1945




Update: in the September 1996 issue of Locus (issue 428, Vol. 37 No. 3), I see a full-page ad from Baen, proclaiming:

ABOUT NEWT'S BOOK...

THE CRITICS LIED TO YOU



With a large repeat of the cartoonish "1945" cover graphic, the ad continues "... because they didn't want you to read it." Fair enough, I suppose, though "because they didn't want you to waste your time and money" would be better. Calling 1945 "the most politically reviewed novel in the history of publishing," (which may be true -- if it weren't for Gingrich's name on the cover most mainstream publications wouldn't have bothered to review it), the ad tells us to "Join Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and fellow historian William R. Forstchen in a world that -- save for Adolf Hitler's inexplicable folly in prematurely declaring war on the United States -- would have been." Note that Baen is using the political card there; else why mention Gingrich's day job? One could argue that whether or not this was the most politically reviewed book in the history of publishing, it may well have been one of the more politically published ones. If it had arrived in the slush pile from Joe Schmoe in Buffalo, do you think anyone would have printed this gobbler? More -- let's talk about that "inexplicable folly." This is inexplicable only if you don't know about the Berlin-Tokyo Axis, and the mutual defense treaty between Germany and Japan requiring each to declare war on any nation that declared war on the other. Inexplicable only if you didn't know about the Naval war already going on in the Atlantic, including the sinking of USS Reuben James by a Nazi U-boat in November 1941. Surely two historians couldn't have missed those little facts?

I'll talk more about this latest ad in a minute, but first, my original review of the novel. (Note to the DNC: hey, guys, I'm still waiting for my check....)




Baen has been running full-page ads for 1945 by Newt Gringrich and William R. Forstchen, saying, "You've heard the noise, now read the book." Well, I've read the book, and I'm going to save you the trouble.

The quotes you've seen in print and heard read over the air, the stuff about the pouting sex kitten and all, come from the first three pages. That may be because that's as far as anyone could get in the Forstchenian awfulness, but I am made of sterner stuff. I've read two Jon Land books all the way to the end. So this is the last time I'll mention that "noise" Baen is so concerned about, other than saying that it's a pity the paragraph dealing with the pouting sex kitten was disembowled between the bound galley review stage and the printed book stage. Her kneeling athwart her lover's shoulders would have added entertainment value that this book sorely needed.

Our story starts with John Mayhew, Chief of Staff to the President of the United States, wrapped in passionate embrace with his mistress who is, oh dear! a Nazi spy. He, poor fool, dazzled by her charms, reveals the US atomic bomb secrets to her.

As befits the scene, the prose is some of the most turgid imaginable. Before we get to the bottom of page one we find such gems as an "initial gambit" (all gambits are openings -- it's what the word means). This should be a warning flag, telling us that we aren't quite in the presence of a master wordsmith.

The pouting sex kitten's name is Erica, though we don't learn that until page 110, 109 pages after she's introduced. She's Erika by page 115 -- copyediting and proofreading weren't this book's highpoints, though I still have to give the copy editor points for making it through the book at all. The poor bugger needed a machete.

Erica or Erika's cover is that she's a Swedish journalist. What this means, of course, is that she's a thinly disguised version of Inga Arvid, John Kennedy's paramour when Kennedy was with the ONI.

But think about this: J. Edgar Hoover was listening in when an obscure Navy lieutenant was having fun with a Swedish journalist. Is there any reason to think that he wouldn't be listening in when the president's Chief of Staff was doing the same? In normal history, Joachim, the Evil Nazi hiding in the closet taking shorthand, would have had to share that closet with an FBI man. But then, out-of-character action by historical figures is part of what makes this an Alternate History, right?

Let's turn away from that sex kitten, and get to the main plot, such as it is.

We go to Berlin where, in the midst of an extended flashback and a burst of pretentious prose, we meet our protagonist, Lieutenant Commander Jim Martel, USN.

Not long after had been born unto them a son, their only child, James Mannheim Martel.

Martel's in Berlin, where he's described as "head of Naval Intelligence at the American Embassy." In a core-dump of exposition we learn that some years ago, on the day before Pearl Harbor, Adolf Hitler had been in an airplane accident that rendered him unconscious on the day itself. Therefore, Germany had never declared war on the USA, and so the US had fought a war in the Pacific while Germany had fought a war in Europe, and both wound up victorious. This might have made for an entertaining alternate history novel all on its own, but that opportunity has been lost.

As we stand in 1945, Franklin Roosevelt didn't run for a fourth term, and the president is, not Harry Truman, not Wendell Willkie, not Tom Dewey, but someone named Andrew Harrison.

