The War that Came Early: Two Fronts
© 2013 Harry Turtledove
In Hitler’s War, Harry Turtledove began a new alternate history of the Second World War, one in which the conflict started in 1938 when Britain and France decided Hitler was being too obvious a budding supervillain in invading Czechoslovakia, and declared war on him for want of anything better to do. The following years have seen the powers of the world enter into conflicts and alliances with one another, and drop out of them, with ease. Every dramatic derivation from real life has been reversed, to the point that the series has been a disappointment. But in Two Fronts, Turtledove has produced a military action-adventure novel that’s enjoyable regardless of how similar is setting is to our own.
In 1942, the situation is thus: Germany is in the midst of a two front war, fighting Britain, France, and the Soviet Union while simultaneously throwing men and material into Africa to bail Mussolini out after Il Duce discovers his new Roman Army is still no match for the crazy Scots defending Egypt. In the east, Japan os still trying to conquer China in total, and is now merrily engaged in a war against the United States, which it initiated by sneak attack. Sound familiar? That’s pretty much the situation of reality’s World War 2, but with one notable exception: the United States is not at war with Germany. Two Fronts covers the year 1942 in the history of the war that came early, and is is not progressing as one might expect — but the war which is taking place is interesting in its own right, even if it makes little sense. It is an in-between novel, in which there aren’t any major obvious happenings — though there are a few subtle happenings which will have major consequences for savvy readers — but there is an awful lot of fighting. Turtledove’s cast of characters is as strong and varied as I’ve yet seen from him, with viewpoints from all theaters, countries, and branches of the service: whatever military action readers look for, it’s here. Tanks, infantry, sea, special operations, even a little aviation are included. (Aerial warfare isn’t downplayed, but bombers are mostly in the background making everyone’s lives just a bit more exciting/miserable.)
Two Fronts sees a few interesting changes hovering around the sides of the action, both involving superweapons. Not only do the Japanese begin to introduce biological warfare into their struggle with the United States (dropping rats filled with the Black Death into Hawaii), but a little project in Tennessee named after Manhattan loses its funding. The implications as the war goes are enormous, but then again I’ve been saying that for four novels, so who knows? I belatedly realized in reading this that The War That Came Early isn’t so much about a logical series of events that builds off of the war starting in 1938: rather, that alteration is only one of many. Turtledove seems to be using the early war as a way to turn the Second World War into a sandbox, in which he can explore what-if scenarios like the failure of the Manhattan Project, or the introduction of ‘secret weapons’ into the field of combat. While I’d prefer the aforementioned logical buildup, this approach has its own merits: it’s like the airships and steam-powered cars in The Two Georges, an interesting take at what-might have been. It is World War 2 with different toys. This is only problematic in that sometimes the plot doesn’t make sense. For instance, in this 1942, the United States is only fighting Japan. While it’s also sending some resources to Britain and some to Russia to help fight Hitler, the majority of its industrial capacity should be free to be focused squarely on Japan, a Japan which should be weakened by the fact that it decided to invade Russia first. And yet, instead of the United States slowly but surely checking the Japanese advance and swinging a few punches of its own, it’s floundering. Maybe its industrial capacity simply hasn’t hit full war-time mobilization yet since it doesn’t have the added challenge of taking on Hitler, but this amateur-hour performance on their part is bothersome.
Two Fronts is perplexing because I like it. I didn’t expect to like it, because it didn’t address the fact that this history isn’t very ‘alternate’ despite the early start. It may be that the differences are more subtle than I’d expected, and their consequences will take longer to be noticeable as a result. Despite the fact that the general sequence of events is unchanged I genuinely enjoyed the variety of military action presented here, especially since Turtledove didn’t repeat himself too much. (The exception: he has decided infantrymen do not like artillerymen, who can kill them without risking being killed in turn. He saw fit to tell the reader this several times. I’m starting to wonder if he doesn’t do this on purpose.) Perhaps this World War 2 with a twist was just the light reading I was looking for this weekend.