Interview with sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer

book cover The Oppenheimer AlternativeMy special guest today is sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer. We’re chatting about his hard sci-fi alternate history, The Oppenheimer Alternative.

Bio:
Robert J. Sawyer has won the best-novel Hugo Award (for Hominids), the best-novel Nebula Award (for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (for Mindscan), plus over 50 other writing awards. The ABC TV series FlashForward was based on his novel of the same name, and his 24th novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, is now out. Rob holds honorary doctorates from the University of Winnipeg and Laurentian University, was one of the initial inductees into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, and is a Member of the Order of Canada, his country’s highest honor.

Welcome, Robert, please tell us about your current release.
“Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds,” physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer famously exclaimed when the first atomic bomb exploded in 1945. His Manhattan Project gathered the greatest scientists ever assembled, including Richard Feynman, Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, and Enrico Fermi.

In The Oppenheimer Alternative, Oppie keeps those geniuses together after the war — joined by Albert Einstein, computing pioneer John von Neumann, and rocket designer Wernher von Braun — in hopes of saving our planet from an environmental catastrophe. If they succeed, they will be able to declare, “Now we are become life, the saviors of the world.”

What inspired you to write this book?
In 1977, I took a course in Greek drama, and my favorite of the plays we studied then was Oedipus Rex, which ends with the chorus observing that we should count no one’s life as happy until it has reached its end. In the same course I learned about the concept of hamartia (the main character’s fatal flaw), peripeteia (the reversal of fortune caused by that flaw), and deus ex machina, which is the cop-out ending in many Greek plays where a god descends on a machine — a winch or some other mechanical device in the theatre — to pluck he unlucky hero from defeat.

I’ve done 24 novels now, but I was always on the lookout for a story I could tell in that classic Greek tragedy mode, except, of course, as modern writers and audiences demand, having the technological rabbit-out-of-the-hat be not a copout but an organic growth from the story. And in the person of J. Robert Oppenheimer, I at last stumbled on the perfect real entity I could map onto that template. It’s no coincidence that the title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppie, American Prometheus, harks back to Greek mythology.

Oppie’s fatal flaw was his arrogance: he thought he could get away with anything unharmed, whether it was trying to poison Patrick Blackett, his tutor at the Cavendish Laboratory, or publicly humiliating Lewis Strauss, a member of the Atomic Energy Commission.

His reversal of fortune is obvious by the titles and subtitles of the nonfiction works about Oppenheimer. The Pulitizer Prize-winner I just mentioned is subtitled The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer (and I was thrilled when Marty Sherwin, its coauthor, gave me a cover blurb for my novel); another excellent one is The Ruin of J. Robert Oppenheimer by Priscilla J. McMillan; a third, also good, is Oppenheimer: The Tragic Intellect by Charles Thorpe; and Oppie’s former best friend, Haakon Chevalier, wrote a roman à clef about Oppenheimer the title of which refers to that arrogance: The Man Who Would Be God.

And the technological solution? Well, I’ll leave that for readers to discover in the pages of The Oppenheimer Alternative.

 

Excerpt from The Oppenheimer Alternative:
Robert Oppenheimer gazed out the mammoth window in the university president’s living room, lost, as often, in thought. Of course he was thinking about the vexing problem of isotope separation, but—

Isotopes were the same element but different—both this and yet each separately that. Just as it was with the women in his life, both beautiful and brilliant, but different, too: Kitty, who demanded to be satisfied, and Jean, whom he could never fully satisfy. The same and yet not: Kitty, who had been married to someone else when she first began dating Robert and who he’d now learned from friends had bragged that she’d gotten him to marry her “the old-fashioned way, by getting pregnant,” and Jean, still there, still in his social circle, occasionally still in his arms, who ran away from commitment.

Robert hadn’t been blind as time went on. His former landlady, that whirlwind of energy named Mary Ellen, and the delicate, moody Jean, now indeed an M.D., were more than casual friends. In just one of many ways in which Jean was pulled in multiple directions simultaneously, Mary Ellen—always confident where Jean was often diffident; always a confidant, as close as Oppie himself was—had also taken Jean to bed.

“Robert?”

The voice had been that of the reception’s host, President Sproul. He turned. “Yes?”

Sproul—panther-lean, bespectacled, and wearing a gray three-piece suit—indicated the uniformed man next to him, and Oppie beheld the visitor. “General Leslie Groves, meet Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer.”

The term “fission” describing how a uranium nucleus could split into two had been borrowed from biology, and Oppie had a sudden flash of micrographs he’d seen of a dividing cell: an entity pinched in the middle to form bulbous halves. Groves’s belt was the constriction and an ample gut billowed out above and below it.

The general was almost as tall as Oppie, with an elongated head weighed down by jowls and crowned by swept-back hair. Groves sported a short, bristly mustache that had grayed at either side, lending the more-prominent dark part—inadvertently, Oppie was sure—a Hitlerian aspect. Binary stars adorned each side of his khaki collar. Oppie offered his hand, and Groves shook it firmly. “You’re the head theoretician here,” the general said as if it were an accusation.

