In the Balance
Tilting the Balance
Upsetting the Balance
Striking the Balance
By Harry Turtledove
Read by Todd McLaren
Unabridged Edition Published by Tantor Audio
Harry Turtledove’s specialty is most definitely alternate history. While he did not invent the alternative history (or as a friend of mine refers to it : U Chronology, using U as a metaphor for parallelism) sub-genre of science fiction and fantasy, he has certainly made it his own. His fans are legion and very strongly opinionated and in many cases I disagree with them as to which of Mister Turtledove’s books are the best.
For example, my favorite of all his stories is The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump, a stand-alone story that combines the best features of alternate history, heroic fantasy and detective stories. I, and some few fans, found it well-crafted and entertaining and while I never like to see sequels just for the sake of having a sequel, I could stand another story or two starring EPA Agent David Fisher.
Most Turtledove fans stare at me in horror when I extol the virtues of this book, however. Compared to his later works, they find it somewhat simplistic, probably because it only has one actual protagonist. I will admit that the plot-line is not as Byzantine in nature as most of his other works, but having a storyline as twisted as knot work from the Book of Kells does not automatically make it a good story.
Fortunately, I do not think I will garner too many hisses and boos from the fans of the Worldwar Series. Quite simply, I thought this was excellent. This is Harry Turtledove doing what he does best, but I am getting ahead of myself.
For those of you who are not fantasy and science fiction fans, “Alternate History” is just that; a story that takes place in a world, or universe, in which history went along a different path than it did in the real world. A well-written alternate history involves the divergence from a single key point in history and takes place in a world where that one divergence made all the difference. Some reviewers refer to these lightly as “What if?” stories because you can sum up the divergence point as “What if Lee Harvey Oswald’s gun jammed when he tried to shoot JFK?” or “What if Henry Tudor had lost at the Battle of Bosworth Field?” or “What if Hannibal had won the Second Punic War?” and so forth. Such stories would then explore the differences between the resulting alternatives and what really happened. In such alternate worlds the author then crafts otherwise realistic characters and stories so the alternate history is a backdrop to the story.
Can you have two points of departure? You should not. I have come across stories that have more than one point of departure and they generally come off as poorly thought out, so one of the basic rules of this genre is “You will not have more than one original difference” all else follows from that.
The Worldwar Series is unusual in that the point of departure from real history takes place in the middle of World War Two but is not one of those “What if one of von Stauffenberg’s attempts had succeeded in killing Hitler?” or one of the slightly more imaginative one involving the lesser known, but multitudinous plots before that. Instead the “What if?” is “What if space aliens invaded in May of 1942?” A little far-fetched? Well, keep in mind that in high concept all literature sounds like rubbish (something I believe I have said before).
The aliens, lizardmen from a distant star who are similar to some projections of a sapient race descended from dinosaurs had they not gone extinct, do not have faster-than-light travel, so they are here after an earlier probe surveyed Earth some eight hundred years earlier. They arrive thinking they are going to stomp on mounted knights in armor and are somewhat shocked to discover Earthly technology has advanced as far as it has. In their own history, the Lizards had developed new technologies in a much slower, more deliberate fashion. So while Lizard technology is more advanced than human, the invasion is not going to be the cakewalk they expected.
Far-fetched as this premise might sound to the uninitiated, this is the meat and potatoes of another major sub-genre of science fiction. Anyone remember War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells? The concept is a time-honored one although it is the rare author who can squeeze something original from it and make it a darned good story as well. And Mister Turtledove does just that.
My only complaint is that I think he has too many protagonists. As I pointed out in my review of J. K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, many modern authors have discovered they can stretch a piece of flash fiction into a novel if they just have enough characters with their own points of view. In Ms Rowling’s story I really think it was, at best, a novella stretched out by throwing in the viewpoints of everyone in town, but it all took place in one small town. The Worldwar Series takes place all over the Earth and it would have been difficult, if not impossible, to show all of it if all you saw was from a single character. So, instead, we have characters in all the major nations of the world as well as several of the invading aliens.
Happily, Mister Turtledove does manage to keep it from getting confusing, but it can still be frustrating following and really getting to know a certain character and then have to switch off through several others and not return to the first one for a long time. In some cases you only get bits and snatches of what some characters experience, while in others you get a more complete story. Somehow the author makes it work in this series although I will not say that for everything he has written.
As the series progresses, the Lizards score some victories, suffer some defeats but manage to land on and take over a fair portion of the world, partially through military means and partially through alliances with disaffected humans. Meanwhile the warring or, at least, antagonistic nations of Earth must find a way to put their own major differences aside and fight together against the Lizards.
As the title of the fourth book of the series implies, eventually a balance is struck between the aliens and the allied humans and a new peace settles uncertainly over Earth… but this Lizard fleet was just the conquest wing. Meanwhile, the main colonization fleet is still on its way and will arrive in twenty years.
Sequel series? You bet.
Todd McLaren turns in a passably good performance throughout the series. This might sound like damning with faint praise, but compared to some of the readers I have forced myself to listen to, the man is a master. I like the fact that he does not hurry through the text, but gives each passage the time it needs to properly convey the emotion and action it contains. His voice is a bit nasal (then again, so is mine) so all the characters have that same nasal sound, but he varies each one into a unique combination of accent, timbre and speed without making any of them sound like overdone stereotypic caricatures.
After a while, the sound of his voice began to sound normal to me and I stopped hearing the similarities of voice and only noticed the differences. That is very good of Mister McLaren and a fine talent for a voice actor to have. There are so many other readers who are unable to fade themselves into the background and let the characters take the stage. The only way to get more differentiation between the characters would be to have a full cast, a different actor for each character. That sort of thing was done with Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials which I reviewed sometime last year. I felt that made it not so much an audiobook as a very long radio-play and I really think I would have enjoyed it more as a normal audio-book… but I digress.
To sum it all up, in spite of my antipathy to multi-threaded stories, this series is one of Turtledove’s best, and a good story by any standards. The audiobook is well performed, even if I, personally, needed a chapter or two to get into it. I recommend the series whether you read it or listen to it.