Saturday, June 16, 2012

An Analysis of Harry Turtledove's "Tosev Timeline"

The following is an essay I wrote for an English class about a year ago. If y'all like it, I might write more posts similar to this, though probably a little less formally.

It’s May of 1942, and World War Two is in full swing. Germany is pushing into Russia; Britain is bombing Germany; Japan is sacking China; America’s Pacific offensive is getting underway. The world is at war, and its fate is very much in the balance. Suddenly the skies of all the major nations light up, and unknown aircraft begin harassing the major transportation and military hubs. Space is cleared for enormous landing craft to begin disgorging tanks, infantry, and advanced flying machines. The appearance of these lizardly folk make things horrifyingly clear: Earth is being invaded by an alien force. They call themselves the Race, soldiers of the Empire; and beyond assigning names to regions and taking advantage of rivalries, they really don’t care what nation you hail from.

The starring Big Bad of Harry Turtledove’s Tosev Timeline series has been called a commentary on the Gulf War by some critics. The Race possess military technology roughly equivalent to the modern United States, and when the first book was written the Gulf War was indeed underway. If the above scenario sounds at all familiar -and certainly not at all like the Gulf War- then as well it should: It’s already happened dozens of times in human history. The Race have set out from the Old World to tame the New: Earth is being colonized. The series, in fact, pretty much uses all instances of imperialism and colonialism as an inspiration and at times goes so far as to lampshade its own examples. Strangely, fans of the series and many reviewers have either glossed over this detail or, in this writer’s opinion, completely missed the point. Is this merely an oversight, or is Turtledove trying to make a point to his Western audience strictly through what they manage to miss?

In this essay, I will argue that Harry Turtleove’s Tosev Timeline is rife with examples of imperialism/colonialism specifically designed to mirror the West’s own examples, but in what that audience would view in a negative way. Often nations like the United States have engaged in types of imperialism that history seems to have relegated to the role of “footnote.” Throughout the series, the Race engages in exactly the same sort of behaviors that the real colonial empires did, often in the same geographical locations. The Race parades the (technically correct) claim that the Empire is very much the elder of any human civilization, and feels obligated to bring what they see as the accompanying cultural superiority to a race -a species, rather- of savages. I shall explore not only the indignity expressed and felt by the natives, but also how the West’s view of its own culture (or at least the aspects of such we can generally agree upon) can color “we the audience's” view of the story’s events.

As the Race makes its initial landings, the opening days of conquest in most parts of the world go very much like Julius Caesar’s foray into northern Gaul. In the words of Professor Sean Lang in European History for Dummies, “...Caesar got his troops together, marched north in double quick time, crushed the Helvetii, and then had lunch. (Lang, 59)" A curbstomp battle in the most classic sense, within the first week or so around two-thirds of the globe firmly belongs to the Race with no sign of it being contested. Even the United States, which was preparing for an overseas war, is caught with its pants down in the mid-west and the old south. Only in Japan and Europe, whose comparatively small nations are already geared up for war with much nearer enemies, does the Race encounter any real resistance in the beginning.

The two sides slug it out for two whole years, with nearly all of the action occurring across Europe and the central United States. Eventually, the Race is worn down enough to come to the negotiating table. Meeting with the five major powers left, the Race agrees to pull out of those nations' homelands as well as those nations whose climates are too cold to be comfortable for them, with the sole exception of Poland. Colonies, however, are left to the Race to control. A good real-world example of this would be the compromise between the United Kingdom and the Native American tribes, whereby Britain kept everything east of the Appalachians but agreed to go no farther. While the Race cannot be argued to have any real right to these lands, the Great Powers are not in a position to contest the claim and so merely agree to “this far and no farther.”

About twenty years later the civilian fleet arrives, and this is when the real colonialist themes begin to crop up. To begin with, the colonists generally choose to live in settlements separate from the native humans, which can be anything from a district in an existing city to one of the full-fledged cities that have been under construction in the intervening years. This quickly calls to mind images of North American and South African colonization, where the white Europeans made concerted efforts to maintain their own standards of living. And much like these European colonists, the Race makes few to no efforts at sharing their standard of living with what they view as “barbarian natives.”

Stanford Encyclopedia defines colonialism as “a practice of domination, which involves the subjugation of one people to another. (Kohn)" It differs from imperialism in its use of bringing in colonists from the mother country to seal control over the region. The Race's tactics are consistent with this practice, bringing in their own people and dropping them down at different points all over the globe. Like European colonists in real life, they also bring their plants and animals with them; and like those plants and animals, it doesn't take long for them to get loose and start attacking the local ecosystem. Something similar happened in Australia in real life, when animals like the fox were introduced into an ecosystem in which they had no natural predators. The Race's version of this ecological contamination, however, is actually intentional; part of their intention in colonizing the planet is to also make it more like their own planet, Home.

Of course, deliberate ecological catastrophes are not the end of the Race's plan to assimilate Earth into the political, economic, and cultural institutions of the Empire. The Race's initial strategy is to begin educating the human population, bringing their advanced knowledge of medicine and technology to the people under their rule. Their assumption is that this perceived generosity will also lead to en masse conversion toward the worship of their emperors past and present. When this doesn't happen, they turn to a somewhat more forcible means of persuasion: the religion tax.

