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Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance by Harry Turtledove

Cover art by Stan Watts

Published by Del Ray Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When Harry Turtledove began the WorldWar tetralogy with WorldWar: In The Balance, many readers and critics regarded the alien invasion story as something done to death. In fact, many writers' workshops of the time suggested that beginning writers should write an alien invasion story and trunk it, simply to "get it out of your system" and move on to more original work. Maybe one could do a satirical take on the alien invasion, along the lines of the movie Mars Attacks, since humor can play with elements that would otherwise be considered clichéd so long as the audience is laughing. But there just didn't seem to be any possibilities left for a serious take on an alien invasion.

And then Harry Turtledove, who had already established a strong reputation as a writer of alternate history, gave us a story of World War II turned upside down by the sudden appearance of aliens bent on conquest of all humanity. They are reptilian, members of a species who have been a single unified polity since before humanity developed agriculture and began to live in settled communities. So slowly do these invaders change culturally that they never even considered that intelligence data eight centuries old might be a little bit out of date. As a result, they arrived expecting to overawe mounted knights with a quick display of Industrial technology and instead discovered they would be confronting Industrial societies embroiled in total war. What was supposed to be a walkover turned into a desperate battle against enemies at near parity. More than once the Fleetlord Atvar considered nuking the entire planet into a glowing wasteland and be done with it -- but to do so would be to admit defeat, for his mission was to add a third conquered world to the two already ruled over by the Emperor he worshipped as a living god. And he could not betray one who was both his monarch and his deity.

At the climax of the second volume, Tilting the Balance, a nuclear weapon exploded right in front of Moscow, capital of the Soviet Union. It was not authorized by Atvar or any of the shiplords, but nobody had believed the relatively backward Soviets to be able to build a nuclear weapon at all, let alone before such technologically sophisticated nations as the US, the UK and Nazi Germany. However, the Lizards had underestimated both the resourcefulness and the daring of the humans, whom they called Big Uglies, largely because they themselves had possessed nuclear power so long as to have a thorough appreciation of the dangers of handling radioactive materials. The humans had only the faintest idea of what they were working with, and thus could take a far more cavalier attitude toward the risks of radiation poisoning, let alone long-term hazards such as cancers, and had stolen fissile materials scattered during an attack on a Lizard munitions ship and used it to make their bomb.

Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance picks up where the second left off, with Atvar dealing with the revelation that the bomb in front of Moscow was indeed of Soviet manufacture, built with the plutonium they took from the Lizards' destroyed stockpile. Now his own shiplords, who should be following his leadership without question, are beginning to blame him for this sudden turn of the fortunes of war against them. There is even talk of a court martial to try Atvar for failure to lead, a concept that would previously have been completely unthinkable even a year earlier.

In an effort to restore his upper hand, Atvar summons Soviet Foreign Commissar Molotov to his flagship in orbit for a dressing-down. However, Molotov refuses to give Atvar the satisfaction of seeing him rattled, instead lecturing Atvar about dialectical materialism and how the peace-loving peasants and workers of the Soviet Union only want the imperialistic Lizards to leave them alone. By the time the interview is over, Atvar is feeling even more frustrated than ever.

Not long afterward the Germans follow with their own bomb, which they use to destroy a troop concentration near Breslau, and in retaliation the Lizards destroy Munich, setting up a policy that they will destroy a human city for every bomb humans use against them. Shortly thereafter the Americans destroy a troop concentration in Chicago, and in retaliation the city of Seattle is destroyed (although the Lizards briefly consider and then disregard Denver, not realizing that the secret bomb project is being carried out there).

All the plotlines that were established in the first two volumes continue to be developed and woven together into an intricate tapestry of a novel. Much of the depth of the storytelling comes from the careful attention to the effects of the strangely changed war on the little people, characters drawn from the ordinary walks of life.

Some of them have found strength in the sudden upending of their lives. When we first met Liu Han as a new widow, still in shock from the death of her husband and young son in a Japanese air raid, she was the typical Chinese woman of the time, passive and obedient to male authority. But when she was swept up in the Lizards' research to understand human sexuality and its relationship to human psychology, she got her first opportunity to make a decision for herself. She decided to stay with Bobby Fiore, the Italian-American baseball player who'd been taken prisoner in the American Midwest and swept up into the same experiment to understand humans' estrus-free sexuality and its relationship to human behavior patterns that were insane by Lizard standards, such as the extreme emotional reactions of humans to being separated from their mates and young.