Meanwhile, back in Berlin, as we fight our way out of that massive expository lump, Martel runs into Otto Skorzeny, here portrayed as a psychotic killer leading a band of sociopaths. Martel also runs into his cousin Willi, a member of the Abwehr, who warns him of a coming offensive.

It's a peculiarity of this book that all of the good guys are really good, while all the bad guys are really bad. The heroes lack tragic flaws; the villains lack redeeming virtues. Just in case anyone misses the black-and-white nature of this worldview, the authors endlessly editorialize in their choice of adjectives describing the characters.

One of Andrew Harrison's many virtues was an unselfconscious modesty most becoming to the mighty. Along with an intelligence greater than its possessor gave it credit for, it went far to explaining his assumption of the highest office in the land.
Grinning like a starved wolf that has finally scented blood, Skorzeny leaned forward to study the target for just a moment more. This would be a very difficult assignment. His joy was complete.

As you may also have noticed, few nouns are complete without an adjective or two to brace them up.

Well, the offensive is coming after a thick wad of pages, including a genuine "Had He But Known" chapter conclusion or two. The Evil Nazis, using their new long-range jet bombers, intend to destroy Oak Ridge, to stop the development of the US atomic bomb. They will also parachute in a team of crack commandos led by Skorzeny to kill all the scientists on the ground, thus preventing the US from ever regaining their lead. At the same time, the Nazis will invade England.

Gingrich and Forstchen apparently skipped over the chapter in the writers' manual which says "Show, Don't Tell." They are never happier than when they've got talking heads babbling about events that occur off-screen. When that won't do, the authors step in to describe what has gone before, what is going to happen next, or how we ought to feel about all these things.

Back to the plot. The advance team of commandos arrives by sea, landing after a scene of confusion in which we learn that no one, neither Gingrich nor Forstchen nor any of their characters, has the vaguest idea of how to go about transferring personnel from a merchant ship to a trawler underway. One of the commandos falls off the ladder and gets crushed between the trawler and the merch before getting lost at sea.

Well, that commando eventually washes up in Charleston, South Carolina. And there, Martel arrives to look at the body. Two pages of description later, filled with deductive reasoning that would have made Sherlock Holmes proud, Martel and the coroner decide that this fellow was an SS trooper. This left me wondering why, rather than examining his stomach contents to discover that his last meal had been sausage and saurkraut (proving him to be a German), they hadn't looked in his left armpit, where SS troopers had their serial numbers and blood types tattooed.

Which all brings us to the next big problem in this book. The language. No, no one says "f*ck" or any of those non-family-values type words -- but they don't talk like people in the 1940s. Take that coroner, for example: "Call me racist," he says, "but this guy has 'Teutonic Superman Thug' written all over him."

Now ask yourself, would a white doctor in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1946, have the concept of 'racism' in his mind at all? If he did, would he apply it to another Caucasian? We know that he couldn't have said "racist" if he wanted to -- the word didn't exist then. The word in 1946 was "racialist."

That's just one example. The book teems with them.

Anyway, after a lot of buffoonery, the rest of Skorzeny's paratroopers arrive by air. During the intervening time the advance party of troopers do none of those things you'd expect an advance party to be doing. During the assault itself they limit their activity to firing a flare over the landing zone, from a small plane in the air, a job which the lead aircraft was perfectly capable of doing. In other words, there was no reason in the book for them to be present, other than a need to let Martel figure out what was going to happen.

Now if I were going to run a raid like that, rather than having the advance party running around alerting the entire civilian population that there was something fishy going on, I would have had them taking out radio transmitters, cutting telephone lines, identifying targets, familiarizing themselves with the terrain, and marking the wind speed and direction on the ground for the incoming paratroopers. But no! That would have required a bit of intelligence and competence on their parts.

Now those Evil Nazis had been chortling for most of the book about how the foolish Americans had (contrary to historical fact) banned personal firearms from the Oak Ridge site. But those telephones weren't out, recall, so when our hero Martel calls the local authorities, by sheer good luck he reaches none other than Alvin York, now a sheriff in those parts. Alvin York puts on his old WWI uniform, grabs his Springfield, and, together with his VFW pals dressed in their old uniforms routs the Germans. Thank Ghod for the Second Amendment!

You'd think that after the action/adventure climax, with explosions roiling toward the sky, blood, vomit, shooting, excised eyeballs, and all kinds of neat stuff, that the book would be over. Any well-written novel would be. But despite the fact that the climax is past, this tome continues for darn near another fifty pages of talking heads, as people madly explain to each other things that they all already know perfectly well, and, in paragraph-long sentences, make their astounding proposals for The Way Things Ought To Be (wait a minute, that's Rush Limbaugh's book! Sorry...).

