But the prolific science-fiction writer has strong memories of watching an episode of the Six Million Dollar Man, the 1970s action series featuring Lee Majors as steely-eyed bionic man Col. Steve Austin. This particular storyline featured Austin tracking down a plane carrying an atomic warhead that has crashed on an island is the South Pacific. While there, he encounters an old Japanese soldier who had remained hidden for decades and therefore missed the news that the Second World War had ended. It wasn’t so much the novel premise that hooked the teenage Sawyer but the unusual sentiment expressed by Austin about how the United States ended the war by dropping atomic bombs on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. He expressed regret, telling the old Kamikaze pilot that “a lot of us wished it had never happened.”
“It was the first time I had ever heard anybody say that it wasn’t a necessity,” says Sawyer, in an interview with Postmedia from his home in Mississauga. “It wasn’t the only way to end the war. It wasn’t the logical, rational, greatest-boon-for-the-greatest-number utilitarian decision that it has always been presented as in history books. This has been percolating in the back of my mind.”
As with the creation of many Sawyer novels, this percolation would end up mixing with a number of other factors in the lead up to his 24th novel. There was plenty of research, an intriguing what-if scenario, the author’s growing fascination with some of the real-life figures behind the dawn of the atomic age and a desire for him to break new narrative ground by entering the trippy subgenre of “alternate history.”
It all fits into Sawyer’s approach to writing these days. The multiple Hugo and Nebula award winner, who was named a Member of the Order of Canada in 2016, admits his primary motivation as a novelist is to challenge himself and make things “difficult.” The Oppenheimer Alternative is entirely populated by historical figures and set in the historical backdrop of the 1930s to mid-1960s America, all of which required meticulous research. That included getting inside the head of titular physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, who Sawyer presents as an intensely flawed and conflicted man haunted by his role leading efforts to build the bomb as head of the Manhattan Project. Of all the real-life characters in the book, it was Oppenheimer who intrigued Sawyer the most. Unlike a number of his peers, he never wrote an autobiography to shine light on his inner life. More importantly to Sawyer, he never had the opportunity for redemption in real life. This alone would have made him rich fodder for any novelist. But when you are one of science-fiction’s most successful writers, there are certain expectations. So Sawyer decided to fold in a twist by having Hungarian physicist Edward Teller’s research lead to the discovery that the sun is set to destroy the entire inner solar system by the year 2030. This forces Oppenheimer to team up with Albert Einstein, computing pioneer John von Neumann and rocket designer Wernher von Braun to save mankind.
It’s an intriguing what-if scenario, but the heart of the novel remains the ethical and moral ramifications of dropping the bombs, acts that Sawyer says are now ripe for a sober re-evaluation on the 75th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki being destroyed.