The Berlin Project, by Gregory Benford (Simon & Schuster/Saga Press 978-1-4814-8764-1, $26.99, 480pp, hardcover) May 2017
From his wonted haunts in the intergalactic realms of space, Gregory Benford has come down to Earth—a venue he has not totally neglected in the past, given such seminal and well-received quasi-naturalistic works as Timescape—to produce a counterfactual novel in the manner of Harry Turtledove. Obviously a keen scholar of the mode, both as Turtledove practices it and as other writers who produce mainstream thriller and suspense books of this ilk deploy these techniques, Benford has adapted his style and voice to achieve a kind of plain yet gripping effectiveness akin to, oh, a Follett or a Michener or a Wouk. This means sanding down some of the poetry and recomplicated ideation. But what is not lost is the pellucid approach to scientific matters, the tight, deliberate engineering of the plot, and the pure humanity of the cast, the majority of whom are real-life figures reanimated by Benford’s pen.
Benford’s first smart stroke is to have chosen as his central protagonist a lesser-known person from a milieu where practically every historical individual was a bona-fide genius and outsized personality. As a writer who has done his own share of counterfactuals, I endorse this as a wise move. The world does not need another counterfactual novel with a played-out Mark Twain or central-casting General MacArthur in the lead role. Far better to tell a more interesting story from the POV of someone slightly off-center and less shopworn.
Thus, in his novel that focuses on the birth of the atomic bomb, circa 1938-44, Benford nominates for his lead one Karl Cohen, a scientist who does not even rate his own Wikipedia page, but who can be found in a subsection of the page of his boss, physicist Harold Urey. Cohen is pivotal because he had a scheme for faster production of the core components of the bomb, a path that was not followed in our timeline. By altering history to favor Cohen’s ideas, Benford leads us to his Jonbar Hinge: in 1944 (and at about the three-fifths mark of the novel), Little Boy, the first A-bomb, is dropped on Berlin.
Prior to that point, we have witnessed a painstaking, fascinating step-by-step reenactment, with suitable deviations from canon, of the scientific and technological journey to make that bomb. We start with Cohen’s arrival with his young French bride Marthe in New York in 1938. (The love between the two is an ongoing constant in the book, and well-drawn.) He gets a job at Columbia U. with Urey. And from there the precisely detailed chain-reaction of scientific and bureaucratic and martial interactions leads to the climactic moment. What seems inevitable or fated from our 21st-century POV is shown as contingent, accidental, or willed by sheer force of character. For a narrative that occurs ninety-percent in the lab, the tale is full of suspense. When Benford brings Cohen and unlikely spy Moe Berg into war-torn Europe on the trail of Heisenberg and the German bomb-making project, there is also some gripping face-to-face Nazi action.
And over all of this hangs a sense of the compression of major events into a small span of time. Cohen is often marveling over the immense changes he has lived through since 1938, and the reader too shares that sense of almost Homeric doings. A small coda set in 1963 tantalizingly gives us a brief glimpse of the altered world which Cohen & Company have wrought, as well as reinforcing our sense of estrangement and destiny.
Benford knows this world of R&D and academic science and government projects inside-out, and it shows in the clarity of the action. And of course all the actual engineering and physics is delivered in blackboard-crisp passages. Although painstakingly and extensively researched, this tale benefits from Benford’s intimate knowledge, which extends to his acquaintance with many of the actual scientists involved. And what a gamut of brilliance is on display, from Einstein through Bohr, Fermi, Teller, Szilard, Feynman and others. Benford limns them well.
Karl had heard Fermi refer to Leo Szilard as an “intellectual bumblebee,” for nurturing and enriching science freely and broadly. Quite right—Fermi and Szilard were opposites. Fermi was conservative, careful, methodical. Szilard was imaginative, flamboyant. Fermi seldom said anything he could not demonstrate. Szilard seldom said anything not startling and new. Fermi was humble and self-effacing. Szilard could not talk without giving orders.
Likewise, the military folks, particularly General Leslie Groves, receive their vivid moments center-stage.
One aspect lacking in Benford’s portrait of the era is any real engagement with the pop culture of the era. It’s an authentic omission, insofar as his characters are too obsessed with science to be hanging out in jazz clubs. But maybe just a glimpse of Kate Smith or Cab Calloway on the sidelines would have been nice.
The one exception to this lack is great stuff: Benford honors SF’s roots with an extended dramatization of the famous incident when government authorities came to John W. Campbell’s office to query him about the roots of the Cleve Cartmill story that seemed dangerously informed. Also, Heinlein’s conception of radioactive dust as a weapon is made much of. And lastly, an invented character, Rabbi Kornbluth, pays tribute to C. M. Kornbluth and his foundational story in this vein, “Two Dooms.”
As Benford says in his copious and intriguing “Afterword,” so much of our modern landscape was laid down by the events of World War II and its atomic climax that novels such as his hold many lessons for the present, and are not mere intellectual game-playing. The fact that the book is pure dramatic and human-interest entertainment as well is just added value for your money.