Monday, 19 July 2010

Hitler’s War (Harry Turtledove)

Hitler’s War

-Harry Turtledove

In the first few pages, Hitler’s War shows remarkable promise. In a new record for Turtledove, that promise is cast away within the first two chapters. I was a third of the way through it when I recognised an ugly truth. I was bored. I didn’t care what happened to the characters. I didn’t want them to live, or to die, or to make babies with their girls. I didn’t care about them in the slightest.

Hitler’s War is based around two promising PODs, rather than one. A famous Spanish Nationalist survives a plane crash that would have killed him. A famous German from Czechoslovakia is assassinated during the Munich Conference. I don’t see how the two of them interrelate, but perhaps it doesn’t matter. Hitler takes the assassination as a chance to start a war with the Czechs. Apart from the moments of “I’m a naughty boy” from Hitler (more akin to Herr meets Hare than real life), it works fairly well. Hitler did want a war with the Czechs and was disappointed when Chamberlain surrendered and let him rape the country. At that point, one chapter in, the story disintegrates.

The Turtledove books that are well remembered focused on a tiny number of characters. The Guns of the South, Toxic Spell Dump and Ruled Britannia only had a small number of main characters. The only book with a vast cast of characters that worked out near-perfectly was How Few Remain. The longer sets of books, particularly the Great War books, dragged on and on and on, with so much repetition that one wonders if Turtledove was writing for someone with poor short-term memory problems. I still have a fond space in my heart for the WorldWar books, but even they were stretched too far. Turtledove is not so much interested in the story as what happens to the people caught up in events. Sometimes this works. It just doesn’t work very often and it really doesn’t work for Hitler’s War.

Turtledove offers us what should have been an interesting cast of characters. There’s a German Jewish girl in Germany. There are soldiers from all sides and nationalities (yes, ALL!) There’s an American woman stranded in Germany. There are Japanese and American soldiers in China. This would be more impressive if they didn’t all blur together after a while into one vast mass of…boring people. None of them rise up to be interesting, or good or bad or whatever. There are few glimpses of what is happening with the overall war. The characters just are.

He does show us intriguing glimpses of his research. Historically, the Poles did sell out the Czechs. At the same time, of course, they were caught between Hitler and Stalin. (This point does get made in the book.) Even so, they passed up their best chance to stop Hitler right there and then. There are moments when he shows the tactics of the alternate war. There are moments when he repeats himself, a problem so excessively bad in his early works that it has spawned derision among the AH community. The book needed an editor. I know someone I could recommend, if Turtledove were interested.

The alternate European War is decidedly odd, to say the least. Germany attacks Czechoslovakia after the peace talks break down. The Spanish Civil War is sidelined, with the nationalists attacking and capturing Gibraltar. The Poles stay neutral. The USSR sends ‘volunteer’ units to fight the Germans. The French launch a tiny offensive that gets nowhere fast. The UK declares war, but otherwise does little. The Czechs lose to Germany. The Germans attack France and bomb England. The Russians take the chance to press demands on Poland, bringing in the Germans on the Polish side (!). The Japanese stab the Russians in the back. The German offensive against France stalls against Paris and is driven back, where it will probably be resumed in the next book.

There’s only one problem with this scenario.

It’s utter nonsense.

The Germans in 1938 were FAR weaker than Turtledove suggests. They had shortages in pretty much every area, and weak in trained cadre. A war of almost any duration would have run the risk of burning through all their stock. They would be attacking a tough opponent dug into the second-strongest defence line in Europe, with tanks and a tough little air force of their own. (The Czechs produced plenty of excellent war machines for Germany after the West abandoned them.) Their tanks were inferior to Western designs. I won’t even go into what happened to the Japanese when they faced the Soviets in OTL. They got their butts soundly kicked.

Turtledove, despite being branded the Master of Alternate History, has a nasty habit of using OTL as a guide to ATL. It never works out very well. He seems to combine World War Two with World War One and failed at both. It would not have worked out that way.

If Hitler really did launch Case Green, there would be a good chance that the Czechs could hold him off themselves, without help. If the French Army came over the border with just a division or two, they’d brush through the tiny force Hitler left to the west, even if they had a McClellan in command. They’d realise pretty quickly that Hitler had been bluffing and keep moving onwards into Germany. The Germans would find themselves caught in a two-front war (three-front if the Poles jump in as well) and running out of supplies. Perhaps some kindly soul would shoot Hitler and put an end to the war, or perhaps Berlin would fall and the allies impose peace.

The really annoying part of this book is that a lot of intriguing ideas are tossed in and then out again. Hitler faces a coup launched by the German military and survives – what happened then? We never get told. How was he so much stronger than in OTL 1938? Chamberlain faces a no-confidence vote and survives, somehow. What happened? Why? There are few overall images of how the war is progressing. Turtledove glosses over vast sweeps of detail that could have transformed the book from an absurdity to an interesting read. In one sense, the book is too long. In another, it is too short. It doesn’t do justice to the vast sweep of ideas, nor does it justify them.

There comes a time, in the life of every best-selling author, when he becomes editor-proof. A Tom Clancy. Stephen King or JK Rowling (and yes, a Harry Turtledove) does not HAVE to listen to an editor when he or she is told that the book needs a rewrite. They can merely threaten to take their name to another publisher to get their way. Their books degenerate into masses of poorly researched and badly-written text, barely showing hints of the great genius they once allowed to flourish. And then they lose popularity and wonder why.

Sic Transit Gloria…

(People interested in a proper look at a WW2 in 1938 would be advised to check out - http://www.changingthetimes.net/samples/darkvalley/on_to_berlin.htm)

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