In 1994, Harry Turtledove decided to run with what can rationally and scientifically be called one of the most awesome fictional concepts ever: Aliens invade during World War II. The opening book, In The Balance, starts things off with a bang.
A group of lizard-aliens known only as “The Race” with juuust the right amount of technological balancing to make for a great story attack a humanity that’s stronger and more advanced than anticipated. While the issues Turtledove has with long series (pacing, repetition, etc…) appear even during this book, they’re not deal-breakers. And the weaknesses are more than made up for by the amazing first impression the book makes.
If you like alternate history, science fiction, World War II, or just strange concepts in general, this is worth checking out.
One of my theories about Harry Turtledove is that, for all times he’s been labeled “the master of alternate history”, he never had the most enthusiasm for the genre. It goes like this: Turtledove wanted to write Byzantine/Eastern Roman-themed fantasy, but after Guns of The South, alternate history became the money-making niche that he was stuck in. Turtledove would be neither the first nor last writer to have their most successful fiction be considerably different from the type they actually wanted to write.
Or maybe he did have enthusiasm for the genre, but didn’t have the mindset needed to really take advantage of it. Or maybe the nature of alternate history and needing to appeal to a generalist audience who doesn’t have the most knowledge of history forced him into a corner. Whatever the reason, The Man With The Iron Heart symbolizes the weaknesses of his style vividly.
The plot is simple. Reinhard Heydrich survives, gets the Werwolf resistance movement up and running, and launches a horrifically hamfisted/anachronistic Iraq War analogy. In reality, the German populace at large had no stomach for continued resistance, and the Allies, who came close to turning Germany into a giant farm, were prepared to crack the whip. The Werwolf plan was doomed from the get-go by the scarce resources and infighting that was baked into the Nazi regime from day one.
The execution of the book is done just as clumsily and clunkily as the setup. Much of Turtledove’s writing has the problem of what I frequently call the “technothriller without technology or thrills”, and this is no exception. It uses the “alternate history as a genre format” where there’s a big-picture, broad-viewpoint look at the situation and changed world. However, if the changed world is nothing but an unrealistic and worse, uninteresting analogy, that format is the worst possible.
Alternate history is a very divided genre. There are a lot of reasons for this, from the vague nature of what it even is to the different desires of different fandoms to how it’s frequently not considered advantageous to label a work as such. But that the “mainstream” end often consists of books like this doesn’t help.
Maybe there’d be more overlap if someone really did extensive research, made it more character focused, and kept it feeling substantially different while providing still noticeable but far more subtle commentary. Instead, Turtledove wrote this book, which I do not recommend.
Harry Turtledove’s classic alternate history novel started when another author complained to him that the cover art on one of her books was as anachronistic as “Robert E. Lee holding an Uzi.” After that, writing a book about South African time travelers changing the fate of the American Civil War via a huge quantity of AK-47s was in order.
Guns of the South is a frustrating book, because it manages to be good, bad, and unnerving at the same time. The good part of the book is in its action and use of viewpoint characters. It has only two, Lee himself and low-ranking soldier Nathan Caudell, and the perspectives they can apply are well taken advantage of. As for the action, it keeps it well-written even when one side has muzzleloaders and the other AKs-and that’s not always the case.
The bad part is mainly in its ultimate antagonists, the time travelers themselves. These rank in my eyes as some of the worst villains I’ve ever seen in fiction. Besides the moral issues which I’ll discuss in a bit, they’re ultimately dumb and mysteriously stop taking advantage of their high technology and training at exactly the moment it’s convenient for the plot.
The unsettling part is that Guns of South has a disturbing feel of Confederate apologism to it. I think it’s just the result of unintended consequences, but still. Make Confederate protagonists who a modern audience will find relatable and sympathetic, and there’s going to be some (no pun intended) whitewashing. The two biggest problems are the Confederately ultimately phasing out slavery without much protest and the behavior of the time travelers. Said time travelers are stupidly and cartoonishly racist in ways that exist to make the CSA look better in comparison. It’s not only creepy, it’s lazy and annoying-and makes them even worse as antagonists.
This is still readable and it’s still one of Turtledove’s better books, lacking the bloat a lot of his later novels have. It’s just weighed down by its terrible villains.