Robert J. Sawyer

Hugo and Nebula Award-Winning Science Fiction Writer

Oppenheimer as Greek tragedy

by Rob - June 18th, 2021.
Filed under: Oppenheimer Alternative.

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.

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