Friday, October 28, 2011

Four Turtledoves

I recently finished the Worldwar series by Harry Turtledove. This is one of those series that my wife says I should have put down when it became tedious, but I'm stubborn, so I read it to the end. I did, actually, want to know how it ended. That was an unfortunate desire. Let me break it down for you (and there will be spoilers, so, if you plan to read this series, you may want to skip the rest). Actually, let me explain Turtledove, first.

Harry Turtledove has been called the "master of alternate history," and that may well be true. It has certainly been one of the major foci of his writing. He also has a Ph.D. in history, so he has the historical background to pull it off. Generally, he takes a place in history and applies some tweak to it and explores what happens as a result of that one change.

The Worldwar series is set during World War II and explores what might have happened had Earth been invaded by aliens in the midst of the war.

Book One: Worldwar: In the Balance: The United States has only recently entered the war and hasn't really deployed, yet. It is a bit too fortuitous of a set up. Basically, the USA has begun its military build up, but most of its men and equipment are still in the US. Aliens attack.

The background here is that the alien race is ancient, but their technology is not much advanced beyond what we currently have. Except, you know, that they have interstellar flight. They sent a probe to Earth eight centuries ago and expected to find us still riding around on horses and fighting with swords. Technologically speaking, the Race (as the Lizards call themselves) are very slow to advance and just assumed that we would be the same way. Still, they brought nukes with them and begin their attack by setting off  nukes in the atmosphere to disrupt our communications. It works less well then they expect since humans are still using tube-based technology. I'm just not going to get into how little sense it makes that they would have planned on the communication disrupting nukes when they didn't expect us to have any electronic technology. The rationalization is that they always over plan, so, even though they have no expectation of needing them, they have brought along nukes.

The book goes on to deal with the political fallout of the Earth governments in the wake of a global alien invasion. I really enjoyed the first book. There is a large cast of characters so that we get a glimpse into what's going on all over the world as everything happens. Yes, that means lots of hopping around, but there is never a problem keeping up. The books are pretty long and dense, but I still finished In the Balance within a few weeks while also reading a couple of other books.

Book Two: Worldwar: Tilting the Balance: The Earth governments begin to form alliances against the Lizards. No one, of course, trusts the Nazis, especially the USSR, but that doesn't stop them from trying. This book keeps up the momentum of the first one as things become more complicated. Not only are we dealing with aliens, but we have all of the political machinations of the humans. The aliens don't really get politics and are constantly misjudging the humans. They also underestimate the adaptabilty of humans.

I also thoroughly enjoyed this book and read it in a similar timeline as I did the first one. The warning signs, however, were there for what was coming in the last two books had I been looking for them.

Book Three: Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance: The situation grows more complicated as nukes begin to be used by both sides. The humans introduce drug use, in the form of ginger, to the Lizards. Strife breaks out among the Lizards, something unheard of in their culture for eons.

There are some interesting developments in this book, but the reading begins to bog down. Basically, as Turtledove switches from character to charcter, he endeavors to remind us whom each character is as he transitions to them. This happens in the first two books, too, but there's not much to remind us of at that point. By the third book, however, he has two books worth of material to remind us of, and it begins to get really tedious. Especially with one particular character.

The books are told from a third person omniscient view, so we get a lot of what the individual characters are thinking about. Actually, most of the story is told from that perspective. There's one character in particular that I was just hating by the third book. I dreaded any of his sections, because he constantly was re-going over everything that happened to him everytime we were in his head. Any time I would get to one of his sections, I'd have to put the book down and go do something else. After reading one of his sections, I would have to put the book down and go do something else. If he'd still been around for the fourth book, I may never have finished the series.

Book Four: Worldwar: Striking the Balance: A lot of nothing happens in this book. The war has ground into a stalemate and so has the book. It was like Turtledove had written himself into a corner and didn't know what to do, so a whole lot of nothing happened all of the time. That and reviewing what had happened in the first three books. Over and over and over again. It was horrible. Normally, I read two or three books at a time, but I had to decide to not read anything else while I tried to work my way through Striking. It still took me over 120 days to read it according to Goodreads. I just didn't ever want to pick it up and could never make myself read more than a few pages at a time. [The last book that I had such a hard time getting through was Blood of the Fold (book 3 of The Sword of Truth series and the last one I would read), and that was something like 10 years ago.] But, still, I wanted to know how the series ended being so close, relatively speaking, so I plowed on through it.

There was no real resolution to the story, which was more than disappointing. There's  plenty of rising action in the first two books (and that's when they're good), but, sometime in the transition from book 2 to book 3, the action plateaus. There is no real climax to the overall story; it just ends. There is a sequel series that jumps ahead (I'm guessing) about 40 years, but I doubt I will ever read it. It's not that the ending of Worldwar isn't realistic; it's just not satisfying. At least, not to me. Based on the success of Turtledove, the people that really like his genre must not have an issue with the ending. Worldwar is one of his best selling series.

The other thing that I really didn't like about the last book is that there is a lot of character manipulation by the author to get them to do things that aren't really in character for them to further the plot. It was also disappointing, especially with one particular set of characters.

I really couldn't give a general recommendation to anyone to read this series. If you like a lot of military action, you'll probably enjoy it. If you're into alternate history stuff, you may like it. If you're a fan of sci-fi and feel like trying something slightly different, it may be okay. Beyond that... I don't know. I feel like I should get a better feel for Turtledove's writing in general, but I'm not thinking I'm going to try anything else by him anytime soon.

