Harry Turtledove’s latest book, Homeward Bound, is the conclusion to his “Worldwar” and “Colonization” series. As we join the tale already in progress, an ancient, highly sophisticated alien species sought to colonize and transform a world to its own use. Unexpectedly, however, the planet’s present inhabitants weren’t willing to cede their world quite as willingly as the aliens expected (nor were the inhabitants quite the pushovers the aliens anticipated). The world, of course, is Earth, albeit an alternate Earth in which aliens appeared in “War of the Worlds” fashion at the height of World War II, forcing the combatants to turn their attention from one another and battle the aliens interested in subjecting all of humanity.
Turtledove is undoubtedly the best-known author of so-called “alternate history” around today, including his Civil War tale The Guns of the South and the alternate World War I series, The Great War. In the Worldwar series, Earth’s defenders find themselves faced with the challenge of fending off the lizard-like aliens called “the Race.” The Race has already conquered two other planets which now reflect the staid glory of an galactic empire that has existed for hundreds of thousands of years. When they discover Earth, its population seems primitive and barbaric (little more than armored men on horses). The Race prepares a colonization force; however, in their typical deliberate manner, doing so takes several centuries. By the time they finalize their preparations and actually launch their invasion force toward Earth (at speeds of about 1/3 that of the speed of light), several centuries have passed. And during the years it takes the invaders to cross the eleven or so light years from the Race’s home planet to Earth, even more changes take place on the targeted planet – changes which will have a dramatic impact upon the outcome of the invasion.
Homeward Bound opens as the aliens and humans have settled into an uneasy stalemate. It’s been some thirty or so years since the invasion force arrived. The pace of humanity’s development of technology meant that several nations (or, in the language of the Race, several “not-empires”) were able to hold the invaders off. Among these nations was the United States. The “world war” between the aliens and humans (whom members of the Race alternately call Tosevites or “Big Uglies”) ended, if you will, in a draw. The uneasy compromise has members of both species in control of portions of the planet.
The conflict, however, has an unintended consequence: humanity’s native inquisitiveness now has a more immediate spur, and the Race is amazed at their ability to adapt to change. Within a few short years, Americans manage to develop their own form of cold sleep and build a spaceship, which they launch toward Home. The aliens have plenty of time to prepare for their visitors; radio signals travel faster than a space ship, after all, and as the Americans’ ship travels at a slower rate than the Race’s ships so it takes nearly forty years for it to arrive in the skies above Home – beaten by nearly a decade by the Race’s own messengers.
The problem is that even with a decade to prepare, the Race aren’t quite sure what to do. They’re a very deliberate species (other than during mating season), and it amazed them that the Tosevites even bothered to resist them in the first place. The notion that they might try to challenge the Race for galactic supremacy is, to quote the Sicilian from The Princess Bride, “inconceivable.” When the Americans’ ship does arrive in the sky over Home, however, the members of the Race are forced to consider the fact that they are indeed confronted by an opponent whose developmental speed far exceeds their own – and whose willingness to experiment and take risks threatens the foundation of their carefully constructed Empire.
While earlier entries in the series focused more on the military aspect of the conflict, Homeward Bound explores the notion of what happens as cultures intersect. It has a sizeable cast and Turtledove attempts to view the scenario from every angle, quickly shifting perspective between various characters on both sides. From Sam Yeager, the unintended leader of the Tosevite diplomatic mission to Kassquit, the human woman raised as a member of the Race, there are a host of intriguing, multi-faceted characters for Turtledove to develop, and he does it well.
In terms of the story’s plot, Turtledove plays off of many conventions of science fiction literature – for example, the idea that aliens would regard humans as a reckless, ambitious species with a remarkable ability to adapt to change. Time and again, Turtledove’s aliens sit around and talk about how amazing it is that humanity is able to develop so quickly (so much so, I think, that the “revelation” about what they’re up to back on Earth is telegraphed quite early on). The aliens are studious and emotionally controlled (except during the “mating season”) but were undone on Earth in part by the presence of ginger, a substance which apparently effects the Race somewhat like Viagra. This too is a frequent aspect of many “alien invasion” stories, be it the diseases of War of the Worlds or a Slim Whitman song (a la Mars Attacks). The alien world, despite its age, also often mirrors our world (down to a book entitled “Gone with the Wind”).
Some of this might seem a bit forced or contrived, especially in the hands of a lesser writer. For the most part, however, Turtledove manages to keep the plates spinning. I did grow a bit weary of all the incredulous wonder about humanity’s potential. That said, I was intrigued with how Turtledove developed a very measured story that was really, underneath it all, a meditation on equality, respect, war, and the meaning of diplomacy. It was a very pleasant finale – and for diehard fans, it even left the door open for more adventure.