Thursday, 12 August 2010

The Foresight War

The Foresight War

In order to write a great alternate history novel, you need a good Alternate History scenario, a good plot and a good story. AH has many examples of great AH, such as 'The Guns of the South'. It has a good premise, a good plot and a great story. At worst, it can be read as a simple thriller. Bad examples are rarer - mediocre examples are far more common - and the prime example is the Stars and Stripes series. The series had a bad POD, a bad plot and flat writing. The final one was the killer.

As a part-time writer myself, its easy to understand the problem. An alternate world requires some understanding of OTL by the reader. Big ‘as you know bob’ sections can detract from the story, particularly if there’s no clear reason to have them. There is no clear reason for the characters in 1945 to speculate on what might have happened in 1941 if Hitler had declared war.

Of the AH styles, time travel is the hardest to do. It reduces the problem of informing the reader of what’s going differently by providing a ‘legit’ reason to discuss OTL, but also requires the writer to have a really strong grasp of what was possible at the time. It is nonsense, for example, to suggest that the CSA could have built an atomic bomb, although one could have been brought through time.

The Foresight War is based around the plot of two technological-savvy men somehow being sent back to 1934. One of them is British, the other German, and they both start meddling with time using their knowledge. Williams avoids the clinch of rapid empire-fanatics and neo-nazis to give good reasons for the German’s interference. One might not share his ideals, but one can understand them.

This book is well written and an easy read. The combat scenes are good and the effects well described. The ending is shocking and realistic under the circumstances.

Read the first chapter at

Right, that’s the basics. Everything under this is discussion of the plot and includes spoilers. If you don’t want it spoilt, go away.

The Foresight War is fairly detailed on the changes both sides make to their forces. The German side makes a fair attempt at correcting some of their most vexing mistakes, such as standardising tanks and making more submarines, but is hampered by Hitler and the constant competition between the nazi elite. This is probably realistic, particularly with the refusal of Goring to share control over the airforce, but I did think it was odd that Hitler did not simply decree that that be done. I would expect the Germans to have greater success as there have been countless analysis done of what they did wrong the first time around.

The book has a wealth of technical and strategic detail. The author clearly knows his field and it shows, from small personnel weapons to radar. Just a few hints would have helped the defenders of Britain enormously, while the laptop must have seemed like a gift from God. Williams avoids the utterly impossible clinch of the British duplicating the laptop.

The butterfly effect is used to great effect here, although I do question pearl harbour occurring if the Japanese knew that the British have a stronger air force and navy. The Japanese expected that they would kick the stuffing out of the allies and then cut a deal – a stronger UK makes that less likely. Few other minor points; if Hitler knew that the Italians would go for Egypt and lose, would he not sit on them to stop them? If Finland is attacked by Russia and surrenders, might Stalin not try for Norway?

Then, of course, would the British be so willing to aid the Russians if they know that they’ll take most of Eastern Europe? That’s easier to stomach without having guaranteed Poland, but it’s still dangerous. Russia without lend lease would be far less of a menace.

Finally, making France more active in the war following its fall changes far more than in implied. French troops in Indochina would prevent the Japanese from using it as a base, which changes their campaign against Singapore. The absence of a working French government would tend to bring more Frenchmen into Algeria, which would DeGaulle a stronger hand.

The greatest problem with the book is that the British have very limited resources at that point in time. Could they have managed all the changes they made in that period of time? If Churchill knew everything about the economic situation, he too might have been willing to cut a deal with Hitler. Alternatively, if Don understood the reasons why Japan gambled on attacking the US, he might convince the British to offer to supply them in exchange for the use of the Japanese navy. That said, even knowing what works and what does not would be very helpful.

The other slight problem is a throwaway line in which the Japanese navy is effectively destroyed by the Americans. That is somewhat unrealistic – the Japanese were unquestionably better at naval combat at the time and held a vast advantage in numbers. They should have won any such battle, assuming that the stung Americans risked one. Whatever they lost at Pearl could not have been sufficient to really limit them without other effects as well.

On the whole, this is a very good book and deserves to be far wider known.


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