Worldwar: Striking the Balance is the conclusion of a 4-part series by Harry Turtledove. The genre here is known as Alternate History which means the author takes a historical event – or series of historical events – and says “what if this happened instead?”
In this case, Turtledove poses the question “What if at the beginning of World War II – in the summer of 1942 – an alien race decided to invade Earth?”
If it sounds too science-fiction-like, or something out of a bad B-movie, that was my initial impression as well. I hesitated on starting this series of novels because of that.
However, after I was about 100 pages into the first novel, I was hooked. Turtledove has a Ph.D. in Byzantine History and has taught at universities, so he knows his history well. Add to that his creation of characters that I could relate to and that developed more fully as the series has unfolded, and you have the makings of a great piece of historical fiction as well.
City after city on the planet is exploding in atomic fireballs. The invaders – known as The Race or Lizards are still of the mindset that they can subjugate humanity under them and occupy the planet. However, things are not working out as they planned. Although their technology is intimidating to the humans (it seems to be about the scale of our technology in the 1990’s), humanity is too innovative for them and strikes back in some amazing, covert ways. They trot out nerve and mustard gas to use against the Lizards. Before a mass distribution of gas masks can begin, the factory the Lizards are using to manufacture them is covertly destroyed. Couple that with the humans’ realization that the herb ginger has a cocaine-like effect on the Lizards and the ways humans strike at the Lizards becomes full of small, annoying digs at the strength of the invaders.
Leaders of the top nations realize they probably cannot force the Lizards to leave the planet entirely. There are twists and turns at every corner that take the reader by surprise. It is an amazingly suspenseful read.
Turtledove has continued with the same characters throughout the novels. He paints a wide canvas and to follow them he must jump around a lot. At times, that can be confusing. However, it is necessary since Turtledove is not above killing off a main character.
He manages to intertwine his fictional characters – including those of The Race – with historical figures such as Robert Goddard, Mao Tse-Tung, Otto Skorzeny, Josef Stalin, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Menachem Begin, and Omar Bradley. His characters are rich and full by this point in the series. There is Sam Yeager, the former minor-league ballplayer turned Lizard attach??; Liu-Han, the Chinese peasant woman turned rising figure in the Communist Party; Ludmila Gorbunova, RAF pilot in love with Nazi Panzer (tank) Colonel Heinrich Jaeger; Moishe Russie, who has traveled from the Warsaw ghetto to London and now to the Middle East; and many more.
The Lizard characters are also well-rounded, especially because of the background we’ve been given throughout the series. Especially in the case of Ussmak, a Landcruiser (tank) driver, I found myself feeling for the alien. Believing he was doing the right thing, he ends up in a Russian gulag and slowly loses the will to live.
Turtledove does not soften anyone here. He does not make the Nazi’s “nice” simply because the aliens invade. They act with the same superlative attitude they displayed throughout the Second World War. As the book winds down, the only question becomes if their bravado and blind desire to destroy the Jewish race will result in the annihilation of their country or will fate – and Heinrich Jaeger – save his homeland at the cost of being labeled a traitor?
Another fascinating bit is watching Atvar – who is the Fleetlord, or leader, of The Race – continually be frustrated by the actions of human beings. For example, when The Race manages to get a large number of southern blacks to work with them, they figure they have their loyalty since they have observed the terrible way blacks were treated in the South. He underestimates their loyalty to their own race when – after being armed – they turn on their base commanders at a Lizard base in Florida.
The small acts such as the rebellion of the blacks in Florida, the continual guerilla warfare used by the Chinese Communists, and the destruction of the gas-mask factory begin to tell Atvar that he will never find peace on this planet with humanity. Even if they managed to occupy the planet, he would probably be subjected to continued tactics such as these against Lizard positions.
There is no easy solution to the situation. The Race is not about to pack up and leave since a colonization fleet is already on its way. The humans have demonstrated that they will destroy the planet rather than allow themselves to be subjected to occupation. How the situation is finally resolved sets it up perfectly for a sequel – the next series is titled Colonization and picks up with many of the characters twenty years later.
Though you could probably pick up this last book and read it on its own, to really know the history of the characters you are better off reading the series from the beginning.
Previous book in the series (link): Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance by Harry Turtledove
Next book in the series (link): Colonization: Second Contact by Harry Turtledove