Homeward Bound by Harry Turtledove
Cover art by Jim Burns
Published by Del Rey Books
This novel is the capstone and conclusion of the series which began with WorldWar: In the Balance. History diverged in 1942 when humanity's greatest military conflict was interrupted by the arrival of alien conquerors, the reptilian people who call themselves the Race but are called Lizards by humanity. In an alliance of necessity the formerly warring powers of Earth worked together to beat the Lizards to a standstill. In the ensuing stalemate the Lizard fleetlord, Atvar, grudgingly agreed to acknowledge the independent sovereignty of the surviving great powers, the US, the USSR, the UK, the German Reich and Japan.
Twenty years later the colonization fleet arrived, expecting to find a world pacified and fully a part of the Empire. Instead they landed in a 1960's made even more tumultuous by the presence of an alien sovereignty and the advanced technology they have brought, with all the sociological effects those things imply.
Since then humanity has striven to catch up with the Lizards in technology. Often human machines are more clumsy and less reliable than their Lizard equivalent, but the gap is closing. Needless to say, this has not been a comforting thought for the Lizards, and some of them are wondering once again if a preventative war might be a good idea.
As the twentieth century becomes a memory of the older generation, the United States has finally reached the point of launching its first starship, the Admiral Peary. Like those of the Lizards' conquest and colonization fleets, it is constrained by relativistic effects and can travel at only some fraction of the speed of light. Thus the passengers travel in cold sleep, their metabolic processes slowed to near stopping. As the title suggests, they're heading to Home, the Lizards' homeworld, a planet of Tau Ceti. (Here's a story element that may soon start accumulating Zeerust -- when Turtledove first started writing this series, the science of extrasolar planets was still mostly theoretical, but with recent developments in orbital observatories, exoplanets have been getting discovered at a rapid clip, and it's probably only a matter of time before somebody trains one of those satellites on Tau Ceti and sees whether it does have a system of planets).
As a result of cold-sleep technology, we are able to have as our protagonist a character from the very first book, former minor-league baseball player Sam Yeager. He was supposed to be assistant to the Doctor, a trained diplomat clearly based upon Henry Kissinger. However, the Doctor didn't come back out of cold sleep, since the human version of the technology isn't always reliable. So Sam has to jump into the breach, relying primarily on the mental flexibility that resulted from reading so many science fiction stories while riding the train from one to another small town baseball game.
At first most of the humans' activity on Home consists of seeing the sights of a civilization so ancient and stable that it had already achieved planetary unification when humans were still hunting with stone spearheads and painting cave walls. (By the way, the cover art's figure in an Apollo-style spacesuit standing in a Mars-like landscape is misleading. Home does have somewhat lower atmospheric pressure, but the partial pressure of oxygen is enough higher that it is a shirtsleeve environment for humans).
However, doing the tourist thing isn't all fun and games for Sam and his crew. They have to deal with a guide who treats them with open rudeness and becomes hostile at the idea that humanity might have a legitimate point of view at variance with the official position of the Race. She later tries to brush it off as merely the effect of the hormonal shifts which precede the onset of breeding season (think PMS, only worse).
And we get to see just what breeding season does to the usually staid and asexual Race. Sam and the other Earth humans have seen Lizards in heat, but their experience has been with members of a society whose breeding patterns have been reshaped by ginger, which acts on the receptors for their testosterone and estrogen analogs. Thus watching a whole society go into libidinous madness at once is most disconcerting.
It's even worse for Kassquit, the young Chinese woman who was raised as a citizen of the Empire by a psychologist trying to determine whether it was even possible to assimilate these unruly creatures as a subject people of the Empire. She finds the experience very alienating, as the friends and colleagues she thought she knew turn into complete strangers. At the same time it serves to stimulate her own sexuality, so long latent and stunted by lack of exposure to potential mates. Although she came to Home on the Lizards' starship, the proximity of wild Big Uglies (independent humans) opens the possibility of new liaisons.
Meanwhile, things are getting interesting in Home's orbital space. Hard as Home has tried to keep the plague of ginger away, their efforts have been about as successful as the War on Drugs has been here on Earth in our own timeline. Ginger addiction is so powerful that a Lizard will do anything, pay any price, to get another fix. Which creates a lucrative environment for the criminal element, and since nobody can appeal to law enforcement when a deal goes bad, violence comes right along with it.
As a result, there's already been some trouble with returning Lizard ships carrying hidden stocks of ginger and spreading the social plague of addiction to Home. A human ship, built and crewed by a species for whom that accursed herb is nothing but a tasty cooking spice, is almost guaranteed to be crammed with it, since the crew will experience no great urge to break into the supply. So Home's orbital law enforcement community soon start hassling the pilots of the scooters which run back and forth between the various vessels in orbit.
A lot of readers have commented on the character of pilot Glen Johnson, and how much of a resemblance he bears to a certain Mercury astronaut. However, on close reading, it soon becomes clear that while it's likely Turtledove consciously drew upon former Senator John Glenn in creating the character, there are sufficient differences that Johnson's not simply a roman a clef figure, but a genuine character in his own right with his own background and motivations that are in many ways different from Glenn.
And the situation is getting steadily more interesting for this hard-headed and hard-nosed Marine. He does not appreciate being treated like a criminal just for being human, and he's siding with his fellow pilots when they experience similar petty official hassling. And given that things are getting steadily more tense on the surface as the highest levels of the Race's government comes to grips with what human technological parity means, it's looking very possible that the pilots could provide the trigger for a very ugly incident.
And then we have the game-changer. The Race has always taken relativistic limits as an inalterable given -- but rumors are coming in from Tosev 3 that the Big Uglies are involved in theoretical work that may unseat everything they take for granted about the vastness of space. And then a new starship arrives -- the Commodore Perry, the first FTL ship. It's made in weeks a journey that formerly took years, and has upended the modus vivendi by which humans and Lizards have existed for almost a century, when Atvar had no choice but negotiate a peace with several human polities.
Overall, it's a solid conclusion for a substantial series. The meetings with the Emperor may seem like a letdown, especially after we've seen all the reverence shown by members of the conquest and colonization fleets in previous books. But given that the Emperor is manifestly a natural being rather than a supernatural one, it's likely that actually seeing the object of their reverence will make him seem smaller than he's made out to be (not to mention the suspension of disbelief problems I've had ever since the first book with the social evolution of a hereditary monarchy, as opposed to a reincarnated divine monarch along the lines of the Dalai Lama, in a society with no concept of family to create awareness of descent).
I think the biggest thing I can say about this novel is that it leaves me feeling satisfied that it has indeed come to a conclusion. Sure, I'd love to know what happens as humans start using their FTL spaceships to colonize enormous numbers of planets, but I can live without it. Better that an author finishes a series and moves on than endlessly rehashing a beloved fictional universe long after the new ideas run out and end up with a mere shadow of the things that originally brought you to the first books.
Review posted June 4, 2012.
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