“Bombs Away,” the aptly named latest alternate history novel by Harry Turtledove, follows the writer’s now well-used formula. The novel takes a point of departure in wartime and recounts a different narrative using multiple viewpoint characters, most of whom are ordinary people caught up in the conflict. What makes “Bombs Away” interesting is that it depicts a nuclear war during which civilization stays functioning, more or less.
The point of departure takes place in late 1950. General Douglas MacArthur, fresh from his brilliant victory at Inchon, has sent the UN forces under his command pell-mell into North Korea with the view of reaching the Yalu River which separates the Korean Peninsula from Red China. MacArthur thought he was wrapping up the Korean War before Christmas. What he accomplished instead was the entry of the Red Chinese Army into the war, hurtling back the UN forces, mostly American, from the brink of victory.
The point of departure occurs when President Harry Truman agrees with General MacArthur’s proposal for the atom bombing of Manchuria, the region of China across the Yalu. This was a decision that he wisely refused to take in our history. The novel, in short order, informs us why.
Josef Stalin, the leader of Russia, then China’s ally, responds by attacking Western Europe, first with his own atomic bombs, then with a ground invasion. America responds in kind and then Russia responds to the response. Things start going out of control.
What makes the scenario of “Bombs Away” interesting, while also horrifying, is its depiction of how atomic war would not have been the civilization killing apocalypse depicted in later narratives, like the novels “Alas Babylon” and “On the Beach” and the TV movie “The Day After.” In 1951, atomic bombs had limited destructive capability compared to the monster thermonuclear bombs that came later (though there is a hint in the book those are coming.) The delivery systems, the B 29 on the American side and the equivalent bomber on the Soviet side, have a limited range compared to ICBMs. America, thanks to its bases ringing the Soviet Bloc, have far more capability to hurt the Soviet Union that the Soviets have to hurt America. The Red Air Force does manage to destroy several cities in the western United States, plus Bangor, Maine, with one-way suicide missions.
What the world will be like after World War III is concluded is open to conjecture. “Bombs Away” is the first of a series and, therefore, the war does not end by the time the book is finished. One can only guess that the USSR is going to be destroyed, along with China, with a long period of mopping up and rebuilding to follow. The world when the Cold War ended soon and violently is going to be a very different one than the one we live in.
One macabre, amusing scene takes when Harry Truman ruminates to George Marshall about Sen. Joe McCarthy. McCarthy has been declaring that World War III would never have happened had Truman not been so soft on communism. Truman expresses the wish that McCarthy meet with a fatal accident. Decorously, Marshall pretends not to understand what the president is getting at.