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Harry Turtledove

I have been reading his books for some time now, and for the most part I have found them very worthwhile.  There are two series of which currently have my interest.  The first is the “World War” series and the second are the “Great War” series.

The “World War” series are interesting as they postulate an alternate history where aliens landed on Earth in mid-1942 and attempted to take over the planet.  The major powers were still in the initial phases of fighting our World War II and we all had to set aside that fight to turn to the fight that the aliens brought to us.  Turtledove presents a very fascinating picture of what this might have turned out like.  The US and Britain had yet to rise to ascendancy in this conflict and the Axis powers were at their peak.

The aliens posses technology far in advance of what humans have circa 1942 – but not that far in advance.  Something on the order of fifty or sixty years advanced.  Technology that gives them an unbeatable edge in any straight on fighting.  So, the humans quickly learn how to compensate for their disadvantages.  One thing in our favor, as Turtledove presents this situation, is that we are far more flexible when it comes to adopting new ideas and changing our strategies in the face of new situations.

The aliens, or the Race as they call themselves (and the Lizards as humans call them due to their reptilian appearance,) pride themselves on being long term thinkers and long term planners.  They think in centuries while humans think in days.  The Lizards plan things out to exacting detail, cover all possible options, and then proceed as planned.  Humans, or “Big Uglies” as the aliens call us for our larger size and different appearance from them, are completely unlike that.  We change course frequently, adapt almost instantly, and get emotional about the results of our fighting.  All of this is almost incomprehensible to the Lizards and much is made of the pain they endure as they learn our ways.

The first four books of this series dealt with how the human race fought the Lizards to a standstill and forced an uneasy truce on them.  For our part, humans had pushed the Lizards back on almost all fronts and inflicted huge losses on them.  For the Lizard’s part, they had firmly established themselves on Earth, proved their superiority and were now sitting back waiting for the colonization ships to arrive in about twenty years.  The next trilogy of books in this series deals with that colonization effort.  The last of these, “World War Colonization: Aftershocks” is just now out in hardback.

While I initially enjoyed the first few books in this series I eventually lessened my enthusiasm for them.  I increasingly became dissatisfied with the lack of depth that Turtledove was devoting to his characters.  Granted, he does fill his book with a very large number of characters.  Also, he has to shift around frequently between those characters to paint his grand picture.  What results is that his characters, while not cardboard cutout flat, do seem to lack any great emotional depth or complexities.  I also disagree with the lack of emotional responsiveness of not only his characters but of the countries involved in the fighting.

In his story the Lizards use nuclear weapons.  They first launch them against the capitol cities of the countries fighting them and giving them the most difficulties.  Namely, the US and Nazi Germany.  Washington and Berlin are vaporized.  To the Lizard’s surprise, this does nothing to lessen the human’s resolve to continue the fighting.  Instead it increases our desire to see it through to the end.  Eventually humans build their own bombs and use them against Lizard troop concentrations.  Each time we do this, the Lizards vaporize another human city.  They do this reluctantly because they want to settle on this planet, not turn it into a radioactive wasteland.  We use our nukes infrequently because we are just beginning to build them and also because we realize the price to be paid for each use of them.  While it has been a while since I read the World War series, I do remember that both DC and Seattle were nuked by the Lizards, as were several other US cities.

Also, the US was devastated by the fighting.  Aside from the millions who would have perished in the cities that were bombed, there would also have been more millions who died in the fighting, and from the starvation and disease that would come from the nation’s infrastructure being so completely torn asunder by the Lizard’s invasion.

So, I was very disappointed to see how Turtledove portrayed the US in particular, and the world in general, in his ending of the World War series with his recent Colonization books.  Set roughly twenty years after the Lizard’s invasion, the human race has settled down to coexisting with the Lizards in our midst.  Humanity has rebuilt itself from the ashes of the war and has rearmed itself with as much new technology as it can come up with.  Yet the world which Turtledove portrays seems almost indifferent to what the Lizard’s have done.

The opposition to them seems to be more a matter of protocol than anything else.  I find this very hard to picture.  In his opening book of this sequence, “Colonization: Second Contact,” he features one of his characters, Sam Yeager, now living the good life with his wartime bride, having settled in Southern California and raising a family.  In the opening scene, his son walks in and is described as wearing the current youth fashion that is all the rage in the country.  That is to say, wearing next to no clothing and having his body painted in the same manner as do the Lizards.  The Lizards do not wear clothing, have smooth reptilian skin, and use body paints to denote their rank and profession.  Sam Yeager’s son sports a flashy Lizard style paint job which declares him to be a “Missile Technician, 3rd Class.”  This was something which stuck with me right from the start.

