First Edition, 1984, Chatto and Windus,
Republished by Overlook Press, 2001
In a time when men were born free, and Cyclon was the word for
a sudden whirlwind, two brothers called Oppenheimer had a horse
ranch in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos.
From the Rocky Mountains, the great divide, the Rio Grande runs
straight south, like marrow through the bone-harsh country of the
pueblo Indians, before it bends to make the long border with Mexico
and empty itself in the Gulf. It is a fossil-red desert scarcely
less virgin or cruel than when the explorer de Vaca first saw it,
elevated by his ordeal as a slave of the Indians to a shaman among
them. Or when Coronado toiled over this petrified sea in his dream
of the mythical Seven Cities, and first saw the earth-shaped fortress
mesa of Acoma. It was always a place where people came to start
again, a land where people could imagine they had left a great deal
behind. A wasteland which navigators remembered and forgot again,
while nothing changed for the Indians of the pueblos: of the double
mud-and-straw pueblo of Taos under a sacred mountain, with its roof
ladders and protruding beams; of Walpi perched on the desert wind
on a one-way crag; of Zuni on the Colorado, and lofty Acoma, and
the cave-cities of Mesa Verde.
For ten years Robert had heard people at radical gatherings talk
of justice and revolution. But sitting next to this simple man Robert
felt justice, revolt and mankind very close. Close as these labourers,
this hot dry wind, and the food in their basket. Nelson was a fellow
he would not mind being influenced by.
Under the windy coupe roof they exchanged excited grins. This was
important, and they all felt it.
‘I’ve left so much of it behind. Haven’t I, Steve?’
Kitty had suddenly looked around.
Steve was gazing ahead up into the mountains, chin on thick freckled
arms. The two men sat close to her because of the wind.
‘That’s okay, Katie,’ Nelson called softly. ‘You
put in your time back in Youngstown with the best of us. Bob, I
remember Katie in Paris, after Joe. If I hadn’t stopped her,
she’d have gone straight to Barcelona. Lost cause or no. You’d
have laid your life on the line.’
‘Would I?’ Kitty threw them an uncertain look, and
saw Steve’s quick nodding grin of admiration. Robert was listening.
With a little frown, she stared ahead over the wheel. A deep flush
mounted to the roots of her hair. ‘Well,’ she said indistinctly,
‘I guess nothing’s that clear to me any more.’
In the most innocent possible way General Leslie Groves had always
wanted to go to Washington. But Groves had already detected and
was refining another power the scientists paid no attention to,
the power that linked their work to ordinary people. Alone at night,
trying to hold his moist bulk still in the blackened pullman berth
while his khaki uniform relaxed on a hanger, Groves was aware that
he was still not able to remember what Urey, Fermi and Compton of
the Uranium Committee told him for more than a few hours after they
said it. While they were explaining, it all seemed perfectly clear.
Then, in the relief of being on his own again, Groves would be left
with a pleasant sensation of Olympian clarity that lifted him far
above the pathetically ignorant people of the trains and towns.
But quickly the Olympian clarity would vanish from Groves’
mind, just like invisible ink, and he would find himself back among
ordinary people feeling ordinary emotions and unable to remember
the differences between electrons, solids, mass and time, or between
fission or fusion, where they all the same thing. Groves was much
too sure of his own heroic qualities to accuse himself of stupidity.
And he certainly had no trouble remembering the mysterious superiority
that lingered after the meetings. So Groves elevated his ignorance
to a mystery and called that mystery Secrecy.
The last hours in San Francisco of charm and friendship had dispersed
the unnatural hold of the mind-god back in New Mexico, blown away
the poison of Lawrence’s pursuit of the elements. Now all
the fine heady friendship of the evening felt just a sham. Robert
had put it over on Haakon with the security rules. He felt a panicky
guilt for both of them toward poor General Groves. Groves had nothing
creative to give the fission project but this security system he
was so proud of, and which he and Haakon had just broken. Robert
felt the emotion of someone caught spreading evil gossip about a
‘You know George Eltonton?’
‘The English fellow at Shell Oil?’ Robert frowned,
tugging his ear. Hearing his friend’s formal tone Haakon turned
‘Many...most of them. Your brother knows.’
‘Steven Nelson?’ Robert’s murmur sounded in his
ears like rumbling of boxcars.
