Did you really think my alternate history series wouldn’t have any Harry Turtledove?
I’ve done regular reviews of some books in this series already.
Raw Feed (1994): Worldwar: In the Balance, Harry Turtledove, 1994.
Turtledove sets the novel in 1942 when the free nations of the world are struggling against the totalitarian systems of Nazism and Communism. At that time – in June 1942 to be precise – aliens show up. They are intent on conquering all of Earth.
The central theme of this book is the same question that Britain and America faced in allying with Russia against fascism: Is the devil you know better than the devil you don’t? For a peasant in the Ukraine, can aliens be worse than the German armies’ path of murder and destruction? Should Russia actually help Nazi Germany develop the A-Bomb? Should America work with the Japanese? And, most heart-wrenching of all (and the most powerful conflict in the book) should the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto actually help their Nazi oppressors against the “Lizards?”
This is a long, but never dull, novel that features a large cast of both real and fictional characters through whose eyes we see the various political and military theaters of the war. Oddly, most of the real characters appear on stage briefly and aren’t terribly interesting in themselves. The exceptions are Otto Skorzeny and George Patton. All the military action in this book is well-done, and Skorzeny leads a daring commando raid to retrieve spilled weapons grade uranium from a destroyed alien “Race” ship. This marks at least the second appearance in sf of Skorzeny. (He was in Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle’s Inferno.) The ship was destroyed by the huge Nazi artillery piece Dora – Turtledove doesn’t give an adequate impression of exactly how many men were needed to operate and support Dora. Another bit of WWII esoterica from our own history involves the Russian ploy of using bomb carrying dogs to destroy tanks. Here it works. In our history, the project was a complete failure since the dogs were accidentally conditioned to home in on the shape of Russian tanks and the smell of Russian fuel and not Nazi tanks. The winter battle at novel’s end where Patton defeats a large alien army on the plains of Illinois was well done, and a sense of Patton the man is conveyed. Another real character is a man I’d never heard of before – Mordechai Anielewicz. He’s a chemical engineer who turns out to be a clever guerilla leader during the Nazi occupation of Warsaw.
In addition to the fictional characters providing a viewpoint for the war, most of them are shown learning something about themselves, the world, and confronting their hatreds and prejudices. Panzer Major Heinrich Jäger finds himself falling in love with Russian Air Force pilot Ludmila Gorbunova. The Jewish guerillas he works with in recovering alien uranium force him to think about the Nazi atrocities he’s turned a blind eye to. A Chinese peasant woman is a victim of not only Japanese attacks (there aren’t any really sympathetic Japanese characters in this novel) but is also exploited by a native man and captured by aliens. Yet, she discovers she can be as smart and as adaptable as any man, and finds love (after being widowed and her child killed by the Japanese) with Bobby Fiore, an American minor league baseball player who surprises himself by falling in love with her and being excited about the prospect of having a child with her. (Indeed, I thought having so many American characters as members of a baseball team was a nice, original touch – not many baseball players in sf stories – as well as playing on Turtledove’s love of baseball.) His teammate, Sam Yeager, begins to think about the place of America’s blacks as he evacuates Chicago through black slums and sees how blacks react – and are reacted to – by troops fighting the Lizards. He also has a lot of fun helping out in the early stages of the Manhattan Project as well as being guard/caretaker/liaison/sort of friend to two captured Lizards. His years (and I liked this touch, another homage of Turtledove’s to the genre he loves) of reading sf pulps – especially those atomic stories (though he quickly realizes sf pulps are no substitute for real science education) – have equipped for this and for thinking about the consequences of an alien invasion. He is the book’s most engaging character along with Moishe Russie.
