Book Review: Bombs Away by Harry Turtledove

bombs away

  • Series: Hot War, The (Book 1)
  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Del Rey; Reissue edition (June 28, 2016)
  • Language: English
  • Kindle: $8.99
  • Hardback: $19.04
  • Paperback: $9.99
  • Product Dimensions: 4.3 x 0.9 x 7.6 inc

Since Harry Turtledove’s Fallout will be published soon, I figured now is the best time to read and review the first book in The Hot War series, Bombs Away. How does this stack up against Turtledove’s other works? Lets find out…

In Bombs Away, President Truman is convinced by Douglas MacArthur to use nuclear weapons to bomb Harbin and other Chinese targets in Manchuria to stop them from sending more troops and supplies into Korea. They do it under the presumption that the Soviet Union under Stalin would not retaliate since he couldn’t possibly take on the might of the United States and its allies. Turns out they were foolish to think that and several European cities go up in atomic fire. After a short round of tit for nuclear tat, Communist forces pour through the Fulda Gap and World War III begins only 5 years after WWII ended.

Like many Turtledove books, the story is told from a variety of different perspectives on both sides of the Iron Curtain. We see what life is like for a B-52 pilot in Korea, a Russian exile in Manchuria, a Ukrainian peasant working on a collective farm, a former German soldier drawn back into war, a British barkeep just trying to keep her business going and more. Reading this book reminded me that George RR Martin isn’t the only one who kills off characters randomly. Turtledove was one of the first authors I experienced who could kill off a point of view character without warning and sometimes not even in a dignified manner (I remember one character from Southern Victory actually getting a heart attack while having sex). So points for realism.

Points also for originality. Most nuclear war stories usually involve a quick and devastating war where we then follow civilians trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. That story has been told so many times it has gotten boring. In Bombs Away, however, it’s the 1950s and the ability to deliver an atomic bomb was still primitive. ICBMs weren’t a thing yet, so long-range bombers were your best shot at reaching a target, but they had limitations. You needed to be somewhat close to your target if the bomber’s crew had any chance of flying back home and they could always be shot down on the way there. Thus the nuclear war in Bombs Away is a slow radioactive burn. Things go bad gradually and people still continue to fight a conventional war as best as they can even as they lose city after city.

Turtledove, however, loses some points when it comes to the history. I have seen several reviews nitpick the book for inconsistencies, but I’d rather talk about his portrayal of Harry Truman, who is actually a point of view character. I always had a soft spot for the 33rd president. He gets a lot of flak from conservatives (for not doing enough to fight communism) and liberals (for not living up to FDR’s legacy) that present day Americans often fail to see that the work he did not only laid the foundations for the Soviet Union’s fall in the 1990s, but also made sure the New Deal wasn’t gutted by Republicans. He was a no nonsense, straightforward Midwesterner who stayed faithful to his wife (unlike FDR, JFK or LBJ…why do presidents known by their acronyms cheat on their wives?) and never got rich going into politics. In fact, Truman was part of the rare breed who really thought politics could be used as a tool to make people’s lives better.

The Truman of Bombs Away falls short of that Truman. He comes off as a cranky old man with a major Napoleon complex. There is none of the Truman energy in the character, like how we saw in the presidential election of 1948 where Truman went on his famous whistle-stop tour that helped him beat Dewey. Even his relationship with George Marshall (whose name was given to the “Marshall Plan”, that Truman was wise enough to keep his name off of so it had a chance of being adopted) is wrong. In our timeline, Truman admired the old general and took his opinion on important matters seriously. In Bombs Away, Truman comes off as resenting this leftover from the FDR administration that he can’t quite get rid of.

That all being said, while I admit I may be over analyzing Turtledove’s portrayal of Truman, he is a point of view character and a historical person. Thus you can’t get skimpy on the details. Usually Turtledove is very good about this when he does use historical people in his alternate histories (or I just don’t know enough about them to see the mistakes). Nevertheless, it doesn’t ruin Bombs Away for me.

In fact, this is a pretty good book that kept me glued to it during my free time. Although I would probably recommend some of Turtledove’s stand-alone books before suggesting you read Bombs Away, I still think Bombs Away is worth a look for any alternate historian out there.

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  1. The reason Presidents usually cheat on their wives is the same reason other aggressive alpha male types with lots of wealth and/or power do so: they want to, and their wealth and/or power makes it easy, unlike the situation for the usual shleb. If women approached sex the way men do, there would be few monogamous het relationships. It’s the fact that getting nookie is risky and hard work for most men that makes the setup possible.

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