Hamburg? Given that the Wehrmacht had not collapsed and was still effectively opposing the Allies?

  21. Dear DB,

    And those are not even mutually incompatible descriptions. There’s always the chicken and egg question of which leads the thinking: the impulse or the rationale. In the case of the A-bomb, we’ve got solid historical record that says it started with a rationale. But after that, as we well know today, weapons programs take on a life of their own. Once the impulse was planted, of course the war makers would assume they would find a reason to use it because (a) that’s what war makers do and (B) WAR!!

    I’m sure there is not one single person who was alive at the time who has a complete and accurate experience of that process. Nobody is entirely blind, but it’s a very large and complicated elephant.

    Yes, so many alternate history possibilities. One could write an interesting novel inverting Greg’s premise: suppose enough of the Manhattan project scientists HAD rethought things after it became clear the Germans weren’t going to get a bomb and decided they weren’t going to continue working on this insane thing. A less interesting alternate history is one where it merely delays the project. A more interesting one is where it kills it entirely. A future in which nuclear weapons are not (yet) a reality in 1946? Where does that go?!

    Or, if you want to get really science fictional… There was a secret President’s commission midwar to decide what to do about All Those Jews. Because the US sure wasn’t going to take them! One of the options they contemplated — I’m not making this up — was to build a fleet of rockets and send us all to Mars!

    If that level of insanity and anti-Semitism doesn’t leave you gob smacked, well… that wasn’t the limits of their thinking. They even contemplated building interstellar rockets to send us all to Alpha Centauri.

    Okay, now you can lift your jaw off the floor.

    They did quickly reject the latter idea as being “technically infeasible.”

    Yeah, ’cause like the first one was with 1940s science and technology. Not that they would’ve really much cared.

    So there’s another novel idea. Not one I’m ever going to write; far too unpleasant. But, damn, someone could do a book that would keep you awake nights.

    – Pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. Dragon Dictate in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery. 
    — Digital Restorations. 

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