Home Arts & Life Sawyer’s newest sci-fi novel The Oppenheimer Alternative: Q&A

Sawyer’s newest sci-fi novel The Oppenheimer Alternative: Q&A

by Coby Zucker

World renowned science fiction writer and Ryerson alumnus, Robert J. Sawyer discusses his latest book

Robert J. Sawyer — Ryerson alumnus and lauded science fiction writer — released his latest book, The Oppenheimer Alternative, this summer. The novel is a sci-fi exploration of the history of The Manhattan Project and the involvement of J. Robert Oppenheimer. 

Ryersonian staff sat down with Sawyer to discuss the novel:

The Oppenheimer Alternative is a very thoroughly researched book; how much time was invested into the process of writing it?

“I’m enormously fortunate at this point in my career that I have money, which means I don’t have to write a book a year. Early in my career, I wrote a book every year. And it was kind of on a treadmill. I think they were all good books, and I’m proud of all of them, but at this point, I said to myself and to my agent, I don’t want to sell this in advance. I want to take whatever it takes to do the research and do it right. I ended up taking four years, of which, somewhere between a year and 18 months was nothing other than solid research into the background of the characters.”

“I’ve often said that I write my novels as a way of supporting my research habit. If I could just do research to my heart’s content on whatever interests me and somebody would pay me to do that, that would be my perfect career. Well, nobody has stepped up to just pay me to do that. But they’re happy to pay me to synthesize all that material into hopefully entertaining, but also certainly well researched novels, and I’ve done it two dozen times now; 24 books. But this one took the longest so I’m glad that it shows in the finished product.”

Why Oppenheimer?

“The fascination actually came out of one of the characters, who’s also in the book, but not nearly as well known — Leo Szilard, who is the man who ghost-wrote the letter signed by Albert Einstein to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, President of the United States, that gave birth to the Manhattan Project. Szilard is also the person who first conceived of the self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, which gave rise to both atomic reactors — he was there when the first one ever was turned on, his baby — and atomic bombs, which he came to greatly regret having any involvement with. And I came to discover him through a play that was at the Montreal Fringe Festival called The Inventor of All Things, a one-man play by the great British Fringe Festival performer, who performs all over the world, named Jem, J-E-M, Rolls… I was just captivated by this character of Szilard. And as I started reading about Leo Szilard, his interactions with Oppenheimer really got me thinking about this question of guilt and responsibility of the Atomic Scientists. And that’s what the book came out of.”

There’s a lot of science in this book—obviously—though mostly physics. How much did you know beforehand and how much did you learn doing research for this book? 

“Well, I know an awful lot about quantum physics and about nuclear physics as they are today and stellar physics as they are today, because I’m a science fiction writer. What was fascinating was the kind of scientific archaeology that I had to do. What did we know about how the sun produced its energy in the 1930s and the 1940s that’s different from what we know today. Oppenheimer is the man who came up with our modern notion of black holes. Prior to him, that notion did not exist and that was a fascinating thing to discover as I looked into his history.

“So as a science fiction writer, I’m very well versed in science. I’m not a scientist, but then again a science journalist isn’t a scientist. A sports reporter isn’t an athlete. You can be an expert in the field without being a practitioner in that field.”

This book is a subtle kind of science fiction where it’s often hard to distinguish fact from fiction. Was that intentional?

“Yes. It absolutely was. But there is, on my website, if you go to sfwriter.com and click on the Oppenheimer Alternative and click on what’s fact and what’s fiction — in great detail, I break it down for you. And I thought about including that as an afterword in the novel, and I thought no, because that will be the first thing people will read after reading the book. And that’s like a magician saying, ‘And I’ve made the Empire State Building disappear’ or ‘I sawed the woman in half’ and then saying, ‘Okay, before you’ve even thought about it, here’s how I did the trick.’ I didn’t want to do that. I wanted people to mull it over. If they were interested enough, they would Google and they would find, comprehensively, an explanation. 

“That said, there’s nothing in the book that contradicts what we actually know about Oppenheimer’s life, or any of the other characters lives. It extrapolates to fill in the lacunae, the empty spaces, in the historical record. But, as fantastic as some of it might be, it doesn’t contradict anything we know to be true.”

What is it about the space race era and the atomic era that inspires so much sci-fi creativity?

“There are a couple of things. I mean, first, these were the two biggest scientific undertakings in the history of the human race: the race to develop the atomic bomb and the race to put somebody on the moon. These were projects for which limitless funds were available. When FDR died and Harry S Truman became president, the Manhattan Project was so secret that even though Truman had been Vice President, it was beyond his security clearance as Vice President of the United States. He had no idea of the extent of black box funds that were being doled out — $2 billion in 1945 dollars. That’s an extraordinary amount of money. And the same thing happened with the men with the Apollo program.”

What made you decide to only use real people as characters in the book?

