V-S Day by Allen Steele
V-S Day by Allen Steele (Ace, 2014) is an alternate history version of World War II. This time, the “what if” is potentially very interesting. Rather than go for the major change of outcome as in P K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle, this has the German leadership change their scientific priorities and shift the war effort in a singularly unexpected way. In the real world, the Manhattan Project began in 1939 and matched the German group Uranverein. Both groups aimed to exploit uranium as the basis of a weapons program. The rest as they say, is history. In another part of Germany, Peenemünde under the direction of Dornberger began a military program to develop rockets as weapons. Thanks to the work of Wernher von Braun who borrowed many patented developments produced by American physicist Robert H. Goddard, a program was authorised by Hitler in 1942 to devastate London. Except Allen Steele has Hitler authorise the development of a suborbital bomber capable of attacking New York. Needless to say, when spies bring word of this project to the Allies, Goddard is tasked with putting together a team to develop countermeasures.
So, as a paper-based exercise, we have ourselves an early space race. The German approach is to achieve escape velocity using a rocket-sled system to slingshot the rocket-powered bomber into the air, and then bounce along the atmosphere like a stone skipping across a pool of water. The Americans build a rocket-launched fighter that can match the orbital path and then intercept. From a technological point of view, the mechanism for this interception proves one of the highlights of the book. I’d been assuming the American approach would be a suicide mission, but in this alternate, the word kamikazi obviously does not cross the Pacific. US technology comes up with a most interesting solution. Anyway, a race usually means excitement and I was looking forward to a white-knuckle scientific thriller. But it never arrives. This is a book which is never more than interesting. It never catches fire because, in a sense, both sides work in a kind of vacuum and it’s not not outer space. For there to be a race or a fight, you need a choreography of attack and defence, move and countermove. In this book, the scientists and engineers are sequestered in carefully protected environments and apart from one remarkably ineffective attempt to assassinate Goddard, and the historically accurate bombing raid by the British on Peenemünde, little disturbs the calm atmosphere in which both sides work.
Well, that’s not quite right. Wernher von Braun is portrayed as a man struggling with his conscience. Forced to join the Nazi Party and pay lip-service to the political hierarchy, he’s troubled both when he learns Goddard is to be targeted and as he sees slave labour used to build the launch track. Other than that, his progress is relatively serene as he overseas the production of this silver bird. Both sides have the same intellectual and engineering challenge. Before they are tapped by their governments, their rockets tend to explode shortly after the engines are fired up. A few seconds of flight is all that’s been achieved. Now both teams are given a one-shot chance to build a manned craft, one as a passive bomber, the other as an active interceptor. So they are to go from abject failure to instant success because lives depend on it. In Germany that’s both the scientists’ own lives and all the slaves whose lives are, and have been, instantly disposable. In America, our heroes are defending the people of New York from an incineration attack that’s only theoretically possible. This decision to invest American treasure in a project to defend against a purely theoretical threat is never really explored. There’s a quick meeting in the White House and the green light is lit on the basis of a renegade scientist’s assertion the German threat could be real.
During the book, there’s no mention of the Japanese or other German military manoeuvres. Nothing disturbs the focus of our group on beating the von Braum challenge. You might at least have some discussion of whether the technology could be adapted to produce intercontinental ballistic missiles. What better way of delivering the atomic bomb to Tokyo or Berlin, for that matter? This is distinctly odd. We’re watching the militarisation of science without exploring how other weapons might be developed. In Germany, we’re supposed to assume the High Command would never authorise construction of a second bomber. They have the technology and the launch track. Why would they not want a back-up? It’s not credible to assume they would simply kill all the scientists who had presided over this failure and then forget about their work. Later in America, after they had won the war, they went into space for peaceful purposes. What about the Russians? In the real world, they had spies in the Manhattan Project. What happened to the Cold War after this version of World War II ended? Everything is fudged into the background with none of the political and military context to make it believable. Sadly this leaves me thinking V-S Day is seriously underwhelming.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.