Returned to Earth and deposited in a refugee camp in China, Liu Han and Bobby had teamed up to develop an entertaining act that would bring them a little money. And then they became swept up in the resistance led by Mao's Communists, and Bobby went on a mission from which he did not return. Once again a widow, Liu Han determined that she would make the Lizards pay for the death of the man she loved, the father of the child growing within her womb.

In this volume, she becomes more and more deeply involved in the efforts of the People's Liberation Army to expel the Lizards from China, even as the Lizard scientists take increasing interest in the development of her baby. And then she gives birth, only to have the baby snatched from her before she can even nurse. The old Liu Han might have accepted the situation with helpless resignation, but the new Liu Han determines that she will force the Lizards to disgorge the child, and sets about methodolically marshaling every asset she can to compel them.

Others have been shattered by the disruptions brought about by the invasion. Jens Larssen had been a physicist with the Metallurgical Laboratory at the University of Chicago when the war began, working with some of the world's greatest theoretical minds and coming home to marital happiness with his beautiful, educated wife Barbara. But when the Lizards suddenly brought the chaos of war home to the previously untouched American heartland, he set off on a mission that took him out of contact with home and ended up far longer than anticipated when he had to abandon his car and continue on a bicycle. He returned to Chicago to discover the Met Lab had relocated to Denver, and had to head off on yet another cross-country trek through occupied territory.

He arrived to discover he'd been given up for dead and that his wife had taken up with another man, former baseball player Sam Yeager, who had become an intelligence officer dealing with Lizard prisoners. From that moment on it's been downhill for Jens, as the anger turns to bitterness that steadily consumes him, turning everything sour. Compliments from General Groves sound like insults to his ears, and he barely restrains himself from hurling them back in the older man's face. As things grow worse, Jens even begins to turn misanthropic, seeing all humanity as being against him, and decides to betray the American nuclear program to the LIzards.

This storyline has been heavily criticized by a number of readers as being anachronistic, on the grounds that first, women of the 1940's were under strong social pressure to consider their missing husbands to be alive and continue to hope for their return in the absence of incontrovertible proof of their deaths, and second, even if there had been evidence that was mistakenly taken as proof of Jens' death (say a corpse burned beyond recognition with some item known to be his, which unbeknownst to the finder had been traded by him for some necessity), when he returned to the living, Barbara's marriage to Sam would have been automatically invalidated and she would have been expected to return to Jens, and that if she did not, General Grove would have ordered her to do so for the sake of good order.

However, this may be one of those places where the author is caught between the demands of historical accuracy and of contemporary readers' ability to maintain sympathy for the characters involved. Most contemporary readers will take the ease with which Barbara became attached to Sam as evidence that her marriage to Jens had no fundamentals, and thus trying to force them back together would only produce a sham, two people going through the motions of a marriage, and it was better to bury the marriage than have it shamble along like a zombie relationship -- and that anybody who did try was a complete colossal jerk, and thus unworthy of any sympathy. No amount of historical documentation, which appeals primarily to the rational forebrain, is going to still that hindbrain-driven gut reaction of disgust and of turning against any character who might try to enforce the historically accurate expectations for the proper way to respond to the situation. As a result, the author may feel constrained to cater to the presentist attitudes of the majority of readers at the risk of putting off the small number of intense fans with a historicist view of the past.

Then there are all the various threads from the points of view of the grunts at the sharp end, whether they be American, Russian, German, British, or Lizard. And in that last we see a particular skill, since it's often easy to make an alien invader into Always Evil orcs, ciphers with no individual personality or motivation. Instead we have a set of beings who, although not human and as a result subject to some biological drives very different from those of humans, still manage to have comprehensive, even sympathetic motivations and feelings. They don't know any more about the grand scheme of things than the grunts on the other side, just that they are here to do their duty, and that things are very badly bollixed. And some of them are becoming very frustrated at what they increasingly view as violations of the social contract, to the point of questioning the fundamentals of their very hierarchical culture.

By the end of this volume, things are clearly moving toward the conclusion, as there will be only one more volume to find some kind of modus vivendi in a world in which the Lizards cannot conquer humanity without completely destroying the ecosystem, but neither can the various human nations, even acting in concert, thrust the Lizards back from whence they came.

Review posted January 1, 2013.

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