V-S Day by Allen Steele
Cover design by Diana Kolsky
Published by Ace Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
Many writers have something that shows up again and again in their writing. For some it's a theme. For others, it's a character or type. For Allen Steele, it's the Antipodes Bomber and the effect it might have had upon history.
The Antipodes Bomber was one of the super-weapons that Nazi Germany wanted to field as World War II began to turn against them. It was a rocketplane that would be launched westward and skip along the uppermost layers of the atmosphere until it reached its target (usually cited as New York City, although some writers have suggested Hitler would try a real decapitation strike and go for Washington DC rather than just the economic and cultural center that is the Big Apple). After delivering its deadly payload, it would continue for one more skip over the Atlantic in hopes of returning to the Fatherland, or at least a waiting U-boat, since Germans weren't much on deliberate suicide missions as the Japanese, and wanted to maintain the polite fiction that their pilot had a chance, however slim, of returning home to his Fuhrer's accolades.
The resources required to build it would have been immense, and at the very extreme margins of the technology of the 1940's, and a single shock strike is unlikely to have turned the tide, since the American public would likely have responded with redoubled determination to destroy Germany utterly. Even an attack on Washington DC wouldn't achieve true decapitation, since unlike Nazi Germany, the US is not dependent upon a single charismatic leader. The next person in the Presidential line of succession would take the oath of office, lead the American public in mourning FDR and the other dead, and then oversee the complete and absolute destruction of the Nazi state. If that person was several steps down that line, even Frances Perkins, the head of the newest Cabinet department, she would have held the same authority under the Constitution as her predecessor, something decisionmakers in governments based around strongmen never truly comprehend at a gut level.
Allen Steele's very first published short story, "Project Blue Horizon" (rewritten and republished in Asimov's as "Goddard's People" shortly afterward) told the story of an alternate America's efforts to counter the German super-weapon. He then followed it with "John Harper Wilson," the story of that world's first moon landing, as backstory for The Tranquillity Alternative. That novel took that world into the Clinton Administration, showing that an earlier space program, even one that went far enough to develop a moonbase and land on Mars, didn't guarantee there couldn't be a retreat similar to this world's retreat from Project Apollo to four decades of Low Earth Orbit circle-going and endless promises that we're working on a renewed drive to the Moon and Mars one of these days. If anything, the faster development might well result in the retreat happening more quickly.
However, as the years went by, Steele became increasingly dissatisfied with those earliest efforts, especially as additional information on the Antipodes Bomber emerged from various archives, especially troves of documents that had never been studied after their bulk capture by the Allies. Thus he decided to return yet again to the story of Project Blue Horizon and how Robert Goddard led a contentious group of hand-picked rocket scientists to design and build the spaceplane that counters the Nazi skip bomber, incorporating the new information and correcting the errors that had come from his own inexperience as a writer. As a result, this novel is best read as a slightly different timeline that closely parallels that of his original Antipodes Bomber stories, but forks a little away from it.
In this novel Steele uses an unusual structural approach, beginning with a brief prolog of the 390 Group hastening to launch their untried rocketplane on the basis of a warning from secret sources. The first chapter jumps forward to that world's 2013 (the year the novel was published) and one of the members of the group is shooting off a model rocket with his grandson.
By showing us a flashforward of the reunion of the surviving members of the team, Steele lets us know that they're living in an American future, not a Nazi one. No matter the outcome of their work, the Nazis' superweapon could not turn the tide of the war for any significant length of time. Instead the journey becomes the destination, as we see the events that lead up to that moment when they launch the Lucky Linda, hoping they've done everything right and haven't built a flying coffin for America's first spaceman, that they haven't received the call too late and will find their efforts futile.
As befits a story of this scope, it's a novel of many parts. There's the gadget story of the technical challenges they face in building a revolutionary new flying machine in complete secrecy and finding ways to test it when they can't launch it until the day comes to use it. There's the spy story of both Allied and Axis efforts to penetrate the other's secrecy and sabotage the other's projects. And there's the very human story of the team and their relationships with each other and with the other people on the project. And all of them interlock to reinforce each other, from Jack Cube's struggle to prove himself as a black man in a society that still had formal legal racial segregation to the problems in selecting a pilot when the best medical science of the day wasn't even sure if a human being could survive and remain functional in a weightless environment.
It's interesting to notice the various odd little parallels with the history of the world we know. For instance, the chosen pilot, Rudy "Skid" Sloman, is the subject of an intense rivalry on the part of his backup, who is certain he is the better pilot and should be chosen instead. However, unlike John Glenn, who bided his time and subsequently became the first American in orbit, this man is a brash young fool who decides to force the issue by demonstrating that he can take more g's in the centrifuge than anyone has before. However, Joe McPherson overestimates his own ability to endure acceleration with fatal results, and as a result leaves the program without a backup pilot, and everything is riding on Skid Sloman's ability to translate simulator practice into actual flight, the first time, perfectly.
And even if he can, there's the problem of figuring out a way to kill Silver Bird on the wing. The modern solution would be some form of guided missile -- but the world of the early 1940's simply doesn't have the advanced electronics necessary to create the weapon. In fact, military guidance systems for the Cold War were one of the big drivers of the development of integrated circuits and microprocessors in the world we know.
The solution comes from a very American form of sport hunting, using a shotgun to take waterfowl on the wing. Because of the time it takes for the birdshot to reach its target, the hunter can't aim directly at the flock, but instead must learn to aim at the point where the birds will be flying a moment later. In a flash of insight, our heroes realize how they can make the weapon that will kill Silver Bird.
And then comes the day the Germans decide to launch. Here again we have parallels and differences. Horst Reinhardt, the selected pilot, will be the first human being in space -- but unlike Yuri Gagarin, he is on an actual military mission rather than symbolic combat of technological prowess. And unlike Gagarin, who appears to have been chosen for having the proper class origin (a peasant) and was a Communist mostly because it was what he was raised, Reinhardt is chosen specifically for being a militant National Socialist, filled with fervor for his Fuehrer and his race.
Yet for all that Reinhardt is a hardcore Nazi, not exactly the sort of person you'd want to invite over to dinner, he's not just a cardboard villain. As he flies into space, becoming the first human being to see Earth's curvature, he proves capable of awe. When a metal washer, dropped into the cockpit by a careless workman, goes floating past him, Reinhardt reacts rather like Alan Shepard making a similar discovery in his Mercury spacecraft -- a mild curiosity, which can be given no rein because there's just too much to do and too little time to accomplish it.
And thus the story returns to the moment of the prolog, as our heroes begin the countdown to launch Lucky Linda and Skid Slocum into space. While Silbervogel was launched horizontally on a rocket sled, Lucky Linda rises from her pad on powerful boosters, more like the rockets of the history we know. Skid Slocum's flight will be suborbital, but unlike Alan Shepard , he doesn't just have to survive and demonstrate that a human being can control a spacecraft in flight. He has a battle to fight, an enemy to kill -- and first he has to find the SOB.
The actual first space battle is brief but emotionally intense -- and perhaps it wouldn't be too much of a spoiler to say that yes, it has a happy ending, since we've known ever since the first chapter that our heroes are living in a 2013 where America triumphed and Naziism has gone into the great dumpster of history. And thus we are treated to a final chapter with a summation of what became of the various members of the team in the decades that followed. Skid Slocum retired from the Air Force and became an engineering consultant, and died in 1998 -- the same year as Alan Shepard in the history we know, although it's not said whether he too succumbed to leukemia.
A lot of alternate histories give the impression that the author feels under an obligation to write such as to leave the reader with the sense that we live in the best of all possible worlds, that any alteration from the world we know would have produced a less desirable world. However, this one ends on a happy note, with an unmistakeable bit of evidence that this is most definitely not a world in which America landed on the Moon six times and then retreated into Low Earth Orbit to go in circles for decades.
Review posted October 9, 2015.
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