Russie is an ex-medical student in Warsaw who is revered by the Jews in the ghetto since the alien invasion seems to be an answer to his prayer for deliverance. Understandably, the Jews cooperate with the aliens against the Nazis. However, as time goes by, they realize that their radio broadcasts detailing Nazi atrocities are not widely believed in the rest of the world where the struggle goes on to avoid the alien yoke. Indeed, they are seen as collaborators by most. Russie also comes to realize that he is just a pawn for the Lizards. He learns that humanity, like the other two intelligent races conquered by the Race in their history, will never be an equal in the Lizard empire. In the most agonizing and powerful section of the book, Russie decides to sacrifice himself, his family, his neighbors, and co-religionist and refuse to acquiesce to Lizard demands. It’s better, he decides, that the Jews suffer rather than all humanity end up as slaves. (The Lizards are unwilling/unable to carry out their threats against his family. However, they edit his recording of defiance into another propaganda broadcast). David Goldfarb, an RAF radar man, dwells on his Jewish heritage and the pleasures of life sweetened by the prospect of death as he flies what are, in effect, AWACS missions against the Lizards. (They are necessary because the Lizards, of course, fly jets. Most of the military tech of the Lizards is about equivalent to modern weapons and munitions.) However, he’s mostly there to give a view of the Lizard-Human war on the Western European front (and the developments in the Axis-Allied war there). There are also many other characters, all interesting if minor. I especially liked the American soldiers (many WWI vets or members of that baseball team) battling aliens in America in well done scenes which capture the emotions I suspect men seeing combat for the first time feel. The combat scenes where Jäger and his fellow tankers exploit the rigid tactics of the Lizards to defeat them (at least on a small level in a few engagements) even with inferior equipment.
The aliens are also well done (if you accept, like all of Turtledove’s aliens, they only deviate from human psychology on one or two points), sympathetic, and interesting. We see the war from the point of view of some alien tankers, an alien captured and tortured by the Japanese, an alien intelligence analyst, and the commander of the expedition. The aliens two defining characteristics are an extreme conservatism and an extreme rigidity which makes them incapable of imagining scenarios that deviate from past experience and very slow to adapt to them. After conquering two other races with no problem, the aliens expect to walk over us in no time. They last reconnoitered Earth in the twelfth century and fully expect it to be unchanged. Of course, they get a rude awakening. There are shades of Vietnam here as the Lizard forces rapidly become demoralized after facing an opponent much better armed, much more adaptable, and much more stubborn than thought. Not only are the Lizards slow to change their rigid, predictable tactics, but they face strange new weapons that, in their technological state, they never considered. Specifically, they find the concept of artillery an unexpected alternative to missiles – though Germany is developing the latter. Coming from worlds of much less water, the concept of a navy is totally alien to them, and they never really do catch on to the military and logistical value of sea transportation. Further adding to the Afghanistan/Vietnam analogy is the Lizard addiction to ginger first fostered by a Chinese collaborator who eventually pays for this with his life when the intelligence analyst alien, Drefsab, kills him. At first I thought this was a clichéd touch – aliens conveniently addicted to common Earth substances – but I think Turtledove is simply building on the above analogy. Some lizards eventually began to question whether they should even have tried to invade. Others suggest nuking Earth – the aliens have lots of nukes – but the commander refuses. The colony ships are close behind, and he’s not about to be the first commander of a conquest expedition to not be able to carry out his orders.
However, the novel is subtitled “In the Balance” and the aliens start to understand important things about humans. Drefsab speculates Earth’s oceans and mountain ranges fueled a technological arms race among Earth empires which couldn’t easily conqueror their neighbors. (I suspect historian Turtledove got this idea from historian William McNeill’s The Pursuit of Power.). He correctly reasons that human sexuality and families are the basis of our societies and politics. (Lizard males do everything in their Empire with anonymous mothers – Lizards only mate in season – being reserved for reproduction.) There is an ominous implication that the Lizards will start to effectively terrorize man. At novel’s end, the humans are making progress on an A-Bomb and Patton gives the Lizards a major defeat in America, but the Lizards have discovered the importance of petrochemicals to man’s war machine and begin to effectively target refineries. Still, the aliens aren’t all bad. The alien commander is genuinely horrified by Treblinka and sees man as needing saving from his own savagery. He can’t understand why the Jews would aid their old oppressors rather than submit to the Lizards. This is an exciting, well told book despite a lot of characters. It gets a lot of strength from its inherent conflict. But Turtledove also is good at bringing his world to life with details and well-realized characters. I think his talent and this story could sustain a series of good books not only on the war but its effects on human psychology, politics, and technology after (presumably) the aliens are defeated.