Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri May 11 10:14:10 EDT 1990

Raymond's Reviews #52

%T A World of Difference
%A Harry Turtledove
%I Ballantine/Del Rey
%D May 1990
%O paperback, US$4.95
%P 308
%G 0-345-36076-1

Once again this month Del Rey's classiest act is by Harry Turtledove, author of Noninterference, The Videssos Cycle and last month's excellent anthology Kaleidoscope (see RR#31). In A World Of Difference, Turtledove gives us a tense novel of first contact, intrigue, and action that could stand comparison with vintage Poul Anderson.

It is sometime in the late 1980s, and a joint U.S./Soviet expedition is about to land on the planet Minerva. Minerva, very similar to Earth in size and chemical composition but (as one would expect) somewhat colder, is the fourth planet of Sol...yes, you read that correctly. This is not our timeline. On Harry's Earth, Mikhail Gorbachev lasted less than a year before dying of a suspicious "hemhorrage"...quite possibly a steel-jacketed one. Nevertheless the great powers have managed to patch together some sort of detente. As token of this, they send a pair of ships timed to land together and (at least nominally) cooperate with each other. For reasons which may or may not involve a try for one-upmanship by NASA, the ships end up on opposite sides of one of the huge gorges that divide the Minervan surface -- and both immediately make contact with Minerva's native intelligent life.

The Minervans are intelligent hexapods who forge tools and weapons from ice. They're primitive but not stupid -- and the groups the humans land among are headed inexorably towards war. The two groups of humans find it hard to avoid taking sides.

Indeed, the humans by and large want to prevent any violence (if only because it wouldn't play well with the folks back home). But when the Minervan aggressors are led into battle by a Kalashnikov-toting KGB operative out to spread the glorious Socialist revolution to a whole new planet, their challenge becomes simpler; to stay alive -- and to prevent the suddenly-explosive confrontation on Minerva from triggering World War III on Earth.

I'd say this is Turtledove's best novel-length work yet. While Turtledove doesn't duck the Cold War implications of his theme, he never dehumanizes the "villains" of the piece either -- even the KGB man's internal life makes sense on its own terms. Things get out of hand as much by mistake as by malice, and not all the mistakes are on the Russian side.

The aliens are also interestingly drawn; there's some convincing portrayal of how a being with a radially-symmetrical sensorium and antifreeze in its blood would be amazed by humans, and a neat subplot woven around a tragedy inherent in Minervan reproductive biology. If, aside from that, they seem quite human -- well, their ecological niche is a lot like homo sap's and economics is economics everywhere. It's made clear that the author did his homework.

All in all this one is definitely worth a read. Pick it up if only to watch how Turtledove is growing. I wonder what he'll come out with next month? :-)

Up to Eric's Home Page To Index Fri May 11 10:14:10 EDT 1990

Eric S. Raymond <esr@snark.thyrsus.com>