[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
Hugo and Nebula Winner

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The Oppenheimer Alternative

Easter Eggs

One of the hallmarks of a Robert J. Sawyer novel is pop-culture references, especially to the original Star Trek TV series and original Planet of the Apes movie series. Putting such things in a novel largely set before either of those debuted was a bit tricky, but I know those references make some of my fans — not to mention me! — happy. And so here's a guide, in order of appearance, to the pop-culture Easter eggs hidden in the text:

"... some sunny day!"

  • Kitty Oppenheimer and Barbara Chevalier are finishing the World War II ballad "We'll Meet Again," which, as sung by Vera Lynn, is the closing theme of the movie Dr. Strangelove.

[T]he Brits wouldn't be able to afford anything as grandiose as a peacetime British Experimental Rocket Group.

  • In Nigel Kneale's famed Quatermass BBC television serials, and the subsequent movies adapted from them, Professor Bernard Quatermass was controller of the British Experimental Rocket Group. The 1967 movie Quatermass and the Pit gave rise to much of my own oeuvre, including The Oppenheimer Alternative in a roundabout way: in that movie, the fictional Quatermass says, "The Germans didn't make this and then lose the secret. You ask von Braun." When I first heard that line seeing the movie on TV at perhaps twelve years of age, I was struck by the notion that you could invoke real scientists in science fiction, a conceit that has informed much of my fiction.

There was no American Prometheus — no brilliant scientist or engineer who had taken fire from the gods.

  • American Prometheus is the title of the Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppie written by Kai Bird and Martin Sherwin, one of the main research sources I used in creating this novel.

Szilard: "[T]he Soviets will be sure to have the bomb before this decade is out."

  • An echo of John F. Kennedy's 1961 call to put a man on the moon "before this decade is out."

Szilard: "It'll start a stone rolling that'll gather enough poison moss to kill us all."

  • One of many great lines of dialog Oscar-winner Paul Dehn wrote for the original Planet of the Apes movie series; this one is spoken by Dr. Otto Hasslein in Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and it's apropos because that is a movie that contemplates branching timelines.

"Not the son of God," said Teller, still smiling. "The sun up in the sky."

  • Here, Teller is reversing Lt. Uhura's remark from the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Bread and Circuses," in which she says, "Well, don't you see? It's not the sun up in the sky — it's the son of God." Kirk and company have mistaken son-worshipers (that is, Christians) for sun-worshipers on a planet patterned after imperial Rome.

Szilard: "Ask yourself, then: which of us is the indispensable man as we move forward, him or me?"

  • Szilard is offering Oppie a choice between himself and General Groves. The title of the definitive biography of Groves, by Robert Norris, is Racing For The Bomb: General Leslie R. Groves, The Manhattan Project's Indispensable Man.

"Ah," said Einstein. "The man of the moment."

  • Another nod to the movie Quatermass and the Pit. In that film, Quatermass calls Canadian paleontologist Matthew Roney "the man of the moment."

Szilard: "I know you never saw Los Alamos — and I avoided it like death itself."

  • Leo is quoting the orangutan Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes (1968), in which Zaius says of the arrival of a human who could talk, "All my life I've awaited your coming and dreaded it, like death itself."

Von Neumann nodded. "I designed the calculating elements used in ENIAC, and I know they are as archaic as dinosaurs compared to what we will build here." He looked up as if envisioning it. "A whole new approach."

  • Johnny is paraphrasing fictitious Nobel laureate Dr. Richard Daystrom, who created the U.S.S. Enterprise's computers in the original Star Trek, but has come up with a better system. As he tells Kirk in "The Ultimate Computer," "I designed the duotronic elements used in your ship right now, and I know they are as archaic as dinosaurs compared to the M-5. A whole new approach."
Aside from Rob: According to James T. Kirk, at the age of twenty-four Dr. Richard Daystrom made the duotronic breakthrough that won him the Nobel and Zee-Magnees prizes — but did you ever stop to think about which Nobel Daystrom won?

