Monday, April 20, 2009

The Moscow Option

The Moscow Option
2006 David Downing
256 pages

Working in a university setting means being surrounded by readers, and this occasionally gives rise to book recommendations. This week, I read a brief alternate history book from the library of my boss, who thought I might be interested in it. Written by David Downing, The Moscow Option is a summary of what happened in different World War 2 in which Germany and Japan are given advantages they did not hold in real life -- twists of fate that went their way and not the Allies'. While I am a touch weary of "Nazi victory" scenarios, seeing Wehrmacht troops marching through Moscow on the front cover piqued my curiosity. More than a little of my interest stems from the treatment of east Germans under the Soviet puppet government during the Cold War, I must admit.

Surprisingly, the book isn't a "Nazi victory" scenario: the book ends in 1942 with neither side victorious, although the reader is given an impression of who will triumph in the end. The "surprisingly" part is even more so because -- not only is that the way books are written -- but because the book is written from the perspective of a historian, who is seeing these events as the past. He knows what's going to happen: he just doesn't finish the entire story for the reader. This is apparently a "Why did the war go that way instead of another?" book written for people living in an alternate universe.

Downing begins the books by writing that he wanted to modify the direction of the war by adjusting subtle things after it had already started. There are two major points of deviation that I observed: firstly, Hitler is rendered comatose after a plane crash on the Russian front, thus preventing him from interfering in the various Wehrmacht generals' plans for bringing the USSR down. Secondly, the Japanese figure out that their codes have been broken shortly before Midway. The book's writing is a bit technical: it isn't a narrative. This is a nonfiction book of military history written about a fictional event, and it reads like a military report with some literacy devices thrown in. I often read through passages of short sentences that could have easily been linked with commas and conjunctions, and should have. In other passages, the author linked sentences together with commas but nothing else, forcing the reader to mentally add in the phrases that tie sentences together. There were a few highlights: alternative historians like to wink at real history by hinting at what-might-have-been, and in a few cases Downing adds a good bit of humor and muscle to the skeleton of a historical account he has rendered. In writing on a Japanese air attack on Los Angeles, for instance, Downing writes that a stray bomb knocked the "H" and the "Wood" off of the famous Hollywood sign, and then cites Oliver Hardy claiming that the Japanese recognized his artistic merit. (Granted, this joke is only amusing to those who are familiar with the work of Laurel and Hardy.)

The history rendered is interesting, and probably plausible in most aspects. (I don't know enough about the minutia of the war to grouse about anything, anyway.) The writing itself, however, needed work.


  1. I would hesitate to say "poor". It's...fair, maybe. Difficult to say, for certain -- after I type comments I like to look books up online to see if how other people have enjoyed it, and most of the Amazon reviews are positive. It's definitely not a strong narrative, but perhaps for those interested in a strictly military-esque retelling who don't mind some book-like elements it would be more enjoyable. I've read military reports before (in doing research for history papers) and the tone struck me as similar in many instances.