Book review: Turtledove

I’m not generally a great fan of Turtledove, but I found “In the Presence of Mine Enemies” for a dollar in a clearance section, and eh, the price was right. I was pleasantly surprised: It seems the good professor has taken his critics to heart, and cut back a bit on the repetition. A good editor probably wouldn’t remove more than, say, 20% of the book as padding; so in other words, this is Turtledove at his best, at least as far as moving the plot forward goes.

So, what about the plot? (Spoilers follow.)

Well, apart from the obvious difficulties of living as Jews in a triumphant Greater German Reich – the characters (and not so many as in your average Turtledove, either) are always waking up in the middle of the night, trying to laugh at vicious Jewish jokes, half-believing the endless propaganda and then snapping out of it, and so on – it’s actually a rewrite of the collapse of the Soviet Union. An aging Fuhrer finally dies, or anyway the Party finally admits he’s dead; a much younger compromise candidate comes in, and starts reforms. A bunch of hardliners starts a coup while he is away on holiday; the Berlin mob rises up in support of their reformist mayor, or rather Gauleiter. Occupied Czechs, Norwegians, and whatnot take the opportunity to break with the Empire. It’s a very thin disguise; you could do a search-and-replace to drop in ‘Gorbachev’ and ‘Yeltsin’ at the right places, and it would read like a history.

And sorry, but it’s a crock. The whole plot turns on Buckliger’s sudden desire for reforms. Well, why the devil should he reform anything? Oh, certainly, a Nazi Empire would have had economic troubles even worse than Soviet Russia’s; as economists, your average Party member would have made a good brick. The Russians at least had an economic theory and a sense of its importance! But then again, so what? This Empire has no external enemy to make it run efficiently. Oh yes, Japan is independent, and has nuclear-tipped ICBMs, but they’re hardly an ideological threat as the US was to Russia. So why should Buckliger care about the economy? Gorbachev had good and sufficient reasons for doing so; he couldn’t pay the Red Army. Buckliger has the tribute of continents to draw on, and no need to keep ten million men under arms.

And then, why should Stolle, the Yeltsin analogue, care? Never mind lashing out at the Party bigwigs, the Bonzen; he is a Party bigwig. Not a very succesful one, perhaps, but he’s got his. Yeltsin, now, he hadn’t been pushing for reform before that one moment in front of the Kremlin; he was just an ordinary apparatchik who had one shining day of gambling his life against power. He saw a chance to shine, and he went for it, and he effectively ruled Russia for a decade after that. Stolle is supposed to have been castigating the Fuhrer for not reforming fast enough.

So… it’s not a bad book. It’s got the usual couple of Turtledove in-jokes, like the Luftwaffe Alfa as the Fuhrer’s personal plane. The viewpoint characters are more alive than the usual cardboard. The story, cribbed as it is, is satisfying enough, although you can of course see the ending a mile off – it’s not as though the parallel is subtle, he practically beats you over the head with it. But in the end, it fails my own test of good science fiction or alternate history; it doesn’t give a plausible reason for what happens. Perhaps if Buckliger had been a viewpoint character the book might have been better; when writing about Great Events like this, it helps if you can show what the devil the man who started it was thinking. Perhaps it’s just that Turtledove isn’t really capable of writing a character he doesn’t sympathise with; even Stolle is cleaned up quite a bit from Yeltsin, and he isn’t a viewpoint. Apart from the womanising and drinking, he’s almost a conventional hero; now there’s a label nobody would apply to Yeltsin, except for that one hour in front of the tanks.

So, at a dollar for the hardcover, sure, the price is right. Don’t pay any more than that.

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7 Comments

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7 responses to “Book review: Turtledove

  1. Blayne

    I personally really liked that book as you put it “Turtledove’s best” another really good book is Days of Infamy which is “what if Japan took hawaii?” a scenario that has been bugging me for quite some time and I think Turtledove did a really good job explaining A) the Pro’s and B) the Con’s of such a strategem.

    I felt it did really well if a stand alone, then he made a sequel, not that its bad… yet… But I’m worried that it might do the usual Turtledove Syndrome later on.

    But I stand that while Turtledove isn’t that good of a writer (except when he wrote about the game of bridge in Mine Enemies) the ahistorical scenarios he writes are very interesting and those alone are worth the read.

    And I like his language, the way that while everything is mostly English he writes the English how grammatically the characters would speak it. Being French Canadian this is especially noticeable with his French characters.

  2. kingofmen

    I don’t know if you can really consider this an *alternate* history, though. He doesn’t give any details on how Germany won the wars, for example – we’re told that the Panzers went through London and they are still rebuilding in (2004? 2008?), but no details of how they got across the Channel. Occult magic from the Nazi hierarchy, presumably; I don’t see what else could do it. And then, even in the plot we do have, well, this all happened in our history. He only makes up the details of the little people who watch the coup; apart from that it’s a carbon copy of Russia in 1991.

  3. Blayne

    The wikipedia article gives more details, largely it is implied that the USA stayed neutral and germany defeated the USSR first and Japan didn’t attack the US in Pearl Harbour, and sometime in the 70’s Japan and germany attacked the still isolationist USA with nuclear weapons.

    I personally liked “1945” by some republican arthor largely becuase it featured Otto Skorzny whose my favorite German character and was very much the military thriller, the US with advanced turbojet planes in 1946 attack the US Manhatten project to put their own project in the lead (where the US was neutral up until then).

  4. kingofmen

    Um, yeah. So occult magic then, because just what are the Japanese doing differently that doesn’t lead to Pearl Harbour? If they don’t attack the US, their whole war in China goes down the drain.

  5. Blayne

    The Japanese attacked the US out of a paranoid fear that the US would attack if the Japanese attempted to gain control of the Dutch East Indies. It is entirely possible that the US with its substantial isolationist and pro facist lobby at the time to be diplomatically unable to enter the war if Japan attacked the Dutch.

    Whether or not Japan could have won the war in China is a different matter.

  6. kingofmen

    The Dutch East Indies wouldn’t have supported the war in China on their own.

  7. Blayne

    I’m pretty sure it could largely support Japan’s war effort or at least make it so they wouldn’t collapse. Like say fuel air, navy, and essentials. Relying then instead on horse and train for troop transport.

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