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Interview: Harry Turtledove on “Powerless”

Harry TurtledoveTell us a bit about “Powerless.”

It’s the story of a guy in Southern California who’s living in a Communist country that makes up the U.S. West Coast.  He gets fed up with the absurdities of the system and decides to buck it as best he can.


You’re known for writing alternate history epics, often focusing on major historical figures and events.  What was the inspiration for “Powerless,” and why did you decide to tell a story about the little guy?

The inspiration was Vaclav Havel’s great essay, “The Power of the Powerless.”  To make the story more immediate, I set it in my part of the USA in some indeterminate time rather than in an Eastern European country in the 1970s.  Havel was talking about how the superficially powerless aren’t powerless at all if they set their minds not to be, so I took one of those superficially powerless people, fed him a little more bullshit than he could swallow even if he’d already swallowed a lot, and turned him loose to see what he would do and what he could do.  It’s not a story of miracles; it’s a story of possibilities even within a repressive framework.


Can you tell us about any research you may have done for this story?

I am old enough so that I was on the edge of middle age when the Cold War ended as the 1990s began.  The way the USSR treated its satellites and the way the satellites treated their people were something I grew up with.  I went to junior high with two people whose parents escaped with them from East Germany.  A college roommate got out of Hungary during the 1956 uprising that ultimately failed.  So I grew up with this stuff.  And I’ve written about Communism before in several books.  So I have the material in my head and on my bookshelves.


What would you want a reader to take away from “Powerless?”

That I wrote an interesting story that maybe made them think a bit.  Past that, I’ll quote Mark Twain in his notice preceding THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN:  “Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.”


Why do you write?

Here, I’ll quote L. Sprague de Camp:  “To make a living.”  Also, because I can’t not do it.


Who do you consider to be your influences?

The two biggest ones are undoubtedly L. Sprague de Camp and Poul Anderson.  De Camp’s LEST DARKNESS FALL led me to study Byzantine history and changed my entire life.  Authors are dangerous people; they can mess with your karma without ever meeting you.  I got to tell that to Sprague.  He was pleased and appalled in about equal measure, I think.


What are you working on now?

I have a new a-h novel, THROUGH DARKEST EUROPE, coming from Tor on September 18.  It’s set in a world where Islam developed science, technology, and representative government and Western Christendom stagnated in religious fanaticism.  I think I’ve made it interesting and plausible, which is the most one can hope for in such exercises.  And I just got the copyedited manuscript for ALPHA AND OMEGA, a contemporary supernatural thriller coming out from Del Rey next year.  I’m also playing with more short fiction and looking at the possibilities for a historical mystery.


“Powerless” appears in the September/October 2018 issue of F&SF.

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Photo of Harry Turtledove by Joan Allen.


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