Saturday, January 16, 2016

Reviewing Harry Turtledove’s Joe Steele

First off the top: I liked Joe Steele.  It tells the story of rise of one of the 20th Century’s most infamous dictators, Joseph Stalin, but through a distinctly American lens. At his best, Turtledove asks the big questions, the ones that go beyond the superficial and ruminate in your subconscious until you provide your own unsettling answers.

And make no mistake; Joe Steele is one of Turtledove’s best.  It asks what if a certain young Joseph Dzhugashvili arrived in the United States in the early 20th Century, and after changing his name to Joe Steele (Stalin is Russian for “Man of Steel”), he emerged from the rough and tumble world of California union politics to challenge successfully FDR for the 1933 Democratic Party presidential nomination and ultimately be elected President of the United States.  (I will assume - and call me a party pooper - that this novel takes place in a universe where the Natural Born Citizen clause of the U.S. Constitution never came to be... uh, hello, Ted Cruz?)

For Turtledove, who has written some epic multi-volume multi-character alt-history, this is a rather intimate work. It works so very well on this level. The story is told from the viewpoints of two brothers who follow two distinct paths with their own relationships with the titular character, who oddly enough, is not the main character, but looms darkly in the background like a menacing cloud.  

Mr President?
Turtledove’s book has some cautionary echoes of Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here (1935), in which a fascist dictator rises to power as president on a populist ticket, after appealing to traditional American values and pledging to make America strong again.  I’m also reminded, of course how close America did come to an actual fascist coup in 1935, as recounted in my own novel War Plan Crimson, which sees a dictator named Randall Cray placed in the White House.

What is a mark of Turtledove’s craftsmanship is the window Joe Steele provides into current events.  As I read this book during this time of Donald Trump, I was amazed at the parallels I found.  But maybe it’s just me. The populist Republican candidate, who is as of this writing, is leading in the polls, appears to be following the well-trod path of other potential dictators, who also took advantage of times of great uncertainty.  While simultaneously vowing to make the country strong again with nothing but simple slogans, Trump is also cynically creating a climate of fear by blaming The Outsider, be they Mexicans or Muslims. 

As I said, I heartily recommend Harry Turtledove’s Joe Steele.  It is a particularly by turns chilling and intimate look at a nightmare that may yet come to pass.

Coming Up:
I’m still reading Robert Charles Wilson’s Burning Paradise: I can tell you that I’m liking what I’m reading.  I’ll have a full review for you in a future post, where I also plan to look more in depth at Wilson’s earlier alt-history works, Darwinia and Mysterium and the themes that his books share. 

Meanwhile, you can help out a poor unemployed writer by purchasing Elvis Saves JFK! for just 99 cents and War Plan Crimson, A Novel of Alternate History, for $2.99 and now The Key to My Heart, also $2.99 (all are free to preview). All books -- which are already on Smashword's premium distribution list -- are also available through such fine on-line retailers such as Sony, Chapters Indigo, Barnes & Noble and Apple's iTunes Store.   Thanks.

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