This book sets out to tell what could have happened had the Allies been able to put together a working atom bomb by June 1944. The central scientific idea is that there was a quicker way to create the uranium isotope needed for the bomb, although in reality a combination of factors saw the scientists go down a different, slower route.
Be warned – spoilers ahead!
The main character for our purposes is Karl Cohen, the scientist with the key to making the bomb that much faster. As part of the Manhattan Project, he deals with a slew of scientific talent, many with their own foibles. The book lets us meet greats such as Einstein, Oppenheimer, Teller, Fermi and more. Unfortunately, from an entertainment perspective, some of this nuclear development is turgid and boring. The book sags. It’s full of strange asides that don’t make sense until later, when you discover that Cohen was not only a real person, but was the author’s father-in-law! (Indeed, much of the historical details, like documents, are real items appropriated by Benford to stiffen his book with authenticity.) When you have the connection, it does not make the pace that much faster, but at least you understand the author’s perspective. File it under interesting rather than enthralling. And if you are not a history buff, it might not even be interesting.
The second half of the book improves, as the bomb is used and the hell that is war – up to now kept well away from the scientists and their research – is brought up front and center. Cohen becomes involved almost at the sharp end, and the full thrust of the alternate history is let loose. This is where the book is at its best.
This is a fascinating novel for the way the author has built something out of his own family history. I get the impression this was his love letter to his family, and that wonderful appreciation fired his imagination enough to want to tell a story. The trouble, from my perspective, is that the story does not have the same impact or attraction as might have been expected. Perhaps this occurred because Benford chose to stick as close to the truth as he could, and made no concessions for the sake of dramatic effect.
To mix a metaphor or two, this was not a dud, but more of a near thing; a failed experiment that I am glad I read, if only to momentarily to bring back to life the (largely unsung) heroes who toiled to advance the cause of freedom in the face of great evil.