Turtledove was apparently trying to do several things here.  He was trying to show what the youth culture of the 60’s would be like after the Lizard’s had invaded, he was trying to show how humanity would adapt by co-opting the symbols of other cultures, and he was trying to show just how much things have changed.  I think he misses the mark on each point and misses it considerably.

In our timeline, the Youth Culture of the 60’s was possible only because of the relative tranquility of the 50’s and because of the overwhelming victory by the Allies in WWII.  In particular it was made possible in the US because we had suffered so few casualties in the war and we didn’t have to rebuild our nation from the ground up, as did everyone else.  In the world described by Turtledove, this is anything but the case.

The Lizard’s invaded the heartland of the US and fought through it for years.  Many US cities were battlegrounds and some, like Chicago changed hands several times as either the Lizard’s or the US held the upper hand.  The devastation from this was awesome – almost equaling that of the cities where the Lizard’s used their nukes.  As one character observed the US had been “set back on its pins.”  So, unlike the unique advantage we enjoyed during World War II where the US remained physically untouched by the war, its civilian population unscathed, and its bank accounts full of cash from our Allies purchasing our war goods, none of this would have happened in Turtledove’s US.  Instead, we would have been equally devastated and impoverished by the fighting.  Millions of Americans would have been vaporized in the nuclear bombing of our cities and millions more would also have died from the fighting, the starvation, disease and exposure that comes with a continued conflict such as portrayed by Turtledove.

While the US might be ahead of the pack when it comes to the rest of the world in 1966, I really doubt it would be as far ahead as Turtledove portrays.  More to the point however, I do not think that any Youth Culture would exist then.  Primarily because there would not have been any Baby Boom to produce it.  Too many of who would have been the parents to produce the Baby Boom would have died under the heels of the Lizard’s attacks.  The survivors would also have been far to busy trying to survive and rebuild than to sustain anything so ephemeral as a Youth Culture.

Also, the very idea that a people who had suffered so much at the hands on the Lizard’s would tolerate such emulation of them is totally unrealistic.  A look a US cultural history of the 60’s is a good guide.  By the mid-1960's in our timeline, even with almost two full decades of unparalleled economic growth, national prosperity, and relative peace, Germany was only then beginning to be “rehabilitated” as a nation and as a people in the eyes of the American public.  And this, despite the fact that we were overwhelmingly victorious in our fight against them, had never suffered any of their attacks directly, that the only German troops to ever set foot on our shores were the ones we brought back here to march into our prisoner of war camps, and also despite the fact that we had completely remade Germany (or at least our half of it) into a modern, peace loving democracy that was completely neutered, completely pro-America, completely anti-communist, and completely dependant upon the US for its national security.  Even with all of that, no American in their right mind would go out wearing Nazi regalia unless they wanted to be beat to a bloody pulp - if not lynched outright.  In fact, the only people in America who did this were either members of the American Nazi Party or Hell’s Angels and no few of them got their skulls smashed by outraged veterans who “expressed their opinions” of such displays.

It is simply ubelieveable to assume that a country which had lost millions of its own civilians at the hands of the Lizard’s, a country whose nation was just beginning to rebuild from the war with those Lizard’s, and a nation that was still living under the threat of nuclear attack by those same Lizards would also be so open minded as to tolerate its youth painting themselves up like a Lizard.  I would think that any such display – no matter how youthfully independent it might be – would be smacked down before the kid even got out of his bedroom - let alone his house.  There is no way a nation so gravely damaged would so lightly tolerate such pro-Lizard behavior.

For me this also pointed out a larger failing in Turtledove’s scenario.  A lot of the end of his series depended on Americans taking a very positive view of the Lizards – or at least a view that was much more charitable than not.  I do not think that is realistic at all.  Just look at how the US prosecuted the war against the Japanese.  We used all available force to end that war.  And this was fighting a conflict that was almost no threat to the continental United States.  When Pearl Harbor was attacked most Americans couldn’t find it on a map if they tried.  Yet we, as a nation, spent the next three and a half years fighting the Japanese back across the Pacific and then laid waste to their nation.  We were even willing to vaporize their cities with our atomic bombs if that meant bring the war to a conclusion on our terms.  We, as a nation, didn't flinch at the price it took to "make the world safe for democracy."  And we did this when this country was not directly threatened nor harmed by the Japanese.

