Robert J. Sawyer interviewed by Mike Glyer about The Oppenheimer Alternative

By Mike Glyer: Robert J. Sawyer is one of only eight writers — and the only Canadian — to win all three of the top science fiction awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo (Hominids), the Nebula (The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (Mindscan). He was named a member of the Order of Canada in 2016 “for his accomplishments as a science-fiction writer and mentor and for his contributions as a futurist.” Sawyer’s new book The Oppenheimer Alternative will be released June 2 and is available for pre-order now.  

MIKE GLYER: Why this book at this time?

ROBERT J. SAWYER: There are three reasons. First, this is the 75th-anniversary year of the birth of the atomic age: July 16 is the 75th anniversary of the Trinity test; August 6, the bombing of Hiroshima; and August 9, the bombing of Nagasaki.

Science-fiction publishers are notoriously bad about promoting books — one senior editor once told me they literally have no idea how to do that — but I knew, given my track record, that I could get lots of mainstream media attention if my book tied into a major anniversary. I was so convinced of the importance of this that I turned down offers from bigger publishers who wanted The Oppenheimer Alternative but said they couldn’t get it out until 2021 or even later.

Second, enough time has passed for an appropriate reassessment. Everyone I portray in my book is dead except for Oppenheimer’s son Peter, although Freeman Dyson was alive when I finished the book. I sent him an autographed bound galley with my regards, which he received just before he died.

If you do a book today about Ronald Reagan or either Bill or Hillary Clinton or Elon Musk or William Shatner, the partisans descend upon you, but we all can look back now at the cast I used — not just Oppenheimer, but Hans Bethe, Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Kurt Gödel, Leslie R. Groves, Leo Szilard, Edward Teller, Harry Truman, Wernher von Braun, and John von Neumann — with a degree of objectivity.

This sort of historical writing is somewhat akin to the science-fiction process: a scientist conceives of a great idea — Szilard, say, with the nuclear-fission chain reaction or Oppie with black holes — and we extrapolate forward to see what the ramifications of it will turn out to be. The difference is that in historical writing, we know the ramifications by now.

Third, there are profound real-life parallels today. The obvious one is the renewed threat of nuclear annihilation as rogue nations and the White House rattle their sabers. But, more subtly, the development of artificial intelligence — one of my favorite topics in previous books — echoes the Manhattan Project: a bunch of scientists, with virtually no oversight, deciding what is and what is not good for the rest of us.

You know, in 1942, Edward Teller had suggested that a single blast of an atomic bomb might ignite all the hydrogen in the oceans or all the nitrogen in the atmosphere, destroying the world. Hans Bethe said, nah, you’re probably wrong — and so they went ahead and did a test without any public or Congressional discussion of what amount of risk-taking with an extinction-level event was acceptable. Likewise, almost all artificial-intelligence research is done today in deep secret by the military or by corporations, with no one but the scientists themselves deciding if and when to throw a particular switch that might unleash Frankenstein’s monster.

MG: The Oppenheimer Alternative is grounded in your extensive research of the history of physics and atomic weaponry. I recognized some of that history but it was only quite late in the book that I recognized the science fictional departures — the alternate history. Are they present throughout, or is your goal to take readers inside the Manhattan Project as it happened?

SAWYER: The point of departure from what is established fact occurs in chapter 14 out of 57, when Edward Teller and Hans Bethe start arguing about their conflicting solar spectrographs, Bethe’s from 1938, which seems to show the sun undergoing carbon-nitrogen-oxygen-cycle (CNO) fusion, and Teller’s from 1945, which seem to show it undergoing proton-proton fusion.

But I actually don’t call the novel an alternate history; I think of it more as a secret history. None of the events it portrays are contradicted by what we know actually occurred. Instead, I’m filling in the gaps in the record. And gaps there surely are. As I mentioned above, Oppie was responsible for the notion of black holes. As Freeman Dyson wrote:

“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.”

And when Oppie was hauled before a security-review board, Deak Parsons, his second-in-command at Los Alamos really did go ape, declaring, in reference to President Eisenhower:

“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!”

