THE OPPENHEIMER ALTERNATIVE Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Matthew Kresal delves into a secret, alternate history.

What would we do if we knew the world was ending? It's a question posed in any number of works on page and screen. Suppose, though, that those who knew were some of the brightest minds of twentieth-century science? Those who wouldn't go quietly into the night? That's the premise behind Robert J Sawyer's The Oppenheimer Alternative, the latest offering from the award-winning author.

Though, having laid out the premise, the first thing worth noting is Sawyer takes some time getting to it. Indeed, for say the first quarter to third, it's honestly a historical fiction work about Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project. As someone who enjoys historical fiction as a genre and has an interest in the events depicted, the reading here was never dull as the research and characterizations shine throughout as the reader receives a crash course in the history of the atomic bomb's project and the titular character's life.

Once the divergence comes, however, Sawyer's prose remains firmly rooted in history as we know it. For, despite the title, this isn't so much a work of alternative history as it is a work of secret history. Think of it as an SF equivalent of, say, Jack Higgins' thriller The Eagle Has Landed, with a story lurking behind the history we know. In this case, from 1945 to the mid-1960s, Oppenheimer and many of those involved with the Manhattan Project were involved in an effort to save humanity. An effort that also draws in the likes of Wernher von Braun and others, as well. The novel becomes a journey through one of the most dramatic periods in modern history, though, at times, it feels more like a series of linked vignettes involving famous names in science than a cohesive story. Indeed, Sawyer goes about introducing elements only to either get rid of them soon afterword or hardly reference them at all. For a novel promoted as being an alternative history, with the word in its very title, it doesn't seem keen on being one.

At least until its conclusion. It's there, in the last twelve percent of the novel or thereabout, Sawyer firmly takes out of historical fiction and into SF territory. It's a shift that's both welcome but, not surprisingly, perhaps, immensely jarring as well. It all goes by in a hurry, covering a novel's worth of details in a matter of concluding paragraphs across a few pages. It's full of big ideas, but ones revealed so hurriedly that their scope and meaning almost gets lost. It's an ending full of both possibilities and immense frustrations, not unlike the novel as a whole.

In the final analysis, The Oppenheimer Alternative should be The Oppenheimer Secret instead. What Sawyer has created is compelling, even worthy of the over-used moniker of a page-turner, but it's an uneasy mix of elements. Is it a work of historical fiction with a dose of SF thrown into the mix? Or is it a novel too firmly rooted in our history that, when a drastic change does come, it's too much? The answer, for this reader at least, is both, and it makes it an intriguing but unsatisfying read that never lives up to its premise.

Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places. 

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