New York Times best-selling author Gregory Benford creates an alternate history about the creation of the atomic bomb that explores what could have happened if the bomb was ready to be used by June 6, 1944. Karl Cohen, a chemist and mathematician who is part of the Manhattan Project team, has discovered an alternate solution for creating the uranium isotope needed to cause a chain reaction: U-235. After convincing General Groves of his new method, Cohen and his team of scientists work at Oak Ridge, preparing to have a nuclear bomb ready to drop by the summer of 1944 in an effort to stop the war on the western front. What ensues is an altered account of World War II in this taut thriller. Combining fascinating science with intimate and true accounts of several members of the Manhattan Project, The Berlin Project is an astounding novel that reimagines history and what could have happened if the atom bomb was ready in time to stop Hitler from killing millions of people.
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I really enjoyed this book -- the whole alternate history of the possibilities in WWII had nuclear bombs been developed in time to use them on Germany was fascinating, and the scientific basis made it all the more believable. The characters were interesting and really came to life for me, weren't at all one-dimensional -- and finding out that the author knew many of them personally (and was his main character's son-in-law in real life) explained why. Yes, the author went into a lot of detail about the development of nuclear fuel for the weapons, but since that was the historic turning point the entire story was based upon, and since the author also knows his nuclear science well, it was, IMO, hugely important to be explained in full. While I enjoy a good space opera or even an occasional action-filled alternate history, I also enjoy learning from the SF I read.
This book has a solid factual basis since the story was based on an intimate knowledge of the history involved, with just a few key details changed to provide the alternate possibilities explored -- one method of uranium separation chosen vs. another, when the reality was the reverse. I can understand that some folks, who prefer more action in their SF, might find it a dry and dusty story, but to me it seemed all the more realistic because of of the factual development; decisions were made in the book that, in hindsight, should have been made in reality. Also, WWII wasn't an event to be easily simplified, and the author didn't even try to; he just changed one of two pivotal events that changed the entire possible course of the war, and then explored how the changed history might have turned out. All in all, it was my second-favorite alternate history of WWII (my favorite being Connie Willis's Blackout/All Clear).
What I did NOT enjoy was the narrator. Not only was he dry and pedantic to the point of being soporific, but he kept misreading words and, in a couple places, entire phrases. He'd turn a word into a totally different word, changing the author's entire meaning. I'd gotten the Kindle version originally and then, wanting to also pay attention to my knitting while I was reading, got the audio book, so I did have the original text to compare the narration to. The narrator's regular misreading was really annoying and got more frequent as the book went on.
Additionally, why on earth would a narrator be chosen for a book containing so many foreign names, accents, and phrases in French and German who did not have even a SLIGHT understanding of pronunciation in either of those two languages? I don't know how to properly pronounce German, but if his French pronunciation was any indication, it was probably equally horrific. His attempts at French were so painful I found myself properly pronouncing the French phrases just to try to clear the anguish of his butchered attempts from my memory! He didn't do much better on the accents when people were speaking English, even native English speakers. He gave Richard Feynman such a ridiculously exaggerated Bronx accent that he sounded like a Mafia wannabe instead of a brilliant scientist! His attempts at accented English were also inconsistent, coming and going apparently as the mood struck him. Who made the mistake of choosing this narrator for this book, anyway?
Yes, this review is more about the narration than the story. The TL:DR version is: Loved the book, hated the narration! So anyone who's genuinely interested in a thoughtful, entirely plausible alternate history of nuclear weaponry in WWII, I recommend you read the book and leave the narration alone! I will be making sure never to listen to another book misread by this man, especially one that could have been so well done!
I got four hours into "The Berlin Project" hoping that a story would develop. Benford may be an SF grandmaster, but his true desire seems to be going back in time as a Jewish chemist/physicist to jump start the Manhattan Project. The pedantry is a real shame: the premise of developing an early A-Bomb is a good one for alternative history, but I just couldn't bear an hour of discussion about the challenges of enriching uranium in 1939. I'm not kidding. An hour. And that was just one small part.