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Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove


LibertyCon 21 Author Guest of Honor (2008)

US writer and academic who has made use of his field of scholarship (his PhD was in Byzantine history) to create all his best-known work, including several associational historical novels as by H N Turteltaub. The fantasy Videssos Cycle - The Misplaced Legion (1987), An Emperor for the Legion (1987), The Legion of Videssos (1987) and Swords of the Legion (1987), with the Krispos sequence, Krispos Rising (1991), Krispos of Videssos (1991) and Krispos the Emperor (1994), serving as a prequel - follows the exploits of a Roman legion translated to the empire of Videssos, situated in a world where Magic works and Byzantine history is recapitulated. The Basil Argyros stories (1985-1987), set in an Alternate History in which Mahomet became a Christian saint - assembled as Agent of Byzantium (coll of linked stories 1987) - follows the exploits of a medieval secret agent who tends to cause scientific innovations against both his brief and his intentions. Though these books focus on their various charismatic and canny protagonists, Turtledove's thorough understanding of his source material gracefully infiltrates the fun and fantastication.

He began writing work of genre interest with two Sword-and-Sorcery tales as by Eric G Iverson, Wereblood (1978) and its sequel Werenight (1979), which initiate the Gerin the Fox sequence of fantasies ending with Fox and Empire (1998) for details see Checklist; and was soon publishing sf and fantasy with some frequency, sometimes as by Eric G Iverson, some of his better non-series work being assembled as Kaleidoscope (coll 1990). Noninterference (fixup 1988) - in which a galactic survey team runs across Aliens - and Earthgrip (fixup 1991) - in which a reader of sf uses the expertise so gained to save alien races - are, unusually for Turtledove, straight sf books not set in alternate worlds, and were assembled with Kaleidoscope as 3 X T (omni 2004). A Different Flesh (fixup 1988) places hominid survivors (> Apes as Human) in an alternate USA, and A World of Difference (fixup 1989) confronts Soviet and US missions on an alternate Mars - here called Minerva - populated by warring Minervans. Certainly his most important singleton, and perhaps his finest sustained narrative, is The Guns of the South: A Novel of the Civil War (1992), in which the South wins through the aid of Afrikaners who Time Travel with advanced Technologies which are used to defeat the North. After the publication of this dramatic and sustained tale, Turtledove came into his own as the most famous and most prolific authors of Alternate History sequences; though some of the later series come dangerously close to repeating the techniques and motifs of earlier work, two long-running multi-section multi-volume narratives do stand out. Both are remarkable for their ingenuity, and for their almost unremitting (and sometimes savagely melodramatic) focus on War.

The Worldwar sequence is perhaps the more appealing of the two, in that much of the internecine intensity of Turtledove's treatment of purely planetary issues is here partially escaped. The first series within the overall sequence - Worldwar: In the Balance (1994), Worldwar: Tilting the Balance (1995), Worldwar: Upsetting the Balance (1996) and Worldwar: Striking the Balance (1996) - features a World War Two very similar to our own, until the Invasion of an Alien fleet (> Colonization of Other Worlds; {IMPERIALISM IN SF}) changes everything. Before an ultimate stalemate can be painfully achieved, Germany becomes an ally of America (with consequences close to those encountered in many Hitler Wins tales), nuclear conflict devastates the planet, and the aliens come to occupy most of the world beyond the realm of the beleaguered allies, dominant among them being America, Germany and Russia. The second series - the Worldwar: Colonization tales comprising Colonization: Book One: Second Contact (1999), Colonization: Down to Earth (2000) and Aftershocks (2001) - takes place in the 1960s, with the two races occupying the planet vying constantly for supremacy, a conflict in which advances in Technology tend to turn the tables fairly often. Homo sapiens, in line with a deep-rooted American Genre SF assumption, is much quicker-witted and adaptive than the alien foe, who are comfortingly obtuse and very clearly described in accordance with the traditional view that invading alien armies would necessarily be commanded by hidebound, reptile-thick bureaucrats - though in this series individual aliens do show an alarming ability to take on human characteristics, including a passion for Baseball. In the midst of all this, a continuing human campaign to develop a slower-than-light Starship points readers to the final volume of the overall sequence, Homeward Bound (1999), in which human forces arrive on the alien planet, Home, a threat to the balance of power that almost leads to a mutually destructive final war, though the arrival of a second human force in a Faster Than Light ship tips that balance in our favour.

The second multi-volume sequence, whose surtitle is Southern Vision, is much darker than Worldwar, depicting at great length the century after 1860 as subject to almost constant War, with extended episodes being couched in Military SF terms. The Jonbar Point for this Alternate History comes when the Union does not discover General Lee's plans to invade Maryland (the historical Special Order 191 did fall into Union hands, and arguably turned the course of the American Civil War), and the Confederacy wins, maintaining a racist hegemony over much of America during the course of the following war-torn decades (> Race in SF), not finally losing to the USA until the 1920s. In the meanwhile, on the larger scene, World War One begins, though much of Turtledove's attention is focused on the increasingly savage final conflict between the North and the South, which is recounted in terms of the same futile trench-warfare stalemate that marked the European conflict for years. After 1920, Canada, now an American colony under harsh control, suffers through the Governor-Generalship of General Custer. World War Two then breaks out, with the resurgent Confederacy attacking the North; during this war, Germany and other nations develop nuclear power: bombs duly destroy St Petersburg, Paris, London, and many other world cities. The world Turtledove creates in Southern Vision is significantly bleaker than our own.

Later sf series, as indicated above, tend to repetition, though it may be that fantasy analogues - such as the Darkness sequence, beginning with Into the Darkness (1999) and ending with Out of the Darkness (2004), where a version of World War Two is fought in a universe where Magic exists - may have moments of genuine freshness; this may also be the case with the War Between the Cronies sequence, beginning with Sentry Peak (2000) and ending with Advance and Retreat (2004), where the Civil War is also fought in a world with magic. The Crosstime Traffic sequence of Young Adult tales set in a variety of Parallel Worlds, beginning with Gunpowder Empire (2003) and ending with The Valley-Westside War (2008), homages H Beam Piper's Paratime books and parallels Charles Stross's Merchant Princes sequence, which began in 2004. The Lost Continent of Atlantis sequence, beginning with Opening Atlantis (2007) and perhaps concluding with Liberating Atlantis (2009), is initiating by a very large-scale Jonbar Point: the calving off of the eastern seaboard of America, millions of years ago, into a separate continent which is discovered in 1492. A late sequence, the War That Came Early series beginning with Hitler's War (2009), may not prove to add much to Turtledove's several previous versions of World War Two.

Turtledove has never failed to be exuberant when he sees the chance; and although it may be argued that he has not yet written any single book that has unduly stretched his very considerable intelligence, it may at the same time be suggested that the overall impact of his longer sequences is indeed considerable. Beneath the virtuoso sadism of his descriptions of conflict, and his sometimes morally unstable sweet-tooth for the depiction of Realpolitik in action, lies a sadness that perhaps befits our times, and an intermittent sense that we are better off in this world, that we know to be true, than in any realistic alternatives we might try to imagine. Turtledove won a 1994 Best Novella Hugo Award for "Down in the Bottomlands" (January 1993 Analog). [JC]

(From Mr. Turtledove's page at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction)