February 25, 2005

BOOKS: Homeward Bound, Harry Turtledove (2004)

Eighth volume in this alternate history / SF series from the prolific Turtledove, following on the 4-volume Worldwar and the 3-volume Colonization series.

Just as World War II was getting started, Earth received its first alien visitors, a lizard-like species who called themselves the Race. The Race was not friendly, and the differences among the nations of Earth suddenly paled in comparison to this new threat.

The Race got more than it bargained for; theirs is a society of great stability and glacial change, as they'd assumed any intelligent society would be. So when their preliminary exploration fleet -- which had flown by some 800 years ago -- found a planet of horse-riding barbarians, they figured we'd be an easy conquest.

But such was not the case, and over the course of the first seven volumes, Turtledove has told the story of the war between the species and the uneasy peace that followed it. As the current volume begins, we've leapt forward a few decades into the 1990s, and Earth is sending its first starship to visit the Race's homeworld, which they call (logically enough) Home. It's not a quick trip, and it's made possible only by putting most of the passengers into cold sleep, which conveniently allows Turtledove to keep alive some of his most popular characters from the earlier volumes, despite the passage of time (by the end of the book, it's roughly 2030).

The plot revolves around the attempt of the two races to negotiate a lasting peace, a task made more difficult by the Race's fears that the rapid pace of human technological advancement will quickly make the Race vulnerable to total destruction, which might make it a good idea to wipe out the humans now, while they still can.

Turtledove's technique throughout the series is to give us a few pages at a time from the perspective of one of a dozen or so primary characters, allowing us to get multiple views of the same events. His characters are well developed, some of them are very much so. The most interesting here is Kassquit, a human woman who has been raised from infancy by the Race; she's visiting Home for the first time, and also spending lots of time with the human diplomatic team, more time than she's ever spent with other humans before. Her struggle to reconcile her biology and her cultural upbringing is fascinating.

This isn't advertised as part of a new subseries, as the Worldwar and Colonization volumes were, but there are certainly enough dangling plot threads and issues to be explored that further volumes aren't out of the question. Turtledove does like long series; his Videssos series of fantasy novels (which I've not read) is up to 11 volumes, and his other long alternate history -- a journey through the 20th century in an America where the Confederacy won the Civil War -- will reach 8 volumes next fall.

This is not a book to pick up if you're not already familiar with the series; references to earlier events tend to be cursory, and it's assumed that the reader will be able to keep up. But the series is a fine one, and this is one of the better installments.

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