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Worldwar: In the Balance by Harry Turtledove

Published by Del Ray Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

An ancient and very wise philosopher-king once said that there is nothing new under the sun. The corollary for writers and readers is that there is no such thing as a new idea, only a new way of treating it. Beginning writers often spend a great deal of time agonizing about their ideas, and particularly the possibility that some nasty person could come along and steal their wonderful new idea. The simple truth is that there is no idea so fresh and wonderful that it can't be mangled by a sufficiently inept handling, and conversely, there is no idea so tired and worn out that it cannot become fresh and wonderful in the hands of a sufficiently skilled master of the craft.

And the WorldWar tetralogy, of which In the Balance is the first installment, is almost perfect proof of the latter half of that statement.. The alien invasion story traces its roots back to H. G. Wells and The War of the Worlds, in which Victorian science and technology proves incapable of turning back a Martian invasion, but just as it appears that Western Civilization is going to fall as so many other cultures have fallen before it, humanity's future is saved not by the mighty, but the tiniest and humblest forms of life on the planet -- disease-causing germs. In the years and decades since, writers have tried with greater and lesser success to tell their own takes on a world that suddenly finds itself not only not alone, but facing a very hostile enemy. Some have handled it seriously, others satirically, but by the 1980's it had gotten to the point where editors were listing "alien invasion" among their lists of done-to-death ideas, and writers' workshops often suggested that a beginning writer should go ahead and write and trunk an alien invasion story, simply to "get it out of your system," as one facilitator put it.

And just when the alien invasion story seemed completely passé, maybe still viable in a humorous treatment (viz the success of Mars Attacks, which spoofs the contemporary popular culture of its time right alongside the whole concept of an alien invasion), 1994 saw Harry Turtledove bring out his own serious dramatic treatment of alien invasion. Given that he was already widely regarded as one of the masters of alternate history, it's hardly surprising that he should have decided to add that particular twist to his handling of the theme. Instead of setting his story Twenty Minutes Into The Future, as most writers of alien invasion stories have done, Turtledove set his in the past, or rather, a past that never was.

It is 1942, and humanity's future already hangs in the balance. World War II has reached a critical tipping point at which Allied and Axis forces are roughly balanced in strength and strategic position. The Axis may have had impressive gains in the beginning, but instead of consolidating their holdings, they have kept pressing onward until they are dangerously overstretched, and the Allies have not stayed stationary, although they remain on the defensive. The United States has finally overcome its initial unpreparedness born of determined isolationism and has accepted that pretending that the rest of the world is far, far away won't keep the Bad People out there from coming and bringing their hatred and greed to America's doorstep.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to humanity, their efforts are being observed from on high, in a fleet of spaceships nobody notices because nobody is thinking to look for them. They are crewed by a people who call themselves the Race, and their homeward simply Home (we humans should not be so quick to feel superior to their parochialism, for is not "human" effectively synonymous with "people" in most human languages). Sixteen centuries ago -- eight by the calendar of our colder, slower-orbiting world -- a robot probe scouted the Sol system, which they call by name Tosev, as Sol appears as a star in their night sky. It studied the star's one habitable planet, and determined that the feudal peoples of it would be an easy conquest. Bring sufficient advanced weaponry to overawe the natives with a few quick demonstrations of might, and this chilly, wet world would soon be the fourth jewel in the Emperor's crown.

So the preparations began. The culture of the Race is a stable one, and change comes only slowly, with careful consideration. They have been a united world and society from the time that humans were first chipping flint tools. There's no need to hurry, for the universe will wait for you to do things properly.

Thus the fleet and Atvar its admiral have gotten a nasty surprise. Far from remaining as they were when the probe came, the natives, which the Race call Big Uglies (since humans are substantially taller and heavier in build than them) have transformed their society to the point of becoming unrecognizable. Instead of having naught but crude bladed weapons and pole-arms, the Big Uglies have armed themselves with technologies not that far behind the Race's, the weapons that united Home and won them two other worlds, inhabited by peoples still in the Bronze Age and having to be convinced their conquerors were not in fact gods (save the Emperor, who is worshipped in a manner vaguely reminiscent to Japanese State Shinto). It seems inconceivable that these creatures could have made advances that took the Race tens of thousands of years in so little time, but there can be no denying the actuality they can see just by looking down from orbit. It's enough to make Atvar want to crawl back into his natal egg and pull its shell closed around him again.

But he knows that the colonization fleet is already on its way (the Race being bound to relativistic physics and thus being able to attain only a fraction of the speed of light), and its commanding officers will expect him to deliver them a world already properly conquered and belonging to the Emperor. So there is no choice but to descend upon this planet, hoping that their weapons will be just enough to crush those troublesome Big Uglies.

At first it seems to be going well -- the pilots of the sleek jet-propelled killercraft run wild among the big, lumbering bombers with which the Tosevites are filling the air over their war-torn world. But that doesn't last long. Although some of the weaker Tosevite factions, particularly those in their world's southern hemisphere, quickly surrender, the principal combatants in their war-in-progress all pretty much tell the Race to go stuff themselves. They are proud people, and will fight to the last to maintain their independence, proudly citing their own positions in the war they'd been fighting as proof of their will and determination.

