Book Review: The Berlin Project by Gregory Benford
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction, Alternate History
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Saga Press (May 9, 2017)
Length: 480 pages
Author Information: Website
It’s hard to be a fan of alternate history fiction these days without running across your fair share of alternate World War II stories, but from the start, it was clear to me that The Berlin Project was a different breed. With a heavy focus on the historical details and science behind the building of the atom bomb, I confess this would not have been my usual kind of read at all. That said, I’m glad I read it, and as you will soon see, certain revelations eventually came to light that made me see this book—and appreciate it—in a whole new light.
Like many of its genre, The Berlin Project offers a fascinating glimpse into a crucial point in our history and asks the question, “What if?” Because of its scope and significant impact, World War II is especially rife with these scenarios, but rather than approach the theme from a conventional standpoint, author Gregory Benford instead asks, “What if the United States developed the atomic bomb a year earlier, in 1944?” As the story unfolds, it becomes clear that this is more than just a tagline for the book; a viable bomb at that time could have potentially set the US on a different path, and changed history in a lot of ways.
Through the eyes of the chemist Karl P. Cohen, a junior partner of the Manhattan Project, The Berlin Project tells the story of what might have happened had the Allies developed the first nuclear weapons in time to stop Hitler from killing millions of people. The book begins in 1938, following Karl as he returns from Paris, bringing home his new wife to meet his family. War is brewing in Europe, and the next few years sees Karl becoming more involved with the scientific community at Columbia University where he works. By the time the Manhattan Project is born, a number of famous scientists—many of whom were refugees from Europe—have already graced these pages including Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, Harold Urey, Leo Szilard, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller and more. With Karl’s discovery of an alternate solution for creating U-235, the uranium isotope needed to sustain a fission chain reaction, the atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” became ready by the summer of 1944, and its intended target became Nazi Germany instead of Japan.
The publisher description markets this as a thriller, but in reality, all the gripping elements may be lost among the details. Rather than fast-paced excitement, I found instead an exhaustive narrative on the history of the early years of WWII, followed by an even more intimidating and lengthy account on the development of nuclear fission. The book’s first half covered events leading up to the formation of the Manhattan Project and the development of the bomb, a section which read more like a history textbook rather than science fiction novel (and the regular inclusion of historical photos and scientific diagrams did little to dispel this feeling, fascinating as they were). I didn’t dislike this part per se, but neither was I getting any sense that The Berlin Project was supposed to be a suspenseful thriller. Clearly a lot of research was put into this novel, with compelling pieces of trivia thrown in here and there, but I have a feeling readers with little interest in the historical or scientific subjects will have a rough time of getting into this story.
Fortunately, pacing improves in the second half. Let’s just say things don’t go nearly as smoothly as the Allies had hoped, following the bomb’s deployment in Berlin. Karl leaves the safety of the laboratory for fieldwork as a spy in Europe, and we finally come face-to-face with the horrors of war, which had been a background concern up to this point, happening far away from our protagonist’s life in New York. With this development, we are truly in unknown territory, as the war escalates and events spiral out of control. And yet, even with this change in tone, I still felt that there was a muted quality to the espionage and suspenseful elements, holding the story back from being a true thriller.
I did, however, mention in my intro about experiencing a turning point while in the middle of reading this book, and that was when I discovered the author’s connection to the protagonist and many of the other characters. As Benford writes in his Afterword, nearly all the people depicted in The Berlin Project existed. He met and knew quite a few of them. Karl Cohen was his own father-in-law! Suddenly, many of book’s idiosyncrasies which I’d noticed began to make a lot more sense, from its distinct tone of authenticity to certain quirks and habits attributed to the characters which sometimes struck me as too specific or out-of-the-blue to be made up. Every document featured in the novel is also authentic, including letters and other Cohen family correspondence. I found all this information to be extremely cool, and admittedly these revelations do have a way of lending a certain je ne sais quoi to this particular alt-history.
To be sure, The Berlin Project is different kind of book among its genre, and I think how you do with it will largely depend on your interest in its topics as well as a willingness to see the plot developments through to the end. All told, your mileage on enjoyment may vary, but it’s nevertheless a fascinating novel that I’m glad I got a chance to read.