Here are my grades for the books:
In the Balance: B (maybe even a B+)
Tilting the Balance: B
Upsetting the Balance: C-
Striking the Balance: F
Worldwar series: D (No, it doesn't get a pure average, because the ending drags the overall story way down for me. I suppose this is one of those times where you can get a real example of how endings really are the hardest parts to write.)

As a nod to Rusty, and I meant to say this initially, but I ended up with less time than I thought I'd have and forgot:
This series is one of those that suffers from bad editing. One of two things happened:
1. Turtledove thought people would not be able to remember which character was which and, so, constantly reminded us of whom they were. A good editor would have said, "hey, you don't need to repeat this information so much," and a good portion of the redundancy could have been cut out of the third and fourth books.
2. The editor couldn't keep track of the characters and had Turtledove add the information in so that readers would be reminded. If this was the case, a smarter editor would have been good.

This series probably could have fit into 3 books if all the repetition had been cut out.

See, I'm not against editing!


  1. You really do have to wonder if these aliens have interstellar travel how they can become prey to humans in the 40s. Very odd.

    I could have bought "Guns of the South" for like $3 a month or so ago at the Bargain Books, but then decided against it. Alternate history in general seems kind of stupid because it's always "If A happens (or doesn't happen) then B will happen." It's like if I'm watching a football game and my team loses by 2 points I say, "If we'd made that field goal earlier we'd have won!" But you don't really know what would happen. Making that field goal earlier might have skewed everything else entirely. You know, chaos theory, butterfly effect and all that stuff. So the whole concept seems kind of dumb to me.

  2. I actually quite like alternate history books, but I don't like unnecessary backstory. I think I'll pass on this series.

  3. Thanks for the nod there. You know, I'm really confused. I thought I read the first book, back in the 90's, but I clearly remember the aliens being addicted to ginger back then. At the time I had no idea that it was a series and was mightly upset that I didn't get any resolution at all.

    Anyway, I always wondered how it ended, and can tell from your review that I would have been far beyond upset had I finished it.

  4. It sounds like a painstaking process to get through the books. How disappointing that his characterization went to pot. And how dreary to have to read all the details over and over to "remind" you. Why assume your readers are stupid?? Blech.

  5. As soon as I read that they brought nukes while still expecting us to be running around with swords, I thought the books sounded ridiculous. I had huge issues with "Signs" for that reason. They master interstellar flight, travel light years, study us, send scout parties ahead to paint the landscape, and DIDN'T NOTICE OUR WORLD IS MOSTLY WATER!!! And then failed to bring any hand to hand combat weapons. Drove me crazy.

    I also can't stand when writers force characters to do things outside their character in order to push the plot along. I stopped watching Heroes for that reason...along with their habit of conveniently forgetting some of their superpowers when it suited the writers.

    I never read the "this is what happened previously" things at the beginning of books. I remember what happened. I think if that is implemented throughout a book, I'd go nuts. Thank you for warning me.

  6. Alternate can work really well if the event could have gone either way. The Battle Of Hastings in 1066 was one such incident, as was the 'stop' order given to the german army at dunkirk in 1940.

    As for editing, One example of a long series that did work well was the 'Night's Dawn' trilogy from Peter F Hamilton. 3000 pages and only a few wasted ones. The ending was a little light, but not disappointing.

  7. Mutt: Yeah, I agree with you about alternate history. I'm not actually the one that bought the books, but I read them because they were here, and I wanted someone to have read them before trading them in. Which I did. And happily.

    The thing that bugs me with the aliens is that they were really just a set up to deal with the idea of the allied and axis forces having to team up against a common foe. They have interstellar travel, but their wartime weapons are basically equivalent to what we have now. It's the kind of manipulated situation that I really don't prefer.

    Sarah: If you've read any good ones, let me know what they are. These are really the only ones I've read that are -alternate- history and not just historical fiction.

    Rusty: Well, the ginger probably came in during the second book, I don't remember for sure. I'm fairly certain it was not present in the first book at all, though. The whole ginger thing was actually an interesting sub-plot that was just sort of dropped out of the 4th book altogether. (If you want a more detailed account of the ending, let me know. You probably won't be impressed.)

    Shannon: I know! I hate when writers, or anyone, just assume their audience isn't smart enough to keep up. It's insulting. Of course, it may not have been Turtledove that made that decision; maybe, it was the publisher. Hard to know.

    Charlie: I was able to deal with Signs, because it wasn't really a movie about aliens. They were just the vehicle to for the story of the priest and regaining his faith. I found that part interesting.

    I did hate when the writers of Heroes gave the main guy amnesia. What a crock. I hate that crap. I didn't make it much past there in the series.

    I don't read those things either. Most of the time. There are a few authors whose "what happened before" bits are interesting because of the writing, and I will read those.

    Martin: I like long series. Most of the time. I really haven't run into this issue in most of the books I read. I think it was more about the number of characters involved rather than the length of the series. It was more than a dozen different main characters not to mention the sides.

  8. Sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy the series. The concept sounded good, though.

    Oh, and...Trick or Treat!

    Huh? What? No Candy Corn here??? Aaaaaaaahhhhhh!

  9. Sam: I still think it's a great concept. If he hadn't spent so much time reminding the reader about what had happened before, I probably would have really enjoyed it. Even without a proper resolution.

    Ew! Candy corn! Nast stuff! We only have the good candy here! (and more left over than we want to have)