So Atvar and the Race, whom their erstwhile vassals now call Lizards after their resemblance to a native lifeform, the chameleon lizard, are now settling in for a very long and unpleasant war. And that's all within the first hundred pages of the first book. The rest of this volume details the stories of about a dozen or so major characters, human and Lizard, of all walks of life, as they come to grips with just what it means to be bogged down in a long, uphill struggle for the domination of the Earth.

It's interesting to compare and contrast the various human characters. For instance, we have two peasant women, one Russian, the other Chinese, who each manage to have agency and agenda within their otherwise patriarchal cultures. Lyudmila is a pilot of a tiny utility airplane, not dissimilar to a crop duster or some of the biplanes of the previous war, which can get in and out of places that no larger plane could handle -- and which is also less visible to the Lizards' radars. As a result, she is able to fight when the pilots of the larger and more prestigious fighter planes are dead or captured. Liu Han starts the story having lost everything she has, but when she's snatched up into a Lizard experiment in human sexual physiology and psychology, she is given the opportunity for the first time in her life to decide whether to remain with the man who has attracted her interest, thus making her realize that it is possible for her wishes to be taken into account, rather than her being like a leaf blown by the wind.

Liu Han's story also provides one of the funny moments of the story, in the utter astonishment of the Lizard official who accidentally walks in on her and the pharmacist Yi Min as they're doing a little horizontal recreation. At first this creature is bewildered, and not just by the poetic expressions used by the Chinese in reference to the amatory act, but by the very idea that human beings should be sexually "on" all the time. The Race, like various non-sapient animals, have a fixed mating season, and without the stimulus of arousal pheromones produced by the female, the males feel neither desire nor interest in having sex. In fact, they tend to feel a little embarrassed about the whole matter, since they behave irrationally while in the throes of rut, and would just as soon forget that time afterward.

Furthermore, they have no real conception of a family, and are more than a little bewildered by the intensity of emotions that humans experience in relation to their bonds with their spouses and children, and particularly the disruption of those bond. Although they are beginning to realize that many of the humans who have made near-suicidal attacks upon Lizard installations have been citing the loss of mates and young as their motivations, the Lizards can't really get a grasp on these motivations at a gut level. From their perspective, it's more like a mental illness to become so attached to one's chosen mate or one's young that being bereaved of them would lead one to count one's life as well lost and decide to take out as many of their killers as possible in the process of dying.

And that brings me to the one part of Turtledove's fictional alien society that really snagged my suspension of disbelief badly -- the hereditary nature of the Lizards' monarchy. Supposedly the Lizards lay their eggs at random and hatchlings are fairly precocial when they cut their way out of their natal shells, such that socializing them is largely a process of corralling them and convincing them not to fight one another or their keepers until they get to the point where they can absorb language and begin to interact socially with one another and adults. As a result, the concept of descent apparently didn't even begin to develop until they started domesticating livestock -- and even then, it's more of an abstract scientific fact that has little or no social significance. In such a setting, I would expect that the entire concept of a hereditary line of monarchs would never even arise, and it would be more likely that the successor to a dead Emperor would be more likely chosen on the basis of various signs and portents, especially given that Emperors are worshipped as gods. Think something similar to the Kumari goddess in Nepal, but lifelong instead of only during childhood, or the selection of a new Dalai Lama (except without the element of reincarnation).

However, even that issue wasn't enough to completely destroy my ability to enjoy the story, for the simple reason that the characters as individuals were so engaging that I wanted to see what happened to them, enough that I could make myself overlook the question of just how a system of hereditary monarchy could arise in a species without any concept of family. Whether the characters were two minor-league baseball players, a nuclear physicist, a British bomber pilot, a German Panzer officer or a Jewish scholar struggling to survive the horrors of the Warsaw Ghetto, I cared about them and wanted to see how they would get out of the scrapes they found themselves in.

And that last brings home another of the great strengths of the novel -- Turtledove's unsparing handling of the evils of the time. The horrors of Nazi Germany's racial policies and the Final Solution are an obvious subject to be covered, but Turtledove also brings things home to show how the US in 1942 was still an aggressively racist country -- and what consequences that has when black and white are both thrown into the same ugly prison camp, captives of the Lizards. What reason do the colored population of the US have not to throw their lot in with a conqueror who may not be treating them that much better than their former oppressors, but at least aren't treating those former oppressors any better? So is it any wonder that they should turn collaborationist, much like Moishie Russie initially did when he discovered that the Lizards had liberated the Warsaw Ghetto and had the Nazis on the run? If there's any moral in this novel, it's a blunt one -- treat others right for the simple reason that when the chips are down, you'll want them to be helping you instead of happily helping the people who are trying to do you a bad turn.

As we get to the final pages, we get not a conclusion, but the clear and obvious evidence being beaten into all our characters, human and Lizard alike, that this is going to be a very long, uphill struggle. At least now we can get our hands on all four books and read them in rapid succession. When I originally read this volume, back in 1994, it was all that existed, and I had another year or more to look forward to before I'd get to read the next installment.

Review posted June 4, 2012.

Buy In the Balance: An Alternate History of the Second World War (Worldwar, Volume 1) from