In a bit of bad luck for Parsons — not to mention Oppie! — Parsons keeled over dead the next morning before he got in to see Eisenhower.

Even Oppie himself alluded to something huge going on behind the scenes. He really did say:

“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.”

So I set out to tell that story: the tale of why Oppie never commented publicly again on his astrophysics research, of the truth about what was really going that Parsons took to his grave, of the “bigger story” Oppie referred to.

There’s a thorough discussion of what’s real history and what’s my invention on my website: https://sfwriter.com/ffoa.htm

As you’ll see when you get to the chapter-by-chapter breakdown, the book is about half events we know actually occurred and half ones that are my own plotting.

MG: Many of the scientists whose characters are drawn on your pages died in the Sixties, like Oppenheimer himself, but others remained active for decades, like Hans Bethe, or Freeman Dyson (who I saw speak in 2013). Did you ever meet any of these scientists yourself? If so, how were you able to use those experiences to shape their characterizations in your book?

SAWYER: The only Manhattan Project figure I got to meet was Nobel Prize-winner Luis Alvarez; he graciously spent an afternoon with me at UC Berkeley on September 7, 1983, although my interest then was more in his work on identifying an asteroid as the cause of what we now call the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinctions.

But I’ve enjoyed having long conversations with four other Nobel laureates — Elizabeth Blackburn, Arthur McDonald, Joseph Stiglitz, and Robert W. Wilson — and I drew heavily on those encounters in trying to portray the Nobelists in my novel.

Cover of Canadian edition

Unlike the geeks portrayed on The Big Bang Theory, by and large these were people who were just as interested in the arts as the sciences, who were as happy to talk about their kids or pop culture as about their specialties, and who, although entitled perhaps to some arrogance, were actually all quite humble and nice.

There’s a zen that comes with reaching the pinnacle of your field. Of course, at the beginning of the Manhattan Project, of the physicists who appear in The Oppenheimer Alternative, only Neils Bohr, Arthur Holly Compton, Albert Einstein, and Enrico Fermi already had their Nobels; the ones for Luis Alvarez, Hans Bethe, Patrick Blackett, Richard Feynman, and I.I. Rabi came later.

Naturally, I’d seen Freeman Dyson speak many times on TV, and his son George gave my novel a very nice blurb, but I never got to meet Freeman or the others except Alvarez, although, of course, I’ve read all the biographies and autobiographies, and I’ve been to Los Alamos and the Trinity site.

MG: How should the A-bomb have been used? You show how Leo Szilard, who got Einstein to write to FDR urging the creation of an atomic weapon, circulated a petition calling for a demonstration of the bomb to the Japanese experts, rather start out using it on Japanese cities. The petition was suppressed and the leadership chose to drop the bomb to end the war. My father was a Marine on a troop carrier floating around Okinawa by then, so the idea that this was done in alternative to invading the Home Islands was real to him. Others now write that it was used with the intent to establish a post-war order with America as the only superpower. There are also some who look on its use as the product of an overpowering narrative, like Chekhov’s gun — “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” What’s your take on why it was used?

SAWYER: This is a sensitive issue, and I want to address it with an appropriate degree of respect. Most people think of me as a Canadian writer, but I’m also an American citizen, and I intend no bashing of the US here. Indeed, Canada is culpable, too: the three countries that collaborated on the development of the atomic bomb were the United States, Great Britain, and Canada.

So let me start obliquely. I know exactly what I was doing on Sunday night, January 19, 1975: I was watching the first-ever broadcast of the episode “The Last Kamikaze” on The Six Million Dollar Man, written by Judy Burns, perhaps best known for previously having scripted “The Tholian Web” for Star Trek.

In this episode, United States Air Force Colonel Steve Austin, an astronaut and the very symbol of US patriotism, finds a Kamikaze pilot who thinks World War II is still being fought. In trying to explain that the war is over, Steve says this, verbatim — just about the longest speech Lee Majors made in the entire series:

“I’m afraid your Emperor didn’t have much choice. It’s not easy for me to tell you this. The United States invented an atomic bomb, a powerful bomb that could destroy a whole city with one explosion. At the time it seemed the best way to stop the war was to drop the atomic bomb on two Japanese cities. I wish it wasn’t true. Most Americans wish it never happened. But it did. Two Japanese cities were completely destroyed. Many, many people were killed. Your Emperor saw the wisdom of surrender. The fighting stopped September 1945, almost thirty years ago.”

