The lines between book genres can get a blurry as authors push against boundaries, trying to do something new with a story. Sometimes the result is a novel that incorporates the best parts of several genres, creating a category all its own. Gregory Benford’s The Berlin Project is one of those books—equal parts alternate history, spy thriller, history lesson, and physics textbook, it’s one of the smartest, most entertaining sci-fi novels of the year.
An Alternate History
Most alternate histories go big, pivoting on gonzo differences between the real and the what if? What would have happened if an electrical grid existed in the 18th century, or if World War II had been interrupted by an alien invasion. Benford (author of the Nebula Award-winner Timescape) takes a subtler approach, speculating as to what might have happened if the Allies had developed nuclear weapons a year earlier than they actually did. The basic knowledge and research had existed for some time, so the premise really isn’t much of a stretch, and Benford makes his own fun giving a capable but decidedly non-genius-level scientist, Karl Cohen, the epiphany to refine uranium in centrifuges, speeding up the process significantly and giving the Allies the capability to drop the first “A-Bomb” on Berlin in early 1944, around the time of the D-Day invasion.
Half the fun is getting there, as Karl is thrown in with the most brilliant minds in physics of the era, with names like Einstein, Fermi, Feynman, and Urey. The new history Benford sees stemming from this change is rooted in a realistic extrapolation of what we know about what really happened, and what would have been possible at the time. While the end result is speculative, it feels incredibly real.
A Science Textbook
To get us there, Benford explains the physics just enough to ensure readers will be able to appreciate just how incredible the Allies’ achievement is, without overwhelming us with math. He accomplishes this by making Cohen smart—but not too smart. Smart enough to understand the basic theories, but not so smart he doesn’t need the more complex stuff spelled out. Cohen spends a lot of time in discussions and lectures with the preeminent physicists of the time, getting simplified lessons in nuclear physics—often complete with diagrams. Instead of slowing the book down, these details are rendered like briefings in a space opera epics, filled with tension and infused with stakes. Cohen and the other scientists know they’re racing against the Nazis to bring to bear the most devastating weapon ever created.
[ean2[A History Book
Speaking of stakes, Benford never loses site of his characters’ motivations. Cohen has an extended Jewish family suffering at the hands of the Nazis; several other prominent scientists working on the project are themselves Jewish, or otherwise on the run from the Nazis. The characters are never given the luxury of operating in a world of pure theory or blameless work. They know their success will kill thousands of victims, many of them innocent, and they know if they fail, many more will die on the battlefield and in concentration camps. Benford reminds the reader that Hitler was originally regarded with contempt by the mainstream press and politicians, that America was woefully unprepared for war (when the A-Bomb begins to take shape, the only bomber large enough to carry it is a British plane, because the U.S. is so far behind), and the legendary Manhattan Project was a huge undertaking, involving dozens of the greatest minds of their generation.
A Spy Thriller
If this sounds like a slow, thoughtful book, think again. The race to solve the physics challenges and build a bomb is breathless and intense. The key players argue over approach, morality, and politics while scrambling for funding. As the fateful day comes, Cohen is forced to leave his young family behind and head to the front lines, first as an observer to ensure the bomb run goes as planned, then later as a spy to investigate the German effort to return fire. These sequences are tense and exciting, peppered with real-life personages that lend them plenty of believability.
Benford’s true achievement is making science, math, and chemistryas exciting as boots on the ground and planes in the air. Some of the seemingly fanciful moments—Cohen interviewing legendary sci-fi editor John W. Campbell after the government begins to suspect someone is leaking details of the nuclear program to his writers—are based on real events, serving to buttress the alternate history, which seems more realistic than some of what actually happened. The Berlin Project is a thriller, an alternate history, and a science-celebrating sci-fi story all in one. That’s what’s known as bang for your buck.