Five Things: June 3, 2020

Let’s get to today’s five, shall we?

Hey, did you remember that there’s a presidential campaign going on? Well there is, and seven states and the District of Columbia even had primaries yesterday. Not that you would know it from the front pages of the news sites, I had to dig deep, deeeep into the New York Times site to find all of yesterday’s results. Part of that is that the world’s on fire, and part of that is also that at this point it’s a cakewalk for Biden, who will officially clinch the Democratic nomination next week with the Georgia and West Virginia primaries. But still, it’s very odd to be in an election year where the presidential campagin feels like an afterthought at best.

Hit the road, Steve King: It’s an indication of how weird a year 2020 is that while I had to dig for the delegate counts from last night, the news of US Representative Steve King, Iowa’s notorious racist fucknugget, losing his primary race, was splashed all over the place. And of course, it is delightful news, as King is a loose bag of hate and unearned superiority, shambling about in a vaguely human form. Liberals should enjoy their delightful moment of schadenfreude now, since Randy Feenstra, who won the GOP primary over King (and will likely win the general in November), is unlikely to vote any differently than King has in the House, he’s just probably smart enough not to spout explicitly racist words over a live mic and then be flummoxed why anyone should think that’s a problem. But yes! Enjoy it now! And best of luck to King in his next endeavor, which will probably be as a columnist for the Federalist or something else similarly egregious.

I put on pants today. First time in a month! More or less. The reason for the occasion is that I actually left the house and went into the world, because I had a dental appointment. Turns out I need a crown (which I knew) and I also have a cavity (which I did not know, but I’m honestly not all that surprised about). So I’ll be going back to the dentist’s in a couple of weeks. I will put on pants then, too. Pants between now and then? We will see, but I wouldn’t get your hopes up.

Bill & Ted congratulate the Class of 2020 at San Dimas High School. This just warms my heart. I’ve mentioned this before but I’ll mention it again: I lived in San Dimas during my high school, in fact right across the street from the water park. I did not go to San Dimas High School, but I still feel mighty pleased that this little town has been immortalized by two of Gen X’s most notable fictional characters. Much of “San Dimas” in the film was filmed elsewhere, but I can say that indeed there is a Circle K there. And strange things were indeed often afoot.

And now, what you’ve been waiting for, the Ant Situation Update: I’ve seen a couple of stragglers, but that’s it, so I’m going to go ahead and declare victory, and also credit Febreeze with the MVP role for totally wiping out the pheromone trails and otherwise sowing fear and confusion in the Formicidal ranks. Mind, they may just be regrouping. But I’ll have the ant traps here today or tomorrow. I’ll be ready for any counterattack (or any attack on my counters). These days we take our wins where we can.

Big Idea

The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author Robert J. Sawyer has gone “back to the future” with his newest novel The Oppenheimer Alternative. But why does he go back at all — and back to this particular Great Man of History? Sawyer is here to explain it all.


It’s been obvious since the days of Hugo Gernsback that science fiction could be set in the future, and that’s the standard mode today.

And the field’s progenitors ably demonstrated that science fiction could be set in the present: consider Mary Shelley with her Frankenstein, notably subtitled “The Modern Prometheus,” not the “Futuristic” one, and H.G. Wells with such works as The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man.

But, except for those stories employing time travel or alternate history as their central conceit, rarely has science fiction been set in the past.

I’d spent most of the last decade publishing big-ideas hard-SF set in the present day—from Wake through to Quantum Night—but wanted a new challenge, and found myself drawn to the rarely trod path of setting an honest-to-goodness hard-SF novel in the days of yore.

But who or what to write about? Well, although J. Robert Oppenheimer will forever be praised or damned as “the father of the atomic bomb,” prior to becoming scientific director of the Manhattan Project he was doing research in astrophysics. In fact, it was he, along with his grad student Hartland Snyder, who first proposed what we now call black holes.

Now, yes, others have written fiction about the Manhattan Project, but most of them took the easy way out by having their main character either be wholly fictitious or, if real, so obscure that he or she might as well be.

I set myself the challenges not just of putting Oppenheimer (one of the few Manhattan Project figures who never wrote an autobiography) front and center, but also of having every other character in the book be a well-known real person.

See, normally, a novelist has a get-out-of-jail-free card. When a reader grouses “I don’t think this character would do that,” the writer can reply, quite truthfully, “Actually, I’m the world’s foremost expert on that character and I assure you she would.”

But with a cast consisting entirely of famous people who have been explored in multiple biographies, have been studied in depth by historians, and are still vividly remembered by many alive today, I had to cheerfully concede that I was not now and never would be the world’s leading authority on any of them.

Still, I wanted to make sure that my portrayals—not just of Oppie but also of Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, I.I. Rabi, Richard Feynman, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Freeman Dyson, Albert Einstein, General Leslie R. Groves, and Wernher von Braun, among others—passed muster with the true experts.

And I didn’t want to tell an alternate history. That is, I didn’t want to say, well, sure, you can gainsay me until this page—the point of divergence—but after that, anything goes. Rather, I decided to tell a secret history: a series of plausible events that were, in themselves, authentic big-ideas hard SF, and have them occur in the lacunae in the public record. I wanted no one to be able to say, “Okay, that was fun, but of course it never happened.”

The more I dug into the research, the more obvious it became that there really was something major beyond what the public record shows of that period.

