Joe Steele is the latest in an ever-growing bibliography by the prolific American author Harry Turtledove, and presents a pretty bleak alternate version of 1930s America. A very suspiciously named Russian immigrant, Joe Steele, becomes President on the back of a mysterious tragedy befalling FDR, and a complete lack of hilarity ensues. A few story choices that I think fly in the face of what would likely have actually happened, and one weird change to the timeline that is never remarked upon (not that it could be) that actually just managed to bother me through the whole book were knocks against what is otherwise a fairly bog standard ‘dictatorships are bad’ story. I usually expect a little more from Turtledove, though this certainly wasn’t a bad novel.
President Herbert Hoover has failed America. The Great Depression that rose from the ashes of the 1929 stock market crash still casts its dark shadow over the country. Despairing and desperate, the American people hope one of the potential Democratic candidates—New York governor Franklin D. Roosevelt and California congressman Joe Steele—can get the nation on the road to recovery. But fate snatches away one hope when a mansion fire claims the life of Roosevelt, leaving the Democratic party little choice but to nominate Steele, son of a Russian immigrant laborer who identifies more with the common man than with Washington D.C.’s wealthy power brokers. Achieving a landslide victory, President Joe Steele wastes no time pushing through Congress reforms that put citizens back to work. Anyone who gets in his way is getting in the way of America, and that includes the highest in the land. Joe Steele’s critics may believe the government is gaining too much control, but they tend to find themselves in work camps if they make too much noise about it. And most people welcome strong leadership, full employment, and an absence of complaining from the newspapers—especially as Hitler and Trotsky begin the kind of posturing that seems sure to drag America into war.
If you’ve never read any Harry Turtledove, he’s generally considered to be the premier author of alternate history, and I consider his reputation well-founded. The primary thing he does that so many other writers in this genre flub, is not get too attached to the cleverness of whatever change he’s come up with. Too many alternate history authors want to spend half the book talking in great detail about all of the consequences of the twist they’ve devised. But in their zeal to make sure we understand just how clever they are, and what a thought-provoking idea it is to think about X or Y happening, they manage to forget to write an actual entertaining novel. Turtledove has more of a tendency to just write a novel, and it just so happens that this novel takes place in a historical period, and it just so happens that something has gone differently from how it did in actual history, and really, we have to sort of figure it out on our own as we go. While this might be a small spoiler for content, it bears mentioning that the fact that Joe Steele, common-man identifying, labour boss Russian Immigrant is actually Joesph Stalin with an Americanized name is never actually mentioned anywhere in the book at all. As a student of history, it was pretty clear pretty quick to me, but I can see so many other alternate history authors devoting paragraph after paragraph basically putting a neon ‘THIS IS STALIN’ sign over his head, and just burying the lead completely, which is the actual consequences of somebody like him coming to power in America at that time.
While I definitely grant that America in the wake of the Great Depression and before World War Two was in pretty rough shape, and that in such straits, the average citizen might let an awful lot of crap happen in the name of stabilizing the economy and getting people back to work, I did find it a little unbelievable just how much Steele gets away with, with basically no backlash from anybody. After all, this is America. The Second Amendment has existed for 140 years, the National Rifle Association has existed for 60 years already at this point and it’s been 10 or 12 years since the Great War ended. Reading Joe Steele and wondering how he managed to create such a dictatorship in freedom-loving America, you’d end up drawing inevitable comparisons to Hitler coming to power in the wake of the Weimar Republic’s complete economic collapse. Sorry to wax history nerd on you, but heck, this is historical fiction. While things were pretty dire in America during the Depression, I don’t think it would have been nearly so ripe for a takeover by a persuasive dictator in the way Weimar Germany was. Germany had just lost a world war, had its economy cut off at the knees, was basically forbidden to defend itself, and inflation was so terrible that people would literally have wheelbarrows full of money to go buy bread. The utter lack of national spirit which Hitler appealed to and inflamed for political gain wouldn’t really have been present in the US at this time, not in the same way.
I kept waiting for either a large militia or even the military itself to rise up and oppose the absurdly undemocratic policies that Steele was putting into place, and instead, basically nothing gets done, at all, for the entire length of the novel. Nobody even tries! I don’t think there’s been a single period in American history where there would have been no armed response to public figures being rounded up and executed, or tens of thousands of people being rounded up and put into work camps just because somebody else informed on them whether they’d done anything or not. The lack of even a single scene of ‘well look, a rebellion, roll out the military’ made me feel like this was not nearly realistic enough.
I alluded to one random weird timeline change in my intro, and it’s actually pretty silly, but nevertheless managed to bug me through the whole story. One of the characters ends up in one of Steele’s labour camps, and each person, in a dehumanizing effort, is assigned a number instead of a name, prefixed by the two-letter abbreviation for which state they came from. So somebody might be MI390 or TX14430 etc. Our PoV character is NY24601. Now, some of you might be seeing ‘24601’ and going “Oh right. Les Miserables, I get it.” in which case, bravo. Now here’s the thing: For absolutely no discernable reason, in this alternate timeline whose only deviation at the start of the novel appeared to be ‘Stalin’s family emigrated to America’, Victor Hugo didn’t write Les Miserables. We can tell this because not a single character, most of whom are well-read, students of literature and language, and quote all kinds of people in the same category as Hugo never once remark on the fact that this character was randomly given the same number as this famous prisoner from literature. Sure, he’s only called 24601 twice in the novel, and the musical didn’t exist yet, but the number was so obviously chosen by Turtledove on purpose that to have his very literate characters never remark on it once irked me constantly.
Taken as a whole, Joe Steele fell a little flat for me. It was interesting enough, and I’m always a sucker for seeing how small changes have a way of cascading throughout everything else, but I feel like it flubbed the history a little too much to really have sold me. If you aren’t familiar with the period, and just think the idea sounds entertaining to read, it is. I didn’t dislike Joe Steele, it just could have been better. Even one or two little set-pieces to acknowledge the way American culture and society was wildly different from Interregnum Germany or Bolshevik Russia would have added a lot to the narrative. As it was, it felt bland and a little too obvious. Average, which from Turtledove is a disappointment.
Dan received an Advanced Review Copy of this book from Roc via NetGalley.