In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Peripheral Artists (2): Axel Gallén | Main | Roger Scruton at Right Reason »

December 04, 2005

Tiresome Turtledove

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I haven't read much fiction in the last ten or 15 years because a good page-turner keeps me up too late, ruining my sleep.

But when I did / do read fiction, it's often science-fiction. [Cast eyes to ground in shame, shuffle feet.]

As for non-fiction, the bulk of my reading since age ten has been history -- especially military history.

So it isn't surprising that my favorite sci-fi genres include "Alternative History" and time-travel stories.

The current king of Alternative History is Harry Turtledove. His Wikipedia entry is here and his "official" fan website is here.

For me, a key factor in time-travel and AltHist fiction is getting the historical details straight. Not the made-up stuff, the real stuff. I've read a few books where so many details were wrong that I either finished the book with a bad taste in my mouth or else simply abandoned it.

Turtledove has a History Ph.D. from UCLA, specializing in Byzantium. So you would expect him to deliver the goods, and he does. Some of his earlier fiction dealt with alternative Byzantine history where Islam never happened, the empire continuing on its merry and, uh, Byzantine way.

But besides being incredibly prolific, Turtledove found the time to be widely-read in European, American and military history as well -- Europe, North America and war being the grist for his fiction since the early 1990s. I've read perhaps six or seven of his novels and, as best I remember, haven't caught him on a false detail: pretty amazing.

Turtledove's breakthrough novel was "The Guns of the South" wherein time-traveling South African white racists supply the Confederate army with AK-47s and ammo. The South wins the war and the second half of the book deals with the aftermath.

His next important effort was the "Worldwar" series which has extraterrestrials invading Earth while World War 2 was going full-blast. Unfortunately for the invaders, their reconnaissance mission visited long before industrialization, so they were expecting to confront spears and bows and arrows, not tanks and early jet fighters. I really enjoyed the first three books in this series.

More recently, among other things, Turtledove launched a lengthy South-wins-Civil War-aftermath ("Southern Victory") series (not using the time-travel ploy) that goes through the time of the Great War and beyond. I read the first two or three books, but then had a Hell With It experience and haven't read Turtledove since.

My problem is that his books, despite the details, eventually proved too plodding and predictable. Items:

  • Turtledove sets up four or five or seven or more character-sets and key characters, shifting from one to another in the form of chapter-sections. While I accept this as a reasonable approach when dealing with a broad subject, it can get repetitive and therefore tiresome.

  • I think he uses more character-sets than necessary. For instance, the Worldwar series devotes a good deal of space to Polish Jews. Now Turtledove has every right to include that character set. But the character set is not vital to the main thrust of the series. Polish Jews could have been made the main focus of the series had he dealt with only four sets -- the invaders, the Polish Jews, Christian Poles, and the Germans who ruled Poland in the early 1940s. But the series also includes character-sets of Russians, British and several groups of Americans along with others I've forgotten. Since the Americans, Brits and Germans were the main ones fighting the invaders, I think the Russians and Polish Jews and some other groups could have been eliminated without damage. Actually, I think the pacing would have benefited greatly by selective pruning.

  • Perhaps my memory is faulty -- haven't read Turtledove in maybe five years -- but his non-historical characters (and some of the historical ones) seem to have similar personalities. That is, they tend to be slightly laid-back, tolerant folks. Even villains such as Otto Skorzeny come off as being at least slightly reasonable. Actually, there's nothing intrinsically wrong with this; I imagine that almost everyone -- including Stalin, Hitler, Himmler, Hussein, Mao and their ilk -- considers himself quite reasonable and motivated by justifiable ideals. The problem is that this sameness eventually makes the books boring. Turtledove needs to give his characters more variety and bite.

  • All of this does not mean I totally dislike Turtledove and his work. Every time a new book of his comes out I pick up a copy and scan the entire dust-jacket trying to find reasons for buying and reading -- which some day I likely will.



    posted by Donald at December 4, 2005


    I've never read Turtledove, but I'll admit to being a fan of Philip K. Dick's "The Man in the High Castle." This is an alternative history book about the post-WWII world in which the Germans and the Japanese won. Dick being, well, Dick, he turns alternative history into yet another form of his standard Gnostic parable. That is, the characters gradually realize that what they are living isn't the "real" history, but a sort of degraded copy of reality in which things have gone horribly wrong. Of course, he also manages to imply that "our" version of WWII isn't quite right either, and that we are are likewise adrift in a not-quite-metaphysically accurate version of reality. Does Turtledove actually just spin alternative history purely as adventure, or is he using the form to make some larger point?

    Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 4, 2005 10:08 PM

    Friedrich -- I read the High Castle book so long ago I've forgotten just about everything except the part about the USA being occupied by the Gs and Js. Maybe I should give it another look.

    As for Turtledove, I don't detect a lot of philosphical depth, but as I said in the post, I dropped him several years back so I might have forgotten stuff.

    That said, Turtledove seems to go a tad out of his way to stress the racial/ethnic "groupness" of his characters. For instance, suppose there is a character he calls "Nathan Millstein." Another writer might introduce such a character and have the readers guess that Nathan is Jewish. Turtledove will proceed to spell out for readers that Nathan damn well is Jewish. Ditto for the ethnic categories of a number of other characters, if memory serves. Although characters sometimes have hangups and get self-destructive, the general tone is one of tolerance. The bad guys in the books I read were pretty much racist South African whites, racist Southern whites and racist Nazis. Pretty easy targets, not?

    What this boils down to is that he gives us a watered down politically correct liberal's version of human nature -- we're all jes' reasonable folks 'round here except for those nasty, nasty racists who cause all the trouble -- and he adds the frisson of war because, well I dunno, maybe it fascinates him and it offers lots of problems and crises for his reasoanable and laid-back characters to deal with.

    As I said in the post, I like Turtledove's stuff quite a lot, But after half a dozen or more books I began to feel I was reading the same stuff over and over.

    So to zero in on your question, my best guess is that he doesn't have much of a point to make. His books are basically nicely-detailed thought-candy for history buffs like me -- et vous?

    Posted by: Donald Pittenger on December 4, 2005 11:11 PM

    I too gave up on Turtledove some years ago. He belongs to that category of writer I first encountered decades ago when I became disillusioned with SF writer Philip Jose Farmer: writers who have brilliant ideas for books but write leaden prose with cardboard characters. Life's too short to spend hours reading such writers!

    Clever plots and intriguing ideas just aren't enough to make me come back for more.

    Posted by: Larry Ayers on December 5, 2005 1:13 AM

    Never tried Turtledove, but am mildly curious, although I might be put off if the writing is as colorless as some have described. A few years ago, I found in my local library branch an interesting short story collection, “Hitler Victorious: Eleven Stories of the German Victory in World War II,” edited by Gregory Benford and Martin Greenberg. Though a bit uneven, the best stories provided a chilling vision of the evil that enveloped the world as a result of a Nazi victory.

    Posted by: Alec on December 5, 2005 1:38 AM

    I too gave up, somewhere in the "The South Won" series.
    Yeah "people are jes people" seems to be Turtledove's only theme...with some people being especially NICE, and others sadly misguided, and not well-brought-up. He is no Dostoyevsky or St. Augustine!

    Hell, even "lizards" are jes people, and don't aspire to step on us "Big Uglies" like cockroaches!

    Some tangential thoughts on Turtledove and Ayn Rand's fiction here

    Posted by: Andrew on December 5, 2005 6:11 AM

    My one toe dipped into these waters (at least since I stopped reading SF in my early 20s) is S.M. Stirling's "Island in the Sea of Time" series in which the island of Nantucket is transported back to 1200 BC. I picked it up mostly because I've spent a lot of time on Nantucket (my Dad has a house there), so I was a kick to see the sleepy little island turned into "The Republic of Nantucket" and a world-straddling global empire.

    I had to put it down, though, when the relentless PC-ness of it just became so overpowering I couldn't suspend my disbelief anymore. One of the main characters is a black, female, lesbian (I guess he wanted to cover as many categoires in one character as possible) Coast Guard captain who becomes the head of the island's military. But she's trained in martial arts, y'see, so she can kick the ass of Iron Age warriors twice her size. Umm... no.

    Posted by: jimbo on December 5, 2005 10:29 AM

    His prose is not colorless. It's awful. He's just a bad writer. Each character set has a series of identifiers which are repeated as if it were exposition at the beginning of each go round. As if you'd forgotted how easily a character sunburns from the chapter 20 pages ago. As if it mattered.