Oppie nodded. “My actual job title is—if you can believe it—‘Co-ordinator of Rapid Rupture,’ but, yes, that’s right.”

“I’m a nuts-and-bolts man myself,” said Groves. His voice reminded Oppie of the sound stones made in his lapidary tumbler. “An engineer.”

Oppie nodded amiably. “You’re in charge of building the Pentagon.” The massive new structure in Virginia was nearly finished.

The general’s eyebrows creased his forehead, clearly impressed that Oppie knew this. “Indeed I am.” Oppie left unspoken the fact that Groves had also been in charge of building the internment camps for Japanese Americans. The army man looked around the vast room, apparently uncomfortable with the opulent surroundings. “I was hoping that I’d have earned my pick of assignments after the Pentagon—I wanted to see action overseas—but they gave me this thing.”

“This thing,” Oppie knew, was being in charge of the atomic-bomb project, including the work here at Ernest Lawrence’s Radiation Laboratory and that at Arthur Compton’s Metallurgical Laboratory in Chicago.

President Sproul apparently knew the way to this particular man’s heart, at least: “Lunch will be served momentarily.” Groves smiled at that, and Oppie smiled at Groves’s smile.

“I’m glad they put an engineer in charge,” Oppie said, turning on the charm as Sproul was beckoned away by another guest. “We scientists can spend far too much time woolgathering.”

The general’s eyes, a darker blue than his own, fixed on Oppie. “Are you free this afternoon? I’d like to talk to you some more.”

It was all falling into place; Kitty would be so pleased. “Your wish is my command, General.”

# # # # #

 

What exciting story are you working on next?
Nothing at all! It took me four years of intensive research and writing to produce The Oppenheimer Alternative, and I’ve been very gratified by all the reviews that say it’s my best book yet. Time for a break — to read and think!

When did you first consider yourself a writer?
I made my first sale when I was 19, in Janauary 1980, so that was a big milestone. And I’ve been lucky enough to be a full-time self-employed writer since 1984, but almost all of the work I did in the 1980s was ephemeral: articles about the state of the broadcasting industry back then, articles about the nascent personal-computer revolution, press releases, speeches, and newsletters for various corporate and government clients. So, I got to put “Writer” as my occupation on my text return starting when I was 24, but I didn’t feel like — well, lets use the word “author” rather than “writer,” to make a distinction — I didn’t feel like an author until I held the first copy of my first novel in my hands. That was thirty years and twenty-four books ago, but I still remember that precise moment vividly.

Do you write full-time? If so, what’s your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
Well, it’s funny: given my previous answer, you might think that my answer to the question of whether I write full-time would, naturally, be yes. But, in fact, although it’s my principal vocation, I also have a nice sideline going as a keynote speaker, talking to corporations, associations, and government agencies all over the world about technology change, the frontiers of science, and other futurism topics. And, along the way, I’ve done a fair bit of teaching of creative writing, too. But my bread-and-butter, and my passion, has long been actually sitting at the keyboard and creating fiction; it’s the thing that gives me the greatest joy.

What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
I write science fiction, and science fiction is usually considered a part of pop culture — popular culture, culture for the populace. It’s only in this very narrow sense that I invite the comparison, but William Shakespeare was also a pop-culture writer, producing works for mass audience. Not all pop culture is ephemeral; some endures.

For instance, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody, even a Millennial, who hasn’t heard of I Love Lucy, The Twilight Zone, Star Trek, Star Wars, or Harry Potter.

And so, despite the frequent objections of my editors, I insist upon including pop-cultural references in my novels. Oh, you might get tenure, or a favorable notice in a journal read by dozens of people, or an arts-council grant if you make allusions to Keats and Proust, but you’re far more likely to resonate with actual readers if you draw an appropriate analogy to Mister Spock or Casablanca.

With my new novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, which is set between 1936 and 1967, it was a challenge to slip in modern pop-culture references, but I knew my longtime readers would be disappointed if they couldn’t spot such things in the text. So I found sly ways to work them in and on my website you’ll find a guide to the Easter eggs in The Oppenheimer Alternative.

As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A vertebrate paleontologist — a dinosaur hunter! I’m still fascinated by all things prehistoric, and that’s been reflected in the lot of my previous novels. Calculating God is the story of a paleontologist facing his own mortality as he battles cancer; End of an Era is a time-travel novel back to the age of dinosaurs; and Red Planet Blues is my hard-boiled detective novel set against the backdrop of the Great Martian Fossil Rush.

Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
As I said, I’m known to mostly as a science-fiction writer, but I’ve always had a readership much broader than just that. Those who enjoy history, historical fiction, and reading biographies of great scientists, plus those interested in arms-control, and, really, anyone interested in complex character studies should find The Oppenheimer Alternative rewarding.

As a novelist, I couldn’t have asked for a more interesting personality to explore than that of J. Robert Oppenheimer, a self-destructed genius, wracked by guilt, incredibly witty, passionate in his love affairs, and carrying a moral weight on his shoulders with the invention of the atomic bomb. I loved getting inside his head and trying to figure out what made him tick.

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