Friday, March 3, 2017

What if Robert E. Lee had Tactical Nuclear Weapons at Gettsyburg?

The Confederacy would have won the battle, but the battlefield park probably wouldn't be such a nice place to visit these days.

The genre of "alternate history" explores fictional paths that history might have taken. Is it a branch of science fiction? I have no idea. Certainly time-travel alterations to the historical timeline and parallel universes fall squarely under the science fiction heading, but straight alternate history is often placed in a category all its own.

I enjoy alternate history, although it tends to follow just a few well-worn themes:  What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Hitler had won World War II? What if the South had won the Civil War? What if Hitler had won World War II?...  So I was eager to read Harry Turtledove's new novel, Bombs Away, which examines the consequences of Harry Truman deciding to use nuclear weapons to wrap up the Korean War. This historical era (the early Cold War) is one that I find particularly fascinating, and I've enjoyed Turtledove's work in the past -- he's built an impressive career in the field of alternate history.

I have to say that I found Bombs Away to be disappointing. There were a number of things I didn't like (usual spoiler alert):

The change in history failed to convince me. Of course, all alternate history is inherently implausible, since it didn't happen that way, but I thought that Bombs Away was especially so.  It basically boils down to the following conversation between General MacArthur and President Truman:
MacArthur: We really need to nuke China.
Truman:  Sure, that sounds reasonable. Let's do it!

Although the  book consists of the Soviets and Americans repeatedly dropping atomic bombs on each other's cities, all of this action takes place offstage -- we're never really shown an example of the devastation. The result is a curiously flat affect (yes, I mean affect, not effect). Much of the book involves the examination of the lives of individual soldiers and civilians through the course of the war. This is a familiar and effective technique from historical fiction. In that regard, alternate history is closer to historical fiction than it is to science fiction. But the fun thing that distinguishes alternate history from historical fiction is seeing the different ways that history plays out on the big scale, something that Turtledove has done very well in his other novels. But in Bombs Away, we get hardly any of that, as the author concentrates almost exclusively on the day-to-day lives of his protagonists. And there are too many of them. I got so confused with all of the various story lines that when Turtledove starts killing off a few of his characters in the middle of novel, my emotional reaction was relief -- fewer characters to keep track of!

And here's a really nitpicky complaint: Turtledove has the Air Force delivering all of its atomic bombs using the then-obsolete B-29 bomber -- he totally ignores the B-36, certainly one of the most bizarre and amazing planes the U.S. Air Force ever deployed. It was an intercontinental bomber powered by propellers! You can see one on display at the Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, if you're ever in the area.

Of course it's much easier to criticize than to create -- that's why there are so many more critics than authors. Mea maxima culpa. I do highly recommend Turtledove's other novels -- if you've never read anything by him, try Guns of the South (no nuclear weapons there, despite the title of my post). His Worldwar series is also particularly clever, combining alien invasion with World War II.


Kathy said...

My main complaint with Turtledove is he tends to move history to different locales, rather than to change it. He's guilty of this in the sequel to the American Empire series, with WWII played out in North America.

He doesn't always do this. His replay of WWI in North America, and the interwar years, all part of the same long series, was rather good and had a different denouement.

Unknown said...

nice post