Colonization: Second Contact by Harry Turtledove
Cover art by Tim O'Brien
Published by Del Ray Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Harry Turtledove's groundbreaking WorldWar tetralogy began with humanity's future in the balance. It's 1942 and the Axis and Allies are on a roughly equal footing in the cataclysmic struggle to determine whether the future will belong to tyranny or freedom. Things could go either way, depending on how a few key battles go. And then everything's tossed into chaos when Earth is attacked from space by aliens everybody initially take to be Martians.
But no, the Lizards, who call themselves the Race in their own language, are not from Mars, or anywhere else within our solar system. Rather they are from the second planet of the star we call Tau Ceti, part of the constellation of the Whale in our sky. An ancient and very stable people ruled by emperors who are regarded as divine, they have conquered two other species in the star systems we call Epsilon Eridani and Epsilon Indi. Sixteen hundred years ago (eight hundred by our calendar) they came to Earth and found it just entering the High Middle Ages. An easy conquest for a people who could fly between the stars.
But while the Race spent the intervening centuries laying meticulous plans, humanity did not remain stationary as they themselves would have. So instead of an enormous advantage in technology, they have arrived to find themselves with the barest of technological edges. Worse, these damnable Big Uglies with their curiosity and behavioral flexibility are adapting to their suddenly changed situation with unimaginable rapidity. Factions that only days earlier had been fighting one another to the death now form hasty alliances in order to fight off the common enemy of all humanity, pooling not only military resources out at the sharp end of the combat fronts, but also scientific and technological expertise to reverse-engineer captured Lizard equipment and grasp any possible advantage that can be gained thereby.
As a result, humanity was able to fight the Lizards to a standstill. Although the Lizards were able to secure the less-developed southern parts of the world (what we would call the Third World) the Great Powers -- the US, Great Britain, the German Reich, the USSR, and the Japanese Empire -- managed to maintain their independence. The Lizard fleetlord Atvar had no choice but to treat with them as sovereign nations rather than as subjects of his Emperor. However, it could not be a long-term stable situation, since any shift in the balance of power would produce an advantage for someone, an advantage that would soon be grasped and used against the others. And the colonization fleet was already on its way, scheduled to arrive twenty years after the conquest fleet and presupposing the walkover everybody planned for would deliver them a subjugated world ready to be integrated into the Empire as Rabotev and Halless before them.
Which meant the ending of WorldWar: Striking the Balance wasn't so much a conclusion as a setup. What would happen when the colonization fleet arrived to discover that no, Tosev 3 had not been pacified, but remained contested by several independent powers that all hated and distrusted one another at least as much as they did the Race?
Harry Turtledove did not disappoint. Colonization: Second Contact is the first installment of the three-volume sequel to the WorldWar tetralogy. It's a very different 1960's from the one we knew. Most obviously we have the presence of the Lizards and the advanced technology they brought, and the ways in which reverse-engineering that technology has had on human societies, such as landings on the Moon and Mars in the 1950's (an endless source of amusement for the Lizards, who see little or no value in celestial bodies that one cannot live on in a bare-scales environment). It's also a world where Adolf Hitler died in his bed as the Fuehrer of a powerful and independent German Reich, which means Naziism has not been intellectually discredited and tossed into the Dumpster of history.
A fact that doesn't remain abstract for long, because even in the early chapters when we're being re-introduced to the major characters from the WorldWar tetralogy and how they've changed, we get our faces shoved into it right alongside one of the major characters. Remember Johannes Drucker, the Panzer officer under Heinrich Jaeger? He's now gotten into the Reich Rocket Force and flies an A-45 upper stage (a spacecraft somewhere in between the capsule-style spacecraft of the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo days and a Space Shuttle orbiter in design) into space. He's just returned from one such mission when he's met by two SS men who inform him that his wife is under suspicion of being Jewish.
Maybe there's some truth in the rumor that Kathe's grandmother was Jewish, or maybe it's just a vicious lie promulgated by someone who'd like to do Oberstllieutnant Drucker harm. But Drucker can't afford to waste time trying to sort matters out. The most important thing to do is to squelch the investigation and get his wife out of custody, which means appealing to his superior officer to pull in every favor possible to produce documentation that Kathe is of 100% Aryan ancestry. But it's not without a cost -- he soon finds his excellent performance ratings slipping, not because he's performing less effectively, but because he's being seen in a less favorable light now that he got several important people to stick their necks out on his behalf. Not to mention the shakeup his comfortable Nazi-German worldview has taken. He'd always assumed that the Jews were indeed the race enemy and that the Nazi regime was right in eliminating them from the Reich. But it isn't so simple when it's no longer Those People Over There getting accused of being Jewish and disappeared, but his own beloved wife with whom he's shared intimate moments, the mother of his beloved children.
And the survival of the German Reich also has consequences outside its borders, as a weakened Britain shorn of its colonies begins a slip-slide into Fascism and anti-Semitism. It's not a pleasant place for David Goldfarb, who had once thought himself safe from that sort of ugliness, but who is now finding himself the subject of various subtle forms of blackmail. Maybe it's time to think about getting out while it's still possible to leave.
