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.

13 Comments on “The Big Idea: Robert J. Sawyer”

  1. Hey Robert! I’ve been following the evolution of this one from the title, to the cover, via your Facebook, and apologize if I’ve missed any news that would already answer this, but: is there an audio edition in the works? Thank you.

  2. Hi, montsamu — thanks for asking! Recorded Books paid a pretty penny for the audio rights to THE OPPENHEIMER ALTERNATIVE, and promised they’d have it out at Audible and elsewhere on the same day the print book and the ebook came out, namely yesterday! They’ve failed to meet that deadline, and my agent is in contact with them to try to determine when it will in fact be out, but absolutely, 100%, there will be an unabridged audio version. The narrator is the great Josh Bloomberg, who is a master of accents — a necessity for this book!

  3. While it’s true that most of what is called science fiction is not set in the past, there is a related genre that is very like science fiction and is quite commonly set in the past: steampunk. Just look to novels like Gibson’s The Difference Engine or the Priest’s The Clockwork Century series, where you have what is essentially science fiction set in a recognizable past Earth (alternate 19th century for both these series and no time travel in sight.) It’s not that this book doesn’t sound very interesting (it absolutely does), but the idea of setting what is at heart a science fiction story in the past isn’t really all that new.

  4. Oh my goodness, this was a lovely surprise to see here today! I spent my teenage years reading as much of Sawyer’s oeuvre as I could (and that was all before I moved to Toronto), which I think is what sparked my fondness for thoughtful, humanistic SF. Can’t wait to check this one out. The only thing even remotely close to it that I can think of is Lydia Millet’s OH PURE AND RADIANT HEART (2005), and that one is a) time-travel-y, and b) so idiosyncratic it’s hard to compare it to anything else, except maybe Kurt Vonnegut.

  5. Misplaced comment bounced off the closed thread: that GoFundMe link gets a note that fund has been closed. No reference to a replacement.

    [Note from JS: It’s working fine for me and was accepting donations as of three minutes prior to me typing this. There is a note it was paused a few days ago but then it was reopened again. Also, this could have been sent in email. Let’s not post in incorrect threads.]

  6. I’ve always thought a book about Dwight Smith Young, fiction or non-fiction, would be a fun read. Dwight was an erstwhile WWI pilot, carpenter, photographer, handyman, and self-taught nuclear physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project and was standing right behind him when Louis Slotin killed himself in the first nuclear accident in the U.S. in 1946. The government correspondence when Los Alamos was trying to promote him because of his value to the program in defiance of government regulations–he only had a high school education–are hilarious.

  7. I was reading a John Grisham book a while back, and started thinking it wasn’t up to his usual standards. The bad guy sheriff was cartoonishly evil, the protagonist kept doing really stupid stuff, the protagonist’s lawyers were remarkably incompetent. Then I got around to reading the back cover “An Innocent Man” is based on a true story. The characters were that unrealistically bad/stupid/incompetent because they actually had been, unlike his fictional characters who have to make sense.

  8. I’m really happy to see you back with a new book, Rob! Twenty-five years ago, I was browsing the SF/Fantasy section of my local Coles (Canadian chain bookstore) looking for something good. My eye fell upon a copy of Starplex. Now I can look over my shoulder from where I am sitting and see my Robert J. Sawyer shelf. It’s just above the Scalzi shelf, actually.

  9. I really look forward to this. I finished Benford’s “The Berlin Project” earlier this year, which involves the same people, an a similar timeframe. The great physicists of the mid 20th century were fascinating characters. Having two great stories about these folks, by two of my favorite authors, within a year, just fills me with happiness.

  10. I love when I hear an idea that I know I never would have had. Can’t wait to read it!

    Even in a century as tumultuous as the 20th, Oppenheimer has to be on a short list of the most interesting people.

  11. “a cast consisting entirely of famous people who have been explored in multiple biographies, have been studied in depth by historians”

    Colleen McCullough said much the same of her Rome series. I think she even used the word “easy” of writing the pre-Julius Caesar characters, but once she hit young Gaius Julius, she was constrained by writing about the life of one of the best documented characters in history.

  12. I recall from Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler’s “Gravitation” , still the best exposition of General Relativity of which I know, that Laplace hypothesised black holes (masses whose escape velocities exceeded light-speed) a couple of centuries back—though, admittedly, since he didn’t know that light-speed is the speed-limit he didn’t understand that they trapped _anything_ in them forever.

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