I was fourteen then, and I was floored. Never before had I heard anyone say that most Americans — or Brits or Canadians — regretted using the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I remained alert for similar assertions, but it wasn’t until I read Kim Stanley Robinson’s short story “The Lucky Strike,” which was first published in 1984 but I didn’t discover until 1989, that I again heard doubts being raised about the necessity of dropping those bombs.

I don’t gainsay your father’s feelings or experience for one moment, Mike. That the bombs had to be dropped was the line he and everyone else was fed then — and that most people still accept today. But it’s just not true (a) that it was necessary to use the atomic bomb at all, (b) that it was necessary to use it on civilian targets, (c) that the bombings in fact reduced the number of American war dead, and (d) that the bombings even reduced the number of Japanese war dead.

In truth, Japan had been making back-channel overtures to surrender for a year before the atomic bombs were dropped, wanting only one condition: that Emperor Hirohito, whom they considered divine, retain his throne. This seemed reasonable to both Churchill and Roosevelt — after all, there’d have to be some sort of functioning government in Japan after the war. But FDR went off-script in a briefing that was broadcast on radio and called instead for _“unconditional_ surrender.”

Churchill was gobsmacked, but said — as quoted in Richard Rhodes’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb — “Any divergence between us, even by omission, would on such an occasion and at such a time have been damaging or even dangerous to our war effort,” and because of that one slip of the tongue the official demand became unconditional surrender. Well, asking the Japanese to renounce the emperor in 1945 wouldn’t be much different from demanding the US renounce Jesus then if America had been the country needing to surrender — a complete non-starter.

On the day of the Trinity test, July 16, 1945, General Leslie R. Groves, the head of the Manhattan Project, said — his own words as he reported them in his autobiography, Now It Can Be Told — in response to someone declaring the war was now over, “Yes, after we drop two bombs on Japan.”

Two bombs. He was hell-bent on testing both of their two competing bomb designs — the straightforward gun-type “Little Boy” and the complex implosion “Fat Man” — on civilian populations. At Groves’s request, a few Japanese cities had been spared the firebombing that had already ravaged Tokyo and other places precisely so that they could be used as pristine testbeds for atomic explosions.

Indeed, Groves was so afraid that he wouldn’t be get to test the second bomb design on Japan that he rushed the bombing of Nagasaki. He had it occur just three days after the Enola Gay bombed Hiroshima, even though word of what had happened in that city was only just reaching the Tokyo government, because thunderstorms were forecast for the subsequent few days. He knew that if he waited, the Japanese might surrender before he got to drop a Fat Man on the planned target of Kokura; it was only because of overcast skies there that Bockscar actually dropped its atomic bomb on Nagasaki instead.

Of course, once both bombs were dropped, we of the Allied powers happily accepted surrender and freely gave Japan the one condition it had always wanted: Hirohito the divine retained his throne until his death forty-four years later in 1989.

This topic always engenders a lot of heat, and a lot of people — including my US publisher, Shahid Mahmud — have gone back and forth with me over the issue. To at least give people a current overview of the topic, rather than what they might have learned in history class decades ago, I’ve put up a sourced discussion of this on my website: https://sfwriter.com/suoa.htm

Okay, enough preamble; let me answer your questions directly, Mike. In the first place, the atomic bomb never should have been built at all. I’ve read the Farm Hall transcripts made of secret recordings of Werner Heisenberg and others after the war, and it’s clear that Germany was nowhere near having, and really not seriously trying to develop, an atomic bomb.

Indeed, I’m in the camp — although this is certainly debatable — that believe Heisenberg, a German patriot but one who couldn’t stomach what Hitler was doing, threw the game and made sure the Fatherland would never develop an atomic bomb for that madman to use.

Second, Leo Szilard was right: if you had to show the world you had such a bomb, either as a deterrent or to explain to the taxpayers what you’d spent two billion 1945 dollars on, all you needed to do was invite Japanese observers and journalists to a remote site, set off the bomb there, and let people see what it could do.

