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


SFWRITER.COM > Novels > The Oppenheimer Alternative > Notes for the Cover Artist

The Oppenheimer Alternative

Notes for the Cover Artist

The Oppenheimer Alternative tells the story of J. Robert Oppenheimer and the greatest group of physicists ever assembled: the Manhattan Project, which created the world's first atomic bombs. Oppie was scientific director at the Los Alamos Laboratory, and General Leslie R. Groves was the actual head of the project.

But instead of all those great minds dissipating back into industry or academia after the end of World War II, in this novel, Oppie keeps them together to find a way to stave off an impending crisis.

Their research into fusion has revealed that the sun is unstable and that it will eject its entire outer layer (the photosphere) around the year 2030, destroying the Earth. In order to save humanity, they propose an exodus to Mars (which they still believe to be a canal-covered world with green vegetation) using the real-life Project Orion atomic-bomb-propelled spaceships.

After the first atomic explosion, Oppie said, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." This ultimately uplifting novel is a tale of redemption as those scientists seek to become life, the saviors of our world.

Although set in the past (1938 to 1967), this is a hard science-fiction novel as much as it is an alternate-history novel. The art might suggest science, physics, and so on.

The main character in the novel is J. Robert Oppenheimer. Google will provide you with many black-and-white images of him. Please note that Oppie's eyes are famously a very arresting light blue; in the novel I describe them as looking like opals.

Oppenheimer's porkpie hat (wide brimmed, see photos online — not like the porkpie Walter White wore on Breaking Bad) is considered his signature. Please don't depict Oppenheimer or anyone else smoking.

If you choose to depict J. Robert Oppenheimer on the book's cover, may I please ask you not to depict him smoking? Yes, Oppie was a chain smoker, but I lost my younger brother Alan Sawyer to lung cancer and find such imagery disturbing (it was hard enough for me to write all the smoking Oppie does in this novel). Many thanks!

Besides Oppenheimer, the other main characters (all real historical figures):

  • Wernher von Braun
  • Edward Teller
  • Albert Einstein
  • Leo Szilard
  • Richard Feynman
  • General Lesley R. Groves
  • Enrico Fermi
  • Hans Bethe
  • John von Neumann
  • Haakon Chevalier
  • President Harry S Truman

Sadly, historical reality means this book doesn't have many female characters, but the two main ones are:

  • Kitty Oppenheimer (Oppie's wife)
  • Jean Tatlock (his mistress)

Indeed, the story is a bit of a love triangle between Robert Oppenheimer, Kitty Oppenheimer, and Jean Tatlock.

Still, I suspect Oppie himself is the only figure you'll definitely need to illustrate; the others are up to you.

The two main settings are the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico, circa 1945, and the Institute for Advanced Study in New Jersey, circa 1950 (especially Fuld Hall).

Among the items depicted in the novel that might make good foreground or background elements in your illustration are the following. Illustrations should be easy to find online, or contact the author (details above) for assistance.

  • Oppenheimer's porkpie hat
  • The sun and its angry surface: prominences, etc.
  • The Project Orion atomic-bomb-propelled spaceship project
  • Solar spectra (spectrums / spectrographs)
  • The Doomsday Clock, as depicted often on the cover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, and the Bulletin itself
  • Feynman diagrams
  • The Trinity Test
  • Trinitite (the distinctive green glass created by the Trinity explosion)
  • The planet Mars as it was formerly depicted with canals
  • The planet Mars as depicted with craters in the Mariner 4 photographs
  • The "Fat Man" and "Little Boy" atomic bombs
  • The 1945 atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
  • The Nobel Prize in Physics (the gold medallion)
  • The Enrico Fermi Award (also a gold medallion)
  • Wernher von Braun's spaceship and space station designs, as depicted in Collier's magazine in the 1950s (beautiful retro designs!)
  • V-2 rockets
  • The Chicago Pile 1 (first atomic reactor)
  • John von Neumann's computer at the Institute for Advanced Study
  • Black holes
  • Jupiter and its four largest moons
  • President Truman's "The Buck Stops Here" desk sign
  • A four-leaf clover
  • Equation-filled blackboards
  • The Bhagavad Gita (Hindu holy text)
  • Transcripts of "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer," his security hearing
  • Documents with security-censored portions blacked out.

The full text of the novel is attached, so you can easily search on any of the above.

Looking forward to whatever you come up with!


And here is what the artist, Scott Grimando, did come up with (click image for a larger version).

[The Oppenheimer Alternative US Cover]

From top to bottom (more or less), we have:

  • The planet Mars
  • A spacescape
  • Oppie's trademark porkpie hat Oppie's famously blue eyes
  • An Orion atomic-bomb-propelled spaceship
  • Roiling clouds of an atomic explosion

Scott's painting of Oppie is based on a public-domain photograph from the Los Alamos National Laboratory, as you can see here:

[LANL photo of Oppie] [The Oppenheimer Alternative US Cover]

More Good Reading

Notes for the cover artist of Far-Seer

More about The Oppenheimer Alternative
Robert J. Sawyer's awards and honors
What's a Rob Sawyer novel like?
Review index


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