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Congratulations on your newest novel, The Oppenheimer Alternative, which released on June 2nd, 2020. This excellently crafted depiction of the “Birth of the Atomic Age” has been lauded as “ringing true” and the characters—all real historical figures—“accurately portrayed.” What inspired you to choose this topic for your 24th novel?

Isaac Asimov defined my genre thusly: “Science fiction is that branch of literature that deals with the responses of human beings to changes in science and technology.” Normally we SF writers try to predict technological changes and extrapolate how humans might respond to them, but I found myself asking if one could set a legitimate big-ideas, philosophically rich, character-driven SF novel in the past.

As you leaf back through the decades, you come quickly to 1945 and the biggest, most dangerous, most awesome technological change since the taming of fire; it’s no accident that the most famous nonfiction book about J. Robert Oppenheimer and his work on the Manhattan Project, which created the first atomic reactor and then the first atomic bombs, is called American Prometheus. Oppie and his associates literally took the power of the sun and brought it down to earth, and nothing has been the same since.

Did you originally plan to release The Oppenheimer Alternative in such a timely fashion to coincide with the 75th Anniversary of the Birth of the Atomic Age, or did that fall into place during the writing process?

It was late in the game. I’d first started noodling around with the idea of doing something about J. Robert Oppenheimer five years ago, in July 2015. But it wasn’t until January of 2018, that I realized that this year, 2020, would be the 75th-anniversary year of so many of the key events I was writing about: July 16 for the Trinity test, August 6 for the bombing of Hiroshima, and August 9 for the bombing of Nagasaki. At that point I had fewer than 9,000 words of actual novel written—I was mostly still researching—but realized that the book could have a great sales boost if it came out while everyone was thinking about those historic events again. That’s when I really got cracking writing the manuscript.

Historical fiction and crafting real-world figures as such in-depth characters, especially those involved in the creation of the atomic bomb—and all the inherent political and wartime implications—requires an immense amount of research. How much of this compelling story did you already have a fair understanding of before setting out to write The Oppenheimer Alternative? Comparatively, how much research did you have to perform before you were satisfied enough with the basis of the story to sit down and write it?

I’m lucky enough to be a full-time fiction writer, and, indeed, have been for over twenty-five years now. I’m also lucky enough to have a financial cushion, in part due to there having been an ABC TV series, FlashForward, based on my novel of the same name. I knew I really had to dig in and research before I could write a single word of this novel, and I spent an entire full-time year doing nothing but that. Not only did that research let me get the facts right, it also gave me the moral authority to tell a story about people who had really existed, whose children and grandchildren are still alive. Even when my book veers off into completely made-up events, I knew, because of my extensive research, that I was doing justice to who these people really were.

Was there anything that surprised you in the research and writing of The Oppenheimer Alternative?

Tons! Setting aside some eye-opening historical stuff, such as that the plan had always been to drop not one but two atomic bombs on Japan, the revelations about Oppenheimer himself were fascinating. The guy was, literally, a mad scientist: in 1925, when he was twenty-one, Oppie tried to murder his tutor at Cambridge—a man who later went on to win the Nobel Prize. In 1939, he became the first person to predict the existence of black holes. And in 1945, he offered up his own newborn daughter for adoption while his wife was out of town. After the attempted murder, he was diagnosed with dementia praecox—what we now call schizophrenia—and certainly was his own worst enemy.

Of all the “powerful and quirky personalities” portrayed in this novel, did you find yourself identifying with and/or favoring the writing of any particular historical figures?

Absolutely—and it was the one who, ironically, is probably the least well known of the major figures in the book: the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard. He was the first to conceive of the runaway nuclear chain reaction; the person who ghostwrote the letter Einstein sent to President Roosevelt urging the creation of the atomic bomb; and the first scientist to come to regret his involvement in the whole damn thing. A rotund gadfly, with no visible means of support, he was the catalyst for so many things and was so quirky and witty that he was an absolute joy to write.

How did writing The Oppenheimer Alternative affect your own previous understanding, knowledge, and interest in these historical events, figures, and the Birth of the Atomic Age?

It made me realize how unnecessary it all was. My mantra has become this: the world would be a better place if the smartest people in it simply refused to make the things the stupidest people want them to make. The Manhattan Project, which folded into it the earlier British atomic-bomb effort, codenamed Tube Alloys, was the only serious effort to make an atomic weapon. The Germans weren’t working on it; the Japanese weren’t working on it; the Soviets only eventually got it by stealing the secret from the Americans.

The Nazis surrendered in May 1945, three months before the first atomic bomb was ready; the Japanese had been seeking peace since the summer of 1944 and only wanted an assurance that their divine emperor, Hirohito, wouldn’t be dethroned. Even without the atomic bomb, everyone agrees that Japan would have been defeated by conventional warfare shortly anyway. It’s not a new message; it’s the most famous quote from Jurassic Park: “You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could” make an atomic bomb, “you didn’t stop to think if you should.” Today, the same thing might be said of the headlong rush to create artificial intelligence happening in military installations and at corporations with no public debate and little if any oversight.

What was your favorite part about writing this novel?

I’d originally set out to write an alternate-history novel—a novel that followed real events up to a certain point and then veered off in another direction; the classic example is Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, in which the Germans and Japanese win World War II instead.

But I was absolutely thrilled when I stumbled upon—again, through research!—a few fascinating facts and quotes that let me pivot to writing a secret history instead; a secret history doesn’t contradict anything we know to be true about our world as it is, but rather instead tells of a much more complex reality hidden behind what we actually know.

The biggest trigger for that was a quote from Robert Oppenheimer himself, when he was being vilified during McCarthy-era security hearings. He really said, “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.” That’s the tale I decided to tell in The Oppenheimer Alternative.

What was your least favorite part?

Having to write in all the damn smoking! My novel takes place between 1936 and 1967. Although despite what Mad Men would have you believe, there were a lot of nonsmokers back then, including Leo Szilard and General Leslie R. Groves, who was the head of the Manhattan Project—but Oppie himself was a heavy smoker; it’s what killed him, in fact, at just 62 years of age. I wanted to accurately portray him in words, warts and all, but I begged my publishers not to depict Oppie smoking on the cover, which is how he appears on most nonfiction books about him, and they acceded to my request. I lost my own younger brother, Alan, to lung cancer at just 51. And, for those who believe no one knew any better back then, Oppenheimer himself said he was warned repeatedly about the dangers of smoking going all the way back to 1920s.

What do you hope readers gain from reading The Oppenheimer Alternative?

My novel isn’t just timely because of the anniversaries mentioned earlier. It’s also timely because of its central theme. In a crisis, do we listen to politicians, or do we listen to scientists? Whether it’s the potential for nuclear annihilation, dealing with catastrophic climate change, or battling a worldwide pandemic, listening to the experts is the only thing that will save us.

What can readers expect next from the author who’s become “Canada’s answer to Michael Crichton” (The Toronto Star)?

It’s my contention that the COVID-19 plague is this generation’s World War—this generation’s Great Depression. It has already monumentally changed things while we are dealing with it, and I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the way things were beforehand. Add to that the tipping point that it seems we’ve finally reached in terms of addressing systemic racism, and the future is going to be radically different and in many ways better. Well, despite the fact that The Oppenheimer Alternative was set in the past, it’s the future that is the normal milieu for a science-fiction writer, and, using SF’s toolbox of masks and metaphors, I’m embarking on my 25th novel, which will explore the strange new world that lies ahead of us all after the pandemic is over.

Thank you so much, Robert, for joining us at TopShelf for this exclusive interview!

Thank you Kathrin Hutson for the terrific interview!