Deak Parsons, Oppie’s second-in-command at the Manhattan Project’s Los Alamos Lab, concurred. He told colleagues, concerning Oppie being cut off from classified information after the war, that even President Eisenhower was in the dark about the truth:

“I have to put a stop to it. Ike has to know what’s really going on. This is the biggest mistake the United States could make!” Unfortunately for him—and damn near as much for Oppie—Parsons died the next day of a heart attack before speaking to the president.

Even Freeman Dyson, Oppie’s great post-war colleague at the Institute for Advance Study, who died this year at the age of 96, felt Oppie was hiding something:

“As a direct result of Oppenheimer’s work, we now know that black holes have played and are playing a decisive part in the evolution of the universe. He lived for twenty-seven years after the discovery, never spoke about it, and never came back to work on it. Several times, I asked him why he did not come back to it. He never answered my question, but always changed the conversation to some other subject.”

Indeed, as Oppie himself declared, “There is a story behind my story. If a reporter digs deep enough he will find that it is a bigger story than my [security-clearance] suspension.” My goal was to tell that bigger story, and to make it one that could only be portrayed in the science-fiction genre.

Oppie has always been an enigmatic character: nonfiction books about him have titles as conflicting as Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect (by Charles Thorpe) and The Hope and Vision of J. Robert Oppenheimer (by Michael A. Day), as well as the on-the-nose Oppenheimer: Portrait of an Enigma (by Jeremy Bernstein). But that just made it all the more enticing to crawl inside his thundering brain and try to see things from his point of view.

I’ve often said my favorite science-fiction novel is Gateway by the late, great Frederik Pohl, in part because Pohl never cared whether his main character, Robinette Broadhead, was likable but only whether he’d been portrayed with raw psychological truth.

In Oppie, history handed me a similarly flawed person—one that just happened to be an erstwhile astrophysicist who went on to change the world for all time—and I hope I’ve done him justice in The Oppenheimer Alternative.


The Oppenheimer Alternative: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.


Uncle Hugo’s Fundraiser + Editorial Note

First things first: Uncle Hugo’s, the venerable Minneapolis science fiction bookstore, was burned down last week (along with Uncle Edgar’s, the next-door mystery bookstore). Almost immediately a GoFundMe was set up, but it wasn’t endorsed by Don Blyly, the owner of the bookstores. The GoFundMe has since been taken over by the Blyly family, who has made it the official GoFundMe for the stores, with an eye toward using the funds for rebuilding the bookshops.

I’ve done signings at Uncle Hugo’s and I know how important the store has been for fandom in Minneapolis and Minnesota, and am heartsick that some foolish (or malign) person set it alight. If the store was important to you, or if independent bookstores are important to you in general, for what they do for their communities and for readers, considering contributing to this GoFundMe. Again, it’s controlled by the Blyly family, so the money raised here will go to Don and to the stores. Check it out, and thank you.


Second things second: I got an email today about the Uncle Hugo’s GoFundMe, one of several I’ve gotten over the last few days. I was aware of the GoFundMe and have been for several days, but I was also aware that it was originally set up by a third party, whose association to the store and its owner were unknown to me. I wasn’t going to point to a GoFundMe I didn’t know was endorsed and supported by the store or its owner, and I knew Don Blyly was thinking of doing his own fundraising effort. I held off and then I got busy. When this most recent email showed up, I clicked over to see if the GoFundMe was the one that Blyly was planning to set up. It turned out it was the original GoFundMe, but the Blyly family has taken over its administration. All well and good; it was now something I could point to.

The sender of the note (who I am keeping unnamed, for reasons that are about to become clear), also wrote this:

Personal note to John: Larry Correia is already exhorting his fans to help, and I really don’t want to see him do more than you on this, please help!

And friends, I will tell you what, this really really pissed me off.

For those of you who are somehow lacking context, Larry Correia led the “Sad Puppy” campaign for a couple of years, and it’s well-known that I was not a fan of that little adventure, and that Larry and I had our go-arounds because of it. It was not a pleasant time for science fiction (I am, you will understand, eliding much for the sake of brevity), and neither Larry nor I are on each other’s respective Christmas card list. But it’s largely in the past now and both of us are off doing our own things.

With that understood, two things here.

One: Good for Larry Correia! Dude donated a thousand bucks to the GoFundMe and is apparently exhorting his fans and friends to contribute as well. What’s not to like about that? Well done him. I applaud his efforts.

Two: I don’t know how to explain this to people, but I don’t think about Larry Correia all that much, and when I do, it’s not really with any heat. He’s not all that important to me. I feel pretty comfortable suggesting that he doesn’t think about me all that much, either. Why should he? He’s got his own life, which I touch on almost not at all. I’m guessing I’m not all that important to him, either.

So I am annoyed and actually sort of resent the fact this random dude thought Larry was the perfect foil to poke me with here. I am not so seized with animosity toward Larry that I will leap up from my chair to “beat” him in a fundraising score just because we hates him, precious, nor am I interested in reheating the whole Puppy bullshit one more fucking time, and certainly not in the service of a GoFundMe that is in point of fact absolutely and entirely unrelated to that particular lamentable moment in science fiction fandom history.

More bluntly: the thought process of “I want someone notable to contribute to a fundraising project I think should be important to them so I will motivate them by dragging the spectre of someone I think they hate into their field of view! It’s the perfect plan!” is really weird and fucked up, y’all. Don’t do it.

Even more bluntly: Look, asshole, if you want to rally a community together, don’t start by trying to fucking divide them. Helping Uncle Hugo’s isn’t about me, or Larry, or our respective fans (which almost certainly have significant overlap in membership) fighting over who can do more. It’s about saying this place was and is important to us all. Let’s all help.

So let’s do that. Let’s all help.

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