The only reason I can see that this approach was unacceptable to Groves, who scuttled Szilard’s petition supporting this idea, was that he and others didn’t want the Soviets — the real audience — to know just that the US had a hugely powerful new weapon but also to have them know that the US had the balls to actually use it against civilian populations. No safe demonstration would have conveyed that message, and Truman, who by this time had succeeded FDR, delusionally believed that the Russians would “never” — his word — get the atomic bomb, so he felt there was no need to worry about them ever doing the same thing to the West.

So, I’m with Steve Austin from all those years ago: I wish it had never happened.

MG: Science fiction written in the Thirties contemporaneously with the period where your novel begins tended to be populated by altruistic superscientists — thinking for example of E.E. Smith’s Skylark series, and John W. Campbell Jr.’s stories about Arcot, Wade and Morey. Growing acceptance of scientific leadership on the issues of the day was once considered part of sf’s mission. But no matter what problem they’re working on, creating the atomic bomb or saving the human race from the calamity posed in your novel, your characters are utterly human, with questions never far from their minds like: Who gets the prizes? Who gets the good jobs? Who gets to work on the most interesting topics? Can sf readers handle the truth?

SAWYER: Excellent question. Science fiction, as a field, long held these truths to be self-evident: all scientific knowledge is worth having; government oversight is an impediment to progress — only those supercompetent Heinleinian lone wolves (read: we science-fiction fans) have the moxy to propel us into the future; and as long as our side is the one with the superior firepower, we’ll only use it virtuously. But all three of those are demonstrably hogwash.

Scientists are as human and as fallible as anyone else; they have — as Oppie contended throughout his life — no special moral insight; and most are, like people in any profession, careerists and opportunists trying to build reputations, make money, and get ahead.

One of my favorite bits in The Oppenheimer Alternative, wholly fictitious as far as I know, has Oppie, who was the manager of a team of Nobel laureates but never won the prize himself, getting to hold I.I. Rabi’s Nobel Prize: “Oppie rubbed the medal between thumb and forefinger, an atom or two of gold transferring to him, a few molecules from his body making a new home on the disk. Soon, he hoped; soon.” That sort of ambition is real, driving, and often blinds one to reality.

Can science-fiction readers handle the truth? I hope so. The ideal of the scientist as unbiased, rational truthseeker, as a Godlike beneficence, as an infallible oracle is simply not supportable. One of the great joys of reading — and writing — sf is getting inside the heads of realistic scientists and seeing the myriad conscious and subconscious forces that color their perceptions.

MG: Sf has become a more skeptical genre, more interested in mythmaking than science. What kind of stories would you like to see more of? And are there people you could point to already working in those areas?

SAWYER: I mentioned my friend Kim Stanley Robinson earlier. He and I do seem to be part of the very small group still left whose members generally write optimistic science fiction; the days of Clarke and Asimov and their mostly sunny futures are long behind us. But it’ll be interesting to see how the field morphs after the COVID–19 pandemic: all those dystopian visions perhaps don’t seem nearly as entertaining as they did before.

Science fiction never predicts the future, but collectively, on any given topic, it should predict a smorgasbord of possible futures — and I firmly believe that, unless we put some positive scenarios on the table, the negative ones will become self-fulfilling prophecies.

Despite what I said earlier, for instance, I don’t think that artificial intelligence will necessarily be our downfall, although that was what almost all written and media sf was telling us, and so I wrote my WWW trilogy of Wake, Watch, and Wonder to add a win-win scenario to the discourse on the topic.

But finding similarly good-hearted, upbeat books is hard; cynicism is often presented as if it were a de facto measure of both literary worth and personal maturity. I recently went back and read a bunch of James White’s Sector General hospital-in-space books because I needed a dose of that good old-fashioned the-future-will-be-a-better-place science fiction.

Robert J. Sawyer. Photo by Carolyn Clink.

MG: What projects do you have in the works?

