Two recent books imagine a different history of science, but one handles the prejudices of the time much better than the other, says Jacob Aron
5 August 2020
In The Lady Astronaut series, a meteorite wipes out much of the US
Stocktrek Images, Inc./Alamy
NUCLEAR weapons haven’t been used in armed conflict since 1945, when the US dropped two bombs on Japan, killing hundreds of thousands of people. This is, in part, due to the man behind the bomb, J. Robert Oppenheimer, who later advocated for international nuclear arms control.
As head of the scientists within the Manhattan Project, the secret war effort to develop the bomb, Oppenheimer supported the race to beat Nazi Germany to unleashing the power of the atom, but clearly felt unease with his creation. At the detonation of the first test bomb on 16 July 1945, he is said to have quoted from Hindu scripture: “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”
In The Oppenheimer Alternative, sci-fi author Robert J. Sawyer gives the physicist a chance of redemption in an alt-history tale that sees him team up with Albert Einstein and John von Neumann to save the world. Shortly after the nuclear bombings, Oppenheimer and his colleagues realise that the sun appears to be slightly too hot – and, as a result, is set to blow up in 2028, taking Earth with it.
The scientists split into three teams: one to study the sun, one to explore options for space travel and evacuating humanity and one to look into unconventional ideas. And they are unconventional – the solution to the disaster, though grounded in theoretical physics, is so left field that I had to go over the final chapter to be sure of what I had just read.
Apart from the ending, Sawyer tries to deviate from real history as little as possible, making the book more like a fictionalised biography than a sci-fi novel. Every character is a real person and most of the events in the book did happen, which doesn’t leave much room for the end-of-the-world plot to develop.
It also means the book is stuffed full of the attitudes of the time, particularly towards women. I almost gave up when the first chapter opened with Oppenheimer and a friend discussing a “busty young woman” and the benefits of being able to pick up female students.
There are almost no women in the book, a failing that Sawyer seems to lampshade with an epigraph quoting rocket builder Wernher von Braun complaining that no publisher wants to pick up his novel about Mars because it “lacks a girl”.
You can argue that Sawyer is merely portraying the early 20th century as it was, but that seems a feeble excuse in an alternate history book.
A better way
The Lady Astronaut series by Mary Robinette Kowal shows a better approach. She imagines a world in which Thomas Dewey beat Harry Truman to become president of the US in 1948, accelerating the space race to see the first satellite launched by the US in 1952, rather than the real-life launch of Sputnik by the USSR in 1957. Shortly after, a meteorite hits the east coast of the US, obliterating much of the nation.
There is worse to come. The meteorite sets off catastrophic climate change that will make Earth uninhabitable in 50 years. Nations band together to form the International Aerospace Coalition (IAC) in an effort to get humanity off-world before it is too late.
The first book, The Calculating Stars, owes obvious inspiration to Hidden Figures, the book and later film about the black female mathematicians who calculated flight trajectories for NASA’s early missions.
“Kowal doesn’t rewrite the prejudices of the 1950s, but the book centres on the people fighting against them”
Elma York performs the same task for the IAC. She wants to put her wartime pilot training to good use as an astronaut, but only men – and white men at that – are allowed to go to space. York, who is also white, forces the IAC to accept astronauts of any gender or race.
Kowal doesn’t wave a magic wand and rewrite the prejudices of the 1950s. They still exist, but the book centres on the experiences of the people fighting against them.
A sequel, The Fated Sky, sees York take part in the first crewed mission to Mars, where even in deep space, black astronauts cannot escape racism. The recently released third book, The Relentless Moon, follows York’s friend Nicole Wargin, who must weed out saboteurs in a lunar colony who disagree with the plan to evacuate Earth while also contending with an outbreak of polio.
Kowal’s characters are smart, funny and, most importantly, flawed, making them seem more realistic than the real-life cast of Sawyer’s novel. The Lady Astronaut is a must-read series.
For more on the legacy of Hiroshima see “What Hiroshima teaches us about coronavirus and the future of humanity”
More on these topics: