Book Reviews

Book Review – Worldwar: Tilting the Balance by Harry Turtledove

Worldwar: Tilting the Balance by Harry Turtledove is the second of four novels in this series. Turtledove writes in a genre called Alternate History – what would happen if a different event in history had occurred? With this type of novel, the setting is usually a familiar one historically, with a twist.

In this case, Turtledove puts forth the premise of what would have happened if an alien race had attempted to conquer the earth in the summer of 1942?

Sounds ridiculous? Dumb? Not interesting? Or like something out of a bad science fiction film? I had a lot of those same suppositions before I started reading these novels, and I like science fiction! I was worried about this being like an “aliens have landed” B-movie from the 1950’s.

These books have – so far – managed to delightfully surprise me.

The difference is Turtledove’s writing and attention to detail. He has a Ph.D. in history from UCLA. Because of this, he has a great feel for balancing historical and fictional characters.

He also has honed out The Race very well, down to their mannerisms and society. They are a culture that evolves very slowly and methodically, so they expected the earth to be at the same place it was 800 years ago. They are lizard-like and much shorter than humans. Their weaponry is more advanced – about the level it is now on earth in the year 2002.

I’d think that the weaponry of today would make it an easy defeat for The Race, but it doesn’t work out that way. For one thing, because they are slow to evolve, they are also slow to adapt. While humans manage to adapt their techniques rather quickly and update their weaponry regularly, The Race stagnates.

This also applies to tactics. The Race uses tactics that worked in the conquering of two other races. However, these tactics only work for a short time with humans before they begin to adapt to them and find ways around them. The leaders of The Race – and The Race itself – are extremely slow to adapt.

Couple that with the humans’ discovery that for The Race, the herb ginger has an effect similar to cocaine on us. The Race does not know how to cope with addiction, other than ordering its males (only the males fight in battle) not to taste ginger. This has about as much of an effect as “Just Say No.”

The Race is also used to a very warm planet. Even summers in the United States and Russia seem to be cool to them. It is during the winter of 1942-1943 that the humans manage to strike the first serious blows back at their invaders.

Tilting the Balance picks up where Worldwar: In The Balance left off. Teams of physicists in the United States, Germany, Japan, and Russia are all racing to develop an atomic weapon to use against The Race. The Race already had these weapons but is reluctant to use them since it would ruin the planet for the colonization fleet which is about 20 years behind the invasion fleet.

In Russia, supplies are being delivered with U2 planes as they take small, stinging shots at The Race. By flying lower and slower than The Race’s jets, they manage to avoid being noticed most of the time. This is also how intelligence is gathered when it is deemed important: people are ferried about in these planes. Turtledove focuses on a female pilot in the red Air Force, Ludmila Gorbunova. Her adventures during this time are fun to read, especially her experiences as a woman. Not only does she fight The Race, but also for the respect due her.

In Germany, SS Colonel Otto Skorzeny continually is a thorn in The Race’s side. Along with Heinrich Jaeger, a Wehrmacht panzer (tank) colonel, they stage a few successful strikes against The Race in some of the most outrageous ways.

Meanwhile, in the Warsaw ghetto, Moishe Russie and Mordechai Anielewicz are learning that they have traded murder at the hands of the Nazis for oppression and slavery at the hands of The Race. For, in the beginning, they chose to embrace their coming as divine intervention.

Aboard one of The Race’s spaceships and in China, we follow the lives of two civilians whom The Race kidnapped during their initial landing. Since The Race only mates during mating season, they are fascinated with the fact that humans can (and often do) mate all the time. While trying to learn about humans, they subject a Chinese peasant woman, Liu Han, to multiple rapes with multiple partners. When she encounters a former American baseball player named Bobby Fiore, they manage to carve out a relationship. Liu Han becomes pregnant, and they are sent to live in the Chinese prison camp as The Race continues to study them.

In the United States, we are shown a variety of fronts. Former baseball manager Mutt Daniels is among a group of soldiers trying to keep The Race out of Chicago. Jens Larssen is a physicist who finds that his project has been moved out of Chicago to Denver while he was on a different mission. His wife is with them as well.

Following the novel can be difficult at times as Turtledove jumps around between the characters quite a bit. This gives the reader a feeling of what is happening at the same time, but it also makes for a more difficult read. Each chapter contains a few pages about three or four of the characters, then moves on to something else entirely in the next chapter.

Anyone who likes science fiction, as well as anyone who enjoys history, will enjoy these novels. Turtledove gives enough of the background of each character that you could pick up this second book without having read the first, but for the characters to really feel like you know them, the novels should be read in order.

The novel ends with a climax that Turtledove is building towards all the way through. The only question is what will happen next???

Previous book in the series:

Next book in the series:

7 replies »

  1. Speaking as both a writer and a reader, I find that alternate history is one of the toughest genres to pull off well. While I don’t have too many books in the genre, the ones I have are by and large successful at reimagining history.

    They are:
    1. The Burning Mountain: A Novel of the Invasion of Japan, by Alfred Coppel
    2. Disaster at D-Day: The Germans Defeat the Allies, June 1944, by Peter Tsouras
    3. Ruled Britannia, by Harry Turtledove
    4. Fatherland, by Robert Harris

      • Fatherland was initially going to be adapted into a theatrical release; Mike Nichols was at one point slated to direct. That fell through, but in 1994 HBO adapted it into a TV movie. I saw it once a few years later on DVD, and boy was I disappointed. It was not unwatchable by any means, but I didn’t like how the script turned a suspenseful and darker ending into a more conventional Hollywoodesque one.

        Disaster at D-Day is essentially a faux-history book. It’s fiction, but it’s presented like a World War II history book, not a novel. It even has photograph inserts, with real WWII photos but with fictitious captions.

        The Burning Mountain is a more conventional novel, but it has a clever setup and some (fictitious) quotes from a history of the “1941-1946 Pacific War.” You might find it at a used bookstore or a library. I have the 1984-era paperback (I bought it at my college campus bookstore) and a used hardcover edition I found on Amazon several years ago. I think it is one of the first books I bought here in the Tampa area.

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