The alternate history or uchronia mode of science fiction is a particularly treacherous one for the writer. Done sloppily, with little rigor, logic, or true invention (and the temptation to be sloppy is enormous), it rapidly devolves into a slapdash game of casually inverting historical outcomes and casting famous folks into the most unlikely roles. What if Marilyn Monroe had been elected President of the USA, and JFK were a Hollywood actor who was her secret lover, and the USA were at war with France, a nation led by Brigitte Bardot?!? What if the South had won the Civil War, and Mark Twain were ambassador to Washington, and the petroleum economy had started a century prior?!? What if ancient Egyptians had colonized North America, and Sitting Bull were the current Pharaoh, and he met a visiting Arthur Conan Doyle who helped him solve a mystery!?!
You see, I think, how the subgenre can drift toward the arbitrary and gimmicky, the ultimate in cheap, flashy conceits trumping authenticity and verisimilitude and emotional resonance.
But of course, when the mode is done properly—The Man in the High Castle, Pavane, The Difference Engine, among many others—it has a unique power: performing thought experiments with the science of history—the only “labwork” available for that discipline—and instantiating a world as real and tangible and humanly populated as our own, but skewed along surprising vectors.
Allen Steele delivers just such a good and solid specimen of the subgenre with his new novel V-S Day, a prequel of sorts to his previous outing, The Tranquility Alternative. (Although as he explains in an afterword, he was not over-stringent about reconciling all continuity between the two widely separated tales.)
Our first chapter is a cliffhanger of an enigmatic stripe. The time is June 1, 1943, and we are at a secret US military base in the American Southwest, witnessing the tension-fraught countdown for a mysterious aircraft dubbed the Lucky Linda. As the countdown approaches zero, we leave the scene, not to return till the book’s climax. We are now in the year 2013, when a journalist is interviewing the few elderly survivors of WWII’s classified “390 Group.” Aside from a few returns to the perspective of 2013, the novel will consist of the wartime experiences of the 390 Group as they try to beat or at least match the Germans—led by Wernher von Braun—to the creation of the first suborbital spaceship, under the leadership of Robert Goddard.
We leave the reunion scene to eavesdrop on the Germans in their efforts to build the Silver Bird rocket. Throughout the book we will return to the Nazis, but in small doses. Vivid enough, with insightful and empathetic portrayals of von Braun and his crew, these scenes serve basically as suspense-building contrast to the American efforts. Steele’s heart and soul are with the Allies. After a hundred pages or so of watching how the info on the German schemes trickles out and energizes the Americans, Steele really gets the ball rolling in good “let’s assemble the gang and put on a show” fashion, delivering the key scientists and engineers and pilots into their common setting of Goddard’s Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts. Soon the crew are busy brainstorming and testing the craft of the future needed to fight off the Nazi’s counterpart.
Steele does some deft work making all the individuals come alive, especially his central protagonists: Goddard, who emerges as a kind of Christ-like martyr to the cause; Jack Cube, an African-American who has to fight to get his intelligence acknowledged; and Henry Morse, whose off-hours romance with a librarian named Doris Gilbert adds some romance to the tale. In this mostly male milieu, Steele is very careful to give us some strong women in the persons of Esther Goddard, Doris Gilbert, von Braun’s secretary Lise Muller, and an Allied spy named Greta Carlsberg.
And so with awesome, meticulous attention to scientific details, engineering protocols, bureaucratic procedures, and international politics (though the larger war is just background noise), Steele walks us through what it would have taken to build a space plane rather than an A-bomb, not neglecting the emotional side of the drama either, including a surprising climax when Silver Bird and Lucky Linda tangle in the skies. And the novel’s end neatly opens out to the scenario of The Tranquility Alternative.
It seems to me that what Steele has accomplished here (with maybe a few dieselpunk touches) is to recreate the kind of fiction that Nevil Shute was writing in his heyday, “engineering fiction,” if you will. Curiously enough, I just happened to watch the Jimmy Stewart movie from 1951, No Highway in the Sky, based on Shute’s novel No Highway, in which Stewart portrays an airplane designer obsessed with proving the safety of a new design. Stewart’s a bit more “absent-minded professor” than Steele’s characters, but otherwise the kind of stolid, sober, no-nonsense attitude on display in both old movie and new novel is at the heart of such fiction, where visionary men grapple with physics and the material world to turn their dreams into reality, despite all naysayers and the resistance of their medium. It’s quiet heroism in action.