SAWYER: I’ve been lucky, as genre authors go. A lot of foreign-language popularity, some good Hollywood deals, and so on, have left me with the luxury of taking my time with books now. It’s been four years since my last novel, Quantum Night, and I’m only very slowly gearing up to write my next (which will be my 25th).

As always, I start with research, research, and more research. I have a vague notion for a novel about the future relationship between people and artificial intelligences, and I’ve been doing background reading related to that for months now — but I haven’t written a word of the novel yet.

I usually start with a topic, develop a theme, create characters that will let me explore the multiple facets of that theme, and only then work out a plot. At this point, I’m still developing my theme — the fundamental thing I want to say. As the old fanzine writers would have put it, I’m thisclose to having pinned it down, though.

I also just wrote a pilot script based on my 1997 novel Illegal Alien and I’ve got some nice Tinsel Town interest in doing a TV version of that book. And I’m in negotiations to do an original project for Audible. But, most of all, I’m just reading and thinking … and seeing where my curiosity leads me next.

8 thoughts on “Robert J. Sawyer interviewed by Mike Glyer about The Oppenheimer Alternative

  1. Science fiction, as a field, long held these truths to be self-evident: all scientific knowledge is worth having; government oversight is an impediment to progress — only those supercompetent Heinleinian lone wolves (read: we science-fiction fans) have the moxy to propel us into the future; and as long as our side is the one with the superior firepower, we’ll only use it virtuously.

    ISTM that this was untrue of the field-as-a-whole by the time he learned to read.

    Sawyer taking the Powers route is unusual.

  2. Interesting interview! I appreciated the question choices and the thoughtful answers they prompted.

    @Chip Hitchcock

    Since the question was about ‘30s science fiction and was answered in the past tense (and the answer immediately following talks about how that stuff isn’t around as much anymore), I’m fairly sure Sawyer wasn’t talking about anything written after he was born, but, well, was talking about ‘30s science fiction.

  3. Most interesting interview. In 1971 Leslie Groves was a guest speaker in an upper-division undergraduate twentieth century history class at Oregon State University. I was one of the fifteen or twenty students in the class. My undergraduate notebooks are gone several years–death cleaning, anyone?–and I mainly recall asking former General Groves why the Manhattan Project did not provide waldos for employees who had to work directly with radioactive substances and became ill or died. Memory dimly suggests Grovdx said we just didn’t have those things. I don’t recall Groves saying anything about preserving certain cities in Japan from fire bombing so that comparisons might be made after the A bombs were dropped.
    I hope Greg Benford reviews Sawyer’s book, formally or informally. That is a review I would pay to read. I will also be looking for Sawyer’s book.

  4. The father of one of the writers in the local writers workshop was among the civilian contractors on Wake Island captured and imprisoned, along with the US military contingent there, for the remainder of the war when the Japanese seized the island shortly after Pearl Harbor. Based on interviews with her father, other survivors, and research, she wrote of his experience. It was a harrowing experience, and her father struggled with PTSD for years aferward..

    But one of the things mentioned in her memoir was that her father survived to return home because of the weather on August 9, 1945. The POW camp where her father and other Wake Island survivors were imprisoned was just outside Kokura, and they were transported into the city daily to do forced labor in Japanese factories. The weather (and smoke from the previous day’s traditional bombing of another nearby city) diverted the second atomic bomb to Nagasaki.

  5. @Meredith: I read “long held” as stretching a long way forward from the 1930’s — and I note that outside the Magazine with Rivets that holding was being questioned by the early 1950’s. (The names I listed are later ones — I don’t know how much pre-him postwar SF he read.)

  6. @Chip Hitchcock

    Sure, it could, but I wouldn’t necessarily assume so – and since there’s a pretty big gap between the 1930’s and him being born he’s got some wiggle room. 🙂

    ETA: Actually, if I was going to criticise that bit for anything, I’d say I’m not so sure it held true before the 1930’s… But really, it’s ambiguous as to the meaning,

  7. nice interview.

    I’ve talked with Robert a few times. I got the distnct mpression that his fannish experience was much like mine – he read everything SF he could lay his hands on. We’re roughly the same age so I know there was a wealth of material available from all eras.
    And amen to more positive futures.

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