In our own history, the Arabian Empire devised an ingenious method to subjugate their conquered peoples without triggering full-on rebellion: Christians and Jews could continue practicing their respective religions, but only at the cost of a religion tax. The Race does something similar, setting up their own shrines while cordoning off the entrances to churches and mosques. If the native humans wanted to worship their god(s), that was perfectly okay; they simply had to pay a tax that would go toward the maintenance of the shrines. The Race takes this a step further, though, with its institutions of higher education. Human students would have to pay their respects to the emperors and cease to worship their own idols if they wanted to continue their attendance to the schools.

Almost simultaneously, the Race also begins to pick up a certain habit from America's history; a habit America doesn't really like to talk about anymore. The United States, at one time, would send out its military and use whatever means were necessary to get the Native American tribes onto tiny reservations. There was even a time when they would be moved to the modern state of Oklahoma, then called "Indian Territory." The Race does something similar to Australia. While one could debate whether or not the Australians are "native," in they end both they and the Aborigines are forcibly ejected from the continent. The Race claims that Australia is merely off-limits to non-citizens, and not just humans in general. Of course, there are as good as no humans with imperial citizenship, and the two other species the Race has conquered were not present in the colonization fleet. As such, intentions aside the Race effectively makes Australia into a human-free zone. As for the Australians, the Race arbitrarily transports them to various places which they see as similar to the former country; though in reality, they know next to nothing of human cultures and rarely bother to learn.

The next major event of the series is a minor war with Nazi Germany. In the intervening years since World War Two, most nations have caught up technologically with the Race, and Germany is no exception. The problem is that they believe this is sufficient to re-take Poland and deal the Lizards a crippling blow. Something similar happened in the War of 1812. The United States had never quite gotten past its inability to take Canada from the British and wanted an excuse to do so. The British practice of "impression" became that excuse, and America declared war. But just as America got its butt handed to it during that war, so too does Germany in its war against the Race. While the Race realizes that outright conquest at this time is unwise, it does manage to take France and severely cripple the German economy. Unlike with World War Two, though, the Race does not give France back to the Germans after hostilities end.

A persistent theme in the books centers around an event that takes place early on, when a nuclear attack is carried out on the colonization fleet that kills several million Lizards. When it is discovered that America carried out the attack, the Race presents their president with a choice: dismantle the space program, or take a nuke. The president chooses to take the nuke, and commits suicide shortly before the attack. Reviewers of the series simply focus on the morality of the action. As one puts it:
This has been a very controversial book. One particular incident in it aroused a storm of controversy on the USEnet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.written over the morality of using innocent civilians as levers to punish wrongdoing heads of state. Yet another interpretation is possible -- that the US was following something similar to Liu Han's concept of the strong peasant who is beaten by the stronger peasant not trying to fight back, but instead spreading ill will about the aggressor. And what better way to spread ill will than to put the aggressor in the position of doing something that will arouse a lot of broad-based hatred and resentment, and maybe even questioning of the aggressor's policies among those of his followers who are coming to see the targets as people, rather than aliens. (Kimmel)
This analysis misses the point in some ways, though. The Race does not regard itself as dealing with proper nations, and in fact their view is in many ways similar to how the United States tends to regard the Native American tribes. In reality a lot of these tribes were what we would now regard as proper nations. Back then they were not seen as such, and so they often had no choice but to lash out at American settlers. When this happened, the military would come in and "punish" the tribe, even though their only real crime was defending their land. We can look at this scenario very similarly: the United States lashes out at the Race the only way they can, and the Race gave them a choice of what punishment to receive. Had they seen America as a proper nation, they most likely would have declared war instead.

The final book fast-forwards through time a bit to get to the final point the author tries to make. It further establishes the Race as a massive empire by taking the reader to their world; one of three entire planets that the Empire controls. They continue to talk down to American diplomats, who arrived on a ship that could only travel at one third the speed of light, or 1/3c. (The Race can travel at 1/2c.) Only when a faster-than-light starship arrives does it dawn on the Race that the United States now poses a credible threat to a planet that has not known war in over 50,000 years.

One last history lesson. In real life, nations such as the former Ottoman Empire, China, and Japan were either colonized or in some way abused by the western nations. They were never taken that seriously as a credible threat until certain events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Korean War, and the Gulf War turned attention to these nations. Much like the Race in Homeward Bound, western powers like the United States are beginning to realize that while they still hold the respect of these nations, they no longer command their fear.

The Tosev Timeline greater series represents in just a few relatively short books events that have reverberated throughout human history. In the beginning they were the mysterious power from across a great sea, in search of land for their people and converts for their religion. Then they were the American analogue, the force that coexists with the natives only until they have the ability to brush them aside. Then finally, they are modern Europe; once sitting on top of the world, they suddenly find that they don't matter quite as much as they once thought. Critics of the series tend to gloss over all of the historical analogues that this series presents. In reality, it may be a stroke of genius on Turtledove's part to have included all of these themes, and mirror them so closely to events we the readers are so often blind to that we simply don't notice them.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Easier On The Eyes

I've tweaked the text on this blog to a bigger font and size, and changed the general color scheme to one that is hopefully a little easier on the eyes. A preponderance of bright colors on a page intended for reading is like telling people to stare at a light bulb, and I'm always willing to find ways to keep the blog looking pretty while also being easy to look at.