    I think someone he trusts has intervened and convinced him to stop writing scenes of physical intimacy. That's a big plus.

    Part of the fun of these books is the internal argument you have with the author on the choices he makes on the consequences of the adjustments he makes to history. Some of his choices are shrewd, some puzzling and some are clearly made simply to accomodate his plot, which I think is backwards.

    Having said all this, I buy them and read them. When they're not annoying, they're fun.

    Posted by: Sluggo on December 5, 2005 12:25 PM

    Maybe you'll like this:

    But "I think the Russians and Polish Jews and some other groups could have been eliminated without damage" is a dangerous sentence. :>)

    Posted by: Alexandre on December 5, 2005 12:35 PM

    I really liked the Videssos series, which seemed to be less formulaic. I thought the Worldwar series moved too slowly (as a result of many things that a good editor could have removed). His fantasy WWII series is pretty bad.

    I've heard much of his recent stuff described as "Turtledove on rails". The fantasy WWII stuff is perhaps the best example of this. If you know your WWII history, you can assign every event in the story a historical analog, regardless of any differences that the set up should have caused.

    It's mildly diverting (for a while) to speculate about what he'll do with each event, but that palls after the first 1000 pages or so.

    Did I mention that he could really use "a good editor"?

    Posted by: Doug Sundseth on December 5, 2005 1:13 PM

    I think that contrafactuals are an easy genre to write a mediocre book in, and a tough one to do well. I've never tried Turtledove, because his productivity scared me. I just didn't see how anyone who cranked 'em out like that could be doing them well.

    Some of the other classic SF alternate history novels, besides the above-mentioned "Man in the High Castle" are:

    "Pavane" by Keith Roberts. More of a linked collection of stories, set in a world where Elizabeth I was killed and the Armada won.

    "Bring the Jubilee" by Ward Moore. The prototype of the "South Wins" Civil War alternative. Pretty well done, but rather depressing, as would be the reality.

    "The Alteration" by Kingsley Amis. Set in the mid-20th century in a world where the Reformation never happened. Many existing historical figures are worked into new roles in the background.

    What all of these books have in common is a greater reliance on character and plot, and less on the "Look at how different everything is" factor, which is easy to overemphasize.

    As for science fiction in general, I've read a great deal of it over the years. A law ascribed to one of its figures, Theodore Stugeon, is apt: "90% of anything is crap." But I do enjoy him, and R. A. Lafferty, Cordwainer Smith, James Blish and others from the old days. I don't care for as many of the current authors, but Vernor Vinge is one that's readable.

    Posted by: Derek Lowe on December 5, 2005 1:40 PM

    Don't forget The Plot Against America, by Roth.

    That's a terrific book.

    Posted by: Sluggo on December 5, 2005 1:44 PM

    Unless you're a slave to Henry James, there's no reason to apologize for reading sf. Excruciatingly minute descriptions of characters is not the only reason for lit, not even one with a long pedigree.

    As for Turtledove, yeah, he has his problems: the worms-eye view of the great struggles he uses for settings, what can charitably be described as Homeric character tags(sunburns, talking to your horse, seething rage at ex-superior officers, etc), too long of novels, puns (especially on foreign languages), and a seeming belief that sticking out your tongue is the height of romantic banter.

    However, those books read amazingly fast given how long they are. Still, his series could use some severe editing.

    A good singleton Turtledove novel (though even it's a gateway novel to a later series)is How Few Remain which has a disgraced, post-Civil War Lincoln turning socialist.

    But Turtledove works better at shorter lengths. "Must and Shall" has a very different post-Civil War America. "The Last Article" puts Gandhi against Hitler -- with predictable results. (Could Henry James or Thoreau commented on the limits of civil disobediance so concisely?)

    Second the recommendation of Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee. For a rather gonzoo alternate WWII novel, try Brad Linneaweaver's Moon of Ice.

    Posted by: Randy Stafford on December 5, 2005 2:11 PM

    "But when I did / do read fiction, it's often science-fiction. [Cast eyes to ground in shame, shuffle feet.]"


    Posted by: introspectre on December 7, 2005 7:17 AM

    Don't forget The Plot Against America, by Roth. That's a terrific book.

    Arrrggghhhh! No, it's terrible.

    Posted by: Enoch on January 2, 2006 12:06 PM

    Post a comment

    Email Address:



    Remember your info?