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Posts Tagged ‘alternative history’

One of the pleasures of the e-reader revolution is the opportunity to embark upon lengthy book series without having to either a) buy seven or eight chunky and expensive volumes all at the same time or b) worry about your local bricks-and-mortar bookstore having the next episode in stock whenever you finish the one you’re currently reading. It is nice to be able to read a series in the right order and in one stretch, even if the stretch is a rather lengthy one.

Currently the record for ‘longest series I’ve read without taking a break’ still goes to Lindsay Davis’ Falco books, fourteen or fifteen of which I read over the course of a year in 2004 and 2005, but earning an honourable mention is another run of books I’ve been dying to look at properly since they first started appearing over 20 years ago: Harry Turtledove’s WorldWar sequence – or, to be more precise… well, there isn’t really a precise name for this particular series of eight hefty novels, which you can quite reasonably subdivide into a tetralogy, a trilogy and a standalone conclusion or epilogue.

WorldWar 1... oh, my sides!

WorldWar 1… oh, my sides!

The irresistible conceit of the series is made clear from virtually the opening page: reptilian alien invaders from Tau Ceti arrive in the Sol system (or the Tosev system, as they know it), intent on annexing Earth and making it part of an empire which has endured for hundreds of thousands of years. The aliens, who have no name for themselves other than simply the Race, are a meticulous lot, hailing from a monolithic, deeply conservative culture, and they have taken a very long time planning their invasion of Earth. Perhaps too long: for 800 years have elapsed since their probe visited Earth, and rather than facing medieval warriors, they find themselves up against a largely-industrialised planet.

But the bad news for the Race doesn’t stop there, for a mix-up with the dates means they have arrived early in 1942, with the major nations of Earth already fully mobilised for the war they are already fighting between themselves. Culturally highly-resistant to changing their plans in the slightest, the Race go ahead and invade anyway, resulting in an extremely bloody and protracted struggle for dominance between the aliens and the indigenous peoples of the planet (the Race’s technology is perhaps a hundred years in advance of the humans’, giving the aliens a powerful edge while still allowing humans an outside chance in some of their engagements).

Between them, the initial WorldWar quartet, the follow-up Colonisation trilogy, and the concluding Homeward Bound volume cover some of the key events of the next 90 years of history, naturally focusing on a few threads and a few individuals – the desperate attempts of the humans to develop atomic weapons in order to stand any chance against the Race’s forces, the travails of humans living in alien-occupied territory, the colonisation and partial-xenoforming of Earth’s ecology by alien plants and animals, several rounds of nuclear exchanges between the two species, and finally (through the wonders of cryogenic suspension) the arrival of some of the original characters on the Race’s homeworld in the mid-21st century.

As you can probably tell, this is a big, sprawling narrative taking place across many years, visiting many locations on Earth and beyond, with dozens of significant characters – some the author’s own creation, others his versions of actual historical personages. To suggest it is Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance with added space aliens is honestly not that far off the mark, for the early books at least – the writing has as much in common with a blockbuster airport novel as it does with classic genre SF.

That said, the early books in particular are not short on spine-tingling moments with that proper SF thrill – British RAF radar operators stare in bafflement and disbelief as the massed ships of the alien fleet suddenly appear on their screens, the oppressed Jews of the Warsaw ghetto ally themselves with the Race against the Nazis, the deeply monarchical Race’s high command reels in superstitious horror when they learn the USSR was founded after the execution of an emperor, and so on. Turtledove walks a fine line in making his alien characters different enough to be convincingly otherworldly yet identifiable enough to function as viewpoint characters, but this generally works well enough to serve the story.

On the other hand, he’s not afraid to use the Race as an odd sort of editorial mouthpiece: the implication being that if something is bad enough to appal them, it must be really awful. So the Race express disbelief and disgust upon their discovery of Nazi extermination camps in the territory they have conquered, and the travails of various alien characters who are unfortunate to end up POWs of the USSR and the Japanese are likewise dwelt upon. On the other hand, Turtledove isn’t perhaps playing quite fair – the Race’s nuclear bombing of various human capitals goes more-or-less uncriticised, because, hey, even nice countries have to drop atom bombs sometimes, right? Quite a few cities get nuked before the end of the series, and one could justifiably suggest that the handling of this is a bit anodyne: the massive casualties and suffering happen off-page.

On the whole, though, this isn’t a series of books with a message, or hard SF, or a serious attempt at an alternative history – the author even deploys historical irony less often than you might expect (though there is a memorable moment when an alien held prisoner in Japan, tortured for his knowledge of atomic weapons, wishes a nuclear warhead would obliterate his captors, only to despair – after all, there is no chance of that kind of weapon being used on Nagasaki, where he is held). It is basically just a rattling yarn, at least partly conceived using the ‘quantity has its own quality’ principle. Some of the plot threads and characters are less engaging than others, but Turtledove cuts between them sufficiently briskly for the book never to feel like a drag.

For every storyline which fizzles out a bit, another two or three conclude satisfyingly, one way or another (it’s a long way into the story before Turtledove kills off one of his major characters, and it comes as a very effective shock moment when it happens), although there are still many loose ends, especially at the end of the series.

There seems to be a general feeling that the series weakens as it goes on – certainly the emphasis of the story shifts, with fewer of the lengthy battle scenes which characterise the original quartet. The Colonisation trilogy is more about the consequences of the events of the first books, set in a weird version of the 60s where half the world is being colonised by aliens. It’s in many ways a darker story, with the Nazi regime still in power in Germany, and all the human governments having grown a little harsher in order to resist the influence of the Race. Looking on the bright side, as the series goes on Turtledove increasingly manages to resist his penchant for no-kidding Bad Sex Scenes (enough to make you never want to read the word ‘impale’ again).

The final book is certainly most divisive – people seem to either hate it, for its lack of resolution of the various storylines and its (according to critics) unconvincingly human-like alien culture, or love it for concluding the themes of the series thoughtfully and intelligently . I tend towards the latter group – more information about the status quo on Earth in the 2030s would have been nice, and (like Colonisation) it contains some clumsy narrative sleight-of-hand when characters talk about things the author is trying to hold back from the reader (things the intelligent reader will be able to guess very easily, as well), but – given the kind of books these are – the Race are effectively quirky aliens with an impressively well-thought-through society, culture, and mode of speech.

Then again, I would say this is characteristic of the series as a whole – it may look like slightly overblown action-adventure SF, with an unusual alt-hist twist, but it is consistently smarter, more surprising, and quirkier than that might lead you to expect. With a bit of judicious pruning and tweaking it would make a brilliant set of movies (or even a TV mini-series, I suppose), but I suppose the sheer size of the thing must put potential adaptors off. This is a story on an epic scale, but one which never completely loses track of the small details, which is probably the reason why it is so entertaining to read.

 

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