Coincidences occur when reading, thinking and writing. Several weeks ago my fellow Jim Keane, S.J. launched a discussion on what history would have been like if John F. Kennedy had not been elected president. For several years, I’ve begun to read an occasional book from the genre of alternative history--literature examining the “what ifs” occurring when you assume particularly pivotal historic event or series of events didn’t take place. Classifiers of literature see alternative history as a subgenre of literary fiction, science fiction and historical fiction.
Last week's posting by Tim Reidy talked about World War II in Great Britain. This is where I have been immersed for the past few weeks, reading Harry Turtledove’s four-part series: World War: In the Balance; Tilting the Balance; Upsetting the Balance; and Striking the Balance. Turtledove has a Ph.D. in Byzantine History and during the past 20 years he has garnered a reputation as perhaps the leading writer of alternate history through books on the Civil War, World War I and World War II, the emergence of the USA as a world power (imperialism), the Emperor Constantine, and trilogies of fantasy that take a long time to describe.
Like all World War II histories, Turtledove begins with hostilities among world powers including Germany, Russia, Great Britain, Japan, the United States. However, the entire Earth quickly unites when a 100,000 year-old civilization (calling themselves “The Race”) enters our solar system after traveling from a planet 10 light years away. They are imperialists in the galactic sense of the word and hope to enslave humankind, whom they call Tosevites.
I’m now on about page 1400 of about 2400 pages. The five major powers have formed an alliance and land battles are occurring in Chicago, Eastern France, China, and other assorted locales. Germany and Japan are temporarily immobilized--the Germans have blown up much of their nation by letting a nuclear chain reaction run away unimpeded and Tokyo has just been leveled by The Race. The portrayals of leaders such as Frankilin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Stalin and others come across as historically accurate but their discussions about events you never would imagine are captivating.
The best part for me are the ordinary people on all five continents who rise to become heroes. Turtledove has a knack for making them real and believable but also incongruent, even hilarious, at the same time. The major protagonist is Sam Yeager, utility outfielder for minor league teams ranging from Decatur, Illinois to the Deep South; he marries Barbara Larrsen, a medieval scholar with stunning academic credentials. Sam will slowly rise to become the most important person on the planet. On each continent you meet similarly ordinary people who have found themselves in crazy situations in this fight for humanity’s survival. Comic relief occurs frequently, as when a nuclear physicist pedals his way up the Continental Divide on a bicycle after learning he has acquired a particularly nasty and painful social disease. Surprisingly, the invaders from space become likable in their own way and you start to think some interesting resolution to this war may occur someday, and it does, in a second series, 4 more books and 2500 more pages. (I read the second set first last summer.)
Turtledove’s epic here and his other alternate historical stories contain the captivating allure of beach mysteries, but they are much than just casual reading and they evoke real history and keep me going, usually for a hundred or more pages at a time. Turtledove holds a respectable literary position on a continuum of alternate history including works by literary heavyweights such as Vladimir Nabokov (“Ada or Ardor: A Family Chronicle”-- a novel of incest occurring in an alternate North America that has been settled by Czarist Russians; or Philip Roth (“Plot Against America;” the story of Charles Lindberg’s ascension to the presidency after defeating Franklin D. Roosevelt).
Reading Harry Turtledove, enjoying his characters, and learning about a world that might have been--these delights of the mind, mental journeys that they are, connect me once again to that highway engineered by J.R.R. Tolkien: “Roads go ever on and on/ And through the merry flowers of June/ Over grass and over stone/ And under mountains on the moon.”
William Van Ornum