By Matthew Kresal
Described by Publisher's Weekly as "The modern master of alternate history," Harry Turtledove has a significant presence in our field. Indeed, many of us writing in it today owes a debt to his work and helping to popularize alternate history. It also means that it's hard not to be intrigued when his latest work comes out, particularly if it aligns with some of the reader's own interests. His latest novel Three Miles Down, published by Tor earlier this summer, is an example with this reviewer, bringing together several seemingly unconnected elements in a neat alternate history package.
Three Miles Down sees Turtledove building upon one of that decade's stranger-than-fiction events. In this case, Project Azorian, the CIA's attempt to raise a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine from the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, using Howard Hughes and the ship Glomar Explorer as cover. Azorian is a true-life event dramatic enough to be featured in numerous books and documentaries and even given the odd fictional treatment, with varying degrees of accuracy. Turtledove, of course, isn't content to re-tell that story. With the subtitle "a novel of first contact in the tumultuous 1970s," Turtledove asks what might have happened if Azorian's raising of a sunken submarine was also a cover story and it had been the cover for another prize: a sunken alien spacecraft.
To tell his story, Turtledove follows Jerry Stieglitz, a UCLA grad student in marine biology and a budding science fiction writer. Jerry is a likable protagonist and a fish out of water among CIA types who recruit him both as a cover story and to be of aide when they recover Humpty Dumpty, as the craft becomes known. Through Jerry, readers are given a glimpse behind the clandestine curtain, with Turtledove having done his homework on the real-life details of Azorian and life aboard the Glomar Explorer. Jerry's age and inclinations permit some subtle bits of humor and pop culture referencing to come through, the former highlighting the similarities between the novel's setting and our present day. That said, it feels more like a work of historical fiction or secret history than alternate history for the most part.
In some ways, too, Three Miles Down feels like a novel from another time. The cover art has a suitably retro feel to it, for example. Even the interior layout, with the choice of font and roman numeral numbering of chapters, harken to the number of seventies and early eighties hardcovers sitting upon my shelves. It's an intriguing feeling to have as a reader and wonderfully compliments Turtledove's prose and narrative.
Yet Three Miles Down is also a frustrating read. In some ways, it mirrors Robert J Sawyer's The Oppenheimer Alternative from 2020 (which I reviewed over on Warped Factor). Both are works that blur the lines between secret and alternate history until leaping firmly over the line in the final act. It's a shift that's both welcome but, not surprisingly, perhaps, immensely jarring as well. It all goes by in a hurry, covering a novel's worth of details across a few pages, including a cross-country car drive handled in a mere six pages. This final section is full of intriguing ideas and twists, not to mention a couple of fun historical cameos, but the events happen so fast that their scope and meaning almost get lost. The novel's finale likewise offers an ending full of both possibility and frustration, not unlike the novel as a whole, though perhaps Turtledove is setting the reader up for a sequel novel or content to leave things to the reader's imagination.
Whether there is a sequel coming or not, Three Miles Down remains an intriguing, if frustrating, read of a novel.