Look I don't suppose the whole thing really came to me in a flash last night as I watched X-10 head for the stratosphere -- the notion is too detailed and polished for that -- but I do have a new model -- a new paradigm -- on how a modern democratic state should organize itself to make a surge-effort in war. This is radical stuff, Jim, and I'm going to need a cadre of thinkers, thinkers, who can take my ideas and run with them and build on them. And that's why I'm dragging you along to Washington.

The prose is unfortunate all the way through. I can see why Gingrich wanted Forstchen's name on the cover as big as his own. If this were being ghost-written for me, I sure wouldn't want anyone to think that I'd done it all by myself.

Cliché-ridden, trite, and hackeneyed as the prose might be, the book is also repetitive. Listen as Otto Skorzeny explains the atomic bomb to his subordinates, then listen as the President of the United States explains the atomic bomb to his subordinates, using almost the same words, but two hundred and fifty pages later:

One atomic bomb will have an explosive force equal to a thousand-plane raid by British Lancaster bombers in which by magic all the bombs exploded simultaneously.


First, for our current purposes an atomic bomb may be simply understood as an explosive device with the equivalent force of five thousand bombers each carrying five thousand pounds of high explosive. More than that, it's as if all five thousand of them were delivered magically to a single point in space at a single instant of time.

A simple trick like writing a second draft of the book, or having the publisher assign an editor to it, would have taken care of that little problem. But that, apparently, wasn't done.

My copy of 1945 is filled with little yellow Post-It stickies flagging historical oopsies, manifest stupidities, out-of-character actions, and silly dialog. I won't share most of them with you, since I don't feel like re-typing and posting most of the book. But I will share a couple. First, dialog lifted from Hogan's Heroes as Martel questions the fat, stupid German spy:

Bachman looked back and forth between the two.
"I know nothing! Nothing!"

Next, a quote from Wild Bill Donovan, which lets us know what the commercials were during that late-night showing of Hogan's Heroes:

"But wait! There's more!"

Okay, I'll tell you how 1945 ended. With the three most frightening words in English literature:

TO BE CONTINUED...

I can only hope that next time Newt hires a better grade of hack. Is Jon Land available?




Back to Baen's current full-page ad:

"Here are what a few of the more honest critics have said," Baen tells us, before giving a bunch of review quotes, including this one: "It -- along with its promised sequel -- is probably going to sell enough copies to allow the authors to bail out the federal budget all by themselves." -- Publishers Weekly.

Oddly enough, in the very same issue of Locus we see the headline Gingrich SF Novel Failure, where we learn that the book suffered 81% returns, and that "...Fortress Europa, originally scheduled for this month, has not been written, and is being postponed indefinitely."

"Gingrich and Forstchen can take pride in 1945!" -- Moshe Feder (previous editor of the Military Book Club), Asimov's

I mentioned the utter incompetence of the commandos performing the Oak Ridge raid in 1945. I didn't mention the invasion of Great Britain by the Nazis at the end, as part of the setup for the sequel. This was an invasion through Edinburgh.

Yeah, you heard right, Edinburgh. Assume that an invasion fleet can get all the way down the Firth of Forth without getting chopped up by shore-based artillery on the way. Assume that they can land at Edinburgh, throwing them directly into combat in a built up area (pure hell on offense, and almost impossible for tanks -- see Stalingrad for an example). Assume all this. What does that gain them? Edinburgh. All the Brits have to do is mine the hell out of the Firth of Forth, blow every bridge for fifty miles around Edinburgh, and allow the starving, ragged survivors of the German invasion force to surrender the following spring. They'd be in for a real problem if they tried to attack south. By way of Preston Pans, Falkirk, Stirling ... any of these names ring bells? Famous places where invading armies got chopped to pieces? And what do they get at the end? They get Berwick. With a supply line running through rugged terrain crawling with partisans. Good thinking. And this invasion is led by Erwin Rommel, the guy who managed to run out of gas in North Africa in 1943, which is understandable, and also run out of gas in France in 1941, which isn't.

"But now," says Baen's ad "with the affordable mass-market edition... you can judge for yourself."

You can actually judge for yourself without bothering with the mass market edition at all. The few copies of the hard cover that were sold are mostly in used bookstores now for a lot less than the seven clams that Baen is charging for the paperback, and the rest are on Buck-A-Book tables at mall stores all over America.

To conclude, here is what a few actually honest critics have said:

"It is torture from first to last, downright embarrassing in its clumsy prose and lurching plot..."
-- The Washington Post
"The story isn't the biggest problem; it's the pages of putrid prose that make the book so tough to stomach.... "
-- The Orlando Sentinel


If you enjoyed this review, please consider making a donation:


More reviews.