Centuries previously, humanity fought a civil war. As technology progressed, genetic alteration and cybernetic augmentation of the body became commonplace. Humans started transferring consciousness to new bodies, and even to machines, allowing practical immortality. A faction known as The Sturm saw this as abhorrent, fanatically advocating “racial purity” and wishing to exterminate the “mutants” from the human race. The war against The Sturm was won at a terrible cost, and they were exiled, not to be heard from again. Until now.
The protagonists are several, all interesting in their own right, with rich backstories. Each of them could have been the subject of his or her own novel. Naval officer Lucinda Hardy is a successful professional who lifted herself up from abject poverty in a society ruled by an aristocratic elite, and is now unexpectedly in command of the frigate Defiant. Pirate Sephina L’Trel is a charming rogue. Death row convict Booker was a terrorist. Corporate Princess Alessia has lived a sheltered life which is suddenly upended in the worst possible way. And finally archaeologist Frazier McLellan, previously Fleet Admiral McLellan. A most cantankerous, ill-tempered, foul-mouthed, hilarious and very endearing old coot.
The parallels to the Nazi regime and ideas of racial purity are explicitly referenced in the book. The Sturm invasion leads to an existential struggle, as the Sturm use the very characteristics and strengths of mainstream human society against it in their initial surprise attack. Mr. Birmingham has a fine gift for snappy dialogue and humour. I found myself laughing out loud many times, especially during McLellan’s arguments with Herodotus, a former military AI and his companion. Despite some misgivings in the first few chapters, as more and more new characters, seemingly unrelated, were introduced, the story came together well, with rapid, page-turning action sequences.
Germany and Japan have won World War II and now control most of the world between them. The former United States are split between them, with the backward Rocky Mountain States situated between a Japanese puppet state in Western North America and a German puppet state in Eastern North America; acting as a buffer zone of sorts. Fifteen years after the war ended, the two superpowers are engaged in a cold war, with Germany expanding into space and Japan falling behind. The book follows several characters in events far from the core of politics, including a German secret agent, a Japanese trade official and a woman seeking audience with the author of an intriguing novel. The novel is about an alternate history where Germany and Japan lose the war, thus more closely resembling our own.
Mr. Dick cleverly implements the device of using characters very peripheral to the main thrust of history. These see historical events without the sureness or clarity of a history book, and color them with their own perceptions, each flawed in its own way. There are long passages of reflection on the nature of manufactured objects, of their “historicity”; in other words their connection with historical events. How does history reflect on the present through its relics? The discussions on race and the open use of race to profile people and cultures gives a glimpse of the way things might perhaps have been if the Axis had won the war. The social mores depicted unfortunately date the book somewhat, especially the depiction of Juliana’s ready subservience to a new man in her life. However it remains a classic for good reason.
In this alternate history novel, the year is circa 2001. The Nazis won the Second World War, then conquered America a generation later. Jews are hiding in the midst of the Third Reich.
So, what’s the book actually about? As far as I could figure out, not very much. I kept wondering when something would actually happen. Unfortunately I reached the end and nothing had, unless you count interminable games of bridge while the characters wonder who is having unfaithful thoughts.
Turtledove had a great idea for the premise, but this novel is mind numbingly dull. The portrayal of everyday life under the shadow of the Germanic Empire is fascinating for about ten pages, and the hints of change intriguing, but the rest is one long yawner.