Harry Turtledove's 'alternate histories' have a noble lineage, with echoes in works as popular as this summer's movie blockbuster 'Independence Day'copyright 1996, Jerusalem Report
SHELI TEITELBAUM Los Angeles
In a 1993 novel called The Guns of the South, writer Harry Turtledove explored what might have transpired had 21st-century Afrikaner reactionaries used a time machine to supply Robert E. Lee's nearly defeated Southern armies with Soviet-style assault rifles. That exercise, though, was just a warm-up for his latest effort, a sweeping tetralogy of quasihistorical extrapolations called "Worldwar," a series of science fiction novels that ponders how the world of 1942 might have developed had a race of technologically advanced aliens suddenly invaded the earth. The first book was published in 1994, and the fourth and final volume is due out from Del Rey in December.
Turtledove is Jewish, and the effect the alien invasion has upon the Holocaust becomes one of the series' central concerns.
For instance, the first volume, called Worldwar: In the Balance, follows real-life Jewish resistance leader Mordecai Anielewicz when he is busy organizing Jewish forces in the Warsaw Ghetto against further Nazi deportations, shortly before the planetary invasion. The aliens, a species of reptile who call themselves "the Race." quickly discern the purpose of Treblinka. Realizing the Jews may be motivated to serve their purposes, they cynically offer the hard-pressed Anielewicz food, arms and logistical support. In return, all they require is a public declaration of Polish Jewry's voluntary collaboration with their own planetary occupation-- a conquest that will result in the perennial enslavement of all humanity.
Anielewicz's dilemma: Does he side with the scaly. cold-blooded invaders from the stars, securing relief from the Nazi death machine at the price of near-universal human enmity to Jews as traitors to the species? Or, taking his cue from Ben-Gurion's response to the British White Paper of 1939, does he fight the Nazis as if there were no aliens. and combat the aliens, or "Lizards," as earthlings have dubbed them, as if there were no Nazis?
Clearly, these are not the kinds of questions that would ever be debated in the halls or learned journals of academe. But Turtledove, a 54-vear-old San Fernando Valley resident and California native who holds a Ph.D. in Byzantine history from UCLA, finds himself operating within a substantial and long-lived intellectual tradition, created by a coterie of esteemed historians and writers.
The genre in which he has toiled for most of his professional career is called alternate history, and Turtledove is described on his book jackets as science fiction's "master alternate historian." The genre, which has attracted a number of serious and respected practitioners during the 20th century and even earlier, looks in essay, story and even film at how human history might have proceeded had history taken a sudden turn off its track at some pivotal juncture. The Discovery cable channel in the U.S., for example. plans a three-part series this fall called 'What If?," which considers how history would have turned out had certain major events not happened.
Scenarios explored by writers as diverse and distinguished as Andre Maurois, Winston Churchill, John Hersey and Vladimir Nabokov have included a Chinese Communist takeover of America, the emergence of the atomic bomb and computers (steam-powered) in Victorian England, and even the dire implications of an Arab victory in the Six-Day War. But by far the most popular and enduring theme has the Nazis victorious in World War II. Dozens of novels and stories and several anthologies based on this premise, including The Man in the High Castle, by Philip K. Dick, SS-GB. by Len Deighton, and Fatherland, by Robert Harris, have seen light since the Allied victory.
In most of these stories. of course. one of the most common outcomes of the Nazi victory is the decimation, if not complete obliteration, of world Jewry. In Dick's "High Castle," for instance, a small remnant of American Jews continues to live through the 1960s on the West Coast of the United States, which remains under quasi-benign Japanese rule. An even smaller coterie of Jews, one discovers. has succeeded in infiltrating the German flight Command, wresting control of the Nazi Party from the fingers of a doddering Fuhrer. In Harris's "Fatherland." in contrast (a thriller, not science fiction). the systematic decimation of European Jewry becomes the mystery a German officer must solve.
Turtledove says the research for his 'Worldwar" series actually inspired one such effort, a short story he published in the early 90s called "In the Presence of Mine Enemies." The story which stemmed from his reading of the diaries of Warsaw Ghetto survivors, and of the writings of Albert Speer, envisioned a small remnant of Jews who survive a Nazi victory as Marranos.
