By Alexander Wallace
As I like to say in discussions in Alternate History Online regarding nuclear wars between the Cold War hegemons, “everybody dies” in the aftermath. When the ICBM comes a-knocking, the human species will at the very least be culled if not annihilated entirely (it’s widely agreed that Kennedy’s ‘missile gap’ flourish was just that: a flourish). That’s the main factor bringing about Armageddon: the ICBM. Without missiles that can destroy foreign capitals, the prospects of nuclear war mean mere desolation and not omnicide.
This is how Harry Turtledove brings new ground to the ‘Cold War goes hot’ narrative: he has war breaking out over Korea, as Douglas MacArthur authorizes the use of atomic bombs delivered via bomber plane over Manchuria. The result of this decision is to bring the Soviet Union into the war, and thereby starting a World War III in an era without the ICBM. This war is a slower, more deliberative one than the lightning fast wars that usually occur due to different outcomes of the Cuban Missile Crisis or the 1983 scare or Able Archer. It’s a war that is in many ways much more suspenseful than any similar war that would occur later; bombers are generally easier to shoot down that missiles.
That also describes much of the plotting of this book, as is with much of Turtledove’s work: slow and deliberative. As usual, he prefers to marinate you in all the little details of this world he has created, rather than the brisk pacing of a typical World War III thriller. He gives a lot of attention to the lives of little people, even those who are not soldiers; like many of his books, he has some Jewish characters in Southern California. One of the many subplots in the trilogy concerns those in the (real) town of Weed, in northern California, which struck me as being chosen solely for the title. It is in these more quotidian viewpoints that he ruthlessly critiques the systems of both the NATO members and the Eastern Bloc, but ultimately I can’t help but feel that they didn’t add much to the overall arc of the story. You see Manchuria and Germany and England and other such places, but the characters there are too small to have any real effect on broader events.
His broader-scale points of view are better, because it is through them that you really get to see the broad sweep of history; that’s what Turtledove is best at. He does a very good Harry Truman and a very good Douglas MacArthur, and the interplay of the general versus the president is one that is much more vicious than their feud in our world.
In terms of Turtledove’s choice of viewpoints, there is a major omission: there are no primary viewpoint characters who are of any Asian ethnicity. There is one Korean character who shows up as a support to a white American soldier, but after the point of divergence in Korea, there is very little dedicated to the war in that front, nor do we ever get a point of view from the perspective of any of the senior Chinese leadership, whose country has been targeted by a good deal of American atomic bombs. It feels like a glaring oversight for a war that started in Asia to have so much of its portrayal confined to Europe and America.
For the most part, Turtledove does not indulge in the less-than-necessary sex scenes that he has become infamous for. The one and only exception to this is near the beginning of the third book, which has a scene which made me loudly proclaim my frustration whilst I was sitting on a couch in a mercifully empty house. It is a scene that feels even more off-base due to the backstory of one of the characters involved.
On the whole, The Hot War is average-to-subpar Turtledove; the man has done a lot better in different works at both ends of his career. In terms of his recent work, Alpha and Omega was fantastic whereas Through Darkest Europe was decent. This trilogy is him at his more lackluster, better in the broad scope than in the details.