WorldWar: Striking the Balance by Harry Turtledove
Cover art by Stan Watts
Published by Del Ray Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In WorldWar: In the Balance Harry Turtledove handily demolished the idea that the alien invasion was a played-out subgenre, giving us an alternate world in which World War II was disrupted at a critical point by an unexpected invasion from the skies. Although many people initially thought upon seeing these sleek machines and their reptilian operators that Earth had been invaded by Mars, the Lizards were in fact from a planet circling the star we call Tau Ceti, twelve light-years away.
Suddenly the warring powers of the Axis and the Grand Alliance had to set aside their differences enough to fight this new threat, lest they be defeated in detail, one by one. However, given the vast differences in ideology and the enormous amounts of damage each side had done to the others, it wasn't an easy achievement. More than once, suspicions and misunderstandings nearly derailed the common effort, for instance during the daring raid to steal scattered fragments of uranium from a destroyed arsenal ship, which resulted in the uranium being divided between German and Soviet agents and neither getting as big of a chunk as they'd wanted for their own bomb program.
However, it was enough to jumpstart them, and soon the Soviets detonated the first human-built nuclear weapon against a Lizard troop concentration outside Moscow. This was something of an embarrassment for the United States, which had been working on its own nuclear program for some time and assumed it must be ahead of such a technologically backward nation. However, the evidence that the bomb was made almost entirely from stolen Lizard uranium was a salve for American pride -- although not nearly as good as when they were able to produce a bomb entirely of their own making and detonate it onto a Lizard troop concentration that was trying to fight its way through the neighborhoods of Chicago and getting bogged down, losing all the technological advantages of speed and maneuverability in an environment in which a mobster with a Tommy gun or even just an irate citizen with a pop bottle full of gasoline could destroy an irreplaceable piece of ordnance like their landcruisers, advanced tanks that could take out a dozen Shermans with little effort.
One of the great strengths of Turtledove's writing is his ability to bring the war home to the reader by focusing not just on the great movers and shakers of the conflict, but on the ordinary people who have to live in the mess. For instance, we have Sam Yeager, whom we first met as a minor-league baseball player riding a train with the rest of the team to the next city where they'd play ball, only to have their trip interrupted by a Lizard attack. He escaped, determined to hit back against his attackers, and was happily surprised that now the US Army was desperate enough for fighting men that they'd overlook his medical issues, particularly his full upper and lower dentures.
However, when his unit captured some Lizard POW's, Sam revealed a talent that made him far too valuable for the Army to leave him a mere rifleman. Whiling away the hours on those long train rides, Sam had gotten into the habit of reading science fiction, and as a result had been exposed to the concept of alien intelligences, of beings who were biologically different from humans and who, in the words of John W. Campbell, "think as well as a man but not like a man." The broadening effect of all that reading made him particularly suitable to take a supervisory role over these peculiar POW's, which meant that he was soon receiving an unexpected promotion to give him the necessary rank to have the authority he'd need to discharge his duties.
This also put him in contact with Barbara Larssen, whose husband, physicist Jens Larssen, had been missing for some time after leaving the Metallurgical Laboratory on a secret mission. The two of them fell in love during the desperate flight to Denver, believing that she was a widow. And then Jens returned, having been delayed and incommunicado as a result of the disruptions of America fighting a desperate war on its own territory. When Barbara didn't immediately jump for joy at his return and repudiate her marriage with Sam, Jens took the rejection very badly, beginning a downward spiral that ultimately resulted in him seeing the entire US government as being against him.
Now Sam and Barbara are trying to raise their newborn son in a war-torn land where even the basics of food are hard to come by. And both of them are doing their best to be fully contributing members of the war effort, whether by doing liaison work with scientists on the cutting edge of rocket and atomic bomb technology, or simply typing up one more important dispatch on a failing typewriter ribbon.
