by Allen Steele
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1996, Allen Steele published The Tranquility Alternative, a novel in which the space race began between the US and the Third Reich in the 1940s. The novel was set many years after the history branched off from our own. With V-S Day, Steele revisits that novel by exploring the birth of the space race in more detail. And his details have changed, making V-S Day, in effect, an alternate history of his earlier alternate history.
V-S Day is set in two periods, the 1940s and 2013, on the seventieth anniversary of the first space flight. The action in the 1940s is divided between the efforts of Werner von Braun’s team at Peenemunde to develop Silbervogel, a space bomber, and the efforts of Robert Goddard’s people in the US to develop the X-1, a space fighter to intercept the German effort. The portions of the novel set in 2013 depict a reunion of the surviving principals and fill in the story that happened after 1943 as well as providing a frame for Steele’s story.
Steele’s depiction of Goddard’s American team focuses on the individuals giving an human aspect to the story. On the German side, Steele focuses on von Braun, whose mission has him conflicted between his desire to reach the heavens and his disgust for the leadership of Nazi German, mixed with the fear of what his failure could mean. Unlike Goddard, who is surrounded by colleagues, von Braun is shown as being alone surrounded by tyrants, rivals, and minions.
While the space race is intriguing, it also is somewhat telegraphed, especially given the scenes set in 2013. Both sides suffer setbacks, from spies, assassination attempts, bombing and accidents, but there is never any real threat of either sides’ plans going awry. Partly this is because, even as a meta-alternate history, it is still within the framework of The Tranquility Alternative and Steele’s stories set in the same universe, “John Harper Wilson” and “Goddard’s People.”
However, plot isn’t all there is to a novel and Steele is careful to develop the characters, from the spies Silver and Gold who appear briefly, but are fully sketched, to Jack Cube, Esther Goddard, and Henry Morse, whose life is changed, and turned upside down, by his work for the government on the development of the X-1. With von Braun sequestered on military bases, the American teams find themselves moved around from the desert of New Mexico to the campus of Clark University to their own sequestration in a hunting lodge. With a large group of colleagues, though, the Americans demonstrate a camaraderie that is impossible for von Braun. While both von Braun and Goddard quest for knowledge and space, von Braun is hindered by the fear instilled in him by the Third Reich, rather than inspired by it.
The concept of an alternate history of an alternate history is interesting, but it only plays out in V-S Day for those who are familiar with Steele’s earlier works. For readers new to this work, V-S Day is as straight alternate history that stands on its own, introducing the characters and situations without relying on any prior knowledge.
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