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The Oppenheimer Alternative
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
[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
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
[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
- A reference to Ray Monk's outstanding biography of Oppenheimer,
published in the U.S. as Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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
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
- 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
[Oppenheimer] paused and looked out at the faces: scientists
and politicians, humanitarians and statesmen, the best and the
- 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
- 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
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
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