Novel – World War: In The Balance

Now for a book that has been mentioned before as a source for some of the fanfics I’ve reviewed:

World War: In The Balance by Harry Turtledove

The basic concept is that, during World War 2, a bunch of reptilian aliens who call themselves The Race arrive with plans for conquest. However, unlike in the usual old tropes where aliens are either hyper-competent or completely incompetent, these aliens were blinded by their preconceptions. More specifically, while technologically superior, they make Imperial China’s cautious, bureaucratic approach to progress look reckless and expected to find us still fighting with knights on horseback.

The main thing I can say about this story is “slow but steady”. Aside from the concept, it’s not a story characterized by creative ideas that make you stand up and take note, or graced with a plethora of quotable passages, but, if you give it time to grow on you, it’s like a nutritious but familiar staple. It’s something I find enjoyable and satisfying, but it took until around chapter six for me to really feel that it had consistently made its characters interesting to read about and, to continue the food metaphor, it’s tasty and something to look forward to, but not exciting like going to a restaurant.

I think the problem is that it feels like Turtledove was determined to make the story about his characters first and foremost, even if that meant turning down other opportunities presented by the concept. …and the characters are the kind who start OK and grow into being good, rather than starting out good and growing into being amazing.

The worst part of that is probably how much time the first chapter spends on a couple of American baseball players when it was supposed to be hooking my interest. They just don’t start to get interesting until after the war comes to them and, even then, they’re potentially the least interesting of the characters. My best guess is that they’re supposed to be relatable, but I’m not American, not into sports and, besides, this is supposed to be a blend of sci-fi and historical fiction.

It’s technically a first contact story, but it doesn’t embrace the reactions by one group to revelations about the other in the way first contact stories do when they truly commit to “being about” that. (Compare Turtledove’s short story The Road Not Taken, which is sort of the progenitor of World War, for something which does embrace that aspect… or the web-original series The Deathworlders. Having aliens who are so behind us in everything except faster-than-light travel is intrinsically more fantastic, so it takes less effort to make engaging.)

It’s technically historical fiction yet I find Eric Flint’s writing much more engaging on that front. For all the moments which feel satisfying, like a village in Communist China celebrating an air raid destroying only the compound where the corrupt officials live or the banter between two British radar technicians, or an interaction between a white man and a black man in the U.S.A. in the 40s in the south, it feels diluted compared to Flint.

I think the problem is that the story is spending a lot of “screen time” trying to make the characters relatable when it should be recognizing that it already has that and focusing on what’s different instead. The whole point is to show the unfamiliar in a way that connects it to the familiar, not vice-versa. (Compare Eric Flint’s 1632 or Leo Frankowski’s The Cross-Time Engineer.)

You clearly love history, Mr. Turtledove. I understand not feeling that “jumping right into the action” is appropriate for the tone you want to establish, but literature is the interesting parts of life condensed. If you want to show a realistic pace of events, then you need to make up for it in the chapters before your characters have proved themselves interesting by packing in other interesting “little-known but obvious in hindsight” details to make up for it. That’s one of the meanings of the phrase “write what you know”. “Write what you know, because others don’t know it and find it fascinating”.

The baseball players are a particularly bad example of this, since I found them dull aside from the moment where one was able to translate “Espíritu Santo” because Spanish was close enough to Italian. I would have much preferred it if the other “ordinary human” groups were given more time, like the German soldier on the eastern front, or the jew in the Polish ghetto. They feel like they have more relevance. (Even when I’d rather be reading scenes of the aliens reacting to Earth or humans reacting to them, like the ground-based radar operators who first see evidence of them or the pilots who survive their first attack. That’s the most concentrated expression of what a first-contact story revolves around.)

It doesn’t help that Turtledove’s style isn’t very punchy, with the most memorable/quotable line I found being when one German soldier reassured another who had jumped at a sound from the sky by saying it was “Just one of the Ivans’ flying sewing machines”… which is amusing mental imagery.

(Sure, there was only one major quotable passage in Mother of Demons, but that book had a lot of philosophical meat to it and introduced me to the concept of r/K selection theory… things which this story lacks.)

That said, I do like the recurring theme that humanity manages to hold on by the skin of our teeth because we were damn lucky. The Race commander decides to start out with EMP weapons to fry all our solid-state circuitry… during the brief window of a few decades when we were using vacuum tubes. The Germans manage to take out the landing ships with the main stockpile of nuclear weapons… with a giant piece of artillery (that really existed) that fires shells too robust to be taken out by their interceptor missles and so archaic that they never anticipated it.

I also like the recurring focus on a world caught wanting to cling to old national disputes and racial identities in a situation where they must come together to survive a truly alien common adversary. …and the way that it manages to work prejudices and slurs into dialogue in a fashion where it’s not objectionable, it’s being honest about how such people would have behaved in that era.

That evolves nicely and, around the mid-point, you start to see characters, both human and Race, beginning to question things about their worldviews that they previously took as gospel, and starting to relate to each other.

It just feels like, in its weakest moments, the writing is… not dry, but too wedded to reminding the reader of how mundane things continue to happen in war, in a way which just comes across as feeling either slow-paced or padded.

It doesn’t help that the book is like the first volume of a three-part Lord of the Rings set… it ends at the end of an arc, but that doesn’t even conclude that subplot, let alone the arc the earlier chapters primed you to expect the book to follow. For a book that was so slow to get started, and so reluctant to feel punchy once it did, having an arc so long that it takes multiple volumes feels like Turtledove’s editor was asleep on the job.

(Bear in mind that I’m not saying all that content needed to be cut, but, if Turtledove didn’t want to tighten it up, I’d probably suggest doing something more like what Anne McCaffrey did with most of her Pern books, and writing multiple books that explore the same period of world-changing events by following different characters.)

All in all, I’d give it a 4.0 out of 5. It’s solid, well-done writing, it stays engaging once it gets past that initial hump, and it’s clear that Harry Turtledove knows his stuff when it comes to history, but I expect so much more from a professionally published book.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Novel – World War: In The Balance by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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