WORLDWAR: TILTING THE BALANCE
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In the second installment of Harry Turtledove's "WorldWar" alternate history, Turtledove continues to play with themes which have appeared in his fiction since the beginning. Of course, the major trope in which Turtledove works is that of alternate history, of which WorldWar is a prime example. Another major feature of Turtledove's work is the examination of how advanced technology would appear to a less advanced society. While Arthur C. Clarke postulates that the "more primitive" society would see the technology as magic, Turtledove responds (most notably in "Death in Vesunna", IASFM 1/81, reprinted in Wonders of the World #6 and Departures) that less advanced societies are still capable of reasoning out the ideas behind the science. Another Turtledove theme that makes its appearance is the idea of multiple paths by which societies can advance (previously examined in "The Road Not Taken", Analog, 11/85, reprinted in There Will Be War V: Warrior, and Kaleidoscope.)
For those who missed the first book of the series, Turtledove has interrupted World War II with an alien invasion by the Race, a race of reptilian creatures whose culture moves at a much slower pace than humans. Armed with weaponry slightly better than late twentieth-century arms, the Race thought they would be pacifying a society with a Medieval level of weaponry at best. Upon their arrival, the various nations of Earth who are not instantly pacified (the USA, USSR, England, Japan and Germany) form an uneasy alliance against the new invaders. Turtledove uses several viewpoint characters, including members of the Race, to tell the story of the attempted invasion. You should probably pick up the first book before attempting the second book, although Turtledove does a good job of recapping what has gone before in the opening chapters of Tilting the Balance without seeming repetitive.
In the second installment (of four), Turtledove returns to the same characters, picking up the stories mere days after he left them in the first book (the first two books comprise just over a year's time).
Without giving away too much, even after finishing this book it is difficult to say which way the balance is tilting. The Race is beginning to learn to cope with warfare on Earth (Tosev 3), and is waging victorious war against the Germans, Soviets, and Americans. However, the humans are beginning to understand bits of captured alien technology while the Soviets, Germans, Japanese and Americans are all making reasonably steady progress towards their goal of creating an atomic bomb.
More interesting in many ways than the war as a whole is Turtledove's depictions of his various characters and their fates (including, in some cases, death). One of my favorite characters from the first novel was physicist Jens Larssen, who spends the last part of In the Balance and the first part of Tilting the Balance trying to reunite with his wife after being sent on a political mission. When he and Barbara finally do reunite, their reunion is blocked by events which occured at the Met Lab while Larssen was away. Following this, Larssen's character turns into a veritable Job. While to my eye it seems that Larssen was wronged and does not act in any particularly despicable way, his characters is shown absolutely no sympathy by either the other characters or the author. When Turtledove enters Larssen's head, we are only treated to self-pity. However, rather finding myself disliking Larssen, I found that I was a bit upset with Turtledove for what he did to Larssen.
As I mentioned earlier, Turtledove brings about the death of some of his viewpoint characters. One such event occurs at the very end of the book when one of the lizards troubleshooters, Drefsab goes up against his German counterpart, Otto Skorzeny. Turtledove sets up their encounter in such a way that the death of one of these characters becomes practically inevitable.
This volume's title, Tilting the Balance is somewhat ambivalent. When beginning the book, I expected to find either the humans or the aliens to be in a much stronger position than their adversaries. After finishing the book, I find that reasonable arguments exist to say that both sides are in a better position than they were at the beginning of the work.
One final point, which I pondered after reading In the Balance as well, was what life was like in the lizard-occupied areas of Earth. Although Turtledove touches on the subject in Tilting the Balance by mentioning how much of the world is under their control, I would still like to see a scene from a viewpoint character in sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, Southern Asia, or South America who is not a combatant, to balance out the concentration camp scenes of Liu Han and Bobby Fiore.
I am looking forward to seeing the 1996 and 1997 installments of the series, World War: Upsetting the Balance and World War: Finding the Balance to see how Turtledove bring his World War II to a conclusion. Assuming the next two books comprise a similar period of time as the first two books, however, they will leave open the question (assuming the aliens are not victorious) of what happens when the colonizing fleet arrives in the 1990s.
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