Harry Turtledove doesn’t identify as an alternate history writer, but rather as “a historian who writes science fiction.” Bombs Away isn’t quite what most readers would think of as science fiction, but this alternate history novel does deal a lot with the science of nuclear weapons, fallout, and contamination. Turtledove delivers another masterfully crafted novel that provides a frighteningly plausible picture of World War III, or when the Cold War turned Hot.
The novel begins in the early winter of 1950 in North Korea. The UN troops are cut off by the Chinese at the Chosin Reservoir. As the UN forces retreat from the North, it looks as of the Communists will win the war for sure. This timeline diverges from true history when President Harry Truman accepts General MacArthur’s advice to drop atomic bombs on Red China. The US drops a nuclear bomb on a large city in Manchuria and bombs away! The Cold War has become the Hot War—World War III. Both the Eastern and Western blocs begin dropping nuclear weapons on each other.
One of the things that’s refreshing about this approach is that it doesn’t hide behind the all-too-easy apocalyptic motif like in Z for Zachariah. Sure, both sides lob nukes at each other willy-nilly, but the year is 1951 so these are Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs and not the continent-killers that exist today. Therefore, both sides can continue to drop atomic bombs on each other because there are a lot of cities in Europe, Asia, and North America. A lot of characters are absolutely terrified to die in a nuclear attack, but there’s just no knowing when and where the Soviet Union or the West will attack next. Therefore, until they get a visit from the sky, they're still in the war and have a job to do.
Another good attribute about the story is the plausibility. Because the atomic bombs are relatively small compared to today's arsenals, World War III is still primarily a ground war. Western Europe becomes that battlefield as the Red Army pours over the border from East Germany and moves west. It starts to become obvious that this book is the first in a mini-series when new characters and countries are still being introduced in the fourth chapter. This long exposition gives the Hot War mini-series all the characters it needs for a well-rounded picture of both sides of the war. Veterans of the war against Germany and Japan will be recalled to service; Germans who fought for Hitler will be called to their county’s “emergency militia”; Hungarians who fought for the Axis struggle to become good soldiers of the proletarian revolution; Ukrainians will have to cast loyalties between the Russians who starved them and the Americans who bomb them; and American and Russian atomic bomber pilots alike will question the morality of their actions.
The Hot War: Bombs Away is definitely worth the read. It holds a 4-star rating on Amazon. According to Del Rey, Bombs Away is the first volume in a trilogy and is available on mass market paperback, Kindle, and audio. Book 2: Fallout is available in hardcover, trade paperback, Kindle, and audio book. Similar Harry Turtledove books that explore alternate possibilities of the early Cold War era are The Man in the Iron Heart (2007), about a post-WW2 Nazi insurgency led by Reinhard Heydrich (Anthropoid, The Man in the High Castle), and Joe Steele (2015), about a dictator similar to Josef Stalin being elected in America. The Hot War Book 3 comes out Summer 2017.