So, what I was looking for when I was reminded of “The Man in the High Castle” was general alternate history books, and I had spotted one that at least billed itself as being a continuation of “The Man in the High Castle”. “Joe Steele” by Harry Turtledove … is not that book. However, I have read and liked a lot of Turtledove’s alternate histories, and when I saw it there in the pocketbook paperback form — which is really hard to get for a lot of newer works — I decided that I’ve give it a try.
The premise of the book is that Joseph Stalin’s family left Russia before he was born and emigrated to the United States. Just before World War II, Stalin — after having changed his name to Joe Steele — runs for President against Roosevelt … and ends up the President of the United States.
So, what did I think of the book?
I liked it. As is usual with Turtledove, the characters were interesting and really drove the story forward. Here, the main viewpoint characters are two reporter brothers, one of whom ends up — completely by accident and not to his actual delight — entwined with the Steele administration, while the other brother opposes Steele from the start and ends up on the receiving end of Steele’s desire for vengeance. This allows us to see both the oppressive consequences of Steele’s reign and what’s happening on the inside, so to speak. Both characters are likeable and sympathetic, and neither is entirely good nor entirely bad, entirely right nor entirely wrong, and most importantly both characters recognize their own flaws and comment on them, and both question their own actions.
Historically, Turtledove is strong, as always. However, one of the weak parts of the work is that nothing really changes with Steele in charge, at least as it pertains to WWII. Having Stalin in charge of the United States instead of Russia doesn’t change the time the United States enters the war. Russia, Germany, England, and France all react pretty much the same way as they did in our timeline, and the war proceeds roughly the same way. The only major difference is that at the end of the war with Japan the United States doesn’t have a nuke — Einstein didn’t mention it because he was worried about what Steele would do with it — and so an invasion is required, with the aid of Russia, which results in markedly different political situation in Japan.
I also didn’t like the ending. I won’t spoil it here, but while the ending is effective, it seems out of character for that move to have been made, and is a bad ending for a sympathetic character. It comes across more as a moral of the story than as something that naturally flows from the story itself.
Overall, despite these minor flaws, the book was an entertaining read, and I recommend it to people who like alternate history.