Monday, June 5, 2017

Gregory Benford: The Berlin Project

Gregory Benford
The Berlin Project

 The Berlin Project is an alternate universe tale that up to a certain point reads more like a docudrama, a depiction of real events that have been filled out in places by the writer.  The first part takes place in the days before WWII, of the beginnings of what was to become the Manhattan Project.   The movement of the scientists from the first implications of what "splitting the atom" to the realization that this could be a source of power and a destructive weapon unlike anything possible at that day.  There was at the same time the fear, supported by rumors and certain actions by German scientists, that Germany was also going along the same path.  Eventually it was decided to try to beat the Germans to the bomb.

Research then suggested that U235 would be the best for such a bomb.  The project then came to a decision point: what method would be most effective in separating out U235 from U238?  It is at this point, that the novel moves, at least as far as I can tell, completely into the alternate universe.  In the real world, it was decided to use the gas diffusion method, whereas in The Berlin Project, the powers-that-be went with the centrifuge method.

In the Afterword to the novel, Benford says that even by the '60s we knew that the centrifuge method would have been the best choice.  The decision in favor of the gas diffusion method  resulted in a delay of a year or more in developing the bomb, which then had little effect on the war in Europe.  The decision in the novel to use the centrifuge method gave the Allies the bomb a year earlier; in fact the bomb was ready just before the Normandy invasion.  This changed the outcome of the war.

I felt, to some extent that the novel had two parts.  The first, as I mentioned above, reminded me of a docudrama as it had considerably more detail leading up to the production of the bomb than I would normally expect in an alternate history tale.  What happens after the production and use of the first bomb is similar to what I usually find in an alternate history--a wide divergence from the events of the real world.   The detailed account of the scientific struggles to produce the bomb is over and is followed by a more action-oriented story and speculation as to the long-term effects of its use in the other world.

In the Afterword,  Benford tells us that most of the characters in the novel were real, including Karl Cohen, the POV character, who happens to be his father-in-law.  Considerable information obviously came from him.  In addition to physicists and mathematicians, other real people appear or are mentioned: James Benford (Benford's father was in the army during WWII) who appears in a walk-on role, as do these people who would be familiar to some, I suppose--Cleve Cartmill (author of a story that got the FBI interested), Anson McDonald (better known as Robert Heinlein, who also was the author of a story that got the FBI interested), John W. Campbell (who published both stories), Isaac Asimov, L. Sprague de Camp, and Arthur C. Clarke.

And, at one point in the novel, a character remarks: "tension, apprehension, and dissension have begun."   Those familiar with the work of Alfred Bester will recognize this.

Overall I found it a very interesting read.  While the details of the research and succeeding struggle to produce the bomb did not happen that way in our world, it gave me more of an idea of what those efforts were like, and also a closer look at the politics and in-fighting that tool place within the Manhattan Project, something I had never heard of before.

As I mentioned above, Benford provides an 18 page afterward  with a brief discussion of  the major events as it happened in the real world, and a brief biography of the major characters in the work.  Benford says that several of the characters are still alive today.  He also points out the irony of the development of the bomb in that many of the important scientists in the Manhattan Project were refugees from Europe, fleeing the Nazis. 

If you have read a number of novels and short stories by Greg Benford, I think you will be surprised by this one.  It's not like anything I have read by him so far.


  1. i haven't read Benford... sounds like a worthwhile book, though... maybe i'll give it a try... i read a bio of Richard Feynman that gave some inside dope on the Los Alamos project, so i'm a bit familiar with the events; also my dad knew some of the persons working there and he used to talk about them a little...

    1. Mudpuddle,

      Feynman, along with many others, is in the book. I think you would find it interesting.

  2. I have only read Timescape by Benford which I remember liking.

    I tend to like alternate reality stories and world war II is always interesting to me.

    Making his own father in law the main character in this book seems a bit bizarre.

    Nevertheless, as I want to read more science fiction this year, I may give this a try.

  3. Brian,

    If you read the book, you will understand why, and it makes perfect sense.

    _Timescape_ was an excellent read and one of the few time travel stories that was convincing.

  4. I must confess to complete ignorance to Benford's writings, therefore I am glad to read your review as it intrigues me. I will be looking the author up.

    The premise is interesting; something that I would not have contemplated. I really haven't given war strategies or the development of warfare weapons much thought. Or alternate realities for that matter.

    Hence I would like to read this book. Thanks!

    1. Sharon,

      I think you would enjoy this novel. It provides insight into the way scientists think and act, and it demonstrates that scientists are human also.

  5. Interesting indeed and right up my street! [muses]

    1. CyberKitten,

      It's an intriguing speculation on what the world might be like if some early decisions had been made differently.

    2. Alt-History is one of my favourite SF sub-genres. Next time you're at my place check out the Alt-History link on the right. LOTS of general SF over there too. I'm not reading enough of it ATM and that needs sorting... [grin]

    3. CyberKitten,

      OK, will do.

  6. Good analysis. I've always liked the contingency of life/history and this novel gave me room to show it plain and deep and true. Next novel is about quantum mechanics...

    1. Gregory,

      Thank you for your kind words. In the first part, the strong biographical/historical theme was evident in the novel.

      I'm looking forward to your next work. Any idea of its publication date?