We also get to reacquaint ourselves with a number of other old familiar human characters from the WorldWar series, including Sam Yeager, the American baseball player who joined the Army after his train was shot up by the Lizards and whose experience reading science fiction gave him the mental flexibility to deal with an alien species who aren't just humans in funny suits, but creatures with very different biological drives. He's now retired from active duty and has settled down in Los Angeles with his wife Barbara and their son Jonathan, who's now a young man discovering girls in a world where imitating these fascinating and technologically superior aliens is a cool way to be just a little rebellious against the authority of one's elders without actually getting into life-changing trouble.
Liu Han, the Chinese peasant woman who discovered that she could take charge of her life after the Lizards upended it, has risen steadily in Lizard-occupied China's underground Communist Party. Her activities in it brings her into contact with a number of other important characters, including Sam and Jonathan Yeager during a secret visit to America in order to get covert aid. Her daughter Liu Mei still shows disturbing signs of having been a captive of the Lizards during critical developmental stages. Although she's able to function in society, her inability to produce a natural smile does handicap her in social situations, since all her careful conscious efforts to smile still look like forced grimaces.
In addition, we're introduced to a number of brand new characters. For instance, there's Kassquit, another Chinese girl who didn't have such a resolute mother to fight for her and who thus remained in the hands of the Lizard psychologist Ttomalss throughout her childhood. She thinks of herself first and foremost as a citizen of the Empire and hates all the way her body marks her out as different from the Race. At the same time she's growing more and more curious about the Wild Big Uglies down on the planet below her.
And then there's Glen Johnson, one of the American space pilots, who's rather obviously modeled upon astronaut John Glenn, being from Ohio and having flown in the Marines during the War. However, he's not a simple roman a clef substitution of a lightly faked name to avoid legal trouble, unlike the character of Fred Hipple in the original tetralogy, who was pretty much a standin for the real Sir Frank Whittle. For instance, Johnson's a bachelor with no significant romantic attachments, whereas Glenn met the love of his life while he and Annie were preschoolers and they have enjoyed what is probably the closest to a perfect marriage we frail and flawed human beings can experience. This will prove important in the fictional character's subsequent development, since the lack of strong ties to family on the ground leaves him free to take risks that a family man would not.
In Johnson's scenes we also get to meet a couple of other space pilots who look like they're intended to be that world's equivalents of the two other best-remembered astronauts of Project Mercury. However, Gus Wilhelm is so lightly characterized that it's not clear just how much he corresponds to Grissom (Johnson and Wilhelm are portrayed as best buddies, whereas Glenn was always closest to Scott Carpenter while Grissom was best friends with Deke Slayton), and Alan Stahl has some marked differences from Shepard, being from St. Louis rather than New England (although he certainly has Shepard's mercurial personality, going from warm and friendly to icy-cold in seconds in one critical scene, and his antagonism toward Johnson certainly corresponds to the strong tensions between Shepard and Glenn during the competition for the first flight). It looks very much to me like Turtledove may have chosen to make the correspondences inexact for artistic reasons, to give himself the freedom to take the characters and plot where they needed to go, rather than concerns about legal complications. As a Senator, Glenn would be considered a public figure rather than a private individual, and both Shepard and Grissom were deceased by the time the novel came out. (And it occurs to me that, given that "Stahl" is the German word for "steel," it's possible that the author may have also been giving a gentle poke at fellow author Allen Steele, who had just published The Tranquillity Alternative a few years earlier.)
Meanwhile, the Lizards are discovering that the natives of this curious world still have surprises for them. The all-male crew of the conquest fleet has had some trouble with ginger, the innocuous human spice that acts as a potent and addictive drug to the Lizards' biochemistry. Readers of those volumes made the obvious connection to cocaine, particularly crack, which was just becoming a major social problem at that time. However, with the introduction of female Lizards to the social situation, it becomes apparent that obvious social parallel was simplistic. Tasting ginger doesn't just give female Lizards the crack-like euphoria followed by a devastating crash. You see, Lizards have an estrous cycle, comparable to many non-sapient species here on Earth -- and tasting ginger causes them to go into heat. Apparently ginger mimics one or another of their critical sex hormones, so it might be better compared to using steroids, albeit without the notorious roid rages. In any case, it's having some major psychological and sociological ramifications, and the long-stable society of the Lizards simply doesn't have the intellectual toolkit to deal with it.
Like the WorldWar books that preceded it, this volume is not complete of itself. The ending is not a conclusion but stopping place, and it's clearly setting things up for a major confrontation as the Lizards desperately search for somebody to blame for the sneak attack on the colonization fleet which destroyed ten ships and the thousands of Lizard civilians hibernating in cold sleep within them, and all the major human players are having to deal with both internal tensions and problems in their relations with one another and the Lizards. Of course now we can read all eight books in the macro-arc in sequence, rather than having to wait for almost a year as was the case when they first came out.
Review posted June 4, 2012
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