Haakon nodded. ‘ But it is the Kremlin,” Haakon said,
‘the International that requires this, the information.’
‘Haakon think what you are saying!’ Robert heard himself
mutter. He repeated it. ‘That is high treason.”
But at the word ‘Kremlin’, Robert’s concentration
finally broke tether from the dense affections of the evening. It
flew out in desolate loneliness across the face of the sloping world.
In the refrigerated breeze in front of the icebox, staring into
his old friend’s too-handsome face under the wicker light,
the flesh of Robert’s illusion fell from his mind. The bones
stood clear. He was Dr Oppenheimer, head of the US Atom Bomb Project;
answerable to the President in Washington, but with a moral commitment
to the poor and helpless of the camps, the world revolution - like
being a tiny clapper, tethered inside heavy vibrating walls of some
huge ideological gong. A small figure on a great open plain between
two silent waiting hosts.
A horn blew, somewhere back toward base quarters. In his mind the
Director saw Frank, Isidor and the rest throw themselves face down,
soles toward Point Zero, in their sunglasses and sunburn cream.
Mortal men averting their eyes from the magnificence to come. With
his hat off under the low concrete, Robert imagined all the hidden
cameras and instruments, whirring, tuned for miles around. And he
was shaken by a blinding exaltation so intense he thought he would
faint. He scarcely noticed strange face glancing around at him in
the instrument glow. Or some young man’s face chattering insanely
about shutting the whole thing down.
And he could feel it now, moving near on the Tornado’s great
Standing in the door frame, shrunken wasted and pure, Doctor Oppenheimer
felt it coming: unity of all things. And in his heart a tender welcoming
cry rose up.
Allison’s voice was consumed in a rending, thundering double
shock that bumped the air. Robert lurched hard against the post.
Then drew back his hand and looked.
And backwards out the bunker door, glowing south in the night as
far as you could see, was a strange new light. Brighter, whiter,
and younger than any day. Lighting the cactus, mesquite and far
away San Andreas slopes, with a black-and-whiteness beyond pigment.
With the thunder now rolling in his ears and hearing shouts and
cries behind him, hands hitting and tugging him, Robert thought
in a dream: But no one saw, no one saw.
Now a month after Chairman Gray and Morgan had overruled Ward Evans’s
favourable vote and handed down their decision, Robert went out
of Olden Manor through the kitchen door. He shuffled vaguely down
toward Princeton village. A half hour later, Robert was turning
into Nassau Street when he caught sight of a familiar head of woolly
white hair coming his way. With a sudden shame he started the other
‘Doctor Oppenheimer! The very man I want to see.’
‘Thank you.’ Robert frowned apologetically. ‘Sometimes
that is easier for others. How I have missed pure work.’
The scholar sat beside him on the wooden bench and answered the
confession with a little blowing sound. He waggled his head humorously.
‘You do not need such ornaments.’
Robert had turned sideways on the bench. He drew one knee up.
‘I would be interested to hear...how is gravity coming along?’
‘Ah-ha! The Grand Unifying Theory!’ the German whispered.
'But you know, I have been thinking. Please light that pipe. I
have thought. Ach! What a weapon gravity would make.’
'Yes,’ Robert agreed, feeling the laughter come. ‘We
could reverse it to get rid of the evil ones.’
‘And lighten it for the good!’ Einstein burst out.
On the shady bench between the chestnut trunks, the two rumpled
professors could not stop their tragic laughter for a half minute.
Then they sat still in deep understanding.
‘You never did any war work?’ Robert finally said.
‘Oh yes,’ Einstein nodded pensively. ‘A neat
little guidance system for torpedoes...I could not resist.’
‘But listen...’ The old scientist hesitated. He leaned
closer. ‘My dear boy, if I could have imagined that it would
lead to ziss. I would happily have remained a clock-maker!
A clock-maker who listens to Bach Passions in the chapels of the
There was an emotion between the colleagues; a special moment,
the kind of moment which must not be interrupted by intrusions from
‘Come, let me buy you a milkshake, Oppenheimer’ The
old man was bustling to his feet. ‘Ziss American invention
is so cooling to inflamed tonsils, like mine last month. I will
never lose my gratitude for milkshakes.’
Robert smiled. ‘Do you think they will work on consciences?’
‘Oh no, never!’ Einstein stopped him with a polite
anxiety. ‘Our consciences must remain inflamed!’
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