-In the Balance
-Tilting the Balance
-Upsetting the Balance
-Striking the Balance
Looking back at the WorldWar books, I am struck with a burst of nostalgia for the time when I was a teenager and the series was new. WorldWar was my first introduction to Alternate History – although the series is hardly pure AH – and it still has a special place in my heart. Turtledove has actually pushed the overall series a little too far (a common complaint with Turtledove’s longer works), but I still admire the sheer chutzpah involved in writing the series. The level of research is impressive.
1942 – And the world is at war. (It’s not made clear exactly when the series takes place, but based on the text my guess is that the story starts just before the Battle of Midway.) America, Russia and Britain are at war against Germany, Italy and Japan. The war is spreading across the planet…and then the real enemy arrives. The Race, an alien race of humanoid child-sized lizards, has arrived to claim Earth for the Empire. Yes, folks; its War of the Worlds meets World War Two.
The Race themselves are one of Turtledove’s more endearing creations. Unlike humanity, their development is achingly slow – they expect to find Earth still locked in the Middle Ages when they arrive – and they ‘only’ possess technology loosely akin to what we have today. Because they have effectively stagnated, they have no real experience in fighting enemies with their own technological level and none of their warriors have much in the way of imagination, at least at first. On the other hand, their technology is advanced enough to allow them a chance to learn from their mistakes – although there are some odd oversights – and they bring a far more civilised approach to the war than some of the human forces.
Suddenly, humanity finds its control over its own world sorely threatened. The Lizards have landed across the world. Some areas are crushed quickly and brutally – China, for example – and others find themselves under savage attack. Through a complex and shifting number of viewpoint characters, we see the war as it rages across the surface of the entire planet. A German Panzer commander leads his men against hopeless odds. A British bomber crew struggle valiantly to survive in skies no longer owned by the human race. A Russian female pilot wages an airborne greaulla war against the invaders. A Chinese woman struggles to find a new purpose in a world gone insane. And many – many – more. There are more characters in the story than I can reasonably list here.
And all of them play out against a historical background of real characters. The great men of World War Two all play their role on the new stage. Molotov is a viewpoint character, but others – from Hitler himself to Skorzeny and Mao – all appear from time to time. Turtledove, perhaps wisely, doesn’t spend too much time with them, yet their presence is felt, even if at a distance.
The story itself tends to follow the characters rather than the overall war. (I sometimes found this irritating.) Turtledove’s characters grow and develop. The German Panzer commander eventually finds himself questioning the very basis of the Third Reich and committing what some would see as treason against his masters. The Chinese woman, introduced to us as little more than a peasant, grows into a communist leader and a solid core of resistance to the aliens. And don’t get too attached to any of the characters either. Some of them, including the ones you least suspect, get killed off in the course of the story. Others end up where you would least expect – and this is true of the Lizards too. They are much more than simple one-D invaders.
Turtledove avoids the clinch of all of humanity uniting against the invaders. Human suspicions and fears play their role. None of the Allies are keen to work with the Nazis and vice versa. The Jewish collaboration with the Lizards rings true. They had the choice between working for the Lizards or being exterminated by the Nazis. It wasn't much of a choice. It’s worth noting that most of Turtledove’s characters, being from the 1940s, have 1940s attitudes. Racism and sexism is part of their nature – and part of the story is about how they overcome it.
The Lizards also force forward human science. The race to make the atomic bomb is pushed into high gear by the alien nukes – they nuke Berlin and Washington in the opening days of the book – and all of the major powers are struggling to make their own nuclear weapons. Turtledove does use a lucky moment in the story to get some of the ‘explosive-metal’ into the hands of human nations, but it generally works. That said, I am not convinced that developing a weapon would occur as quickly as Turtledove portrays it. Building the first nukes was a complicated process even in untouched and staggeringly wealthy America. Could the feat be repeated while the country was being invaded by the Lizards? Other developments include rockets, jet engines, radars and much else besides.
Having praised the series to the skies, I do have some issues with it. The first problem is that it tends to run on too long. A few fewer viewpoint characters might have led to a tighter story. (Sometimes, Turtledove slips into narrator mode and narrates on the character’s flaws and blind spots, which is more than a little irritating.) A second problem is that it’s hard to see just what is going on with the overall war. A third problem lies in the Lizard technology. They’re not as advanced as they should be.
They have command of space, yet it never seems to occur to them that they could drop things on Earth from orbit (Project Thor-style kinetic weapons) or even that they could bombard the planet with asteroids. (To be fair to Turtledove, he does say in the later books that their star systems have no asteroids and are generally tidier places than the Sol System.) They have fusion power, but no lasers. Their imagination is lamentably non-existent. Did they never have any disasters that would suggest possible military applications?
Overall, these books are well worth a read.