THE WAR THAT CAME EARLY: WEST AND EAST
By Harry Turtledove
Del Rey, $27, 448 pages
Has there ever been a more deceptive and subtle philosopher of history than Harry Turtledove? He entertains so engagingly and with so much light-fingered confidence that his many readers seldom stop to think about the subversive, unsettling questions about the prosecution of human affairs and the unfolding of destiny that he proposes.
Mr. Turtledove is still best known for his gleeful skill at presenting ludicrous, impossible contingencies and then working them out with authoritative discipline and logic.
What would have happened if 21st-century white supremacists in South Africa had stolen an experimental time machine and traveled back to supply Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia with enough AK-47 automatic rifles to win the Civil War? How would history have changed if Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini had been forced to make common cause with the United States, Britain and the Soviet Union in World War II to combat an invasion by intelligent lizards from outer space?
All this was great fun, but in recent years Mr. Turtledove has narrowed his focus and sharpened his discipline to tackle in unprecedented detail far more likely and troubling alternative scenarios of modern history.
If Gen. George McClellan had not received Robert E. Lee's battle plans by the wildest chance - as really happened - would the Confederacy have won the Civil War? And could that have then led remorselessly to the two 20th-century world wars being fought across the length of the North American continent with the same horrifying consequences that they brought to Europe? Mr. Turtledove's multivolume series exploring that possibility remains the great masterpiece of alternative history against which all other efforts must be measured.
Now Mr. Turtledove has published the second volume of what promises to be an equally ambitious undertaking. What would have happened if World War II had broken out a year earlier, over the Munich crisis of 1938? The conventional wisdom in history is that Hitler might well have lost since the Nazis took far more vigorous advantage of that one-year lull than their eventual British and French opponents did.
However, Mr. Turtledove loads the dice with one apparently insignificant alternative hypothetical. It is a matter of fact that the Nazi- and fascist- supported 1936 military coup in Spain was to have been led by Gen. Jose Sanjurjo. But Sanjurjo was such a vain nincompoop that he insisted on loading the aircraft that was carrying him to launch the revolt with heavy suitcases that were filled with sumptuous uniforms. The plane crashed on take-off and the far more formidable and able Gen. Francisco Franco led the revolt instead.
In his first volume, Mr. Turtledove had an alarmed pilot prevail on Sanjurjo to leave his suitcases behind. The vain general therefore lived on to lead the fascist and military forces in the Spanish Civil War, and to throw their weight directly behind Hitler and Mussolini which the canny and cautious Franco never did in our "real" world.
Once again, by the most insignificant and convincing sleight of hand, the broad dynamics of history are irrevocably changed, and we are ushered into an alternate world galloping in directions far different from our own.
Mr. Turtledove is capable of sustained, excellent prose as his early novels "The Guns of the South" and "The Case of the Toxic Spell Dump" confirmed. For many years now, however, he has stripped down his prose to its most utilitarian and serviceable core. Anyone looking for color, style or beautiful, measured sentences will not find them here.
But as always, Mr. Turtledove produces a broad cast of characters to fill his alternative world with detail, color and conviction. You could be reading a solidly researched popular history by Cornelius Ryan or William Manchester. And that, of course, is the effect the author intended.
As entertainment, this is as good as an alternative fiction, or historical novel, you are going to read this or any other year. But take a few deep breaths as you devour it with glee and ask yourself if the course of events and the Triumph of Good, we usually so happily take for granted is as secure or predictable, as we think. Reading Mr. Turtledove will make you wonder.
Martin Sieff is former managing editor, international affairs for United Press International and chief global analyst for the Globalist. He is the author most recently of "Shifting Superpowers: The New and Emerging Relationship between the United States, China and India."
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