Worldwar: Tilting the Balance by Harry Turtledove
Published by Del Ray Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the first volume of the WorldWar tetralogy, In the Balance, World War II was at one of its most critical points, at which the Allied and Axis forces were roughly balanced -- and then everything was interrupted by the intrusion of a fleet of conquering aliens. The Lizards, so called because of their resemblance to terrestrial chameleons (their own name for themselves translates into human speech as the Race), have been planning the conquest of Earth for the past eight hundred years (1600 of their own, shorter, years). Except that they are such a stable society that they never thought to get an update on the data from the original robotic probe. As a result, they thought they were going to be facing Iron Age barbarians and it would be a walkover -- until they discovered that not only did the locals now have radio, but they also had the full suite of Industrial technology, including weaponry nearly as advanced as the glorious weapons that united Home and have never since needed to be improved upon (since the other two worlds the Race conquered were relatively primitive in technological development).
By the end of that volume, it was becoming intensely obvious to all the point-of-view characters, human and Lizard alike, that they were in for a very long haul. The various human factions who had only a short while earlier been striving to crush one another would have to hold their noses and co-operate, lest they be defeated in detail by this new enemy from the stars. And the Lizards, who were used to doing everything according to procedures so ancient as to be well-nigh sacred, were actually going to have to do the unthinkable and innovate. Worse yet, they might just have to consider learning from the very species they had previously considered to be beneath contempt.
World War: Tilting the Balance continues to develop the situation and the characters, putting some of them in very uncomfortable positions. Most obviously, the Lizard expeditionary force leader, Fleetlord Atvar, is facing the unenviable position of having to explain to his immediate subordinates just how they could be in this terrible fix, and what they're going to have to do in order to mend it. As a result, the formerly unquestionable hierarchy is beginning to shake, and some of the fleet's shiplords are beginning to raise serious questions about Atvar's fitness for his position, a position to which he had been appointed by superior authority. But if the top-down chain of authority which has served the Race from time immemorial is no longer working, what is going to replace it? The sort of brutish rule of the most bloodthirsty that seems to be the rule in at least two of the human not-Empires, or the even more insane system of snoutcounting by which the not-empire of the United States of America operates?
The turmoil at the top of the Lizard fleet is trickling down the ranks, so that ordinary rank-and-file Lizards who had previously never had to seriously question any of the givens of their lives are having to confront the possibility that things need a rethinking. And that's just the Lizard troops who are still in the Lizard military forces. The situation of Lizards who have fallen into captivity is even more difficult, since the humans feel no great cause to be generous with these creatures who had attacked them out of nowhere. Even countries such as the United States who as signatories to the Geneva Conventions consider it a point of honor to treat human prisoners of war properly are not so certain they have the same moral obligation toward a non-human enemy. There's a strong current of thought among Americans that the Lizards have the same moral status as any other animal, and thus no positive obligations inhere. However, at least some, such as minor-league ballplayer turned soldier Sam Yeager, are beginning to see the Lizards as another kind of people, physically different from Homo sapiens, but not metaphysically or morally mere beasts.
Even as the Lizards are struggling to come to terms with the upending of the certainties that had previously informed their lives, the humans are dealing with their own. By now they are assimilating the idea that humanity is not alone in the universe, that there is another technological species within traveling distance, and it has come to humanity, with all that means. However, people are still discovering what it means to have to co-operate with former enemies for the good of all humanity against an even worse foe.
For instance, both Ludmilia Gorbunova and Heinrich Jager consider themselves patriots of their respective homelands, the USSR and the German Reich -- which until a few moths ago meant that each regarded the other as barely human monsters, and did their damnedest to put the other in a grave. But now that they're fighting together for humanity's freedom from reptilian overlordship, they're finding that common humanity isn't just an abstract quality, but a very concrete personal attraction to the very qualities of staunch loyalty that had previously led them to be implacable enemies. And as they consider the possibility of falling in love, of relating on a very personal level, they began to question just what each of their respective nations was doing to the other only a few months earlier. In particular, Jager is beginning to ask some very uncomfortable questions about just what the Reich was doing behind the lines on the Eastern Front, although he's not yet quite ready to start questioning the fundamentals of Nazi racial doctrine.
