Book Reviews

Book Review – Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove is an author known for his specialization in Alternate History. He asks the question what if something different had happened at some point in recorded history? In the Worldwar series of novels, Turtledove asks what would have happened if an alien race decided to invade right as World War II was going into full swing?

Sounds completely implausible, right? That’s what I thought before I began reading these books. I expected to be reading something out of a bad 50’s science-fiction B-movie.

I have been delightfully surprised.

In Upsetting the Balance Turtledove continues the story of the characters he has been following in the first two novels of the series. Though he does give brief summaries of what has happened to them prior to this novel, to really know them with the depth to understand all that is happening, you really do have to read the first two novels. However, you could get by without reading them and just start here. Why you would want to, though, is beyond me since the books are that good.

Having seen the horrors of nerve gas and mustard gas during the first World War, there was a great reluctance to use them on humanity. In Upsetting the Balance, once the alien race (known simply as The Race to themselves, while the humans call them Lizards) begins to invade Great Britain, the old caches of gas are brought out and used against them. It isn’t pretty, and Turtledove gives some fairly graphic descriptions of the effects of the gas. In Germany, the nerve gas is turned on the Lizards in an effort to beat them back from their assaults.

In China, guerilla warfare is being staged against the occupiers by the People’s Liberation Army. Though not able to drive The Race from their country, they do manage to make life very difficult at times. While in the United States, Denver is being protected at all costs as physicists attempt to produce nuclear weaponry.

Unknown to humanity, The Race is facing quite a few problems of their own. From insurrection and defection among dissidents, to massive addiction to the herb ginger (which has an effect on The Race similar to the effect of cocaine on humans), the Fleetlord Atvar must deal with complications never planned on. The most pressing problem seems to be the ever-dwindling supply of armaments brought with them for the invasion. The probe upon which they based information for the invasion was sent to Earth almost 800 years before, and The Race has never encountered a species that has evolved at the rate that humanity has.

Chicago, Miami, Seattle, the outskirts of Moscow, Munich, Hanover, Breslau and Rome all begin exploding in fiery atomic pyres. This confounds The Race as the humans seem intent on destroying not just the invading Lizards, but their own world as well. It is only after this that The Race begins to catch on to the importance of shipping on our world – there being little water on their own.

If there’s one quibble I have with this novel, it’s the fact that to retaliate for one of the atomic bombs, Atvar chooses to bomb Pearl Harbor. I know Turtledove was going for the impact of having it bombed once again, but it didn’t strike me as realistic. So many other cities in the U.S. would have been targets with bigger impacts: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Atlanta, Boston, New York (Washington DC was atomized in an earlier novel).

Overall, however, Turtledove has once again written a compelling, page-turner. The characters are all interesting an believable. He weaves historical figures such as Benito Mussolini, Albert Einstein and Robert Goddard in with his own characters such as Sam Yeager and the Shiplord Straha of The Race as they try to learn how to build weaponry and rockets on the scale of The Race. The humans keep turning out better and more sophisticated weaponry, while The Race‘s technology stagnates. That is a difference Turtledove manages to convey and which perplexes Atvar and the Lizards to no end: humanity’s knack for innovation.

In Europe we witness the exploits of the SS officer Otto Skorzeny as he proves to be a big thorn in The Race‘s side. Heinrich Jaeger, a Panzer (or tank) Colonel in the German army accompanies him on many missions, but does not share the same philosophy as Skorzeny. Many times he is uncomfortable with what he has learned about his homeland during the fighting. In this way, Turtledove manages to convey the faults of the various powers on Earth during this time.

With regards to the Soviet Union, not only are conversations between Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov – the Foreign Commissar – presented to us, but we also get to see the misinformation that was given to the people of the Soviet Union. Pilot Ludmila Gorbunova is a good citizen of her country and pretty much blindly believes everything she has ever heard coming out of Moscow all these years. The chinks in the armor of her beliefs begin to appear as she goes on missions outside of the Soviet Union and witnesses the world for herself. Even then, she desperately clings to her beliefs.

It is these characters – so realistically created with such different personalities – which make the novel. Instead of putting people in place who we hardly know, Turtledove has managed to create well-rounded characters who feel like real people we might have known. it is also another drawback of the book; keeping track of so many characters as Turtledove jumps around between them can be difficult at times. Each chapter is structured with vignettes about several of the characters to give the reader the impression that all of the events are happening at the same time at various places around the globe. To help the reader along, there is a “Cast of Characters” at the beginning of the novel to which the reader can refer back. This is not a novel which can be put down and picked up again weeks later, or you will forget who the various people are – the canvas is that wide.

Believability is the one key component to these novels, and Turtledove has managed to make it feel as if this could have happened. It is because of both his knowledge of history, and the details in the personalities of his characters, both human and Lizard. Turtledove has a PhD in Byzantine History from UCLA so this is why he has managed to create stories which feel authentic.

If you are a history or science-fiction buff, I think this series of novels is for you. This book in particular propels the series along nicely and does not drag in the least. It builds nicely towards the final novel in the series.

Previous book in the series:

Next book in the series:

4 replies »

  1. As a World War II buff and someone who wanted to be a national security affairs reporter, I have a thought about why bombing Pearl Harbor (again) makes perfect sense.

    Pearl Harbor wasn’t a city. There’s a Pearl City within the area marked off for the U.S. Navy and (in WWII, the Army Air Force), but Pearl Harbor is both a geographic location (a natural harbor enhanced by military engineering) and a major naval/military installation. Then, as now, Pearl Harbor housed several major U.S. Navy commands, including the U.S. Pacific Fleet, the 14th Naval District, plus the biggest Navy Yard and oil tank farm west of San Diego.

    Turtledove was being accurate as far as fitting PHNB into the storyline.

    • I forget the exact details now, but it was more like retribution but they didn’t want a major city at that point so it was supposed to be random. Just a coincidence that didn’t feel real – felt more forced.

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