Monday, January 12, 2009

In the Presence of Mine Enemies

In the Presence of Mine Enemies
Harry Turtledove 2003
515 pages

This week I returned to Turtledove, but not quite yet to the Colonization series. This week I read In the Presence of Mine Enemies, a standalone book set in the early 21st century. The year is never mentioned, but it is after 2003: Leni Riefenstahl is mentioned as having died and at over a hundred years of age. She was born in August 1902 and (in reality) died in September 2003. The setting is the Greater German Reich: this is a work of alternate history wherein the Second World War wasn't quite a world war. The United States never became involved, for reasons I don't recall being explained in the book. Without its industrial support of Great Britain and the Soviet Union, and without its intervention in the Pacific (apparently) , Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were able to run willy-nilly around the globe creating empires for themselves. A "generation later", the United States was attacked with nuclear weapons, defeated, and partially occupied but not annexed by the Greater German Reich.

Contrary to the idea that the Cold War alone fueled the space age, Germany has a space program -- one advanced and funded enough to the point that an observatory is on the moon and a mission to Mars has been launched. Were I to speculate at the why of this, I would say it's an attempt at self-glorification by the Nazis. Turtledove tells his story through the eyes of various viewpoint characters, which is a common method for him. In his serials, the dozen or so viewpoint characters cover a wide range of types -- from world leaders to housewives. Here, though, we only have six viewpoint characters, and they're all in the same relative class of Germany: middle-middle class. One is a university instructor, one a computer engineer, and another one of the Reich's accountants. This is a story about Germany, and so all characters are German -- but they have something else in common. In the opening chapter, Heinrich Gimpel -- the aforemntioned accountant -- heads home after work to attend his daughter's coming-of-age birthday party. After the fesitivities, Alicia is told that she is not like most subjects of the Reich: she is a Jew.

Despite the Holocaust, a remnant of European Jewry has survived, in hiding in plain sight. With forged geneologies, several families of Jews remain living in the heart of Germany, Berlin. (Interestingly, although Berlin does gain the hubristic monuments that Hitler planned, it has apparantly survived his intention to destroy and rebuild it block by block with a "new vision" and with the new name of Germania, as the History Channel informs me he did.) In the Presence of Mine Enemies is the story of the remaining Jews in Berlin and how another story -- political changes in the Reich -- change them. At book's beginning, the Reich is as severe as depicted in various police-state novels and movies. The NSDAP controls everything, relying on fear, power, and romantic appeals to the Volk to keep the populance in order. The current Fuhrer is Kurt Haldweim, a dinosaur of the old guard. He will die shortly into the book, and the Powers that Be's search for a new Fuhrer begins a period of political turmoil in the Reich that will have consequences for everyone. Meanwhile, the Jews hide in plain sight: the males go uncircumsized, adults only tell their children when they've reached a more responsible age, and those in the know only practice parts of their traditions, most of it being lost. Their libraries are stocked with the same antisemetic literature that every Nazi household has. Somehow, even though the children are only told this when they're older (I suspect around the time of bar/bat mitzvahs), this doesn't hinder their ability to suddenly believe in YHWH and that they're part of a special breed of humans. I find this hard to believe, and was disapointed by the utter credulity of the "Jewish" children depicted in the book.

Turtledove likes to weave real historical events into his alternate history stories: writing the event in but with different characters. For instance, in his "Southern Victory" series, we see the Holocaust happen in the Confederacy, not Europe. In Worldwar, Lizard planes attack Schweinfurt and encounter the same tough resistance. I don't know why he does this: perhaps out of amusement, perhaps because it's the easiest thing to sell to a mass audience. Here he does the same thing. The new Fuhrer is Germany's Gorbachev, and the analogy goes on. A possible Yeltsin figure appears, but without a sequel I can't be sure. What happens is riveting reading.

This was a truly enjoyable book. I've only read two other Turtledove standalones, but I think this is the best so far. It beats the Worldwar series, and perhaps what I've read of the Colonization series. It's a thoughtful (in most parts) story in an interesting setting, telling a familar story in another context. If he wrote a sequel to this, I would be interested in reading what happens.


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