Meanwhile, Liu Han has returned to Earth and her native China, but now in the company of Italian-American baseball player Bobby Fiore, the father of her unborn child. The idea of making decisions about her own life is still strange to Liu Han, but as she comes to one after another critical juncture and takes charge of her situation instead of waiting for others to act, she becomes steadily more used to the idea. Whether it's working out a scheme to earn some extra money in the refugee camp by helping Bobby turn his baseball skills into a vaudeville act or responding to the taking of her newborn daughter by a Lizard scientist trying to understand the roots of human psychology in its reproductive biology, she is no longer going to be a passive, traditional Chinese woman.
But the most drastic changes may well be in the United States, where the war has come home. It's been almost a century since battles of equals were fought on US soil, and that was the Civil War, in which brother fought brother over the question of whether the South would be allowed to leave the Union in order to preserve its practice of slavery. Now, for the first time since the War of 1812, a foreign invader has made inroads on American soil, landing in the heartland and disrupting both the agricultural and industrial efforts essential to the war effort. Worse, the Lizards are driving toward Chicago, where America's finest physicists are hard at work creating the super-weapon they hope will be able to turn the tide in humanity's favor -- the atomic bomb.
This storyline had one subthread that raised a lot of questions in the discussion forums when it first came out. in particular, the story of scientist Jens Larssen and his wife, Barbara. In the first volume, Jens had left Chicago in search of help, and in the course of his travails he was thought lost. When the Metallurgical Laboratory staff fled Chicago, Barbara became romantically involved with Sam Yeager, and believing her husband could not possibly have survived, marries Sam. When Jens reappears, having survived against improbable odds, he is effectively told that he's lost out, and reacts with anger.
Many readers argued that this situation was an anachronistic backwards projection of 1990's sexual mores onto the 1940's. For instance, in that time the standards of proof for assuming the death of a missing person were far higher, and there was a social expectation that a woman was not to give up hope for a husband MIA in combat to reappear unless hard evidence of his death were presented. Several readers brought up examples from their own families and communities of women who kept waiting for men lost in combat for the rest of their lives. And even if there had been evidence that was mistakenly regarded as proof of Jens Larssen's death and he'd been declared dead, once he reappeared and showed that he was very much among the living, the social mores of the time would have required Barbara to return to him, not grudgingly out of necessity, but cheerfully, and that if she did not do so of her own volition, it would have been regarded as fully within Colonel Leslie Groves' rights to order her to do so, for the good of the project.
On the other hand, there is the question of whether contemporary readers would have accepted such a turn of events, or if it would have made them hostile toward characters that they should be sympathetic to. This is always a problem when one is writing about historic periods with markedly different attitudes toward key aspects of life, and often there really isn't any completely satisfactory way to handle it, for the simple reason that there isn't one single kind of reader. The very treatment that will garner praise for historical accuracy from one reader will lead another reader to want all the characters to lose painfully.
As the Americans are having their problems with the A-bomb project, the Germans and the Soviets are making their own desperate bid to create an atomic bomb. They know it's possible, but they lack the wherewithal to separate their own uranium or breed their own plutonium. However, they also know that the Lizards have such weapons of their own -- and Lizard military doctrine decrees that all nuclear weapons be kept in a single carefully guarded spaceship. When that spaceship is set down on a field in Poland, the Germans are able to hit it with one of their giant long-range guns. It doesn't trigger a nuclear explosion, but it does make the spaceship into a very large dirty bomb that scatters fissile materials all over the area. Materials that can be used by humans to create weapons of their own, which leads to a very daring dash by two special agents to grab some of this strange explosive metal.
This volume ends with a nuclear weapon exploding just outside of Moscow and the Lizard high commander wondering what to do now (which implies that Stalin has succeeded in his Bomb project). Although it's now clear that humans are going to be fighting the Lizards on a far more equal footing, it's still going to be a long, hard fight and it's quite possible the best they can hope is some form of a draw.
Review posted October 31, 2012.
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