Reviewed by Steven H Silver
"Mars is boring. Turns out it's too damn small. But what if it weren't. . . " That is the speculation which begins Harry Turtledove's novel A World of Difference. Turtledove, therefore replaces Mars with Minerva, a planet similar to Mars except for the existence of water, atmosphere and life. Upon arriving on Minerva, the Viking lander transmits tantalizing pictures back to earth, ending abruptly after sending the image of an alien's limb. A joint American-Soviet manned mission is launched to explore the strange world.
Of course, everything goes wrong when the American and the Soviet spaceships land on opposite sides of a deep trench. Physically cut off from each other, each team makes contact with a difference group of Minervans. The Minervans are radially symmetrical on an hexagonal model and are perhaps Turtledove's most successful attempt at alien construction. Unlike humans, Minervans have little sense of the individual. Minervans discovery of the individual forms a major plot point of the novel.
An important aspect of Minervan physiognomy is that female Minervans always die of blood loss when giving birth. Naturally, this fact affects their society in very basic ways. The ruler of the Minervans befriended by the Americans, Reatur, has recently impregnated his favorite wife and looks to his American friends to help find a way to save his wife.
A World of Difference is much more than a story of the discovery of a new race. In addition to seeing both Americans and Soviets deal with the Minervans, Turtledove also shows, in detail, the two political enemies working together and against each other throughout the novel as political and environmental changes occur. Despite basic ideological differences, the joint mission to Minerva began as a collaborative effort and the two crews make attempts to cooperate even as their instincts tell them not to.
Turtledove also treats the reader to a guided tour of Minerva, which is strikingly Mars-like. However, because he has created a new planet, Turtledove can make alterations to Mars so the planet suits his and his characters' purposes better than the planet which so many authors have described.
In many ways, A World of Difference feels like an extended Analog story. The characters are well drawen, but not particularly realistic. They are, generally likable and interact well with each other and with the Minervans. Turtledove gives them obstacles, political, environmental and racial, to overcome and they deal with those obstacles in a very Campbellian way.
Although Turtledove slips in a few alternate historical moments in the novel, alternate history, for which Turtledove is justifiably well known, is a minor part of the novel. Human history has gone on nearly the same path as it did in our Minerva-less solar system. A World of Difference serves as a reminder that Turtledove has written a lot of non-alternate history works and has proven himself adept in straight science fiction.
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