by Ben Bova
Triumph, by Ben Bova, details a single month, April, 1945, at the end of World War II. However, Bovaís World War II is different than the one in our world. Franklin Delano Roosevelt has given up smoking and does not die on April 12. Churchill, meanwhile, has put a small piece of plutonium into a ceremonial sword he presented to Joseph Stalin at the Tehran Conference and has arranged to have the plutonium removed from its lead casing and placed in Stalinís proximity.
Triumph is pure alternate history with no real science fictional content. The sort of story which makes the reader wonder why alternate history is included as a subgenre of science fiction. Nevertheless, it fails to completely satisfy the reader in a number of ways.
Bova uses a large number of viewpoint characters during the 250 page book, ranging from the Roosevelt, Churchill and Patton down through the ranks to Grigori Gagarin, Kim Philby and fictional US army grunts. Because of the large cast, Bova is not fully able to define each character, relying more on the readerís own impression of the historical figures than trying to bring his own interpretation to them. Because there are so many characters, Bova is frequently not able to tie up all the plot threads he has begun. Grigori Gagarin's younger brother, for instance, is Yuri Gagarin. He appeared in a couple of scenes with his older brother, extolling the virtues of piloting and spaceflight, but Bova doesn't give any indication that the altered events of April, 1945, including Grigori's death, will change the course of Yuri's life.
Another failure on Bova's part is in description. Although he tells us the story takes place in April, 1945, there is little descriptive indication that the story is set in the 1940s. The major players, Stalin, Khrushchev, Churchill, Patton, could almost be in any time, shielded from the larger world and its incidentals by the trappings of state. The lower levels, Gagarin, the American soldier Jarvik and others also slog their way through a world which has no feel of a particular era. Except for the tactical and strategic situations Bova creates, they could as easily be fighting World War I or Viet Nam for all the details and atmosphere Bova creates.
When all is said and done, very little seems to have changed between our world and Bova's alternate world. April ends nearly the same as it did in our own world, Roosevelt is alive while Stalin is dead. There are a few other minor changes as well. Bova gives no indication how these changes will continue to effect the world. He hints that an atomic bomb or two will still be used to end the war in Japan, but mostly he seems to have shown a case of divergent history which converges at the same time.
Triumph stands as a rebuttal to the "Great Man" theory of history. In this book, it doesn't matter if Stalin or Roosevelt live or die. While most alternate history takes the opposing viewpoint, Triumph shows where Bova stands on the issue. The same issue is raised in Connie Willis's recent novel, To Say Nothing of the Dog, in which rival Victorian historians argue whether history is created by forces or individuals.
Triumph is a well-written, easy to read book. Although it differs from most alternate histories in its stand on the idea that individuals matter, that very difference, which should make it stand out, tends to dilute the message of the book by creating the feeling that very little happened in the novel.
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