Nobels are given in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Peace, and Economics. Not in math (the highest prize humans give in that area is the Fields Medal) and not in cybernetics or computer science.

So: Did computers based on duotronics represent some sort of fundamental physics breakthrough (perhaps involving quantally entangled pairs, or duos, of particles)? A change in what sort of work humans had to perform, thereby revolutionizing economics? Did they bring about a new level of peace in some way? Inquiring minds want to know!

Szilard: "Only a fool fights in a burning house."

  • Leo is quoting a Klingon proverb uttered by Kang in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Day of the Dove."

[Oppie] thought about Teller, about his strange love for ever bigger explosions, about that day Oppie had come into his office, the day that all of this solar madness had begun.

  • "His strange love" is a sly little reference to the title character in Dr. Strangelove. Teller is the person most frequently cited as a model for the war-monger character played by Peter Sellers in that film.

[Oppenheimer] spoke firmly, with conviction and — yes, damn it, yes; he was going to be in the center again — with elation.

  • A reference to Ray Monk's outstanding biography of Oppenheimer, published in the U.S. as Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center.

Oppenheimer: "Well, no. But it's like finding out another ice age is coming in a century or so. Or the opposite: that the polar caps are going to melt, and we'll have coastal flooding and insane hurricanes. What would we do about it? Nothing. Just go on squabbling as usual."

  • More Quatermass and the Pit, folks, this time Prof. Quatermass to Dr. Roney: "Roney, if we found that our Earth was doomed, say by climatic changes, what would we do about it?" Roney replies: "Nothing. Just go on squabbling, as usual." That line, from a 1967 movie, turned out to be sadly prescient about our world of today.

Oppie, at forty-two, was a good piece younger than either of them, and he had no desire to serve in loco parentis, mediating between the general and the genius, the soldier and the scientist, the militarist and the Martian.

  • A reference to The General and the Genius: Groves and Oppenheimer, the Unlikely Partnership That Built the Atom Bomb, a 2015 book by James Kunetka.

Groves heaved himself to his feet, looking pleased. "Gentlemen," he said, "we have just taken a quantum leap into Buck Rogers."

  • This is a paraphrase of a lovely line uttered by Oscar Goldman in "Canyon of Death," an episode of The Bionic Woman: "Now, we're going to take a quantum leap into Buck Rogers" (in that case, referring to the development of flying jet packs).

Mittelwerk — the Middle Works, named for its central location in Germany — was an innocuous and soulless moniker, the kind of banality that a civil servant in any bureaucracy would have been proud of.

  • My choice of the word "banality" was to invoke Hannah Arendt's crucial revelation about the nature of Nazism in her book: Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil

Oppenheimer: "Boy, you guys really play for keeps, don't you?" / Strauss had a wry smile now. "Yes, Dr. Oppenheimer. Of course we play for keeps."

  • Dr. Rudy Wells (Martin Balsam) and Oliver Spencer (Darren McGavin) in the 1973 pilot film for The Six Million Dollar Man: "Boy, you guys really play for keeps, don't you?" / "Yes, Dr. Wells. Of course we play for keeps."

Drake was a good empirical research scientist: steady, reputable, occasionally brilliant.

  • Oppie is thinking about Frank Drake — the same one who went on to become a leading figure in SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence — but he's assessing him in the language Spock uses to describe Dr. Leighton in the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "The Conscience of the King."

Since Day One, since Hiroshima burned, he had pushed and fought for nuclear arms control, for rational men and women to pledge never again to use the weapons he'd made possible.

  • Day One: Before Hiroshima and After, by Peter Wyden, is a terrific book about the Manhattan Project, and the dramatic TV miniseries derived from it, Day One (starring Brian Dennehy as Groves, David Strathairn as Oppie, and Michael Tucker as Szilard) is by far the finest dramatization of the project ever made.