Another of the little people who've had their lives turned upside down is Liu Han, the Chinese peasant woman who began the story in shock over the death of her husband and son in a Japanese raid, only to fall into a Lizard-run refugee camp where she had the misfortune of attracting the Lizards' astonishment and curiosity over humanity's ability to be sexually "on" all the time. Although that resulted in her all-too-brief acquaintance with pitcher Bobby Fiore, a former teammate of Sam's, it also resulted in the birth of her daughter who was snatched from her moments later by the Lizard scientist Ttomalss as part of his ongoing investigations into human psychology.
Returned to China, she became involved in the Communist movement and has since risen in rank and responsibility within the Party organization. However, her stolen child is never far from her mind, and she is no longer the passive peasant woman she once was, who would've resigned herself to her fate and practiced detachment as a spiritual exercise. Having gained agency over her own life, she has now determined that she will indeed regain her beloved daughter, and sets about systematically laying the groundwork to trap Ttomalss and put him in a position where he has to hand the girl over.
It's quite a triumphant moment when mother and daughter are finally reunited. But it doesn't last for long, as Liu Han realizes the significance of her daughter having spent the first critical months of her life in the hands of one of the little scaly devils, being taught their ways of life. Little Liu Mei has learned to speak their hissing language instead of Chinese, and she has never eaten proper Chinese foods, to the point she responds to them with disgust. But Liu Han knows that small children are still quite resilient and their minds are still flexible, so she very determinedly sets about teaching her daughter to speak Chinese, to enjoy wearing brightly colored clothes and ribbons in her hair like a proper Chinese child, and to generally be a proper human being, so that however Ttomalss may justify himself, he will not win.
And there is Moishe Russie, the Jewish physician who was starving in the Warsaw Ghetto when the Lizards attacked, and who initially welcomed them as liberators. But when they bombed Washington DC, he realized that they were not fighting on the side of freedom and justice, but were just a different kind of conqueror. They might not seek to wipe the Jewish people, or humanity as a whole, from the Earth, but they still intended to subjugate humanity and take the best for themselves. So he refused to make further broadcasts for the Lizards, and as a result fled with his family to one after another place of marginal safety.
Now he has arrived in the Holy Land, only to discover that the Lizards have extended their reach here as well. Turtledove puts in some bits of humor here, including the Jewish equivalent to the anti-science branch of Fundamentalist Christianity. Unfortunately, certain human foibles are not bound to race or ethnicity, including the will to disbelieve what one finds displeasing to one's world-view or contradictory to one's literalistic interpretation of holy scripture.
One of the real strengths of Turtledove's writing is the humanity with which he treats the various Lizard characters on the front lines, the little guys who are just there to do their duty and serve the Emperor they regard as a living god, and who don't know anything about all that big-picture stuff. A lot of writers have a tendency to portray the alien invaders as Always Evil monsters who seem to exist to be cruel to humans, but Turtledove's characters, Chook and Ristin, Teerts and Ussmak, are all just folks, even if they aren't human. They care about their teammates, they grouse when things go awry, and in general they show how good people can end up serving a bad cause for all kinds of reasons, great and small.
However, on the macro scale there is something that is not entirely satisfactory about the solution -- it seems to come too quickly for all the buildup we've gone through, and it leaves too many things hanging. For instance, where are the surviving members of the Lizard invasion force going when they give up the invasion? I didn't get the impression that they were going to pile back into their remaining spaceships and head back to Home, but neither did I get to find out where they might be taking refuge on Earth (perhaps in Africa or one of the other areas that failed to successfully resist them?). And perhaps most important, what is going to happen when the colonization fleet arrives, expecting to find a pacified world ready for settlement, and instead finds an Earth ready and waiting for them?
In other words, it's not an ending, but a setup for another sequence of books. And as it turned out, he did indeed write another series, beginning with Colonization: Second Contact.
Review posted February 1, 2013.
Buy Striking the Balance (Worldwar Series, Volume 4) from Amazon.com