Strange Horizons, 18 – 25 July 2005

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"Niels Bohr and the Sleeping Dane" by Jonathon Sullivan

In “Niels Bohr and the Sleeping Dane,” Jonathon Sullivan crosses the genre boundaries in several directions at once, combining science fiction with fantasy, quantum mechanics with Jewish mysticism with Danish legend, in a historical setting. It is 1943, and the great physicist Niels Bohr is attempting to escape German-occupied Denmark for England and eventually Los Alamos, where he will work on the atomic bomb. With him are several other Jewish refugees, including young David Goldblum, who has recently been admitted to Cambridge to study physics. Up to now, he has hesitated to tell his father, who would have preferred him to study the Kabbalah, but David knows he does not have his father’s gift. His personal problem becomes secondary, however, when the Gestapo stop their train, looking for Jews and particularly for Niels Bohr.

The separate elements of this story will be familiar to readers, but Sullivan fits them together into quite a seamless whole. The setting is vividly drawn, and the characters are distinct, living personalities, in particular David’s father, Itzak, whose wisdom and quiet moral courage evoke our admiration.  At the one point where the reader might balk at accepting the presence of the supernatural, Sullivan’s explanation makes Itzak’s power credible:

    [Bohr] turned back to Papa. “I have to ask you. What did you do to that Gestapo man?”
    “Barely a man,” Papa said, shrugging. “A real man I could not have managed. He was more of a golem.”
    Bohr frowned. “I beg your pardon?”
    “A golem. A fairy tale monster, yes? An empty creature of wood or clay that can be filled with the will or another. A strong man cannot be manipulated so easily. But a golem . . .”
    Margrethe leaned forward to listen. The two partisans were whispering with their father. Bohr shifted in his seat to retrieve a pipe from his pocket. “A golem.”
    “A man like that,” Papa said, “is empty. You just have to know how to fill him. Dress him up in an imposing uniform, fill his head with grand ideas, and point him at a target. The poor Germans.”

The story is not entirely flawless. At one point in the beginning, when David remarks that he and his father would soon be on another train, bound for the camps, it is not quite clear whether this is from the point of view of the David in the story, or from his later perspective as narrator.  But on the whole, this is a well-done piece, admirably  humane.

The link to the pictures of the castle of Kronborg is a particularly nice addition to this story.