[Oppenheimer] hadn't been paying much attention to what was up ahead; his gaze was mostly downward at the earth, a prisoner of gravity whose escape tunnel, carved out a spoonful at a time, had collapsed.

  • Debuting in 1989, Prisoners of Gravity was a Canadian documentary television series about science fiction and comic books; I was the most-frequent interview subject on the series.

[Oppenheimer] paused and looked out at the faces: scientists and politicians, humanitarians and statesmen, the best and the brightest.

  • Here Oppie is echoing Captain Kirk from the Star Trek: The Original Series episode "Whom Gods Destroy:" "They were humanitarians and statesmen, and they had a dream — a dream that became a reality and spread throughout the stars, a dream that made Mister Spock and me brothers."

Wernher had been named chief architect of the Saturn V, the giant rocket that, if all went well, would put the first man on the moon, but, to him, that was just one small step.

  • Wernher von Braun is echoing the first words ever spoken on the moon, by Neil Armstrong: "That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

Kitty: "We're pretty much fucked."

  • She's echoing the opening line of the novel The Martian by Andy Weir: "I'm pretty much fucked."

Gödel ... was already out there, as were Feynman and five of the newer crop of physicists, two of whom were women; the times were indeed a-changin'.

  • Oppie and almost all of his male contemporaries would be considered flagrantly sexist by contemporary standards — although I did my best to call out that sexism in Chapter 26, in which Kitty refuses to go to Princeton unless she, too, can work as a scientist there. Still, it wasn't until the 1960s that Oppie and his ilk really had to face up to the fact that women were becoming major scientists in increasing numbers, hence the line above, from a scene set in 1967.

    Oppie's thought here is, of course, a reference to the Bob Dylan song "The Times They Are A-Changin'." (For those who recall that Oppie had been out of touch with pop culture, note that when this Dylan song — the title track from his album of the same name — came out, Oppie had a 19-year-old daughter living with him; he certainly would have heard this hit song a lot.)

    I didn't choose the Dylan reference only because of its appropriateness to the moment, but also as a bit of irony. The Oppenheimer Alternative is filled with people who had or went on to win Nobel prizes, but Oppie himself never got one — a reality many consider unfair, especially given his seminal papers on what we now call black holes.

    But Bob Dylan did eventually get one, surprising himself and the whole world: in 2016, the Swedish Academy, feeling pressured to give the Literature award to another American, twenty-three years after the last one had taken the prize, named Dylan for his song lyrics, something some contend was unfair to the novelists, short story writers, and poets who had been hoping to receive the award.

Oppie missed flamboyant Leo, and Einstein the eccentric, gone a dozen years now, and the taciturn Fermi, who had passed five months before Einstein. Intellects vast and cool but oh so sympathetic, born in the last years of the nineteenth century — or, in Enrico's case, the first of the twentieth — intelligences greater than the common man's and yet as mortal as ... as his own.

  • Oppie is paraphrasing the opening of The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells; he does the same a bit further on in the book:

And, as Wells would have it, with infinite complacency men had still gone to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. But in the middle of the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

The opening paragraph of The War of the Worlds is as follows (with the bits I referenced boldfaced and underlined by me):

No one would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that this world was being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man's and yet as mortal as his own; that as men busied themselves about their various concerns they were scrutinised and studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might scrutinise the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of water. With infinite complacency men went to and fro over this globe about their little affairs, serene in their assurance of their empire over matter. It is possible that the infusoria under the microscope do the same. No one gave a thought to the older worlds of space as sources of human danger, or thought of them only to dismiss the idea of life upon them as impossible or improbable. It is curious to recall some of the mental habits of those departed days. At most terrestrial men fancied there might be other men upon Mars, perhaps inferior to themselves and ready to welcome a missionary enterprise. Yet across the gulf of space, minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic, regarded this earth with envious eyes, and slowly and surely drew their plans against us. And early in the twentieth century came the great disillusionment.

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