Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance
Harry Turtledove © 1996
Del Rey/Ballantine Books/Random House; New York
I continued in the Worldwar series this week. The front cover is rather interesting, as it depicts Albert Einstein, General Ike Eisenhower, and former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini together. Unlike the past two book covers, this cover actually depicts a scene that happens in the book — without the jet, however. Upsetting the Balance continues to depict the war between humanity and the lizard-like aliens who call themselves The Race. As you might recall, the Race came to Earth (which they call Tosev-3) thinking they would encounter knights on horseback. This is what they came prepared to fight, although being the cautious kind they brought more supplies than necessary. This is fortunate, because as they neared Earth they realized to their horror that we Tosevites had gained radio already.
The humans the Tosevites find in 1941 are still woefully outclassed by the Race’s landcruisers, helicopters, missile-firing fighters, and atomic weapons — but not nearly as badly as the Race would like. In the past two books, we have witnessed the value of the old adage that ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Tanks improve, and jet fighters displace the old prop-driven ones — which means the P-51 never becomes widely used, sadly for its fans like myself. Although technology is improving rapidly because the need is so desperate, it is not proceeding nearly as quickly as it would because the Race has made a mess of most industrialized societies. What little gasoline is available is limited to military vehicles, and even it can’t be transported to where it needs to go. Consequently, the days of the horse and buggy have returned — along with an increasing reliance on bicycles. Humans display an ability to adapt that completely frustrates the Race, which is slow, methodical, and fixated on the authority of doctrine. The industrial powers that be — the United States, Nazi Germany, Japan, and the Soviet Union — continue to work on their atomic projects. In the last book, the Soviets were able to build a bomb out of material stolen from the Race, and it devastated a large Race force outside of Moscow.
The advent of nuclear weapons is quite bothersome to the Race. They are decades away from Home, their own planet. They have no hope of resupply, and their stores are quickly dwindling. Humanity can build factories and produce arms to replenish their losses, but the Lizards cannot. The “Lizards” is the pejorative term humans use to describe the Race. The Race does try to produce some arms from human-assisted factories, but find that sabotage is rampant. The Race grows increasing more desperate, knowing that eventually they will run out of missiles and ammunition — and begin to do as during this book. To make matters worse, the British and Germans reintroduce chemical warfare, which the Lizards are utterly unprepared for. As the book passes its midpoint, atomic programs achieve fruition and an uglier stage of the war begins*.
As far as plot goes, I didn’t notice anything unrealistic. Turtledove doesn’t mentioned what happens to the American presidential race — Roosevelt is mentioned only once. I would not be surprised if the United States becomes controlled by a lenient version of martial law. I don’t know off-hand how much nationalization of industries (state take-over) happened in real life, but if it hasn’t happened here in Worldwar’s United States, I’d be quite surprised. No other nation in the world (contributing largely to the war effort) has the problem of an elected president with regular, fixed terms. British prime ministers only have to hold an election every five years, and when they hold is is entirely up to the controlling party. What parts of France aren’t controlled by Nazi Germany are controlled by Vichy France, and neither the Nazi party in Germany nor the Communist party in Russia have to fret about elections. I mentioned two weeks ago that I wouldn’t be surprised if Roosevelt simply continued to lead without an election, but wondered how long he would remain alive. I then speculated on on what kind of president then-vice president Wallace would make. This turns out to be a moot point, as Wallace will be killed by a bomb.
As alternate history and science fiction, it’s developing pretty well — in my opinion. Turtledove likes to work historical situations into his books. In the last book, something I failed to comment on was the Race’s attack on Ploiesti to get at Germany’s oil refineries. Germany uses the exact same defenses there that they used against the American Eighth bombing group in real life — with the same effects. Turtledove depicts growing strife — between ethnic groups, between national leaders, between individual people, between various factions of the Race — fairly well, I think. I’d like to comment on characterization as well, though. There are three characters I particularly like:
- Lt. Ludmila Gorbunova, a Russian pilot (female) who Turtledove incessantly tells us is a good student of the October Revolution who has no use for cathedrals.
- Colonel Henrich Jäger, a German tank commander who turns into a jack-of-all-trades as far as war goes.
- Sam Yeager, an American baseball player turned foreign liaison. He read Astounding Stories on a regular basis and becomes an expert on communication with the Lizards after he volunteers to guard two Race prisoners.
Gobunova and Jäger become a romantic item in the first book, which rather endears me to them. Jäger is especially likable because he wanted to be an archaeologist before Hitler began rearming Germany and because he displays a strong sense of remorse for what the SS perpetuated in Poland. All three characters are fairly likable, at least for me. Turtledove likes to work in historical figures, some of whom I’d never heard of — like Otto Skorzeny. Skorzeny comes across as fairly likable in the books, which is a bit odd given that he was an SS man. There are many other characters, and some of them are quite well done. Turtledove does tend to repeat some character descriptions. I mentioned one above — Turtledove keeps reminding us that Ludmila is a loyal child of the Soviet revolution who has no uses for cathedrals or churches or any kind. Ludmila and I share the same lack of religious beliefs, but I like to admire human architecture*. The Pyramids themselves are religous structures — that doesn’t mean they have no secular value.
Overall, an enjoyable read. I’m looking forward to finishing the Worldwar series — and perhaps reading the Colonization series.
* I can’t say I mourned the destruction of the Vatian City, though. It’s excessive, obnoxiously garish, and an offensive reminder of how hypocritical and exploitative the popes have been throughout their long history and continue to be. John Paul II doesn’t make up for it.