My favourite opening of any book ever is the first paragraph of Richard Rhodes’s masterful nonfiction giant, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Whenever I am asked about my favourite books, I read it aloud. You should do the same. Go on. I’ll wait.
In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leó Szilárd waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilárd told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green. Szilárd stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.
Szilárd, a Hungarian physicist, has just invented the chain reaction that makes liberation of atomic energy possible—it takes Rhodes a while to get to that. But that paragraph has already set off ideas colliding and splitting and exploding in our brains. I love everything about it: the perfect cadence, the confident sketch of grey rainy London, the hint of Szilárd’s inner turmoil—and most of all, the sudden transformation of the mundane into the wondrous. Rhodes may be writing what he calls verity, applying the craft of fiction to real events, but that moment captures the very heart of science fiction.