Turtledove realizes that by placing the Holocaust in the context of fantasy and science fiction, he risks accusations of exploitation or irreverence. He tries to circumvent this by playing out his plot in as straightforward and serious a fashion as possible. His use of the alien invasion - a stock science fiction theme straight out of H.G. Wells's War of the Worlds - seems to gain some of its resonances from the 1983 TV movie "V" and its 1984 sequel. These, in turn. may have been inspired by the 1935 Sinclair Lewis Nazi victory story "It Can't Happen Here," but substituted reptilian aliens for Nazis, and persecuted scientists for Jews.
Turtledove, who does not watch a great deal of television, insists be never saw the two "V" movies, nor the subsequent spin-off series. Nor has he vet seen the summer sci-fi blockbuster "Independence Day," by director Roland Emmerich. "ID4." as fans now refer to the film, is in a large sense the "Worldwar" plot set in the present day.
In Turtledove's series, for instance, Jews and Nazis reluctantly join efforts to smuggle plutonium from a downed alien aircraft to scientists in the Reich and the U.S., where, it is hoped, they will be able to produce atomic weapons for use against the invaders. In ID4, similarly, there is a scene in which the battered remnants of the Israeli and Arab air forces gather in the Iraqi desert for a final desperate assault against the seemingly invincible aliens. (And as a cute sidelight, ID4 also boasts actors Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith in the roles of a Jewish scientist and a hotshot African-American fighter pilot who, a la Michael Lerner and Cornel West, successfully revive the Jewish-black alliance of yesteryear by bringing down the alien "mothership.")
A native of Gardena, California, whose ancestors arrived in Winnipeg, Canada from Romania shortly before the turn of the century, Turtledove, ne Turtletaub, became a fixture of the alternate history field in 1987, when he began publishing the Videssos Cycle and the Krispos series, both of which drew upon his expertise in Byzantine myth and lore.
Turtledove has also worked with Richard Dreyfuss on an alternate history novel about the American Revolution. The actor (and Peace Now activist) had suggested they collaborate after reading an article about Turtledove's work by this writer in the Los Angeles Times. 'The Two Georges" relates how George Washington and George III had reconciled their differences, leading to a 20th-century North America still firmly in the clutches of the British Empire. The story involves a threat by latter-day American separatists.
"I went into it dubiously," he says, "because a lot of times when a writer hears. 'I have this idea, are you interested in it?' the idea is not good. This time I was lucky - it was. And it worked out pretty well as a novel."
Turtledove got the idea for "Worldwar" back in 1977. "I was interested in looking at the difficulties faced in conquering an industrialized planet from space," he explains. He says he did "homework" for 14 years because "I wanted it to feel real," and because, he admits modestly, he sensed that "I was not nearly a good enough-writer to do what needed doing. to treat it at the scope I needed."
"I think the Holocaust is a legitimate subject for examination, for looking at in any shaped mirror one can bring to bear on it. And the rather funhouse mirror of alternate history lets you look at history in a way that you can't in any other way," he told The Jerusalem Report.
In volumes three and four of the series, Moishe Russie, a Jewish protagonist named for one of Turtledove's Polish relatives, finds himself in Palestine, which eventually ends tip under Lizard rule. In a contemplated fifth book, Turtledove says he intends to settle whether a Jewish state ever emerges from the melee. But "Worldwar" does not look at only the Jews. Rather, it traces the process by which humanity slowly unites against the alien menace through the eyes of a number of characters. including an American minor-league baseball player, a Chinese peasant woman "mated" by the aliens with an American man, a female Russian pilot, and a German tank officer. A number of real-life characters, such as Churchill, von Ribbentrop, Edward R. Murrow, and many of the Manhattan Project's participants. also appear.
Turtledove won't speak about the series' final outcome, but a hint may perhaps be found in the fact that in so many of Turtledove's extrapolations, contending forces grapple with one side using superior tactics, the other possessing superior weapons. In "Worldwar," innovative human tactics are used in last-ditch efforts against a race o beings with overwhelmingly superior technology, but whose ability to adapt to change or innovate on the battlefield is limited both biologically and culturally.
"I wouldn't think that it. boils down." he says, "to who has the bigger stick. It's not who has the biggest stick, but how they use it."
Thanks to Jerusalem Report for permission to reproduce this article.
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