IN THE BALANCEA novel by Harry Turtledove
(1994, Del Rey Books)
Worldwar, book 1
Aliens invade Earth, halting the second World War, and forcing the nations to join together. Everyday people do their best to repel the Lizard-like creatures.
-- First reading (paperback)
I was drawn into this book from the first few pages. Right from the beginning, we are given the situation: The Race (a group of aliens whose civilization is well over a hundred thousand years old) is expanding their Empire, colonizing a primitive planet in the Tosev system. The males of the Race that we meet are part of a force to get the planet ready for colonization, and to subdue the natives.
Unfortunately, their last probe visited Tosev 3 a thousand years ago, and led the Race to believe humans had no more technology than swords and clubs. In fact, the planet is in the middle of World War II, and humans have just developed rockets, but the German V2 is not yet ready. The United States has just recently joined the war, and is on the road to developing an atomic bomb. But things could be worse for the Race, though they donít know it. They could have arrived ten years later. But they wish they had arrived a hundred years earlier.
The Race, short, lizard-like creatures, do not change much in a thousand years, and so have the benefit of time to plan every thing they do down to the last detail. Humanity is an enigma to them, and deprives them of that time. So although they have the technology that we have today Ėhelicopters, atomic weapons, rockets, microelectronics, automatic weapons, but not laser weapons, humanity is holding his own against this invasion.
That the aliens use bullets, drive trucks and tanks, and fly jets is a good idea, I think. It avoids other invasion cliches, that humanity rises up against odds that are insurmountable. Here, the odds are just simply huge.
The other idea that I liked was the unexpected use of everyday people in virtually all the plot lines. In a story such as this one, it must be tempting to use the people in authority. But it seems more realistic when the situations are encountered by people who have hardly any authority. To date, the only leaders that only have been seen are Churchill and Hitler, and only for a couple of pages each.
Finally, I like the international flavour of the many, many characters. I would hear their various accents as they spoke! Only four are American, and three are ballplayers at the beginning of the book. Two join the army to repel the aliens from US soil, which at this point looks impossible. They see many defeats and a few victories, and wonder how they stay alive through it all. The third ball player is captured by the aliens and used in experiments designed to figure out humanity. In one of these experiments, he is paired with a Chinese woman, who lost everything to a Japanese invasion before being captured by the aliens. They are forced to mate, and end up feeling comfortable enough together that they stay together.
The fourth American is part of the team that is developing the atomic bomb. Another Chinese man gets rich by getting many of the aliens addicted to ginger. Two German tankers and a Russian pilot fight the aliens (known generally among humans as Lizards) separately, then end up joining together for several missions, including capturing atomic weapons!
Polish Jews welcome the aliens as saviors when they destroy their prison camp, but quickly realize that although they are better off than they were (they arenít dead, anyway), their new masters just want them as puppets. Finally, there are the British bombers and radar specialists. These guys are learning to use what they have against the Lizards, and adapt it to this new war.
Several of the plot lines cross, some diverge, and cross again. It shows how flexible people really are, in spite of ideologies. The English have hated the French for centuries, and the Russians and Jews have good reason to wish the Germans were dead, but they can grudgingly work together if they have to. They may hate working together, but at least most people can put a more essential cause above their personal feelings, at least for a short while.
The ones who canít really do that are the Russian, German and Japanese leaders. Instead of pooling what they have, they form the illusion that they are cooperating, when actually they are trying to sabotage everybody elseís position. That self-serving attitude could cause humanity to lose the war against the Lizards.
We also get to see the war from the perspective of the Race. You can actually feel sorry for the leader of this invasion force. Although he seems to be winning in the long run Ėhe has overrun much of the planet already- he is far from in control of the world. Humanity is just too complex for him and his people, so all he gets at staff meetings is more and more bad news.
The next book is called Tilting the Balance. By the end of this book, both sides think the balance is tilting in their favour. Who will be right?
For a war novel, this one proceeds at quite a leisurely pace, which is good, I think. Every scene shows something new about the characters, making each one of them quite deep. And it makes each of them very human, and very realistic. Even the Lizards are realistic, though completely alien. They have their own views, their own culture, and their own battles to fight on the way to the battlefield.
And so, the war is in effect just beginning.
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