Russell Letson reviews Allen Steele
Allen Steele’s V-S Day fiddles with time in a more familiar manner. This is (if I’m counting correctly) Steele’s fifth take on his ‘‘Alternate-Space’’ story-family, in which the space race begins a couple decades early thanks to a German decision to abandon the V-1 in favor of the Silbervögel, a suborbital transcontinental bomber, which sets off a corresponding US project to build a Silbervögel killer. Steele has been working with this material for a quarter-century: the first bite of the apple was a 1988 short story, ‘‘Operation Blue Horizon’’, followed by the better-known ‘‘Goddard’s People’’ (1991), ‘‘John Harper Wilson’’ (1989), and the novel The Tranquility Alternative (1996). Twenty years ago I found ‘‘Goddard’s People’’ to read like minimally fictionalized journalism, but V-S Day is a fully formed historical-procedural WWII drama – if it were a movie, the book’s date-stamp chapter headers would be superimposed on establishing shots: ‘‘June 1, 1943, Somewhere over the Pacific,’’ ‘‘December 21, 1941, Peenemünde.’’
But there’s more. In a framing narrative set in 2013, a reporter attends the annual reunion of the survivors of the 390 Group to record for the first time the full story of how the American rocket plane was conceived, designed, and built. This 2013 feels remarkably like ours – Toyotas, iPads, digital recorders – which raises questions about why there are still secrets and what differences this 2013 might harbor beyond the obvious one of including suborbital spaceplanes in 1943.
The body of the novel alternates between the German and American projects, with occasional interludes in which the reporter and the old men add comments on the story so far. The viewpoint character for most of the German chapters is Wernher von Braun, with cutaways to events he could not have known about, such as the activities of the spies who uncover and continue to monitor the project. Von Braun gets about as sympathetic portrait as is possible: his dream of a technology that will eventually lead to space travel causes him to turn aside from the realities of what he is building and who he is building it for (Goering and Himmler have bit parts, and a distracted Hitler makes a cameo appearance) and from its direct costs in human suffering and death. The other crucial historical figure, Robert Goddard, remains a bit remote, seen through the eyes of other characters: shabbily dressed, persistent, focused, systematic, brilliant, and cannily able to wrangle the authorities and build his team, the ‘‘Goddard’s People’’ of the earlier short story.
But this is not a book about character or characters (however convincingly portrayed) but about the rival programs, and accordingly its focus is on the enormous challenges of conceiving, designing, building, and testing whole new technologies, nearly from the ground up: rocket engines (which tend to reveal their weaknesses by blowing up), airframes, launch systems, pressure suits, pilot training. There is a good bit of attention to the non-engineering parts of both projects: not only the extraordinary levels of secrecy and misdirection required (a significant challenge on the American side, given the culture from which the project team comes) but, for the German team, the constant danger of interference by members of Hitler’s inner circle. And since the framing 2013 chapters suggest how the contest must play out, there is no real suspense, and even the inevitable sub-orbital confrontation and a final-page revelation are not really surprises. As the Afterword’s acknowledgments and the extensive small-print list of research sources suggests, the real hero of the novel is the dream-driven process of getting into space. The title’s V-for-victory is not only for the war but for the triumph of that dream.