“If you’re going to write a novel about the Manhattan Project, it better be the characters people expect to see. Front and center. Yes, Oppenheimer. Yes, Albert Einstein. Yes, Enrico Fermi. Yes, Hans Bethe. Yes, General Wesley R. Groves. Yes, Leo Szilard. And yes, Werner von Braun, bring him in. And so I felt that for me, it was an obligation to the reader. But also after 23 books previous to this one, I need a challenge for every novel, something I have never done before, artistically. And I had never before written a book that had all of its characters or even any more than cameos by real life people. And I thought, that’s a challenge. I have to conform to their real histories. I can’t make them do what I want them to do. I have to live with the fact that they did the things that they really did do. And that was an enormously difficult challenge. And at this stage in my career, I only want to write difficult books. I only want to write things that make me flex my literary muscles in a way they’d never been flexed before. So it was really hard. But that’s what made it worth doing.”

Not to impugn your intelligence, but how do you write characters that are smarter than you?

“Absolutely. I’m a pretty bright guy, there’s no question about that, but these were absolute geniuses. And when you talk about Albert Einstein, a character in the book, who most people would regard as the greatest genius of the 20th century, quite conceivably the greatest genius since Isaac Newton. And it was enormous fun because it is very easy to write people who are dumber than you. And it is the normal task to write people who are as intelligent as you are. It took an enormous amount of work to try to think bigger thoughts than my mind is normally capable of. And the trick is this, of course, I can spend a week puzzling through something that Oppenheimer or Einstein could toss off in a moment, right? Anybody can be a genius if time is not a factor, right? 

“Genius is the ability to see quickly, and at a glance, the things that lesser men and women have to plod through pace by pace by pace. Genius is almost that ability to take a quantum leap, to look at a whole bunch of disparate things and just leap to the solution. And plodding is just saying, Okay, let me work through every aspect of this, and then every aspect of that, and then spend months trying to see how they interrelate. So it was hard work to write geniuses, but it was a lot of fun. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet a bunch of Nobel laureates in my lifetime. And that helped a lot in crafting the characters here.”

There are a lot of references in the book to H.G. Wells, Jules Verne and all the pulp-era sci-fi magazines. Is that meant to be a fourth-wall breaking ode to science fiction?

“So, you know, it is and it isn’t. It is in the sense that I wanted to remind everybody, which is absolutely true, that the atomic bomb, the name comes from H.G. Wells. The atomic bomb, as the thing that was going to define geopolitics in the future, comes from H.G. Wells. This is all absolutely true. There’s the problem of being a science fiction writer, whether it was in Wells’ day or today, is you are essentially Cassandra. You are the prophetess from Greek mythology who absolutely tells everybody, ‘Here’s what the future holds.’ And nobody believes you.

“But it’s also reality that Leo Szilard, amongst many other things that he did that were interesting in his life, was H.G. Wells’ foreign translation rights agent in Europe. He had met Wells and admired Wells… I wanted to say, science fiction is important and significant and serious in its extrapolations about where we’re coming from, where we are and where we’re going. And also because there really were these H.G. Wells connections. As I say in the novel, the Institute for Advanced Study is a very short drive from Grover’s Mill, New Jersey, which is where, in the Orson Welles radio adaptation, the famous broadcast from 1939 of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds, is where the Martians landed. And that, you know, is referenced in my novel.”

In releasing this book, did you notice the connection between the conflict of science and politics then and now with, for example, the butting heads over COVID-19 today?

“So obviously what happened with Anthony Fauci parallels what happened in The Oppenheimer Alternative, but that wasn’t what I was thinking of. What I was thinking of, and deliberately paralleled in the novel, is the conflict over the last several years, particularly in the United States, with climatologists and the administration. The wilful denial of empirical scientific reality because it happens to interfere with certain people’s capitalistic interests is very much something that I wanted to talk about… I very much wanted to make the point that you have to listen to the experts.”

For readers who are new to your work, what else should they check out?

“My immediately preceding novel is called Quantum Night. It turned out to be my most prescient novel of all. It came out four and a half years ago—so before Donald Trump was even running to be president of the United States—and it dealt with the rise of an authoritarian and psychopathic American president and the nature of mindless followers who will line up behind an authoritarian leader. And it’s set mostly in Canada. Not in Toronto. A lot of my books are set in Toronto, which would be good for Ryerson readers. Calculating God, set mostly in the Royal Ontario Museum, is probably one that Ryerson readers will get a kick out of. Quantum Night is set mostly in Winnipeg and Saskatoon, but I think that it’s an excellent one for the reader to get used to the Robert J. Sawyer oeuvre if, for whatever reason, The Oppenheimer Alternative isn’t to their tastes.”

Where does The Oppenheimer Alternative rate in the pantheon of Robert J. Sawyer books?

“It’s my best book. I think it’s my best book. And a lot of people have said that. A lot of people said that about Quantum Night and they said, about this, ‘I didn’t think you could top Quantum Night. I think that was a perfect book.’ And this is astonishing that it’s better in a lot of people’s eyes. I never wrote a book I wasn’t proud of. I never wrote a book just for money. I think I have 24 really good books to my name.” 

What’s next for Robert J. Sawyer?

“I don’t know what I’m gonna do next. It’s as simple as that. I do an enormous amount of reading when I’m looking for a project—non-fiction reading, but also a lot of novels to keep the creative pump going—and I’ve been reading an awful lot about the nature of reality… That stuff is blowing my mind. I know there’s a story in there, I just haven’t found it yet.”

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