End of the Beginning by Harry Turtledove
Cover art by Steve Stone
Published by Roc
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
At the end of Days of Infamy, the United States had made an assault upon Japanese-occupied Hawaii, but it had been poorly thought out with inadequate logistical support, and Japanese forces were able to throw it back. However, the mere fact that US forces were able to actually strike simultaneously heartened the locals and brought shame upon the occupying forces.
In this volume we see the consequences of those actions unfold. For instance, there is the ritualistic punishment endured by the enlisted men and non-commissioned officers, in which they line up facing one another and slap each other repeatedly. Senseless brutality though it may seem to American eyes, it serves an important role of atonement for failure and restoration of honor within the system of bushido, the Japanese chivalric code which is most definitely not a direct equivalent to the code of chivalry by which a Medieval European knight was expected to conduct his life.
Although the Americans struggling to live under the harsh Japanese occupation may have been given heart by seeing their country's forces strike, they would be wise not to show it where their occupiers can see it. The Japanese are steadily tightening the screws upon them, making an occupation that was already harsh increasingly brutal and inhumane. Of course not all of it is willful sadism and cruelty -- as American submarines prowl the North Pacific, raiding Japanese merchant shipping, supplies for the resource-poor islands become increasingly short. Since the Japanese Army takes their portion off the top, civilians have been having to make do with whatever sloppy seconds are left over, and those are growing increasingly scant. Even with fields formerly planted in cash crops such as pineapple and sugarcane turned to staples such as rice, even with every lawn and greensward turned into a garden, even with every available fishing boat bringing in the bounty of the sea, it simply isn't possible to bring in sufficient calories to keep everybody fed.
And Turtledove brings it home to his readers through the eyes of his point of view characters such as Jane Fletcher, the not-quite-divorced wife of an artillery officer who had been a third-grade teacher until the Japanese closed the schools as an unnecessary use of scarce resources. She'd actually been achieving some scant success as a gardener, using hand tools to raise vegetables that, while by pre-War standards scrawny and bug-eaten, are enough to earn her a reward from the occupiers -- and then even worse attention, when she fails to take the hints of the local collaborationist. Or Oscar, the surf-bum (what we today would call a surfer dude) who invents the sailboard a decade before our time line in order to take his surfboard out further to waters that haven't been stripped clean by the overfishing of desperate men and constantly has to walk the razor's edge of getting enough to get by and not getting so much as to attract the attention of those who would begrudge him even that tiny success. Or his friend Charlie Kaapu, who is thrown into a destructive-labor battalion when his girlfriend tells the Japanese officer she's two-timing that she's found a better lover.
Meanwhile, the US mainland has redoubled its efforts to build and train a war machine capable of dislodging the Japanese occupiers from what was once a tropical paradise. Just as Turtledove shows us the horrors of occupation through the eyes of ordinary people, he eschews the lofty halls of Washington DC for the experiences of the guys who will be doing the actual fighting as they are training, then traveling to the front to place their lives on the line.
Turtledove also continues the practice he established in the first volume of keeping the brutal and sadistic Japanese officers and enlisted men at arms' length, showing their cruelty only through the eyes of others. Those Japanese characters into whose minds we actually get to see all show a cool indifference rather than an active glee in the suffering of civilians and captured American servicemen, regarding it as simply the misfortune that befalls someone whose nation is not strong enough to successfully resist and not brave enough to fight to the death, rather than something to actively compound. Thus we end up feeling an odd sort of sympathy for them, a sense that men such as Genda and Fuchida are not personally evil, but are good men whose personalities and values have inevitably been warped by the honor-obsessed thanatophillic culture in which they were raised. A sympathy that will actually leave us feeling that they were ill-served by a society whose demands of death before dishonor ultimately destroys them when their talents will soon be desperately needed as the US makes its drive to dispossess Japan of all its holdings and even take the Home Islands themselves.
This is not to say that the book is without its flaws. There are several instances in which the heavy hand of the author is in evidence, bringing forth improbable outcomes for the convenience of the plot. For instance, in the first volume it was established that the POW's who are put to work by the Japanese are kept in units of ten known as shooting squads because the entire group will be shot if one of them misbehaves, so that all of them will police their fellows strictly. Downed aviator Joe Peterson was in a squad with a weaselish guy who thought only of himself and was always looking for an angle. Except when the little weasel finally makes his break for it, Joe and the others aren't taken out and shot. Turtledove wants some more use out of that point of view, so instead they are sent on a brutal march to a mountainside where men are being made to cut a tunnel through the stone with hand tools., so that we can see the even worse horrors of a punishment battalion. And it appears that he just couldn't bear to do what story logic demanded and kill Charlie Kaapu off, and instead has him make a successful escape from a supposedly inescapable situation to return safely to his friends.
And then there is the matter of just what it means for the Hawaiian Islands to be entirely dependent upon fossil fuels shipped in from the mainland. Turtledove gets it right when it comes to transportation -- cars soon become naught but useless hulks littering the streets of Honolulu, and even the fishing fleet that's vital to feeding the populace is unable to secure diesel fuel, so that their owners soon find mechanics that can retrofit them with masts and sails in place of the now-useless engines. However, he either ignores or fails to consider other important uses to which fuel oils would have been put in that day and age. In particular, the infrastructure that supports mechanical civilization, particularly the electrical grid and water-handling system (both fresh water and wastewater treatment). Throughout the occupation electricity and running water remain available, and the sewers continue to work with no evidence of mass dumping of sewage into the Pacific Ocean. Now it is possible that Oahu had some hydroelectric capacity in the mountain streams, and with the relatively light demands on electricity in those days (mostly lighting and some refrigeration and household appliances), it might have been possible to maintain electricity (including that to the pumps that would maintain water pressure and the systems at the waste treatment plant) even with severely interrupted fuel oil shipments. However, I would have really expected to see blackouts, with their attendant disruptions of water pressure, once the fuel oil to run the power plants ran out.
Turtledove may have wanted to focus primarily on suffering directly caused by the occupation, rather than the squalor that results from the breakdown of safe water and waste disposal systems with attendant disease. Similarly, we see almost nothing of babies or pre-pubescent children beyond a few Japanese-American children that Mrs. Armitage had been teaching and who now feel free to disrespect her. Children are particularly vulnerable to starvation for the simple reason that their bodies are smaller and have less reserve to carry them through scant periods, but a realistic portrayal of children dying of starvation and disease (both deficiency diseases and germ-caused diseases to which they no longer have adequate resistance) would be simply too heartrending to be endured by the average reader, so he may well have decided to portray only families with children who had passed puberty and were physically adult and quietly pass over the heartbreak endured by parents having to bury children felled by malnutrition.
Even with those flaws, I'm left wishing that he would continue this series and show us how the rest of the war goes after Japan has had two years in which their occupation of the Hawaiian Islands served as a shield against the might of America's military-industrial complex. On one hand, it may have given them time to consolidate their holdings and reinforce them so they will be harder to defeat. On the other, it may well also mean that the war in the Pacific will not be so far along when the first atomic bombs become available. Might the occupation of Hawaii end up meaning that the world's first nuclear war is not a paltry two cities destroyed, but a dozen or more, as well as dug-in installations? Might the long-term consequences be a desensitization of the American public, such that nuclear weapons are no longer regarded with horror, but as just another weapon of war -- with major consequences when it comes time to fight the Cold War against Communism?
Unfortunately, it appears that Turtledove has written no further novels in this universe. Either he doesn't feel that the changes aren't sufficient to justify carrying the story further, or sales simply weren't such that the publisher was interested in contracting him for further volumes.
Review posted July 31, 2010.
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