For many years I was a huge fan of the author Dean Koontz. Every time a new novel penned by him was released I would rush out to buy it within the first week and burn through it. After a while, however, I noticed things about the stories that seemed similar: characters, situations, endings. The novels held less and less joy for me and I had the feeling of being more or less burned out on his writings and haven’t picked up one of his novels in a couple of years. Now I am beginning to feel the same way about novels by the author, Harry Turtledove.
For anyone who doesn’t know the name, Harry Turtledove writes in a genre known as Alternate History. This usually means taking a pivotal point in history and asking what would have happened if things had been different. Homeward Bound is the latest novel in a series which began with the premise of aliens deciding to invade Earth in 1942, just as World War II was getting into full-swing.
I’ve read every novel in this timeline, and although the premise might sound a bit far-fetched, Turtledove has handled it well and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the story.
Homeward Bound picks up about twenty years after the last novel in the Colonization series. The Race – or “Lizards” as they are called by humans – have colonized the Earth, gravitating toward the warmer areas of the planet. There are a variety of conflicts both as a result of events detailed in earlier novels and as a result of the clash of cultures. Overall there is an uneasy truce between the races.
The United States has built a ship which can travel to the Lizard’s homeworld, simply called “Home”. Into this ship goes several familiar characters from over the years, including Sam Yeager, a former minor-league baseball player who became an expert on the Lizards, and his son, Jonathan, and daughter-in-law, Karen. Also sent back to Home is Kassquit, a oriental human female raised by one of the Lizard’s behavioral specialists. She and Jonathan once had a torrid affair.
Homeward Bound is an interesting book in that it not only details what a planet of Lizards would look like, but it is also a subtle comment on our own times. For the first time, the Lizards who have always felt safe and secure on their own planet must face the fact that they have a potential foe who can come to them and launch an attack at them. The culture of the world is also very similar to ours with civilian Lizards taking on many of the same characteristics and attitudes. The Lizards must face the fact that in humans they have encountered a race who is their equal technologically, even if they still look down their snouts at them for their arrogance and cavalier attitude. The humans do not fear change and are much more highly adaptable, something which the Lizards found out back in the first novel of the series.
Much of Homeward Bound gets bogged down in cultural and diplomatic issues. Unlike other Turtledove novels with his trademark wide canvas of characters, Homeward Bound focuses on only a few characters in the setting of the Lizard’s homeworld. There are hints that something big is happening back on Earth throughout the novel, but what that actually is he keeps hidden until about three-quarters of the way through the novel. He also injects a degree of humor into the story, especially in regard to what happens when several lab rats get loose on a world where they have no predators.
I would think that having to focus on only a few characters would keep the repetition Turtledove has become known for to a minimum. To a certain extent, it does. However, just about every time Karen Yeager and Kassquit have any interaction, their point of contention is brought up again. Yes, I get it – Karen and Kassquit hate each other because of the torrid love affair Karen’s husband had with Kassquit before they were married. Why does Turtledove feel the need to bring it up over and over again? The same is true of the humans who have spent a good part of their lives in space – every time the focus turns to them Turtledove dwells on their inability to ever go planetside due to so many years in a zero-gravity environment. I do believe he has done that less here than in other novels, but it is still an issue. The book probably could have been a good fifty pages shorter with an editor with a heavier hand.
Turtledove does manage to create an alien setting that has enough familiarity for human readers to feel familiar with it while at the same time feeling different enough to be a world far away from our own. He describes the world both physically and culturally in a very good way that was easy for me to understand and picture.
I had a lot of mixed feelings about Homeward Bound. On one hand, I felt as if he should have stopped this storyline with the last novel in the Colonization series. On the other, I could see some motivation in the commentary on our own time he engages in. The United States is analogous to the Lizards here and unfortunately will miss the mark in many people’s eyes. I think the comparison he makes is a good one, but unfortunately it’s just not done well enough to really grab me and hook me into the story.
I’ve heard talk of a sequel, and I think that would be a bad idea. This book gave me the feeling that Turtledove is either burned-out on the series or it needs a break for some time. I think the idea of an alien race invading Earth at a pivotal time was a good one and Turtledove has embraced it for all it’s worth, even using Homeward Bound to make a commentary on our own times, but I would prefer to let my imagination take over the story from here.
Homeward Bound is not the place to pick up the story. If you haven’t read any of the novels in the Worldwar or Colonization series, go back and tackle them first before picking up this one. Although it’s a decent read and Turtledove’s repetitious nature makes it easy to pick up on the backstory of the characters, to have a real appreciation for the events in Homeward Bound you would need to have read the novels prior to this one in the series.
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