Acclaimed author Lydia Millet's latest novel is a black-comic tour de force depicting atomic bomb creators Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard. Despite being dead, these scientists are spotted in Santa Fe by a shy librarian named Ann. She becomes convinced they are real and, to the dismay of her husband, devotes herself to them. The trio quickly acquire a sugar daddy a young pothead millionaire from Tokyo and a vast cult following of hippies, Christians, New Agers, bikers, A-bomb survivors, and curious anthropologists who join them on an RV pilgrimage to Washington, D.C. Heroes to some, lunatics or con artists to others, the scientists finally become messianic religious figureheads to fanatics who believe Oppenheimer is the Second Coming. This imaginative novel, rich with incident, brilliantly marries their journey to a history of atomic and thermonuclear weapons and to the emotionally intimate tale of a middle-class couple trying to stay hopeful about the future as they grow close to the men who gave birth to the nuclear threat.
In Millet’s surreal fifth novel, three physicists—Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and Leo Szilard—are transported from their posts during the Second World War to the year 2003. After overcoming the usual time-travel quandaries—shock at children shouting expletives, unfamiliarity with power steering—the trio, being geniuses, quickly adapt. Szilard starts quoting rap lyrics. In penitence for their contributions to the creation of the atomic bomb, they set off on a mission to promote world peace, only to have their message hijacked by religious fanatics who believe that Oppenheimer is a herald of the Second Coming. The scientists want to stop nuclear proliferation, but it’s the proliferation of stereotypes—relentlessly chipper New Agers, soulless Wall Street executives, militant evangelicals—that sabotages the author’s attempt at lyrical transcendence.