Interviews with Writers

Sci-Fi | The Oppenheimer Alternative | Robert J. Sawyer

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I’m delighted to be welcoming Robert J Sawyer to my hot seat today chatting to us about The Oppenheimer Alternative.

Find out the scene that caused Robert the most trouble, his inspiration and more.

Book cover for The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert J Sawyer

The Oppenheimer Alternative by Robert J Sawyer is available to purchase in digital and paperback formats.

While J. Robert Oppenheimer and his Manhattan Project team struggle to develop the A-bomb, Edward Teller wants something even more devastating: a weapon based on nuclear fusion — the mechanism that powers the sun. But Teller’s research leads to a terrifying discovery: by the year 2030, the sun will eject its outermost layer, destroying the entire inner solar system — including Earth.

After the war ends, Oppenheimer’s physicists combine forces with Albert Einstein, computing pioneer John von Neumann, and rocket designer Wernher von Braun — the greatest scientific geniuses from the last century racing against time to save our future.

Meticulously researched and replete with real-life characters and events, The Oppenheimer Alternative is a breathtaking adventure through both real and alternate history.


Hi Robert, welcome to Jera’s Jamboree.

Please summarise The Oppenheimer Alternative in 20 words or less.

Guilt-ridden physicists who created atomic bomb stay together after the war to try to redeem themselves and save the world.

What was the idea/inspiration for your novel?

I’m a science-fiction writer and I always try to challenge myself. I’d written science fiction set in the far future, which is easy, because none of us will be alive to know whether I got it right or not; I’ve written science fiction set in the near future, which is harder, because science and technology moves so fast; I’ve written science fiction set in the present day, which is very hard because you’re trying to do a complex metaphor obliquely about something else but with a familiar rather than strange setting.

But, except for time-travel stories, very few have ever written science fiction set in the past. For The Oppenheimer Alternative, which is my 24th novel, I wanted a real challenge and doing something that has all the big ideas and philosophical questioning that go into good science fiction but set in the 1940s through 1960s seemed like a good, meaty project.

Please tell us about the characters in your book.

That’s the other challenge this book presented! Every single one of them was a real, famous, well-documented person: J. Robert Oppenheimer, Albert Einstein, President Truman, and so on. To get them right, so that those who actually knew them or those historians who have devoted years to studying them would be impressed was my goal — and I’m thrilled that I’m getting great responses, including from Martin J. Sherwin, who co-wrote the Pulitzer Prize winning biography of Oppenheimer.

Who would you cast in the role of your characters if your book were optioned for a movie?

In 2007, when I struck the deal in Hollywood to have a TV adaptation of my novel FlashForward, Keanu Reeves was sitting at the next table. I wanted to go say hello to him, not just because he’s a fellow Canadian but also because I sincerely admire his work. He’s way brighter than many of the characters he plays, and he bears a stunning physical resemblance to J. Robert Oppenheimer, who was quite a dashing ladies’ man. He’d be perfect.

What scene was the hardest to write Robert? Why?

For all his smarts, Oppie was a flawed man and even after he got married, he kept up a relationship with a previous lover, Jean Tatlock. When she committed suicide, he had no one close to him that he could share his grief with, but, of course, he had to deal with it, and I had him doing it during a wild ride on his beloved horse, Chico. It’s now my favourite scene in The Oppenheimer Alternative and it’s the one I performed at public readings leading up to the novel’s launch, before the COVID-19 crisis put an end to such things.

Did you do any research for your book? What resources did you use?

Heaps! I spent most of two years doing the research for this novel, reading everything about the Manhattan Project, biographies of the people involved, the science behind the atomic bomb, and more. I love doing research — I often say I only write novels to subsidize my research habit.

Which authors have influenced your writing?

H.G. Wells, who showed me, and everyone, that science fiction could be used for social commentary. And Frederik Pohl, who wrote my favourite science-fiction novel, Gateway, who showed me that science fiction can be as much about the heart as the mind — that, at its best, it’s a mixing of the intimately human with the grandly cosmic.

Do you have a favourite book? What is it about that book?

To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. First, the writing is gorgeous. Second, even though it’s not a science-fiction novel, it does precisely what good science fiction does: it pretends to be about one thing — the summer-time adventures of three kids in a sleepy Southern US town — but is really about something far more serious, in this case, racism.

Have you joined any writing groups Robert?

In 1996, I was lucky enough to win the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America’s Nebula Award for best novel of the year. Immediately thereafter I was invited to Calgary, twenty-five hundred kilometres from my home in Toronto, to run a writers’ workshop for a group there called IFWA, the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association. I’ve been a member ever since, and three or four times a year fly out to Calgary for writing retreats with other IFWA members. They’re my peeps, and they keep me going!

Finally, what has been the best part of your writing journey so far?

It really is precisely that: the journey. I’m fortunate enough to have had my novels translated into twenty languages and have gotten to travel all over the world to give talks and to attend literary festivals, book fairs, and science-fiction conventions.

What I’ve learned is that people are alike everywhere: no matter where you go, people love their children, they’re spontaneously kind and welcoming, and they’re doing their part to make this great big beautiful planet we share a little better for us all.

Thank you for being my guest today Robert.

Author photo Robert J Sawyer photo by Caroline Clink

Website: Patreon: Facebook: Twitter: (@RobertJSawyer)

Robert J. Sawyer’s novel FlashForward was the basis for the ABC TV series of the same name.

He is one of only eight writers ever to have won all three of the science-fiction field’s top awards for best novel of the year: the Hugo (which he won for Hominids), the Nebula (which he won for The Terminal Experiment), and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (which he won for Mindscan).

A member of the Order of Canada and one of the initial inductees into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame, Rob lives near Toronto.

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I've been blogging about my interests at Jera's Jamboree for 9+ years. My love of reading, crocheting, being out in nature and positive psychology are all things that help me unwind from my role as an Inclusion Lead in a primary school.

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