I am not saying that it would be unreasonable to portray Americans as being respectful of the Lizards nor that we, as a nation, would be weary of the fighting nor hesitant to bring more destruction down upon us.  I do however, think it very unreasonable to portray most Americans as being as indifferent to the Lizards as does Turtledove.  In his effort to paint a picture on the grand scale he seems to miss the effect that human emotions, both on an individual scale and a national scale, would have on shaping human reactions to the Lizards.

Given the threat that they posed, given the damage they had already done, and given the proof that humans could effectively fight them back, I think the overall reaction to the Lizards would be of an almost blind, raging hatred and fury.  We would have demanded our nation's policy be the elimination of the Lizard threat and would have supported any sacrifice on our part to make it happen.  We did this with the Soviet Union time and again.  We faced them down, risking nuclear war, in order to make the world a safer place and free from their domination.  I do not think the US would accept any less in its treatment of the Lizards.

There would also be the xenophobia to address.  The world of the 40’s and 60’s was a very different place than now.  It was a coarser place and one much less “enlightened.”  Bigotry and prejudice were much more rampant and much more accepted as part of every day life.  And this was what we did to each other.  Had there been a truly alien presence on Earth such as the Lizards, then they would have become the focus of all that hatred and discrimination.  This would be particularly so given how arrogant they are portrayed as being.  Yet, Turtledove treats them as being little different than just another bunch of arrogant human beings.  He misses how uniquely humans would have treated these Lizards for their being so unique.

So, on the whole, I did not find this series to be that enjoyable.  It started off well enough but I felt that Turtledove missed in his characterizations of individual people and of how the human race would have reacted to the invasion and threat posed by the Lizards.  By failing to describe this with sufficient color and sufficient depth, I think that he shortchanged his tale and that was too much for me to fully enjoy it.

Now, the other alternate history book which he has started is the "Great War" series.  The starting premise here is what would have happened has England and France interceded on behalf of the South in the opening phases of the US Civil War.  Turtledove does a far better job of portraying this than what he has done with an alien invasion.  The sense of national frustration that he portrays in this series of books is much better tuned and detailed.  They still suffer from being at a too high a level but this is lessened by not having to be world-wide in scope.  Here he sticks to the action close at home as that is where the action is; close at home.  That is the inherent nature of a civil war even in a nation as large as the United States.

Turtledove also shows well his knowledge of how wars of attrition are fought.  Namely, that if given half the chance, the side with the larger economy and larger population base will inevitably grind down and crush its smaller opponent.  The reason why the North was prevented from achieving this in the start of this series is that external actors (and here I use this term in its political science context as an “actor” meaning a nation or political force which takes “action”) prevented the war from going on long enough for the superiority of the North’s industrial base and its greater population size from being fully brought to bear on the much smaller and less equipped South.  The situation he presents here is where those external actors are now unable to render further assistance to the South because they are themselves engaged in bitter fighting with the German Empire.  So, the United States of America and the Confederate States of America are essentially left to their own devices and the CSA is coming up short because of it.

It is very interesting for a political science major such as myself to see how Turtledove portrays his world and what the geopolitical map looks like due to the relatively few original changes he has made to it.  Among other things in this series the US is realizing a long term goal of liberating (i.e. conquering) Canada from British control.  This is something we had actually been trying to do since the days of the American Revolution.

The fighting he depicts is every bit as gruesome as the actual trench warfare on the European Front in World War I.  All the modern implements of war are showcased as is the inability of most military commanders to grasp just how much more destructive their weapons had become.  Millions of troops died in WWI before commanders learned to adapt and things are no better in Turtledove’s world.

All in all this has made a very interesting series.  The last book in this batch of the series, "The Great War: Breakthroughs," is just now hitting the shelves.  I am debating whether I should go out and buy it or whether I should wait until it comes out in paperback or I find it on a shelf in a used bookstore.

Harry Turtledove has written a whole lot of other books.  He is a very prolific writer and he has covered a great many more subjects than just the two I mention above here.  I was surprised to find that he has written fantasy novels as well as his “hard SF” ones.  You can check out his latest endeavors by visiting his website: The Harry Turtledove Website.

If these books pique your interest and you also happen to live in San Diego, then you can drop on by the Mysterious Galaxy Bookstore in Clairemont Mesa to purchase a copy for yourself.  This store is where I try to buy all of my books.  Even my non-SF books I buy through them.  Not that they have any special break of prices but they are an independant bookstore and I do my part to support that diversity.

If you would like to learn more about me – just ask!   Drop me a line and we’ll see what happens.  I can be reached
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You can also try using Yahoo Messenger as I’ll have that one sometimes while I am at work or at home.

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Until later then,


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This page was last updated on: 27 February 2003